Wednesday, October 22, 2014

"Klinghoffer" at the Met

In all the years I've been a musician, I haven't been very vocal when it came to controversial issues in the Arts or otherwise.  I'm not a politician and I usually try to speak through the music I write or perform.   But sometimes, one must speak for real when one is concerned for musicians who have been smeared with lousy rhetoric based on rumor and imperfect knowledge.  This came to play with the hoopla surrounding  John Adams' "The Death of Klinghoffer" and its performance at the Metropolitan Opera last Monday.  Yes, it has been noticed by a wider public, but only because of the assumed controversy of anti-semitism behind it.  Not for its more relevant and important feature: THE SCORE.  And every time I think about that, it just makes me a little bit mad.

Nonetheless, on Monday, October 20, 2014, the conductor, David Robertson walked into the orchestra pit of the Metropolitan Opera to conduct this masterpiece which tells the true and horrific story of an innocent wheelchair bound man, Leon Klinghoffer, who was killed and thrown overboard from an Italian cruise ship by Palestinian terrorists.  As Maestro Robertson walked to the podium, the audience reacted with a thunderous applause that I haven't heard in a long time. The audience, responded with the utmost pride and appreciation for these brave and wonderful musicians who were willing to perform this seemingly controversial opera, despite the very vocal crowd protesting outside Lincoln Center.  If he wanted to, Maestro Robertson could have just stood on the podium for a full minute or two and absorbed our tremendous and enthusiastic applause, but instead, the Maestro simply took his appreciative bow and turned around to conduct. A true professional.  

We, the audience, were also very proud of ourselves.  We were not swayed by the loud group of rhetorical protesters that we dealt with outside as we went through the barricade into Lincoln Center with our tickets in hand.  We knew that most of that angry crowd had neither seen or heard "Klinghoffer" and they had only read portions of the libretto out of context without hearing any of the music associated with it.  Therefore, this crowd had no cause for complaint in our eyes. A lot of us audience members knew this opera very well since its premiere in 1991.  And those who didn't know it simply wanted to see a great performance.  Nothing more natural.  The combination of all of these situations was what resulted into the elevated enthusiasm that we, the audience greeted our performers with.  Again, we were very proud of performers as well as ourselves.

I wish I can say that the performance went off unscathed, but sure enough, in the middle of Act 1, a protester who sneaked in with his ticket chanted repeatedly: "The Murder of Leon Klinghoffer will never be forgiven!".  Fortunately, security got to him quickly and removed him.  Even if this man had chanted: "The square root of 9 is 3!", it wouldn't matter that he was right.  There is never a good reason to interrupt hard working performers while they're in performance. When you do things like that, it is only a detriment to your cause and the people you represent.  Not only was it mean, but down right stupid and self damaging.  For better or for worse, often, our tactics speak far more volumes than the causes behind them.  All this man did was reinforce our love for this opera.

Fortunately, the rest of the performance of "Klinghoffer" went more smoothly. And at the end, we applauded even more enthusiastically than before.  Bows for the chorus, dancers, soloists, Maestro Robertson and the orchestra were greeted with our enthusiastic and huge appreciation.  But the best and biggest reaction from us was reserved for the composer.  When John Adams walked onto the stage to take his bow, we couldn't resist letting it all out.  It was deafening!  It was footstomping!  It was beautiful.  Both the audience and the people on stage went through an experience that was akin to riding a canoe down a rapid and uneasy stream.  And not only did we make it to the end, but we were touched by the journey along the way.  It was a true vindication for artists and lovers of the Arts!


Monday, October 14, 2013

Genre issues

So I just had a wonderful time in Cincinnati last week.  Why was it wonderful? Violin Concerto was just World Premiered there!  Beautifully performed in Memorial Hall by the dynamic Violinist Tatiana Berman along with the Constella Festival Chamber Ensemble, all under the baton of the awesome Maestro, Paavo Järvi.  Yep, it was pretty cool.  An enthusiastic audience, great reviews, the works! Did it I have a great time or what?! 

