Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Canon in the Smelting Pot: Tamaki Miura's Butterfly

There are few opera arias as well known and instantly recognizable as Puccini's "Un bel di," from Madame Butterfly. The story of the opera, about a 15-year old Japanese girl married to and then abandoned by an American naval officer, is seen alternately as a heartrending tale of love and heartbreak or a microcosm of American and European colonial bigotry. Or both. Things can be more than one thing at the same time.

My personal reaction to the opera is tinged by my own family history. My maternal grandmother, Sadako McMahon, married an American soldier, Thomas McMahon, at the end of World War II. When Americans think of the Pacific theater, they mostly think of atomic bombs, kamikaze suicide bombers, and maybe Iwojima. They tend to gloss over the fact that America did to Tokyo what Germany did to London, if indeed they know about the firebombings at all. Oba-Chan (my grandmother) barely ever talked about that time in her life, but when she did it was clear she was in desperate straights. So, in some small way, my grandmother's story is a little bit like Cio-Cio's, except with a happier ending.

It's curious to me, then, that Madame Butterfly is considered a love story. When Cio-Cio is introduced, she makes it pointedly clear to Pinkerton that she is poor. Heck, it should have been clear before that, considering Pinkerton bought her from a wedding arranger. She's also *checks notes* 15 years old? I know age of majority has changed a lot in the intervening years, and I don't want to get into that, but have you met 15 year-olds? There's a reason we don't trust them with driving cars. 

Anyways, this is a roundabout way to get to my point: she may be in love, but she is absolutely driven by survival. Especially when her family disowns her, Cio-Cio is just about to fall off Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Which, you know, complicates my understanding of my grandparents. Did they love each other? Surely so. Oba-chan spoke of him fondly, and kept her wedding photo near her bed. She also never remarried. But was she also motivated to secure her own future? Undoubtedly. Oba-chan was far from the only Japanese woman to take the path she did. 

So watching Madame Butterfly is, for me, lets say... uncomfortable. And that's even before we get to the issue of yellowface.

--- --- --- ---

Tamaki Miura was a Japanese soprano, the first to achieve global fame. Her success rests largely on her performances as Cio-Cio-san in Madame Butterfly. When I first read about her, I was excited to hear what she sounded like. Reviewers extolled her as one of the greats. When I first listened to her, I was... a bit disappointed. She has a very pleasant voice, but it didn't quite match my expectations. How could this happen, I wondered. Maybe a difference in attitudes about quality changing over time? It is not uncommon for contemporary musicians, hearing a missed note or rhythm in old recordings, to chuckle a bit at great musicians of times gone by.

But it's complicated. When I did some reading, it seemed more of the reviews focused on her quality of performance not from a perspective of technical vocal prowess, but from the simple fact that she was a Japanese woman playing the part of a Japanese character. Indeed, many reviewers noted she had a weak voice, but her performances as Cio-Cio were seen as more authentic simply by virtue of her race.

And yet... It is clear Mrs. Tamaki had her own ideas about how to present Madame Butterfly. Not only did she fight to ensure the style of clothes was correct (Cio-Cio and other Japanese characters were often presented in Chinese garb) and that elements of stage design were accurate representations of Japanese styles, but she also participated in a number of projects which worked to present a more "Japanese" version of the opera. One of them, a 1930 production translated into Japanese by Horuichu Keizo, made significant changes and adaptations to make a version which was more true to how the Japanese saw the Japanese. Another was a short animated film, Madame Butterfly's Illusion, which includes music written by Tamaki.

So who can say? We don't have video of her performances to make judgment, obviously. We simply have to make do with old cylinder recordings. With that said, here's a recording of Tamaki Miura singing "Un bel di," recorded in 1917.


Monday, June 29, 2020

A Composer from Every Country: Senegal

Making our way south along the West African coast, we go from Mauritania to Senegal. Like every country in Africa, the borders of Senegal are defined by colonial history. If you've ever looked at a map of Senegal and wondered how Gambia got where it is, well... blame England and France. Old French trading posts still dot the Senegal River, although their purpose has largely been lost due to the transition from boating to highways for moving trade goods. While the country still has a number of traditional tribes living inland from the coast, desertification and a huge spike in population are pushing many people to the cities.

