Rant Redux

Several versions of this have appeared on my website over the years. It’s now migrating over to the blog for anyone interested in how I view my musical journey and my thoughts on what keeps composers going in these challenging times. Some of these themes are also addressed on this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wPRs4e8LavM&list=PL26AFCF90E51B8838

Many aesthetic currents have passed through America during my lifetime, which places me among the first wave of Baby Boomers. It’s been my goal to make some sense of all this and synthesize a response based on first-hand immersion in these currents — above all, those pertaining to classical, rock and jazz.

Jazz has had a profound influence on me but its contribution to my music is primarily subliminal. Over the decades, the improvisation at the core of America’s most original art form has proved nontransferable to static disciplines that make their points through canny use of written materials. In my view, classical and rock are a more logical match for cross-pollination, each having tight structures, certain harmonic and rhythmic commonalities, and similar expository uses of the voice.

Having developed outside of the usual channels, I’ve come face to face with the numerous challenges facing independent composers who seek exposure for their music. The Delos label’s 2012 release of my song cycle “The Dream Gallery” marked the first time I was able to deploy the full resources of an acoustic orchestra in a recording project. The new live-in-the-studio CD “Terrain of the Heart” is a similarly exciting event for me. Prior to the Delos releases, I was able to realize my compositions only with digital sampling technology working alongside the superb singers I’ve been fortunate enough to attract along the way.

The economics of what is left of the “serious music” business seem to work against free-lance composers – especially those drawn to orchestral writing. Commissions are few and far between, and usually confined to a small circle of “name” composers or academic figures. A piece may be performed, but there’s no guarantee it will be recorded or even heard again. Yet there are thousands of excellent musicians and many fine ensembles in the land – adding up to a classic mismatch of the resources available to keep America’s musical world not only alive but vital.

More than a decade into the 21st century, it seems obvious to me that classical music’s future – if it is to have one — lies in boldly expanding and redefining the repertoire. It makes little sense for contemporary composers to draw inspiration solely from the easily identified branches that stem from the textbook classical “tree.” The exclusionary approach has resulted in an alarming shrinkage of audiences and places composers content to work from the cozy bunkers of academia in a position that can charitably be called “out of touch.”

My response to this long-festering crisis has been to develop a personal idiom that admits the usage and integration of popular elements while remaining within an overall framework forged from the classical aesthetic.

The music draws on just about everything I’ve ever heard, “from Abba to Zemlinsky,” as I wrote a few years ago. It’s difficult at this stage for me to tease out any specific references as they appear in my work; elsewhere on this site I’ve mentioned some of the figures who were most influential – philosophically as well as musically. My decision to not suppress rock flavors but instead incorporate them no doubt confuses some listeners. But I feel I would be inauthentic for me to do otherwise.

My style of vocal writing is an unabashed cross-breed of the genres that have meant the most to me over the decades — classical art song (think Schumann, Duparc, Debussy, Strauss) and the heady, short-lived pop/folk/rock gestalt that sprang forth in the early and mid 1960s and reached its zenith of sophistication in the work of such figures as Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, Brian Wilson, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, John Phillips, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, and Burt Bacharach. What these artists had in common was the ability to couple sincerity with an aim for the transcendent.

I love a number of operas – “Salome,” “Elektra,” “Wozzeck,” “Lulu,” the Janacek Big Five, “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” and “Bluebeard’s Castle” among them. But I believe that much operatic singing overemphasizes the technical aspects of tone production at the expense of clarity and basic communication. Consequently, I usually work with singers whose forte is the far more intimate realm of art song.

I prefer that a work’s harmonic, melodic and rhythmic elements appear in as straightforward a manner as possible, and that scripted methods of compositional architecture be avoided. I recall a quote about Manuel de Falla that went something like: “He was content to present his ideas, and to not develop them.” Falla succeeded admirably in such dissimilar pieces as “El Amor Brujo,” “El Retablo de Maese Pedro” and “Pour Le Tombeau de Paul Dukas.” The same could be said of key works by Stravinsky, Janacek, Bartok, Szymanowski and other giants.

