Sunday, December 18, 2022

An Extended Appreciation (of a somewhat confused nature)


We are fast approaching 2023, an old year out, a new year in.  It was in March of 1983 that I made the move to New York City, as in forty years ago, kind of a large number.  Maybe I’ll have some thoughts about that down the road but at the moment it feels compelling to note the passing of this year in the traditional way, an assessment in consideration of the way forward as we enter into the coming new one.  

On a note of gratitude I might begin by sharing an appreciation of music.  

“There's nothing like being in the presence of great musical artistry…as an example of the very best we are as human beings; the music, the performing, the whole shebang.”

That was written to me by a friend.  I was surprised because this person operates in a different field, one in which they don’t have the opportunity to hear very much music.  It was in response to mentioning that I’d attended many chamber music concerts this year and how healing that felt after such a long absence.  

I’ve already written about some of these concerts and have perhaps risked over-romanticizing them as a type of rarefied experience.  I should probably point out that reintegrating myself back into public life was actually a bit jarring even as I was happy to be out of the house.  Just getting to the concert often felt like an ordeal, the streets of Manhattan can be quite harsh these days.  Arriving at the hall was blessed relief but then I wasn’t sure I liked the feel of the seat or whether it’s placement offered the best sound and sight-lines.  The conversation emanating from the seats behind me was a bit too much information.  And the phones!  So many phones.  

Then in the midst of all of this I remembered, wasn’t it always this way?  Maybe not the phones, that’s a whole new thing.  But listening to music always involved being around other people in situations that were often less than perfect.  At first glance my friend’s comment seems to be glorifying the ideals of music but in looking again, it’s actually a statement about humanity.  His appreciation of music is an appreciation of people, actual folks doing actual things.

I’ll mention at this point that I recently played music with another person for the first time in almost three years.  I used the word sabbatical in my previous post, one of a number of possible euphemisms that I remain uncertain about.  But before getting to that please allow me to wax effusive about some recent listening experiences around the city.

A Brief Reportage upon Recent Concert-going

Axiom, a new music ensemble at Juilliard, gave a concert at Alice Tully Hall in October including music by Elliot Carter and George Crumb.  My favorite was a composition by composer Unsuk Chin titled Akrostichon-Wortspiel creating a lush sonic tapestry using quarter-tone sonorities orchestrated in the lower registers of the ensemble.  The voice of soprano soloist Marisa Karchin was clear and precise while retaining a warmth and roundness throughout her impressive range.  In a subsequent performance this season they featured a piece by composer Tōru Takemitsu from 1987 titled Nostalghia for violin and string orchestra.  The harmonies employed throughout this piece were subtle yet evocative, exquisitely sustaining a delicate construction for the entire duration. 

Also at Juilliard was a presentation of works for piano by Rachmaninoff and Scriabin, a dozen pieces performed by eleven student pianists in chronological order, alternating between the two composers.  On paper it sounded a bit heavy and I almost opted not to attend although I’m glad I did.  Each of the pianists played the same instrument yet the differences in sound between them was astonishing.  Things started off on solid footing even as I wondered about the clarity of certain passages and their timing.  These works are notoriously difficult with multiple independent melodic lines weaving throughout the registers of the piano and between the right and left hands of the pianist.  But by the end of the first half things had gone from from good to great.  Each pianist sat in the audience listening to the others, so I can’t imagine the mounting pressure they must have felt after hearing an especially invigorating rendition by one of their peers.  At the top of the second half the performances were sounding so good I assumed we had reached a plateau, but no, the evening continued it’s upward trajectory and we were now hearing musical gestures full of mind-boggling complexity rendered whole, compositions coming fully alive with an effortless and breathtaking command.  The works by Scriabin were of particular interest given that he was working with dissonance in a unique way for his time, this being particularly evident in the Three Etudes Opus 65 (1912).  You can see the program and performers names here.

While contemporary music is my focus I also encountered works from Bartok and Beethoven, hearing them anew by way of the Orion String Quartet at the CUNY graduate center as part of their monthly series.  Also presented on the series was Hayden’s String Quartet in D minor Opus 76, No 2 performed by a quartet of graduate students.  Essentially I felt very little difference between this work from 1797 and much of the contemporary music I’ve heard this season.  Of course the language is different yet so many of the formal devices are quite similar.

