Monday, December 20, 2010

On having a schtick

...or how to brand yourself as an important classical musician.

I wasted a good deal of time the other day watching videos of Glenn Gould. No, not wasted. Invested. Don't get me wrong, this man is an artiste (I use the French to show that I mean it. I show that I mean that I mean it by referring to French as "the French.") Glenn Gould is a master. And like all great masters, he also has a great schtick (from the Yiddish).

1. Know yourself.

If you ever want somebody to make 32 short films about you, you also need to figure out a schtick. Because here's the thing: there are any number of young pianists at Curtis that can play all the right notes in Beethoven Opus 35, and they regularly win various piano competitions that (unless you're a pianist) you probably haven't heard of. So what makes Gould so captivating? Because he stretches the rests just a little bit longer? Maybe. But let's be real, when we talk about about Gould, are we really just talking about his tempos and his rest stretchings? His performances are about much more than the piece, they are also about him. This is why some people hate them so much. Like any good politician or celebrity, he inserts himself into the discussion. His public persona and his actual performance of a piece are inseparable- they are part of the same schtick. For Gould it's so natural, it's very easy to forget it's happening, though not for everybody.

2. Know your target audience

Now most super famous soloists have a schtick of some sort. A hook, if you will. A tag-line that the media can run with, so that people can understand where they're coming from- in one sentence or less. Brevity is key, and if its subject is predominantly musical, you will only get so far ("prefers pieces in the key of B-minor" is not the most powerful choice). This also applies to composers. You've got to have a thing. Steve Reich wears a baseball hat, and invented minimalism sort of. Golijov is all crazy cosmopolitan, you know, and does world music. Michael Daugherty's schtick is kind of subtle, but I'm pretty sure it has something to do with the fact that he's gigantic (*insider composer humor). Lang Lang is that flamboyant Chinese pianist. Sometimes it's enough just to come from some exotic country and to be really, really, incredibly good looking, like the Beatles, or so I'm told. Your schtick doesn't have to be hard to understand, or politically correct. In fact, the fewer words it takes to describe it, the better. That way people will remember it easier. And if it can somehow fit into a larger cultural stereotype, excellent! Like, I suspect many Americans generically expect Chinese people to be good at piano, just as 1960s American girls generically expected British boy bands to be phenomenally sexy (or so I imagine). It just feels right. You don't want people to have to think too hard about it.

3. Take advantage of your toolbox

Glenn Gould's thing is that he's freaking nuts. And he loves Bach, and he's not afraid to show it. But what else would you expect from someone who's nuts? Or maybe it's just that music affects him that much. By implication, more than you. In other words, he's a crazy genius.

4. Be consistent

He only plays piano from the same old custom-built chair (it's a trademark). He was a self-professed hypercondriac, always wearing gloves and wool coats, even in Miami. He (famously) sang while playing, and claimed he was incapable of stopping. He had multiple comic musical-personalities he somehow convinced the CBC to record and broadcast, and he had a minor second career as a nature film maker. He seduced composer Lukas Foss's wife, who left Foss for Gould (and later returned to him) in a classical music sex-scandal the likes of which our business rarely enjoys so publicly. And most of all, he famously swore off live performance at the height of his popularity (three years before the Beatles did), sending the value of his brand into the artistic stratosphere.

In other words, Gould's a marketing genius. He understood that to be a truly marketable classical musician, it takes more than just being really good at your instrument (though that's a necessary requirement). You've got to have a brand. And Gould built and maintained his brand with exceptional skill. He fit so perfectly in with what we wanted to believe a crazy genius was like. It all just fits so seamlessly into our western narrative of genius.

Ever since Beethoven invented the "crazy genius" schtick at the turn of the 19th century, it's been a very popular marketing strategy for many young composers, artists, and performers. I'm not sure that many have pulled it off with quite the success of Gould since.

