Category Archives: composers

Happy 75th, Philip Glass

What should just be musical doodles become creations of profound beauty in the hands of Philip Glass. When I first started listening to his piano music, it sounded familiar. It sounded like what I would come up with tinkering at the piano as a kid, accidentally improvising or getting carried away in between practicing “real” pieces. Except, slowly, one realizes it isn’t tinkering at all with Glass, though that essential playfulness, innocence, and simplicity remains.

I hear the criticisms of Glass loud and clear, and, if I let myself go down that path, I am perhaps most sympathetic to the “one-trick pony” argument. But then I listen, and, really, the arguments fall to the wayside, because the impact for me is visceral and real and deep.

Galileo Galilei - James Gill Photography

Galileo Galilei at Madison Opera. Credit: James Gill Photography.

Last week I saw Madison Opera’s production of Galileo Galilei. Glass’s operas are more problematic than his instrumental music; the declamatory, anti-melodic vocal lines take adjusting to. Whether despite this or because of it, the overall effect can be trance-like, which is jarring in a dramatic setting. Moment-to-moment, the story feels less important than in traditional contexts. For me, though, this is usually most welcome. The story becomes an idea to mull, the music the essential element to foster such a state. So it was with Galileo. And as tends to happen, Glass’s work here incited great inventiveness from the designer and director.

Funny, then, that one of my favorite Glass pieces is his opera Orphée, based on the Cocteau film. Plot is essential to the piece, and the score is one of the composer’s most varied: from jazzy evocations of post-war France to Gluck quotes and soaring melodies, it is often distinctly un-Glassian. Yet, no one else could have written it, you know it is his throughout. And that has to be worth something.

The social composer

The Social ComposerAttention composers: your Twitter feed affects how I hear your music. This is, for better or worse, a 21st century truth that every young composer should think about.

That a composer’s personality might impact one’s experience of their music is not a new phenomenon. Mozart and Wagner are two extreme examples of this. It’s hard not to think of Mozart’s supposed playfulness and good humor during a piece like his String Quartet No. 19 in C Major (K. 465) or Le Nozze di Figaro. I’m not sure the Wagner example needs explanation: his megalomania and antisemitism are notoriously difficult to keep separate from his music.

But the “personalities” of composers past have only emerged after decades of scholarly research and cultural myth-making. In their own time, they had reputations, but very few audience members could proclaim to “know” them (I don’t really have any historical authority to make that statement, but I’m assuming it’s a safe one).

Today, Twitter, Facebook, and blogs put us in close contact with composers. These platforms allow them to publicly broadcast anything they want, be it their quirks, interests, opinions, or dinner plans, eliminating virtually all of the guess work and mystery for current audiences and future historians alike.  I don’t personally know any of the composers I follow online, but, creepy or not, it sure feels like I do sometimes.

This becomes all the more apparent when I listen to their music, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For starters, I listen to more new music now because of who I follow on Twitter. I also feel more connected to the music having a better sense of the person who made it, being able to go “that makes sense” or “huh, I wouldn’t have expected that” (major instance of the latter after downloading Gabriel Kahane’s first album just yesterday).

But is there a sort of self-selection bias here? Am I ordering music based on who seems interesting, cool, or whatever else? What happens when someone doesn’t like the online personality or lifestyle of a composer whose music they might otherwise enjoy? Is it possible to keep the two separate?

This seems like a good time to bring up something that’s been nagging me about Justin Davidson’s March 2011 article, “A New New York School.” Here are some excerpts:

These composers in their thirties worry less about categories, narrative, and originality than about atmosphere, energy, and sound. They are not monkish craftsmen assembling six-minute miniatures, half an agonizing second at a time…This cornucopia of new music seems perpetually promising. It bristles with allusions and brims with ambition—yet it somehow feels stifled by all that freedom.

In concluding the piece, Davidson drives home his point: “Rules can be a crutch or a cage, but they can also act as stimulant…What they badly need is a machine to rage against and a set of bracing creative constraints.”

One thing that’s been really wonderful about Twitter and the like is that it has debunked the myth of the composer as isolated genius, feverishly honing his craft as the rest of the world dallies in triviality. We still hear about the music and the struggles, but also about the basketball games, recent iTunes downloads, politics, babies being changed, bike issues and nights out. There’s also a good deal of humor and self-deprecation. In short, the social composer is distinctly more human than this guy, who stared at me from my piano teacher’s bench in 1st grade, the image of “composer as giant” that still weighs so heavily on our collective consciousness as classical music fans.

