Andy Evan Cohen, Composer






This is the page on my website where I get the chance to ramble (hopefully not too excessively) about whatever happens to strike my fancy. I have little or no intention of making this a daily weblog (I have never been a particularly good or consistent diarist- see below); think of this page as a collection of my musings on whatever topic I decide to muse about (including amusing musifications on music and musicians.) (OK, mostly about that whole music thing.)

Quickie shortcut here: of all my postings, the one I did about the key of the Star Spangled Banner is probably my most infamous. And the one about Kabbalah is also kinda neat. But feel free to meander around this page to find other random nuggets of possibly (but probably not) useful information from my sporadic fulminations.


April 13, 2008

The Merits of Video Game Music

To prefecase this posting of mine (from the Yahoo! Answers Classical Music board; see my post below for more details about that) about video game music, let me state that I am not a gamer. One of these days, I will do a post explaining exactly why (this has to do with the nature of video games post-Super Mario Brothers, and the random values vs. maze constructs of those games, but that will have to be a later post...)

Nonetheless, I am rather open minded towards the merits of game music even if I am not a devoted player of those games. Here is a little explanation of that (in response to someone who asked whether video game music could be considered to be classical music.)

I'm arguing that game music isn't classical music...yet.

There have been many pieces of music within the classical music canon which have originated as works written for theater, dance, film, and other genres. Mendelssohn's music to "A Midsummer's Night Dream" would be an obvious example, and so would such 20th century pieces like Prokofiev's "Alexander Nevsky" cantata (from a film score) and Bernstein's "Symphonic Dances from West Side Story" (from the Broadway musical.) An even more recent example would be Karl Jenkins's "Shadows" (for string ensemble; originally written for a TV commercial.)

What makes works like the above considered "classical music" and not "film music" or "Broadway" is their transformation into the classical symphonic medium.

If you played the entire score of West Side Story with the singers in a live setting, you would be doing a concert staging of a musical. But when Joshua Bell plays arrangements of those songs as a piece for violin and orchestra, changes are made to the content of the music which transform the work from a musical to a piece of classical instrumental music.

Similarly, the music for Final Fantasy IV, played in the context of a video game, is video game music. The changes made in adapting and developing (structurally changing) that same music transform it from video game music to a classical instrumental piece (and hence classical music).

However, there are three reasons why most musicians today don't consider the above paragraph to be true:

1.) Most classical musicians aren't gamers and hence don't have a frame of reference to consider the genre. As you can see by the above answers, this is mostly true, but slowly changing.

2.) A piece of classical music needs to have withstood the test of time for it to be considered as a legitimate expression in the art form. "Porgy and Bess" wasn't considered to be an opera by many classical musicians until fairly recently, and if there were a Y!A board in 1960, and someone had asked about West Side Story being classical music, the answers would have overwhelmingly been that it is Broadway, not classical, and any question about the "Symphonic Dances" would have been greeted with thumbs down and prompts of "this is not classical music." (Plus ca change,...)

3.) Most symphonic arrangements of video game music aren't particularly well done or well conceived. Mendelssohn's "Midsummers..." music, played in its original form with no cuts or rearrangements, is not terribly exciting to listen to, but when developed into an orchestra suite, it becomes sublime and beautiful.

Compare that to the examples you posted above (here's an example): the music is well orchestrated and exciting for the first minute or so to listen to, but then becomes repetitive (as is the nature of the music: you need to have long looped sections to fill up time while playing on a particular level.) The pieces do not contain enough internal variation to succeed as classical works (where you need to hold a listener's interest for long stretches of time, beyond a minute or two.)

Hence, we are listening to game music in its early stage of the art form. (Imagine having to evaluate the success of the opera genre in 1750 or the success of rap in 1982.) As composers become more sophisticated (and as game memory expands to the point where more and more music can be included in the final product), you will see and hear game music that will very much compare favorably with classical music currently being written.

And when those compositions are successfully developed into classical works of longer duration and complexity (like in the Mendelssohn and Bernstein compositions), you will see game music arrangements considered a legitimate part of the classical repertoire instead of a novelty item.


March 14, 2008

Classical Music: Prescriptivism vs. Descriptivism

When I'm not too busy ignoring this blog, I manage to find time wasting my life away in various trivial forms of entertainment, most of which involve the use of the internet in some manner.

Here is an example of how I waste this time. There is a fun site called Yahoo! Answers ( answers.yahoo.com which every now and then, I post something to. Y!A (yes, that's how it's abbreviated) involves users who post questions they want answered (such as "What is the meaning of life?" or "What is the plot summary of The Color Purple?" or "Who is ur favrit composer mine is baytoevan LOL!!!"), and other people (with lots of time to waste) actually bother to answer these questions.

If people like your answers to their questions, they give you thumbs up; if not, thumbs down. Yeah, it's silly, but it's no less informative than Wikipedia, right?

So the other day, this one person posted a question on Y!A asking why so many people post questions in the "Classical Music" category asking "What song is this?" Obviously, the point of contention here isn't that someone is looking for a non-classical song in the classical music section (which, of course, does happen quite a bit), but rather, that these queriers are referring to instrumental compositions as "songs".

Here is how I responded to that question:

You raise a very interesting- and complicated- question. The use of "song" to describe pieces which are technically not "songs" brings to mind the frequent argument among linguists as to prescriptivism vs. descriptivism.

In presciptivist usage, the word "song" can only refer to a composition with words ("songs without words" being an exception that proves the rule.)

But in descriptivist usage, "song" can be used to describe a composition in a number of ways. The most common way, and the reason why so many posters us this term (incorrectly for a presciptivist) is to think of the word "song" as part of a Linnaeus-like hierarchy in referring to music.

Remember "Kingdom-Phylum-Class-Order-Family-Genus-Species"? Try this: Genre-Artist-Album-Song. If you go onto iTunes (or for that matter, many other online music databases), you will see something like this:

Genre: Classical
Artist: Beethoven
Album: Fifth Symphony
Song: I-Allegro con Brio

Look familiar? Obviously, for your usage, the first movement of Beethoven's 5th is not a song. Yet it is listed that way in the database, not unlike

Genre: Rock
Artist: Bruce Springsteen
Album: Born in the USA
Song: Glory Days

Is it so hard to see (in descriptivist usage) why many people would consider the first movement of Beethoven's 5th as a "song"? Besides fitting into the categories neatly, the piece is (relatively) short, has a familiar theme, and is distinct from other "songs" like the first movement of Beethoven's 3rd. (Plus, if you were to download that movement, it would be priced no differently than a download of "Glory Days".)

Before you become convinced that classical music language should only be used presciptively, consider this term: "species counterpoint". The classical music usage of the word "species" is very different from how a biologist uses the same word- the idea of "first species" vs. "second species" is inconsistent with the rules of evolution and natural selection, so to be presciptivist, you would have to come up with new musical terminology to refer to counterpoint.

And to further intrigue (or annoy) you, consider how the musical term "crescendo" is used in journalism (at least, US journalism) today in ways that are contrary to the classical music definition of that term. For example, you will frequently see sentences like, "As the politician was speaking, the audience's cheers reached a crescendo." Usage like this has become accepted by newspapers as prestigious as the New York Times and Washington Post, so it is pretty safe to assume that like the word "song", the word "crescendo" has acquired a new (descriptivist) meaning contrary to presciptivist usage.

Finally, to buttress the other posters' points of classical vs. pop usage of words, I am reminded by a line written recently by US law professor/blogger Ann Althouse in reference to the US political viewpoints. I will amend it (in parenthesis) and leave it to you to consider whether you feel my annotations are apt in light of how you see prescriptivism in classical music language:

"The Left (Classical Music) looks for heretics. The Right (Pop Music) looks for converts."

Let the thumbs-downing begin!


July 28, 2007

The Saga of Cookie

I grew up in Coral Gables, Florida, near an Everglades drainage canal. Most people, who grow up in normal urban or suburban communities, have had a pet at some point in their life. When you ask one of those people about their pet, he or she will wax nostalgically about their dog or cat, or maybe even a bird, fish, or hamster.

Coral Gables, however, is not a normal urban or suburban community. Sure, I had cats and goldfish growing up, but where I lived, the word "pet" had a more encompassing definition: a pet was any critter that came out of the canal (or adjacent marshes) and managed to find its way into my backyard and stay for a couple of days.

Which meant that growing up, my pets included numerous lizards, snakes, frogs & toads, turtles, grasshoppers, fiddler crabs, a gator, a peacock, and a multitude of other cute creatures who would give most non-Floridians (and even a few native Sunshine Staters!) the creeps.

Brooklyn is not like Coral Gables. Even though I live fairly close to a canal (the Gowanus), I - as well as most of New York City - would be greatly surprised if anything other than a roach or a rat managed to come out of the canal and find it's way to my backyard.

(Of course, Brooklyn being what it is, there is always the possibility of dredging up bullets, bones, cement shoes, and other Mafia-related curiosities from the murky Gowanus waters, but that is not the point of this saga.)

This is probably the one thing I miss most about South Florida- life is always more interesting when you can go for a stroll with a friend and have a conversation that gets interrupted by "Hey, check out that cool looking lizard over there! Here, I'll catch it for you."

However, after living in Brooklyn for over seven years, I finally had my first South Florida moment up here. Meaning, I have a pet! (And you can probably guess from the above writings that it is not a dog or cat or goldfish.)

This is Cookie. Isn't she beautiful!
My Pet Cookie

In case you were wondering, she is a Common House Spider (Achaearanea tepidariorum).

She came into my apartment sometime over the winter; I didn't discover her until this past May, when I spotted a different species of spider (a jumping spider which escaped before I could properly call him a pet) and accidentally came across her web. When I first found Cookie, she was small and thin (and much more dull in color). I caught a small ant which I fortuitively found foraging for food in the kitchen and put it in her web, and she took to it right away.

However, I didn't yet think of her as a pet (I hadn't named her yet), as I wasn't sure how long she would desire to make her web in her own little corner of the kitchen. Furthermore, the night I spotted her, I also spotted a juvenile house centipede (Scutigera coleoptrata) roaming around the hallways leading to the kitchen. Not wanting to interfere further in the predator-prey dynamic, I left both Cookie and the centipede up to their own devices and decided to see what happened in the morning.

