Here’s an announcement I didn’t expect to make: the CDA podcast is BACK.
Today the long-dormant podcast returns as a one-off reboot and — here’s the catch — I had nothing to do with the production. In the interceding years technology has advanced so quickly these things can literally make themselves. All I had to do was plug in data from a bunch of classical podcasts and let the AI do the rest. I mean, it’s even got its own AI hosts!
I’ve admired Steven Isserlis’ playing for decades. The first time I read his name was in a late 1990s profile of his teacher, Jane Cowan, in The Strad. When I got to university I spent so many hours in the listening lab and practice room pilfering ideas from Isserlis’ recordings of Boccherini cello concertos and Beethoven sonatas I should’ve paid royalties for jacking his IP. I obsessed over his Mendelssohn d minor sonata with Melvyn Tan on pianoforte — listening with headphones in between classes and on the long walk to and from school, then later at home where the low notes rattled through my speakers. That was back in the early aughts.
Now I spend less time studying classical cello and more time on a computer, which is, to put it mildly, a downgrade. Still, when scrolling Twitter a while back I was happy to come across a few tweets from @StevenIsserlis. My cello hero! Here on this sordid platform, with me and all the other poor souls! I followed him.
Isserlis appeared to do his own posting, rather than farming it out to an assistant or PR flak. He tweeted here and there, mostly on-brand stuff about composers or upcoming shows. He seemed to share a lot about dreams and nightmares he’d had. His kvetching about the minor agonies of travel was some of the best material.
I didn’t give Isserlis another thought until his first tweet of the day on November 15th. The post in question was a fawning birthday message for Daniel Barenboim which, fair play, was probably as much a professional courtesy as anything else. Still, I recoiled. Barenboim was outed last year in VAN Magazine for allegedly abusive behavior, the type of thing slimy conductors got away with a generation or two ago, but now even allegations of which might get you shit-canned. Why was Isserlis singing a paean, like this, in a public forum?
I hedged on what to do. I dropped the VAN link in the comments. I debating unfollowing. But to what end? It’s possible I was just looking to get lathered up about something that more or less had nothing to do with me. (Hey, it’s Twitter, that’s the whole game.) But maybe the time had come to assess whether Steven Isserlis was, in fact, A Good Guy.
Sometimes it’s best to arm yourself with a truckload of data when faced with a tough decision. In this case, I needed to take a long-range account of things, and afterward to come to some conclusion. So I decided on a month-long study of Steven Isserlis’ Twitter timeline: I’d round up all his tweets, line them up front-to-back, and see what was there, down to the minutest detail. Collect it all, no judgements, and see what emerged. It was time to get back to the lab.
Background: How it Started, How it’s Going
Isserlis began his Twitter account in July 2013 but didn’t actively tweet until later in the year, sometime in December as far as I can tell. Here’s a winking sartorial directive that appears to have been his first tweet.
To this day Isserlis hasn’t been verified — no blue check mark — but he boasts a respectable 21,184 followers while following 690 accounts (as of 16 December 2020). As I mentioned, Isserlis appears to do his own tweeting, and not at any great rate. You might expect him to post once or twice a day, with a few extra replies here and there.
The Limitations of The Study
I was interested primarily in what drives Steven Isserlis to his computer to tweet. To that end, I collated Isserlis’ initial posts while mostly ignoring follow-ups or replies he sent to others. Often Isserlis wades into comments to clarify something in his original post, or to respond to a question or a joke from a follower. While interesting, I suspected these replies weren’t his reason for tweeting in the first place. Also, Isserlis appears to be a prolific user of the Like button. Collating and analyzing these would be a fun future project, but it is beyond the scope of this study.
I alone was responsible for the parsing, screenshotting, cataloging and analysis that follow. All mistakes are my own. I am not a statistician or any type of data analyst; I’m a musician and author of the occasional newsletter. If you spot obvious errors, or if you’d like a copy of the spreadsheet I used, email me (first dot last at gmail) and I will gladly help.
Overview: The Public Collection
I took screenshots of 56 tweets sent out by @StevenIsserlis in the period between 12:00 AM on 1 November 2020 and 11:59 PM on 30 November 2020. I then noted the following details about each tweet.
the time, day, and date sent;
any accounts and/or people tagged in tweets, as well as the professions or affiliations of the tagged entities; and any entities or people mentioned without being formally tagged, as well as their professions or affiliations;
the “category” of the tweet (arbitrarily determined; I settled on “personal anecdote,” “professional or work anecdote,” “birth, death or anniversary commemoration,” “inspirational quote,” and/or “travel story,” with many tweets residing in multiple categories);
any picture(s) included in each tweet; and,
how many replies, retweets and likes each tweet received.
The Data, Part One: When the Birds Flew Out
We are in the middle of a pandemic. It’s sometimes surprising to realize that even very famous or accomplished or well-traveled people are grounded in pretty much the same ways we all are. So what we’re seeing from Isserlis may actually be quite different online behavior than what he was up to pre-pandemic.
Mid-pandemic Isserlis seems driven to post in the morning. Not early early, mind, but generally if you’re fiending for new Isserlis content you’ll see something come across between 9 a.m. and noon. His average tweet time is roughly 11:50 a.m. across 30 days (with a median time of 11:30 a.m.), but that includes some statistical noise like a tweet about Jane the Virgin that came in 12:29 a.m. Not the usual office hours! If you remove that, as well as a few odd-hours travel tweets (more on these below), you get a pretty good idea when Isserlis decides to flip open his Alienware laptop and fire one off.
Isserlis is slightly more likely to tweet on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. His total count was: 9 tweets sent on Sundays, 9 on Mondays, 9 on Tuesdays, 9 on Wednesdays, 7 on Thursdays, 5 on Fridays, and 7 on Saturdays. Since November had an extra Sunday and Monday this year, removing those two dates allows us to state that the best time to expect a Steven Isserlis tweet is on a Tuesday or Wednesday, sometime between 11 a.m. and noon GMT.
