Who cares about live music?

"Tell Someone Who Cares"Time for a rant/ rave/ vent, methinks. It’s been a while. Bear with me:

Who cares about live music?

Everywhere I look there are stories of musicians being yelled off their stage, performers crying for “decent” pay, orchestras and opera houses closing down, music schools diminishing beyond recognition, and a host of other music-related news that simply doesn’t play a pretty tune.

So, who actually still cares about music?

  • Musicians do (instrumentalists, singers, composers, conductors).
  • Politicians will if it makes them popular.
  • Some film producers and directors do.
  • Music writers and administrators do.
  • Music teachers and professors do.
  • Some corporate executives hoping to make their company look good by supporting local musical establishments might.

Who else?

  • And don’t tell me dancers do – if they did we’d still have live musicians at every performance.
  • And don’t tell me most audiences do – if they did they’d willingly pay the costs of every concert.
  • And don’t tell me clergy do – if they did they wouldn’t be promoting celebrities who sing to pre-recorded tracks.

But despite the seemingly exhaustive list of supporters, first: look how many people who experienced music directly in their lives are those who remain passionate about it, and second: I can’t help but feel an underlying podium of obligation and hidden-agenda persuasion.

The fact is, in 2013 there are very few people who care about one of humankind’s most fundamental forms of expression. “Music” has been around for as long as birds could whistle and people could control the pitch of their voices. For centuries it was just a part of everyday life for just about everyone.

16th Century Gregorian Chant Song Book

This 16thC songbook in Seville Cathedral contains many chants “composed” over hundreds of years

Then, about 500+ years ago, someone figured out a way to write it down so others could repeat what was being expressed. (Actually, music was used in the church to aid priests with their memorization of liturgical text – a trick that is still used today.) I’ve seen one of the earliest songbooks known to exist, currently housed in Seville cathedral, and when people stop to consider what it represents, it is an awesome thing. But, like so many museum pieces, most people just wander by and say ¡Qué Bueno! (“That’s nice.”) You can hear the apathy in their tone.

Since then, there’s been a direct split between formal music and popular music. Even these words seem insufficient to describe the horrors of classifying and labeling just about each individual’s specific tastes, desires, likes and academic output of organized sound-based expression.

But what really scares me are these two facts:

1. Older generations are telling younger generations that music is unworthy, not to be valued, and an interrupting annoyance. Instead, we are taught by decision-makers and influencers that it is a gimmick, a sometimes useful but very expensive tool of persuasion, and wholly unessential or unnecessary for anyone’s well-being. Example: “Our youth groups don’t want to see an orchestra on stage – that’s not our vision for them.” Example: “Oh! That youth orchestra is just way too loud whilst we’re shopping. C’mon, let’s leave.” Example: This whole flashmob was commercially staged, including the little girl at the beginning – the bank the performers were in front of was celebrating its 130th birthday.

2. Musicians are out to prove their relevance/ worth/ value, demand certain rights, and are using Music as a political means to get what they want (be that income, satisfaction, their own worth/ value, proof that they matter or haven’t wasted their lives pursuing something pointless, etc.).

Ouch.

And I’m fed up with it.

In today’s technological digitized world, is there even a future for music? At all? We have created machines that compose and conduct, and devices that source every piece of music that has ever been recorded or constructed as an audio file. [And that’s a whole other rant – are we listening to the performers, or the sound system? More on that another time.] Music provides some sort of background sensory stimulation in almost every activity many Western humans undertake, including shopping, using public toilets, driving, office work, jogging, and so on.

The recent spike in popularity of orchestras playing music whilst a film is displayed above them is an extension of the old piano-playing cinemas of… wait for it… not even a hundred years ago. In Beethoven’s time it was rare for concert halls to have seats. People mingled, chatted, ate & drank, and had a good old time hanging out. In Mozart’s time, operas told stories of faraway places and unknown cultures with drama and costumes and scenery and, of course, dramatic music.