More recently the crazy genius schtick has fallen somewhat out of fashion. Many young composers today seem to be opting for a more "crazy GQ" persona. Of course, if somebody tried to be Gould today, they would be ridiculous. He already owns that niche. It's the same reason why it would be hard for a baseball-cap-wearing minimalist who writes for keyboard percussion to make a mark, or a second international super-star flamboyant Chinese pianist. It's trademark infringement! But mostly, the marketplace just isn't big enough to support copies. You're gonna have to develop your own brand.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Young LA-based Freelance Musician

While out enjoying the insane math-bop stylings of Katisse (the guy who played the flute solos for Ron Burgandy in Anchorman), me and my friend came up with the following metric to help understand the life of the young LA-based freelance musician:

1. Sounds good.
2. Good music.
3. Gets paid.

You can choose two of the three.

By the way, if you ever want to hear Giant Steps in 13/8, I strongly suggest you check Katisse out in a club near you. It might blow you and the four-other-people-in-attendance-who-realize-what's-going-on's mind.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Process

Well things have been super busy the past month what with the new Rogue Artists' show and the big concert in Minnesota. But I wanted to get a chance to get back to sharing a few things that I find amusing.

First, as you may have guessed, I listen to a fair amount of NPR. Now I'm not the biggest fan of many of the local commentators (sorry Sandra Tsing Loh), but Rob Long on KCRW is pretty hilarious. And not only is he funny, but he gives those of us on the periphery of the entertainment industry a chance to hear things that we can relate to, you know, so that a composer of serious concert music like me, driving down the freeway in my beat-up '95 Honda on my way to a gig that works out to paying like $7 an hour, can feel like I'm somehow part of the business too. Like, hey, oh meetings! I go to meetings! I'm like you, Rob Long! Haha! Producers are so ignorant! (Knowing, smug look at driver of car next to me).

Because you see in L.A., we all like to feel like we're part of the business, even if our part is delivering groceries to Don Cheadle. It's why when we see Jodie Foster in Target, we don't run up and ask for her autograph- that would be so embarrassing!- no, we awkwardly avoid making eye contact. We ignore them. We implicitly say, I'm in this with you, Jodie Foster. I understand. And heaven-knows I wouldn't want star-struck Mid-western tourists bothering me in Target.

Knowing smug look around Target, secretly hoping that somebody recognizes but is ignoring me as a serious concert music composer.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Stuff I'm thinking about going to

It's fall preview time, and so I wanted to post several upcoming concerts and events worth posting and then make snarky comments about them. Sorry if this post is a little LA-centric. Actually, I'm not sorry (see how this is going to go?).

The LA Chamber Orchestra kicks off their season this weekend with Leila Josefowicz performing Prokofiev's basically perfect First Violin Concerto. As LACO does, there will be a concert Saturday in Glendale and Sunday at Royce Hall. I can't tell you what an amazing composition the concerto is, if you aren't already aware. Because I can't tell you, that is the end of the sentence. And because it's LACO, there is also Haydn's 88th symphony and a piece by Pierre Jalbert- because they love him.

For more underground fair, you can check out the Annie Gosfield Project, because even somewhat obscure New York-based sound artist / electronic musicians get projects named after them these days. But I still have to respect the daring programming of the two joint-producing new music groups- In Frequency, and People Inside Electronics. Though it's a little hard to figure out, there is an additional free concert on the USC campus September 30th. While I'm on the subject, Annie Gosfield wrote a interesting article for the New York Times about being a composer in 2009. It gives you an idea of the aesthetic we're talking about here, and contains good advice for young composers, which in following has led me to write music completely, diametrically opposed to hers.

Did I mention that the LAPhil is playing Turangalila Symphonie in October? And it's about time! I have no idea if The Dude knows how to conduct Messiaen, but I'm freakishly excited.

I don't need to mention that "art-rockers" The Dirty Projectors are going to be at the Wiltern September 24th. But that's sold out of course, so I won't be going. Speaking of sold out rock shows, people are also really excited about the XX (at the Palladium on September 22nd). Though they were already overnight indie-sensations, they are totally blowing up right now, so bring blast guards. Really bored-sounding cross-gender unison singing is so hot right now!