The Art of Hot Air

Going back even further was a Juilliard Historical Performance Faculty Recital by a trio calling themselves “Les Basses Réunies” comprised of bassoonist Dominic Teresi, cellist Phoebe Carrai and harpsichordist Béatrice Martin offering music from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries on period instruments.  Here’s a question, have you ever seen a bassoon from the Baroque era?  It’s got no keys on it, just open holes arranged along a piece of wood about four and a half feet in length.  Sitting in the front row of a small performance space I was struck by the physicality involved in their playing of these early instruments.  I don’t want to say that it looked like hard work but my sense is that these instruments do require a bit more effort in bringing out their essential sonic qualities, which are in fact different than modern instruments.  As a result you get the sense that the ensemble interprets the music in a different way than might be expected.  The concert was fabulous, one could easily sense the unity between composer, performers, instruments, room and listeners.  It was the sheer physicality of this concert which made me realize it was time to play again with other musicians.  

After three years of playing the saxophone alone, playing with another person (in this case an informal get-together with drummer Devin Gray) was to be an occasion of some anticipation and some degree of uncertainty.  Instead it felt very much like picking back up from wherever it was I might have left off, except that I’ve been practicing religiously during all of this time, resulting in some notable differences.  Foremost was my surprise in just how far into the physicality of playing I could go and still have the music function.  After about a half hour of playing I noticed that all of my attention was centered in the sensation of shaping the air column and how that felt in my entire body.  The sound of the horn and the sound of the drums were of course present but I didn’t need to track them in quite the usual way.  This coincided with noticeably better note choices, better phrasing, better interaction and better music as a result.  A lesson in how much you can let go of and still account for everything.  My thanks to Les Basses Réunies for the inspiration.

The Telegraph as Virtual Reality

Those of you who read this blog know that I have increasingly been an advocate for acoustic music over the years.  There is nothing new to say here except that I continue to be enthralled in it’s virtues.  Readers of this blog also know that I speak often about the effects of technology on our experience of music.  Here again comes the risk of repeating one’s self except for the fact that we do seem to be at an inflection point that needs to be understood.  

I am in no sense a scholar on social issues but certain questions have always seemed important.  As a kid I didn’t particularly like to be in cars.  I recall my mother once driving me home after a music lesson, stopping for fast-food take-out which I ate in the back seat of the car as we continued driving.  There was something deeply incongruent, if not depressing, about eating a meal while moving, watching strangers in their individual metal boxes passing by, each staring straight ahead.  Later, in my teens, I decided to give up watching television, a youthful snobbishness about it all covering up that same uncomfortable feeling of watching people stare blankly into the tube.

At a certain point in my twenties I began to wonder how much of my experience of life had been actual and how much had been an experience of media.  Meaning how much of what I knew about the world had come from television, movies, radio and recordings?  And how easy was it to take that for granted, imagining events that I was never a part of as if I had somehow experienced them.

We’ve come a long distance.  We now have the internet and the mobile phone.  In this day and age a discussion about music is usually a discussion about technology.  This also seems to be true with respect to any topic we might discuss; politics, environment, medicine, science, art, social issues, philosophy and even religion, continuing to use the language of time and place even when so many activities that we once did in person have become digitized.  The New York Times ran a piece not too long ago about the importance of checking-in with friends for the benefit of our well being.  I finished reading the entire article before realizing that every example given was a use of technology, like sending a text.  While these things might lead to getting together face-to-face, more often they function as a delaying mechanism for doing so.

There are times in thinking about this when I am tempted to view the entire trajectory of media technology, beginning with the telegraph, as leading inevitably to virtual reality.  Of course that is a jaundiced view but it does cross my mind.  Less dystopian but still somewhat unsettling is the idea that for most folks living today, the majority of the music they have heard in their lives has been of the recorded variety.  And when live, almost always amplified. 

Is that good, bad or does it really matter?  It also occurs to me that the history of jazz largely coincides with the history of recorded music.  A music that so values the spontaneity of the moment has also been shaped by the recording process acting as an accelerant to it’s very development.  The received wisdom throughout most of that time was always that live was best.  I’m genuinely uncertain about how that plays out today.

Socially Distanced Jazz

In his book “Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth”, author John Szwed offers a vivid portrayal of what music was like in the famed clubs along New York’s fifty-second street:

“They were small, maybe fifteen feet by sixty feet, and were located in the basements of brownstone residences.  They featured miniature tables for a few dozen people, little space for dancing, and no air-conditioning.  Small-band jazz was born and raised here: music without amplification, with sonic qualities that suited the spaces in which it emerged.  Sitting so close to a band and a singer, one could hear the sizzle and rattle of cymbals, the deep thump of a bass drum, the mix of air and sound coming from the horns, the depth and resonance of the piano, the breathing of a singer, all features that recordings never manage to capture.  It was the musical equivalent of the deep blacks and silvery whites of 1950s photography, an acoustic reality lost to us as musicians and listeners, dependent as we all are on amplification, mixing, filtering, recording, the dry ice of digitization, and monster video screens.”

