Monday, February 27, 2006

SPARK Overview

Greetings from the land of the overwhelmed! After a weekend spent at a Rock conference (see IASPM below), I was asked to review the SPARK Festival of New Music and Art at the University of Minnesota this past weekend. It began on Tuesday evening and lasted through Sunday afternoon, with a nearly full schedule.

The featured artists were Alvin Lucier and Scanner (Robin Rimbaud). Both gave keynote lectures, Scanner on Wednesday and Lucier on Friday. Scanner also performed on Wednesday evening, and some of Lucier's pieces were performed on Friday and Saturday.

I'll go into greater detail in following posts, but I wanted to post some very broad observations about the whole experience. First, the schedule was far too busy. Each day began with 4 papers at 9am (30 minutes each), then a concert at 11:15, then another concert (or panel) at 12:30, another concert at 3, and a final concert at 7:30pm. Following the final concert was a live laptop performance at a local pub (10pm). More often than not, the sessions ran late, forcing the next session to begin late, etc. The end result was a totally exhausted audience.

Both Scanner and Lucier were charming speakers, and I could have listened to either for far longer than the hour or so alotted. Both talked a lot about their musical upbringing and development of a more mature style, and both cited many similar influences (esp. John Cage).

Lucier's music was far and away the best of the week. It is extremely demanding of both performer and audience, and is also incredibly expressive. The other pieces in the festival tended toward the "busy" (throwing every new technique or sound into the composition) and paled in comparison.

Some of the lowlights included a terrible panel discussion on Netlabels - the message we got was "Internet good! Industry bad!" with no real idea that most of what they discussed has already happened (i.e. independant labels in the 30's, 40's and 50's, not to mention Disco) or that they were only approaching this from the label's perspective, and not the artists. One of the panelists actually mentioned that he actively downloads the music of other artists to use in his DJ sets on the weekends without paying or even acknowledging the artists from which he steals music. Yeah, the internet is GREAT!

Other lowlights included a distinct sense of cronyism (more U of MN grad students than other composers combined, and a lot of Columbia grad students, for example), concerts that went on for far too long (one lasted OVER three hours - it had 11 pieces), offensive pieces (a NY improvisational group that featured two amplified violins, two electric guitars and an amplified piano, not to mention video and live computer sounds), and many many pieces that featured technology used in rudimentary forms. By that I don't mean to suggest that the pieces weren't well crafted - I don't have many of the skills that some of these first year master's students do in terms of tech knowledge. However, almost all (and by that I mean over 90%) of the pieces featuring live electronics used the same tired model of the computer as effects pedal. If the performer gets loud, the effects get loud. If the performer plays fast, the effects go fast....etc. For such a long and potentially varied festival, I would have liked to hear more, well, variety or compositional technique.

Oh, I heard one silence that was over a second, and that was a sectional boundary in one piece.

There were plenty of highlights, too. The spaces were very interesting, ranging from inside art galleries to a stunning performance space (the Southern Theater). The audiences were great and nearly every performance was packed. There were a number of installations, including a guerilla installation or two. Some pieces were quite good, even if they did follow a particularly outdated model, and I surprisingly enjoyed some of the multimedia pieces. Again, the Lucier works were an absolute joy and I really loved those.

Overall, I'm happy to have spent the week there, even if it was exhausting (the hour drive each way wasn't any fun). And Wanna visited for the final three days of the festival, so we got to catch up and plan a bit for the future too.


Tuesday, February 21, 2006

IASPM Follow up

As you all know, I just got back from a conference presentation at the Internation Association for the Study of Popular Music - US Branch meeting at MTSU in Murfreesboro, TN.

My paper was on Mash-up's, and it generally went well. Many of the other papers were given by scholars in Media Studies, or English, or various other (non-Music) fields. In fact, there seemed to be a general lack of interest in true music scholarship in popular MUSIC studies! This is partially an outgrowth of the mission of the association, which is to draw upon a much greater audience than simply music academics, or musicians, or fans, or sociologists (etc), but rather to bring that diverse group together for a common dialogue. This mostly works, but the unfortunate result is a smaller group of people than you might imagine. This is a tight knit group of scholars that all know each other's work. I don't mean any of this as a criticism, but it did lead to rather small paper sessions!

