Maestro Salonen Making Sense (Ten Tips for Conductors)

"talk to the hand."

“talk to the hand.”

I freely admit, this is me posting something primarily so I won’t lose track of it for myself.

None of these are brain surgery, but all make really good sense. Probably my favorite is #4, “Accept that you are just a waiter.” He says, “The composer is the chef and the conductor is the waiter. Both are totally honourable professions, but we have to accept that if I conduct a piece by Beethoven, I’m just a waiter. I might be head waiter, but waiter none the less and I am there to make sure the food comes to the table on time and intact.”  I love this.

And of course, #10, “Be a boy or a girl.” Hah.

So check it out: Esa-Pekka Salonen: 10 tips to becoming a conductor.

Don’t stiff the musicians (The Internet explodes)

Ludwig say, "Und wer's nie gekonnt, der stehle Weinend sich aus diesem Bund!"

Ludwig say, “Und wer’s nie gekonnt, der stehle
Weinend sich aus diesem Bund!”

Usually when the Internet explodes, it’s over something fairly innocuous, or at least overblown.

Musicians quietly going unpaid 9 months after a large festival gig—not so innocuous. Those same musicians being thanked for their patience and willingness to not trumpet the organization’s financial woes on social media, and being promised the next year would not be planned until all debts from the previous year were made good, and then learning that the 2014 installment was planned and announced (and apparently musicians booked as well)—pretty explosion-worthy, in my opinion.

For anyone who hasn’t already seen and followed this story, I’d recommend getting caught up via the following links: The International Beethoven Project looks like a really fascinating and amazing program, to be honest—I’ve never attended, but at least in print it appears to be exactly the kind of event the classical music world needs to attract new listeners. (The originators of other, clumsier attempts at same would do well to pay attention.) Norman Lebrecht’s Slipped Disc blog picked up on the story, as did the Chicago Reader. Andrew Patner, one of Chicago’s primary voices on Things Musical (and, to my mind, one of the few music critics to whom I generally pay attention due to his tendency to make intelligent and straightforward assessments of what’s going on musically in any given moment, even if that assessment is aimed at performances in which I have taken part. I don’t love it, of course, but I usually have to shrug and say, “yeah, okay, that’s fair.”), speaks out on his WFMT blog and is proving to be a powerful voice for these unpaid musicians—he speaks, and people notice, because he’s, well, Andrew Patner.  Ellen McSweeney’s elegant essay on the New Music Box, entitled “Chicago: The Deafening Silence of the Beethoven Festival Musicians,” is beautifully written and suggests at least to me that she might consider writing as a secondary career; one wouldn’t normally consider this a more secure and lucrative job avenue than classical music freelancing, but recent events might make one reconsider…

The articles are interesting and informative, but I especially would invite people to check out the comments, where rumors (which, being rumors, are by definition unsubstantiated, but I would very much like further information on them because they certainly aren’t ridiculous-sounding) fly: that early on one of the orchestra members suggested union involvement and was promptly fired, that the allegedly impartial logic of which of the unpaid musicians got paid first may not be too impartial at all,  that none of the 2012 musicians were invited back for 2013 and none of the 2013 musicians (including the unpaid ones) were invited back for 2014 (this one should be easy to track down the veracity of), and so on. If anyone finds their way here who can shed more light on the above, I’d welcome it.

(I also find myself shaking my head in “is this for real?” incredulity at the commenters who, with an apparently straight face, castigate Patner and the musician silence-breakers for calling the situation out, usually in the name of “passion” and not “punishing well-intentioned and ambitious arts programs for their mistakes.” Fortunately as the days pass more commenters are calling BS on these apologists, and hopefully they will dissipate into silence.)

The bigger conversation to which this has given rise is the climate of discomfort in which many musicians find themselves regarding Talking About Money. Ellen McSweeney’s essay in fact starts with a story she recounts about a mentor-contractor who chides her for asking the compensation for a gig up front, suggesting such a question might result in her not getting asked again. I find this attitude appalling in the extreme, and I hope if nothing else this whole IBF explosion results in rooting it out to some degree and alerting especially young freelancers that it is not cool and the norm of freelancing should be the exact opposite.  The comments on Ellen’s post and at least one new one that has arisen from it (Andrew Lee’s post eloquently titled “F*ck You, Pay Me: Some Thoughts on Musicians and Money” is a solid piece and covers most of the necessary ground) present a pretty overwhelming groundswell in this direction, one which I hope continues to roll.

