Marti's Blog

Jean Sibelius

I used to hate the music of Jean Sibelius. This was based on two things- a very unfortunate arrangement of Finlandia we played in high school band, and an even more unfortunate performance of the Symphony no. 2 I heard when I was a student. I had no idea what the big deal was. The melodies were trite, the structure was muddled, nothing made sense to me.

When I was in college at the University of Colorado, I had gone to a piano faculty member's All Chopin recital to try to learn what it was I hated about Chopin (yes, I know, it seems crazy now that I would dislike those two composers so much!). In that process, thanks to the programming of the Op. 27 no. 1 c# minor Nocturne as the first piece on the program, I fell immediately in love with Chopin's music. The illumination of the music revealed by a great performance completely changed my mind, and I was now able to see and hear how imaginative and creative Chopin was.

I was a student at the Tanglewood Music Center for the first of two times in 1986. Being at Tanglewood changed my life in many ways (and more on that in a future post). One of those life-changing experiences was meeting Leonard Bernstein. When I found out that he would be conducting the Sibelius Symphony no. 2 with the TMC (Tanglewood Music Center) orchestra, I decided to attend as many rehearsals as possible in the hopes that I would have a similar experience like the Chopin revelation I had in college. If anyone could convince me of the worth of Sibelius' music, it was Bernstein.

I remember what happened as if it were yesterday. I remember where I was sitting in the old theater at Tanglewood, I remember what I was wearing. Bernstein was rehearsing the first movement and had gotten to the climax. The students weren't giving him exactly what he wanted- they weren't going SLOWLY enough. Finally, he got them to stretch the tempo so drastically that the shape of the climax suddenly became clear. And, I know this sounds silly, but I felt as if the roof had opened up, revealing the truth to me- the truth that Sibelius was not the worst composer ever, but possibly the greatest. That one little moment caused me to listen to his music with brand new ears; it was as if a switch came on, and I became the Sibelius fanatic most people know me to be.

Because of that experience, I came to realize that Sibelius' music has a certain endless expanse, a certain timelessness that I aspire to achieve in my own music. It is very much a product of his internal and external landscape. It is strange in all the great ways; it is a vast vista of ice and sun that is more beautiful every time I listen to it.

There was a concert in 1987 at Symphony Hall in Boston of Sibelius Symphonies 5, 6, and 7 performed by Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. The hall was only half full so the sound was even more lush and enveloping than usual. I will never forget that concert. I saw my former composition teacher, Charles Fussell, in the audience. He and I had not really gotten along well; I felt that he didn't understand my music, and he felt that I didn't listen to him. But when he saw me there- it was almost like a secret society of people who had just discovered each other- he said, "Oh, NOW I understand you."

hockey mom/composer mom

I spent the first 39 years and 364 days of my life absolutely certain I would never have a child. I liked kids, but more as a peer than as a prospective parent. I was not only sure I would be a terrible mom - at once overprotective and neglectful- but I also could not imagine how I could manage my schedule as a composer, pianist and teacher with caring for a tiny little human being. The decision to not have children felt completely comfortable and right.

Then, on my 40th birthday, I witnessed some adorably precocious behavior from a cousin's 2 year old daughter, and my mind changed with the immediacy of the flick of a light switch. I could not believe I had decided not to have a child- and having just turned 40, I was sure it was too late. My boyfriend and I decided that we should get married and try- and I felt a great sense of both relief and urgency. Sometimes I think that urgency was because my son needed to be born, and we were the ones responsible for making that happen.

I have been a mom now for almost 13 years, and I think a lot about how being a mom influences my music, and how being a composer affects my being a mom. There are logistic, time-management issues. Sometimes one must sacrifice a musical obligation for a parental one and vice versa. There are issues of identity. Sometimes I hear that being a mom must enrich my music because it makes me who I am. I don't accept that- I believe that an artist's work transcends who they are as people; I MUST believe that in order to keep some of my compositional heroes, some of whom were heinous people in their personal lives (but that's another blog post!).

The various hats I wear- mom, composer, pianist, teacher, too-frequent-Facebook-poster- all exist in tandem with each other. I believe that they co-exist inside me, together make up who I am as a person. But I am just not sure how much they influence each other.

But, here's what I do know. Last night I had dinner with 8 other mom's of kids from my son's hockey team. We defy the stereotype of a Sarah Palin-esque hockey mom. We are lawyers, brilliant business people, assistants to college presidents, law librarians, jewelry makers, doctors, and musicians. And we are loving, caring, compassionate, devoted moms. We are teaching our children that it is possible to be a mom in tandem with many other things. We are showing our children by example that women can have rich and complex lives, that women can be anything they want- in addition to being moms- without negative impact on their motherhood. And maybe this concept will expand and become more and more normal for each subsequent generation so that one day there will be no gender stereotypes with regards to who and what one decides to be.