Musical values have changed since that time in ways having a great deal to do with technology.  Over time, live concerts have increasingly come to resemble their recorded counterparts.  Suddenly we’ve arrived at a point in which credible sounding jazz music is being made at a distance, band members adding their individual parts to a recording at different times and from different locations, never actually seeing or hearing each other.  While this may be an extreme example (one clearly birthed out of the pandemic) the fact that I can not always tell the difference makes me uneasy in that it points out just how artificial recordings have become over time even as we espoused the virtues of live interaction all along.  

Have we been deceiving ourselves a bit?  Maybe, but the recorded history of this music has undoubtedly been a tremendous gift.  It is the live experience that I am more concerned about.  How might we reconcile the virtues of the concert hall in it’s most basic unmediated form with the world at large, in which our lives are increasingly intertwined with digital devices?

We musicians are just as dependent on technology as most other folks, perhaps a bit more, and I sense that we are each trying to find our way in this.  Combining the need for self-promotion with social awareness can be awkward in a capitalist culture, especially one in which the effects of social media cast a performative gloss over everything that passes through it.  I do question how sustainable it all is.

Stranded on the Island of Manhattan (with Ralph Kramden)

I live near Times Square, an utterly insane landscape with respect to the amount of electrical wattage devoted to robbing you of your attention.  After decades of living in this neighborhood (quaintly known as Hell’s Kitchen) you might think one would become inured to the cacophony.  Certainly many people seem to be, casually carrying on cell-phone conversations oblivious to everything around them, not the least of which might be the fire truck they are standing next to, stuck in traffic, sirens blaring at an obscene decibel level.  

People always ask me “how do you deal, do you ever get used to it?”  No one should never get used to this.  And I should never get used to seeing people on the streets talking to themselves even when I know they are hooked in to a phone through wireless earbuds.  Even more so when they are in the throws of an argument, all by themselves.  One evening while walking by the Port Authority bus station I heard a woman yelling loudly and gesticulating wildly at a statue.  It’s the one of Ralph Kramden (of television fame) on Eighth Avenue and 40th street.  Actually, she was standing behind old Ralphie boy, screaming straight into his backside.  Apparently she had her cell phone propped up on the lunchbox Ralph was carrying and was  having it out with someone unseen, big time.  I was relieved to see that she was actually in a conversation but it was just about as distressing as if she had not been.  As strange as the whole thing was, she was clearly in the throws of real emotional pain.  And yet even as she was surrounded by people and connected to someone she knew via her phone, she seemed completely isolated and cut off from any kind of human contact that might have helped.  

This is a rather extreme example of the socially distorting effects of technology but this kind of thing is becoming a daily occurrence.  Clearly there are many advantages afforded in the digital realm but reconciling all of this too often becomes a tedious exercise involving all of the pro and con arguments we already know too well.  

Forty-One Questions without an Answer

A new year being an opportunity to take up resolutions, I’d like to pass along something I read.  It’s an interview done by journalist Ezra Klein with media critic L.M. Sacasas who has created a list of questions to ask about one’s use of technology, forty-one of them to be precise. 

I invite you to read the full list, it’s included in his own essay.  

It starts with this question: “What sort of person will the use of this technology make of me?”  

Some of the other questions are:

“How will the use of this technology affect how I relate to other people?”
“What feelings does the use of this technology generate in me toward others?”
“What does my use of this technology require of others who would (or must) interact with me?”
“What assumptions about the world does the use of this technology tacitly encourage?”

Here’s a good one:

 “Does my use of this technology encourage me to view others as a means to an end?”

These questions are all oriented on an appreciation of other people.  I think it’s that very shift in focus that allows for progress.  Makes me wonder about what kinds questions we might ask as musicians and artists given that technology has always been a factor in music making, embedded in the history of the very instruments we play.

Failed Innovations that Changed the World

All of the concerts I have attended this year have been of classical chamber music and many of them have taken place in music schools such as Juilliard.  It’s rare to hear a saxophone played in a chamber music setting and Juilliard does not even have a classical saxophone department.  And why is that I wonder?  Fortunately the Manhattan School of Music does, and it’s an impressive one, led by performer, teacher, historian and collector of rare saxophones, Paul Cohen.  

