WolfBrown: On Our Minds

Posts tagged ‘music’

Writing About Music

April 17th, 2012

As someone who writes pages and pages every year about the arts, there is one topic I will not tackle: music. That may sound surprising coming from someone who grew up in a family of musicians, played flute professionally for decades, and attends scores of musical events annually. I can write about musical organizations and musicians, but describing music itself or musical performances is beyond me. So I was delighted to read Jonathan Biss’ recent piece in which this superb young pianist describes the problem: “…the only thing worth doing is also nearly impossible: to convey something of what the emotional experience of listening is like.”

Describing music and musical performance is deceptively difficult. Unlike writing about theatre or art, where the writer can include plot summaries or reproductions of images, music is abstract and elusive. Writers resorting to historical facts about composers rarely give us a sense of the music. Writing that is so technical that the reader needs a companion score and dictionary to decipher it is even worse. Then there is the “oh my, isn’t it wonderful” school, who feel that classical music is beyond emotional or intellectual explication.

But recently I read a piece in the New Yorker by Jeremy Denk, another great pianist. (“Flight of the Concord“; 2/6/12). Here at last is a writer capturing the essence and experience of music. It made me want to go right out and buy his recording of Ives’ Concord Sonata, a piece I have never really warmed to. Now I am a double convert – to Denk and Ives – which is what good writing should be able to do.

Apparently, I was not the only one impressed by Biss and Denk. So was Anne Midgette, a well known music critic who had the good sense to acknowledge how much some performers have to offer in writing about their art form. -Tom

Last Thursday, we presented the results of the 2010 Cultural Engagement Index study to a packed room of 200 arts and cultural leaders in Philadelphia. Begun in 2008, the CEI study is the second round of research on cultural engagement in the Greater Philadelphia region, the goal of which is to establish an indicator to track cultural engagement over time. The major headline from the study is that cultural engagement jumped 11 points from 2008 to 2010, with a number of participatory activities leading the charge (e.g., ‘reading poetry out loud or performing rap’ increased 24 points). What was most striking, though, was the dramatic rise in engagement for online activities: ‘listening to Internet radio’ increased 27 points, ‘downloading music’ grew by 30 points, and the two more “active” online activities – ‘remixing materials found online and sharing with others’ and ‘sharing something online that you created’ – also rose significantly (by 29 and 33 points, respectively).

This last finding around active online cultural engagement led me to a TED talk by artist Aaron Koblin recently posted on TED’s Facebook page. Aaron has created a number of collaborative art-making programs online that have involved thousands of people from around the world, and his talk introduced these projects as arguments in support of the importance of the “interface” as the new defining tool of cultural activities. One venture in particular, The Johnny Cash Project, resonated and inspired me. The Cash Project invites individuals, regardless of skill or experience, to recreate a single frame for Johnny Cash’s video of “Ain’t No Grave” using an online drawing tool. All of the frames are pieced together into one whole video, a compilation of many different views stitched into one solid vision. And that vision is continuously evolving as new contributors add their unique voices to the mix. It is a living and breathing work of art made possible by the flexibility and pervasiveness of this “interface” – the Internet.

The Cash Project is just one of many online activities through which people are given the tools and opportunity to create, share, and collaborate (YouTube anyone?). Perhaps we should view the Internet as a “Virtual World Arts and Crafts Market and Festival,” open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Now, how can arts organizations plug into this energy?

You may be familiar with N PR’s WORLD CAFE®, a program of diverse musical expressions, but the WORLD CAFE® I’m writing about is something quite different. It is sometimes linked with “appreciative inquiry,” an academic approach to organizational development popularized in the late 1980s that has been described as “positive, life-centered approaches to organization, group, and global change.” While working on the recently-completed update to Long Beach’s community cultural plan, several members of the planning committee suggested using the WORLD CAFE® approach for our public sessions. It is a conversational process that aims to address meaningful questions by building networks of ideas across groups of people. The collective conversation leads to new insights into the issues at hand and possible solutions. Using the resources of the Long Beach Nonprofit Partnership to assist with facilitation in a comfortable, informal setting at the Museum of Latin American Art, we were able to engage over 120 people in six different discussion areas of “emerging themes” on a Saturday morning, and to elicit ideas, concerns, and insights – as well as passion and connection – that have informed the process in profound ways.

New Audiences for New Music

April 17th, 2009

Preschoolers and contemporary (recently-composed) classical music – not two things one would typically put together. But a recent issue of the journal Behavior and Brain Sciences published the findings of an exploratory study I conducted with Professor Carroll Izard at the University of Delaware’s Early Learning Center. Our mutual interests in early child development and music led us to consider conducting a study of young children’s emotional reactions to music. In the pilot study, we were merely looking for the most emotionally evocative excerpts of pieces from the classical repertoire, a repertoire we chose because it was the one we knew best, and because we are both prejudiced enough to believe classical music is “good” for kids. To our tremendous surprise, three of the five pieces that consistently evoked the strongest reaction in children, even when compared to the warhorses of the concert hall, were composed in the 20th century. Neither of us would have predicted that excerpts from pieces by Steve Reich and Charles Wuorinen would have 3 and 4 year-olds clapping, laughing, and jumping up and down. But when teachers starting asking us not to play those pieces because of the problems they posed to crowd control with the kids, we knew we were onto something. Perhaps this offers a small lesson for our friends in arts outreach and education: be sure to keep an open mind when programming what children are “supposed” to like.

Wall Street Journal

Leon Botstein is a multi-talented individual who is the long-time President of Bard College and also an accomplished conductor. He runs an innovative festival each summer at Bard that explores broad themes in the music world through performance and symposia. He is also responsible for bringing architect Frank Geary’s work to Bard with the design of a beautiful concert hall. In October, he wrote about the fate of classical music. He was quite upbeat (while others have been pessimistic) and his words are strangely comforting. Among other things, he says that crises crop up in the field when inertia and excessive caution set in, and that we must learn to innovate and learn from those institutions making their programs challenging and relevant while reaching out beyond the confines of a concert hall. “Above all,” he says, “let’s abandon politically correct notions about how ethnicity and class constitute barriers to the appreciation of classical music, a universally admired dimension of high culture and the human imagination.”

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