A few years back, I had a notion about organizing folks in NYC to do a citywide musical day of service. I explored it with several friends and colleagues, but I was unsuccessful in garnering the support of the cultural institutions I thought might help.
I am heartened to report that Music National Service is promoting a country-wide initiative based on MLK Day (#musicMLK). I doff my cap to them. In NYC today, according to the website map, Richie Case will be playing at the Lorimer Street stop in Brooklyn, one of many activities in several cities across the US.
(What about me? Today I will be helping a young songwriter with her work - a bit of volunteerism alongside a professional project [part of The Somewhere Project at Carnegie Hall]. My steadier volunteer gig over the last ten years has been working at a local elementary school to help students create, record, and perform original graduation themes for recorders and piano, a late May/June project.)
This Martin Luther King Day, I think it behooves us, as musicians, to consider what we can do to make sure live music finds its way into the corners of society that are not always served by the normal channels. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Kelly Hall-Tompkins and Music Kitchen. Soon Joyce DiDonato will reveal more about the work she has been doing with incarcerated musicians at Sing Sing. Maybe it won't be today, but what can you do to bring your music to a place it hasn't been before?
Today we began studying the Romantic period of music history in our Music Studies for Dance class at Juilliard. It had been on my syllabus since September, and I knew I wanted to introduce the students to the Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz. So far, so normal.
But this week I'd also been watching Lazarus, the music video that David Bowie created just before he died. It occurred to me that there were some interesting connections.
In addition to the purely musical properties of romanticism, there are several musico-historical characteristics, too -- obsessive love and drug-induced visions, among them. Another equally important development was the role of the artist in his and her own creations. In E.T.A. Hoffman's The Sandman (you can check out selections from my opera here), it is the poet who is drive insane by haunting childhood memories, and in the Berlioz, it is the artist who dopes up on podium and has a bad trip. Prior to the early 19th century, it was not the role of the artist to write about personal struggles or experiences. But the Romantics, freed from the need to serve a king or patron, could write about what they wanted. David Bowie is in that long line of romantics, and it shows in both his music and in his theatrical visions. Bowie was our entrypoint and inspiration for Berlioz - or was it the other way around?
Each new lullaby project has a Soundcloud debut, and that is true of the songs that just got created with NY Foundling and artists from Carnegie Hall. As soon as the new lullabies are posted, I grab some headphones and make my way through the playlist. This project was anchored by the Biddies (Saskia Lane, Deidre Rodman Struck & Lee Ann Westover), and augmented by Daniel Linden, Clay Ross, and Mazz Swift. They're all terrific. If you don't believe me, listen for yourself. I was especially taken by two of the songs, each for different reasons. Track #4 "Georgie's Song" by Ana is the kind of up-close silly talk that might only happen between a parent and a baby, and some of the rhymes are priceless. The chorus: "I'll be there for you/You''ll be there for me/We're a family," provides the reassurance. The fun is in little parallels, like "You dance around in your underwear/You can sleep all day like a winter bear." And more. I love hearing the vocal combo of Clay Ross and Mazz Swift, practiced from their work in Matuto -- it's 2 minutes of ease and bliss.
Track #5 is by Oumu. Lee Ann Westover takes the lead vocals, and it is beautiful. Sounds like there is French and English and either another language or dialect. It opens with some lovely snapping, in sweet little groups of three. By the end of the track, the whole crew of artists finds its way into the vocals, and no matter what language it is, you cannot help but feel the love.
The report from our friends on the Carnegie staff was that this was a challenging project to carry out. No matter. I am consistently amazed at how the lullaby artists find the beauty and spirit in every song.
Yesterday I did a short interview for WWFM radio about the Somewhere Project at Carnegie Hall. Once I have a broadcast time, I'll post.
In the meantime, the latest issue of CHAMBER MUSIC has an article I wrote about it (on page 25), as part of a larger discussion of creative learning projects. These are thematically organized arts education projects that involve creation, performance, and reflection on a large scale. They are anchored by a major work, and this year it's the song Somewhere from West Side Story. Past projects have centered on Golijov's St. Mark's Passion, Carmina Burana, Bernstein's Mass, and The Rite of Spring, among others.
Our forum, which will kick off the project is happening at Carnegie Hall's education wing on Sunday September 24th from 1 - 6 pm. There will be lots of great conversation and art making - if you're in NYC, please come!
Today I start an elective for Juilliard students that I've loved offering four times over the past two years. It's called Timebenders. We study a number of contemporary works, among them Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time and the Elliott Carter String Quartet No. 2. We'll retire it for a while after this Spring, so I'm excited to start and I'm already a little bittersweet to see it go. It's a course about the way composers treat time - both rhythmically and formally. As I was preparing dinner last night, it just happened that NPR's Radio Lab was replaying a couple of their first season broadcast episodes about time: listen here. Some fantastic quotes from Einstein and Brian Greene - poignant at the end of a day when David Bowie died at age 69.
As an extension of The Lullaby Project at Carnegie Hall, I've been lucky enough to learn about a variety of folks doing innovative work in the intersection of music and early childhood. One such brilliant innovator is Zoe Palmer in London. I first learned about her work from singer/songwriter Emily Eagen, who pointed me to a wonderful BBC documentary about the work she was doing with Spitalfields Music in the East End. As a singer and librettist, Zoe began teaching lullabies to groups of mothers, which quickly led to learning lullabies from the culturally diverse population in the communities they were engaging. That led to creating lullabies together. Based on that work, Zoe and her collaborators set about inventing musical events, based on opera, that children from 0-2 years old could attend. An event where it's OK if kids come on stage and then retreat. Where singers play with kids as they sing, and that's OK, too. There's short clip of a project from three years ago -- have a look! They are called rumpus operas, which already sound pretty fun and inviting. I am hoping to take a trip this summer to learn more, but in the meantime, on with the rumpus!