My sense is that Judd Greenstein, Nico Muhly & co., are having a little too much fun for Davidson (an estimable critic and writer I deeply admire, whose aural description of the new music coming out of New York right now in the same article is the best I’ve read). Are all of his criticisms evident in the music alone, or are the composers’ extra-musical displays of inclusiveness and bohemian normality also affecting his–our–interpretation?

Davidson is distinctly inactive in social media, so perhaps I’m wrong on this one. Either way, social media has raised endless questions about identity and what it means to be a composer in the 21st century. The composer today can write his or her own story. It is not uncommon to be introduced to a composer’s online persona before being introduced to their music. This is new, and like anything else it has its benefits and pitfalls.

Thai composer adds voice to political theater

This past spring, Thai novelist, conductor and composer Somtow Sucharitkul unwittingly became a crucial observer of the protests and political violence unfolding around him. I was glued to his Facebook updates and blog posts, and despite what one might assume would be his yellow-shirt leanings, I found his reporting balanced. Prior to the most recent unrest in Bangkok, Somtow had only occasionally added his voice to Thailand’s unpredictable political theater, but it seemed now he was a full fledged pundit, a valued voice outside of Thailand in particular.

Fast forward to the fall-out and finger-pointing of the last three months. Most recently, Thaksin Shinawatra’s lawyer Robert Amsterdam published “The Bangkok Massacres: A Call for Accountability -  A White Paper by Amsterdam & Peroff LLP.” Not surprisingly, Somtow has responded. Even less surprising, Amsterdam has responded to Somtow.

I have yet to fully digest all of this. The “White Paper” is an odd beast. It is, on the surface, harmless and entirely necessary: a call for the proper investigation of international human rights violations during the government crackdown on red-shirt protests in April and May 2010. But even a cursory glance at the paper’s depiction of the last four years reveals that this is also Thaksin’s attempt to tip Thai history in his favor and further stoke the embers of red-shirt resentment for the Abhisit government.

The ensuing dialogue between Somtow and Amsterdam, in my opinion, achieves nothing. Both take each other too seriously (or is it not seriously enough?), Amsterdam in particular. What he does not understand is just how American Somtow’s political attitude is. While Somtow does have “yellow shirt” blood and certainly caters to the royalist audiences with his musical endeavors, he is simply pro-democracy and not afraid to call out either side for ridiculous behavior. His criticism of Amsterdam and Thaksin certainly does not warrant the torrent of hate mail and death threats he has since received.

Amsterdam writes:

There is no dispute that Thailand must move beyond violence and work toward reconciliation. Reconciliation, however, necessarily begins with the restoration of the Thai people’s fundamental right to self-governance; moreover, it requires full accountability for serious human rights violations committed in the attempt to repress that right. International Law mandates nothing less.

No doubt this is my hope and the hope of the Thai people. No doubt, I’d like to believe this was the honest direction of the post-crisis dialogue, but so far it is still tinged with the politics of memory and violence.

Find others more knowledgeable than me discussing Thai politics on this Twitter list of Bangkok-based reporters, bloggers, and active citizenry.

Die Walkure at LA Opera

This is how I want to feel about Achim Freyer’s Die Walkure, which I attended as part of the Opera America National Conference last Thursday. And I agree with Ms. Midgette completely that the first act flew by. In fact, visually, I loved almost every moment of the production (the major exceptions being the costuming of Siegmunde and Sieglinde, which felt too alien, too much like the gods, and the inexplicably cluttered stage in the second half of act three). Plus there was more than one coup de theatre (if that’s not redundant): the magical primary color lighting wash at the start of the Wintersturme; the ride of the Valkyries, flying through the clouds on mechanical, bicycle-like horses; and the flames consuming Brunnhilde, at once fantastically realistic and self-consciously low-tech. But while I was consistently wowed, I was never emotionally convinced of the characters’ actions.

After the performance, one of my colleagues asked a trick question: “How many times did Wotan touch Brunnhilde?” The answer is never, or perhaps once. To me, the portrayal of the characters as pawns of the universe had the effect of devaluing the emotional impact of the music. More over, part of the beauty of the Ring is the connections one establishes with the characters, even if they are gods, or committing incest. But Freyer has done away with the humanity of Wagner’s creation. As Midgette points out, no one can say this is a slip-shod interpretive affair. Still, I just can’t wrap my head around the intentional submersion of sensuality and feeling for the sake of illuminating archetypes. Valuable food for thought, perhaps, but it frankly left me chilly, despite the formidable aesthetic and musical accomplishments of the production.