I got a little side tracked there - back to the report. Many of the other papers that I attended included a heavy theory approach, and I don't mean music theory...more like social theory. So I spent quite a lot of time making what had been very subtle references to theory much more obvious. I'm not a fan of papers that go from quote to quote. To me, they seem like proof that the author is well read, and often the quotes don't make a lot of sense. I ended up with a number of quotes, but only two that I'd say fit into that category - one from Marshall McLuhan that I "rewrote", substituting "song" when McLuhan said "technology". The other was labelling Mash-up's as "Meta-Media." I had to fit a quote that wasn't exactly what I meant into proof that backed up my assertion that Mash-up's are meta-media. In an earlier draft, all of that info was there, but it was far more subtle.

In the end, perhaps all of that subtlety was a bit too much, as all the questions ended up being about my descriptions of the history and precursors. Yes, I know that Get Your Bootleg On is a good resource....but the damn paper is only 20 minutes long! haha! There were some big-wigs there (Mark Katz for example), but not one person talked to me afterward. They saved their comments for the other paper - on Mix-tapes.

Did I mention that the other paper was far more standard format for conference presentations? I guess I need to buy into the cool-people's club (see Kembrew McLeod if you want to know about that club).

Rebekah's paper was much more well recieved, even though there were literally only a handful of people there. Among them were the editor of the association's journal, as well as the head of the FreeMuse project. She also made good connections with some fellow ethno students.

Two great presentations on FreeMuse and on the Future of Music Coalition - Jen Toomey is an excellent leader of the latter group. Also saw some great papers on Music Video, one by Catherine Vernalis and the other by Joanna Demers.

Geography Lesson

Okay - someday I'll get this right.

The map shows the location of The Hague in relation to Amsterdam. Utrecht isn't on the map, but I am assured that not only does it exist, but Lilly does NOT currently live there. (is that a triple negative?)

Thursday, February 16, 2006

No recent posts? What gives?

Well, I've been neglecting you, my blogosphere fan club (zero members, but we think there might be some luck getting the NSA to wiretap Sonic Event soon!).

I'd like to think that I had a good reason - writing a paper for a conference. The problem is that I procrastinated and had to stay up all night to write the paper before last week's "preview" to the campus and so I've been a bad boy. But now that I'm at the conference, I can take this opportunity to say how rapidly evolving this technology is. I'm sitting in a bar in a random hotel in Murfreesboro, TN, having a beer and writing this entry.

That's right - through wireless technology, I'm able to stay in contact regardless of my actual physical location in space. Almost all of the legitimate readers of the blog know each other, and know that one of us is in San Francisco, I'm (usually) in Minnesota, a gaggle is in Washington DC, and one is even in Amsterdam/Utrecht.

But none of that matters one whit. This media - the blogosphere and internet - makes physical location completely moot. This past weekend, I participated in a 50 hour marathon trivia contest. Members of our team were located in two different cities in Minnesota, at Notre Dame, Chicago, Long Island (Stony Brook)....and the contest itself just happened to be "centered" in my new home city. One team had members in Thailand!

When you add in the flat-ness that technology like cell phones (no long distance), our world really shrinks to an unbelievable degree.

So why did it take me all day to get to Tennessee today??


Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Again, on arts support

I'm in the midst of suffering through writers block as I desperately try to finish a paper before presenting it in two days (!)

But I can't neglect Sonic Event for too long!

I've read with much interest the growing online response to our President's recent budget proposals. In particular, I couldn't help but notice that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting budget is slated to be cut quite a bit over the next two years.

Variety Article

Sometimes today in our digital, computer and cable age it is hard to remember, but it wasn't more than 3 years ago that I was couch-potatoing to PBS (the only station other than Fox that came in well in Hyattsville). And I honestly don't know what life as a youngster would have been like without Sesame Street.

But this isn't about memories from 25 years ago.

For much of rural America, the ONLY exposure to the arts was through PBS. Is opera broadcast anywhere else? Every week there is at least one documentary about new art, one about music, one about rock....not to mention the excellent news magazine Frontline.

So the budget is being cut, so what? Well, that $100 million represents roughly 25% of the TOTAL budgeted to the CPB. Hate those endless pledge drives? (me too) Well, looks like the stations are going to have to add a few!

And perhaps the worst part of all is that we JUST went through this last year. Here is an article from about 6 months ago describing this very same proposal:

Washington Post Article (2005)

Many of those cuts weren't successful in the end.