When I checked on her web the next day, Cookie was still there (with no sign of the centipede having ever had found her). Yet there was something different about her web- she had moved it (or rather, repositioned it slightly) so it was not longer open and exposed to the hallway where the centipede could have approached her. Somehow, Cookie had sensed the danger, made a strategic determination of her weak points, and adjusted herself to her surroundings to compensate (had the centipede come near her, it would have likely been caught in her web, allowing Cookie plenty of time to escape or even to redirect the scutigera's ki and turn the predator into the prey).

I now had my pet.

I sent an email to a friend for some suggestions for names for my little housemate; I ultimately went with Cookie as she had proven to be a "smart cookie" in NYC parlance.

Since then, I've fed Cookie a number of different creatures that I have found in several Brooklyn and Manhattan parks: beetles, silverfish, lacewings, ants, flies, termites, and anything else that I have been able to "pick up" while walking around outdoors. Here is a photo showing Cookie's dinner from the past week:
Cookie's Dinner
(Left to right, going from bottom to top: a firefly, a woodlouse, and a tussock moth caterpillar.)

About two weeks ago, I looked in Cookie's web and didn't see her. I did, however, see something very interesting:
Egg Sacs
Notice how the topmost globe has something in it. This is Cookie's about-to-hatch egg sac!

A little more poikng around with the aid of a magnifying glass turned up this little fellow:
Legs
I've named him Legs (which was one of the name suggestions from friend when I first found Cookie.) Legs generally doesn't get near Cookie- being about half her size, he's smart to avoid her as he could easily end up as Cookie's next meal.

This week, the egg sac hatched, and I now have about fifteen (or so) baby Cookies all scattered around the apartment. Please feel free to email me if you want a Cookie spiderling (or two or more...) to take home as a pet!

This concludes the Saga of Cookie. I will post updates as new developments occur. Thank you for hanging around!
Cookie Hanging Around


November 25, 2006

As I noted above, my little post on the Star Spangled Banner was quite effective in bringing some publicity to my website and blog.

In this spirit, and in the spirit of this past Thanksgiving, I have decided to take upon myself the burden of becoming a "minor-expert" (as a friend of mine once put it) in another arcane, little-discussed, and still fascinating (albeit non-music related) field.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to eat a squirrel?

Now, if you're wondering where on Earth I got that idea from, I take you back to the summer of 1997. While browsing the New York Times website, I saw a link to an A.P. article filed by Sandra Blakeslee on August 29, 1997, entitled

"Kentucky Doctors Warn Against Regional Dish: Squirrels' Brains"

From the report:

"Squirrels are a popular food in rural Kentucky, where people eat either the meat or the brains but generally not both, Weisman said. Families tend to prefer one or the other depending on tradition. Those who eat only squirrel meat chop up the carcass and prepare it with vegetables in a stew called burgoo. Squirrels recently killed on the road are often thrown into the pot.

Families that eat brains follow only certain rituals. "Someone comes by the house with just the head of a squirrel," Weisman said, "and gives it to the matriarch of the family. She shaves the fur off the top of the head and fries the head whole. The skull is cracked open at the dinner table and the brains are sucked out." It is a gift-giving ritual.

The second most popular way to prepare squirrel brains is to scramble them in white gravy, he said, or to scramble them with eggs. In each case, the walnut-sized skull is cracked open and the brains are scooped out for cooking.

These practices are not related to poverty, Berger said. People of all income levels eat squirrel brains in rural Kentucky and in other parts of the South."

This article refered to a report from Kentuckey that in the summer of 1997, six people died from symptoms of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. (For the non-medically inclined, C-J diesase is also popularly known as mad-cow disease.) In looking into their diet, scientists theorized that all the victims had eaten squirrel brains, and hence they believed that there was a substantial "mad-squirrel" population out in rural Kentuckey, and hence the warnings were issued.

So, after passing on the article to my citi-folk friends (for lots of laughs), I filed the report away on my hard drive (in case I would need to refer to squirrel-brain eating in the future.)

Lo and behold, look what I come across this year on Thanksgiving. Blogger Ann Althouse came across an article from the Joplin (MO) Globe from Stephanie Davis Goad about her family's tradition of squirrel eating. (Althouse had linked this article to a picture shee took of a very cute (and presumably very tasty) squirrel.)

Here are some of Ms. Goad's points from her feature:

So, I became curious, and decided to find a squirrel recipe. A few clicks later, and here's what I dug up. It's from Larry Wise (of Wise Taxidermy in Ohio) and was included in an article by Rae Wilson in the Georgetwon (OH) News Democrat.

Fried Squirrel

Ingredients:

1 medium to large squirrel

flour

garlic powder or cloves

Lawry seasoned salt

vegetable oil

2 cans Campbell cream of mushroom soup

water

To prepare:

Cover skinned, quartered pieces of squirrel with flour, pepper, garlic powder and seasoned salt.

Place squirrel in a large cast iron skillet with one half inch vegetable oil, and fry until brown on both sides. Add 1/4 Cup hot water and simmer, covered, for four hours or until tender.

Add cream of mushroom soup and simmer an additional 30 minutes

Serve with Hungry Jack biscuits and coleslaw



I will post an update when I have a chance to catch a squirrel and test the recipe out.

I will also update if I ever find the secret recipe to making good-qualtiy non-mad-squirrel burgoo.

In the mean time, bon appetit!


October 9, 2006

I recently came across the website www.crazylaws.com, which purports to be a collection of "crazy" laws from around the US. Many of the "laws" listed seem fictitious; some are known Urban Legends, and some seem like common sense laws extrapolated into bizarre contortions for humorous effect (i.e., a law which simply and rightfully criminalizes spousal abuse becomes "it is illegal to hit your wife on a Tuesday while whistling the National Anthem.")

Some, though, have enough a kernel of truth to be worth commenting on. I've only lived for a sufficiently lenghty period of time in two states: New York and Florida, so I thought it might be fun to reflect upon some of the listed "crazy laws" in those states from what I either know or remember to be true.

(Laws quoted will be italicized; my comments are in normal formatting.)


Apparently with an exaggerated idea of the laws of thermal dynamics, the city council of West Palm Beach, Fla., once decreed that the roofs of all outhouses be fireproof.
Fires are a huge problem in Florida, so the law most likely requires reasonable fireproofing measures on all external structures, which would include outhouses.

Big Pine Key: It is illegal to molest a Key deer; If caught one will be fined or will have to go to jail.
Key Deer are an endangered species, and most Floridians know this.

Cape Coral: It is against the city ordinance to hang your clothes outside on a clothesline; It it illegal to park a pick-up truck in your driveway or in front of your house on the street (This law is limited to only those who do not own the house).
Right laws, wrong city: these are true in Coral Gables, not Cape Coral (and the Gables law makes no distinction about ownership of a house: if you have a pick-up truck, it must go in the garage.)

Florida deals with its prostitution problem by giving prostitutes spending money, a five-year banishment, and a bus ticket out of town.
This was true for one city (I believe it was North Miami Beach) in the late 80's (I remember when it passed- the city council got a lot of ridicule for it.) I doubt it was very effective, and I'm pretty sure it has been repealed since.

Florida prohibits topless walking or running within a 150 foot zone between the beach and the street.
True for Miami Beach (South Beach); I've never seen anyone violate it (most beachgoers are smart enough to cover up before they approach the heavily trafficked thoroughfare of Ocean Drive, else they face the almost certain prospect of being catcalled and video recorded) so I don't know how strictly it has to be enforced.

In Florida it is illegal to fish while driving across a bridge.
Most bridges are non-fishing zones; enforcement of this is sporadic.

Miami Shores Village, Fla., has for years required that all goods made in Communist countries and offered for sale in Miami Shores Village be clearly marked as such. The ordinance notes that such goods are often marked in a "false, misleading or inadequate manner, to hide their Communist origins."
Anyone with any knowledge of reactionary south Florida politics would have no problem believing this to be true.

Key West: Chickens are considered a 'protected species'.
Key West did have a big feral chicken problem for a while (partially due to laws that required special licenses for trapping chickens, not because of any "protected species" statutes). Now the problem down there is with feral iguanas. And no, I don't think they taste anything alike.

Oral sex is illegal.
Thanks to recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, not anymore!


And now, New York:

In New York City, it's illegal to throw swill into the street.
New Yorkers are taught about the "good old days" in the 19th century, when pigs roamed the streets of lower Manhattan. I hope this law is still on the books, as I do not pine for those days.

In Staten Island, New York, It is illegal for a father to call his son a "faggot" or "queer" in an effort to curb "girlie behavior."
Several years ago, something similar to this made the rounds in all the newspapers. This statement is an exaggeration of a motion the Staten Island council passed several years ago to curb gay bashing.

It is illegal to jump off the Empire State building.
If you do, you won't go very far: there's a landing area two stories below the observation deck which will prevent you from hitting 5th Avenue. Oh, and it's illegal to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge as well.

It's illegal in New York to start any kind of public performance, show, play, game or what have you, until after 1:05 p.m.
I've done shows with 12 noon start times, and I've never heard about this law.

Jaywalking is legal, as long as it's not diagonal. That is, you can cross the street out of the crosswalk, but you can't cross a street diagonally.
Mayor Rudy tried implementing a strict anti-jaywalking law near Radio City Music Hall in 1999. It forbid both diagonal jaywalking and crossing out of the crosswalk. It was widely ridiculed and Mayor Bloomberg has not enforced it (but I think it is still on the books.)

New York and a handful of other states require that toilets be evenly divided among men and women in public theaters or arenas.
True. I remember this law coming into play when they remodeled Avery Fisher Hall several years ago.

New York City may be the theater capital of the country, but it's illegal to have a puppet show in your window and a violation can land you in the snoozer for 30 days.
This applies to not just puppet shows, but any sort of "street window" performance (performance art, film screenings, etc). You need to get the proper permits or the police will shut you down.

The New York City Transit Authority has ruled that women can ride the city subways topless. New York law dictates that if a man can be somewhere without a shirt, a woman gets the same right. The decision came after arrests of women testing the ordinance on the subways. A transit police spokesman said they would comply with the new rule, but "if they were violating any other rules, like sitting on a subway bench topless smoking a cigarette, then we would take action." Smoking is not allowed in the subways.
All true. It is also legal for a woman to be "incidentally" (not indecently!) topless in public, such as in Washington Square Park on the Saturday just before the annual 5th Avenue Gay Pride March... (I bet you're wondering how I happended to know about this one...)

