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Saturday, July 19, 2014

My one post that explains all the problems in the whole world

If there is war in the world, it is because there is conflict in me.

If there is racism in the world, it is because there is hatred in me.

If there is political conflict in the world, it is because there are places in me that desire power over empathy.

If there is poverty in the world, it is because I am eating other people's food.

If there is a problem on the earth, it is because of a lack of love in Kurt Knecht.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Beethoven and his publishers

" as a music publisher more humane and educated as all other publishers should have the intention not to pay the artist a scanty remuneration but enable him to fully administrate the duties expected of him -". 

I've been reading up on the history of music publishing. In particular, I'm interested in the rise of the modern music publisher. So, I'm not talking about Petrucci's three impression method or the common practice of subscription based publication of the 18th century. Certainly a work like the Claivier-Übung was published and even internationally circulated in the Bach circle after his death, but that was not quite the same thing.

The first time I can find an example of a publisher selling music internationally - presumably at least partially to a rising middle class - is Artari's publication of Haydn String Quartets. That was the first international best seller in my reading thus far. Mozart tries and fails to become an independent composer, and not too many years later, Beethoven manages to succeed to some degree. Here is the amazing part. As his deafness increased, he made his money primarily from publishing companies.

At that point in history the composer regularly received more than a 50% cut for the original edition.(Compare the 8-10% composers receive today!) The company apparently made most of its money on subsequent editions. They had the added expense of hiring a specialist to engrave plates - real plates of copper (and later pewter) for printing.

One thing has remained consistent since music publishing became an international business. From the beginning, composers complain that the publishers aren't paying enough, and publishers complain that they aren't making enough. Here is a nice example taken from the Beethoven Haus in Bonn's website.

A few months later, Beethoven asked for 250 ducats for another grand collection of compositions (op. 74 to 86). When the publisher tried to talk him down to 200 ducats, Beethoven reacted with these words: "It is not my intention, as you believe, to become a profiteer in art, one who only composes to augment his riches, heaven forbid, but I enjoy an independent life and cannot be without a small fortune and so the composer's remuneration must honour the artist and all he undertakes. I shall not mention it to anyone that Breitkopf & Härtl gave me 200 ducats for these compositions, you as a music publisher more humane and educated as all other publishers should have the intention not to pay the artist a scanty remuneration but enable him to fully administrate the duties expected of him -". 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Kile Smith and American Lyricism

As part of the MusicSpoke project, I've been continuing to trek down untrodden paths to find composers. One of the things that continues to astound me is how many people who are writing such wonderful music have never come to my attention before.

Kile is the perfect example. (Check out his website here.) He's done a million billion commissions, been reviewed all over the place, and just landed a sweet gig as composer in residence for the Helena Symphony. We had a chance to chat on the phone, and I instantly felt a lot of comeraderie.

What I suggest is going to his webpage and finding the sample player on the bottom right side of the page. You can hear samples of all the stuff. From the beginning, you will notice the wonderful lyricism that is always concerned with being expressive and beautiful. It is never pedantic or saccharine. He has the appropriate structural framework in place to support the emotional content. It's just beautiful, well-constructed, expressive music that is sonically interesting. With so many people writing music that is sonically interesting but somehow lacking in expressive content, finding Kile's music is an oasis.

He has some other tricks up his sleeve too. Check out the Vespers samples, and you will discover that he knows his music history as well.  Here is a nice little video about the Vespers. Go commission him so that he will keep writing more music for us all.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Stacey V. Gibbs vs. Kurt Knecht in a USC Chamber Singers Go Tell It Smackdown

I had a chance to chat with the ebullient and gregarious Stacey V. Gibbs today. His music is almost ubiquitous in the choral world these days, and it should be. It is the kind of music that singers like to sing. It is authentic, inventive, and irresistible.

In recent years, I've noticed a trend that is slightly disturbing. A few conductors are moving away from spiritual arrangements. To be fair, there was a trend for a long time of always ending a program with a spiritual. Some people got a little tired of it, and so they stopped using them altogether.

When I was in high school, my school had what was probably the whitest choir in the district. During those days, everyone did the obligatory spiritual at the end of concerts. So, we learned them. Mostly, it was the old Dawson arrangements. The thing is, even though we were a bunch of middle class white kids singing, the music was gripping and powerful to me, and it never left me.

Now that I've taught University courses in the history of African American music, I am convinced of one thing. The history of black music is the history of American music. In fact, most of the music in this country on the popular end of things comes from a black musician inventing something original and authentic and then a white musician doing a watered down version that becomes more popular.

I'm just suggesting that you give the spirituals some room to come back into your life. When Dietrich Bonhoeffer visited this country, he was not interested in any of the Lutheran Churches. Instead, he went to a Baptist Church in Harlem and learned to sing spirituals which he found to be the most authentic form of spirituality. They are born out of suffering, and suffering has the potential to create authentic, spiritual works of art.

