The (minor) miracle of a percussion section.

I’m often asked if there are different personalities among musicians who play different instruments. It is an extremely difficult question to answer; after all, it is hard to stop laughing when one is laughing that hard! To explain this to someone who has spent little to no time around musicians, it may seem a bit bewildering. After all, a musician is a musician (is a musician), isn’t he? But naturally, we musicians know differently! Anyone who has witnessed an exchange between an oboist bemoaning her reed, only to be interrupted by a violinist complaining about bowings (or seating)…well, assuming they’re standing far enough away to avoid being caught up in the fray, answers should reveal themselves quite easily.

Yes, I’ve written it before: we musicians are a strange lot, with our own personalities, quirks, idiosyncrasies, insecurities and social hierarchy. Most can be explained quite simply: violinists are confident (except for the 2nd violinists, who are…well…let’s not go there.) Violists are the confused middle children of the orchestra. Double bass players are…there. Oboists are charmingly neurotic. Bassoonists are slightly less charming. Trumpet players are also confident–but a little more, ahem, expressive about it. So on and so forth. But percussionists…well, percussionists end up in their own special category. They are sort of the third base coaches of the orchestra world: nobody really notices them unless they screw up. 

Percussion is a special case within the musical community. They are certainly easy targets: many of their instruments appear easy to play, even easy to master. After all, a number of their instruments (triangle, tambourine) are favorite playthings of the pre-kindergarten set, often employed as methods of torture and tests of patience for parents of young children and once-eager early childhood education students. And the timbre of the instruments may be recreated on any number of common household items, with kitchenware being especially popular. 

As always, it is not that simple. Percussion, after all, may allow an exceptionally well educated, mature, well-adjusted adult to utter the following phrase without irony: “I lost a $140,000.00 per year job because my triangle playing was sub-par.” Yes. read that again: “I lost a $140,000.00 per year job because my triangle playing was sub-par.” (Disclaimer: The author of this article has never personally uttered this phrase, though he admits that his triangle playing, while having its moments, is generally quite mediocre.) These instruments are hard. The great composers who wrote for them were unafraid to present a challenge. To be a percussionist requires much more than the ability to hit a drum or find the right keys on the xylophone! In fact, the only thing that should be struck by a percussionist is the word hit from his vocabulary. The percussionist must draw out the sound from the timpani; elicit crisp yet smooth notes from the snare; carefully extract myriad colors (at the right moment and in exactly the right manner) from the cymbals; the list goes on and on. The decisions, often made quickly and on the spur of the moment during rehearsal, are dizzying: which mallets to use? Which size and weight should the cymbals be? What size triangle–which beaters, too, and to hold or mount? Calf-heads or goatskin? Dresden or Berlin? Chain or pedal? Plastic heads or brass? Wood shell or copper?!

Perhaps most surprising of all is the makeup of a section and how well it can function together. Dysfunction would likely be assumed by most of their orchestral colleagues, of course, owing to the fact that the term ‘peanut gallery’ has often been applied to the usually colorful bunch of characters standing (or sitting around) at the back of the orchestra. When one thinks about it, the percussion section is unique: unlike other sections, they rarely, if ever, play together. 

It is not so in other sections. Section wind players learn to shade the principal–and other instruments within the section as a whole– in matters of tone and phrasing. The horns and brass, almost as a rule, develop a single, unified sound and color, with a particular blend being ideal. And the strings! Ah, learning to bow and even play vibrato with as much uniformity as possible–it is their chief concern most of the time, leading to incredible camaraderie (or, on occasion, rivalry.)

Composers rarely write for percussion with any consistency. There is often timpani, of course; that is a given, going back to the early Baroque. But the timpanist plays alone, with few exceptions. There does exist something of a basic unit, early on: the ‘Turkish’ section of triangle, cymbal and bass drum, though it may be argued that in many cases (such as Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraligo and Beethoven’s Ruins of Athens and 9th Symphony) the intention of the composer was to achieve an effect and not to require any particular sense of finesse (though, of course, musicality and finesse are essential when performing these works in the concert hall!) Beyond this, however, there is little in the repertoire to suggest any sort of attempt at consistency. Not only does this tend to vary from one work to another, but there is often a great range and variety within a single work. Percussion may be called for in one movement but not the next; in extreme (but hardly unusual) cases, an instrument may be called upon to play in just a few measures–even just a few notes–in the entire piece.

So it is incredible that the section, all playing sporadically and almost always playing different material (rhythmic, harmonic, timbrel) can achieve cohesion rather than chaos. And yet it happens: a camaraderie and personality develops within the section, jobs are assigned (the establishment of a principal cymbalist, auxiliary, bass drum, etc) and a sound and style emerge. From chaos emerges consistency: yet another miracle of music and the great institution of the orchestra.

The industrial nature of art.

I recently came across a posting which printed a letter written by Oscar Wilde to a fan who found curious the following line in The Picture of Dorian Gray: “All art is quite useless.”

True to his witty and sartorial nature, Wilde replied: 

My dear Sir

Art is useless because its aim is simply to create a mood. It is not meant to instruct, or to influence action in any way. It is superbly sterile, and the note of its pleasure is sterility. If the contemplation of a work of art is followed by activity of any kind, the work is either of a very second-rate order, or the spectator has failed to realise the complete artistic impression.

A work of art is useless as a flower is useless. A flower blossoms for its own joy. We gain a moment of joy by looking at it. That is all that is to be said about our relations to flowers. Of course man may sell the flower, and so make it useful to him, but this has nothing to do with the flower. It is not part of its essence. It is accidental. It is a misuse. All this is I fear very obscure. But the subject is a long one.