To cut down on its once-horrific graffiti problem, New York City several years ago made it illegal to carry an open can of spray paint.
NYC has very strict anti-spraypaint laws. I recently purchased spray paint from Home Depot, and had to show my ID to two different store employees before they opened up the locked spray paint rack and handed me my bottle of glossy black.

The New York State Senate passed a resolution to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Brooklyn Dodgers' 1955 world championship and expressed a longing that someday the Dodgers will return to "their one and only true home."
True. Although the way the Mets played in their recent series (sweeping the Dodgers 3-0 in the 2006 NLDS), I can't say I'm missing the Dodgers very much.


September 11, 2006

My post is a commemoration of that tragic morning five years ago. These are my recollections of that day.

Tuesday, 9/11 was a primary (elections) day in NY, so I woke up early to cast my vote before heading to work. While walking up Court Street to Borough Hall, I noticed several people had congregated around a TV in a local coffee shop. On TV (with the sound off) was live coverage showing what seemed to be a small fire on top of one of the WTC buildings. "A plane crashed into the World Trade Center", commented one of the waiters. "Probably a Cesna", speculated the owner in reply.

I exited the shop, and looked to my left, where I could see a plume of smoke beginning to form in the sky above the East River. So I kept walking downtown, and I heard a faint "boom" emanating from somewhere in lower Manhattan. I hurried down Montague street and arrived at the Promenade, where I had a spectacular view (looking directly across the river) of the carnage unfolding.

By the time I arrived, both WTC buildings were on fire, and the conflagration was especially intense. I remember someone asking about whether the WTC could survive this; I mentioned the famous incident in the 1930s when a bomber hit the Empire State Building (the building easily withstood the impact), and I confidently stated that everything would be fine.

Meanwhile, reports (from pedestrians with boom boxes) started coming in: the planes that hit the WTC were passenger airliners. Which had been hijacked. And the Pentagon was hit. And there could be more out there.

All this time, the smoke was crescendoing, getting thicker and blacker, and dust was saturating the air. I could see a hoard of people hurrying across the Brooklyn Bridge, fleeing lower Manhattan. The acrid smell of the burning towers permeated the air, and I was too transfixed to move.

And then the first building fell. Clouds of smoke and dust erupted from lower Manhattan, took the shape of the quickly collapsing tower, and then accumulated into a swarm of fine particulate, which then was picked up by the wind and began to float across the river to our direction.

I headed home. There was too much dust, and I did not want to take the chance of breathing any of it in. Looking up, facing any direction, all I could see was the black and gray smoke covering the sky and bringing an early and eerie dusk over Brooklyn.

The streets were mostly empty- everyone was either in their homes or in the process of going to their homes.

As soon as I was back in my apartment, I put on the radio (when the towers fell, I lost all TV reception), and moments later, I heard a loud rumbling noise. The radio reported that the second tower had fallen. I closed all the windows in my apartment and watched the ash begin to accumulate on my window sills. I did not go out again until much later in the afternoon, when the rain of dust had subsided.

It wasn't until many hours later when I was at a restaurant (one of the very few ones open) that I saw on TV the images that are now all too familiar: the planes hitting the towers, the damage at the Pentagon, the scene of the Flight 93 crash.

And in case you were wondering, if you hear anyone make the asinine claim that there were "thousands of Arabs cheering on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn as the towers fell" or any such nonsense, well, I was there. My neighborhood is the most well-known Arabic area in Brooklyn. In order to get from my apartment to the Promenade, I had to cross Atlantic Avenue, and I did so - twice. I was there- no-one was celebrating in the streets (days later, just about all the local businesses had put up commemorations of the victims of 9/11) and there were certainly not "thousands" out in the streets as the towers were falling.

Towers of Light

The "Towers of Light" as seen from my rooftop, 11 September 2006.


April 20, 2006.

On April 17th, my Aunt Bea (my Grandfather's sister) passed away at the age of 79. Today was the funeral, and I was selected to give the eulogy. Here's what I said.

In 1994, I first got to know my Aunt Bea. Obviously, I had known her all my life, but it wasn't until I stayed with her and my Uncle Hal in their Brooklyn apartment that I feel I got to know her.

The first thing I remember about staying with her was her helpful instructions on getting around the city. From her place in Sheepshead Bay, all I had to do was take a short ride (by bus or car) over to the train station, then take the Q train, and I'd soon be in the city. So I took the Q train into the city, and I got to my destination (the Manhattan School of Music, near Columbia University) on the Upper West Side in only an hour-and-a-half. When I told her how long it took me to get there, she laughed, and gave me a hearty welcome to New York.

Aunt Bea was the quintessential New Yorker. While staying with her, I learned to appreciate all of her favorite TV shows- especially NYPD Blue and this (then completely unknown to me) NBC Cop drama called "Law and Order." To this day, my whole family has become hooked on "Law and Order", and I give thanks to Aunt Bea for introducing it to us.

Yet it wasnÕt her love of TV shows that made Aunt Bea who she was- rather, it was her love of dance. Bea loved the theatre- and the ballet, and modern dance, and anything with lots of movement on stage- more than any other form of art. She once told me the story of when she was a young girl, and she met Agnes De Mille, and how excited she was to meet one of the legends who she had most admired.

She also told me of the time she first went to see a performance by the dance company Cage/Cunningham, and how she couldnÕt stand (or understand) what was going on- a mishmash of noise and disconnected movements which to her had no relation to the art form which (as practiced by De Mille) she loved so much. Years after she told me that story, I met Merce Cunningham, and now I will always think of her and the sour expression on her face when I think of my meeting with one of my admired legends.

Aunt Bea loved to keep track of the progress of my music. Whenever we spoke, she always made a point of asking me about my projects, and she was always ready to suggest to me new avenues for making inroads into a career in the arts. Once, while we were riding in the back of a car coming from my Aunt MarthaÕs (BeaÕs sister-in-law) funeral, Bea began to tell me about this program she had seen on CBS Sunday Morning about this composer who she thought I should hook up with. Of course, two weeks prior to that, I had hooked up with that very same composer (Richard Einhorn), so naturally Bea was pleasantly surprised that I had taken her advice!

And even recently, she was always keeping tabs on me. When we spoke this past January, she had asked me what I was working on, and I told her about this show "Kabbalah" I had written the music for. Naturally, she was following the news about that production (including the dismal reviews and the bizarre turn of events that led to the cancellation of that show), so after I mentioned what I had been doing, she took a moment to decide how to best express her reaction, and she let out a simple, plaintive, "Oy."

To conclude this speech, I want to share a quote from Agnes De Mille, who said, "To Dance is to be out of yourself. Larger, more beautiful, more powerful." Aunt Bea was not a large, powerful woman. Towards the end of her life, I imagine her, in her cancer-weakened state, her small frame inside her small apartment. But Bea was a dancer at heart, and it was that dancerÕs sensibility that gave her the strength to be more than what her body would allow her to be. And now that she has passed on, I imagine her, Up There, dancing, conversing with De Mille and the other legends, and looking down at us mortals, as if to say, "That Julia Roberts? You call that acting? Oy!"

Aunt Bea, I love you, and will always miss you.


Note: in memory of Aunt Bea, my family is collecting donations to both the National Breast Cancer Foundation, Inc. (in memory of Beatrice Eisenberg) as well as the Christopher Reeve foundation (in memory of Bea Eisenberg, as well as in memory of Dana Reeve.) Please feel free to donate if you would like to!


January 12, 2006.

From a message board I occasionally visit: a poster asks, "What is your creative process?"

Well, if you really want to know...

For me, it's all in (and to a degree, about) the rules and deadlines. If I'm told to go write anything in any style for any length for any combination of sounds, I will end up getting nothing accomplished on the project.

But if I know I need to score a piece that lasts exactly 12 1/2 minutes, and it has to be for piano, violin, cello, and percussion, and it has to incorporate electronically created sounds for the first 3 1/2 minutes only, and it has to get suddenly faster at 7 minutes into the piece, and I need to have it done by next Wednesday (because that's when the dancers need to start working with the CD), well, that's no problem- I just know I will get it done.

So if you're feeling stuck with some sort of creative-block, my suggestion would be to force some sort of constraints onto your work. Try imposing a deadline (and force yourself to stick to it). Try adding a rule which you are forced to obey (for example, start the next chapter of your novel with the death of some character you've already introduced, and make yourself continue the story from there.)

Or even better: add the rule of whimsy (chance, randomness, etc.) into your creative process. Visit a "word of the day" website, then use "I'm feeling lucky" with that word-of-the-day. When the new site comes up, incorporate some element from that web page (such as a name or location) into the piece you are working on.

And above all, don't forget to have fun doing it! :)


January 11, 2006. Now, about the Kabbalah situation.

On January 4th, the following press release was sent out:

For Immediate Release
Contact: Liz Lauren, 212.494.0050

Following our theater's announcement about the extension of KABBALAH, web-based fan clubs of Howard Stern speculated that his daughter was playing in this show--a fact that we have successfully held in complete secrecy for over two months. The fans proceeded to make many vulgar comments, thus creating the possibility that throngs of them would come to take her pics in compromising poses--especially given that this show contains nudity.

At this stage we're looking into the possibility of replacing her with another actress, but we do not know if such will be found in due time. For the moment, though, we announce that performances scheduled for this week are canceled and that no tickets will be available for sale. As for future performances, we'll notify the public in the event that we are successful in finding replacement.

KABBALAH garnered some of the most intriguing reviews so far from local and international critics, and we know that many New Yorkers have been trying to to come and see it. We have done our best to comply with theatergoers' wishes and have extended the show till the end of January. But, regretfully, at this moment we simply cannot have the show on the stage; we do hope that theatergoers will understand and appreciate.

For other info about KABBALAH, please visit our website
www.JewishTheater.org.

212.494.0050
Office: 15 Penn Plaza, #B-53, NYC 10001
Mail: P.O.B. 845, Times Square Station; NY, NY 10108


This was my response:

As other people have probably pointed out, this sort of behavior is exactly what Howard normally preaches against in his shows. People who engage in this type of sordid conduct are no more "fans" of Howard than Mark David Chapman was a "fan" of John Lennon.

I am saddened that it had to come to this. I wish only the best of success for all involved in Kabbalah, and hope to be able to work with eveyone there again in future productions!

