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!

 

The Last “Substance Leader” – Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela BBC News Obituary

Click here for the BBC News Obituary about Nelson Mandela

Well, we can decidedly close an entire volume of human history: another era has come to a close. Although we still have a 110 year old pianist who remembers meeting Gustav Mahler, we have lost the last bastion of trustworthy social leadership. Nelson Mandela worked for a living despite his royal heritage, and all the while stood up for equality principles before finally leading an entire nation of different peoples into a more cohesive and prosperous future for all. At least for a while. I’m sure being in prison for 27 years imbued much substance that supported his convictions.

When any leader takes a stance on anything, many other people often choose to polarize themselves either for or against them (Conductors are not exempt!), so it will be very interesting to see how South Africans react to the death of Mandela: Will we see unprecedented collaboration or will it be all smoke and mirrors? Will there be continued peace or after a period of global mourning will the old divisions arise? Will there be no noticeable difference because our memories of his actions have faded and been overshadowed by so much else since then?

It is extremely doubtful we will ever see the likes of Mandela, Thatcher, Reagan, and Gorbachev ever again: regardless of their politics, they were people who earned a living in a trade and who learned the ways of the world from similar places you and I stand, and who earned the positions we entrusted them with through hard work and matters of substance. Not funding, slick marketing or family connections.

It is clear that the last chapter in the volume of political honesty, integrity and conviction in social leadership has ended, and as we ride the journey of the internet and corporately funded politics, we are in a new age of human existence that will take us and our leaders lacking in their own substance through an existence never before considered. It’s quite exciting, really!

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!

Next Piece: A Brass Mirror

According to the countdown clock on this page there are now LESS than seven years for me to complete the whole project (click here to find out what the project is all about). All is well, though – I seem to be on track. Already I’ve completed two compositions in this massively huge project, and here’s the latest one:

 

This piece is based on Psalm 143, which is one of the many Lament psalms (58 in all). It has a clear structure, thanks to Longman & Garland’s commentary, and that made constructing the piece very simple. It starts with an introduction, then to a conversational Prayer requesting righteous thinking and behavior (let’s call that Section A), followed by an actual hymn-like Lament (B) – a time when the author recognized his own mistakes and sinfulness. Then the psalmist petitions for help (a variation of Section B) and finally returns to another prayer for righteousness (a slight variation of Section A again). I then closed the piece with a shortened reprise of the introduction.

Conductor Composer Maestro Stephen P Brown composes a piece for brass trio based on psalm 143 with an ABBA structureSeveral times I toyed with the idea of writing in the style of a disco beat, purely based on the structure above (A, B, B, A) but decided against it 😉 Instead, the piece is traditionally harmonic with a few Russian romantic twists and turns, but nothing harmful and not quite Stravinskian or minimalist.

What I do find interesting is the instrumentation. I wanted to tackle the brass section of the orchestra as it’s something I’ve not done since college. My friend James Stretton shared some thoughts and advice, and I wrote the piece for brass trio: horn, trombone and tuba. I think it’s a wonderful combination and with the right players, instruments and tonal quality, will sound mellow yet weighty. Love it. Thanks, Jim!

I dedicated the piece to him, but also wanted to acknowledge those folk in my life who helped me understand the horn, trombone and tuba (whether they know it or not), so I listed their names in the score, too. Thank you, folks. Perhaps you had a bigger impact on me than I’ve let on to date.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy this piece. If you’d like a copy of the score and parts, you can get it for free for one week only at the link below. Be sure to share this post around, especially if you have any brass players following/friending you!

https://www.stephenpbrown.com/compositions/a-brass-mirror/

 

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:

 

Feedback for Tapestry Tampa Bay

Watch the whole video below…

Conductor Composer Stephen P Brown presented his brand new composition “Tapestry Tampa Bay” to a new audience in Safety Harbor, Florida, on March 23 2012. Feedback has been amazing and very positive, with requests to orchestrate some of the movements as well as over 5,000 views of the concert video.

Check out why…

“Brilliant composition. Those of you that missed this concert, you missed out on a great night of beautiful and entertaining music.” -Barbara

“Tapestry Tampa Bay” simply amazing.” -Hamby

“Absolutely inspiring.” -Bill

“I’ll be Back for More!” -Mary

“Excellent. Can’t wait for the CD.” -Carlos

“Stephen is fearless in a new adventure, ready for a new challenge with a quiet confidence.” -Dale

“I love the stories, and then the music plays them out.” -Vanessa

“Totally refreshing and enjoyable. Please do it again.” -Ron

“What a wonderful surprise. I hope a tour comes out of this.” -Jill

Check out the video of Tapestry Tampa Bay on YouTube, and remember to LIKE it! (Give it a thumbs up). Also add your comments, similar to those above, to the video site:

Remember: Stephen is on a mission to RECONNECT hard-working, leisure-seeking people with that inexplicable element of music that affects us with laughter, crying and goose bumps. You can help by sharing this post on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and even your own blog! Thank you.
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Fish for music, not chips

I’m not obsessed with fish. Really!

Of course it’s a favorite dish of mine – I grew up in “Fish & Chip” land (and to be perfectly honest, still have not yet found anything that comes close to it in the USA). On overnight camping trips to Hastings we’d walk the promenade, play on the beach and watch the boats land on the pebbles before unloading their stock, indulge in crazy golf or the indoor amusement center (I once won £130 in pennies!) and then head to the local chippie. You really can’t get fresher fish than that! And, at that time, it was all cod with the occasional haddock or flounder. Yummy stuff.

So white fish has played a big part throughout my consuming life. No surprise, then, that moving to Florida opened up plenty more opportunity for immediate (i.e. fresh) and inexpensive fish dinners.

But what was this thing called Grouper? Eventually I tried it. And really liked it! Big, meaty, fleshy, moist, almost impossible to overcook white fish. It is great in a sandwich, or just plain. Don’t spoil it by deep frying it in less-than-perfect batter, either. I began eating Grouper almost everywhere I could, and eventually came across this video:

Can you believe the size of this fish? Not all species of Grouper are this large. Some are bigger:

No hoax: check here

http://www.hoax-slayer.com/giant-warsaw-grouper.shtml

So, how could I do anything but write a piece of music about this giant in a piece about the place where I discovered it? So, movement three of “Tapestry Tampa Bay” is, in fact, called Grouper!

The movement starts out deep underwater, with some bubbles floating up from a rock-like bulge – actually a fish. The rock slowly turns sideways as more bubbles escape from underneath it. As it opens its mouth to impersonate a yawn, a few more bubbles interrupt and the fish gets annoyed. “Do you mind!” he exclaims. “I’m yawning.”

Again, an attempt at a yawn. More bubbles. Eventually, the fed-up fish doesn’t care and if it could growl, it did so. No more bubbles.

So off he heads, into the warm swirling waters. Being such a large fish means very little disturbs its direction or wake. Smooth and flowing, the gentle giant surveys his domain. Occasionally little spurts of bubbles emerge from his mouth, but all-in-all he is a happy fish. It takes a lot of energy to move such a large body, so eventually King Grouper settles down for a nap.

Is that really a piece of music?

Yes.

You wait ’till you hear it! And now, we are preparing to have the concert broadcast live online, too! Look out for details soon.