Truly yours,

Oscar Wilde

It is difficult to know if Wilde was being serious or, per usual, tongue in cheek with the flower analogy. However, if he was indeed being serious, he missed a wonderful chance to elucidate about art. A flower is absolutely useful: it provides a brilliant canvas upon a meadow which serves to attract all manner of life. It also provides pollen which sustains bees and butterflies who, in turn, pollinate other life, keeping nature in perfect working order. And a flower gives off seeds which allow future generations to grow and flourish! Finally, a flower may be unique to a certain environment or locale, ensuring that one may identify his surroundings. And so art is to us: it provides us a canvas upon which to express our experiences in life; it allows us to share ideas with others; it provides life for future generations, and a path for those who may lose their way; and, finally, it is both universal and unique to culture and country, allowing us to identify and empathize. Perhaps it is the so-called industry of mankind, which so often struggles to value art, which is most useless to nature. 

Music: The Universal Language and the miracle of Notation

“Music is the universal language!”

So begin countless speeches and essays. It is a popular sentiment, spoken and written by musicians, music lovers and community leaders the world over. It may be a rallying cry to save music education; it may be the opening salvo at a gala; it may be the first line of a dissertation or biography. Music is the universal language–the, not a. It is an absolute. 

Music is the universal language–even western art music, so often referred to as ‘classical music’ and increasingly maligned as elitist and out of touch. In fact, despite this accusation, one may say that it is especially western art music which is universal, as it seeks to express human emotion and idealism through sound. But it is the frequency and often casual nature with which the sentiment of universality is expressed which tends to detract from the power of that very message. Are we fully aware of just how awesome this force is–and how lucky we are to have such a system of codification?

Musical notation is often considered by non-musicians to be a mystic language.Even trained–and, dare I say it, professional–musicians some times take it for granted. Musical notation contains a vast amount of information. It has certainly evolved over the centuries, not least of all due to reasons of practical culture. To read one of the preludes and fugues of Bach’s encyclopedic ‘Well Tempered Clavier’ would seem to a lay-person to be devoid of direction, especially if it were being compared to a page of a symphony by Mahler; but this is where oral tradition would have taken precedent in the age of Bach, as he would expect the musician playing his work to understand the style and thus be able to make informed decisions almost instantly. Returning to our comparison with the latter is perhaps a bit unfair, speaking musicological, given not only the century and a half between the creation of Bach’s magnum opus and the symphonic career of Mahler, but the radical shifts in culture and practice, musical and general. Allowing ourselves this comparison, for the sake of argument, we are taken from a single musician playing in a style to a society of musicians playing his (Mahler’s) style, with the composer now willing to leave nothing to chance and therefore providing an encyclopedia of his own.

In each case, however, we have been left more than a simple guide to the music. We have been given a map, complete with topographical detail, landmark histories and even weather reports. We are given everything, even where information seems to be missing. A universal language indeed! We are reminded that the universe is not merely the physical expanse of space, but also time (past, present and future), dimension and the world of the metaphysical. 

How often do we stop to realize how lucky we are for this gift of notation? This has been a recent realization for me. In doing research for an upcoming concert, pouring through recordings and articles, I kept coming across videos of ‘reconstructions of the original (choreography.) Ah–reconstructions! How often must we reconstruct other art forms? We can often only guess at the choreography of a 19th century ballet, or what a completed painting of a great master lost long ago would look like, or what Shakespeare’s pronunciations would sound like–and then we must create a context for that. It makes for wonderful scholarship, of course, and a fine exercise in empathy and understanding–but it also leaves us with little more than conjecture and speculation, sophisticated though it is. 

How fortunate we are, then, to be able to know exactly what Bach meant? Or Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Mahler–the list is endless. Scholarship (formal or informal) is essential, naturally, to become a well-rounded musician and to understand style. But when starting to rehearse a Beethoven symphony or Mozart opera, we do not have to guess; we do not need to start from scratch. The map exists, and we may spend our time interpreting–and understanding–rather than trying to remember through reconstruction.

This is not to say that the musician is reduced to an animated scholar. Imagination is crucial. Through a knowledge of style, history and the individual’s own virtuoso technical ability, music springs from the page and is brought to life. And what life! Each performance, when given the proper attention and enthusiasm from ensemble and audience alike, may become a premiere. What an opportunity for time-travel and empathy. For even in the 21st century we may find ourselves astounded by the invention of Bach; by the endless wonder of Mozart; by the raw power of Beethoven; by the epoch-making (and forward-looking) Mahler; and countless others.

Style could easily take up a series of articles and I cannot begin to delve into such a complex subject in such a modest essay, but I will allow one brief comment concerning musical responsibility.

A musician has two responsibilities: understand the style and honor the intent of the composer. Style is the realization of notation while intent is the interpretation and manifestation of empathy with the soul of the composer. Any good musician may master style but it is in the search for intent that we may become artists.

Notation allows us to communicate in spite of our human limitations. Yes, it truly is the universal language.

The orchestra: An introduction

Looking for a way to introduce children to the orchestra? I’ve written this as a guide. This is intended for middle school students, though it may be suitable for high school students as well. 

 

The Orchestra: An Introduction

A symphony orchestra is a complicated instrument. Made up of anywhere from 20 to over 100 musicians, it plays a very wide variety of music, written from the year 1600 to the present day.

 

The orchestra has 4 groups–families–of instruments. These include the woodwinds, the brass, the percussion and strings.

The woodwind family includes flute, oboe, clarinet, and bassoon. The brass includes French horn, trumpet, trombone and tuba. The percussion includes timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals and xylophone–though there are literally hundreds of percussion instruments. The percussion also includes the piano and a piano-like instrument called the celesta. Finally, the string family includes two groups of violins (called first and second violins), violas (which are slightly larger than violins), violoncello (often just referred to as ‘cello’) and double bass (also called contrabass, but usually just called ‘bass.’)

 

The orchestra has been around since about the year 1600, but it has changed dramatically over the centuries.

From about 1600-1750, the orchestra was anything but standard. Many pieces of music called for just strings–violin, viola, cello, and bass–and a harpsichord (another piano-like instrument and an older cousin of the modern piano) or organ which was called ‘continuo.’ Sometimes the music would include parts for winds and brass, most commonly flutes, oboes and bassoons (clarinets had not yet been invented!); trumpets and timpani were called for fairly often, with French horns and trombones being less usual.