CCE, Nathan Currier Premiere [part 2]

Yesterday I wrote about the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble concert I attended last week in Mills Hall on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus: interesting repertoire, a gratifying world premiere by a leading contemporary composer, and solid performances by young musicians. The musical component of the night, despite some programming quirks, was great. But were I to rate the overall experience (was I comfortable? did I have fun? did I connect with the performers?) I’d have to give the concert significantly lower marks.

To be fair, this was a student ensemble and a university sponsored concert. The audience is usually not the priority in this situation; it’s an educational experience for the students to produce music they may not otherwise encounter. It was also free, and Mills Hall, however musty it may be, is the designated music department performance space. There were no financial stakes, and marketing was likely just a few posters and e-mails.

At the same time, I’m not quite ready to let them off the hook. The Contemporary Chamber Ensemble is the only classical group in Madison committed exclusively to 20th and 21st century repertoire. Reaching as wide an audience as possible should be central to their mission, and ensemble members–mostly graduate students on the brink of professional careers–would do well to have a role in the marketing, they should feel something is at stake (UW already offers a course called “Art As Business As Art”, here’s an opportunity to put that into practice). Further more, might not a more intimate, laid-back venue have better suited the program? And couldn’t Mr. Currier, or some of the musicians, have said a few words to the audience?

Again, these hopes and concerns might not be fair for to place on a university ensemble, but I would love to see the CCE bring their work off-campus at some point in the future, 0r perhaps think more creatively about where on campus they could perform. It’s an impressive group, there should be more people (I counted just 65 last Tuesday) and excitement at their concerts.

CCE, Nathan Currier Premiere [part 1]

Last Tuesday I attended a performance by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Contemporary Chamber Ensemble. It was my first encounter with the group, which is headed by the composer Laura Schwendinger. All of the works on the program highlighted the voice: Dark Upon the Harp (1962) by Jacob Druckman; “Melos” ophiae (2009) by Filippo Santoro; Cryin’ Time (1994) by Bob Becker; Miranda’s Lament (1999) by Kaija Saariaho; Chansons Madecasses (1926) by Ravel; and Looking Out (1999) by Nathan Currier [left].

Everything here was new to me, which was exciting. The Becker piece, Cryin’ Time, stood out. His sound world was all engulfing, a fluid fusion of North Indian classical music and a Reich inspired minimalist aesthetic. Above this base formed by the marimba, vibraphone and piano rose the soprano of Jennifer Lien, singing the tragic verse of a young mother who drops (or fears she will drop) her baby into a deep river canyon. Becker says he detected a country/western feel in the “matter of fact” lines of the original Sandra Meigs poem, which he emphasized in edits to the text. It was an accessible, moving work, especially in comparison to some of the other fare. The Druckman in particular felt like a caricature of what mid-twentieth century classical music was supposed to sound like. There were some affecting moments, mostly the ones that hearkened to the scores of Herrmann , but overall not much stuck. It felt cold, dry, even though it was beautifully executed (props to the brass quintet especially).

The highlight of the evening was the Nathan Currier premiere. He composed Looking Out to a libretto by Laura-Gray Street in 1999 for the New York Festival of Song, but it was not to be: the piece didn’t quite fit the “rags to riches” theme of the Festival that year, and there were “problems of tessitura in the part for the mezzo, who was to have been the now prominent Stephanie Blythe,” according to the composer. Ten years later, the premiere took place on a Tuesday night in Madison, Wisconsin. Which is a shame only in that the work is very good, and the audience was very small.

Written in three sections [i. Population Explosion, ii. Diorama, iii. Endosymbiosis] for soprano, tenor, clarinet, horn, cello, and piano, Currier says “the work is about the urgent need for a greater understanding of the real meaning of the word ‘symbiosis.’” He cites the work of the microbiologist Lynn Margulis in his program notes and says that Looking Out grapples with the realization that Darwin wasn’t all right, that we are in fact equally evolved from bacterial processes as we are from natural selection. There’s also something about a metaphor for social organization and the fallacy of capitalism. Really, I wish I never read the notes: the piece speaks for itself, especially with Street’s vivid poetry (“A wind with caffeine jitters is picking streetwise through litter” is just one memorable line).

Part Broadway, part Britten, with playful, spiraling piano lines and onomatopoeic accompaniment, the piece captures the simultaneous frenzied and glazed feeling that seems to define modern life. The second movement is something of a mock recitative, quietly depicting a half-hearted lovers’ quarrel. The last movement ends with celestial arpeggios, fitting for the existential science of the narrators.