Thank you all,

Andy


As you can see, if this was just a matter of postponing the show because of the boorish behaviour of some of Howard's fans, this would be the end of it.

But there's more to it. Apparently, Howard may have put pressure on his daughter to pull out of the show. See the following Daily News article by Lloyd Grove:

"Yesterday, the shock jock acknowledged that he "advised" his 22-year-old daughter not to join the cast of Tuvia Tenenbom's "Kabbalah" - in which she played Madonna for six weeks at the Jewish Theater of New York."

Now, I am not privy to all the discussions that went on between Howard and Emily (or for that matter, between Emily and Tuvia, the director of Kabbalah), and it is not entirely clear from the above article exactly what Howard knew about his daughter's participation in the show (as his statements are somewhat contradictory).

So FWIW, here's MHO:

(BTW, FWIW="For What Its Worth" and MHO="My Humble Opinion"
Oh yeah, BTW="By The Way"...)

I think Emily is a talented actress. I had only worked with her for about a week and a half before the show opened last fall, but in that short time, I was able to see her make tremendous strides in developing her singing ability, her acting talent, and especially her comic timing. Throughout the run of the show, I was continually impressed by her consistancy and focus on stage, and have been honored to have gotten the chance to work with her for this production.

I am sad to hear that she has chosen to leave the show, and I would not hesitate to work with her again in any future production.

That having been said, I hope that she feels that she made the decision to leave for the right reasons. It would be very unfortunate if she had to leave the show because of any implicit statements suggesting some sort of injury (which need not be physical injury) be made to her by any of her father's so-called "fans". However, I also hope she realizes that these "fans" will never really go away; it is an unfortunate part of show business that the brighter the radiance from the star is, the more bugs will be attracted to his or her light. Leaving Kabbalah will only quiet things down for the moment; the obnoxiousness (and legion of gawkers) will return again with your next production. A better solution is to find some way to come to terms with this, and use this lesson as a tool to further build your self-confidence and help you grow stronger as an actress and performer.

Furthermore, I hope you (I tried starting this out in the third person, but that doesn't seem to be effective here, does it?) do not feel that I (or for that matter, Tuvia and the other artistic staff of Kabbalah) have exploited you in any way. This may surprise you, but I did not see you (or even know you) as "Howard Stern's Daughter" for the first couple of weeks that we worked together; in fact, the first time I made the connection between you and your father was when a friend of mine (who is a big fan of your father's work and recently subscribed to Sirius solely to continue listening to his show) made the comment to me (upon seeing a postcard promoting Kabbalah), "Hey, did you know that Howard has a daughter in her early 20's who is an aspiring actress? Is that her in your production?" I answered him truthfully: at the time, I did not know whether you were or weren't and it really didn't matter to me one way or the other. (I tend to know nothing about celebrities private lives and am also pretty bad at recognizing them in person as well; this will be the subject of another blog entry I suspect.)

And this only goes to prove my point: despite what your father claims, I do not believe that Tuvia (or anyone involved in this production) has been trying to exploit your name and connections to your father in any way (and certainly not in any way where nudity is involved.) In my "What's New" section (of this website), I give you no more or less credit than anyone else. I do not directly mention (your or anyone else's) nudity either, and I certainly make no mention of your father (and would not have except that now circumstances have changed and I feel a need to honestly comment on these developments.) All of this, I feel a need to mention, is a direct reflection of how this show has always been promoted (by both myself as well as Tuvia Tenenbom and the Jewish Theater of New York.) If you feel exploited in any way, I'd love to know how and why- yes, there was a video clip of you (not naked) on the website, but that clip was part of a montage from the entire show featuring the entire cast (again, no one is naked in the clips), and as you know, I have made audio recordings of everyone's performance in the show (which only shows how much on an ensemble show Kabbalah truly was.)

So (here I am, back in third person) in all this, I have to say I'm a bit surprised to hear that allegations have been made that somehow Kabbalah is exploiting Howard's daughter. But I suppose the best response I could have to this controversy is the reaction of a good friend of mine (who used to work in the PR industry):

"Well there is a golden rule in pr, talk about me, talk about me, say what you will just talk about me."

Say what you want about Kabbalah, I'm proud of the work I did with it, and I'm not going to let these incidents change how I feel about the show or the people I worked with on it.


December 31, 2005. My (probably) last post of the year! On the Volokh Conspiracy blog, commentator David Bernstein postulates on the age-old question, "Why are Jews so liberal?"

Most of the responses were pretty standard observations: Jews value social justice, the political right has historically been linked with anti-Semitism, and so on.

I thought I would argue a different tack.

When we are talking about Jews in the US, what denomination initially comes to mind? Historically, it has been the Reform movement- a religious movement founded in late 19th-century Germany whose most deeply held tenets involve a liberalization of Halacha (Jewish Law) and tradition. Compared with traditional (Orthodox) Judaism, Reform Judaism (especially today) is very liberal.

The Reform movement has always had egalitarian worship services (no Mechiza to separate men and women in Synagogue) as well as relaxed Sabbath and Kosher rules and a willingness to incorporate elements from outside Jewish tradition into the liturgical services (such as playing an organ in Synagogue.)

Add to that a traditional orientation away from Messianic Judaism (the Reform movement dropped Messiah references in the prayers a long time ago) and specific decision to align itself with causes like social justice (consider also the conditions in late 19th century Europe and early 20th century America) and you have the recipe for a broad-based, liberal religious movement.

The apex of the Reform movement's liberalization was clearly in the 1960's and 1970's; not coincidentally, that was also the time when the Reconstructionist (an even more liberal Jewish) denomination began to appear, and the Reform movement adopted even more radical changes to its belief system, such as replacing references to God as "Lord" with non-gender-specific terms like "Sovereign" as well as in some cases doing away with Hebrew during the services (in which the Rabbi or Cantor would play the song "Listen" by Jeff Klepper on the guitar in place of the traditional "Sh'ma".)

And from the 1970's to the 1980's, the Reform movement found itself shrinking as Synagogue attendance began to decline.

So what's up with Reform Judaism now? Hebrew is back; the number of Synagogues with organs is dwindling, God is "Lord" again, the Torah is read and discussed again, and the movement is growing.

And Jews in America are now being seen as becoming more conservative. Coincidence?


December 31, 2005. And now, a Miami anecdote.

This concerns the "good old days" before airline deregulation.

From what I remember, before deregulation, the only airline that you could use for flights out of Miami was Eastern Airlines (alas, I tossed my plastic wings long ago.) Tickets were somewhat pricey but you got good service. Furthermore, Miami International Airport was corruptly managed and constantly on the verge of some sort of major renovation to compensate for its poor infrastructural design.

Now, you can fly out of Miami on a number of different airlines (of which American is the largest). Eastern went bankrupt in the mid-1980's and its CEO did some jail time. Tickets are still pricey, service is crappy. And Miami International Airport is still corruptly managed and constantly on the verge of some sort of major renovation to compensate for its poor infrastructural design.


December 29, 2005. It has finally become the time for me to catch up with the times... so, like everyone else, I have now - at last - created a page on MySpace.com. I'm not intending to blog there (I can barely blog here because of all the projects I'm involved with!), but feel free to check me out anyway...


October 15, 2005. While foraging through my archives, I came up with a funny little anecdote about my college years. I actually posted this to a blog one year ago that was asking readers to submit their favorite college prank for a contest. Here's what I turned in.

When you attend a small, private, liberal-arts college in the middle of nowhere, you quickly learn that there isn't much of a difference between a prank and a political statement.

Towards the end of my senior year, a significant piece of campus architecture (a controversial "memorial arch" dedicated to Christian missionaries killed in the Boxer rebellion) was defaced by horrible anti-Asian graffiti (including the "g-word.") The day after this happened, the student body convened an emergency congress to pressure the administration to apprehend the perpetrators and severely punish them. When (by the following day) the perpetrators were not immediately apprehended and duly punished, the students decided to follow the time-honored tradition of campus protests and take over the main administrative building. I was there (along with some 400 other students), although I was more interested in seeing the outcome of the protest than any sort of resolution to the inciting event.

Within an hour, the dean of students (among many other senior members of the administration) had fled the premises, and news media from outside the school (including TV crews from the local stations) had arrived to cover the event. To their dismay, the protesters had by then decided that the best way to respond to the media coverage would be to say nothing and give no explanation as to why they had taken over the building. (The rational was that by saying nothing, they would better convey the gravity of their cause.) Within 10 minutes, the news crews (sensing a non-story-in-the-making) had all left. Several hours later, after intense negotiations, the students relinquished control over the facility (in exchange for the administration promising to develop an anti-Racist task force to bring to justice the individuals responsible for the desecration.)

Two days later, at a campus rally-to-end-Racism, the administration announced that they had apprehended the perpetrator. Actually, the perpetrator had turned herself in: she was a senior (Asian-american) who was working on her senior thesis in art studies. Her topic: "mass spectacle performance art." As far as I know, she received no further condemnation from her peers, and graduated with honors.

In the 50's, you had goldfish swallowing. In the early 90's, political correctness. In hindsight, I'm not sure which one was stupider.


October 7, 2005. Another New York City vignette...

dba bar is in the East Village (1st Ave & 3rd St.). In the late '90s, it became infamous as a pickup spot to meet rich, young Wall Street types hanging out in the Village for a taste of the local scene. (Not my cup of chai, but worth noting all the same.)

A local rag (a.k.a "The New York Press") reported on a wonderful piece of graffiti in the women's restroom. I managed to find the time when it wasn't occupied to sneak a peak to confirm it was there. (It's probably gone now, though, as they have long since made over the place a few times.)

To get the full effect, hum the tune to your favorite R & H dittie while reading this:

Dough, I need to buy a beer,
Ray, the guy who serves me beer,
Me, that's me, I need a beer,
Far, don't have to go far for beer,
So, I think I'll have a beer,
La, la la la la la beer,
Tea, no thanks, I'll have a beer,
But that brings me back to dough.


September 9, 2005. Advice for an aquaintance experiencing a period of self-doubt (I'd paraphrase Rilke, but that would be just a bit too obvious):

She writes:

"I know I'm a very good writer and I would love to write books about Florida and its ecology, animals, and ecosystems. But again, I get intimidated that I'm going to get my facts wrong or that I'm not up to doing big tasks."