Mention opera nowadays and most people yawn.

What’s happened? What’s going on? Where are humans headed next? Hardly the dearly desired World Peace, that’s for sure! And I fear the loss of music and the senses that rely on it for their useful/ proper/ full development, will transform humans into unthinking creatures of survival habit.

And yet we’ve come so far…

What do you think? Add a comment below and let’s talk about it…

Maybe it’s just in specific cultures. Maybe this is all totally imagined. Regardless, I’m upset so many humans around us are dismissing live music making, and I’m getting angry enough to do something about it in my little circle of influence. More about that soon!

 

Back to Choral Roots

A couple of months ago I was appointed Conductor of the 40+ year old Clearwater Chorus. It’s an ensemble of people who like to sing, and encourages adults of varying ages and abilities to make and share music together.

At least, that’s what it is now.

The Clearwater Chorus

Although not titled a “Director” that is effectively my role and as a result, I’ve grabbed hold of the reins and am guiding the ensemble through a new perspective: who we have and what we do now is what we are, and as long as we work together to share music, we’ll be doing something of value to the world.

[Click here: I’m giving away four tickets to our concert on Dec 22!]

Why is this so new? Because like so many institutions that are founded and/or led by an individual for so long (in this case, Arthur Goetze who directed the group from 1975-2005), its members can become entrenched in “the way things were.” This is also a very typical perspective of older generations, especially those who have worked their whole lives and are now enjoying a few special comforts in retirement: they expect things to stay the way they know them. But that is so rarely beneficial for anyone, and certainly not how the world spins.

So whilst respecting the past and honoring those who have gained far more experience with this ensemble than I ever hope to, it is now time to focus not on what we don’t have but on what we do…

Doesn’t this pertain to life in general?

For example, over the past 12 years I have mourned the loss of an active performing and teaching career founded in music, something I have known to be a primary part of my existence since I was in single digits. My music career after moving to the USA has been patchy, fraught with unconfidence, some expensive decisions, and a distinct lack of industry contacts that don’t label me an outsider.

But this current appointment has, unexpectedly, brought me right back to square one – the roots from which my fascination with music grew.

British American Conductor Composer Stephen P Brown began his musical life as a choir boy in Cuxton Church

The Anglo Saxon village church in Cuxton UK, where I was a choir boy

I was 7 years old when I began playing the piano, but that was after I began singing in my English village church choir. I remember joining the village Junior School choir around the same time, as well, but by the time I had moved to my UK secondary school at age 11, I was fully immersed in singing, piano and clarinet. It wasn’t until just before I moved to the USA the first time that I showed any interest in percussion (and if you know me, it was an incredible 4 years of percussion playing that got me into college at 17 years old! More on that another time, perhaps).

During my college years a budding-conductor buddy of mine, Chris Kiver now a Choral Professor at Penn State University, and I would organize “Scratch” singing sessions in which anyone who wanted to play and sing the repertoire we had planned could do so. Of course we did much recruiting, but giving solo parts to multiple singers throughout each piece enabled them to get much needed experience, and Chris and I to learn many differing needs of accompaniment.

In the years that followed college I conducted various ensembles such as the Ealing Choral Society (thanks to the late great James Gaddarn), the Yalding Choral Society, the Medway Community College Singers, and a whole host of other one-off groups. Four highlights in particular were:

  • Conducting Handel’s complete Messiah with 5 days’ notice when the conductor who was booked fell ill,
  • Conducting a “Marathon Singing Session” in which almost 1,000 teenagers sang hymns, easy listening songs and some chart songs,
  • Conducting the European Premiere of Dawn Mantras (outside, at sunrise) by Australian composer Ross Edwards during the UK’s year-long Millennium Festival in 2000, and
  • Singing for John Rutter at Carnegie Hall in his own composition Magnificat.
British American Conductor Composer sang at Carnegie Hall for John Rutter

Melissa and I hanging out with John Rutter in NYC

In addition, I played timpani or percussion for countless choral societies around the UK in more pieces of music than I can remember – hundreds. And, being a percussionist usually with lots of time not actually playing, I got to listen to conductors rehearse their choirs, listen to the choir members mutter under their breath, and have choir members (usually altos) unsolicitally (?!) share their awe about how anyone could actually play the timpani: “I never knew they had pedals like that!”