(I will offer a small disagreement in some cases on the necessity for always having written contracts, especially for smaller jobs, now that so many gigs are offered and accepted via email—even without an official contract, if you have an email from the hiring party saying “here are the details and this is what you will get paid,” shouldn’t that stand as a fairly firm in writing commitment? Does anyone really hire over the phone any more? God, I hope not…and if they did, I’d always ask at the end of the conversation, “can you please send me all these details in an email, so I have them in writing and won’t lose track of them”?)

So, I think we can we agree, as gigging musicians, that being informed up front and in writing what the compensation plan is for a given job should be the absolute norm for any engagement, right?

Here’s my real question, though, a further call-out: Can we agree, as those who sometimes are the contractors who hire musicians for jobs, that we will make a point of stating up front the compensation for any given engagement, before the musician needs to ask—before, in fact, the musician even agrees to the job?  That we will not send out all the information about a gig but leave out this one detail, so the musician has to decide whether to come back and ask? Can we agree to transparency and clarity whenever we offer work to another musician, so this never comes up?

I offer this challenge for myself as well, and an offering of public repentance for the times I have slipped up in this area in years past–and I have definitely slipped. I’ve had decades to make mistakes on both sides of the problem, as both the hirer and the hiree, and I can only hope I’m learning, and that I have managed to make it right when I have done damage to an individual or a relationship*.

So I suppose I have some small sympathy for George Lepauw in the mistakes he has made.

But part of making mistakes is making them right—acknowledging them,  making reparation for them, and not making them again.

And that is where sympathy shrinks and dies.

[UPDATE: The President of the Chicago musicians’ union has written letters to both George Lepauw and the general Chicago musical community…all I can say is bravo, and this is why we have unions.]



*If anyone reads this with whom I haven’t made it right, at any point in the past, please let me know even now. Seriously.

This is so very very…sad.

I’m all for trying to make classical music relevant to a new generation.

But I’m not sure this is the way:

In fact, I’m pretty sure this is not the way. (Don’t even bother to watch it all–skip ahead to maybe 2:50 or so, watch for a few seconds till your eyeballs begin to bleed and your lunch threatens to backtrack its way to a simpler time, pour a stiff bourbon, and come back.) (Are you back now? I told you it would not be pleasant.)

The friend who posted this on his Facebook page said, “If this is what it takes to get a particular demographic to attend an orchestral concert, then it’s time to shutter the hall.” And I absolutely share his horror.

The thing is, I don’t think this IS what it will take to bring a new demographic in–I mean, they may come for this concert, but is there anything about this–this display–(imagine that word spoken by Judi Dench or Maggie Smith in the haughtiest tone possible) that would make anyone go, “Hey, this symphony stuff is cool, if I liked this, I bet I’d love the Beethoven 7th they are doing next week!” No, they’ll go, “Hey! Sir Mix-a-lot! And dig the chick twerking like crazy up there!” If anything, the symphonic players in the background look even more stilted, jaded, stiff, and old-fashioned than they do in a more typical concert.

I’m not sure what the answer is.

But as I say, I’m pretty sure this isn’t it.


Progess is being made. In case you’re wondering.


(image credit: Microsoft clipart)

I want to go on record as saying that I have, as of now, completed 5 chapters equalling about 65 pages of writing on The Paper, despite breaking my “Seinfeld Chain” more times than I care to admit. (It’s a DMA thesis, so it doesn’t have to be the Massive Intimidating Tome a PhD document would have to be.) And now I’m getting to the fun part, where I get to actually start analyzing my pieces, since I spent the first 5 chapters setting up the theoretical stuff that makes the analysis possible. I’m now at that awkward point of waiting for my adviser to get back to me to say, “Great work, it’s absolutely perfect and revolutionary and will change everything in musical scholarship as we know it, you rock, girlfriend!” so I can keep writing.

(No. He won’t say that. In fact, I’m fully expecting heavy revision, which is why I’d love to hear something before I head into heavy analysis, because if the foundation of the first half of the paper doesn’t stand, there’s no point in building on it.)