As other posters on this thread have mentioned, you are most certainly a talented and intelligent writer. And you clearly have a passion for your topic. So why not start doing what you love doing? Do you journal? Blog? Don't try to write Moby Dick in one fell swoop. Instead, write a chapter or entry all and only about what you observe about manatees just from watching them grazing in the river. (Let Melville's chapters about Caetology- as scientifically incorrect as they are- be your inspiration and motivation for your writings.)

If you decide to take a trip- whether it be to Costa Rica or to the Apalach- write about it. Don't worry about techical terms or bio lingo- you can always fill in those details later if you deem them to be important. Concentrate on what is important to you. What do you like most about the Glades? Why?

Let your writings be a gateway to your travels and experiences. Write about what if feels like to slog through a mangrove swamp just to get a glimpse of what may be a Key deer.

Let the professors and doctors argue over whether spring peepers should belong to genus Acris or Hyla. Instead, speak with the people who live on the edges of ponds and ask them about the frogs they see and hear in the winter. (Remember that the key to being a good writer isn't to be a good speaker, but rather a good listener.) Make your experiences be your education, and let your travels and your journals take you in all sorts of new directions.

Will any of this get you a job? Maybe. Possibly not. But if this is what you love doing, then for God's sake, go out and do it!

I graduated first in my class from my high school in Miami. I could have gone to Harvard on a nice scholarship- instead, I decided to go to music school to be a composer. (My family situation was the diametric opposite as yours- instead of being categorically negative as your father was, my mother would constantly overpraise me, to the point that I have gradually learned to disassociate myself from whatever she says so as not to get caught up in her well-meant-but-misplaced hyperbolic expressions of love and and pride.)

So how did it all turn out? It took me a while to get on my feet, but I am now making a good living in my career doing what I love doing. I'm not making nearly as much as my friends with MBAs. But I'm supporting myself, and collecting all sorts of interesting stories to write about in the process.

So journey on! Follow the footsteps of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, and write about how the Everglades has changed over the century. Or just write about how many trees in your neighborhood are trees native to Florida, and what you think should be done about that. But above all, just write. Start small if you feel you need to, but just start. (Check out Martin Wells's Civilization and The Limpet - an excellent example of a professional scientist (zoologist) writing a book for non-scientists just to explain why he loves doing exactly what he does.)

And do keep us posted here on exactly what you end up doing next year!


August 16, 2005. Someone on the message boards of Snopes.com posed this question:

What was the best concert you've ever seen?.

In honor of the 10-year anniversary of my first moving to New York City, here is my response.

In 1996, I had only recently moved to New York (I was living in the East Village at the time) and a friend took me to a concert she descibed as "like nothing you've ever seen."

The band was called Johnny Skilsaw; they were playing at a "dive bar"-type club in the village.

The closest musical label that could have been applied to them would have been "cyberpunk", but even that description didn't quite do them justice.

The drummer played a kit that appeared to have been made out of various castoffs from other drum kits. The "keyboardist" "played" what appeared to be a homemade contraption combining parts of several guitars and a MIDI keyboard with long stretches of exposed copper wiring. And then the lead "singer" took the stage.

He was wearing a construction helmet which was studded with several electronic drum triggers and contact mics. He was carrying a baseball bat. And he had a basketfull of props. The songs were (as expected) loosely structured collages of screaching noise. As part of the show, the lead singer would scream, grunt, mumble, and punctuate his vocal expressions by hitting himself on the head and body with his baseball bat (thereby triggering snippets of explosive percussive blasts.)

Every now and then, the front man would also reach into his bag of tricks and pull out something- a lightbulb (to smash), a cheese grater (to rub against the microphone), a pull-the-string-to-talk Barbie doll (which, surprisingly, he treated somewhat respectfully.)

Meanwhile, the club audience had begun to trickle out of the club (they obviously had no appreciation for the band's high-concept artistic sensibilities.) About 45 minutes into the set (and by this time, the club was less than half full), it was time for the grand finale.

The final song was the q.e.d. of the band's name (see above.) At the bottom of the lead singer's basket was a large metal-cutting circular saw. He plugged it in, gave a holler, and the sparks began to fly. Literally.

To visualize this, imagine the "grinder girl" segment from the Letterman show, except with the spectators much closer to the stage and with less regard for the audience's safety. The singer sliced up his helmet. He diced up the drum kit (metal cutting saw + cymbals = wow.) He cut apart the mic stands, and the keyboard/guitars/whatever instrument, and began cutting into the (brick) walls of the club. (Bear in mind that while he's doing this, the other band members are still wailing away while trying to generate as much noise as possible from their disintegrating instruments.)

Gradually, the amount of smoke (from the sparks and the dust ) became too a bit too much, and my friend and I decided to call it a night and head outside for some fresh air.

On the way out, she asked me again, "So- have you ever seen anything like that before?"

Since then, I've seen Blue Man Group, and various Cirque du Soleil pyrotechnics bits, and a host of other rock "spectacle" shows, but nothing can compare to Johnny Skilsaw.

Periodically, I still check the local 'zines to see if Skilsaw will ever make a comeback. (From what I gathered from my friend, they had a bad habit of getting blacklisted from places where they had played.) Should they ever reappear, I'll be sure to post about it at these boards and spread the word.


August 6, 2005. Here is a letter I wrote to one of my favorite columnists, Leonard Pitts (a Pulitzer Prize Winner with the Miami Herald). It concerns a recent story that has been rocking the tight-knit journalism world: Herald Metro columnist Jim DeFede was fired after he disclosed that he had surruptitiously recorded a conversation with former Miami Commissioner Arthur Teele, Jr. just prior to the publication (in a rival newspaper) detailing Teele's sordid history of corruption. Immediately after DeFede and Teele's conversation, Teele committed suicide in the Miami Herald's office lobby.

Mr. Pitts wrote a column criticising the Herald's decision to fire DeFede. Here is my response:

Dear Mr. Pitts,

Re: your most recent column, I agree with you that the Herald's decision to fire Jim DeFede was rash and undeserved.

Unfortunately, it was not unexpected. You write, "The message sent by DeFede's firing is not one of intolerance for unethical behavior, but rather, one of robotic absolutism, the same unthinking tendency toward one-size-fits-all punishment that characterizes school principals who suspend children for bringing aspirin to school because it's a violation of zero tolerance drug policies."

This is true, but there's there's more to it than just blind absolutism. The Herald's decision is fully in keeping with the desires of its parent company Knight-Ridder, whose attitude towards journalists seems to be (to paraphrase the Hippocratic Oath) "First of all, do no harm- and above all, don't bring any controversy to your employer!"

If you remember, back in the fall of last year, Knight-Ridder circulated a memo stating in no uncertain terms that Herald writers (other than a few select music critics) were not to attend a Bruce Springsteen concert under any circumstances. Why? Because Springsteen was a Kerry supporter, and KR was deathly afraid that if a reporter were to be seen at the concert, it would reflect negatively on KR's "impartiality" in the 2004 Presidential Campaign. (Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't recall you speaking out against this policy.)

Now, in a normal, sane, journalistic environment, reporters could go to any damn concert they please, because the general public would be able to clearly differentiate between a person's professional duties and a person's "off-the-clock" hobbies and interests.

But as you know, we are not living in a sane journalistic environment- not after Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair, the CBS National Guard memos, etc. KR and the Herald are afraid (in this era of declining revenues for print-based media and the ascendancy of partisan news channels) of being derided as another example of "liberal-biased" journalism.

So what does this have to do with Jim DeFede? Easy: KR and the Herald have now made it clear to all their scribes that there will be no tolerance for anyone who allows him or herself to be injected into the news story for any reason. Had the Herald not fired Jim DeFede, is there any doubt what the headlines of the blogs would have read? "Another MSM reporter who commits a crime in the name of journalism!" "Another example of why the MSM can't be trusted!"

By firing DeFede, the Herald has sent a message to its critics: we may be harsh, but you can still trust us.

I really enjoy your columns. And I hope you can continue to work for KR and the Herald. But if there's anything to be learned from studying the history of witch hunts and political purges it is this: if they can fire a columnist of DeFede's stature so easily, they could fire anyone. And if enough employees at the Herald had stood up to their severely misguided policy of threatening jobs for going to a rock concert, would your and your colleagues' support for keeping Jim's job now actually carry weight?

Good luck,

Andy Cohen
Brooklyn, NY
www.andycomusic.com


August 5, 2005. I've been posting a lot to various other blogs & chatrooms, so I figured I might as well add something here.

One of my hobbies (I have several, and they are all pretty arcane) is constitutional law. (If a lawyer can play music on the side, why can't I make legal arguments?) There was a thread about legitimate vs. unfounded criticism of the ACLU on one of my favorite sites (Eugene Volokh's).

First I posted, in response to a blogger who wrote, "How do you feel about pedophiles? The ACLU has defended NAMBLA."

I wrote:

True. BUT CONSIDER:

The ACLU defends NAMBLA's right to petition the government to change laws. Now, I hope that NAMBLA loses and the laws remain on the books as they are currently. But to paraphrase Voltaire, I will defend to the death their right to petition the government 'til they are blue in the face.

Here's a link to the exact case. NAMBLA is being sued because their web site and fliers allegedly influenced a man to commit a heinous murder. (According to the ACLU, the materials at question DO NOT advocate any criminal activity.)

Now, some people will say, "So what! NAMBLA is evil and they must be silenced to prevent pedophiles from being influenced to commit crimes."

Unfortunately, that is the same line of reasoning that allows people to call for banning AC/DC because someone may be "influenced" to commit a crime.

Or for that matter, someone using that reasoning could try to ban the NRA for supposedly "influencing" the perpetrators of the Columbine massacre.

I don't agree with all of the ACLU's positions (I am a former member), but there are times where I am glad to have them around if only to teach us a lesson about jumping on the bandwagon before the musicians have had a chance to tune up first.

Later on, I posted:

...[It] is easy to miss the distinction between opposing a position and opposing the right to express that position.

(A blogger wrote) "the information on the Stop the ACLU site is "wrong-headed, misleading, and if followed, would result in bad policy", in your opinion. But it is not in the opinions of others."

I replied:

Exactly. Others have the right to criticize the ACLU as they see fit- Eugene's point here is that some of these criticisms are poorly reasoned and based not on fact but on spiteful invective.

As Justice Learned Hand once put it, "Every idea is an incitement..." Our duty as a civilized society is to strive for insightful incitement.