To my son, it is completely normal to have a mom who's a composer. Normal is good. 

“If it is art, it is not for all, and if it is for all, it is not art”

This is a quote from Arnold Schoenberg, one of my compositional heroes. I think about this idea of his a great deal. As a composer of "post-classical 21st century avant-garde art" music, I am always trying to find the path between composing the music that is the truest expression of who I am as a composer and composing music that will engage and speak to listeners, musicians and lay people alike. On one hand, I am not interested in creating art "for the people", but on the other hand, I would like to widen my listener circle a bit.

To me, art is any creative endeavor that has originality and is richly multilayered. I don't believe that art can happen when one is creating for The Audience. The Audience is made up of a multitude of individuals with countless different tastes and preferences. Trying to create art that this multitude will "like" results in lowest common denominator banality, and I believe that this is what Schoenberg is talking about. Better is to strive towards creating work that has depth, originality and richness. Writer and entrepreneur Seth Godin says "Giving the people what they want isn't nearly as powerful as teaching them what they need."

The question is not how do we create art that people will like, but rather how do we get people to like the art we create? First, I would propose replacing the word "like" with the word "value". Second, I would replace the word "get" with the word "invite". How do we invite people to value art? That's the question. Liking or not liking something is almost immaterial. Some of my most treasured artistic experiences have been when I wasn't sure what my emotional response to something was, I only knew that I was having a profound experience that was deeply valuable to me. This is not a production issue, this is an issue of marketing and education. How can the Boston Symphony Orchestra, for example, educate their audience members about valuing the experience of hearing something new and unfamiliar?

Olivia Zorn, a high school senior at Boston Latin, did research on this topic as it relates to visual art for her Capstone Project. (you can watch her TEDTalk here: http://ozcapstonebls.weebly.com/tedx-talk.html). She went to the MFA and timed how long museum visitors looked at representational art versus abstract art. Amongst other things, she discovered that people tended to linger longer at the things with which they were most familiar. Olivia suggests that the first step towards engaging observers is to encourage them to spend time looking at the unfamiliar; not just seeing, but involved looking and observing. Second, she would encourage people to describe the basic building blocks used in a work of art, and to describe how those building blocks are used similarly or differently in something that is unfamiliar. Third, she suggests that the observer be encouraged to react, to take part in the experience, to try to define what exactly it is he/she is feeling or thinking when approaching something new.

Because music travels through time, listeners don't have the luxury of taking time to observe. But one can certainly try to pay careful attention to what one is hearing- to really listen rather than to hear. My wish is that people would love the experience of not understanding what they are hearing at first. Why are some people so afraid of this?

I don't have answers. I do know that when I have been asked to give talks on my music prior to performances, the audience is much more predisposed to listening carefully to my music, to valuing the experience of hearing something new. But the marketing and education needs to happen before people decide to go or not to go to a concert. Somehow, the experience of hearing (or seeing, or reading, etc.) something new and unfamiliar needs to be given a context of excitement and worth- the act of original creativity is, after all, one of the things that makes us human, that makes life thrilling.

baseball, mushrooms, and the music of morton feldman

I used to find baseball deathly boring. I had absolutely no comprehension of the game, and could not bear to spend even 5 minutes watching it. I didn't get it. Then, in 1996, when I was dating my ex-husband, he taught me to keep score, which completely changed my perception of the game. Keeping score illuminated even the tiniest aspects of the game for me, and it sprang to life. Suddenly, instead of nothing appearing to happen, everything appeared to happen. The more I looked and noticed, the more I saw was there. The intricate relationship between the pitcher and the hitter now seemed so multi-layered. The symbiotic connection between the pitcher and the catcher- the almost psychic relationship the good ones have with each other- became thrilling for me. Watching the fielders- especially someone like Nomar Garciaparra when he first started to play for the Red Sox- showed me the complexities of reactions to what was going on at the plate. My favorite games became the intense low-scoring "pitchers' duels" that often went into extra innings. I learned to be rewarded by paying attention.

I was reminded of this several years ago when I attended a conference in Asheville, North Carolina on John Cage and his influence on visual artists. One of the sessions was a mushroom walk on the grounds of the former Black Mountain College, where Cage was in residence in the 1950's. Cage, as many people know, was an amateur- but brilliant- mycologist. As we walked through the grounds, searching for mushrooms, guided by a local mushroom expert, I saw nothing. Just trees and grass, maybe a few flowers here and there. Meanwhile, the visual artists amongst us were noticing mushrooms both tiny and huge that many of the rest of us did not see until we got close. I realized that the visual artists were attuned to visual observation; they were better at looking and seeing than I was. As I tried to pay better attention, I started noticing many mushrooms that I hadn't seen before.