There are a couple of musical strands I've explored so far. The first is music sprouting from the creative cauldron stewing traditional tribal musics, brought by migrants entering the cities, and various forms of Western music. Hip-hop, pop harmony, choral music, even Cubanismo have all been blending with tribal musics to create their own new hybrids. One very popular genre, called mbalax, is an electronic pop style descended from sacred music of the Serer people, called Njuup. Kind of wild to think that music that had a central place in circumcision rites has metamorphosed into electronica, but I've seen enough odd transitions in my global trek already I'm not really surprised.

The other strand is the tradition of the griots (or gewel, in the Wolof language). Like Mauritania, the griots are hereditary musicians. They serve as family historians, conflict mediators, war chanters, and bearers of news. Their role is deeply spiritual. Griots are present at births, weddings, and funerals, and serve roles in a variety of other religious services. Unlike Mauritania (for the time being), the social class boundaries of the griots is easing, and many griots are marrying outside their class.

That last point is just one sign of traditional musics adapting in the face of great change. Like the majority of Senegalese, griots face enormous economic difficulties and many have been exploring other avenues of performance for the sake of survival. A number of griots have developed international careers, becoming concert performers. This has led to a number of genre cross overs, with griots performing with jazz and European classical musicians. There has also been a widespread search for new definitions of what it means to be a griot, for new ways to adapt the traditional function of the griot identity to a country undergoing dramatic social change.

One of these griots is Ablaye Cissoko. A singer and kora player (the kora is a kind of harp... or maybe the harp is a kind of kora, depending on how you look at it), Mr. Cissoko has performed in many countries across Europe. One of his shows, "Le Griot Rouge," tells the legend of the man who invented the kora. He has also collaborated with trumpeter Volker Goetze on three albums and a documentary, titled "Griot," and has also played with Montreal-based ensemble, Constantinople, playing traditional Persian music. He's a busy guy, is what I'm saying. The song I'll share, Souma Manone, is the first track on the album, Djaliya, with Ablaye Cissoko playing with Volker Goetze and François Verly.


If you're interested in what other music Senegal has to offer, you might check out sabar drumming, used to accompany the sabar dance. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Canon in the Smelting Pot: William L. Dawson

Looking at early 20th century music written by Black Americans, particularly music written during the Harlem Renaissance, one cannot help but notice the consistent presence of spirituals. Whether as arrangements, or as quotations in more abstract instrumental works, or as original melodies written in the style of, spirituals seem to form the backbone of Black American classical music. Florence Price, for example, wrote a number of arrangements of spirituals for solo voice and piano, a Concert Overture on Negro Spirituals, and Negro Spirituals in Counterpoint for string quartet. William Grant Still, Margaret Bonds, and today's composer, William L. Dawson, all also wrote or included spiritual styles in their music.

Of course, other Black musics appear, as well. Florence Price used the juba dance as an analogue to the waltz/minuet of the symphonic scherzo. William Grant Still used the blues progression in his Afro-American Symphony. Jazz and its precursor, ragtime, make regular appearances as well. But, in my listenings at least, these other Black styles form a presence in a constellation centered around the spiritual melodies. Which is kind of curious, right? That jazz ends up being more strongly associated with white symphonic composers of the time, like George Gershwin, Aaron Coland, and Leonard Bernstein, than with Black symphonic composers. I have some guesses why this might be the case, but I'm hardly knowledgeable enough to speak on it.

The use of spirituals in Black American music is, in many ways, a natural outgrowth of a century-long movement connecting "high art" with "low" or "folk art." Early examples are Beethoven's use of the ländler dance in place of the by-then traditional minuet movement in symphonies and sonatas, Chopin's mazurkas, Mahler's use of the Viennese Waltz. Examples abound. Dvorak's famous pronouncements, "The cultural heritage of the American Negro is one of America's richest treasures," and "The future of this country must be founded on what are called the Negro melodies" provided additional oomph to Black composer's use of spiritual melodies. Florence Price's First Symphony has a number of allusions and similarities to Dvorak's New World Symphony.

