New site-ings and Dolce Suono

A new website for violinist extraordinaire Miranda Cuckson – check out the media page for lots of video and audio; and a newly revamped website, now with a blog, for composer extraordinaire Steve Mackey. A Mackey premiere here in Philly at the Dolce Suono concert this coming Wednesday, along with new pieces by Steven Stucky, Fang Man, Stratis Minakakis, and David Ludwig. Eric Owens will be the soloist.

Piston’s Harmonies

For certain generations of musicians, the words “Piston Harmony” were synonymous with the study of tonal harmony because composer Walter Piston‘s textbook dominated the field. That’s no longer the case, and I should not be surprised when grad students don’t even recognize the composer’s name, either for the textbook, or for his role as one of the more important American composers of the mid-20th century. Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra will address the neglect of Piston’s music with an all-Piston concert at Carnegie on March 29. There will be two symphonies, the 2nd and 4th, and two concerted works, with superb soloists: Miranda Cuckson will play the Violin Concerto #1 and Blair McMillen plays the Concertino for piano and chamber orchestra. Do check out the “Dialogues and Extensions” on the concert page linked above – there are worthwhile essays on Piston by Maestro Botstein and Carol Oja. Many more essays related to ASO concerts here. A Mark DeVoto talk on Piston here.

Tuesday evening miscellany

-I have finally gotten around to reading Terry Teachout’s biography of Louis Armstrong, Pops. It truly does deserve all the accolades it received when it came out last year. The book is full of fresh insights buttressed by fresh research, all couched in elegant prose.

-Yes, I know the proper way to learn jazz repertoire is by studying the recordings – but for those of us who need a little help, there are transcriptions. I am enjoying reading the Fats Waller transcriptions in Paul Posnak’s collection of piano solo pieces, although enjoyable is not exactly the word for trying to reach some of Waller’s widely spaced left hand voicings. Perhaps I need some help of this kind.

-Dr. Guthrie Ramsey’s blog is now including posts by the professor of MusiQology himself, in addition to an archive of student contributions mentioned here previously. Dig the videos he has posted, including some Cab Calloway. He also found footage of the Nicholas Brothers together with Michael Jackson (I would not have guessed they were alive at the same time.) Congrats, Guy, on co-curating the Apollo Theatre exhibit which recently opened at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

-I have been meaning to write about these discs for a while now, and I do want to post about them in more detail, but let me give a quick mention here of Miranda Cuckson’s superb discs of violin music by Ralph Shapey and Donald Martino. Fascinating repertoire, commanding performances. Much more to say, coming soon.

Notes-and-Rhythms

Anthony Tommasini’s Arts and Leisure essay in the Times today speaks about the end of dogma in programming new music, citing an evening by the Ensemble ACJW at Poisson Rouge to make the case.  Tommasini mentions the stylistic debates that dominated the lunch table during his time as a student at Yale, but it is not news that those arguments have quieted down.

More interesting to me in the article is the staying power of the high modernist composers that everybody is supposed to hate (the article mentions Babbitt and Davidovsky among others). It turns out that the music is less about compositional ideology (Davidovsky in particular is the most asystematic of uptown composers) and more about – among other things – a celebration of virtuosity. Since a performer is always happy to play something that makes him/her sound brilliant, it is not surprising that Ensemble ACJW would program Davidovsky’s Synchronisms #9 or that the Jack Quartet would advocate for Xenakis, or that the superb violinist Miranda Cuckson would issue first-rate discs of music by Shapey and Martino (about which more in a future post).

The other point of interest for me is one that Tommasini makes, but then backs away from as a “passing worry for now”, and this is the problem of the neglected “notes and rhythms” composer, to use the playful phrase of John Harbison that the article quotes. Tommasini mentions Hartke, Stucky, Rouse, Melinda Wagner, Currier, and Tower as (quasi-)mainstream  voices that may be “slipping from the view of young musicians and audiences”. (I say “quasi-mainstream” because “mainstream” is a pretty vexed concept today. Also, check the composer links at right if you want to add more names to the list.) Part of the problem here is that these composers offer journalists or publicists little on which to hang a story – nothing about identity politics, technology or violent rebellion against mentors – merely excellent music.  (The exception on that list being Sebastian Currier, whose impressive use of multimedia has not yet received the recognition it deserves.) If these composers are “slipping from view”, it is because their pieces all too often “slip away” after the premiere – the problem of the 2nd performance that I wrote about earlier. This is not a “someday” problem, as Tommasini suggests; rather, it is a problem now. Shouldn’t there be a dozen flutists planning to play Melinda Wagner’s Flute Concerto? Shouldn’t there be young groups touring with the string quartets of Harbison or Currier? In a healthier musical climate, repeated performances would mean the merely excellent would remain squarely before us instead of slipping from view.