Monday, June 29, 2009

Back from the Huddle

I've got a couple of tidbits for our readership:

First, we've decided to tour FLECTION.  Right now the most likely scenario is that we'll be bringing a ramped-up version of FLECTION to San Francisco in early 2010.  Very exciting for all of us here at Sympho.

Second, we're hard at work planning our next full-scale concert production in New York City, scheduled for Spring 2010.

Third, we've been working very hard on creating more digital content for our fans, including video interviews with our artists and full-length streaming of past Sympho concerts.  All of this will be coming soon, but ONLY IF YOU ARE ON OUR MAILING LIST!  Please join by emailing us at  And stay tuned for more info here at the Sympho blog.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Wrap It Up

So that was FLECTION.  For everyone who went, you know what it was.  For everyone else, hopefully you got a chance to see the live video streaming last Wednesday night.  If not, we'll be streaming it again at some point soon.  Stay posted.  For this post, I wanted to give you a blow-by-blow of what actually happened from Monday morning, May 4 through Wednesday evening, May 6.

May 4:

• 11:30 a.m. - our first rehearsal.  SymphoNYC and I went to Studios 353 in midtown Manhattan to rehearse the Barber Adagio for an hour and a half, after which we had a lunch break
• 2:30 p.m. - our second rehearsal.  SymphoNYC rehearsed at Le Poisson Rouge until 5:30.  During this time period, Paul Fowler worked with the sound/tech guys at LPR to make sure his laptop rig would be able to function as we had envisioned.  Also during these 3 hours, Suzette (my wife) worked with the LPR lighting guru, Jonathan Talley, to implement the lighting design for FLECTION

May 5:

• morning - crazy ticket sales, both for Tuesday and Wednesday.  The staff worked hard to accommodate all requests, making sure we cut off sales when the concert sold out (it did both nights!).
• 2 p.m. - dress rehearsal.  SymphoNYC and I rehearsed with lighting and sound for the next 3.5 hours.  This concert is an exercise in concentration for the players, so much of our time was spent making sure the roadmap was clear in everyone's mind.  The orchestra was absolutely terrific, and I was actually able to let them go a little early, which made everyone happy.  No one really thinks about this, but the players have to go get dinner, get changed, and warm up prior to playing the concert, and it's nice to be able to give them more rather than less time to do that.
• 5 p.m. - setup.  Suzette and Amy Maguire (Sympho's crack Production Manager) directed the LPR crew in setting up tables for the patrons and generally getting the place ready to receive the onslaught of ticketholders for the evening.  Paul Fowler and I worked last-minute to fine-tune his laptop rig, as the Fates had seen fit to cause his MIDI interface to go up in smoke during our dress rehearsal.  Paul was ultra-prepared, of course, and had a backup interface ready to go within minutes - all we had to do was dial in some balances (i.e., how loud his music would be compared to the live sounds the orchestra was playing).
• 6:45 p.m. - doors open.  Our guests started to arrive and eat their dinner.  The orchestra and the crew were busy up to the start of the concert with last-minute preparations, while Suzette, Amy, and our wonderful volunteers made sure our guests got to their tables with no problems.
• 7:30 p.m. - the concert started.  Amazing.  After a year of preparation, there is no better feeling than seeing it all fall into place.
• 10 p.m. - the concert ended.  The after-party commenced.  People bought our TRACES CD, which we pre-released for these concerts.

May 6:

• 1 p.m. - recording.  SymphoNYC and I met at Church of the Holy Trinity on the upper east side to record FLECTION for posterity.  We stayed there for 3 hours, breaking at 4 p.m. to get ready for the night ahead.
• 5:30 p.m. - soundcheck/tech.  Paul Fowler and I met at LPR to go over our respective checklists.  I met with lighting to go over some issues from the previous night and make some changes.  We ended up adapting the concert a bit for the second night, given what we'd learned from the first night, and that meant the lighting design needed to be tweaked a bit.  Paul F set up his laptop rig, and then he and I went over balances again between his sampled sounds and the orchestra's contributions.  He continued to work at a feverish pitch until the concert started, but I was able to pull away and visit with the guests as they arrived.  LPR actually moved our dressing rooms that night, so there was quite a bit of mayhem - but we were pretty sure nobody in the audience noticed anything amiss...
• 6:45 p.m. - doors open.  Again, the ticketholders streamed in as the doors opened.  Everything ran even more smoothly this evening, especially as everyone knew much more what to expect.
• 7:30 p.m. - the concert started.  If anything, this concert was even more fun than the previous one, with a real sense of play that comes from knowing the music and the concept incredibly well.
• 7:30 p.m. - live streaming of the concert began on Sympho's website.  This was a first for us, and - despite our having decided to do it relatively recently - it came off without a hitch, and we had viewers both in the U.S. and abroad.  The very positive reactions gave us the idea to stream the concert again in the near future, just so more people can see this extraordinary concert.
• 9:30 p.m. - the concert was over.  After some post-concert greetings and settling up with LPR, we went out to a celebratory dinner (late!) and then off to bed.