But for this post, I'm mostly curious about a criticism levied against William Dawson's arrangements and conducting of spirituals, performed at Carnegie Hall in 1933. Leading the Tuskegee Choir to a triumphant six-week performance series, William Dawson's performances can be considered nothing less than a resounding success. And yet, one New York Times reviewer wrote, "Alas! Like some other Negro choruses, this one has not escaped the seduction of classicism. The spirituals ... were delivered with the precise formality that oratorio societies sometime mistakenly bestow upon Handel or Bach." The review goes on in this way, eventually concluding "The result of this treatment, unhappily, was to render the spirituals sterile and to substitute their gorgeous vitality pallid concert pieces, stripped of their racial authenticity."

I've seen this type of criticism before, that folk musics, translated into music of the European concert halls, loses something essential. It has not the moisture which is the essence of wetness, and so lacks the wetness so necessary to beauty. Some say. One section of the book "Music and the Armenian Diaspora: Searching for Home in Exile," for instance, details a variety of composers jostling about, accusing first one, then another approach to setting Armenian folk tunes as being inauthentic. The threat of this type of criticism is endemic to any attempts at using or referencing folk musics. The classical side bristles at the perceived contamination of high culture, the folksy side resents their music stuffed in hoity-toity garb.

Of course, something is always lost in translation. Moving musics from spontaneous aural traditions into notation is not difficult, it is impossible. Notation can only provide, at best, a blueprint and once set stands as a stone monument, rather than as a breathing organism. Many details are lost because they simply can't be notated. Or, if they are, result in a stupefyingly complex appearance. Bartok's transcriptions of Bulgarian folk tunes come to mind. Ornaments are dropped. Nuance is lost. Subtlety of natural improvisation must be compensated for by other means. In the course of translation to notated form, the result is different by necessity. Just like translating a book into a movie, they can never be the same.

But, I dunno. I think Mr. Dawson's arrangements are pretty darn cool. They certainly aren't spirituals you would find sung in Black churches, obviously. I mean, I spent half this article talking about why they can't be. But he has a great ear for choral sonority and color. And his Negro Folk Symphony is a refreshing work, expressive without necessarily being emotive. I can only speculate why Mr. Dawson moved away from composing. Maybe he found conducting and teaching more fulfilling. Maybe he was dissatisfied by the meteoric rise and fall of his Negro Folk Symphony's popularity, so turned to other pursuits. Maybe the seismic shits in styles during the 1940's left him cold. Whatever it is, I'm glad he wrote what he wrote. Here's a recording of him conducting the Tuskagee Choir in his arrangement of King Jesus is a-Listening.

Monday, June 22, 2020

A Composer for Every Country: Mauritania

Mauritania: Land of Poets, Land of Sands. The modern-day borders of Mauritania are the product of French colonization in the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries. At the time, around 90% of the population were nomadic tribes, and while that culture is slowly shrinking, a good chunk of the population remains so today. As far as governance, the country is ostensibly democratic, but Mauritania has suffered a number of coups since the end of colonial French rule, the most recent being in 2008 when General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz orchestrated the arrest of President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi.

The country's reputation, if it is known by anybody outside of Africa at all, is marred by its poor human rights record, and Mauritania remains one of the few countries where slavery, while technically illegal, is still practiced. The culture remains very traditional, with deep religious roots in Islam and the population divided by castes. Natural resources, like iron and petroleum, are mined, but much of the population lives at a subsistence level, fishing or shepherding, and the country remains fairly poor.