I continuously am blown away by how much longer academic writing takes than anything else I’ve ever written. There is no flow, no stream of consciousness, because  every damn thing you say has to be backed up and cited, and I’ve more than once spent probably 40 minutes researching something that in the end boiled down to a single dependent clause in the paper. But I had to do it, because I needed the dependent clause(s), and without the research and citation I couldn’t say what I needed to. Slow. Slow like snail. Fiction writers with writers block can move faster than this. Ugh. It’s frustrating.

But…It’s coming along.

Mozart in the Jungle–worth the read?

mozart-in-jungle-sex-drugs-classical-music-blair-tindall-paperback-cover-artI just finished reading Mozart in the Jungle, a salacious and often tabloid-like book by oboist and journalist Blair Tindall about her years trying to make it in the classical orchestral world of New York City in the eighties and nineties.

It was, honestly, one of those fascinating books I couldn’t stop reading but now that I’m done can’t quite decide if I liked or not. She shifted on a dime between her autobiographical memoir-like stories and some pretty heavy-on-the-statistics journalism about the whole rise of the professional symphony orchestra, where the money comes from, where it goes, and who gets it. The autobiographical portions illustrate clearly who does not get it most of the time–the players themselves.

The autobiographical bits also become like that clichéd car crash you can’t look away from–I know a lot of professional musicians, but no one I know (at least to my knowledge) does or did quite the level of drinking, drugs, and bed-hopping that seemed to be the norm for her life and that of those she hung with. I mean, she was falling into bed with a new guy on each page, it seemed for a while there. Admittedly, as one who came of age in the AIDS era, I have to acknowledge that she grew up a decade before me and leaped into that world yet another decade younger as a talented high schooler, and that the entire concept of a world where sex and drugs had the luxury of being about propriety and not you-could-die-from-one-wrong-encounter is alien to me. (And I was pretty sheltered anyway.) Still. Personally, this woman seemed to be a self-absorbed train wreck, with zero self-esteem and a whole lot of self-destructive set-in patterns. (Like when she was sleeping, sort of at the same time, with all three of the potential oboists who could contract her for the various freelance groups, and was surprised when things came to a head and she lost not only all three men but also all her employment prospects. Like she’d never seen it coming. I’m like, seriously?) This kind of thing kind of kept happening one way or the other until she up and got out of the classical music and broadway pit world.

(And when I looked her up to see what she has been up to since the book came out, I see she was apparently dating Bill Nye the Science Guy, and they sort of got married, but it turned out it wasn’t legal, and now they are broken up and he has restraining orders and lawsuits on her because she poured weedkiller on his roses. Or something. So it does not appear that career change resulted in increased life-stability or better life-partner choices.) (UPDATE: see the comments; one commenter offers a Blair-sided version of the tale which makes a lot more sense than the version you find on most websites.)

But the thing about the whole orchestral financial system–It’s a perspective I admit I hadn’t considered, enmeshed in this world as I am: cities supposedly have symphony orchestras and other arts programs to enrich the lives of the community. To get increased quality from the performers, and to manage the high levels of money that have to move around, there are soloists, conductors, and administrators who demand high levels of compensation. This compensation comes from federal funding and wealthy donors who are desperate to offset some of their income with donations for tax purposes. Meanwhile, audience interest wanes and the ticket prices required to cover all the expenses of such concerts get so high that most of the “community” the orchestra is theoretically there to serve can’t afford to purchase them. It’s this big circular mess. (I’ll be classy and not use the word I was thinking.) And meanwhile, most of the players are getting shafted, and the ones without union protection get even more shafted. And job satisfaction is low. So…it’s quite the conundrum.

But anyway, the book–I’d definitely recommend it, if only to have other people to talk with about it. There were definite moments when I wanted to stop and argue with her about her facts, figures, and the conclusions she drew from them. There were other moments when I was like, “Okay, wow. Never thought of it that way, never thought to even ask that question.”

So…let me know if you read it!

(Amazon Prime also made a pilot for a TV series “based on” it–no relationship at all except that the main character is an oboist, from what I can tell.  And the guy playing the hot young maestro is hot and young but desperately needs a conducting coach, because he looks ridiculous. Essentially it looked like Smash” but about symphony orchestras. I don’t think it’s been picked up for a season, but I enjoyed the pilot. You can watch it for free.) (another UPDATE: It has apparently been picked up for 10 episodes. Please, please get Bernal a coach…)


Time Curve Preludes

I was initially going to write a post about this ridiculous commercial, but I’m taking the high road and going with William Duckworth’s Time Curve Preludes instead.