This was referred to as the ‘Baroque’ era. It was typified by very ornamental–fancy–music, with a lot of improvisation expected by the performers. What we now refer to as concert music–music written just to be listened to–was rare. The Catholic Church was the main power throughout Europe and had very strict rules about what kinds of music could be written, so many of the important composers writing music would only compose sacred music (music for religious services). When not writing this kind of music, composers would write music for dancing, or music based on dances. Sometimes they would be very clever and write dance forms in their church music.

Some of the most important composers from this era include Antonio Vivaldi and Arcangelo Corelli, from Italy; George Fredrich Handel and Johann Sebastian Bach, from Germany; and Henry Purcell, from England.

The next so-called musical era began roughly around 1750 and lasted until about 1815. This became called the ‘classical’ era. Instead of the excess and fanciness of the Baroque, music from the Classical era focused on simplicity, order, elegance and logic. Dance forms were still written and religious music was still very important, but a major step was taken forward as a new musical form was developed. This new style, called ‘sonata form,’ would give rise to string quartets (works for two violins, viola and cello), concertos (a work for one solo instrument accompanied by an entire orchestra, which replaced the Baroque concerto grosso, which featured multiple soloists playing with the orchestra) and, most of all, the symphony. The symphony was a four movement work which was almost always structured the same way. The first movement was in ‘sonata form’: a slow introduction, an exposition (in which the themes were ‘exposed’), a development (in which the exposed themes were played around with in many different ways), a recapitulation (in which the exposition was repeated) and a coda (a totally new section of music that ended the movement.) The second movement was a slow movement, sometimes song-like. The third movement was a minuet, a courtly dance. The fourth movement was in ‘sonata allegro’ form, a modified version of the sonata movement used in the first movement.

Symphonies were being written by many composers all over Europe, and the orchestra was adapting to be able to perform them. Orchestras had once been the sole province of courts (the houses of royalty) and opera houses (which were funded by and catered to the very wealthy); that was slowly beginning to change, with orchestras still attached to courts but finding themselves a little more independent.

The orchestra was now starting to become more standard. The ensemble typically included 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 French horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and a larger string section (usually 6 first violins, 6 second violins, 5 violas, 4 cellos, and 2 basses.) By the end of the Classical era, clarinets had become more widely used and were added to the orchestra permanently. The orchestra also began to use trombones around this time; trombones had, to this point, been used almost exclusively in religious music and opera.

Some of the greatest and most well known composers lived and worked in the Classical era. These included Josef Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Schubert, all of whom were Austrian or German and spent a large amount of their careers in Vienna, Austria.

 

By the end of the Classical era, Europe had changed a great deal. In 1750, the beginning of the classical era, popular opinion was that royalty–which controlled most of the money in Europe and were the unquestioned heads of state in their countries and territories–had been selected by God to lead their countries. Royalty had all the power and made all the decisions, controlling even which religions their subjects followed! By 1815, however, Europe–and other parts of the world–had changed forever. Revolution in France had unseated the crowned heads and shown that the people could bring about change–and that the people could also become royal, or close to it. In addition, a former colony of the British Empire had led a revolution of their own and become the United States of America–while declaring that every human being had a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These ideals were spreading quickly across Europe, and musical life was changing with it. Beethoven had become not only world famous, but had also become a darling of the royalty that patronized him (that is, paid him to write music for them.) For the first time, a musician was almost considered an equal of the elite–quite a change indeed!

At the same time, the newly liberated and empowered people of Europe had more time to enjoy themselves and more money to enjoy life, too. More people were able to attend the opera; commoners had the time to study music and the money to buy printed music and bring pianos and other instruments into their homes. Opera and orchestral music was now joined in popularity by lieder (German for ‘song’) and a wider range of ‘chamber music’ (music for small ensembles, such as string quartets, that could be played in small rooms.)
But the symphony orchestra was growing. Beethoven died in 1827 and left a large shadow over the rest of Europe; he had been regarded as a giant, a living legend, and had made the symphony (and the orchestras which played them) equally gigantic. Some questioned whether anyone else would ever be able to write symphonies again!

But the symphony not only survived; it thrived. New composers continued to compose music that was even more complex, long and involved than the great symphonies of Beethoven. When Haydn and Mozart composed symphonies, they usually lasted 20 minutes. Beethoven’s last symphony lasted over an hour. Symphonies in this new era, called the Romantic, were often 45 minutes to one hour in length. They also called for a larger orchestra; now there were usually 3 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 French horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion and a large string section of 14 first violins, 12 2nd violins, 10 violas, 8 celli, and 6 basses.

Classical music was built around simplicity, elegance and logic. Romantic music took a different course: it focused on uncontrolled emotion, raw power, and wild passion. Stories (called programs) were often included, and usually involved the supernatural; magic, dreams and spirits found their way into everything from string quartets and symphonies.

Some of the composers from this era included Richard Wagner (who wrote mostly operas); Robert Schumann; Felix Mendelssohn (who also conducted and took a great interest in music of the past); Johannes Brahms (who idolized Mozart and Beethoven and urged restraint instead of uncontrolled passion); Franz Liszt (who invented the ‘tone poem,’ a symphonic work which told a definite story); and Piotr Tchaikovsky.

 

Towards the end of the Romantic Era, around 1880-1900, came another shift. In this ‘Post-Romantic’ era, the orchestra became even larger (including 4 of each woodwind, 4-8 French horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani and a large percussion section, harps, and a larger string section) and symphonies were often 45 minutes to one hour long. In this time, the symphony or philharmonic (as orchestras had begun to call themselves) were thought of as ‘societies.’ The musicians in the orchestra were part of a musical family, and the people who attended the concerts and who helped to organize concerts were often called ‘The Society of the Friends of Music.’ In the beginning of the Romantic era an orchestra was usually the resident musical ensemble in an opera house. Now, in the post-Romantic, symphony orchestras were usually independent from opera and gave many ‘subscription’ (orchestral) concerts.
Another change was the rise of the conductor. In the Baroque, music was led by the person playing the harpsichord. This continued in the Classical, though the first-first violinist (called the concertmaster) usually led. It was not until the end of the Classical era that the conductor as we see him today–standing on a podium, directing the orchestra with a baton–became common. Throughout the Romantic, the conductor gained power and influence and by the end of the era the conductor had become a force, the leader not only of performances but of the orchestra itself. Conductors had usually been something else within the orchestra (a pianist or violinist); conducting had now become its own, independent profession.