Well, now I've pissed off many of the hipsters reading the blog, so I've got to redeem myself.

Besides music, one of my few other passions (along with urban planning issues, evolutionary psychology, porcupines, etc.) is fine food and beverage. (I also love super-ultimate-beer-pong-shot videos). So imagine my schoolgirl-like glee at the forthcoming LA Craft Beer Crawl, in downtown LA, September 24th. And when I say schoolgirl-like glee, what I mean is manly, beer-loving glee. Get your tickets now! And if that's not enough, there is still the Tour de Fat October 23rd, combining bicycles and New Belgium brewing at the LA state historic park.

I'm also pretty passionate about Australia. I mean, what's the deal with it?

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Genius Denial

I've long been somewhat of a genius denier. This is not to say that there aren't really really talented people out there. The problem is where we like to think they come from.

Case in point: musical prodigies. I've known quite a few. And while we might like to trot them out on stage and be amazed at their freakish abilities, I've yet to know one that didn't practice like a million hours a day more than their jealous competitors.

Anyway, please check out this amazing podcast. It's a RadioLab episode featuring Malcolm Gladwell, who will eloquently argue my point. Gladwell, for those who may not know, is the New Yorker correspondent turned best-selling author beloved by everyone except those who are jealous that he got a million dollar advance on his first book deal. These are the same people who don't like Jonathan Franzen. Radio Lab, for those who may not know, is by far the most amazing post-modern science / human-interest program on radio today bar none.

The one thing I wish Malcolm had added when Robert the host says "what about this guy that works a thousand hours in his garage writing songs, who loves music, but writes bad music, and the guy who loooooves music and spends thousands of hours writing songs and is named Richard Rogers" is: show me that guy. Show me the musician that is passionate about music, has practiced their instrument or their craft tens of thousands of hours, and sucks.

The other reason I am drawn to this story is because I'm the guy that has always been really skeptical of the genius worship of the likes of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Yes, they were amazing composers. But they had their bad days (check out The Battle Symphony). But when a teacher tells me "you must play Bach this way because it's Bach, and he's a genius," I just feel that the logic is backwards, and I am inclined to disregard the advice, and thus lose competitions. This might say more about my own personality flaws then Bach, but the point is this: the music isn't good because Bach is a genius. Bach is a genius because the music is good.

Let's get over it a little.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Glockenspiel Sex Appeal

What the heck is the deal with every indie band having Glockenspiel now? And I use the term loosely- "indie band" not "Glockenspiel"- to include everything from Maps and Atlases to Andrew Bird to Vampire Weekend. I feel like I haven't been to a show in the past year that didn't involve somebody breaking out the Glockenspiel at some point.

Now, I can understand the musical need for the Glockenspiel. Sometimes the sublime natural beauty of the instrument is called for, in order to heighten the power of the musical moment. Though I frown on on indie-artists using the instrument as a cheap emotional gimmick- I worry that producers, fearful that their album has failed to pull the correct emotional strings, often fallback on the Glockenspiel to try and save a sinking ship. No amount of Glockenspiel- no matter how beautiful and alluring it can be- can save mediocre music. However, used right, I think these artists have discovered the instrument's awesome and versatile emotional power. In skilled hands, it's like some greater musical soul rises out of the high-octane instrument's shrill, metallic piercings, elevating the listener to a greater level of musical experience.

It's the only explanation I can come up with. However, despite the Glockenspiel's ubiquity, for some reason your average Glockenspielist still gets little respect on the streets. Well, in order to highlight the much deserved sex appeal of the instrument, I've began compiling a compendium of Glockenspiel uses in modern pop and indie-rock.

By the way, you should watch the whole thing to see what Bird can do with a Glockenspiel and loop pedal.

More to come...


A new keyword is born thanks to NPR's All Things Considered. Because I keep up on any mention classical music gets in mainstream culture (and compared to our general audience, NPR qualifies as "mainstream"), check out All Things Considered's story on Seraphic Fire's recent recording of the Monteverdi Vespers. Significant because a) it is on the iTunes classical top ten and b) it was independently released. This is the future of not just classical music, but almost all music, as the economic justification for the "record label" continues to break down.