Interestingly, only a handful of these choral activities “made the cut” onto my resume, so when most folk read my history of musical performance, they see “instrumental conductor” or even just “music teacher.” It’s quite annoying, really, because although conductors in the UK and Europe are trained to be teachers (hence the general reference to them as “Maestro“) in all genres of “formal” music – orchestral, choral, opera, musicals, some concert/wind band and maybe even ballet – in the USA conductors are labelled at a young age and ‘specialize’ not in leadership or motivation, but as a topical expert in just one of those genres. It’s such a pity.

Of course there are exceptions such as James Levine. Kind of. And the incomparable Leonard Bernstein. But generally, conductors in the USA are rarely recognized as even “capable” of conducting well in more than one musical genre. You can tell when a choral conductor has an orchestra in front of them, and you can tell when an orchestral conductor now has to deal with a choir, too. I’m quite proud of the fact that I was taught and expected to work with both, so now that I’m working with the Clearwater Chorus (this links to our Facebook page – please Like it!), not only do I feel comfortable and confident that I can help produce a good sound, help the singers sing together, and focus on sharing good stories and music with others (including the audience), but it is also bringing me back to my roots in music – as that little angelic Church of England choir boy in my village.

For your entertainment: This is one of my favourite Bernstein performances of showmanship, especially around the 5 minute mark. It’s even more engaging because of the video/ audio mis-synching!

I’ve got 7 years left – #PsalmQuest Compositions

Some of my compositions were recently submitted as materials for another Masters-level qualification which would permit me to teach higher education in the USA – something my experience and approach is well suited to. The application was not approved, and that hurt. When I shared the assessor’s report with my select circle, most of the reactions were along the lines of “These comments make no sense,” and “I haven’t got a clue what he’s on about.” One comment suggested how the assessor seemed to be looking for negative things to say and ended up saying the same thing about each piece that was submitted. There is no recourse to appeal the assessment, and therefore I particularly reveled in one friend’s description of the assessor as a “Schmuck” (all in good jest to lighten the weight I’d put on his career-jolting opinion.)

A colleague in the academic world seemed to corroborate but put it like this:

You have wonderful ideas and a sense of exploration. Maybe there is a voice in your head wondering if anyone will like what you are doing so you play it safe. As with any creative venture, safety does not result in efforts that fully show one’s capability. I also think you have been limited by [composing for] players with modest ability and so you have had to avoid writing anything that pushes the envelope too far. Break out of that. Quiet the voices of questioning that I can imagine are speaking to you and see what happens.

Wow! Nice! Thank you, G!

 

My action plan must be:

  • Something that doesn’t require seeking the participation of musicians I can’t afford or are of “modest ability.”
  • A project that doesn’t require coming to you with my hand out asking for funds.
  • Something with changing flavours, aromas and colors that last over a long period of time.
  • A project which produces results but is not dependent on what happens to them.
  • Something that can be created with the resources I already have, and that can be shared with you if you’re interested.

 

Major influences:

Heard of Chris Guillebeau? Several years ago he set himself the goal of visiting all the countries of the world by his 35th birthday. He just completed his quest ON his 35th birthday last month. 193 countries in less than 11 years. No-one else has ever accomplished it.