The State of Minnesota alone has $2 BILLION sitting around waiting for PRIVATE bioscience companies to move into Central Minnesota. The entire CPB budget is less than one quarter of that (to give this a bit of perspective). Or maybe a better analogy would be the new stadium proposal in DC. The City Council just aprroved a budget of over $600 million in public funds for a stadium for a private business. (and I'm a baseball fan)

Mad yet?

Sunday, February 05, 2006

To clarify

Sorry - I'm not sure that my main point about my post below is clear (this isn't response to your comment Mike, which is interesting for sure!).

I feel that eighth blackbird came around in the right place at the right time. Good support, both academically and financially, from Universities combined with a fortuitous management contract allowed this group to consider staying together, which has only helped in a snowballing manner the rest of their careers.

But there aren't really any other groups like them. Nearly every other group that I can think of is comprised of members spread out geographically that only come together on break from teaching/performing. Or their teaching load places too many demands on their time to allow for adequate practice.

It takes a serious commitment from all parties to ensure success like this. But there is precious little of this in academia or from the government, at least in the States. What I am suggesting below and in this post is that better, continued support is what is needed. Sure, large ensembles like orchestras are supported by the public. But the audience reaction to eighth blackbird, not to mention the reaction of youngsters (they visited at least two universities and three schools plus a retirement home in thier 4 day residency here in St Cloud) just shows me that there is an existing audience for this already. Audiences crave progress, not business as usual with art.

It would be nice if society as a whole recognized this!!!

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Politics and art

Let's get political.

Tonight I went to a performance by eighth blackbird, a New Music group based in Chicago. They presented a very interesting program of all very new pieces, some composed for their 10th anniversary, celebrated this year. The most interesting piece was perhaps the oldest, Les Moutons de Panurge, by Frederic Rzewski (click to see the score). Without going into gory detail, I saw them perform this piece earlier in the week and, while they take some liberties with the score (for example augmenting the melody at will), the performance was excellent and true in spirit to the original. I can imagine that, with dozens of performances of this piece and countless hours of practice that the performers get good enough to perform the piece with few, if any, mistakes. The augmentation helps amplify any mistakes that occur.

But I'm not going to review the entire performance here. Instead, I'd like to focus on the ensemble itself. These musicians have been playing together since they were undergrads - in fact, some of them started as sophomores! After some initial academic support from the faculty at Oberlin, they decided to continue playing together. Cincinnati College has a program for existing chamber music groups to study at the graduate level. With full tuition and a very sympathetic faculty, the group immediately started performing across the country and participating in conferences and competitions. After a successful performance in one competition in NYC, they were signed to a management deal (more on that in a moment). The support of Cincinnati College allowed them to have their own private studio space as well as a generally free schedule to practice and perform - an important precedent for this group. This was followed by further studies at Northwestern for the entire group.

Yes - eighth blackbird has stayed together since undergrad! Through a bit of good luck, good timing, and a lot of hard work, these musicians have done what few chamber music groups can claim, let alone those that specialize in New Music! They have residencies in Chicago and Richmond, and they spend at least three hours a day in rehearsal - a key part of the philosophy of this group. (I don't know if I've ever heard a group play so well together, particularly intonation). The management contract allowed the group to have enough advance bookings in the beginning to make the venture viable.

Now they are non-profit, which allows them to pursue grant opportunities. This allows them to fund a rather extensive commissioning schedule. All in all, a great musical and business success.

But I wanted to stress for a moment the support angle of this story. They are most certainly gifted performers. However, they were able to take advantage of some of the very few opportunities for support out there. With a more extensive network of public support, a few more of these groups might exist. Granted, they get their start at a private conservatory (and were thus free of the requirements that public school must follow, such as 45 Gen Ed credits). These musicians clearly love the music and are excited to share it with the public (the performances are also used as teaching opportunities). I wish that more groups like this were around - for the musicians, the composers and the audiences!

Thursday, February 02, 2006

12 Best Buildings of 2005

This just in:

The 12 Best Buildings of 2005

These are actually arranged by category, including Best Hospital, Best Residence, Best Expansion, Best Art Gallery, etc.

Below is a pic of the Shaw Center for the Arts, which is the best Multi-Purpose Arts Building. It is located in Baton Rouge, LA.

What really caught my eye with this building was the way that it goes above and over the neighboring building, a hotel! This allows it an excellent view of the river. Other notable features include a large slot cut right into the buidling, and the banded green glass in the facade.

Just imagine what the University of Maryland could have ended up with (yes, this building is part of LSU). Check out some of the other buildings mentioned!
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