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!

Piece #8: Sonata 2 for Viola, Marimba, Piano

This is a fun little ditty!

Evelyn Glennie pioneered solo percussion playing in the Western World, especially the marimba

Another stab at the traditional Sonata Form, this piece is for a trio of performers: viola, marimba and piano. To my thinking, there is not enough marimba included in the standard instrumentation these days, (click it to tweet it) yet like the saxophone or bass clarinet, it has a great many experts and has become a common option thanks to folk like Evelyn Glennie.

Sonata Form Structure

This piece is based on Psalm 102 and although it does not follow a similar structure (the focus of this piece was the structure called “Sonata Form“) I did use the content of the psalm to influence the music.

For example, there seem to be two primary themes running throughout the psalm:

  • “Is” and “Is not”
  • “Meaning” and “Meaninglessness”
  • “Metaphor” and “Cause”
  • “Tangible” (skin, bones, heart) and “Fleeting” (shadows, smoke)

These contrasting ideas helped me create the main and secondary themes: A bustling, fun, busy, strong, emphatic, semi-tangible tune followed by a melody that seems to be a little hidden, unsure, and somewhat unsettling.

Sonata Form Development

Both themes of the sonata repeat in order to establish them in the your mind, and then the development takes off using both themes as the material. However, towards the end there appears to be the appearance of a third more melancholic theme, but in fact it is just a slight variation of part of one of the main themes… can you tell which one?


Click here to get your copy of the score and parts (free for one week only!)

Please share this post, especially with any string players, pianists and percussionists you know – it’s an exciting combination, not too difficult to prepare, and will serve as a very appealing addition to someone’s recital. Thanks.

Dedication.

This week I came across a fascinating exploration of the history of King Arthur’s England. There is so much myth and legend surrounding our dreamy esteem of this perfect man that I’ve often wondered if he really existed.

Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy the knights in shining armor adventures, and one day hope to rid my inhibitions, dress up as a medieval knight, and accompany my wife to a Renfaire (a common American festival that revives many periods of history and fantasy into an entertaining exhibition complete with audience participation, jousts, mead and glass blowing, etc). But until that day arrives, I’ll just basque in the occasional archaeological documentary and fantasy movies between Bourne, Matrix and Darling Buds of May reruns.

Apart from the fact that the author Francis Pryor totally debunked the majority of English history (such as the Venerable Bede‘s account, the lack of invasion, and the existence of King Arthur as anything but a real person), one of the most fascinating aspects of his study was the development of the English language. Although basically Germanic, much Latin, French and Celtic has been adopted as much through fashion as through settlement. Apparently.

Words like stylish, abdicate, aid, and desire all derive from Latin whereas trendy, abandon, help and want are Germanic.

And this got me thinking…

My first two compositions in my new Psalm Composition Project were both dedicated to specific people. Dedication. What does that mean?

According to Merriam Webster (American English), dedication means:

  • a devoting or setting aside for a particular purpose.
  • a name and often a message prefixed to a literary, musical, or artistic production in tribute to a person or cause.
  • self-sacrificing devotion.
  • a ceremony to mark the official completion or opening of something (as a building).

According to Oxford (British English), dedication means:

  • the quality of being dedicated or committed to a task or purpose: his dedication to his duties
  • the action of dedicating a church or other building: the dedication of a new city church
  • an inscription or form of words dedicating a building, book, etc. to a person or deity: A faintly engraved inscription or dedication. The hardback edition contained a fulsome dedication to his wife.

And according to Macquarie (Australian English), dedication means:

  • the act of dedicating.
  • the fact of being dedicated.
  • an inscription prefixed or attached to a book, etc., dedicating it to some person.

(Not that regionalization will matter much longer: each country’s Google sites [Google.com, Google.co.uk, Google.com.au] are displaying the same three dictionaries, so it won’t be long before we have a truly universal English language).

Clearly, dedicating a piece of music to someone is a commonly accepted practice amongst English-speaking cultures. I like to think that when I dedicate my music to someone, it is a actually combination of the definitions above: a devotion, a commitment, and an act of dedicating.

But a dedication to whom?

In my case, I like to dedicate my music to people who are important to me; People who have had a significant impact in my life. The first piece in this psalm composition project was dedicated to Gregory Ruffer, a peer whose honest feedback actually prompted the development of the project in the first place… that’s a pretty important and significant impact!

The second piece was dedicated to my college friend Jim Stretton, who through the years has helped me appreciate orchestral brass instruments. He was also one of the first people in my adult (post high school) life who extended kindness by inviting me to sublet a room in his house-share. It was the first time I moved out of my parents’ home and another significant and important event in my life.

British American Conductor Composer Stephen P Brown with fans after a concert

Chatting with fans after a concert

However, in that same piece I also demonstrated my gratitude to many other individuals who have helped me understand and appreciate low brass instruments. Several probably don’t even know it, but I was paying close attention to them, their playing skills and techniques, and I was listening.

As I embark on the third piece in this project, a piano solo, to whom will I dedicate it? One idea: some of the most important people in my life today – those who like my music, support my activities, and loyally read my posts & emails. For want of another term, my Fans! If you consider yourself a fan, please watch the video at the link below and afterwards select one of the opportunities to have my next composition dedicated to you. Seriously!

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/stephenpbrown/i-will-dedicate-my-next-composition-to-you

 

Tried something new recently?

Brasso Profundo - definitely something new.

This new routine is tough!

Getting up an hour earlier every morning isn’t like an on/off switch – it is taking lots of discipline but you know what? I’m getting a lot of work and reading done.

But that’s just one new outcome of this Psalm Setting Quest.

Another one is being adventurous.

If you look through my list of compositions they are mostly for percussion (including piano) and wind instruments. There are a handful of string pieces and one or two that include brass instruments. For some reason, ever since writing a tacky piece for brass quintet, percussion and narrator in college, I’ve avoided composing for brass instruments.

So, I decided to switch things around a little bit and tackle brass instruments head-on!

My buddy Jim Stretton (of Orichalcum and Brasso Profundo) shared some wonderful advice, and to start with I’ll be writing for just horn, trombone and tuba. Once I have some increased familiarity with these instruments, then I can add a couple of trumpets.

Therefore, my next psalm, number 143, will be for a brass trio. This is definitely something new for me.

  • What have you done recently that is new to you?
  • And how has it transformed your life (or not!)?

Let me know in the comments below:

 

A little of this with a little of that…

Classical music online is abundant. Here for your entertainment and sheer wonder is a fabulous video by some bored piano store salesmen in Utah, in which the performers deftly amalgamate two completely separate and individually recognizable pieces of music (both representing a little piece of Mid-West USA, just for extra measure).

Somewhere over the simple gifts.

 

Go find another video by The Piano Guys and tell us in the comments below which one is your favorite. (Notice how their channel has almost as many views as Lady Gaga!)

 

 

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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.