And finally,

A blogger wrote: "Why do you oppose the ACLU instead of lobbying Congress to change laws or enact constitutional amendments? After all, the ACLU has no authority to make policy, they can only present their legal arguments courts. The court decisions that these ACLU-led cases lead to were not decided by the ACLU, they were decided by judges who were interpreting the law. Attacking an organization that brings lawsuits seems like an odd strategy rather than trying to change the Constitution or the laws that fuel them."

Now, as a defender of the ACLU, I can easily answer this question. If you are opposed to flag burning (or the right to have an abortion or the right to have consensual gay sex and not end up in jail), you will probably start by getting a local ordinance passed which reflects the position of how you would like the law to be.

And what happens? The ACLU sues and (most likely) wins. Why? Because in your mind, "the law is on their side."

So you try to move up the court system, hoping that a federal or appellate judge will see that you are clearly right and the ACLU is wrong. But, alas, no dice: even the "conservative" judges somehow concur that the ACLU is "right".

So you try to go to congress. But the ACLU sues to block enforcement of the new federal law supporting your position. So finally, you think, "Aha! I'll have a Constitutional Ammendment passed! Not even the ACLU can have an Ammendment found unconstitutional!"

And there is that pesky ACLU, all over TV, urging congress to reject your ammendment! And if it loses by only a handful of votes, who are you going to blame for not being able to get your way?

So it seems very simple from the point of view of the ACLU opponent: get rid of the ACLU, and when you have a majority (but not a super-majority) in Congress supporting your position, AND you have no organized opposition to your ideas, you will get your way, and voila- flag burners and abortionists and gays will be thrown in jail, and all will be right in the world again.

Of course, there is an alternative strategy. Just get your hands on a time machine- a phone booth, a 1984 Delorean, etc - and convince the anti-federalists to leave out the first ammendment and EXPLICITLY STATE that there is no gosh darn right to privacy!

It may seem silly, but it's probably easier than fighting the ACLU... :)


July 4, 2005. My interview on NBC's The Today Show aired this morning. I was a little dissapointed with how the segment was edited, but I'm glad to have been given the opportunity to at least attempt to make a coherent argument about an interesting musical issue.

See my posting of June 5, 2004 (scroll down below) for a considerably lengthier discussion as to why Dr. Siegel's proposal to change the key of the National Anthem is NOT A GOOD IDEA.


June 29, 2005. Yes, it has really been over a year since I last posted to this section of my site. Apparently, some of my postings (below) about the Star Spangled Banner have attracted some outside interest. (See my "What's New" section for more information...) So, while I'm in a mood to share opinions, I figure I might as well post some comments relating to some of the key music-related debates of today's society.

And for my line of work, probably the most important controversy for me to weigh on is on the use of technology in the professional theatre world. Specifically, I feel compelled to address the whole "controversy" about the use of what are called "virtual orchestras" in the performance of live musical theatre.

I am a professional musician. I've played (mostly brass and keyboard instruments) in numerous bands, orchestras, and even in orchestra pits accompaning operas and musicals (although not on Broadway, as I'm not a member or New York's Musician's Union Local 802). I feel very strongly about the importance of having live players in pits of musical performances and am very much against paying money to see professional shows that perform to taped musical accompaniment.

Yet I work for a music technology company (Realtime Music Solutions in NYC) which the Union has singled out as being a "destroyer of live music" because they make what Local 802 describes as "virtual orchestra machines" (their words). How do I reconcile these seemingly contradictory stances on music technology?

Easily. Simply put, Local 802 does not have all the facts right. First of all, Local 802 acts as if Realtime Music's signature product (the Sinfonia) and what they call the "virtual orchestra machine" are synonymous. They are not. The term "virtual orchestra" - which was NOT coined by Realtime Music (RMS) - can mean just about anything. I have seen composers (not affiliated with RMS in any way) who refer to their music production stations as "virtual orchestras".

So what is a "virtual orchestra"? Simply, it could refer to any music system that supposedly simulates the sound of an entire orchestra playing. Or maybe not- the Union refers to Sinfonia as a "virtual orchestra" even when it is not being used to simulate any orchestral sounds. And what about scenarios when the orchestra in a theatrical production is being reinforced by a tape playback system (using orchestral sounds)? Interestingly, to the Union, this is not a "virtual orchestra". So who determines what a "virtual orchestra" is? Apparently, anyone who wants to without needing to establish any meaningful criteria to define the term. This is not an auspicious way to begin an argument.

The Union's logic only becomes more faulty from there. Their next claim is that Sinfonia is not a live musical instrument. Three reasons why this is simply not true:

If it looks like a musical instrument and functions like a musical instrument and sounds like a musical instrument and is played live, well, you know how the old saying about ducks goes.

And what is the union's final argument as to why they must unconditionally "ban" Sinfonia in all musical situations? Jobs. They claim that Sinfonia replaces live musicians. Of course, they have no economic studies to prove this is the case. So let's look at some real world examples and see how many jobs are being lost:

Les Miserables on London's West End. In 2004, the theatre where Les Mis was playing had to close down for major renovations. The producers of the show had two options: either close the show down (and not perform it for a few years or stop performing it publically) or move to the Queens theatre. The producers chose option 2. Of course, there was a problem with doing this: the Queens theatre has a very small orchestra pit that simply cannot accomodate a full orchestra for playing the show. Moving the musicians to an alternate location (as is sometimes done on Broadway) or reconfiguring the floor plans of the theatre were not feasible options.

So again, the producers of Les Mis were faced with a choice: either play the show with a smaller group of musicians (resulting in a smaller, thinner orchestral sound and missing instrumental colors) or use the same (smaller) group of musicians and suppliment them with Sinfonia (which results in a bigger sound and no missing parts.) They chose to use Sinfonia. Number of jobs lost specifically due to Sinfonia (not counting the jobs which had to be lost when the show had to move to a new theatre): 0

The Joys of Sex Off-Broadway. Also in 2004, a new musical was booked to play the Variety Arts Theatre in NYC. The composer of that show, David Weinstein, was familiar with what the Sinfonia could do and decided to have the keyboard player of his show play the Sinfonia in addition to playing a standard electronic piano. (The band also consisted of electric bass and drums.) The Union was vociferously opposed to letting him do this, claiming that if he did so, jobs would be lost all over NYC as musicians were being replaced by the Sinfonia.

So after a long period of arguing and many threats of strikes and pickets, the producers of The Joys of Sex and the Union reached an agreement: the show could go on with Sinfonia if the producers sign a lot of language which the Union could spin as a "ban on the use of the virtual orchestra machine" for their publicity campaign.

Of course, the whole purpose of using Sinfonia for the show was to take advantage of its ability to simultaneously emulate multiple synthesizers (thus creating a richer texture than a three-piece rock band could ordinarily generate for themselves.) And the show was originally conceived to be this way (it was never written to be orchestrated for a symphony orchestra; in the original Fringe Festival performance of The Joys of Sex, the band was a three-piece combo without the Sinfonia.) Nevertheless, the Union objected. End result: 0 jobs lost.

The Opera Company of Brooklyn. In order to prevent this post from droning on like a Handel "da capo" aria, I'll summarize this one quickly. Small local opera company using all student (or recent music school graduate) performers is founded for the sole purpose of putting on operas for people in an underserved community. Needless to say, if the Metropolitan Opera is a Broadway production, the OCB is purely off-off-(off!)-Broadway in terms of finances. So they have two choices: opera accompanied by a single piano (and lose orchestral richness) or use Sinfonia. (If the OCB had a ton of money, of course they would have hired a live orchestra. But they didn't have the money.)

And again, the Union objects! Sinfonia here is "taking away jobs" that, for obvious reasons, never existed in the first place. So once again, net result: 0 jobs lost. (In fact, you could even say the net result was 1 job gained from Sinfonia- had the OCB used a single piano, the conductor would have played the piano. With Sinfonia, they had to obtain the services of a pianist to play the Sinfonia while the conductor conducted the singers!)

And finally, let's address the 2003 Broadway Strike. Two things I have to note: first, the 2003 strike was a dispute between the Musicians' Union and the Broadway Producers about hiring policies. As Broadway shows have changed musically from the old Rodgers and Hammerstein model (i.e. symphony orchestra) to the more modern rock-pop model (Rent, Moving Out, Mama Mia!, etc.), it was inevitable that jobs would be lost. (Can you guess how many violists are required to play the score for Rent?) Producers wanted the right to hire less musicians (and not have to pay for no-show players to satisfy union hiring requirements, a.k.a house minimums.) The Union refused to compromise on this.

So as the Unions threatened to strike, the producers had two choices: either close down their shows (which would have the same effect as if they were to accede to the Union demands and thus lose money) or try to find a solution that would allow them to keep the shows running until they work out the agreement on minimums with the Union. That's where Realtime Music and the Sinfonia comes into play. The 2003 strike was never about the Sinfonia, and for the Union to claim it was (as they do in their position papers on their website) is disingenuous.

And you can guess what the end result of all this was: the two sides compromised on minimums (so some jobs may have been lost) despite Sinfonia not being used on any current or former Broadway show. (I have to qualify my statement about Broadway job losses because since the 2003 strike, the success of shows like The Producers brought back the older musical model which helped push several shows above their minimum hiring requirements.)

To wrap this whole thing up, let me address one last ridiculous Union argument. In attempting to de-legitimize David Weinstein's decision to orchestrate The Joys of Sex for the Sinfonia, David Lennon (Local 802's president) remarked, "Composing for the [Sinfonia] is as valid as composing for a tape recorder." (And as you can guess, he meant this pejoratively.)

Mr. Lennon apparently needs a refresher course in 20th century musical history. Unless he is trying to invalidate the work of John Cage, Milton Babbit, Steve Reich, Brian Eno, the Beatles, and many, MANY others, he should repudiate this absurd satement.

So that's what my take on what this whole "controversy" is about. As usual, feel free to drop me a note with any "dittos" or flames to this post.


June 16, 2004. This entry is a little late, but I wanted to contribute one anecdote in remembrance of legendary musician Ray Charles, who passed away a week ago.

One of my all-time favorite memories (and all-time most influential moments for me as a musician) was of a popular free-form variety sketch show which blended romance, slapstick humor, clever writing, enduring characters, and weekly guest musical performances.

Of course I'm talking about The Muppet Show.