The short version of my argument: releasing and distributing records used to require extensive capital. If you were going to make any significant money off of record sales, you had to produce a significant number of physical records, which would have to be distributed all around the country (and world) to actual physical stores, which physical people would have to come and pick up. Not only that, but you would have to record your album in a very expensive space with very expensive recording equipment, microphones, analog tape recorders, etc. This was obviously out of reach of your average garage band or little-known Baroque chamber choir. However, thanks to the internet, this is no longer the case. The cost of recording an album on ProTools and uploading to iTunes is relatively insignificant. Seraphic Fire's success is emblematic of this- they are doing something right. And they didn't have to pay record executives anything to do it.

Of course, microphones are still kind of expensive.

Check out and listen to the full story here.

By the way, about half of the story is a review / explanation of Seraphic Fire and Monteverdi's vespers. Besides the economic issues the story raises, the album actually seems well worth checking out. I will keep you posted.

Friday, August 20, 2010

New thinking on conductors

UPDATE: sadly, NHK has made a copyright claim on this video. I think this is somewhat insane, because this was really great publicity. I'll keep you posted if it goes back up on youTube.

I've long argued that conductors are relatively useless- at least compared to their pay scale. I don't know if this video offers incontrovertible proof, but it is definitely worth checking out. It is a pretty amazing finale to Tchaik 4 (that's musician slang for Tchaikovsky's fourth symphony). Probably the stress of the situation brought out the best in the performers- but man. There's electricity.

Now from first hand experience, keeping a non-profit organization like a symphony orchestra in business is tough, and I'll let you in on a little secret: the music director's job is half fund-raising / figurehead. And that's important. It's easier for people (i.e.: potential donors) to wrap their minds around a single, charismatic personality than it is an amorphous, abstract "orchestra" of 80 musicians. Conductors are also useful as rehearsal organizers, because somebody has to be in charge. But is that worth 20 times (or greater) the pay scale of the average string player? Especially when you hear what a good orchestra can do even without a hand waiver?

I leave you to your own conclusions.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Batman Soundtrack Update

As I mentioned before in my last post, La-La Land Records has released a complete, anniversary re-issue of the original Batman motion picture soundtrack by Danny Elfman. Well, now that I have it, I can confirm your suspicion: it's pretty much the dorkiest thing ever. But I stand by the awesomeness of the music.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Original BATMAN SOUNDTRACK full score release

Finally, after the world has been waiting- ney- demanding action on this important issue for over twenty years, after all those protests and angry letters and boycotts, action has been taken. And I'm not referring to the return of Futurama. No, I'm referring to something much more dramatic. As previewed at Comic Con this year in San Diego- that ridiculous mecca for all things nerdy that may also involve comics somehow- the unbelievably small record label LA-LA Land Records will release a two CD set of the Original Danny Elfman score to the original Batman, you know, the one starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson. Today, supposedly. July 27th.

The 2-CD set will feature the COMPLETE movie score, remastered, and the complete original score album remastered with a bunch of extras thrown in. And they are only going to press 5,000 copies, making this an extremely limited collectors album. I know, it's hard to believe. But how cool will you be if you own one of those 5,000 copies? It's like you'll be in a super awesome secret society with only 5,000 other people. There can be secret handshakes and everything, like you're finally in that fraternity that you didn't want to be in anyways. Suffice to say, with this soundtrack, your parties will never be the same.

Actually, I list this because the point of my blog (and I can't go a blog post without a meta-reference to the fact that I'm writing a blog) is to talk about obscure but deserving musical achievements of all genres, and this definitely qualifies on both fronts. Though the actual movie soundtrack is not obscure at all- indeed, it is something of a cultural icon- this album release surely is. And it is well worth checking out.