The Data, Part Two: Cast and Crew
Because Isserlis does his own tweeting we’re spared the hectic and far! too! enthusiastic!!! posts of an empowered assistant or some hired-gun social wizard. We also avoid posts cluttered with a thousand twitter handles from hundreds of gigs, appearances, and shout-outs. This was something I didn’t fully appreciate until I started parsing all his tweets: a real human behind the controls.
Here’s the list of everybody Isserlis manually tagged in November:
That’s it! How refreshing. Obviously that’s not a lot to go on, so it was necessary to tally up all the names without ties to official handles, or of those deceased, or those who went untagged, and assemble them in groups by profession. This is where it gets interesting.
Unsurprisingly, Isserlis’ timeline features lots of composers and musicians. (I differentiated between the two by calling someone like Beethoven a composer, even though he was clearly a skilled pianist. Somebody like Miles Davis I called a trumpet player even though he was obviously a composer, too. I let a fearsome pianist like Rachmaninoff exist in both categories, since he’s known for composition and piano performance about equally. Not a perfect system, I acknowledge.) Isserlis brings up authors and philosophers quite often, suggesting both that he is a bit of a bookworm, and a lover of a good turn of phrase — unsurprising given his penchant for sprinkling quotes on tweets.
The corporate and business entities referred to here included Heathrow Airport, Uber, Netflix, Wigmore Hall, and BBC Radio 3. Not a lot of brand love there, which is, again, refreshing. Winston Churchill and Bobby Kennedy were the two politicians, and Marie Curie the lone scientist.
This tweet brings us to a crossroads. If we set aside business and other non-human (or arguably, inhuman) entities, Isserlis mentions 73 people over the course of the month, with some names — like J.S. Bach — appearing multiple times. However, in all only two women are ever featured or even mentioned: Madame Curie, and writer George Eliot, a.k.a. Mary Ann Evans. That seems rather low, no? Minorities and people of color seem to fare just as badly, although I didn’t research the ethnic and racial backgrounds of each person mentioned to arrive at precisely what number.
I have no doubt Isserlis is a forthright and enlightened citizen, and I’m sure he’s used his powers, offline, to amplify lesser-heard voices in some capacity. However, when you’ve got 21,000-plus followers on Twitter, and when you wield the type of power that Isserlis does in the music world generally, I would say this disparity we’ve discovered is worth flagging.
The Data, Part Three: Herding Cats
I noted that in the past Isserlis tweeted a lot about the vagaries of travel. It makes sense. Traveling by air is generally terrible. Traveling with a cello — let alone an expensive Stradivarius, Montagnana, or Guadagnini — is far worse. So Isserlis took to Twitter to vent and produced, I would argue, some of his best content.
Obviously the story is different these days. In order to assess what preoccupied mid-pandemic Isserlis — at least what he was willing to publicly share — it was necessary to develop a rubric for analyzing these posts. As stated above, the categories are: “personal anecdote,” “professional or work anecdote,” “birth, death or anniversary commemoration,” “inspirational quote,” and/or “travel story.” A majority of the tweets fell into multiple categories. Here’s how I broke them down.
Consider the following tweet.
This is categorized as M for “birth, death, or anniversary commemoration.” These are some of Isserlis’ most common tweets, a template he returns to again and again. (The Barenboim tweet would qualify.) He can’t resist a good birthday, a lamentable death date, or the anniversary of some great work. Then there’s this:
Now we’ve got some pleasing stock photos (of paintings) to work with. We also enter a separate content category: quotes. Many memorial or commemorative posts feature quotations, so I labeled this Monet post as “M/Q” to reflect its dual role.
This one is trickier.
I gave this one a P for personal anecdote because we can assume Isserlis was relaxing at home, or maybe whipping around in his McLaren P1, vibing and listening to BBC Radio 3. But since he’s sharing a somewhat analytic thought about classical music (work-mode: activated) I went with W/P.
Some tweets simply couldn’t be confined to one or two categories, such as this one.
We’ve got the makings of a Vladimir Horowitz memorial post, complete with attached stock photo. But then we tap into Isserlis family history with Steven’s pianist grandfather, Julius, in a supporting role. And you better believe there would be a quote! So: a tidy M/Q/P combo. This is arguably work-adjacent so it could theoretically carry that label too, but you could say the same for nearly all of these. So I left it alone.
The Data, Part Four: Exposure Counter
Isserlis’ Twitter feed featured 60 images over the course of the month. Usually he posted an image available through Creative Commons, which is suiting for the types of OTD (“on this day…”) posts he’s partial to. Most of the people are long dead, their images old enough to be swiped from Wikipedia. Some are actual photographs, while others are photos of paintings (or of engravings and other such things).
For subjects for whom he appears to care a great deal he’ll add a second or even third photo. The now-infamous Daniel Barenboim post came with three-pack of glamour shots. Robert Louis Stevenson also got a three-photo salute. Isserlis maxes out his full four-photo allotment if the subject merits it, such as here with Harpo Marx (about whom Isserlis feels very passionate indeed).
Others who got the four-photo treatment include pianist Radu Lupu — Isserlis himself appearing in one photo, the only such example in November — and actor and comedian Peter Cook.
Isserlis isn’t shy about opening up the iPhone camera roll when the occasion demands, like for this backstage pas de deux from Madrid.
And later emerged a trio of night shots.
The best photograph he posted, at least to my mind, was one likely retrieved from somewhere in the back of a dusty file cabinet. The post starts as — yes, you guessed it — another OTD tweet, but goes up a level.
Peanuts creator Charles Schulz was known to send doodles in response to fan letters. How did Isserlis come by this gem? Was he, is he, a ride-or-die Peanuts fan? Can he correctly rank the animated Peanuts holiday specials? (For the record it goes: 1. Christmas, 2. Halloween, 3. New Year, 4. Easter, and distantly, 5. Thanksgiving.) I had questions.