On one especially memorable episode, Ray Charles was the musical guest. His performance was of his signature song "Georgia On My Mind", but of all his renditions, this one will always be my favorite. You see, this version was a duet with Kermit the Frog. But this was not just an ordinary duet: Ray Charles began by singing the first verse of "Georgia", and then Kermit joined in on the second chorus- by singing the Beatles's "Yesterday." Simultaneously, that is, with the second verse of "Georgia on My Mind."

Try it at home- the two songs (despite having different underlying harmonies and phrase lengths) actually do work well together. Ray Charles was the first (I believe) to figure this out, and his arrangement should go down as one of music's all-time greatest mash-ups.

He will be greatly missed.


June 5, 2004. A couple of news reports involving music strike my fancy. First, the New York Times had a fun little article today (Saturday June 5th 2004) about Dr. Ed Siegel, a California-based psychiatrist (and amateur musician) who proposes to lower the key the Star Spangled Banner is played in from the standard of B-Flat Major to G Major. (He proposes this to make it easier to sing by non-musicians.)

This is the copy of a "letter to the editor" of the Times I emailed off in response to the article; it remains to be seen if this letter will get published.


Re: Neal Matthews's Article in the Times, "One Way to Reach Anthem High Note: Just Make It Lower", published June 5th, 2004.

There is a very good reason why the "official" key of the National Anthem has been designated as B-Flat Major. The notes of the anthem lie well within the playing range of the average trumpet player, who in most arrangements would be given the melody line. Transposing the anthem down to G Major as Dr. Siegel suggests would take the melody into a lower part of the trumpet's range, thus making it harder for the melody to be articulated cleanly and played in tune.

A better compromise would be to keep the standard presentation key as B-Flat, but allow accompanists and music directors to have the freedom to change the key of the Anthem to suit performances where it is communally sung and not played by a band.


Now for the more detailed reply. (The Times limits letters to less than 150 words.)

First, keep in mind that the "official" key of B-Flat Major (which I will call "Bb" for the sake of musical shorthand) is purely presentational. In other words, when an "official" arrangement from a government source is published (such as an authorized military band arrangement), it is in Bb. Furthermore, when a band such as the United States Marine Band (a.k.a "The President's Own") plays the National Anthem at an official ceremony, it plays it in Bb. My letter above gives one good reason why this is so.

This does not mean, though, the Bb is the only key it can (or is) ever played in. There are many "unofficial" arrangements which circulate about in a wide variety of keys. Orchestral arrangements in the key of A are commonplace (better for the string players than Bb, especially if they are younger musicians), and I have seen and played versions in the key of Ab (which provides a happy meeting ground between the brass who prefer the key of Bb and singers who want a lower version.)

(Incidentally, the "Jimi Hendrix Woodstock" version is played in A, but his guitar is tuned a bit flat, so the end result is somewhere between A and Ab.)

Dr. Siegel is right that G is a better key to sing the Anthem in- provided that you are a typical adult baritone-ranged male or alto-ranged female. Sopranos can handle G (but would prefer a higher key); most tenors would need it higher (the low G is too low for their range.) Children of either gender (before puberty) would almost certainly need a higher key.

We can thus see that there is a typical performance range between G and Bb which is used in common practice, hence my reasoning for a compromise (which, it wouldn't hurt stressing, is done anyway.) A few final thoughts on the matter:

1.) The reason why the Star Spangled Banner is so hard to sing is because it has an uncommonly large range (an octave and a half) for a song of its nature. By comparison, the Israeli National Anthem "Hatikva" is only an octave in range (ignoring one low note which isn't crucial to the melody line), and "O Canada!" is also only one octave. This "lack of singability" is one of the most common reasons given by people who prefer some other song (such as "America the Beautiful" or "God Bless America", both of which have ranges of an octave + one note) to be the National Anthem.

2.) Among musicians, the most common interpretive dispute about the Star Spangled Banner relates not to key, but to meter. Officially, the song is in 3/4 time. However, in the past 20 years, it has been increasingly common to hear it performed in 4/4 time (as per the 1991 Whitney Houston Super Bowl version). Pop singers love it that way (more freedom to play with the melody); purists and those concerned with history and tradition denounce it.

3.) One of my favorite esoteric discussions on the Anthem is from a series of articles written by Paul "Dr. Z" Zimmerman for Sports Illustrated. His topic: contests of how quickly the entire anthem can be sung while still enunciating every word. (His conclusion: under a minute is good, under 30 seconds is incredible.) I suppose it might be fun to see if key affects velocity. I'll leave that for others to try at home.


June 1, 2004. Here a blog response to some old "music" news. It seems that a few weeks ago, scientists measuring the wavelength of emissions from a distant pulsar concluded that based on those wavelengths, the pulsar could be said to be playing a "low Bb" (albeit several octaves below the range of human hearing.) Naturally, the news media had fun with this (interviewing all sorts of scientists and musicians about the meaning of the Bb.)

Here is what the news media generally left out: the whole concept of a pulsar playing a Bb (or for that matter, any note) is a load of crap.

Here are the scientific reasons why this is so.

First, as you may remember from high school trig or physics class, wavelength is related to frequency (the longer the wavelength, the lower the frequency.) You may also remember that wavelengths can be interpreted using different senses: visually (the wavelengths of visible light become the spectra of colors we observe from red to violet) and aurally (the frequency we hear of a sound wave, provided that the waveform is sufficiently non-random, becomes translated into pitches we can interpret on a musical scale.) So there is some (slight) basis for assigning a note such as Bb to a pulsar emission.

But here is where the science (and the news media) gets things wrong. First of all, notice the caveats above. If we are talking about wavelength relating to color, we are only talking about the visible light spectra, not X-Rays, infrared or ultraviolet radiation, gamma particle emissions, or other waveforms which are out of our visual range of perception. If we can't see the waveforms, we can categorize them on a chart, but it would be meaningless to assign a visual description to them (for example, we don't say that microwave radiation is a pretty shade of pink just because the wavelengths are longer than infrared radiation on a wavelength scale.)

Similarly, the point that is being missed about the pulsar's Bb is that scientists acknowledge that it is several octaves below human hearing. Humans (whose ears have not been damaged by repeated exposure to The Who concerts) typically perceive waveforms between 20 and 20,000 Hertz (cycles per second) as sound. Thus, if we encounter a consistent waveform repeating at 440 cycles per second, we can hear this waveform as a pitch and assign this pitch the note "A" (specifically, A above middle C).

However, if we encounter a waveform above these frequencies (say, an energy source at over 100 trillion cycles per second), we will hear nothing (although it is possible that we can sense this energy source as a form of light emissions which is only beginning to enter our visual frame of reference.) Similarly, waveforms below 20 Hz in frequency are felt as rhythms or individual pluses, not perceived as pitches. If we can't perceive a pitch, it doesn't make sense to assign it a pitch value such as Bb- any more than it makes sense to describe to colors of X-rays.

Furthermore, this all glosses over an important scientific distinction: the energy being emitted by the pulsar is not sound energy (which by definition cannot be carried across the vacuum of space) but rather some other electromagnetic source of energy which is related to (but not the same as) sound.

Now, continuing with the assignment of the "Bb" designation: since the wavelengths being emitted by the pulsar have been described as being "several octaves below" human hearing, it should be clear that any pitch definition assigned would be purely speculative. But what makes the speculation about the Bb even sillier is that the numbers being used to arrive at the note Bb don't add up (or more specifically, don't divide.)

Here's why. An octave is a very specific mathematical definition: when you multiply a frequency by 2, you get one octave up (and to get one octave down, you divide by 2.) Thus, the note A 440 is one octave lower than the note A 880 and one octave higher than the note A 220. Following this math, to go down 3 more octaves (to the note A which as at the lowest end of a piano keyboard), we come up with A 27.5. We are now approaching the lower threshold of human hearing. To go down three more octaves (below human hearing), we come up with the "note" A 3.4375 (which is actually just a pulse that happens about 3 1/2 times a second, not a "note")

So we will now consider the note Bb. Assuming we are following the tuning of equal temperament (and this is a very silly assumption, as I'll describe below), the note Bb above A 440 can be described as Bb 466 (to arrive at this number, I multiplied 440 by the twelfth root of 2 and rounded to the nearest whole number.) Thus, we can go down 4 octaves to get Bb 29.125 and then below human hearing to get "Bb" 3.6406. The difference between these tow "pitches" (A and Bb), then, is a difference of about 2 tenths of a cycle per second- a barely perceivable difference.

As we can see from the math, the further below human hearing we go, the difference between two distinguishable wavelengths becomes smaller as well. If we were to extend the math to fit the measurement of the pulsar emissions (which, according to the more technical descriptions, were less than one cycle per second), we can see how they arrived at the "Bb" judgment: measure the frequency as close as possible, and then keep multiplying that number by 2 until it approaches a number close enough to one which can be associated with a describable musical pitch. Thus, if scientists discover two years from now that the pulsar frequency was actually .0786 cycles per second (I'm just guessing here: I haven't actually seen the technical paper with the final numerical calculation) as opposed to .079 cycles, then the "pitch" of Bb would no longer be an accurate approximation (as if it ever was) of the musical "value" of the pulsar.

And finally, one last point to pick: as we can see from the math above, there are plenty of numbers which fall between the notes A 440 and Bb 466. This is where the issue of equal temperament tuning arises. The mathematical system we use to assign notes to pitch frequencies is just that: a subjective, and some would say, arbitrary mathematical system. Equal Temperament, which is where the numbers above come from and which is also the most commonly used system in Western classical music, has been around for about 200 years. Before that, other systems (such as Pythagorean tuning, which uses whole number ratios exclusively) were commonly employed. Using Pythagorean tunings, Bb would not be assigned 466 cycles per second (or to put it more accurately, 466 would not be described as a pure Bb); instead, it would be given as approximately 470. Now we can see an additional layer of "fuzzy math" which was used to arrive to the calculation of the pulsar's note: which mathematical model of tuning and temperament did they use? If we assume Equal Temperament, then they would have had to continue multiplying the pulsar's number until they arrived at a number fitting the Equal Temperament model, ignoring other numbers which may well fit in other models of tuning (and thus biasing their description of Bb).