Elfman detractors aside (and they still exist, mainly in cushy academic jobs where they have plenty of time to be bitter that they are not Danny Elfman), this is a pretty seminal musical achievement. And nobody, from what I can tell, debates that this isn't a great soundtrack. They just argue that he didn't write it or something, though they weren't there, but they knew a guy who knows somebody who worked for Shirley Walker or something. This argument makes no sense on so many levels that I would have to make up a really creative new metaphor to explain my exasperation with it. Leaving aside that it is hard to say just who writes what on any movie score, even those by academically acceptable composers, let's just say I know a guy who knows some people that work for Danny Elfman, and- oh, who the hell cares. It's great music. It's the end product that counts. And it makes you want to put on a cape and mask and brood. And make uber-dramatic poses.

Like all good music should.

Available (from what I can tell) only from the La La Land record label directly.

Monday, June 21, 2010

So Percussion and Matmos at the Rec Center Studio

To be a hip classical act these days, you have to collaborate with or somehow involve cutting-edge indie-rock or electronica in your music. It's the zeitgeist. It's in the air. The reasons are economic- arts institutions desperately want to tap into the well-heeled 20-something "hipster" demographic, who often go to a lot of concerts but rarely step foot in concert halls; or they are natural- many young composers simply are part of the demographic themselves. This fad is pervasive: (Le) Poisson Rouge in New York is the venue, New Amsterdam Records the record label (or trying to be, anyway). New music group Alarm Will Sound tours with the Dirty Projectors, and the hottest young composers today have extensive hipster street cred. Nico Muhly, recently commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera (I know, it's insane), has worked extensively as a producer for Jonsi and Sigur Ros (if you're a indie-rock novice, that's the Icelandic band that became famous for singing an album in a made-up language), and Mason Bates- recently named composer in residence of the Chicago Symphony by Ricardo Muti (!!!!!)- is a "serious composer by day, DJ by night."

If the last two accomplishments seem kind of absurd, well, they are- the Met? Really? One of the most conservative classical institutions in the country?- but good for them. They got ahead of the trend and went with it.

So Percussion

This is all leading up to a concert this Wednesday in Echo Park that is straight out of (Le) Poisson Rouge (literally). So Percussion is a leading avant-garde percussion quartet out of Yale by way of Brooklyn which made a name for itself doing with the music of David Lang et al. The tour promotes their collaboration with electronica duo Matmos. I have no idea what this concert is going to be like or sound like. But it's in Echo Park at the Rec Center Studio, so I know the type of people that will be there.

The concert is Wednesday, June 23rd, at 8:30 pm

Saturday, June 19, 2010

In Frequency in LA

One of the fun thing about having a blog is now I get to plug crazy obscure underground new music concerts. If I do this enough, hopefully people will start giving me free stuff. First I'll probably have to find some readers though. Second I will have to find people who go to new music concerts.

I'll start with my friend Andrea Moore's new group, In Frequency. The concert is - tonight! Oh crap! Well, if you're going to miss that, I will point out she also has a blog, where I think she makes some interesting and valid- if high-falutin'- and generally much more insightful points than me about the state of classical new music. Where they need my help is in integrating the blog into the rest of the web site. But, contrary to all appearances, I'm trying to be a musician here, not a web designer.

The concert will include Stefan Wolpe's String Quartet, written in 1969 while he was suffering from Parkinson's disease. A delightfully radical, rarely played composer who came of age in Weimar Germany, his music from the twenties is some of the most seriously out stuff of the period. Unfortunately, this piece is from 1960s New York- but I'm still very curious.

So I know my first few posts are about pretty (novelty size irony-quotes) "complicated" music, or as most people refer to it, "music that sounds bad." I don't want to give the impression that this is my only interest. There are many great opportunities for hilarious blog posts just around the corner...

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Oh hi, Ojai

The Ojai Music Festival has had some exemplary music direction in the recent years, the bizarrely funky Libbey Bowl stage being graced with the likes of eighth blackbird, Robert Spano, Pierre Boulez, and Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Then this year, apparently addressing fears that the festival might become too relevant, we got George Benjamin, who almost succeeded in programming an entire festival without the corrupting influence of a triad (and he would of gotten away with it too, were it not for those meddling kids! Meaning, Frank Zappa).