 

The 20th century continued the trend of an expanding orchestra and ever growing conducting field. Symphony orchestras were now, finally, equal to opera orchestras. At present, the orchestra is an indispensable part of concert life throughout the world, with many professional orchestras giving concerts every week of the year.

 

 

The Hierarchy and Structure of the Orchestra

The best orchestras are musical families, small societies within society. Although each and every member of the orchestra is important, there are some ‘chairs’–positions–that carry special importance.

 

Concertmaster – Sometimes called the  ‘leader’ or the ‘first violinist,’ the concertmaster is the first chair first violinist. Many regard this as the most prestigious position in the entire orchestra. He (or she) is certainly the most visible: the concertmaster is the last person (other than the conductor) to come onstage before the concert begins. The concertmaster tells the principal oboist when to tune the orchestra. The concertmaster also plays any solos that a composer writes for a violin. The concertmaster is also the leader of all the violins, and really for the entire string section; he or she is the person whom the conductor will ask for advice on string matters during rehearsal.

 

Principal Oboe – As the concertmaster is the leader of the string section, the principal oboe is regarded as the leader of the woodwind section. At rehearsals and concerts the principal oboe will sound the tuning note–a very important job. He or she sets the standard for the sound and color of the woodwind section. The oboe also has many important solos in orchestral music.

 

Principal Horn – French horns are technically part of the brass family, but they’re really sort of musical free-agents: they play an important part in the woodwind family, too. The principal horn is a link between the two families, and will often play very, very important solos, especially in music of the Romantic era and later.

 

Principal timpani – The timpani have been in the orchestra as long as the orchestra has existed. In Baroque and Classical music they were often paired with trumpets to add extra rhythmic emphasis. In the Romantic they began to take a more prominent role–even getting solos! The timpanist is the ‘2nd conductor’ of an orchestra, a foundation for the entire ensemble.

 

The conductor – The conductor is the most visible part of the orchestra. He or she is in charge of leading the entire group in both rehearsal and performance. A conductor is also in charge of leading the orchestra as an organization: choosing what music the orchestra plays, deciding how rehearsals are run, helping to select the musicians who play in the orchestra, choosing which soloists play concertos with the orchestra, and helping to bring the orchestra closer to its community. The conductor has to know every note played by every musician in every piece of music being played. He or she has to know how all the instruments work; how music is composed; how the different parts of music go together. He or she must also be an effective communicator, a good teacher, a strong leader, a good problem solver, and firm yet respectful to the members of the ensemble.

 

 

The Concert Experience

Concerts have evolved over the centuries, but they have always had one thing in common: they are social events, a chance for people to experience music together.

A symphony concert will usually last 2 hours and includes 3-4 pieces of music separated by an intermission. The pieces of music may include overtures, concertos, suites, tone poems and symphonies; works with chorus, such as oratorios (a story, usually taken from the Bible, performed by chorus, vocal soloists and an orchestra) and masses, may also be included. A ‘typical’ concert will open with a short (10-15 minute) overture, be followed by a concerto (20-30 minutes) and, after a 20 minute intermission, the program will end with a long work (30-60 minutes) such as a symphony.

There is a tradition and ritual that accompanies most classical music concerts. The orchestra begins to take the stage about 20 or 30 minutes before the concert is to begin. The musicians come out one by one or a few at a time, take their seats and warm up on their instruments. By the time the concert is about to begin, 5 or 10 minutes before ‘downbeat’ (the start of the concert,) there is a lot of noise–disorganized and seemingly chaotic! There is agreed to be an unusual beauty about this, however, and the audience is by now in their seats, eagerly awaiting the start of the concert.

When the concert is to begin (often at 7 or 8 in the evening), there are two people missing: the concertmaster and the conductor. At the appointed hour, the lights are dimmed, the audience stops murmuring, and there is silence. At this moment, the stage door opens and the concertmaster walks out. The audience applauds as the concertmaster walks to his seat, and the concertmaster faces the audience and takes a bow. He or she then turns to the orchestra–the principal oboe, to be precise–and nods. The principal oboist then plays a single note–an A-natural–and the orchestra begins to tune: first the woodwinds, then the brass, then the strings, each group one at a time. When the strings have finished tuning, the concertmaster takes his seat and the silence resumes. A moment passes, then another. At last, the stage door opens again, and this time the conductor walks out. The entire orchestra stands up; the conductor walks to his platform (called a podium), shakes the concertmaster’s hand, takes a bow, and then stands on the podium. The silence returns as all the musicians take a moment to prepare themselves. Then the conductor raises his hands; the orchestra readies their instruments; the conductor gives a downbeat, and the concert begins.

It is customary to clap at the end of a piece. In musical works with multiple movements, the audience is encouraged to wait until the final movement has finished to clap (that is, not to clap between each movement.)
In the case of a really fine performance, the audience will stand at the end while they clap, called a ‘standing ovation.’ In exceptional performances, they audience may shout ‘encore, encore!’ an Italian term meaning ‘again.’ In this case, the orchestra may have a different piece of music (usually short and very exciting) which they will play–sort of a bonus track.