It's a country easy for Westerners to project onto, I think. Because electricity is scarce outside of the larger cities, and because nomadic people are generally difficult to find, it's rather hard to get to get a ground level perspective through reading. Trying to learn about Mauritanian music is a good example. There's not a whole lot of information about the musical culture beyond the broadest strokes, in large part because Mauritanian music hasn't been codified, and is still an aural tradition. Musicians, called griots (gree-oh) are part of the low caste called the iggawin, and the practice of music is passed down through families. Griots provide music as both entertainment and for ceremonial purposes, like weddings, but also act as messengers and commentators. They are often feared or hated, possibly because they can publicly ridicule people who do not pay for their services (whether those "services" wanted or not, it sounds like).

I've got to say, here in America we musicians have tried everything short of begging to earn a living. Maybe we should learn from the griots and start throwing daggers? When all else fails, mock mercilessly until they pay you to go away.

Now, where was I? Right. The music of the griots hasn't been codified, so learning about it is rather amorphous. Their music comes in four different "modes," but from what little I've been able to find, they would probably be better described as "melody types." Each mode is associated with a particular mood: kar, associated with joy; fagho, provoking anger and used in war chants; signim, to arouse a "sensitive" feeling (I haven't found a good explanation for what this means... contemplative, maybe?); and beïgi, associated with sorrow or nostalgia. I should note, these are how the modes are described by educated musicians in Mauritania. They may or may not apply to musicians of illiterate cultures, but who's to know? Apparently, nobody has talked to them, so far as I have found.

On top of this, there are several styles of playing: Al-bayda, coming from North African moors (the Bidan); Al-kahla, coming from the Sub-Sharan moors (the Haratin); and I'-gniaydiya, which mixes the two. These styles and modes can be mixed and matched to taste, although I am sure the details of what mixing is "acceptable" are nuanced.

Because there's not really a music industry in Mauritania, and because arts are generally not a budget priority, there aren't really composers in the way Europe or America would define a composer. Not in the sense of a profession in which a person notates music for an ensemble. Music of the griots is quasi-improvisatory, using a stock of familiar melodies which are riffed upon, altered, or referenced. That said, there are a couple of Mauritanian musicians who achieved some international reputation. My composer for today is one of them, a woman by the name of Dimi Mint Abba (1958-2011).

Born as an iggawin to musician parents, her father, Siday Ould Abba, is notable for having composed the Mauritanian national anthem. Her mother, Fire Mounina Mint Eida, played the ardin, a 14-stringed instrument related to the West African kora. Dimi recorded very little music, just two albums, and most of her reputation rested in North Africa. Still, she did make it up to Europe for a few performances. Unfortunately, she died at 52 from a cerebral hemorrhage caused by an accident on tour in Morocco. The song I'm sharing is "Mauritania, My Beloved Country," an ode to a difficult, even inhospitable, and yet strikingly beautiful part of the globe.




Friday, June 19, 2020

Interview with Liz Kohl

Liz Kohl is a Portland pianist, music instructor, and yoga instructor in Portland, Oregon. She and I met a couple years back at a music event hosted by a local organization called Classical Revolution, not long after I moved to the area. Since then, she and I have performed a number of times at concerts she has hosted in her house, as well as at PSU for their lunch hour recital series. I am honored to say that she has also premiered a number of my own compositions, as well.

The following interview was recorded on June 14th, 2020, and has been edited for clarity. Her website is linked at the bottom. I have also embedded the video of our interview for posterity.


Liz Kohl: Oh, hello! [Holding a teapot]

Adam Eason: Well, thanks for coming by, Liz.

Liz Kohl: Oh my gosh, so much tea. [Spilling the teapot]

Adam Eason: More tea than you even know what to do with! Have you ever been interviewed before?

Liz Kohl: Like outside of a job? I actually used to be the interviewing manager for Hoffman Academy, I was in charge of the hiring process and I actually was the mentor to other people who are hiring. So I love to interview and be interviewed. I think the last thing I did was more of a panel discussion at PSU, which felt like, I don't know. I felt like the questions were so broad because I have such strong feelings about the term classical music. And so did the two people I was working with. Honestly, I don't think I said anything very intelligent. At least it got published.