I find Stacey's music to be in the best of this tradition, and I'm most fascinated by the way his ears hear rhythms different than mine do.

In the tradition of a black musician doing something wonderful and authentic and a white musician doing a poor imitation, I offer up the Stacey V. Gibbs arrangement of Go Tell it on the Mountain as sung by the USC Chamber Singers followed by my own. Imitation, in this case, is absolutely meant to be flattery.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Norfolk parade float in historical context

I remember the time a homeless man said to me, "Just because someone only answers to the name Bob Marley, and just because that person starts speaking in a Jamaican accent, mon, and just because that person will only respond using lyrics from Bob Marley's songs, doesn't mean, mon, that the person thinks he is Bob Marley."

"Yes," I replied, "but you can see how people might get confused."

 Here is an image from a black face minstrel show.

And, here is the float from the Norfolk parade.

Now, just because a town has a history of xenophobia and racism and uses an image that comes from a historical tradition of racism, and they cheer wildly when they see an image that is associated with historical racism doesn't mean that they are racist...but you can see how people might get confused.

Friday, July 04, 2014

Psalm 121 and the Nebraska State Holocaust Memorial

Last Summer, Pete Eklund said he was planning a concert around some settings of Ps. 121. The centerpiece was Jake Runstad's lovely setting "I will lift mine eyes". He was going to pair it with the Mendelssohn setting from Elijah for women's chorus. He asked if I would write a Hebrew setting for men's chorus for the concert. My wife is Jewish, and I have a little bit of Hebrew, so I tend to jump at the chance to write something in that language.

A lovely premiere happened in the Fall conducted by the indefatigable Matt Hill, and I'm happy to report that Jo-Michael Scheibe and the USC choir will be singing that version at the World Choir Symposium in Seoul, South Korea in a few months. They are also singing it on some concerts in China.

Not long after that, the organizers of the annual Nebraska State Holocaust Memorial wanted the piece to use for the event at the capitol building. Missy Noonan's choir at Southeast High School was going to sing, and Missy wanted an SATB version.

I had a chance to go in and work with the kids a little and let them ask questions. I explained that I used an alternate reading of the text compared to Jake and Felix. I'm indebted to Pastor Norm Porath for sending along this reading. The idea is that the "high places" in Israel were the places of worshipping foreign gods. So, the idea is essentially that the Psalmist is saying, "[Do] I lift mine eyes to the hills? From whence cometh my salvation? [It doesn't come from the hills and the high places.] It comes from the name of the Lord." I like the dramatic tension set up by this reading. Here is the video from the performance at the capitol. The piece will be available for purchase soon through MusicSpoke.

Monday, June 30, 2014

David Dies and the Baroque Aesthetic

The MusicSpoke project (follow us on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram) has allowed me to reach out to composers around the country and talk shop. It turns out, it's one of my favorite things to do. A little while ago, I had the chance to have a Skype session with David Dies. Check out his website here. David is a wonderful composer whose name can be a sentence if you read it wrong. I'll get to his music in a moment. My conversation with David reminded me of how big our world has become.

David is an accomplished composer with international performances and a nice CD. I had never heard of him. Almost every day, I discover some new composer who has accomplished so much, and yet, I've never heard of them.

I was talking with my buddy, Jonah Sirota, during a Mondegreen rehearsal a few months ago. During the course of the rehearsal, we were exploring some pan-diatonic cluster, and I said something about Eric Whitacre. Jonah said, "Who?" Then I realized, Jonah plays in a professional string quartet. If you asked Jonah to name the top three young composers working right now, Eric Whitacre wouldn't even be on his radar. I don't know for sure, but I would guess that he would say something like Nico Muhly, Gabriela Lena Frank, and maybe Jefferson Friedman.

During the course of my conversation with David, we actually touched on this issue. We would all like to think that our music will be performed after we die, and maybe some of it will. For most of us though, it will be fairly quickly forgotten. That is why I think we need to go back behind the 19th century to a more Baroque approach.

It's not that musicians didn't have reputations and some degree of fame in the 18th century. It's just that a "famous composer" in the 19th century version had yet to be invented. So, composers wrote for their local town needs and occasionally for a Royal. At least in my reading, they fully expected most of their work to be packed up in a church, used occasionally by their successors and possibly their apprentices. For the most part, they believed it would largely be forgotten.

In a world obsessed with fame, I think this is the only approach to keeping your sanity. Write highly crafted music for the people around you. Expect that it will be forgotten when you die. This approach is incredibly freeing for composers - especially when you consider how fickly and trendy the music world is. Some people get to be well known, and I can't understand how their music is any better than others that I know. Some people aren't well known, but they write better. If you want to stay sane, you better go Baroque.

In a way, I think that's what David has done. He is writing finely crafted music, and I expect he will continue to do it for the rest of his life.  Go check out his web page and listen to the wonderful and thoughtful sound worlds that he has created.

Here is an excellent example.