Experiencing a piece by Morton Feldman, especially the longer ones, can be like a baseball game or a mushroom walk. Instead of just hearing the piece, one must listen with full attention and aural observation. When one approaches Feldman's music in this way, one discovers that, while on the surface it may seem as if not much is happening, in fact (in the words of pianist Andy Costello) Feldman's music is "action-packed". Noticing each tiny variation and expression of the musical materials, observing with full attention what happens to the materials in a piece can be thrilling and deeply  satisfying and moving. One's perception of time completely changes. Three hours can seem like 20 minutes. One realizes that a profound experience has been had, that close observation and attention can be richly rewarded.

 

in praise of handwriting

The first day of class fall semester, a student showed up 40 minutes late, sat down, and promptly opened up his computer. Because he was 40 minutes late, he missed the one unbreakable rule for my classroom: No Electronic Devices of any kind. The class was a music history class focusing on concert music written after WWII; a class that relies on the students' concentrated listening and class discussion. I asked him to close his computer, explaining to him that I don't allow computers to be open in the classroom. He argued with me, telling me that he could only take notes on the computer. I told him he either needed to take notes by hand, or not even take notes at all, but rather listen intently and comment appropriately on the music being discussed. He left and dropped the class.

The reason for my one unbreakable rule is clear to those who already agree with me, but makes no sense to those who don't. Let me try to explain: I believe that the simple act of writing things down, using pen and paper (pencil works too) creates indelible connections in the brain. I am not a psychologist, nor am I knowledgeable of any science regarding the brain. This is simply what I have experienced for myself as a notetaker, and what I have seen be effective in my students.

In fact, there has been some compelling research done on this topic. A recent piece in the Boston Globe Ideas section talks about this: http://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2014/05/24/taking-notes-bring-pen-skip-computer/e3kGp47M7znyaNKOamUwrO/story.html And, an article in Psychology Today talks about "desirable difficulties": https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/all-about-addiction/201105/desirable-difficulties-in-the-classroom

The other aspect is that I believe, through observation over the years, that staring at a screen can shut down creative thought processes. And, there is the obvious problem of whether students are actually taking notes or are looking at Facebook (I have seen many of my colleagues' students looking at Facebook while they have their computers open, ostensibly taking notes). I want to discourage distraction in my classes; there's plenty to be distracted by without having an open computer.

Please don't misunderstand. I am not anti-computer, or anti-technology. I love Facebook as much (probably more) as the next person. I rely on computers to organize my classroom materials, to send my music to interested parties, to watch Berlin Philharmonic performances, etc. etc. I just believe that learning happens more deeply and permanently when computers are closed and phones are off.

Anyone who knows me knows that I also believe that computers can be a detriment to the creative compositional process. I have seen, time and time again, students become stymied and stunted creatively when they rely on the inflexibility of the computer. Finale and Sibelius (the program, not the composer) can be useful notation programs, but as compositional tools, they can encourage defaults (conscious and not). When I ask students to compose by hand they tell me "how will I be able to hear my music?" My response to that is to explain to them that no composer in history before 1990 had a computer to spit out a barely adequate soundfile, giving them a poor aural representation of what the piece sounds like. Rather, composers have always, since the dawn of written notation, strived to hear their music in their heads and make that struggle, that "desirably difficult" path towards writing down what they hear in their minds. This is where creativity is born- in the imagining of the sound, in the quest to discover the best and clearest and most communicative notation. The vital next piece, especially for a student, is to then hear the piece performed. Assess what did and didn't work, and move on to the next piece. One must imagine one's music.

My hero, Toru Takemitsu, learned this lesson when he apprenticed for the film composer, Fumio Hayasaka. In the words of Takemitsu's wife, Asaka Takemitsu: "Young composers have few opportunities to have their music performed, especially if they write an orchestral work. But film scores get turned into sound almost immediately. He wasn't the one who was composing the actual music, but by helping to write out the score and parts, he was able to see that, 'If the notes are layered this way' then, 'Aha, it will sound like this when it is performed.' This from one of the greatest orchestral composers of all time. There is no shortcut towards this end; one must study scores and experiment with sound and instrumental color. And use the computer for notation only (unless of course you still notate by hand!).

Hockey Mom Composer Mom

Welcome to my brand new website!  Watch this space for news on upcoming concerts as well as random musings about topics as varied as the magic of Gerard Grisey and the World Series potential of the Chicago Cubs.