I decided to break one of my own rules for the project: I scrolled through the replies, and found the answer right away.
Contra Isserlis, I agree with Schulz that the Brahms’s first piano quartet is a fine piece of music. And Woodstock on the violin! Imagine what he and Schroeder could’ve gotten up to.
The Data, Part Five: How Deep is Your Love
Now we get to the rudimentary measurements of reach and popularity embedded into the public-facing side of the Twitter app: replies, retweets, and likes. These metrics are starting points for determining roughly how popular certain posts are. Their relationship to one another (see: The Ratio) sometimes indicates more than a simple raw number of likes or retweets does. Generally they are imperfect measurements, since the person tweeting lacks absolute control over the reception to their own tweet (obviously).
On an average post in November, Steven Isserlis generated 17.91 replies, 37.68 retweets, and 231.96 likes. (Median numbers: 14 replies, 28 retweets, 202.5 likes.) The following received the month’s highest number of replies: 76.
Meanwhile, this post about Schubert (OTD, baby!) hit the month’s high-water mark for retweets (138) and likes (726).
While we can speculate whether it was the god Schubert himself who supercharged this tweet’s performance, it’s just as likely a timely retweet carried it. (Or the fact that Isserlis did a swan-dive into the replies and stayed active for a good period. Again, I don’t have comprehensive information on his behavior elsewhere to compare it to.)
Cruelly, the least number of retweets for a post came on 26 November, when Isserlis broke with mostly arts-and humanities-related content to muse on pandemic regulations.
Can’t blame him for being confused. That’s everybody right now.
A subset of tweets (six in total) exceeded 400 likes. What were they? The Schubert post, the Horowitz post, as well as ones about Tchaikowsky, Isserlis’ father, Radu Lupu, and Barenboim. What do they have in common? Five of six were memorial or commemorative in some way. The sixth was a charming story from the middle of the Madrid trip.
As I mentioned, social media engagement is a tricky thing to properly measure, and in fact carries very little import vis-à-vis our final goal. But it does allow a bit of insight. As a reminder, the average Isserlis tweet garnered 17.91 replies, 37.68 retweets, and 231.96 likes. But if you select only his OTD memorial posts you have an average of 16.71 replies, 45.87 retweets, and 251.11 likes. So, although it’s hard to intuit, the engagement levels may (or may not) subconsciously nudge Isserlis into producing more rather than fewer of these posts. But maybe a simpler explanation is, he just enjoys doing them.
Results: That’s it. That’s the Tweet
I say with a high degree of confidence that we have spent more time in the slipstream of Steven Isserlis’ tweets than he’s likely spent thinking about Twitter, ever. But the point was to temporarily ignore the matter in question (the Barenboim thing) to focus forensically on everything else. And in doing so, hopefully, arrive at an acceptable answer.
One of the problems with classical music is that the repertoire leans heavily on dead white guys, to the exclusion of pretty much everyone else. This has been well documented and debated. No need to rehash here, except within this context: that throughout November, Isserlis’ account read like a rolling appreciation thread for all the usual suspects, no different from the types of stale programming and thinking that brought us to this point.
People like Rob Deemer have created invaluable resources like the Institute for Composer Diversity to start to rectify just such problems. But the hard part isn’t marshalling resources like this — it’s convincing orchestral organizations, patrons, presenters, conductors, artistic directors, players (ahem), and audiences that women, people of color, and those with backgrounds atypical for classical music are worth championing, promoting, and supporting most energetically.
I don’t want to come off like a scold or a small-time internet sheriff. If anything I want Isserlis to push the envelope further, to be edgier. He has it in him. But if my original question was, Why post the Barenboim thing at all? Then the answer is: stubbornness, or more cynically, intellectual flabbiness. For an artist of Isserlis’ caliber that’s unacceptable. He’s got the power to wire up his fanbase with new ideas and new projects. And yet, here we are.
I popped back on Isserlis’ timeline again recently and was glad at least to see that he’s upped the number of women who’ve appeared on his timeline — so far six (!) and counting for December. But then I saw a post about Woody Allen. I closed the tab.
It’s an annual tradition for readers of the CDA mailer to pick the likely winners in all classical (-adjacent) categories at the GRAMMY Awards. Here is this year’s survey. What do we do with the information? Hand it right back to the readership. This affords those who wish to wager on this type of event just a tiny bit of intel when making their early selections. And as previous years have demonstrated, the CDA readership is good at picking winners! Go here to take the survey.
What follows is a review of a vintage performance by Julius Eastman newly released on the Frozen Reeds label. I imagine readers have varying degrees of familiarity with Eastman. Pick and choose sections below to build your own customized review of Femenine.
[Already know about Eastman? Skip ahead to #2.] Julius Eastman was an inventive, unconventional composer whose orbit included leading art-music composers and practitioners in Buffalo and NYC in the 1970s and ‘80s. Eastman played piano, sang, and danced ballet; he wrote with a looseness and fearlessness and an eye toward provocation that now — decades later — has garnered him deserved praise and renewed attention. While his CV is embossed with the usual line items befitting an artist in ascent — attended Curtis Institute, performed at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, collaborated with the famous and influential — Eastman’s final years were an ignominious coda, marred by joblessness, homelessness and drug addiction. He died in 1990 at 49 years old.
This new Femenine record is actually a release of a 1974 live performance of Femenine in Albany, featuring Eastman and members of The S.E.M. Ensemble. So, there’s nothing technically NEW about it. [If you want to quibble about that point then just vault ahead to #9.] And in fact, this isn’t even a brand-new release because it dropped in June of this year! Okay, whatever, let’s just keep it moving.