Falla once said: “Music does not exist to be understood, but to be felt.” … I would add: “Music exists to be listened to.” If you can’t communicate something to a listener, no amount of pointing at the interior marvels of the score is going to change that.

My lyric writing is a relatively recent development. It too encompasses more influences than I could possibly identify. Beyond exposure to poetry, literature, the work of countless songwriters and sheer life experience, my 21-year involvement with journalism no doubt plays a key role. The reporting, writing and editing process necessarily concentrates the mind but has little use for imagistic or poetic content. I certainly benefited from learning the discipline of concision. But I missed the color and emotion words can provide and apparently am making up for it in the group of works I’ve produced since 2005.


YouTube, without which …

Two items that are pretty tough to refute:

1. YouTube, unfortunately, is biting off a bigger chunk of what is left of the classical music industry with each passing year.

2. There’s a solid reason for that. For free, you get to see some truly great stuff otherwise unavailable.

So, every once in a while, I intend to pass along various live performance gems (some of them rarely viewed) that I’ve come across and can highly recommend. Here are four:

1. Mahler: Symphony No. 10/Michael Gielen/Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra of Baden-Baden and Freiburg


This still occasionally maligned score is being performed more and more these days, as conductors are finally taking on board its crucial importance in understanding one of the world’s most popular composers. Yes, Mahler would undoubtedly have done a considerable amount of expanding upon and filling in of the three movements he did not have the chance to complete. But I feel that some conductors’ decision to consign Deryck Cooke’s masterly “performing version” of the 10th  to rarity or “I won’t perform it” status – as Leonard Bernstein and Georg Solti did – must today be regarded as ridiculous. The symphony’s basic identity seems crystal clear.

To me, the work’s greatest importance is showing where Mahler was – and was not – going at the time of his death in 1911. Yes, the opening Adagio is probably the most “progressive” movement he ever penned, but the next three are pretty darned familiar sounding – more installments in the “twisted laendler” and “grotesque scherzo” vein, which I believe Mahler had thoroughly exhausted by 1911 (and perhaps earlier). The 24-minute Finale, however, is something remarkable – not new, mind you, but remarkable. It is unquestionably one of Mahler’s greatest slow movements, quite as expressive as its stellar counterpart in the Ninth Symphony. Bernstein’s and Solti’s belief that the world would be better off not hearing this music is a stain on their posthumous reputations, in my view.   

What I’ve gleaned from the 10th over the years is that Mahler was soldiering on down his unique path – and would have evolved further in only a slow and gradual fashion. One of music’s most fascinating unanswered questions, of course, is how he would have reacted to the imminent ascension of such iconoclastic and brilliant composers as Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Prokofiev, Berg, Bartok, Hindemith, et. al., had he lived only a decade or so longer. Great as he was, I suspect that Mahler would have been profoundly disturbed by the appearance of a whole new generation who had no use for his sentimental postromanticism. Still, to be fair to him, we should hear the 10th performed as regularly as any of the others in his symphonic canon; it’s a work not to be missed.

This superb performance is led by one of Europe’s greatest conductors, Michael Gielen, who remains sadly little known in the United States, remembered mainly for his seven years as music director of the Cincinnati Symphony. For many decades, he has been a leading advocate for contemporary music and the core 20th century repertoire. Here he leads the excellent Southwest German Radio Symphony in a sensitive and committed performance of the Mahler. No dancing a la Lenny, no shaking of the curly locks a la Dudamel. Just the music. Thank you, Maestro Gielen.

2. Richard Strauss: “An Alpine Symphony” — finale/Bernard Haitink/Concertgebouw Orchestra


One could say that YouTube has been very kind to Strauss. While I am a fan of his music, there are a number of works where episodes do suffice to illustrate the overall artistic worth; you don’t necessarily have to listen to the whole thing. “An Alpine Symphony” is one such piece; the first half of it is spotty, the second half highly worthwhile. Thanks to YouTube’s liberation of excerpted material, we get to listen to the last 11 minutes of this work separately; it is one of Strauss’ longest-sustained flights of pure lyricism and one treasured by practically everyone to whom his music speaks.