I love these pieces–the American Record Guide calls them the “Well-Tempered Clavier of Minimalism,” and while I’m on the fence as to how traditionally “minimalistic” they are (does anyone really know what minimalism is, honestly? Or, do any two people who know what minimalism really is actually agree with one another?), I still think they are absolutely cool. Some are more favorite-y than others, but as someone who doesn’t generally sit down and listen to solo piano music for pleasure (despite having gotten a degree in piano performance…that’ll tell you something, won’t it?), I nonetheless keep putting these on my rotation.


(By the way, speaking of minimalism, Kyle McGann’s “New Music Box” articles about minimalism and Stuff Like It are a really good read, much better than most turgid academic-y articles, and fascinating. I like this stuff. If you do too, bookmark it and check it later!)

New Line of Conducting Batons

It has come to my attention recently that there are certain composers whose music is inherently more suitable for more “feminine” conductors at its helm, whereas other more masculine and less fluffy composers’ works should only be conducted by men.

This is a serious issue for the world of classical music, and its implications are vast and potentially terrifying. Therefore, at the suggestion and under the inspiration of female “conductor” and thus, obviously, fluffy-music specialist Liz Garnett, I have begun work on an entire line of batons to assist inadequately gender-matched conductors in their efforts to conduct works of the composers for whose music they are not naturally inclined to be proficient.

The prototype for the first in this line: the Debussy:

pink baton


What do you think? Gentlemen, will this help you to Get Your Girly On when you go knock around the Nocturnes?

Hell to the no.

Igor Strawinsky

Igor say, “This chick rocks Les Noces”

I can’t believe we are still seeing articles like this:

“Women conductors? It’s not getting any better, only worse.”

(I suppose my blogging about it and spreading this dinosaur’s archaic idiocy is part of the problem in the “we are still seeing” department, but I must rant.)

Although I must also point out my favorite comment, where Liz Garnett suggests in response to Maestro’s suggestion that women could conduct Debussy but nothing serious like Stravinsky or Bruckner, “Guys, you should try directing La Mer with a pink sparkly baton, you get a much more authentic sound…”

(Liz Garnett is my hero. I’m practically a fangrl. Here’s a link to her blog--I highly recommend it!)

At least Salonen comes out on the right side of history on this one. I get more disturbed when young guys come out with this kind of garbage.

And for the record, I can conduct the s**t out of Stravinsky. So freaking there.

Music to Wander the World By…

Okay, so I’m working on my dissertation. And I have this way of wandering across a topic that will in the end maybe get two sentences in the finished paper but in the moment I get all worked up and start following it way farther than I need to.

Today I rediscovered the coolness that is “sound installations,” aural artworks in public places where the location and placement of the sound is integral to the piece itself…

My favorite, which I’ve known about for a while, is John Luther Adams’ “The Place Where You Go To Listen.” It’s in a room at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, where computers translate the seismic, meteorological, and geomagnetic data from various stations all over Alaska and present them as sound, in real time. That room is on my bucket list in spades. (Here’s an interesting article from the New Yorker about the Place…check it out!)

Then there’s Janet Cardiff’s “Forty Voice Motet,” wherein as far as I can tell you have 40 voices each recorded individually, played through 40 speakers placed all around the room (perhaps most famously in Fuentadeña Chapel in the Cloisters), each singing one on a part Thomas Tallis’s monumental Spem in Allium. The youtube clip is for reference; I’m sure the reality of the experience is nothing at all like this, especially since the camera doesn’t seem to move about the room.

Susan Philipsz. “Surround Me.” A series of sound installations all over London, with her own unaccompanied voice singing at different times from different speakers.

I spent a good bit of time with Susan’s stuff on Youtube; it’s lovely and peaceful and plaintive, and it’s just the kind of thing I enjoy; but listening to it like this is like looking at a thumbnail picture of the Sistine Chapel ceiling on my iphone, you know? I need to go to some of these places…

(There are tons more–Brian Eno, Maryanne Amacher, Max Neuhaus, so many…)

And one more:

« Older Entries