What does it sound like? In the simplest terms, it’s the same thing over and over for 72 minutes. Minimalism, baby! (Or its groovier descendant, postminimalism, if you like.) But in Femenine things change subtly, and each subtle change becomes increasingly digressive as the piece unfolds, something that’s usually only possible when a composer has taken a great deal of care establishing context at the outset. There are also notes of stewed plum, cherrywood, and spice box with a long, smooth fini—wait, sorry, that’s the rioja I’m drinking right now, not Femenine. Anyway, the past few weeks my morning ritual has been: pour some coffee, fire up the laptop, and turn on Femenine, every day wading a little deeper. It’s the type of piece that requires patient listening, where details emerge unexpectedly the 15th or 25th time — a crafty flute gesture previously inscrutable, a moment of calm while the ensemble reloads for the next section, or unison ostinato lines that take a hard-right into barricades of spiky chords. These are what you’re after.
[If you’re pressed for time, bypass these ensemble & recording notes & stagger toward #5.] The S.E.M. Ensemble are an outfit led by Czech composer Petr Kotik. Kotik and Eastman were two of the group’s founding members, and while Eastman has been dead for three decades, the S.E.M. Ensemble carry on. They’ve premiered works by John Cage (more on him later), Morton Feldman, Pauline Oliveros, and La Monte Young. For this particular S.E.M. performance, Eastman plays piano and leads the group through its novenas. There are “automated sleigh bells” that pulse throughout; flute, vibes & violins round out the instrumentation.NB: This Femenine performance is a treasure, but if you pop it on your stereo you may notice small audio abnormalities. It’s raw, sometimes shaky. I promise you will be unfazed, and in fact, quite charmed.
[Already know why Julius Eastman rules? Then head to #7, my friend.] Eastman knew how to position his works in opposition to the prevailing attitudes and tastes of his day. (He was an excellent marketer, you might boringly note.) That his work took time to find a wider audience is no fault of his own. Here was Eastman, an artist who happened to be Black, and queer, confronting his listeners, forcing them — at least for as long as a piece lasted — to question dearly-held beliefs. He chose titles for his works (Gay Guerilla; N****r F****t; Crazy N****r) by reclaiming disgusting slurs. He wasn’t afraid of alienating people. Here’s something Eastman said: “What I am trying to achieve is to be what I am to the fullest: Black to the fullest, a musician to the fullest, a homosexual to the fullest.”
[If you won’t read a single bad word about John Cage, scroll instead to #7.] We mentioned John Cage. Cage is spoken of as a sort of Phil Jackson of art music: a seer whose musical theories were, for a time, perfectly realized both in composition and in practice. He wrote ambitious works that defied musical convention. (For example: As Slow as Possible, a piece which takes a tidy 639 years to perform, just changed chords for the first time in seven years!) But Cage’s imagination — much like Phil Jackson’s vaunted triangle offense — had its limits.
In a delightful write-up at Red Bull Music Academy, writer Marke Bieschke details a performance of Cage’s Song Books staged by Eastman that completely baffled the Zen master. Cage himself was in the audience, and had less than kind words for Eastman afterwards. What do you have to do to piss off John Cage? Suffice it to say: you make objectification and queerness the focal points of a performance of “Solo for Voice No. 8” from Song Books when maybe, as Eastman suggested at the time, recent performances had been feeling dull or dry. This, assuredly, angered the high priest of experimental music. As Bieschke notes, the performance instructions for “No. 8” were rather cryptic. That is to say, open to interpretation, but … not just any interpretation.
[Still don’t want to hear about Cage? Fine, fine. #8 is for you.] This recording of Femenine is from November 6, 1974. The Cage incident took place a scant seven months later, in June of 1975. As such, this record is a valuable artifact documenting a key moment before all the Sturm und Drang. That’s not to say the November concert was staid or conventional: Eastman wore either a dress or an apron (depends who you ask), and served soup to the audience. But you might wonder, rightly, why exactly Cage cared in the end? As a friend of Eastman’s has postulated, Cage was a gay man who didn’t like advertising the fact that he was gay. Fair enough, but Eastman was quite the opposite: proud and unapologetic (see again: above Eastman quote). Cage might have … could quite possibly have …. definitely … thought Eastman was needling him with this performance. Maybe.
[Don’t need a big-picture summary? Pop down to #10 to finish things off.] Why does this all matter? Because Eastman was really, really good at what he did. Because he deserves the adulation we reserve for the likes of Steve Reich — tough news about him recently tho, huh — and Morton Feldman; and because our understanding of this time, his time, needs to be reconfigured. It’s not just because Eastman was queer, or Black. Lives matter because of the substance you imbue them with, and Eastman had chops, charisma, zaniness and genius in excess. He had something to say. As critic & composer Kyle Gann notes, “There was no timidity or theoretical obscurity to his music — it cut to the chase.”
To recap: you can find this recording, put out by Frozen Reeds, over here on Bandcamp. You might also consider buying the 2005 compilation Unjust Malaise, which tidily collects seven works and a short intro speech by Julius Eastman at Northwestern University. I loved hearing him speak.
Thanks for reading. Or if you skipped the whole thing: thanks for nothing, but do go listen.
I want to recommend a few albums getting play here at CDA HQ. Most of these are on Spotify but gettable elsewhere. Shouts to Peter Margasak whose Best of Bandcamp Contemporary Classical, published every couple months, has real gems.
Elgar; Edward Elgar et al.; Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Sir Simon Rattle, London Symphony Orchestra
Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s second full-length is an album for an overcast, drizzly day, where the heat keeps clicking over and you won’t leave the house for love or money (sound familiar?). Kanneh-Mason is poised at 21 to become the Next Big Thing in the classical world. Normally this involves tours, press junkets, and prestigious awards. Those will come in time. For now we concern ourselves with the quality of this release.