May 7:

• 9 a.m. - cogitation.  The ideas started flowing for the next Sympho concert...  More on that later.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

On Obsession

I think of Samuel Barber as the last of the great Romantics in music. He lived well into the period where younger composers (starting with George Rochberg, and going from there) were already doing the post-modern version of Romanticism, and his own music was certainly colored by modern styles and techniques. But at his core, he was a Romantic, and the music always brings us to that Romantic place. One of the hallmarks of late Romanticism is an obsessive quality - not the modernist obsession with the Machine, but the Romantic obsession with human yearning and isolation. Barber fits neatly into that tradition (though he did dabble in explorations of the mechanical), and the Adagio is probably the most dramatic example of that obsessive quality.

What makes something obsessive, in music? It's not just repetition - it's the kind of repetition. In other words, the repetition of what? In this case, Barber repeats phrases that "cadence", or conclude, with the next repetition as the answer to the one that came before it. But the repetitions are all slightly different; they are refractions of the same idea. If they were all the same, the music would not have the obsessive quality that I hear in it, because it would not suggest the effort to "move on" that the changes imply. The material itself strongly suggests a pathos and a longing, or perhaps a resignation. It's always dangerous to assign specific moods to pieces, which is perhaps why I focused my response on this general idea of "obsession."

My own pieces in response to the Barber are obsessive in a more modern context. The musical landscape of the two pieces is comprised of a series of wandering musical objects and narratives; they seek their own resolutions. Ultimately, and unlike the Barber, it's an outside element - itself with an obsessive quality - that thrusts the broader narrative forward. Given that so much of my music deals with heavy repetition, it was interesting to work with repetition of a very specific kind. I'm not sure that I can capture the lost Romanticism of Barber and the composers who preceded him, but it is always fascinating to put on another composer's shoes, even in a specific and limited fashion such as this.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Laptop with orchestra?

It's an interesting thing for me, imagining how to use a computer as an instrument within the orchestra. I've not been that satisfied with what I've seen in other works. I'm not a huge fan of "tape" pieces, where the performer plays along with prerecorded material. It always felt too disparate to me. Imagine a clarinetist standing on stage with a huge PA backing him up, pumping out prerecorded material. Visually you have these two imposing structures and then this lone clarinetist and sonically you have someone playing music with the inherent risk of live performance and then this "tape" thing which just spews out exactly what it was intended to do regardless of an audience or not. For me, if there's prerecorded material in a piece, I'd rather hear the whole thing on a recording. That way, both the live player and the tape have equal standing within a permanent medium, and the two elements are voiced by the same sound making device, i.e. headphones or speakers. I find the value of live performance is in its impermanent nature and the risk that exudes from the performers and the stage. One of my acting teachers always said: "Risk is everything." We could substitute this with "vulnerability." Granted, I love hearing a commanding performer whose natural tone and flow is uncanny and perfect, but there's still risk, there's still vulnerability in the emotional investment and in revealing that investment to hundreds or thousands; regardless of their relationship to the performer, each other and their judgements. So when there's a CD player in the back playing music for someone else to play along with, it's just not worthy of the "live" experience for me, [emphasis: for ME]. So for me to perform laptop with an orchestra, I've got to find a way to do with the laptop what everyone else is doing. I have to turn the laptop into an instrument that is capable of making a mistake and can be performed with expression; and somehow the performance of it must include risk or vulnerability.