I was prepared for this, so I trouped off to the final concert of (brace yourself) Ligeti, Messiaen, Knussen, and of course George Benjamin (with a smattering of Boulez thrown in for good measure) armed with a steely Sancerre to complement the icy coldness of European modernism.

Now I always thought the whole point of the Ojai Music festival was to picnic on wine and cheese while listening to modernist excess under the stars, but apparently the city of Ojai has different ideas, as ushers actually confiscated my friend's (who is a professor a very prestigious school of music, mind you) unfinished Malbec. This is still hard for me to wrap my mind around, as I've yet to hear a concert that isn't substantially improved by fine wine, but luckily for me and the middle-aged new music aficionados secretly sipping wine from styrofoam coffee cups around me (frat boy style), we avoided arrest.

What I was wondering about while I was listening to the birds and Ligeti's Chamber Concerto was wafting oh-so-softly in the background (while I love the piece, and the Ensemble Modern played brilliantly, its triple pianissimo dynamics just doesn't seem like the best outdoors programming decision somehow): who are these people sitting around me that would come out to this thing. I mean, I knew the 30 members of the LA new music community in attendance- who were the other 700 people? Did they know what they were getting into? I asked the woman sitting next to me this very question. She won her tickets on the radio. But she was none-the-less weirdly enthusiastic.

I think I was more interested in my wine and cheese (Ossau-Iraty). George Benjamin seemed to meet all the stereotypes and expectations of European new music. Thank God for Messiaen, but if this is what passes for cutting edge in "Old Europe," bring on Dawn Upshaw and the Australian Chamber Orchestra, 2011.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Introduction to the blog

I could have easily called it post-classical for the hipster- meant ironically, of course- but post-hipster sounds more cutting-edge. In fact, it seems to me you can make anything sound more cutting edge by just adding a post in front of it. Try it. It's best when used in conjunction with vaguely art-related terms. Like, "I'm post-aesthetic in my approach," or "this is a blog for the post-media decade," or "we need to dig a hole for this fence post."

Anyway, I find most composer blogs to be incredibly boring. John Adams's is an exception, because his has taken a turn towards being the onion of the classical music world. I guess that's alright, and hey, he can do whatever he wants. But your typical composer blog tends to fall into the realm of "I took this picture out by the pond today. It made me think deeply about stuff (implied or explicitly)."

The other common theme for composer blogs is the "I'm traveling all over and getting my music played all the time" story arc, in which the composer comments on the espresso they had in Latvia, or other jaunting old-world style tales of bourgeois adventure. This has the added advantage of causing all your colleagues to secretly despise you, but yet somehow they'll all be your super best friend in person. These posts are often splattered with a sampling of "I finished the parts for OCTAVI-OR!IUS XI today!" style comments (as though we've all been sitting on the edge of our seats waiting for updates on the part completion status of OCTAVI-OR!IUS XI- "I wonder if 2nd bassoon part is completed yet? I better check my rss feed!")

All that is great, and warmest of wishes to my composer brethren successful or otherwise. Unfortunately, I neither think deep transcendental thoughts nor have successful world travels to report on. Despite these obvious handicaps, I'm hoping to create a blog that will have an interest level stretching at least 3 or 4 people beyond my mother. I have a news section on my website if you want to know about all my thousands of performances world-wide. My plan is to write a blog where I actually talk about music, and share opinions on it, which may get me in trouble. You know, because I have ideas about things. And since music critics around the country keep dying or getting fired, I think that this is more important than ever.

So what's going on in the post-hipster classical music scene in Los Angeles and beyond? I'll keep you posted.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Beginning to launch

Because you can't be a self respecting composer without a blog these days, I've decided I also want to be cool and shamelessly self promote myself in the process. It's web 2.0, it's the 21st century, generation Y, nothing matters if you're not famous.

More to come as I integrate this into my webpage.