Writing about a world premiere, I feel inclined to attach meaning to the sounds, but it’s probably better I just say that in the moment, listening to Looking Out, I was simply at ease with the odd and charming score and hyperactive poetry, not wanting it to end.

Chopin at 200

When I think of Chopin’s music, its mournful, melancholic quality tends to come to mind first. I also think of the extraordinary universality of this quality. At King Chulalongkorn’s funeral in Bangkok on March 16, 1911 (above), a ceremony that intentionally departed from the king’s penchant for Western pomp by highlighting the vernacular traditions of Brahmanic ritual, Chopin’s Funeral March somehow still made it onto the program.

I also think of the utter beauty and lyricism of his Cello Sonata in G minor. The great Piatigorsky:

Bangkok Opera’s World Opera Week

The list of yet-to-be-published posts lingering on my blogger dashboard is sad, a graveyard of unfinished ideas and concert musings. As I’ve said before, most of my blogging energy these days is sapped up at work for The MadOpera Blog. Still, I need to take a quick moment to mention Bangkok Opera‘s World Opera Week, which commences tonight. This strikes me as more than press-worthy (Beethoven’s 9th, La Boheme and a world-premiere opera by Bruce Gaston) and I’m surprised there hasn’t been real buzz in the Western hemisphere, but perhaps the Financial Times will have somebody on the scene as they have in the past. That said, anybody in Bangkok who wants to report on the festivities, just shoot me an e-mail, bhin85 at

Here’s the rundown, cribbed from Facebook (you’re best bet for accurate, updated Bangkok Opera listings.):

The sequel to Bangkok Opera’s successful 2003 “World Opera Week”, which featured a guest appearance by Wolfgang Wagner and the Southeast Asian premiere of “The Turn of the Screw”, 2009 offers Bangkok Opera in its Ninth Season with many acclaimed productions in its dossier. The emphasis this year is on aiding the Bangkok Opera’s HIV Awareness Project.

November 23: Gala Opening with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, many participating choirs, and the Siam Philharmonic conducted by Somtow Sucharitkul

November 25 and 26 at 7:30 Nancy Yuen and Israel Lozano, the sensational duo who starred in “Madama Butterfly” in 2007, are reunited in “La Boheme” directed by theatrical genius Darren Royston who created Bangkok Opera’s production of “Thais” earlier this year. A 1920s inspired production.

November 28 and 29 – the long awaited world premiere of Bruce Gaston’s “a Boy and a Tiger” imspired by the imagery of Yann Martel’s bestselling novel “The Life of Pi”. Performed by children from all over the region including from Baan Gerda and the Mercy Center.

Narong Prangcharoen CD release

It has been three months since my last post and a year since I left Thailand. Time flies, and though I regularly come up with posts for this blog in my head, they never seem to get published (most of my blogging energy is spent at work). Life is good, it’s just busy, so I probably won’t comment on that great article (Bertil Lintner’s “Battle for Thailand” in the July/August Foreign Affairs) or spectacular performance (Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Mahler’s 8th in June). However I do have to note that composer Narong Prangcharoen’s first CD has at last come out on Albany Records. I first wrote about Narong back in January 2008, and here’s an excerpt from my paper that looks at his work, including a few pieces featured on Phenomenon, the new CD:

Narong Prangcharoen might called the leader of this young generation of Western Thai composers. He was the only artist consistently referred to by other Thai composers as someone I should speak to, and he founded and organizes the annual Thailand Composition Festival. Prangcharoen has acquired a slew of accolades in his short career, including positive reviews in the US and several international commissions. He grew up in Uttaradit Province, was never trained in Thai classical music, and played trumpet in his high school marching band. It was in high school in Bangkok that he discovered Western classical music and made the decision to pursue music in college. He studied Western composition in Thailand with Narongrit Dhamabutra, another pioneer in mixing Thai and Western sonorities, and he is currently finishing his doctoral studies in the United States with composer Chen Yi at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Listening to Prangcharoen’s piece “Far from Home” for solo cello, one can hear idiomatic techniques and sounds of the saw-ou and other Thai stringed instruments. The haunting work Sattha was composed in memory of victims of the 2004 tsunami. It features a recurring pentatonic melody and Thai sounds are scattered throughout the piece because it is emotionally based in Thailand. The relationship that Prangcharoen says exists between his music and Thai classical music, however, is complicated and requires a brief explanation. Many Thai classical melodies are composed in foreign accents (samniang). Lao, Mon, Cambodian (Khamen), and Malayasian/Indian (Khaek) are the most commonly used (after Thai, of course); Burmese (Phamah), Chinese (Chin), Vietnamese (Yuan), Japanese (Yipun), and Western (Farang) are found less frequently. One can determine an accent from a piece’s key (Thai is commonly F, Lao is C, Mon is B-flat, for example), but the title also usually helps (Khaek borathet thao, Lao siang tian,Khamen sai yoke, etc.). Though many Thai classical pieces are labeled as having been composed in these foreign modes, they were still composed by Thais according to Thai practices. In few cases does the accent indicate that a foreign melody, instrument, or compositional style has been borrowed; mostly the accents are of Thai invention, loosely rooted in the impression of another culture’s music. A Malaysian musician would recognize a piece in Khaek accent as Thai, not Malaysian sounding.