The other piece of this involves the kind of sound that one generates with the tape or laptop. If I return to the clarinet and tape piece, let's imagine that the sonic world of the tape material is entirely electronic; meaning it isn't sampled in any way and was generated solely through electronic means. Again, we have a very disparate relationship between the two worlds. That divide between entirely electronic and acoustic can be very cool, and has been exploited throughout the last 4 decades of electroacoustic music, but I've always found difficulty in truly enjoying these works...they're just not for me...not in the concert hall. On a CD, sure, its easier for me to enjoy the music, but in the concert hall I have a hard time allowing those opposing materials to meld in my ear...I want to feel a sonic relationship between the two instruments that implies a sort of harmony (even if the characters of the duet are at war). I want there to be a reason that these two instruments are playing together, after all, I rarely make music with people who I am not resonant with in some way.

All this over-explanation and over-thinking has lead me to live sampling. It retains the kind of risk that I prefer, and I'm working with material that has only just existed in the last few moments, performed by those with whom I'm collaborating. Like a jazz musician quoting the final bits of the previous soloist before moving into his own improvisation. And this is an obvious thing to an audience, especially when there are inconsistencies and imperfect things that come back through the sampling. The whole artistic experience is then housed within that container of the performers and what they can do in that moment; in that venue. I'm not reaching into a hard drive to grab sounds that were recorded worlds away, and the sounds, or rather, the music that I'm creating with the laptop is directly related to the is the orchestra.

In order to make it something that I enjoy performing, I have to use a good deal of sound manipulation, and it can't all be written out. Ideas are there, plans, and the like, but I like to think of things as an acoustic musician: Where do I want the tone to go? What is the push and pull of the phrase here? How can I make this shift into something one wouldn't expect? How can I make this my own? These are things that are rarely written into a score for a performer, but these things are perhaps the most important part of the performance and that's what I like to focus on with the laptop; I like to amplify the quality of shaped phrases and tone color shifts in a way that isn't possible with acoustic instruments. I wouldn't say that what I'm doing is incredibly complicated, I'm no "controllerist" guru, (look up controllerism, you'll find people like Moldover and the like) I just have a great love for technology and also simple, acoustic sound......

Student Tickets Available

Just a quick note to let you know that Student Tickets are now available for FLECTION (May 6 concert only).  They are selling fast, so we recommend that you act now!  Click here to go to our tickets page.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

I'm a co-composer. What?

No, I didn’t stutter.  The whole premise behind Sympho’s FLECTION concerts on May 5 and 6 is that composing can be a collaborative enterprise.  Just as Mozart worked closely with Da Ponte, his librettist, to come up with Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte, and Le nozze di Figaro, why couldn’t three different living composers work together (with one dead one) to create a large-scale piece?  The answer, of course, is that they can.  And have.

When I approached Paul Fowler and Judd Greenstein last fall about collaborating on Sympho’s latest adventure, I think all three of us were a bit in the dark about what it would take to make this happen.  But I choose my compatriots wisely…

The first thing we did was to lay out the ground rules.  Each of us was to write two pieces, about 5 minutes each.  Those pieces are required 1) to be inserted seamlessly into Barber’s Adagio for Strings at pre-selected “points of inflection” (see “So why the Adagio” entry below) and 2) to be extractable from the Adagio and performed one after the other as movements of a large-scale symphonic work.

Since FLECTION is a concert about the reactions people have had listening to Barber’s Adagio for Strings, the three of us agreed that each of our 5-minute pieces would embody a personal or universal reaction to the Adagio.

The next step was to determine exactly where the “points of inflection” would be – i.e., where we would insert our reactions into the Barber.  We may have quibbled a tiny bit over the placement of one of those insertion points, but – surprisingly – the locations were intuitively obvious to each of us.

Once we knew the music before our piece and the music after our piece, there really was nothing left to do but…write our pieces.  We kept up a fairly steady dialogue during the composition process (around three months total), comparing notes, techniques, and motivic material. 

Unexpectedly, it became clear during the actual composition that our email and phone correspondence was almost besides the point.  The very fact that our pieces grew out of the Adagio connected them with each other very organically.  Each composer’s two pieces are motivically and stylistically related to each other, by virtue of the fact that each composer has his own style.  The connection, though, between each composer’s pieces and the other composers’ pieces is harder to explain.  Our pieces do not overtly share any melodic or harmonic material, but they are most definitely parts of the same whole.  The connection just is.  That, for me, was one of the most incredible parts of the whole project.