Since concerts are social events and usually involve serious music in beautiful (and often famous) places, people will often dress up to attend. Once upon a time, men would wear dinner jackets or full evening dress (called ‘tuxedos’ and ‘tails’ in America) and women would wear very fancy and elegant ball-gowns. More recently the trend has been for men to wear a very nice dark (navy blue or gray) suit and tie and for women to wear a nice dress. Most recently, however, people have dressed down even more, sometimes wearing khakis and a button down shirt or even a t-shirt and jeans. This is no longer frowned upon the way it once was and people are encouraged to dress comfortably. This author will admit a preference to the less recent trend of seeing concert-goers dressed in elegant, sartorial splendor. Not only does this demonstrate a respect for the dinner-jacket and dress clad musicians, the music they are playing and the elegant venue in which they are making the music, but the author is of the conviction that when people are well dressed, they feel better themselves. In the end, however, whatever the attire, classical music concerts remain a wonderful human and social experience for all involved and the symphony orchestra continues to both represent and serve its community as a very pleasant duty. 

Composition: Inspiration, craftsmanship and identity.

I know the precise moment in which I became a composer.

It was the fourth in a string of events–hardly well paced–that set me on the path to this life in music; for while I knew from an early age that I wanted to be a musician, it took me some time to learn how to truly live music. The first three events led me to believe that I’d arrived, that I’d achieved something; but they were only sections of a prelude, elegant and naive phrases with clumsily written cadences.

The first came at the age of 14 or 15. It is not much of a story to tell, in all honesty. I was a violinist at the time, or at least I tried to be; I’d been playing for 7 years and had a modest repertoire, as well as a seat as principal second in my youth orchestra, so I allowed myself this delusion. And I was becoming quite a good timpanist; my talent for this particular instrument had emerged and, as my passion was somehow equaled by my work ethic, I was starting to prove my worth. And yet I somehow felt musically incomplete, as if part of me was not expressing itself with any satisfaction. So it was that I awoke one morning with a simple thought: I need to compose. So simple and seemingly innocent was this thought (which would give me little rest in the following days) that I did not realize the terrible danger it posed to my well-being. For to compose may lead, in some cases, to becoming a composer; and to be a composer means to live for music–and live through music.

And so I began to write. First, some clumsy attempts at a Requiem–a natural choice for a reasonably well-adjusted teenager. Then, after an argument with an older classmate who happened to be a trombonist, a terribly naive solo sonatina which was embarrassingly inoffensive in its simplicity. And then came the first hint of danger: the desire to compose a string quartet. I gave into this temptation without protest; and in a matter of a week or so, I had composed my first complete work.

By the time my last days of high school arrived, I found myself in a strange place: I was to study composition at a major conservatory with a renowned composer. I was quite terrified; besides being entirely self-taught in this discipline, writing what I had through a process of trial and error, I had no idea what it really meant to be a composer. I knew what it meant for Beethoven and Mahler, of course; but what did it mean for me? At the moment, it meant that I would no longer be a full-time performer, and having intended to pursue a career as an orchestral timpanist, this was no small change.

Then came the second event. I found myself seated by a composer of some reputation and accomplishment, a man who had lived an admirable life. I had in my possession a few of my works, including some preludes for piano and a movement of the symphony I was desperately trying to finish. I was 17, and felt compelled to finish it before that dreaded milestone of 18. I had little more than a month to go and had found myself needing to work harder on this trifle (which had begun as a serenade for 8 instruments and would end up as a 40 minute symphony for chamber orchestra) than I had planned. My world was filled with potential, but also uncertainty; this made me quite uncomfortable indeed. I’d come to this discussion, which was largely informal, hopeful that this great composer, a man who had worked with Ravel, would critique my work. My hopes were dashed unceremoniously when he informed his audience that it was a policy of his–and had been his entire career–not to critique or peruse the works of other composers. I hid my disappointment as best I could and stuffed most of my music hastily back into my bag. And then came the miracle. As he fielded questions and listened to others speak, he began stealing glances at my bag. One page, then another, and a smile played over his lips. Very discreetly and gently, he motioned to me to lean towards him. With a subtle, kind smile and a friendly but very serious look in his eyes, he said in a voice barely above a whisper “Keep writing.” He leaned back again, gave me a wink and a nod, and resumed his business of fielding questions. There I sat, stunned and encouraged, my doubts erased. I might become a composer yet.

Then came the third event, the moment at which I was certain I’d finally made it. In my first lesson with my professor at conservatory–the second semester, as he’d been on sabbatical in the first– I brought the four works I’d completed in the previous few months. I’d worked with particular obsession on two of them: a Symphony in One movement, and the first movement of a concerto for piano. Another seemed trivial by the work I’d completed since; it was merely a set of dances for piano, not very innovative at all. It was the fourth work, however, that I knew I needed to begin with: a string quartet. It was a strange work to me, very different from any of the others, living in a completely different sound world. I set it before him, and he took it to the piano. Sitting there, he paused, and then began to play. He played the entire first movement, an expansive adagio which lasted 12 minutes, and when he concluded, he sat silently. I waited…and waited…and waited. Terror had taken a new meaning now, and I was quite ready to slink out of the room. Finally he turned to me with a serious look. “This has a…certain lyrical beauty,” he said to me. “It is deeply felt…expressive. And I’m not sure yet what it means. Are you sure you’re only 18?” I was stunned–not to mention relieved that he had something good to say. When I recovered and was able to reply, leading to a wonderful conversation and my first true lesson as a composer, I realized what this moment meant: nobody had ever told me how they felt about my music. The work was performed a few months later, then withdrawn and reworked, with the revised version receiving its premiere a few months later under its new title: Symphony for Strings, Op. 2. The Op. 2 would lead to the fourth event.