If it seems obvious that Equal Temperament be the model of choice, well consider this: the very identity of the note Bb is intertwined with Western classical systems of matching frequency with pitch identification. Other systems (such as those used in Chinese pipa music or in Hindu classical music) employ other tuning methods and scales; given the imprecision above in assigning a "note" to a frequency beyond human hearing ranges, can anyone really be certain that the frequency of the pulsar matches "Bb" and not "Komal ni" from a Northern Indian Raga?

So that's my rant. The whole "Bb pulsar" thing is cute, if you don't mind ignoring the dubious nature of the science behind it. If you ask me, from what I've heard of the pulsar, the music is less "Bb" and more like an extended performance of John Cage's 4'33".


May 17, 2003. Mr. Sandow responded to my response (below) with a couple of criticisms of my criticisms. My critical response to his response is entitled "part 2."

Mr. Sandow, thanks for your response. "orchestra boards play (as a rule) almost no rule in programming... the orchestra's artistic staff planned the programming."

True. But who hires the artistic staff? If the orchestra's artistic director (assume he or she isn't the music director or conductor as well) wishes to do anything adventurous (including new music, or an obscure Baroque piece or a concerto with a hard-to-get soloist), they run it by the board first. And let's give the board some credit: they will usually give the artistic staff a great deal of leeway, at least the first few times. If the artistic staff wants to do Glass's Fifth, the board will probably not put up a fuss (assuming that the rental costs fit the symphony's budget); besides, the board knows Glass by reputation, and knows that if marketed right the work could be a potential draw (and with the right critics a publicity magnet as well.)

And I agree that while many orchestras are wholly committed to the conservative, many others (San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, etc.) do have a desire to do new works. This directly relates to the question/problem of "focus groups":

"Typically, orchestras are afraid of their audience."

The whole problem with symphonies and new music is simple: the free market. As you know, there is very little federal money out there for the arts. So how does a Symphony earn its revenues? 1.) State funding sources (which can be relatively generous in some states like New York and Minnesota, and notoriously stingy in others like Missouri, Texas, and Florida.) 2.) Corporate and individual donations. 3.) Ticket sales (including subscriptions- the most lucrative- and day-of-concert tickets).

In the last case, of course an orchestra is going to be afraid of its audience: they want to maximize revenue while minimizing any antagonism to those who contribute a big chunk of the revenue. Hence the focus groups and Indianapolis model. An orchestra is going to program music that drives people to subscribe to and attend its concerts. In the case of San Fran, once is was shown that audiences there liked the new music, the trend was set. In St. Louis (don't forget that this was during the Ashcroft administration and before the Nelly-era revitalization of St. Louis's inner city), audiences preferred conservative programming.

And what about the other revenue sources? In boom times, giving is up; in less-than-boom times. giving is down. (Hence the all-important endowment.) No orchestra wants to antagonize any potential contributors. Yet even this revenue source can also be audience dependent: individuals and companies like to give where the buzz is (it enhances their reputation as community leaders.) Now, no donor wants to put strings attached to their money, but think of it like this: if you're the CEO of a bank, and you just had your bank donate a million to the symphony, and you go to a concert (featuring a major new work) that is sparsely attended and not well received by the audience, will you donate a million next year? No orchestra wants to find out. Hence, another case where orchestras "fear" their audience.

And as far as the third major funding source (state money): an orchestra without an audience should expect to see its budget cut the next year. This is just a simple matter of clout. So once again, getting people in the seats- not programming for aesthetic purposes- is, like it or not, the determining factor as to why orchestras play the music they do.

Finally, one last point to follow up on your example of St. Louis: the very worst case for any orchestra (besides completely mismanaging the endowment, as in the case with St. Louis) is not being able to reach out to the audience and then watching the orchestra slowly die. This is exactly what is happening to my hometown Florida Philharmonic. Their season next year is likely to be truly adventurous: one long extended performance of Cage's 4'33" except without staging. As long as orchestras continue to associate new music with audience disinterest and subsequent financial problems (rightly or wrongly), this situation is unlikely to change.


May 3, 2003. This entry is in response to an article by Greg Sandow (a well-known NYC-based classical music critic and educator) which appears in the on-line New Music Box website. His article was about "why orchestras don't perform new classical music" (answer: marketing) and referred to a concert season with the Indianapolis Symphony where they did audience research (focus groups) to help them with their programming. (The focus groups said audiences will listen to new classical music, but only if it's they type of music they like: Victor Herbert, Copland, etc.)

This is my response to Mr. Sandow's article (it is also published on the aforementioned website.)

"Imagine you are on the board of directors of the Major Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra. You decide to emulate Indianapolis, and consult with focus groups. What would happen if the focus groups came back and the board doesn't like their responses? What if the audience says, "hey, we liked that Victor Herbert piece, but we thought that Philip Glass one was too long and repetitive." What should the orchestra management do for next season? Program the new Glass composition (the one that got raves in Brooklyn)- or have the curtain raiser for the first concert next fall be the overture to Babes in Toyland? "

"Choices like these are what drive management people crazy. If you do the Glass, then you are clearly not listening to your audience, and the orchestra's fiduciary representatives will be asking you why you bothered to spend all that precious money on focus groups if you're not going to follow their recommendations. If you play the Herbert, how will that sound to the members of the orchestra: the board listens to its ticket buyers, but ignores the wishes of its employees (the musicians), who probably don't consider Victor Herbert a significant enough composer to be worth programming two years in a row (although to be fair, if they are like most orchestra musicians, they probably hated the Glass piece also.) Sure enough, the union contract expires next year, and you definitely want to have the members of the orchestra in your good graces, so what is a board member to do? "

"To drive the analogy further, imagine some even more controversial responses you could get from a focus group. What if Billy Joel decides to write a piano concerto, and the focus group hears of it and wants to hear the Symphony do it? What if the conductor listens to the recording, declares that it is a piece of crap, and that he only wants to perform serious classical music, not "pop". (Or even better: what if the conductor doesn't hear the recording, and simply declares Billy Joel a pop composer not worth even spending time to listen to the CD in the first place.) "

"And then you have to take in the consideration of the critics (no marketing director or publicist would advise you to ignore them.) Suppose your local new music critic is someone who attended music schools in the 60's and thus grew up revering the great European masters like Boulez, Berio, and so forth. The critic has also been loudly complaining about your lack of programming of new music, and begins giving you suggestions as to what to perform: the newest Henze symphony, "warhorses" like the Carter Symphony of Three Orchestras and the Schoenberg Variations, etc. So you go to your focus groups with recordings and ask, "Would you come to a concert next season featuring these great works?" Want to take a guess as to what the focus group responses will be? "

"In short, the Indianapolis model is a great idea- but a short lived one. There's a reason why "maybe the plan works only for a single season." As a board member responsible for the long-term health of your organization, you really want to listen to the experts in your field to help your company prosper. And what do the experts say? "Don't do Carmina Burana", says Richard Taruskin. "Don't play Tchaikovsky", as a recent column in the New York Times Magazine intimated. The focus groups all like them, but as I had shown above, you can't really trust the focus groups either. And then you look to Boston (with their John Adams controversy a year ago) and see the pitfalls of both programming new music and in trying to gage how the audience will respond to it. "

"So what is your decision as orchestra board member? Suppose you decide to not do any new music and perform all 18th and 19th (and very early 20th) century concert staples next season. The conductor won't complain. The members of the orchestra won't complain. The focus groups won't respond with negative feedback about your plan. Your subscription buyers will still buy their subscriptions. The local critic will chide you for not doing new music, but won't say anything negative about your decision to do Mozart (as opposed to programming a John Williams film score, where you will be berated about losing your high artistic standards.) Sure, the young composers burning up the chat rooms in New York and San Francisco will make fun of you for being a conservative rube. But they aren't likely to travel a thousand miles to see one of your concerts anytime soon, even if you do perform the latest Glen Branca symphony."

"I wish the Indianapolis Symphony (and for that matter, the New York Philharmonic and the Miller Theater and every music presenting organization everywhere) the best of luck. I'd like to believe that it would help get more new music performed if only we could "speak the same language that orchestras speak." I only wish I had something more inspiring to say to them "


Some possible future topics: media criticisms (I am especially fond of inept journalism, especially when it is practiced by reputable sources like the New York Times), art-theory criticisms (including my takes on whatever seems to be in fashion in the creative world), and occasional political points (my political leanings are fairly middle-ground, but I hold particular scorn for any poorly-reasoned theories put out by those on either the political left or right.)

In the mean time, I'll just let this space be. Sooner or later, I will fill it with something.


Oh yeah, why I am not a good diarist:

I hold a great deal of respect for those who put their thoughts to paper (privately) on a regular basis. However, there is something troubling to me about the permification (the act of making something permanent) of new experiences. I have found that every day (and everywhere I go), I constantly come up with new thoughts and feelings based on whatever is happening at the moment. If I were to write all of these thoughts down, I would essentially be be letting the present events be an editor for the future: whatever I write down would become a fixed record of what I see and experience, and since there are far more thoughts than I could ever hope to write down, I would essentially be acting as a premature censor of whatever the present happens to represent. (This holds true for me even at the end of a day: a few hours is not enough time to truly gage what I will have learned or remembered from that day's events.)

So rather than trying to select certain momentary thoughts and ideas (from a multitude of experiences) and then fix them into a permanent record (in the form of a diary and journal), I prefer to make the whims of history and the future shape my experiences of the past. In other words, I love telling stories. (I also love reading and hearing other peoples stories, especially if they are true- or at least, perceived to be true.) In this form or oral documentation, the only way I have to relate past events is through recalling them from memory- an inherantly unreliable thing. Yet it is this unreliablilty of memory that makes the experiences of life so interesting for me. As I recall a past event, minor details can (and will) change- thus allowing me to experience future events through the haze of past experiences. As I have no diary or journal to rely upon, I am unable to recal my exact thoughts or feelings, so I am not forced to reconcile what I think I remember with what "actually" occurred (and which may not be an accurate summation or representation of past events anyway.) Thus, my stories can change, develop, be embellished, be transmuted, rearranged, and be retold in any number of ways (and no one will be able pedantically argue what the "real" story is anyway.)

I can see why this would be so troubling to many people (who wants to live life with no way to verify what happened in history?); I do not argue with all forms of record keeping or feel that history is useless. (As I already mentioned, I have a great deal of respect for journal writers and those who keep documents of history). I just feel that for myself, I do not want my life story to be confined to the writings of a diary.

This ends my first "blog" entry; futher entries will be dated (maybe) any placed above this one.


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