The hardest part, I had convinced myself, was going to be figuring out how to extract our short pieces from Barber’s Adagio and making them work, one after the other, as connected movements of a large-scale piece.  My expectations were totally wrong, once again.  We had an entirety of two email exchanges on the subject before it became apparent that the pieces fit together perfectly, in the order composed.  In one place we had to take out a pitch from a string chord to make the ending of one movement mesh with the next beginning, but – other than that – it just worked.  I can’t rationalize it, except to suggest that, since our pieces followed the same architectural arch as the Adagio, we ended up with a great dovetailing effect as we laid our pieces end to end.

I, for one, am greatly relieved – but not surprised – at the happy ending of the FLECTION saga.  Judd, Paul, and I are all people who instinctively go for the unknown and the unknowable.  It’s certainly one of the reasons I work with them as often as I do.  After a few experiences of going out on an artistic limb (with a 1500-foot drop to the canyon floor) and having it work out better than you had thought possible, you just start to expect it.  It’s a great place to be, and all three of us are looking forward to sharing the results with you at the FLECTION concerts on May 5 and 6.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

On the word "Adagio"

Does Adagio mean slow?  Most people think so.  But no, it doesn't.  It means "at ease" in Italian (ad="at", agio="ease" or "comfort").  So there you go.  Learn something new every day.

Seriously, though, people's different takes on the meanings of Italian words have plagued music interpreters throughout the ages.  Mozart - a fluent speaker of Italian - certainly meant "at ease" when he wrote adagio in his scores.  (What that actually means in terms of performance is another debate, of course...)  When Tchaikovsky - a lover of all things Italian, no doubt (wink!) - writes adagio in his scores, does he mean "slow"?  When Barber wrote a piece called Adagio for Strings... well, what did he mean by using that word?  Considering that he wrote the piece (actually it originated as the slow movement of Barber's String Quartet no. 1) while he was living in Rome, it's tempting to think he was cognizant of the literal meaning of the word adagio.  But was he really?  And even if he was, did he already have a different/slower meaning for that musical term deeply ingrained?

The truth is: we don't know.  It's impossible to know, unless the composer in question is alive.  Even written testimony to what a composer thought is usually suspect - meetings can be faked, people can mishear.  Think back to when you played a game of "telephone" as a child...  Is there a recording of Barber conducting it?  Not to my knowledge, though if anybody knows of one - PLEASE tell me!  

Given the fact that there's no way of knowing how fast Barber intended his Adagio for Strings to be played, it's easier to understand just why there are such marked differences in tempo between performances of the same piece.  The shortest recordings clock in at around 7 minutes.  They sound sprightly to my ears.  The longest recording I know of is a live Bernstein recording that tips the scales at over 10 minutes.  It sounds absolutely desperate, pleading.  Which way is right?  Both!  Neither!  (Insert your opinion here.)

When you think about it, a 3 minute difference between performances is colossal.  Bernstein's performance is almost half again as long as the fastest versions out there.

So what's my point?  For me, it all goes back to the ambiguity of written language.  Words are symbols, deriving meaning only through the filter of the person doing the writing or the reading.  Think music is written down unambiguously?  Think again.  Sure, we know approximately what pitch the composer wanted at which approximate dynamic level, and played for approximately how long.  But really not much more than that.  

[With Mahler, more than any other composer, you really get a sense of how frustratingly inadequate musical notation is to convey one's ideas in a precise way.  Just look at one of his symphonies in full score, and you'll see - there's almost a running commentary of what is supposed to be happening, all written out in German (and sometimes Italian).  This was a man who saw very clearly that musical notation can never be eindeutig, or unambiguous.]

Is that so bad?  Of course not.  It's beautiful.  It cements, in fact, the partnership between composer and performer, since neither one could create without the other.  In the case of Barber's Adagio, the simple fact that the one word adagio does not mean the same thing to all people yields incredible fruit, in the form of countless different (more or less) valid interpretations of the same piece.  The very idea of there being a "correct" interpretation finds itself ignominiously shuffled off to where it belongs: freezing outside in the cold.

Speaking of which, is anybody else here in NYC ready for spring to arrive?  What gives?


So why the Adagio? (...and further ruminations)

What drew me to Barber's Adagio for Strings as a possible cornerstone of a concert?

The Adagio has become ubiquitous in contemporary American culture.  It’s safe to say that the vast majority of Americans would recognize it upon hearing it, regardless of whether they could identify the piece or its composer by name.  More importantly, almost everyone who hears Barber’s piece has an intense emotional reaction to it – whether of sadness, peace, longing, or any other emotion under the sun.  And that reaction – or rather the multitude of possible reactions – is endlessly fascinating to me.