The lead up was dramatic, at least to my mind. I was preparing for my first lesson with Dr. A, a renowned, celebrated and highly influential teacher whose former students were household names in the composition world. I was to study with him for three weeks at a festival, and I knew it would be intense: two lessons per week, plus master-classes, and I’d been told that while he was very kind and encouraging, he was also no-nonsense and extremely tough. The Symphony for Strings had been one of the works I’d submitted as an audition, and I was eager to bring it to him along with my most recent misadventure composition, a tone-poem for baritone and chamber orchestra which can only charitably be described as heavily influenced by certain late-romantic German composers. As I sat down with the good Doctor and handed him my scores, I recalled the horror I’d felt in similar situations over the previous few years; I came to the conclusion that they didn’t measure up to the anxiety I felt at this particular moment. The pedagogue spent a few minutes flipping through the scores, moving from expressionlessness to a visage of great thought, even consternation. Finally he came to the Op. 2, and smiled a bit. “Ah, yes, Joseph. I remember this!” I perked up. “Yes, Joseph–this work is why I accepted you. Very good, very good. Now, tell me, Joseph: who are you trying to imitate?” Time stopped. My heart pumped its last. My breath would not come. I hoped against all hope for the floor to open and simply swallow me, and it rewarded my faith with stubborn inaction. My career, I knew, had just ended. “Um…Dr. A…I…I never try to imitate anyone!” I stammered. “I try to write with my own voice, you know, and of course don’t try to…” He smiled. “Poppycock! Absolute bull. Don’t tell me what you think I want to hear! Now tell me–who are you trying to imitate?” I was speechless. Was my acceptance, then, a cruel joke? Was he regretting his invitation? Did he not even think me worthy of mercy?! He sighed and stood up, clapping his hands together, and exclaimed “My dear boy, everyone tries to imitate the composers they admire, especially when they are young! You’re how old? 21?” “Twenty,” I managed to croak. “Twenty years old!” he cried. “You are a baby! You have a lot to learn yet–and you can, you will! It is good to imitate others–it is a way to learn, and for you to realize what it is about their music that moves you, that makes you who you are–because your love for their music is part of you, an important part! But to become a composer, you must learn how to find your notes and to move beyond imitation. This ‘Vagabond,’ a clever tone poem–but it is not you. It is well written–but it is not you! That is why you are here. I will teach you to stop imitating and to be you. Don’t worry–I know you’re a good boy. Now, let’s get to work.” The three weeks flew by, and I completed three short works in that time. When I returned to conservatory that fall, I presented them to my teacher, who responded with this: “Well, you accomplished in one summer what I wanted to do with you all of this year. Joseph…you sound like you.”

The words of Dr. A have stayed with me all these years (and it is hard to believe that this happened nearly a decade ago.) They will stay with me my entire life, I’m sure. That was the moment in which I realized what it meant to be a composer, not merely one who writes. But just as importantly, it taught me the value of personal heroes. Lists are arbitrary and offer little insight; a top 5 or top 10 can be interesting, to be sure, but are fraught with the peril of value judgments and subjectivity. But to have admiration for someone–not idle, but active inspiration–can serve to drive us forward. We aspire to match them–not in their achievement, but in their desires, curiosity and ideals. As I continue to work and grow as a composer (not to mention as a conductor,) I will focus on these men (and women), their ideals and contributions. And perhaps, from time to time, I shall write about it.

Establishing a canon for American music in the classroom and concert hall.

America has no culture. How many times has this been uttered by people around the world? America has plenty of entertainment: from vaudeville, ragtime and jazz to Broadway, baseball and reality television, we have always been able to pass the time, to manufacture celebrities and fill programming in every form of media. But culture? Surely not! When Americans crave culture, they import it–and why not? Americans love the exotic, and the world loves to come to America. Why should we need our own culture?

This is a tongue in cheek assessment, to be sure, but there are those who may already find themselves nodding in agreement. American culture often seems quite balanced: on one hand, we have an incredible sense of hubris, while on the other we have a massive inferiority complex. It is in this balance that so many of our cultural gems are lost. And when they are lost, or even overlooked, how may we begin to get them back?

Perhaps nowhere is this problem more evident than in concert music. Classical music is a European art form, goes the argument. It is not American; the best American composers merely borrowed from European models, and the finest orchestras tend to import their conductors and soloists (and a good portion of their musicians.) These facts are accurate, sad to say; far too many orchestras overlook top American talent in favor of more ‘exotic’ foreigners. And there is nothing wrong with foreigners! From Toscanini and Mahler to Muti and Masur, American music owes a deep debt of gratitude to men and women from all over the world who have come to America to contribute to our cultural life. But what of American talent? After all, we boast some of the best conservatories and universities in the world; why are we so eager to overlook the emergence of a talented young American musician as some sort of novelty or aberration–a second choice, at best?

Most alarming is the manifestation of the inferiority complex when it comes to American music. Our symphonic canon is, to put it mildly, underrated. In both the classroom and the concert hall, there are few perennial favorites, little patriotism aroused by, say, the performance of a Piston Symphony or the announcement of a new symphony by a Rouse or Corigliano. American music is certainly no pale imitation of European mastery! It is vivid, complex, descriptive, personable and uniquely American. 

A German knows what Beethoven means for national pride. The French have a certain way with Debussy and Bizet. The English adore Vaughan Williams and Elgar. And when it comes to the Russians and their national composers…well…to use the term devotion is hardly a hyperbole. But what of Americans? What does it mean to say Bernstein, Copland or Barber? How about Piston, Persichetti, Mennin? The post-war and cold war eras saw an arms race and space race with Russia, and every opportunity was taken to gloat and celebrate when America bested their Soviet counterparts in some area of achievement. And yet what have we been left with? The Soviets got the best years of Shostakovich and Prokofiev. We got the best of Copland, Bernstein, Barber, and many others. And yet how many times will we see those Russian masters on a program to be performed by American orchestras–while our American masters are neglected by the same ensembles? 

It is not merely a lack of performances; it is a lack of outrage at the lack of performances, a lack of awareness and an abundance of apathy. Aside from Appalachian Spring and Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, there seem to be few real ‘hits’ at the box office. Why is that? 

The roots of this issue lie in two places, as far as I can tell. One is the classroom. American music is conspicuously absent from classrooms across the country. The continued compartmentalization of education is surely a factor in this matter. Heaven forbid that, while studying world war 2, we should have any mention of Copland’s Ballet for Martha or that upon examining the aftermath of the assassination of John F. Kennedy we should be introduced to Bernstein’s Kaddish. How wonderful would it be for every elementary school student to know the themes (or at least the ‘Variations on a Shaker theme’) of Copland’s ballet! 