Adam Eason: Yeah, well, I imagine that with a panel, it's probably even harder because you're trying to juggle between the different people and...

Liz Kohl: It was fun to hang out with them. But I also felt like, too, both of these women had so much more experience than me. They're both closer in age to my mom that I already felt like a little munchkin.

Adam Eason: Yeah, kind of intimidating. Well, in this case, hopefully this is more comfortable. It's just you and me. We're about the same age. Yeah, I think a good place to start... I was curious because we actually seem to have a similar family situation in relation to music. Neither of your parents are really, musicians? I think your dad plays keyboard, right?

Liz Kohl: My dad actually has a masters degree in Piano performance.

Adam Eason: That's... OK. Well, never mind.

Liz Kohl: I would say that at this point, music is... I would say it's a staple in their lives. Like my dad's volunteering all the time for Portland Piano Company and chamber music Northwest. Like he's... They're such an interesting pair because they're kind of that total opposite, like he's so classical steeped. And my mom is 70s funk, she's the cool kind of hippie. And he's the nerdy classical pianist. So, yeah, I would say all members of my immediate family have at some point, if not currently, made their money from music. My mom will defy that she is not a musician, but she has an amazing voice. She harmonizes super well and she did get paid to sing in a band when she lived in Mexico. But she's the only one who's not musically trained. Everybody else. Me, my sister, my dad all have degrees in music. My dad and I both have masters.

Adam Eason: Gotcha. What was it like growing up with that kind of dichotomy in the house?

Liz Kohl: I feel like it was always kind of surprising what my mom was into because I think I've always been so nerdy. And part of that was whenever I would hang out with my dad, we'd listen to the old classical station and he'd be like, "Name that instrument!" Like we played guessing games. So I wasn't a cool kid. I feel that I am more savvy and pop culture now. Part of that, too, was I was raised fairly conservative, so there was some music I just straight up didn't listen to. If it had bad language or was suggestive or whatever. And yeah, I just feel like music was always such a part of my household that it didn't feel weird, or at least I didn't feel too weird. Probably my sweetest memory of like my family and music was the three of us singing. My dad maybe would be helping sweep or taking out trash, but we'd all do dishes and sing three part harmony. My coolest memories is doing dishes and singing with my sister and my mom.

Adam Eason: So I imagine they started you with lessons pretty early then.

Liz Kohl: No.

Adam Eason: No?

Liz Kohl: The weird thing is that I think that I knew when I was five, I felt it in my soul and like, I'm gonna be a pianist. I just knew it. I think I did like a couple lessons with my dad. It was very cute. But, you know, if it's your child, you're not going to prioritize that. And he wasn't teaching piano at that point. He was doing his full time work as a project manager, systems analyst, whatever he was doing at that point. And so I didn't start lessons until I was like eleven, almost twelve.

Adam Eason: That's pretty late in the classical world.

Liz Kohl: Incredibly late. Oh, my gosh. Everyone I told in music school, like, I just always felt like a little bit of an underdog. When I eventually got into my real piano studio, it was crazy how much harder I had to work because all the five year olds were better than me. And so I was fighting against that. So I feel like a lot of what inspired me was my stubbornness to be like, “No, I'm going to do this.”

Adam Eason: Yeah. That makes sense. I mean, I kind of have a similar experience because I started in junior high with cello. Probably about the same age. And then you get to college and it's just like... You realize that those first 10 years were all spent by everybody else staying inside and playing music, basically.

Liz Kohl: I didn't know that about you, actually.

Adam Eason: Yeah. I was a late starter as well. I mean, it's because there was a sort of required arts elective credit that you had to take. And I ended up in orchestra.

Liz Kohl: Wow. Did you not start with private lessons, then?

Adam Eason: I think I started taking private lessons probably at the halfway point between the first year. But I started with the school orchestra program. Well, we've got that in common. Who did you start lessons with at that age and what was that experience like?