So I get back home to New York, still in euphoria from my premiere.  But now I have to try and figure out how to get this piece noticed by an even bigger audience.  This is a real burden.  Yes, the premiere in Cincinnati was a success, but it was only a local success.  It has yet to be heard by the rest of the world.  And I'm not just talking about the Classical world.  Every time I hear a work I love, I have this unquenchable desire to present this music to people who have no idea of it's existence.  Most notably, the American pop culture.  Yet, for some reason, there's this feeling of impotence in our ability to make that happen. 

Why is this the case?  There are probably many answers to this question, but I have a big one for you:  The classical world is too arrogant and the pop culture is too ignorant!  Yes, when it boils down to it, that's the bottom line.  I don't care what anybody says.

The powers that be in the classical world preach mainly to it's own choir.  The already converted.  It seems that they have no idea that there's a bigger world out there to show this wonderful music to.  They're afraid that it won't be understood by the rest of the world and therefore, not worth the effort to put it out there.  And whenever I meet someone who's not a classical musician (aka pop culture), usually they are amazed that there are people like me who are still alive and doing this sort of thing.  This is followed by comments along the line of: "I really appreciate what you do. ", "You must be really smart.", or the cringing,  "I just don't know enough about it in order to listen to it."

Music is not meant to be understood!!  Only to be heard!! And if, for some reason, you don't "get it", maybe it's not your fault.  Maybe............the composer just sucks!  So, no matter how simple or how complex the music is, we composers have just one purpose, to WOW an audience!  Every single musical genre on Earth has that goal.   Even this one!

As the years go by, more and more, I tend to agree with my good friend and composer Gene Pritsker with regard to his philosophy of the different genres of music.  That all these terms (classical, pop, jazz, etc) should be boiled down to just one:  Music of the Western Tradition.  I've always admired this concept of Gene's, but I never fully agreed.  It seems to imply a kind of musical anarchy.  Without any guidelines or ability to put into words the kind of music some of us are specifically involved with.  And yet, maybe that's not such a bad thing these days.  It is, after all, more about the music itself and not as much about where it comes from.   Maybe it's not that necessary to put it into words.  Maybe, as Duke Ellington famously said: "If it sounds good, it is good.".   I'll just have to get back to you on that one.

In the meantime, for you people who are interested, but not sure about the music I'm talking about, here are a few pieces I recommend that you google:

John Adams: Shaker Loops
James Macmillan: The Confession of Isobel Gowdie
Wojciech Kilar: Orawa
Steve Reich: Cello Counterpoint
Jennifer Higdon: Blue Cathedral
Colin Matthews: Forth Sonata
Erkki- Sven Tüür: Exodus
Peter Schickele: Sextet
Carla Bley: Birds of Paradise
Kevin Puts: Silent Night

There are too many more to mention of course, but I think these works are great to start with.  They're all just as great to listen to as any pop song.  Go for it!  You've got nothing to lose.  And.......... OK.....I guess I should promote myself a little.

Charles Coleman: Streetscape

And I think my Violin Concerto is pretty good too.  I can't wait for you to hear it.   :)


Tuesday, February 1, 2011

An artist's vent

Well, it's been a year and a half since my last post here. A lot has happened since then. The death of my beloved mom, Ann Coleman. A major CD/Download came out with two of my orchestral works on it. And I've been having a little battle with my own self confidence, debating whether or not I have what it takes to survive in this uncertain world we now live in. Although I am an optimist in the long term, I am nonetheless marred with some short term self doubt mixed with the seeming indifference of our society.

Every now and then, when someone I meet hears that I'm a composer who writes for the concert hall (not just because I like it, but it's the work I get mostly), I am often asked if I would ever consider writing more "accessible" music, ala pop, commercial, main stream, etc. Usually I get very annoyed when I hear that. Mainly because it's already assumed that I write esoteric music that is liked only by a small intellectual crowd and the person asking hasn't even heard a note of what I've written!

As I've said in previous posts, it's very clear to me that all great music from all walks of life have an innate quality and expression that any listener would be affected by regardless of genre. Music is simply meant to be heard, not understood. Ok, maybe that sounds a little trite, but I think I proved this theory recently.