The second, of course, is the orchestra itself. Few appearances are made on orchestral programs, and when they are they often come with extreme fanfare or on concerts dedicated entirely to American music. Triumph, of course, would be to include with the programming of American music an omission of note; to simply include this music as part of the canon would be a more effective strategy in the long run, as introducing a new food to a child without gimmicks or debate. Give the audience a chance to love this music–their music. It is not merely ownership, but a matter of identity: this music is about them, their communities and their experiences! Why should it not be a part of their life?

I often wonder when music became ‘new music.’ All music was once new music, after all: Beethoven’s Eroica shocked the Viennese, Bruckner’s symphonies perplexed audiences and Prokofiev disconcerted even his mentors. We get over it; we move on, and, most importantly, we come to accept and love it. Why has the work of Americans been so often relegated to ‘novelty’? Much of it is (or once was) an experiment; but experiments prove a thesis, and then become a standard, then ubiquitous. And is that very ubiquitousness not a definition of success? 

Finally, there are the musicians themselves. We consistently walk a fine line between a tortured quest for individuality and a desperate search for association; to belong, to have some classification. The latter seems to be a recent phenomenon, at least as far as the specialty musician, as opposed to generations past in which being a consummate musician was the ultimate honor. But today we have early music specialists and Baroque coloraturas, period instrument orchestras and avant garde ensembles. For some, crossing the line is seen as an ideological shift! And thus we have the new music specialist. And what shall we say of this musician? Should ‘new music’ be the exclusive domain and property of this specialist? Shall this musician shun the works of any composer born before the heyday of Stockhausen and consider any fellow musician who has not studied in a special program the mysterious, exclusive world of ‘new music’? 

To our great masters, of course, this would likely seem quite shocking. The greatest musical communities in history thrived on a desire to learn and live with as much music as possible. And for great performers, it was essential to have relationships with composers. When did the line between composer and performer become so salient and so important? It is an important question, concerning both interpersonal relationships and individuals. For there are many (perhaps too many) performers who look with a wary eye upon living composers, and many (again, perhaps too many!) composers who consider themselves only composers and not practicing musicians. Neither attitude is healthy. Music will be played by people; thus, relationships are vital. And those must be encouraged! 

It is a feature of nearly every artists’ biography I’ve ever read in a concert program, be it a famous soloist or conductor, or a young virtuoso. Passionately devoted to new music! proclaims a section of the bio. A champion of living composers. New music–may I please, please, please simply call it music?–needs champions; it needs devotion, patience, and faith. A composer needs to be believed in, understood, afforded genuine passion. Works need to be commissioned and performed, then performed again, and again, and again. Histories and styles need to be developed, relationships between composers and performers or ensembles formed and maintained, and a lexicon unique to that composer established as a language with which to be familiar and to which fluency is aspired. America can be described in music; it has been, and will continue to be. Composers will speak; it is time for audiences to really have a chance to listen.

The need for brave artists.

Music and politics have always had an interesting relationship. Political leaders have shaped music history for hundreds of years, for better or worse. In the case of the former, we have the Emperor Franz Josef I, the Esterhazy family and King Ludwig II; in the case of the latter, we may look to Stalin and Hitler. And sometimes we see a more complex picture, as in the case of the Roman Catholic Church, which both oppressed (dictating rules of form and harmony) and empowered (the masses of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven.)

The artist has always toed the line, for various reasons, between being politically active and apolitical. Sometimes it is a game of diplomacy, such as the case of Mozart and the bishops of Salzburg; other times, it is a case of reckless abandon, as in the case of Wagner’s involvement with the revolution of 1848. But we have a rich legacy of artists whose compliance with or defiance of political powers resulted in the creation of magnificent works—works whose legacies have shaped our culture and societies in profound ways.

With the recent passing of laws regarding homosexuality in Russia, music has been thrust into the spotlight time and time again. Perhaps most notably, we have seen protests in New York City, both at the Metropolitan Opera and Carnegie Hall. Commentary has not been in short supply regarding these events, with passionate voices crying out on both sides of the issue.

In the center of the debate, at least on this side of the Atlantic, are two living legends of the opera house and concert hall, both of whom happen to be Russian. In the case of one, protest has been met with silence; in the case of the other, a weak protest was issued, concluding with a very disturbing sentence: “In my next life, when I will be a politician, we talk!”

It is important to note that this has become much more than an issue of gay rights. The problem has gone far beyond a question of modern ethics and the role of government in the bedroom. No, this is a question of human rights, for when people are being persecuted and even hunted down, as a group, in an organized and official manner, there can be no silence, no idle talk. But to hear that from an artist is especially egregious.

The role of the artist in society is to be a good and productive citizen. There are other perks, of course: fame and fortune, celebrity and privilege, adulation and acknowledgement on a grand scale. But the artist has a unique and powerful voice. Politicians? A politician has tremendous power over the flesh and fortunes of men. But when it comes to matters of the spirit, ignorance is too often the domain of the statesman—and impotence. How may they address that over which they have no power, the immortal human spirit, when power is all they know and desire? Yes, they are rendered impotent! The value of money will change; empires and nations will rise and fall, wars will be won and lost, borders drawn and redrawn, power gained and lost, parties created and disbanded. This is the fate of the politician, no matter how skilled or even how altruistic. But the artist will always remain; the voice of the artist will be the voice of the people, the manifestation of will, the link between the physical and metaphysical.

I can appreciate that these two artists may have concerns for themselves and their families and certainly hope that they may remain safe and healthy. But excuses cannot be made. We have seen too many ‘issues of politics’ become the genesis of unimaginable tragedy. Jim Crow and Nuremburg laws were once ‘just’ public policy, after all; how can we stand idly by?

The artist must be an idealist. Everything else, whether a tribulation or a benefit, is merely a distraction. We are called to serve our fellow man. And we have plenty of examples. Perhaps most fittingly, we may examine Shostakovich. Arguably the most honest and brave artist of the last century, Shostakovich defied official orders time and time again, quite literally risking life and limb to compose music which was honest. Yes, he was patriotic; yes, he served his country and culture. But he knew he had an even higher calling: he served human-kind. And for that, he was willing to risk everything, time after time.

