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Friday, September 19, 2014

Band v Orchestra question

I may be kicking a hornets nest, but a thought occurred to me this week. I'm teaching a graduate seminar in Baroque Performance Practice, and I'm delighted to report that students are arguing away about the intentional fallacy, the relationship of the composer to the performer, and what responsibilities the performer has to the composer.

Now, one of the strongest defenders of the "transparent performer" position - that is, the idea that the performer serves as a vehicle to carry out the composer's instructions without imposing his/her own will is a band conductor. I'm very grateful that we have someone like this in class to present that viewpoint.

What struck me though is a possible difference in band and orchestra culture, and I'm wondering if it is true. That is - and of course there are exceptions - we have a tradition of military bands in this country dating back to at least Sousa. Those bands are praised for their "precision", but not necessarily their passion. Orchestral conductors might be praised for "precisions", but there is not as much praise without also having some emotional content.

I've known a few band directors that do work on technical stuff without inspiring anyone. For that matter, I know orchestra and choral directors who do the same. However, I'm wondering if people have thoughts on any significant divide in the culture between the two.

Is there a tradition that values precision without emotional content that is more pervasive in band culture than in orchestral culture?

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Thomas Weelkes: drunkard, urinator, organist

No matter how good you are at your job, you're probably not as good at Thomas Weelkes. Weelkes was an English organist/composer in the late 16th and early 17th century. In 1616 he was reported as

"noted and famed for a comon drunckard (sic) and notorious swearer & blasphemer"

Around this time, he was fined for urinating on the Dean of the cathedral from the organ loft during Evensong. He was apparently drunk and swearing loudly enough during a service that he was dismissed, but very soon after (!) was reinstated. A report sent to the Bishop says,

"Dyvers tymes & very often come so disguised eyther from the Taverne or Ale house into the quire as is muche to be lamented, for in these humoures he will bothe curse & sweare most dreadfully, & so profane the service of God … and though he hath bene often tymes admonished … to refrayne theis humors and reforme hym selfe, yett he daylye continuse the same, & is rather worse than better therein."

Yet he kept his job until he died. It's a new standard of excellence. He literally peed on his boss and showed up to work drunk all the time, and he never lost his job. How good do you have to be as an organist/composer to behave like that?! I mean how do those meetings go? 

The dean says, "Look, he peed on me during the worship service!!!" The senior Warden says, "Yes, but he plays so well. We can overlook it this one time, right?" In any case, I think I need to practice some more.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The annual evaluation highlights

I've been so busy with MusicSpoke and the beginning of the semester that I haven't had time to blog in a while. I did, however, finally receive a packet of much overdue evaluations of the students at Nebraska Wesleyan from the Fall semester today. I always like to post some highlights from their ever inventive comments. Hopefully Spring comments will be coming soon. Five things need to be clarified.

#1 A student was trying to get my attention one day from across the lounge area of the department. She called out, sort of spontaneously, "Hey...Evil Master, can you come here." The moniker stuck. They made a sign that said, "Evil Master's Lair" and posted it on my office door.

#2 Every semester that I teach undergrad theory, I do an exercise where we compare a Schubert song, a Gershwin song, and a pop song of their choosing. During that semester, we used "Wrecking Ball" by Miley Cyrus.

#3 Samantha Peeters still reigns with the best evaluation comment of all time: "He cured my leprosy."

#4 I grew up shark fishing in Florida. The students found an internet picture of me sitting on a shark and made a Christmas tree ornament out of it.

#5 I was a hair model in a trade show once.

Here are the highlights:

"This class is probably the hardest class I have ever taken and he really helps us get through it."

"Evil Master knows how to teach and do it well."

"Thank you Evil Master for putting up with my tardiness."

"He came in like a wrecking ball. Shark-riding abilities. Hair Model."

"He's the wrecking ball of my life."

"We can't stop...doing theory...and we won't stop" - Miley Cyrus

"We put our hands up playing our song and the Theory all goes away. Party in theory USA."

"Knecht came in like a Wrecking Ball, he can't stop and he won't stop. But don't you ever say he just walked away because he will always want you to sight sing."

Thursday, August 14, 2014

My adventures in business lead me to confront Maslow

One of the things that has surprised me during my Summer adventures as an entrepreneur is some of the vocabulary that gets used in the business community. In several of the lectures I've heard, and several of the books Jenn and I have read, Maslow's "hierarchy of needs" is regularly referenced.

At first I thought it was just another piece of the overly patriarchal culture that is the start-up community. I mean, we are all happy that Maslow started talking about the fact that people have other needs than just physical ones, but why is this old washed up theory still bouncing around the business community when it is a relic of the 1950s in the academy.

I well remember laughing about it as an undergrad. How wonderfully systematic Maslow is without really telling you much. I mean, for Maslow, you aren't allowed to start working on your relationships until you've filled in the bottom of the chart. He never really does tell us how much food you have to eat before you are allowed to fall in love, but no matter, the point is to work through the steps until you get to self-actualization. Of course, when you get there, it gets complicated too. All Maslow does is give a list of characteristics of people that are self-actualized, and then he says, "Well, just because you have the characteristics that are on the list, it doesn't guarantee that you are really self-actualized." I suppose ultimately, you would have to ask him if you were cool enough to be in the club.