The Harvard Family Research Project selected our lullaby work at Carnegie Hall for its family engagement "quilt" - eight inspiring projects from across the country that encourage families to strengthen their own internal bonds and connect to community. It has just recently gone live. There are several encouraging bits of connection and recognition for our lullaby work that are bubbling up, enabling us to learn a lot about what other musicians and health care folks are doing around the world. More about that soon!
Today, at Carnegie Hall, in our weekly Moving Star session, Bonita Oliver suggested we focus on singing one note: a B-flat. She remembered that there are some fascinating and mystical principles associated with the frequency. Check out this entertaining NPR report from 2007. (And whether we were tuning into the Big Bang or not, it did feel centering and beautiful to remain focused on a single pitch.)
I continued to think about the power of one note, as I peeked into a rehearsal of the song "Somewhere," led by conductor Leslie Stifelman. At the very end of the song, which is in the key of E, the melody has a long held E natural with a diminuendo. But underneath that long held E, the orchestra moves to an A major chord with an added F#, leaving the tune unresolved. It's a beautiful and misty moment, dramatizing the utopian dream of Tony & Maria and their desire for a refuge from their current predicament (Tony has just come from the Rumble, where Bernardo murdered Riff and Tony murdered Bernardo.) As we held our final note, I could feel us all trying hard to extend the time of the dream sequence. After all, who wants to wake up from a dream that beautiful?
It is not easy to hold a note. I remembered that while coaching my son on a tenor aria from the Bach Magnificat. There's a moment, at the end of a long, florid run where the tenor must hold a low E natural for nine beats. Nine doesn't seem so long, until you factor in the run before, and see you can't really breathe just before without breaking up the phrase. You have to plan and calculate and practice until you might just have enough breath to perform the feat. It's not easy, and I was impressed with my son's willingness to drill and drill until he could do it.
When we hold a note, we keep it safe, we hold it close. We do not let it go. We keep it for ourselves, for as long as muscle or breath will allow. And though machines or synthesizers can hold a note indefinitely, it is an entirely human trait that we cannot. We can hold a note for a long time, and some of us can even seem superhuman for the time that we do, but eventually, we must let go. Which makes the holding, while we can, all the more precious.
As part of the Somewhere Project at Carnegie Hall, I am working with a group of teenagers as they learn to create their own songs. The kids are from all over the city, and they travel to Carnegie's new education spaces once a week for a chance to meet and learn aspects of songwriting in a supportive environment. Fruits of their labors will be performed and recorded throughout the Spring.
I read the news, like everyone else, and I am dismayed at the current attitudes displayed towards immigrants. But in general, my own artistic work tends to take a more veiled or metaphorical stance. I have friends, like singer/songwriter Jean Rohe, who do create songs that go right to the heart of current issues. I admire her songs, and I try to get to her concerts when I can. But I was struck this week, when one of our young songwriters came in with a lyric that was like a postscript to a NY Times article:
No longer want to feel like an orphan of the world
With no place to offer me a home
Can I trust you to share the burdens I bear
When life is uncertain, tell me you care
This young writer put herself in the shoes of a Syrian refugee and wrote in her voice. Whatever happens with the development of the song (no melody or music yet, but she's working on it...), the very act of empathy suggests hope. Songs can do that - they can take you places you need to go right now.
Pierre Boulez is dead at age 90. Here in New York City, the Philharmonic made him its music director in the 1970s in a comparatively brief and controversial tenure. When I was Education Director for the orchestra in the year 2000, there were still clear memories of his rug concerts, and the way he constantly reconceived the orchestra’s relationship with audience. The musicians remembered him fondly, and they were in awe of his musical prowess. If you are looking for a better recording of The Rite of Spring than his with the Cleveland Orchestra, you will be hard pressed. His performances of Messiaen and Stockhausen are sterling.
As a composer, in the words of Messiaen, Boulez was “a poet.” Each piece is built on some startlingly original architectural foundation, and filled with color. Some of the pieces are stringent and may come off as cerebral, but they are all suffused with invention. As David Robertson said about Sur Incises, a piece he premiered in its expanded instrumentation, “[Boulez]…thinks about what can be heard in the gaps between held notes, the silences and the small spaces between contrasting lines…”
When I was studying his piece Sur Incises this past Spring, with Margaret Davis, a young harp student at Juilliard, we watched a DVD performance from 2000 (Juxtapositions; Andy Sommer, director) with Boulez conducting. It was an invaluable resource for the paper Margaret was writing, not just because the performance was under the composer’s baton, but also because he teaches the piece. It’s a brilliant teaching tour de force, with each element illuminated by its creator. He takes the piece apart and puts it together again, a teaching artist on the podium. I recommend it.
In the U.S. we think of our music teaching artist model as Leonard Bernstein, at the helm of the Young People’s Concerts on CBS. And rightly so. But what struck me in watching Boulez was how equally good he was at digging into the meaning of music. With the help of subtitles, the barrier of another language was rendered unimportant, and it made me wonder what we might have missed in the early 1970s when the Philharmonic was searching for the American successor to LB. The true talent for teaching artistry was right there on the podium. Those who attended his concerts in London in the 1970s report a similar admiration for his talents at uncovering the riches of musical works for general audiences.
As teaching artists, we tend to think of ourselves more naturally in a public school classroom or a community center, but teaching artists can bring works of art to life for audiences anywhere, even center stage. A salute to the teaching artist on a podium: Pierre Boulez (1925-2016).