About a week ago, a CD entitled "American Portraits" arrived in stores all over the world. It contains two of my works "Streetscape" and "Deep Woods" along with the great music of Jennifer Higdon, Carter Pann, Jonathan Bailey Holland and Kevin Puts, performed by the awesome Maestro Paavo Järvi leading the awesome Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Naturally, I wanted it to be noticed. So I brought a personal copy of it to a record store in my neighborhood in NYC that would be played there all day in public. And within two days of it's release, all the copies there were sold!

This is clear proof to me that the subject of genre has absolutely nothing to do with how great a piece of music is. These customers were in the store hearing from the speakers this music of mine as well as that of Higdon, Pann, Holland and Puts. They were clearly affected by what they heard and decided to purchase. Nothing more natural.

Of course I was thrilled with this at the time. But later, I was sad because this happened only in one store and I didn't have the means and ability to get the CD played publicly like this in any of the other stores here and abroad. It's very perplexing to think that a simple gesture of getting a great recording heard in public wouldn't be made because the music is originally assumed to be esoteric and boring without even being heard in the first place.

A lot of us living artists are thought to be moral outcasts. Most of the jobs that I'm able to get are usually brief (commissions, teaching, singing gigs,etc) and these jobs irregularly come and go. It's very hard to find anything more permanent, and god help me, I've searched. Nonetheless, I am still dependent on family and friends to help me out now and then. I know I'm not the only one, but it still hurts and it makes me want to yell out sometimes.

I'm very tempted to assess blame for this current state that we artists are in. I often think of a certain powerful group of composers in the mid 20th century that seemed to write music that sounded more like a research activity than actual music (you composers know who I'm talking about). But this attitude may be more reflective of my own personal state of mind rather than the actual truth. And that's something I can't ignore. The fact is, before we judge anyone that we don't like, we still have to look at ourselves first. And that's very hard to do.

But a nice little thing happened recently. One night I was in a bar in my neighborhood and I had a great conversation with the bartender Pamela, a really cute, jaw dropping red head wearing dark glasses and a stunning tank top that almost made me drool. When she discovered that I was a composer, she then said to me: "Charles, I know this is a stupid question, but what exactly is a symphony?".

When she said that to me, instead of the usual "do you write commercial music" crap, I felt like a million bucks! It was like being in a nasty and humid swamp and finding that one beautiful sun flower. It showed me that we artists are still relevant and we all have a decent shot at getting that earthbound immortality that we're all looking for (whatever that is). Maybe I'm making too much of this little thing, but sometimes it's only the little things in life that matter. My mom certainly taught me that. Anyway, I gave Pamela a more or less concise description of what a symphony is and she didn't seem bored. :)

Overall, I'm still very proud to be an American composer and I'm proud of the works I've written. And lord knows that I truly appreciate the love and support from my family and friends who like what I do. I guess this means I'm not done yet.


Tuesday, July 14, 2009

To be relevant

Well....I admit it. I'm kind of an eccentric.

Among my numerous oddities, I tend to conduct in public when I'm listening to my awesome ipod. Often I try to repress this kind of enthusiasm, but it's seems impossible to do that when you're listening to the 4th movement, Adagio from Mahler's 9th Symphony. There's so much orchestral passion and harmonic beauty in that piece, that you desperately want to share it with everyone within walking distance. Something that makes you feel worthy of their presence. Although I might occasionally get stared at in public, I accept it. I need the work to be heard on the street through my conducting gestures. We're it not for me, it would not be heard of. It makes me feel "relevant".

We artists are unusually proud of the work that we do. And when we feel unnoticed, we seem to have an unquenchable desire to spread the word. Some of us even go so far as to make alcohol induced gestures like chiming in on other people's conversations because we feel so "important".

The fact is that most artists from all walks of life have a truly intimate knowledge of numerous different works. We are transfixed by the inner detail within the pieces that we worship. This inner detail that we listen to seems to grab us in the same way that moths obsess at flying to that hot light that will ultimately kill them.

My God! I still can't get over that f---ing Cello line in measures 57-59 of the aforementioned Mahler. It's so exquisite! And it works so beautifully in conjunction with the other strings. WE GOTTA TELL EVERYBODY!!!!!!