I am reminded of a quote from the wonderful movie ‘A Few Good Men.’ As he is cross examined on the stand, the antagonist defends his honor—and, in fact, honor in general. “We use words like honor, code, loyalty. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punch line,” he says. In the world of art, we use many similar words: ideals, talent, genius, virtuosity, faithfulness and, yes, honor. We use them over and over and over again until they very nearly lose their meaning, their potency and their value. They become…nearly a punch line, or at worst, a cliché. The worst part of a cliché is that the value of an ideal becomes muddled or lost. It is time for us to stop speaking and acting in cliché; it is time to stop being casual with language and ideals, time to stop making excuses. The artist must be the voice of the people. Ideals, genius, fidelity, loyalty, and honor: these are our duty.

Dear Sesame Street: Less Hip Hop, please.

I have been a parent for a little more than five years now. It has been an incredible adventure from the first moment, filled with moments of terror, triumph, unimaginable joy and unexpected sorrow. I love being a father as much as I love being a musician. Indeed, the moment I held my son in my arms for the first time, I was reminded of the moment I first heard one of my own compositions being brought from the page to the concert hall–though this moment was never to be replicated. 

Being a father has brought me some unexpected inspiration as well. Simple things–watching my son hold a hermit crab for the first time and squeal in delight, or chasing a frog across the lawn–become epic adventures and moments of discovery. And he always makes me better. Indeed, before he was born, I had little desire to teach. Now, I feel compelled to teach as much and often as possible (and, as a happy consequence, to seek out knowledge and aspire to wisdom with a passionate urgency.) I have become keenly aware of education in all its forms: the school system and curriculum, naturally, but also the history of education. 

What I see has begun to disturb me greatly. A comprehensive commentary is far beyond the scope of such a modest article as this and, frankly, is probably beyond the author as well. But I know what I see and hear, and I know what I want to see (and what I feel is missing.) The fundamental goal of education should not be the development of skills for a job; it should be the cognitive, intellectual, emotional and, yes, spiritual growth of a human being in a safe, social and challenging environment.

I believe that learning is a comprehensive art and ought to be compelling. Education and knowledge should not be compartmentalized; each discipline informs the next and keeps us from existing in the vacuum nature so abhors. Yet I see this more and more: each subject is isolated, broken into simple components and structured so that bits and pieces may be digested (or, perhaps more accurately, consumed) for the all-important test. The days of the trivium and quadrivium are long gone. 

Media has become such an important part of our daily lives, for better or worse, that it is difficult to argue against it as a serious tool for children’s development and education. PBS television has always done an excellent job in delivering quality content, and I myself grew up on two of their most important shows. One was Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Fred Rogers’ warmth, wisdom and sincerity made me, at the age of 5, want to be a better person, to keep my sense of wonder and curiosity no matter what my age. His show helped me realize that compassion, kindness and empathy were essential. 

The other show was Sesame Street. A natural community, where neighbors lived, worked, played, and shared everything together, it seemed much less a fantasy or fictional world than a pleasant snapshot of reality, a vignette and allegory which was gentle yet firm in its messages. The neighborhood was a place to visit, the community offering a standing invitation to join. 

As a child I can remember seeing Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman join, and, given my love affair with music, I was captivated. I always carried these images in my mind; music was there, it was everywhere, it was for everyone. It expressed emotions that I didn’t even know I had, and best of all, I could express them, too! 

So when my son became old enough to start watching some television, I was delighted to see that Sesame Street was still on the air. I was happy to have some sense of continuity in this ever changing world.

Then I saw a recent show–and I was surprised. 

Why, oh why, is there so much rap and hip hop on Sesame Street? Where did it come from–and what educational purpose does it serve? This is ‘entertainment’ at best. It is not just guest artists; we see puppets casually rapping in certain segments, for no apparent reason.

Let us examine a few things. Rap and hip hop take two great arts–language (especially poetry) and music, and reduce them to simple elements. For young children, simpler is usually better. However, these elements are not executed in a manner which is fundamentally sound. Poetry, an art which has challenged some of the best literary minds in history, is reduced to ‘rhymes’ which are often trite and usually clever at best. Are these things not better exemplified by Mother Goose or Emily Dickinson? In addition, this language is riddled with slang, not to mention profanity–to things that are hardly healthy for developing minds which need to learn the building blocks of language not just technically but also socially. Then there is the question of the music. I think there is one term which can sum up the issue: beats. Yes, in these genres of music, it is all about the ‘beat.’ Forget, for a moment, that an incredibly powerful element of music (rhythm) is reduced to a single word. What does the word ‘beat’ make you think of? Beating eggs, beating someone at something, beating somebody up…’beat’ is a violent word. And that is the entry point with rap and hip hop. But what do we say in other forms of music, namely classical/art music? We speak of a ‘pulse.’ What does that word conjure images of? The pulse–the heartbeat, the first and most salient vital sign, a proof of life itself. Pulse…passion….energy…vitality….ever changing, at its safest when steady yet helpful when varying, racing ahead or slowing down. And that is what ‘classical’ music contains: every element of life, a window to worlds, ideas, experiences and knowledge. Isn’t that what children and young adults need?

The argument seems to be that this kind of music–rap, hip hop, popular music–is what children are most likely to be exposed to and, therefore, will relate to most easily. Yet this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If they are introduced to this as a matter of course then it will be their sole frame of reference. And they will be: this music is heard in everything from television commercials to the background music in restaurants and retail stores. It is in movies and television shows, ring tones and video games. And if they have older siblings…

It seems, lately, almost taboo to criticize or even question rap and hip hop. Yet it is an important issue–one well worth discussing. It is not merely that I wish we had more violinists, opera singers, conductors and string quartets visiting (or living on!) ‘The Street’–though that would be wonderful! It is a need to demonstrate that culture is more than politically correct characters traipsing about the screen providing entertainment. Culture is about life. Isn’t it time to discuss that with our children?