Leçons de ténèbres; Francois Couperin; Caroline Mutel, Karine Deshayes, Sébastien d’Hérin, Les Nouveaux Caractères
Soprano Caroline Mutel and harpsichordist Sébastien d’Hérin founded new-music group Les Nouveaux Caractères in 2006. This is the first recording of theirs I’ve been privy to. I’m not a huge Couperin stan but the bell-clear singing of Mutel and fellow soprano Karine Deshayes sold me immediately.
Here; Ruth Anderson
This is American composer Ruth Anderson’s first-ever release, but sadly Anderson had already passed by the time it came out last September. Selfishly, I hope this is just the beginning of works we’ll hear from her archives. Listen to something like Pregnant Dream and tell me how you feel after.
I expected a somewhat meager performance of Carissimi, a composer I’d never really given a thought to. But when the percussion comes in and these chefs start cooking, you better be ready to feast. This record and the Alain one below have a particularly expansive aural environment — dig that lonnnng decay on phrase endings — the type you forget about after being confined to snug spaces for months on end. Refamiliarize yourself.
Bach: Works for Organs / Sonatas; Johann Sebastian Bach, Marie Claire-Alain, Werner Jacob
I don’t want to rail on Spotify too much, but why does the bio page on organist Marie Claire-Alain feature her family — and especially Alain’s famous brother — as much as Alain herself? Anyway, with churches and concert halls closed right now there’s an organ-sized chasm in our lives. So, take your speakers to the absolute limit while Marie Claire-Alain rattles all the glassware in your cabinets. Bonus: neighbors won’t complain because they will assume you’re listening to a church service or something.
If we’re talking about live music in May 2020, we’re talking about streaming: music sourced from living rooms, basements, bedrooms and closets; or broadcast from empty performance spaces and sent to where we’re watching on our devices….. in our living rooms, basements, bedrooms, closets (and toilets).
What it says, or what it’s supposed to say about us, is that we refuse to be cowed by the momentary pause on public gatherings. We’re getting together, online, to continue making art in the face of adversity. That’s admirable, obviously.
My own conspiracy theory about all this — based on no data whatsoever, and conjured moments before I typed this, in keeping with the practices of our most cherished conspiracy theorists — is that it’s a wash. None of this will matter in the way we think.
Don’t get me wrong. Live streaming is useful like it was pre-quarantine. Can’t get a ticket to see Wozzeck? Keep a tab open to stream on your laptop. Don’t want to schlep across town to see a buddy’s show? It’s on Facebook Live, my good chum.
No doubt it’s empowering for musicians to cut the bullshit & go direct-to-consumer. That’s an arrangement that will endure. But streaming live performances is also — and how do I put this delicately? — an utterly miserable way to consume music. Nothing replaces the live, in-person experience. Nothing.
What we like about music live-and-in-person is the shared experience. We bear witness individually, but when we’re planted in a concert hall or the club, what we remember at the end of the night besides a catchy melody or wrong notes or the onion-y scent of our neighbor is our collective reaction to the music. We remember the crackle of pre-concert anticipation, and the applause after. And in between we hold the performers in our collective gaze, kind of a well-meaning, laser-focused beam of support. They need us, we need them.
What’s happening online is a pale approximation of this. We’ve got (time-delayed) remote collaborations; musicians staring bug-eyed into a camera while playing stiff renditions of familiar tunes; approximately 13 million DJs a night streaming sets on Twitch & IG Live and getting served preemptive takedown notices; and occasionally, very occasionally, some live entertainment well-suited to the format. But it’s just not what we had before.
(We should note the strangeness of performing in your home for an online audience, people who are no doubt ignoring you and instead taking screenshots of the “no coffee, no workee” Baby Yoda mug you inadvertently left in the shot. You went to musical school for this. Now you’re a meme, baby!)
This is an incongruous position for me to take because I usually enthuse over everything new, different, and potentially threatening to the status quo, even if the results are mixed or simply unsuccessful. But I’m not sure my delicate constitution can take another moronic industry thought leader going on about how we’ve stumbled onto the Future of Live Entertainment in these two sweaty months. There’s a wave to ride here, but that. is. not. it.
[B]ecause livestreams sit at the intersection of recording and live performance — especially if the streams are archived after the fact — they can involve literally every kind of license in music: Masters, mechanical, sync, performance, trademark, name/likeness, the list goes on. It’s actually a powerful lens for understanding how most of the music business works.
Powerful indeed. Care to add a sheaf of paperwork to your pre-stream logistics? Got a solicitor on speed dial? The future of performance is here.
On a positive note, I like the immediacy of seeing friends’ recent quarantine projects and recitals as soon as they go live. (Guess none of you have kids, apparently?) And most of it is material I wouldn’t be able to access for reasons of geography, time, money, etc. So that’s cool. But this convenience also makes plain the strengths & weaknesses of web- or app-based broadcast, as well as the reliability of the internet as a library to hold (or to forget, or to unceremoniously expunge) our work.
As a postscript I recommend this conversation that’s been making the rounds on Facebook. Don’t miss Karina Canellakis, Alan Gilbert, Daniel Harding and Simon Rattle discussing when, or how, we can cold-start the aestivating classical music machinery. There’s a lot to enjoy, from Canellakis explaining why orchestra halls are preeminent working spaces, to Simon Rattle slowwwly fading into darkness as daylight gives out in his timezone.
Even in ideal circumstances most people’s hand-washing routines are lacking. How many of us scrub away like maniacs to get hands as clean as a pre-op surgeon’s? Attention to detail is one key. Longevity is another: the longer you wash, the better chance of getting rid of undesirable stuff.
This has never been more important than now. In the middle of a pandemic, survival means access to quality healthcare (lol), social distancing, and of course hand-washing.
To that end, composer Isaac Schankler held an open call for 20-second pieces — 20 seconds being the minimum length of time the CDC recommends to effectively soap, scrub and rinse your hands — with the idea that the resulting music will encourage people to spend more time on their ablutions. I talked with Schankler via email about their crafty plan.
How did you come up with the idea?