Anyway, did I mention that I am an eccentric. Well....I'm proud of it! Stare at me all you like! I am relevant, God Dammit! :)


Friday, July 3, 2009

With regard to singers and new music

Of all the interpreters of new music and for that matter, music in general, singers seem to be the most problematic. Now, this is not meant to be a detriment to singers. At least not for the most part. The fact is, in the general culture, singers have often been judged for being the least reliable in a rehearsal or performance situation. They seem to make the most mistakes and therefore they are considered the least prepared in comparison to the seemingly more schooled instrumentalists. If this is an issue with repertoire music, then this is an even bigger problem with regard to new music. Works that have hardly been heard before, if ever.

I remember hearing the soprano/comedienne Anna Russell in her famous skit regarding: The singer who can't count when she points out to singers: "The reason you have a big voice is because there's resonance for where your brains ought to be!".

Well...(He! He!)...... although I've always found Madame Russell's skits very funny and witty over the years, I don't fully agree with her on this. Yes, I'm aware that she says what she says primarily for humorous reasons. Still, like all comics, part of their art is derived mainly from their own life experiences. So there is clearly a feeling of critical judgement when Russell discusses the issue of singers and their frailties.

So, is any of this true? Are singers the least disciplined of all musicians? Do they lack the hard work ethic in getting the job done when it comes to performing new music? Given that I am myself, both a professional baritone and composer (by that, I mean someone who actually gets paid for it), I will say that the answer is ultimately "No"!

The fact is that all people are capable of making the same number of mistakes whether they be singers or instrumentalists. The issue of how often they mess up is solely dependent on their own personal discipline in getting their music learned before they get to the stage. Naturally, new music is generally more difficult, mainly because it is more recently written. But if a musician cares enough about the piece they've been hired to perform in, then they are morally obligated to do their best in rehearsals so that there's no major accident in performance.

But the thing that makes the singer's mistakes more noticeable than the instrumentalist's is that in an opera or any other vocal work, the singer is the main focus. The singer is the person that the audience looks at. The singer interprets the story that the work is based on and the instrumental ensemble or orchestra is behind influencing the singers performance. So since the singer is in the forefront and therefore the most exposed, naturally, the singer's fallibility is also more exposed. Ergo, the singer is the cause for the most stops in rehearsal. The instumentalist's fallibility is not as noticed because generally, the player is not as much in the forefront as the singer is.

Of course, in the latter part of the 19 century, the instrumental writing in a vocal work started to have a bigger role and more graphic part, courtesy of composers like Wagner and Puccini. But even they knew in the end that the story revolves around the singer playing his or her character on stage. Therefore the singer gets most of the glory, but also, most of the heartache when they screw up.

Two years ago I wrote an opera entitled "Redemption" with the librettist John Darrell Roberts which was commissioned by Golden Fleece Ltd. in New York. When we got to the rehearsal stage, a few singers had problems regarding counting and their singing the right notes. At the time, I was naturally fustrated and I wondered if this was happening because the singers were flat out stupid! But in the end, I realized that there were other factors to consider. The singers had to memorize their music while the players had their music in front of them. Also, the singers were using their whole bodies to get the notes out, whereas the instrumentalist has a specific object in their hands with a particular fingering that automatically brings the right pitches out. Singers do not have such an automatic system. And then, as was mentioned before, singers are in the forefront which makes for an added pressure to their performance being noticed most often. When it boils down to it, singers are as brave as soldiers at the front line in a blood soaked battle.

Singers! Take note! I am not saying all of this to give any of you an excuse to be mean or arrogant in your working with others who are working just as hard as you do. I simply want to show an accurate account of why you singers are the way you are when problems come up. The truth is, for all musicians, the buck stops with true discipline, guts and a genuine love for the music.


Thursday, April 2, 2009

A delicate dance

I suppose it obvious, but I'll say it anyway.

While we, the living composers love, appreciate and learn from the great masters of the last 300 years, we are also intimidated by them. We want to come up with our own great and distinctive voice in the music we write. But the past composers are always present in some sub-conscious manner. It is both a blessing and a curse. We've no choice but to perform a kind of delicate dance with these two conflicts which we can't avoid.

We certainly revere the better known dead guys like Bach, Beethoven, Mahler and Shostakovitch, etc. and we try to utilize our own craft in conjunction with their accomplishments and somehow mix it with the musical world we live in now in order to write the best work possible. We look at their troubled lives, their work ethic and their use of form which puts into a profound context all the materials they come up with. While our written music today does not directly resemble the sound world of their time, we nonetheless write for roughly the same instruments as they did.