To describe his compositional relationship with Thai classical music, Prangcharoen says it is like he is working in a “Thai accent” (personal interview). He is using Western instruments, notation, and techniques. The composers who have most influenced him are first and foremost his current teacher Chen Yi, and then John Corigliano, John Adams, Magnus Lindberg, Zhou Long, Christopher Rouse, and John Mackey. His music would not be recognizable as “Thai” to most Thais. However, like the Thai classical music system of accents, there is a foreign influence nonetheless, even if that influence never reveals itself in a full, unambiguous representation. Prangcharoen’s music reflects his impressions of Thai music with the Western tools of his education.

As far as I know, this is the first American release devoted entirely to a Thai composer. I can’t find any reviews for Phenomenon and I have yet to purchase the record myself, but having heard much of this music already I can confidently recommend picking up a copy. Andrew Patner’s endorsement doesn’t hurt either. After hearing Narong’s orchestral tone poem Phenomenon in 2007, he wrote”I absolutely want to hear anything else by this talented young man.” Sample music and scores at Narong’s website.

UPDATE: Here are two short reviews of Phenomenon from WRUV (Burlington, VT) and WRSU (New Brunswick, NJ).

Bangkok Opera’s new season

There are interesting political developments unfolding in Thailand all the time it seems, but in my focus on the governmental woes of the country I missed the equally interesting announcement of Bangkok Opera’s new season. It is wholly ambitious:

  • Massanet’s THAÏS in June
  • Bruce Gaston’s A BOY AND TIGER in July (World Premiere)
  • Puccini’s LA BOHEME in August
  • Wagner’s SIEGFRIED in Novemeber, continuing the “Bangkok Ring”
  • Gluck’s ORFEO ED EURIDCE in December

While in Bangkok from September 2007 to July 2008, the only full production Bangkok Opera was able to produce was Die Walkure. According to Artistic Director Somtow Sucharitkul, “2008 was a year of regrouping for Bangkok Opera.” The Siam Philharmonic–the opera’s resident orchestra–was completely overhauled and embarked on a concert series to establish a “more reliable standard” for the group. It seems the year off from producing was a wise and healthy choice for the company, given the fervence of its return 2009 season.

There is too much for me to comment on here, so I’m going to focus on the Gaston premiere (not that the Thai premiere of Thaïs, the resumption of the Bangkok Ring Cycle, and Michael Chance starring as Orfeo aren’t worthy). A Boy and Tiger is based on “The Life of Pi” and will be Bangkok Opera’s first presentation of a Thai language opera (something they’ve been criticized for neglecting in the past). It’s a children’s opera, created by Gaston for the young members of the Baan Garda community, a refuge for HIV postive orphans. In this adaptation, the Tiger comes to be a symbol for AIDS. Read more about Gaston’s concept on the Bangkok Opera website, and note the last paragraph:

Bruce Gaston, the composer, has combined the Orff Schulwerk system of music education with the rich tradition of Thai classical singing and xylophone playing to create the music for the opera.

Gaston has created Thai music dramas in the past and was a pioneer–along with Sucharitkul–in combining Western art music and Thai classical music sounds in unconventional ways, starting in the 1970s (more on that here, in Chapter II, section vii and Chapter III, sections iv & v). Judging from this collaboration and recent postingson Somtow’s blog, it seems that after nearly thirty years, he and Gaston are ready to start a fresh partnership, something that frankly did not seem likely to me even just a year ago. I’m sorry not to be there for the results, which are sure to be interesting. A Boy and Tiger is an important project that I hope will find an audience beyond Thailand.

UPDATE: There have been some serious schedule changes to Bangkok Opera’s season since this post; La Boheme and A Boy and Tiger will both be taking place in November now as part of Bangkok Opera’s World Opera Week. Siegfried appears to be on hold.