Isaac Schankler: It felt like a pretty natural outgrowth the CDC’s recommendation to sing “Happy Birthday” while washing your hands, and all the song suggestions floating around after that. Why not write our own songs?
Last year when the US started putting immigrant kids in cages, my friend Jen Wang, also a composer, organized a project where, if you donated to an org like RAICES [Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services] that provided advocacy and legal representation for immigrants, a composer would write you a one-minute piece. It was a great way to do something positive and feel a little less helpless as artists. I don’t know if I would have had this idea if I hadn’t had that experience as well.
Were there any 20-second (ish) songs or pieces out there that already fit the definition? Or are we really lacking?
I know of a handful of minute-length music projects (60×60 comes to mind) but nothing specifically for 20 seconds! It seems like an area rife for exploration.
From what I understand the end result will end up on bandcamp. How much will it cost to download? Does the money go to the composers?
It will be free, with the option to pay what you want. I will be donating the proceeds (if there are any) to the Medicare Rights Center, a non-profit that works to ensure access to affordable health care for older adults and people with disabilities. It was important to me to find something that helped those populations since they are more vulnerable to the coronavirus.
Do you have any 20-second pieces you’re contributing?
I will be contributing a piece!
You’re a composer, music professor, and rhythm game designer among other things. How much have things changed for you because of COVID-19? Can you still work?
As a professor, I am in the process of moving my courses online, which is a lot of extra work and an imperfect solution in many ways. But I am extremely lucky in that I have a stable teaching job and that as a composer, I can do work from home. Many of my friends, especially freelance musicians, are not so lucky, and their income has been decimated by this crisis. Right now I’m looking into live-streaming as a way to help tide things over for these musicians.
All the news is pretty gloomy right now. Are there any positive things to take away from all this, for musicians and others? I see a lot of online collaboration beginning — resource sharing, artists commiserating, calls for support.
It’s heartening to see people set up things like relief funds for struggling artists in the wake of this. My hope for this is that people come out of this with a more community-minded approach to things, and realize that we have the ability to help each other in times of need. Maybe that’s naive. I hope not!
If you’re a close follower of Classical Dark Arts — specifically, a subscriber to a monthly mailer — you know we take the GRAMMYs seriously. At least, we take them seriously as a wagering event. Every year we ask CDA readers to pick winners for eight classical music-specific GRAMMY categories. Readers may then use live poll results to turn a crumpled tenner into a cash phone.
Now that the dust has settled I’m happy to note that you predicted three out of eight categories correctly: Best Orchestral Performance, Best Opera Recording, and Best Classical Solo Vocal Album. In two categories (Best Contemporary Classical Composition, and Best Classical Instrumental Solo) only a few prescient readers picked winners, while the crowd went in another direction. Predictions in three other categories were wrong, but trended closer to actual winners.
Predicted winner: PICKER: FANTASTIC MR. FOX. Gil Rose, conductor; John Brancy, Andrew Craig Brown, Gabriel Preisser, Krista River & Edwin Vega; Gil Rose, producer (Boston Modern Orchestra Project; Boston Children’s Chorus)
Actual winner: (same)
Best Choral Performance
Predicted winner: SMITH, K.: THE ARC IN THE SKY Donald Nally, conductor (The Crossing)
Actual winner: DURUFLÉ: COMPLETE CHORAL WORKS. Robert Simpson, conductor (Ken Cowan; Houston Chamber Choir)
Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance
Predicted winner: CERRONE: THE PIECES THAT FALL TO EARTH. Christopher Rountree & Wild Up
Actual winner: SHAW: ORANGE. Attacca Quartet
Best Classical Instrumental Solo
Predicted winner: TORKE: SKY, CONCERTO FOR VIOLIN. Tessa Lark; David Alan Miller, conductor (Albany Symphony)
2019 was not the year to obsess over new releases. It’s actually the first year I’ve managed anything resembling a healthy balance of new and old: more repeat listening, more old and obscure things, and (much) more radio (shouts to RBB Kulturradio). It was a charmed twelve months.
In that spirit I’m sharing with you only a few new things I enjoyed in 2019. Click album titles for more info.
Quality classical releases
Kullervo Op. 7, Jean Sibelius, Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Hannu Lintu. A work unknown to me. This and Sibelius’ Pelléas et Mélisande were the soundtrack for many of my fall mornings.
Fidicinium Sacro-Profanum, Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, Harmonie Universelle, Florian Deuter, Monica Waisman. I thought I misread HIFvB’s birth and death dates the first time I looked him up. His is music immune to the vagaries of time and taste.
Weinberg: Symphonies Nos. 2 & 21, Mieczysław Weinberg, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, Gidon Kremer, Kremerata Baltica, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Mieczysław Weinberg’s family was torn apart by war and ethnic killing in his native Poland and neighboring Russia. (I’m reading Bloodlandsright now — can’t imagine a better soundtrack than this.) Weinberg was a close associate of Shostakovich’s. His music might not be as well-known as the latter’s, but this disc rectifies this somewhat. Gražinytė-Tyla, the CBSO, and Weinberg aficionado Gidon Kremer worked magic with this one.
Sneaky projects you might’ve missed
Al Otro Lado,Liza Wallace, Lily Press, Simon Linn-Gerstein. Recommended this in the last mailer. Did you listen yet? Support good music.
The Sacrificial Code, Kali Malone. Kali Malone is a Swedish organist who finds a different gear for the pipe organ — in slow, meditative, drawn-out tones that echo across this work. It’s not clear who the audience for this is, which is to say that it’s perfect for CDA readers.
These live up to the hype
Become Desert, John Luther Adams, Seattle Symphony. The logical follow-up to JLA’s smash and CDA favorite Become Ocean.
Concurrence, Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Daníel Bjarnason, Anna Thorvaldsdóttir, Haukur Tómasson, María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir, Páll Ragnar Pálsson. Iceland : modern orchestra music :: Atlanta : trap music. I’ve written about my undisguised admiration for Anna Thorvaldsdóttir. Here you get Thorvaldsdóttir’s Metacosmos, plus installments of tingly, dense, well-matched music from three fellow Icelanders.