For most of us, the acoustic instruments which were born out of the symphonic tradition are the best instruments known to man, both for their natural beauty, sound and their wide palette of expression. This goes hand in hand with our desire with these instruments to write pieces in a form that have a certain vagueness to it. Yes, there is an overall form, but the musical details within this canvas seem to have an expression of an uneven, through-composed nature. The overall form places these details in a more ordered fashion and therefore gives the piece an extra meaning to it. The composers today certainly owe a great debt of gratitude to our past heroes who led us to this expression.

And yet, because of the great masters of the past, today's composers have to deal with a distinct feeling of insecurity. Can we, in this time, write works that make as good an impression as the works in the last 3 Centuries? Have we reached the limit of the best written music possible? Is there nothing else to say?

The fact is that every artist from all walks of life have these questions in the back of their minds when they're trying to create. It's just a matter as to how much it consumes us. Usually it doesn't so much, and it shouldn't. Because if it did, we wouldn't get anything done. But this fear of ours is always present. And if we are forced to deal with it, then we must use it only for the purpose of driving the development of the composition we're writing. A kind of benign arrogance that disciplines us in the face of our own crippling insecurities.

This delicate dance of ours can be very disconcerting. But at the same time, it just might force us to write the best music possible.


Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Lush Life

OK. I suppose this may sound a little arrogant. But dammit, I stand by it:

Lush Life by Billy Strayhorn is the greatest song ever written!
I admit that there may be a personal reason for this declaration. I've been familiar with Lush Life since I was a kid and admired it very much, but this song took on an even bigger meaning for me when my wife and I broke up last year. It is a song of loss, of pain, of loneliness and in the end, it is a song of the acceptance of all of these issues.

For me, Lush Life has everything. It has great lyrics, with a rhyme scheme that tingles on the tongue, like "relaxes on the axis" or "sad and sullen gray faces with distinque traces" etc. Then there's the unique form of the song: An introduction that tells a story and the monologue type chorus that depicts the singer's state of mind afterwards. And then, there's the music itself which is simply exquisite, both with it's jazz laden qualities and it's harmonic beauty that moves it along.

Lush Life loosely depicts a lost soul at some dive bar who is admiring the beauty of someone else in the same room. The singer imagines that they both have some affinity for each other with regard to their lonely states of mind. Of course, like most alcohol induced fantasies, it's not true. She's just there to have a drink. The lost soul moves on in his own endeavor for a "Lush Life".

Despite the simplicity and sadness of this story, this is a tale that we all can relate to. Plus, the music and lyrics add a distinctive charm and beauty that not only prevents it from being overly depressing, but there is also a profound grace that is depicted here unlike any other song I've ever heard. Amazingly, Billy Strayhorn wrote the words and music to this song in his mid to late teens! One can't even fathom what kind of a life he had in the years before that led him to the composition of this masterpiece.

Although, Lush Life has had some success after it was written, the song has yet to reach the status of a classic like Cole Porter's Night and Day or Johnny Green's Body and Soul, both of which were written at roughly the same time as this Strayhorn epic. There may be a few reasons for this. Besides the obvious struggle of Strayhorn's status as an African American in the early to mid 20th century, Lush Life also has a very tricky introduction in terms of it's freedom of tempo and it's somewhat rhythmic complexity. It seems to have a speaking rhythm which is hard to get down musically.

In 1958, Frank Sinatra tried to record this song with a full orchestra, but their attempt at the intro had mistakes happening left and right. In the end, Lush Life was dropped. One can't help but wonder if this song would have achieved an even bigger status if the greatest singer in the world at the time would have been able to finish it at that recording session. I guess we'll never know.

Nonetheless, there have been a number a great versions of this song performed by Nat King Cole, Nancy Wilson, Linda Ronstadt, Natalie Cole, and this version here featuring Johnny Hartman and the John Coltrane Quartet, which many people consider to be the definitive version.

I'll say it again folks, Lush Life by Billy Strayhorn is the greatest song ever written!

Just listen for yourself. :)