Now the interesting thing is that the business folks are using it by saying something like, "People aren't just motivated by money, they need to have a sense of belonging and ultimately a sense of calling." I pushed the issue the other day in a discussion for a moment and later decompressed with Jenn.  Finally, I realized what is happening and why I keep seeing the Maslow chart so much.

The business people who keep referring to the chart have never actually read Maslow. They are using it as a reference point to give weight (and presumably some sort of academic cred) to their point that people are motivated by more than just money. Of course there is no empirical research to back up Maslow's theory, and when I was trying to explain something, someone said, "But, you don't have to wait to work on the meaningful parts of the triangle until you have finished working on the physical parts of the triangle." I said, "I agree, but that's not Maslow."

It's an interesting world. I spend my academic life in discussions where people are referencing thinkers and traditions in order to summarize large fields of thought quickly. When someone says Maslow, they mean Maslow. It is the great strength and weakness of the business world that the overarching pragmatism can mean creating a short hand without ever consulting the original source material.

Again, for all the textbooks that use the hierarchy of needs chart, I think they are well meaning but have picked the wrong theorist for their point. It's all good though. As for me, I'm going to keep eating so that I don't slip down the chart, fall out of love, and have to start all over again.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Christopher Marks premieres Romance and Tarantella at the OHS convention

Chris Marks is one of the most thoughtful and expressive organists I have heard. He was also my very excellent organ teacher. I was super excited when he decided to commission a new work for his performance at the Organ Historical Society's convention in Syracuse, NY this week.

Romance and Tarantella is a fairly unified work in that both movements are based on the same little nugget of an idea. I think the Romance is a little bit Finzi and maybe a little 80s pop (though I can't exactly say where or why.)

The Toccata definitely was inspired by Nancarrow at the end. There is some Ginastera and some French spices thrown into the stew. Also, it's not really a Tarentella.

Chris plays them beautifully, and I'm so grateful to have such a gifted performer taking my work around for others to hear. Thanks, Chris.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Composer series | Andrea Ramsey

One of my favorite things that I keep experiencing as part of the new MusicSpoke project is meeting - even if it is only electronically - musicians that I didn't know before. I have written about this before, but we live in an astounding time when there are many people writing good music.

When I was searching for composers to include on the site, I wandered over to the Walton site because I have pieces with that company. I started browsing around and found a piece I really liked by Andrea Ramsey. I think we have a great responsibility to promote music written by women. More than at any time in history, we have music written by really fine, female composers. That's a voice that has for too long been absent from the historical conversation.

We always include them in "the survey", but it's as a sort of exception. That is, we say, "Here is the story, and, oh yeah, also, Hildegaard, and Fanny Mendelssohn, and Amy Beach." I'm certainly as guilty of this as anyone. The good news is that we don't have to tell the story of the 21st century in the same way. We have Andrea Ramsey, Dale Trumbore, and Christina Whitten Thomas already on our site. They aren't exceptions anymore. They are shaping our musical culture and language in the same way that our foremothers like Libby Larsen, Joan Tower, and Ellen Taaffe Zwillich helped to shape my musical thoughts.

So, go to Andrea's website. Listen to her music. Buy it. Commission her to write something for you. She is a wonderfully sensitive composer with a tender care for text and a commitment to a well crafted and expressive line. I'm in a religious mood, so I'll give you this example, but there is much more for you to explore. Keep the beautiful music coming, Andrea!

Friday, July 25, 2014

My super duper new bio for when you are discouraged

I've been meaning to do this for a while. I'm going to keep it and update it as new events occur. I'm encouraging everyone to follow suit.

Kurt Knecht’s music has been called “derivative” and “more academic than spiritual” by the Tampa Bay Times, and the Dallas Morning News wrote a major story on him for having the dirtiest car in the city. When applying for graduate schools, he was rejected by the University of Florida, the Peabody Conservatory, and Indiana University.  A long time educator, students have described his teaching style as “useless philosophical discussions” and “having few strengths”. One student also said that on multiple occasions throughout the semester that Dr. Knecht is in the habit of saying , “Look at me, I’m a genius” to his students.  As a performer, he has been yelled at by music and artistic directors from Broadway legend Anne Reinking to Smokey Robinson’s music director. As a conductor, he once led a community orchestra and university chorus in a performance of Holz’s Christmas Day in which the orchestra got so lost that he had to scream out a rehearsal number in the concert. He has also been rejected for employment by numerous organizations. He has been fired three times from music director positions at churches, and on more than one occasion he has heard the phrase, "Kurt Knecht, as long as I am on this earth, I will never enter a church again because of you." As a young musician, he was the first pianist to fail to win the Florida Orchestra’s Young Artist Competition for three years in a row.  At his undergraduate junior recital, each movement of his Bach Partita was described as “improvised” and “as if you were making up parts of each movement on the spot.” Often disheveled, he once received a bag of groceries from a church because they mistook him for a homeless man. He lives with his wife and their two dogs in Lincoln, NE.