At the risk of oversharing and bungling this whole premise, here’s some non-classical music that blew me out of my seat
Partita for 8 Voices is a vocal work that won composer Caroline Shaw a Pulitzer Prize and her group Roomful of Teeth international acclaim. Roomful of Teeth’s self-titled 2012 debut album — where you’ll hear the first recording of Partita for 8 Voices — was nominated for three GRAMMYs, and won one. Suffice to say, Partita is as close to a smash hit as anything in the classical and art music worlds, and Roomful of Teeth are a group with megawatt power.
What’s impressive about Partita at first blush is that it contains an amazing assembly of vocal sounds that — to even a well-trained ear — register as risky, unearthly, and in some cases impossible, for lack of better descriptors. Shaw & Roomful seemed to have found an entirely new musical path. As Daniel Trueman, one of Shaw’s professors at Princeton University put it, “It’s hard to track a style that seems to have emerged all of a sudden, fully formed.”
Except that it didn’t. Not quite.
Roomful of Teeth and Caroline Shaw have been forthcoming about their influences both for Partita and for the group’s repertoire as a whole: their official bio lists yodeling, belting, Korean pansori, Hindustani music, Sardinian cantu a tenòre, and Tuvan and Inuit throat singing as source materials.
Tanya Tagaq is a virtuoso musical talent by any measure. Tagaq is an Inuk singer who has collaborated with the likes of Björk, Mike Patton, Damian Abraham, and Kronos Quartet. She’s concertized worldwide, released five albums (2019 list-makers take note: her EP Toothsayer came out in March), and written a novel. She’s also won a Juno Award and a Polaris Prize.
To give you an idea of the type of singing she does, this video is helpful.
Anyway, here’s where things go sideways.
Tagaq called out Roomful of Teeth and Caroline Shaw for swiping Inuit vocal techniques (“katajjaq”), and accused them of jacking the Love Song, a piece in which two singers are face-to-face and alternate rapid-fire utterances that repeat and change as they flow back and forth.
It’s difficult for someone unfamiliar with katajjaq to know exactly what Tagaq is talking about. I’ve probably listened to the recording of Partita for 8 Voices a dozen times since it was released. What’s more, I even saw Roomful of Teeth perform it live in Rotterdam in 2018 at Classical:NEXT. Shaw’s interpolation was lost on me. That’s exactly the point.
Tagaq also pointed out that she and other Inuit artists are the ones forced to police this. The onus is on them to level the charge, to substantiate with examples, to lean on offenders for a response, to handle third-party interlopers in the discussion (this being Twitter that’s 97.5% of the job), and finally to concretize solutions after the offending parties — who obviously wanted no part of this in the first place, and would like to end discussion as quickly and quietly as possible — have tendered their response. It’s exhausting.
Caroline Shaw offered a response to Tagaq and other critics here in this thread. Later, she and Roomful of Teeth founder Brad Wells released an official apologia (of sorts) on Scribd. In it Shaw and Wells described the writing of Partita. (Italics used below are their own.)
In 2010, Roomful of Teeth invited — with compensation and travel, lodging and expenses covered — two accomplished Inuit singers to our summer residency at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. We learned what we understood to be basic katajjaq techniques. We also learned about the genesis and purpose of these techniques and aspects of the Inuit culture. As we began to construct music informed in part by our study, we included some katajjaq patterns (as we understood them).
Here they responded at least in part to one of Tagaq’s charges (“no Inuit hired”), without wading too deep into the debate over plagiarism, appropriation, and fair use. Shaw & Wells followed with a bulleted list of “next steps” for the group.
Credit our teachers and coaches more explicitly in public and in print
Find opportunities to amplify and support performing artists of katajjaq, and other indigenous musicians with whom we work, in concrete and monetary ways
Read aloud a source acknowledgment at the beginning of every Roomful of Teeth concert, honoring explicitly named traditional cultures’ essential contributions to our music
Be alert to and proactive about these important issues in all our future work
Continue to listen to and learn from other members of the musical community, and take seriously concerns such as those raised recently
Explore new or alternate ways of performing our repertoire
These are nice sentiments folks, but one detail is left out…
<Tom Cruise yelling into an extremely 1996 cellphone in a quiet office>
Partita for 8 Voices is an uber-successful, generation-defining work — at least, as far as it goes in the classical music world — and Caroline Shaw is now A Composer in Full. What comes from that? Triple-P, baby: power, prestige, and prize$. How do you share an equitable slice of all that?
You can’t. Not exactly.
We’ve covered sampling and plagiarism many times over in the mailer, and every time we circle back to the same conclusion: music is an inherently “slippery” medium, where moreso than other art forms characteristics can be copied, referenced, combined, chopped up, and re-deployed in dizzying and unpredictable ways. Each iteration obscures the source material, for better or worse.
This musical slipperiness is useful in some contexts. It’s important that we can interpolate ideas in new and interesting ways. When Ariana Grande and her songwriters use “My Favorite Things” as a melodic reference on the familiar-but-new “7 Rings” you don’t necessarily think, “Oh damn it, she totally ripped off Rodgers and Hammerstein!” (Actually, she paid handsomely for the privilege, so maybe it’s a bad example.) (Actually, um… <checks notes> Grande may have ripped the song idea off entirely from another rapper named Princess Nokia….without attribution? So this is truly a terrible example. Moving on.)
We have many, many, many instances of borrowing or quoting in classical music. Bartók, Mahler and Vaughan Williams weaved folk tunes into their best-known music. Bach and Palestrina took secular melodies and bolted them onto religious compositions. And when Haydn jacked Roma tunes it was seen as “paying tribute” to the source material. And on and on. You get the idea.