Liz Kohl: So, I'm not going to count a couple of lessons with my dad. It was a handful and I remember the cute little notebook. I would say that of the two of my parents, my mom is more the go getter. So she just went out, found a piano teacher. And she was a nice, sweet neighborhood piano teacher lady. She wasn't, like, great. She wasn't horrible. I don't know if it's pretentious or just awareness of what I knew I wanted. But in our first lesson, I remember her talking like, "Oh, yeah, maybe someday you'll play Beethoven sonatas." Of course I'm going to play Beethoven. And I wanted to be like, "Lady. Of course I'm going to do that." I felt not well-placed with that studio. So that first six months to a year, it was very much not the appropriate fit for what I wanted. And then my dad called around some of his contacts from California, from schools he'd gone to, and he found this kind of other worldly piano studio. I'm still like friends with the people in that piano studio because it was such an immersive experience. Like...

Adam Eason: Who was that?

Liz Kohl: Oh, yeah. So her name. Oh, the first lady. I don't want to say her name because I feel [what I'm] saying isn't super positive. And I also don't think she's a big deal in the musical world. She was just very casually teaching. My teacher growing up, my real teacher was Joanna Hodges, and she was an internationally known concert pianist who toured Europe, I think she was one of the first women to tour Europe. She was in the who's who of music. She at one point had an international piano competition in her name. At the Soviet Union, when she went to go and play, she played for I think Kabalevsky and maybe Khatchatourian, like ridiculous [names] that I'm like, "But I've played these people!" So she was a big deal. In that studio was like, there was her and then she had an associate teacher where you had to get to a certain level of proficiency before you could even take from her [Joanna]. So it was like a little dynasty. Not really, but yeah.

So she had workshops every month that were required for you to attend. They were long. There was first the associate teachers students and then hers, and you had to play from memory. Didn't know when you were going. You just knew that it was going to go by era. And we did a concerto every year, no matter your age, at least one movement. We did... you were required to go to a certain number of concerts outside of yours. We had recitals at the end of the year. Everyone did one. So for maybe a month and a half this woman... How amazing is she? She opened up her home that she converted into like a performance space, she had a stage built. She had two concert grands put together. She had a reception hall at the back that was added under her house. We did a talent show around Christmas, and the only requirement is it couldn't be piano. And we had an awards recital. I mean, she gave away cash prizes at the awards recital and, yeah, we were all required to do a 10 piece program every year. Every era of classical music: Baroque, classical, romantic and 20th century. And yeah, it was the same level of rigor that you would kind of expect from a college education.

Adam Eason: Yeah, that sounds pretty much like music school. During that, as an 11, 13 year old, whatever, did you have any sense of how extraordinary that was or... Yeah. Even then it was pretty obvious?

Liz Kohl: It was like hollowed ground to be there. She had a very Asian household. She's not Asian herself, but primarily the students were Asian. A few were Russian. But honestly, I was the minority, not being Asian, especially in her studio. There was a big divide between, her associate studio. So a lot of people who were of Asian descent, but in her studio, it was a only a few white people.

So you would walk in without your shoes, you weren't allowed to wear shoes in the house. There would just be like a hundred shoes outside of the front, there's a koi pond in a long driveway. And yeah, it was just very, very magical. And I think I cried out of happiness when my parents told me that I had been promoted because I was with her other associate teachers for probably three years, actually.

I think we got in the car and they were like they had smirks on their faces. But they're like, "So Lizzie, you're not gonna be doing hour lessons anymore." And I was like, "What?" "Yeah, you're gonna do half hour lessons." And I was like, "What!?" "Like, yeah. With Joanna." And I was like, "Oh my gosh!" I think my dad may have asked, which, you know... But she was just this celebrity. That's what it felt like in the beginning, and then it became actually really cool. I'm sorry. I'm, like, thinking about her now. She passed away a couple years ago and I was at the celebration of her life. And yeah, it was super weird. Like, I got to teach some of her students when she was in the hospital and not doing well. And even after college when I was a year between undergrad and grad school, I took lessons from her and we had like such a sweet friendship, like there was no fearful respect. It was just like we were talking like people. And she'd also actually converted to Christianity. So we had this whole other side to our relationship. I'm like, oh, wow, this is something I can talk about with you. And she maybe took it in a slightly different direction, like it was a little more intense.