Most of Bach’s work, much of Mozart’s, Beethoven, Verdi, Poulenc, Vaughan Williams, Taverner, Part and a multitude of other composers have written music influenced by the Bible, including two of the most amazing pieces ever: the ultra-famous Messiah by Handel, and the incomparable Belshazzar’s Feast by William Walton (watch below). Even outlying members of the post-WWII British atheist movement, including composers such as Benjamin Britten and John Rutter, often turned to the Bible for source material. So why not me?

 

I recently heard a reading of Psalm 33 and it caught my attention. It is far from famous but its descriptive content is unique. There are many pieces of music in the world influenced by the psalms, but… all of them? Yes. Plenty. But that’s like asking if every country in the world has been visited. Until Chris G set his goal, no one person had visited every country in the world.

My Quest:

To advance my composition skills by writing 150 pieces of music based on each of the 150 psalms by my 50th birthday in 7 years’ time.

How on earth will that get done? I have a plan. [In fact, I’ve already started].

It’s going to be a fascinating journey! I hope you’ll stay the course with me.

 

keep-calm-and-stay-the-course

Update Jan 8, 2014:
Project going VERY well! 13 completed and two more underway. In the meantime, I’ve adopted the hashtag #PsalmQuest to help organize my composition project. Spread the word! [Click it to tweet it]

Update Sept 10, 2018:
Four years of web content got deleted through malware that also infected by backups. Regardless, this project was on hiatus for three years during my Dad’s rather cruel terminal illness (PSP) and I am only now figuring out how to re-incorporate the #PsalmQuest schedule back into my daily routine. I doubt the project will be finished by my 50th birthday, but the important thing for me right now is to simply finish.

 

Tell me in the comments below how you’ve overcome adversity or a big disappointment. Did it spur you into action? Did you setup a project or quest? Did you move onto something completely different? I’d love to hear how you managed to move on with your life. Go on, add a comment, and then share this post so others can benefit, too:

 

Another Absolutely Best Of!

I’m working on some project documents and listening to Classic FM’s David Mellor (ex-Member of Parliament and even Cabinet member) enthusiastically share his top 20 classical music recordings of 2012 – both new and re-released. Sometimes it’s quite fascinating, especially Max Richter’s rewriting of Vivaldi’s famous Four Seasons violin concertos, two very different versions of Rachmaninoff’s beautiful Symphony No.2 even though the different albums won in different categories, and even Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It” by Alexandre Tharaud. Yes, I’m just as confused as you. (Amazon affiliate links)

Top Ten List EVER?!Well, I’ve never been much of a fan of “Top” or “Best of” lists, even though it is clearly a marketing gem and seems to engage a great many people. (The fact that such programs can be prepared in advance so they can be aired during the holidays with no-one actually present at the radio or TV station isn’t lost on me.)

So, whilst wondering what gives David Mellor the right to pick and choose classical music recordings, and whether or not he’s just presenting someone else’s research/ compiled list (such as EMI, Sony, Virgin Classics, or any of Global Radio‘s other regular bed partners), I wondered what other lists are out there this year. I typed “Best of classical music 2012” into the centrally focused white box on the Google homepage which took a moment (0.44 seconds, to be a little more pedantic) to produce the results below.

And there we have it! These must truly be the absolute best of the best of classical music for 2012. Make of them what you will, and take particular note of the handful of references to live music (such as concerts). In fact, the exact opposite occurred – included in this “Best of” list are notable deaths! Can you and I change that? I think so. Maybe next year we can come up with our own “Best of 2013’s Classical Music” and make them ALL concerts!

My (or, in fact, Google’s) “Best of ‘Best of Classical Music 2012:'”

  1. 54th Annual Grammy Awards Nominees for Classical Music (2012)
  2. The Best Classical Music Recordings of 2012 – NYTimes.com
  3. The best classical music of 2012 | Music | The Guardian
  4. Amazon Hot New Releases: best Classical Music
  5. Classical Music and Opera: The Best of 2012
  6. 2012 in review: Notable deaths in classical music and dance
  7. Remembering the best classical music of 2012 – Times Union
  8. The Best in North Texas Classical Music in 2012 | FrontRow
  9. The Orchestra: The best classical music iPad app
  10. Best of 2012: Classical music | Mark Swed – latimes.com
  11. The Best and Worst of Classical Music in 2012 – WQXR
  12. best classical music songs
  13. best sad classical music
  14. best classical music for studying
  15. best classical guitar music

Do you agree with any of these? Put your own “Best of classical music 2012” list in the comments below. Even one entry will help us focus our efforts!