Paul Fowler, Judd Greenstein, and I have come together to share our own reactions to Barber’s Adagio and the feelings it evokes in us – intensely personal reactions, yet connected to other, similar feelings experienced by others over the years.  The pieces we have written were designed to branch off from and return to the Adagio at predetermined “points of inflection,” to become a part of the piece while commenting on it in real time.  At the same time, our compositions are designed to exist apart from the Adagio, coming together as movements of a large-scale piece called FLECTION.  Still a part of the Adagio, this Fowler/Greenstein/Haas work can – and should – be viewed outside of that context as well.

OK, now: What does that mean – “point of inflection” – in this context?

When Judd, Paul, and I went about the process of getting inside – literally inside – the Adagio, it made sense to find places in Barber’s piece that felt simultaneously like points of arrival and departure.  Those moments are full of potential energy, and – as we composers found out – Barber’s “points of inflection” are infinitely flexible, allowing us to arrive and depart in myriad different ways.  Stylistically speaking, it’s the departing from and returning to Barber’s music that relates each of the commissioned works to each other, far more potently than the actual musical material used.

Sunday, April 19, 2009


So, FLECTION.  Describing a live concert experience is somewhat akin to taking notes on a glorious sunset, but - despite the obvious limitations - I will give it a go.  It's really important to me that concert-goers have all the information they need well in advance of the concert itself.  There's so much to say that I'll limit myself to contextualizing FLECTION within Sympho's concert output in this entry, saving more of the nitty-gritty for later posts.

Sympho has always been about redefining what it means to experience an orchestral concert, both on the side of the audience and of the musicians.  The only way to do that in a meaningful way is to experiment – with different ideas, concepts, and delivery systems – after which you keep what works and jettison that which doesn’t.

We turned the whole idea of an orchestral concert on its ear with REWIND and TRACES.  They were both 90-minute continuous concerts, with no breaks at all.  The music began before the audience entered the hall, and it was still playing when the audience left.  Composers linked pre-existing pieces with newly-commissioned connective material, and the effect was that of an unbroken arch of music – one large piece of music that developed throughout the course of an evening, instead of a smattering of pieces interrupted by applause and uncomfortable silences.  To this musical foundation we added other disciplines from the theater, such as lighting and staging, and we collaborated with talented installation artists.

As successful as these concerts were, Sympho decided to chart a new course for our next concert.  After all, just because our new concept worked didn’t mean it was the only way to recreate the classical concert experience.  So we came up with FLECTION, which is Sympho’s way of addressing many of the issues and concerns that came up in our earlier concerts.  FLECTION will have an intermission, giving people a chance to think about what they’ve just heard.  The audience will hear the same music twice in the same concert, but it will be reorganized in such a way as to affect the listener in vastly different ways.   The concert takes place in a real live club.  With a bar.  In fact, Le poisson rouge is a perfect vehicle to allow Sympho to continue its drive to push performers and audience members into the same space, tearing down the wall that has divided them through centuries.  The venue is very intimate, and as a result it forces players and listeners to occupy the same ground, to great effect.

Of course there are aspects of REWIND and TRACES that fans will recognize in FLECTION: the subtle use of stage lighting, the positioning of players throughout the performance space to create a “surround” effect, and – most importantly – the sense of adventure, of being present at an event where you look forward to the next surprise.


Sympho has a concert coming up...

Very briefly, just wanted to let you all in something: Sympho's FLECTION concert is coming up in NYC on May 5 and 6.  OK, so that may not be news, but it means that the blog will be almost exclusively dedicated to FLECTION between now and then.  Have patience, non-New Yorkers.  Or...come to New York!  I'll be back shortly with my first *real* post.

The Blog - Sympho goes 2.0

Dear Sympho Friends and Fans,

At this very exciting time, as Sympho prepares to premiere our FLECTION concert on May 5 and 6, we unveil the Sympho Blog.  It's our way of keeping you up-to-date with everything Sympho is doing, giving you behind the scenes access to everything that's going on.  Please check back with us regularly to hear from my fellow artists and me on all kinds of topics, ranging from the composing process to thoughts on the future of the classical music concert.  We'll have everything from the strictly factual to involved discourses, and everything in between.

Please feel free to be in touch with us whenever you have something to say in response.  We look forward to a lively exchange of ideas into the future.