Not only is this music extraordinarily beautiful, “Alpine” is possibly the ultimate example of his total mastery of scoring for the vast orchestras that briefly held sway in the early 20th century. Yes, those are nine French horns you see, five clarinets and overloaded complements of just about every other instrument. And they make a gorgeous sound; can there be any argument? Just sit back and enjoy this authentic slice of musical history. Strauss’ huge forces are deployed with care, subtlety and poetry.

The conductor is Bernard Haitink, 83 as of this writing and one of the key figures in European music making since the 1960s. He has always been an outstanding Strauss conductor and the clip illustrates that enthusiasm in his characteristically dignified and understated way. It’s also quite wonderful to see how many women are in the Concertgebouw’s ranks these days.       

3. Richard Strauss: Transformation Scene from “Daphne”/ Ricarda Merbeth, soprano/Semyon Bychkov/Vienna State Opera


There have only been two DVDs made of “Daphne,” which remains one of Strauss’ least known operas. This is the last 11 minutes of a Vienna performance video that is apparently not obtainable in the U.S. In it, the mythological wood nymph Daphne sings a series of faltering, then accepting lines as she is slowly transformed into a laurel tree by Zeus at the request of Apollo, ridden with guilt after slaying Daphne’s friend Leukippos. This section is extraordinary enough; it is then followed by an orchestral interlude of extreme beauty and pathos. At the end, Daphne’s wordless voice is heard singing through the branches, her union with nature made complete. 

This dramatically static section invariably poses a stiff challenge for opera directors, and the solution here leaves much to be desired. German soprano Ricarda Merbeth, a Vienna stalwart in recent years, sings wonderfully. Unfortunately, she is daubed with unflattering makeup and a ratty-looking wig and gown that faintly suggest the Norma Desmond character from “Sunset Boulevard.” So, as ever in such cases, we learn to ignore the visuals and focus on the music. No problem, as this is some of the most outstanding written by Strauss in his long career. The sound, conducting and playing are excellent.

If the music stirs you, you’re likely to have the same reaction to this opera’s second most memorable excerpt, the stunning extended aria “Unheilvolle Daphne,” sung here (with one ill-advised cut) by the great Hilde Gueden at the 1964 Salzburg Festival (an audio-only clip) –


Over the years there have been some quite rare performances and recordings of “Unheilvolle Daphne” and the Transformation Scene packaged together as the Final Scene from “Daphne.” The two add up to around 20 minutes of Strauss at his very best – every bit as sublime and rewarding as the “Four Last Songs.”

Symphony conductors! What’s up with this?? Why do you never program this music???

4. Mahler: Kindertotenlieder (In Diesem Wetter)/Jesus Suaste, baritone/Kenneth Woods/State of Mexico Symphony Orchestra


It’s been said many times that music is the universal language. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a clip that portrays this more movingly than this rendition of the last of the five “Kindertotenlieder” – a piece that rarely leaves a dry eye anywhere it is heard throughout the world, dealing as it does with the death of children in a storm. “ … They are resting, as if in their mother’s house, not frightened by any tempest, sheltered by God’s hand.”

For me, this one is less about the performance – which is outstanding indeed – than about the people making the music. It was filmed at a concert in Toluca, Mexico, with an American conductor, Kenneth Woods, a fine regional orchestra, and a superb Mexican baritone, Jesus Suaste, about whom I’ve been able to turn up little information.

The combination of the heart-rending music, Suaste’s intense performance, and the wonderful faces of the multiethnic Mexican orchestra members make this a very special piece of video.

L.A. Composer Salon Appearance

I was invited to make a presentation about my work at the 45th L.A. Composer Salon, held in Venice, Ca., this past Sunday, July 22. I spoke primarily about my musical journey in general, and about The Dream Gallery (playing a few recorded excerpts from it). I also took questions from the all-composer audience, a hallmark of this unique quarterly event.

The highlight of the hourlong segment was a live performance of two of my voice/piano songs – “La Sonnambula” (from the recent cycle Rainbow Songs) and “I Live My Life in Growing Orbits” (from Five Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke). The soloist was the fine young soprano Ariel Pisturino, an up-and-comer on the Los Angeles opera and art song scene, and the pianist was Jeremy Borum, the co-producer of The Dream Gallery CD. They were both superb!