The point is, these kinds of call-backs are a common part of compositional tradecraft. Again, for better or worse.
So, what constitutes respectful usage, and what is exploitative? Where is the line?
On one side we’ve got people who pay for shit and credit sources. These are the types who big-up the OGs, who might use something valuable from a source but then pay it backn-fold. Also known as: the right way to do business.
On the other side though are the culture vultures: songwriters, filmmakers, TV producers, painters, comedians, and whoever else, who grab what they want — especially from lesser-known or less-powerful groups — and ask for forgiveness later. Or not. You know the type: the Westerner who lands in Mumbai and within two hours is wearing a bindi and a sari in their IG stories. Everything is an accessory, nothing is serious. Tourists.
I don’t think Caroline Shaw intentionally obscured sourcing for the piece. I mean, Roomful of Teeth appear to offer more credit and more information on their website than a lot of groups do. Shaw is an uber-talented composer and performer. It’s highly doubtful she set out to steal everybody else’s ideas in order to composer her masterwork or whatever.
But — and you could hear that conjunction coming from a mile away, like a car that lost its rusty muffler, like distant thunder on a quiet summer night — that just ain’t enough. If this is some kind of crime or infraction it appears to be one of relative ignorance. Especially when you’re dealing with groups with less power or monetary resources, and/or those who aren’t plugged into a network with great support for musical creation and distribution, the onus is on you, as a composer, to identify when you’ve used source material belonging to those who have been historically disadvantaged, and to share the spoils — media attention, monetary compensation — that come from your success.
(I don’t want this to sound like a lecture. Caroline Shaw is a woman who happens to be a composer, and that presents its own unique challenges in a male-dominated domain. It sucks to have to work twice as hard as male colleagues, all the time, to even get noticed. I marvel at the success of people like Caroline Shaw and Tanya Tagaq.)
To explain this another way we can use what Dan Savage, advice columnist extraordinaire, coined the “campfire rule,” wherein you leave the situation better than the state you found it in. The campfire rule applies here.
I reached out both to Tanya Tagaq and Caroline Shaw for comment on this piece. I haven’t heard back. Still, given the publicly available facts I decided to let the Classical Dark Arts legal department — usually tasked with various multinational entanglements regarding our company’s unusual structure and financing — come back with a ruling on this incident.
Here’s a bulleted list of their suggestions.
As a sign of good faith, Roomful of Teeth (RoT) should build out their already better-than-average website with information about musical traditions and vocal techniques one might hear in a RoT shows and albums. This should include, but would not be limited to: links to Indigenous groups performing their own music; links to purchase materials by said groups; and historical accounts that offer a fuller picture of the development of music by said groups. In the case of Inuit performers and katajjaq, drawing attention to the particularly important role of music in Inuit culture would go some way to explaining the problem with using the Love Song and katajjaq in Partita for 8 Voices.
Roomful of Teeth should offer performers who closely align with their mission and sound the chance to perform as “openers.” RoT would then be the “headliners” on a double- or triple-billing. Openers would benefit from an audience that is receptive to a wide array of musical ideas.
Similarly, Roomful of Teeth should consider hosting an annual fundraiser to benefit groups from areas with less-lucrative performance opportunities whose music aligns with the RoT mission and sound.
Roomful of Teeth and Caroline Shaw should consider sharing royalty or other prize monies generated by Partita for 8 Voices. This gesture would reflect the importance that learned and inherited traditions played in the development of the piece.
Roomful of Teeth should update fans in late 2020 about what progress has been made in the interceding time. Because Roomful of Teeth, music publications (Classical Dark Arts included), performers, the Pulitzer Prize board and others paid so little attention to the use of the Love Song and katajjaq in Partita, that obligation unfairly fell to Tanya Tagaq and other Indigenous artists. This step ensures accountability without further burdening Tagaq et al.
The Pulitzer board must decide if Partita for 8 Voices still meets the standard for the award. On their site the Pulitzer board describe Partita as a “highly polished and inventive a cappella work uniquely embracing speech, whispers, sighs, murmurs, wordless melodies and novel vocal effects.” Has this new information changed the eligibility for Shaw’s work for a Pulitzer Prize?
There you have it. Thanks to the Classical Dark Arts legal team. They may not be able to extricate me from burdensome tax obligations on Malta, but when push comes to shove they can broker their way out of a conflict.
As an epilogue, Roomful of Teeth cofounder Brad Wells appeared onRadio Bostonlast month, and host Tiziana Dearing asked Wells about the controversy. Here’s part of their exchange, edited for clarity and length. (Bolding is my own.)
DEARING: You’ve studied a wide variety of techniques from different cultures, different countries. Has receiving this criticism changed how you’re thinking about your experimentation and your use of different styles, and your learning of different styles? How are you thinking about that now?
WELLS: It hasn’t changed it at all, but I think it’s helping clarify what the project is about, and also where to be alert for how singing is held in communities. And I think it varies all over the world.
One thing that we were talking about including in the statement […] was basically saying that music is a powerful vehicle for connection, for humans to connect, from one to another, or from group to group, or whatever. We all know that this is one of the things that singing and music does. But it also has this powerful potential and expressiveness as an identity expresser. And those things shouldn’t be at odds, but they need to be aware of each other, and sometimes the scales might tip more towards one side, towards somebody really saying, ‘This is expressing me. Let me do this, or let me do this at least until I tell you it’s okay. And I’ll let you in and you can share.’
So I think it’s around sensitivity that we’re learning, it’s around clarifying what the mission is. I don’t think it’s changing it, but it’s refining it.
Wells lands a direct hit there, although it took a lot of wind-up. These are vitally important works for some people, and those people are the ones who get to say how they’re used or not used.
I’d like to hear a lot more of that, and less press-speak about “clarifying” and “refining” the mission.
Nunatsiaq News deserve credit for being one of very few outlets covering this story. Click that link to read reporting at their site.