Really – what music or performer do you think we should look out for in 2013?

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Downtown

The first of my two favorite movements in my latest composition. It also happens to be the last movement actually written. “Downtown.”

There are many downtowns in the Tampa Bay area that could be represented by music: Dunedin could display a Scottish or bagpipe influence – after all, even their high school marching band has pipers! Or we could look to the very edge of Tampa Bay at Tarpon Springs, and include a Greek music influence. Certainly fun. Hoopa!

Clearwater, Tampa itself, Bradenton, Seminole, St Petersburg, Ybor, Egypt Lake-Leto, all have cultural influences from around the world, so the decision became tough. In the end, I decided to simply title the work ‘downtown’ and not make obvious clichéd references to cultures.

The piece is busy. It starts with a piano and marimba duet and the structure grew very quickly from there – an ascending sequence (rising pattern that repeats itself) but with different instrumental colors. A lovely little piano phrase keeps interrupting until eventually, everyone’s gone home.

Or so it seems. A pulsating backbone pervades the area with Tampa Bay’s nightlife preparing for the regular onslaught of visitors and locals alike. Songs burst from every nightclub and many restaurants, and the crowds grow in size and energy.

Unfortunately, like most great nights out that suddenly come to an end, the marimba & piano remind us that it’s time to go back to work. The grand finale of this movement wraps up with a full stop traditional ‘The End’ ending. It’s a fun movement.

Beaches and Boats

“Beaches and Boats”

The first movement in my new piece “Tapestry Tampa Bay” seems to sum up my initial impression of life here in Tampa Bay. There are beaches everywhere. There are boats everywhere. The latter is quite understandable bearing in mind that three sides of the St. Petersburg/ Clearwater area is surrounded by water.

The former was, well… unexpected.

The largest and most famous beach is Clearwater Beach. But that entire coastline is full of them. From Sunset beach in Tarpon Springs to Sarasota’s Siesta Key (#1 beach in USA) and beyond, there are miles and miles of soft warm sand. It is a grand spectacle and a luxury we have fully indulged in many times since moving here – especially the beaches on Honeymoon Island.

The opening of my piece reflects the grandeur of Clearwater Beach. Although wide and long, it doesn’t take too much time before one gets either lost or burned, so must retreat to safer quarters such as the Clear Sky Cafe. The same theme is used to demonstrate another beach just as wide and just as long – Indian Shores. Then another, less grand beach such as Caladesi Island (read more about this idyllic isle here). And other similar-sized beaches. Then there are the medium beaches and finally, a couple of spurts of tiny beaches such as the aforementioned Sunset Beach.

Marbel photographed by Melissa at Sunset Beach. There’s not much more to it than this.

So, it’s time for sailing. Although there are many, many more power boats than there are sailboats, there are still plenty of the latter, and my first experience on the waters of the bay was in a sailboat, thanks to our dear friends Dale & Barbara.

The flowing, smooth, calm swaying of gentle waves and a hot breeze across the cheeks is what follows in my music. There are some dolphin sightings as they pop up to say hello, but the music is clearly as peaceful and tranquil as sitting in a wind-powered water-glider in the hands of an expert.

Sailboats are popular in St. Peterburg.
Dale doing his thing.
Wild dolphins are frequent and friendly.

Of course, along the way we pass several small and private beaches along the Bay’s inside edges, so the music eventually combines the beach theme with the boat theme: “Beaches & Boats.”