Within this tradition there are a number of schools of playing (French school, American school, the German “Rascher" school) and I once asked Paul which one he aligned with.  He replied that his approach comes from the "orchestral school" of saxophone playing, one that I had not heard of.  In fact, the saxophone was invented in the 1840s and envisioned as an orchestral instrument even as the composition of the orchestra was well established by that time.  While the saxophone has never gained a permanent role in the orchestra there is a tradition of wind pedagogy that applies very well to the instrument, which is where Paul’s approach comes from.  In a newsgroup posting he elaborated:  

“The biggest influence on sound came from my college teacher, Galan Krall (also Pat Meighan's teacher) who is an oboist by trade. He schooled us in the nuance and subtlety of sound from his orchestra experiences. This was a seminal experience in understanding the meaning and effect of an artistic tone quality.”

In an interview from 2019 Paul extends the idea of an “artistic tone quality” past technique to include his audience stating:

“It’s about how we take these things and create a much greater artistic experience for the listener.”

I’ve been to a number of performances by Paul’s students presenting a wide array of music written for saxophone, far more than I was aware of.  While musicality is stressed above sheer virtuosity there is little shortage of technical acumen among his students.  This is admirable given that I sometimes suspect that within the world of classical saxophone the push towards ever increasing virtuosity may stem from a feeling of having something to prove.  Fortunately I am hearing more young players who are using their formidable skills towards expanding the music rather than just the instrument.  

The saxophone has made it’s mark across almost all musical genres but when played in accord with it’s original conception, unique qualities are revealed, this being an instrument of some mystery.  As such, I was impressed by a composition written by Shuwen Liao, a student at the Manhattan School of Music.  Her composition Feather of Fantasy, for saxophone quartet, juxtaposes fast moving, softly played utterances from two of the players while the other two create barely audible harmonies against this.  The effect was moving and almost subliminal (I sensed it before I actually heard it) taking full advantage of the saxophone’s inherent ambiguity and diffuse tonal nature

In a fitting close to the semester Paul presented a faculty concert of his own, playing soprano and alto saxophones in various settings, offering up one of the warmest sounds on the saxophone that I have yet heard.  One of the pieces Paul presented involved an exceedingly rare and obscure instrument made in 1928 by the Conn instrument company called the conn-o-sax.  In his program notes he describes just how innovative an instrument this was, remarking that “it succeeded brilliantly as a new instrument but failed in the marketplace”Speaking about it’s “visionary design and tonal qualities” he describes it as being the most coveted of rare vintage saxophones, it’s “haunting, brooding tone” continuing to captivate woodwind players over the generations.  He finishes with some passion, stating “the conn-o-sax has found a new voice in the 21st century” I find that to be a lovely and inspiring idea, wedding notions of physicality with the function of technology and innovation in our lives.  

You should understand that there are only twenty-five of these instruments still known to exist in the world.  The number of people in the audience was even less than that.  (It is not my intention to sound critical, I once played to an audience of three people, one of whom left half-way through.)  But despite the impracticality of his statement, it somehow feels completely true.

It’s probably best not to analyze this any further.  Sometimes when something feels true that you can’t otherwise explain, you just follow it.  

The Skill of Not Knowing

When I think about the fact that I’ll soon attempt writing on the subject of being in New York for forty years, notions of practicality and rationalization tend to fade in importance.  One thing I can say is that when things are clicking, New York City is an amazing place to be.  And when things are not going well, New York City is one of the most difficult environments you could find yourself in.  Just this morning as my wife and I went out for coffee we saw a long line of people cued up on 42nd Street.  When we finally passed the front of the line we discovered that they were there to receive food from Holy Cross Church, this on a thirty degree day.  While some of these folks were homeless, the majority were not.

Human beings are amazingly resilient and adaptable, we compartmentalize our experiences very well, out of necessity.  New York City will grind you to a pulp if you can’t manage to do that.  But all of the seemingly disparate events I’ve described, and struggled to present with any degree of coherency, are all part of one experience.  If we compartmentalize too well, taking for granted the incremental changes taking place around us, we may one day find ourselves shocked when we look up and see the number of folks standing in a food line.  

Does our use of technology help us to see this or does it tend to alienate us from our physical experience of life?  That’s an active question and I think we should ask it often.  I was encouraged in reading about a group of young people responding to the effects of technology in their lives by forming a club in which they put their phones away and just spent time together once a week. It’s a small thing, not that practical, easy to dismiss and at the same time it rings true.  

The best questions we can ask in life do not invite answers as much as they invite us to develop skills.   As we enter this new year, do take good care…