Adam Eason: But I mean, she sounds like just an intense person in general.

Liz Kohl: Yes. She was just straight up learning Russian like in the last year or two of her life. Because she was going to a Russian church.

Adam Eason: Yeah, that's some dedication. What were some of the biggest things that have carried over from your lessons then to now?

Liz Kohl: I mean, the biggest thing is that in my studio, the only like picture I have, outside of a few others of me and students that my boss got me when I left Hoffman Academy, is a picture of me and her because she is my greatest inspiration. She was my original teacher. I loved my other two teachers. One of them honestly feels like a peer to me because she is maybe 10 years older than me, but she lives around the corner in Southeast Portland. Amazing pianist. But yeah, I feel like with Joanna there was so much about the way that she had presence and commanded respect, even though there's a lot about her that was kind of frail. But she held herself so well and she was always interested in doing the best you possibly could, being OK with uncomfortable emotions. Like, I remember crying in a lesson, and she was kind of like, "Yeah, of course. Cry. That's [normal]." And the fact that she was wanting to grow as a person and wanting to learn about everything and she wasn't just obsessed with piano. I mean, she was. But, yeah, just so much of my education as a pianist comes from her. So she's my little... I'll look at that picture of me and her and that inspires a lot of my teaching.

Adam Eason: I know from working with you that you have a deep interest in performing new music. And I actually I actually did a little bit of Googling around for Joanna Hodges. And it sounds like... I mean, she had you said she had a 20th century literature requirement?

Liz Kohl: Yes.

Adam Eason: For that (sic) her students and I found an old New York Times review where she was playing a new work by Hovhaness, one of his piano sonatas, I think. And I was wondering if that interest in playing new music came from her or if that was something that was already kind of there and she just nurtured it.

Liz Kohl: It honestly was probably nurtured by her. And then it got really exciting and real when I went to college because I got to premiere a work of my friend who was a composer. And that was just so crazy to me that I'm like, "You wrote this. No one's ever played it. No one's ever heard it." Like, that was like an honor. But Johanna, man, she had the weirdest... She had weird scores that she would like to bust out. And she, as a kid, had like a a breakdown and stood up for herself at some crazy age, like seven. She told her parents, like, "I can't be a jazz pianist and a classical pianist, I have to pick one." She was performing on the radio and all kinds of crazy things. I remember her saying that her Carnegie Hall debut, her encore, she improvised her encore. And the reporter said, oh, it was some obscure Kabalevsky there. They did not do a good job reporting that she straight-up improvised her [encore].

She was really passionate, even though she was really there was a lot old school about her. A lot of people hate hearing this, but she loved Brahms. And it was like an honor to play Brahms. And she hated Debussy and thought it was trash to the point that she say, "Sasha, my dog could play Debussy," and like, no one would play it. So she had very strong and some old school opinions, but she would play weird stuff. And she had a composer friend who wrote a little concertino because everyone was required to play one. And I still have that score. And it's just like hand written. And it's very fun. So I think there was probably some like like, oh, this is normal and you should be doing this from her. But yeah, I still remember the first piece I played, the Washington... Washington.... The "Scion of the Washington Elm" was a piano solo by my friend Michelle.

Adam Eason: Was that at University of Washington?

Liz Kohl: Mm hmm. Yeah.

Adam Eason: Let me try and get the geography straight. So as a kid, you grew up where?

Liz Kohl: I was born in San Francisco. We moved to Vancouver, Washington, when I was three. That's where I grew up in her studio and I went to Clark College when I was 16 and did Running Start, got an associate's degree. And then I went up to University of Washington. When I was like 19 years.

Adam Eason: And you didn't just do music, though. I noticed you have a minor in dance.

Liz Kohl: Yes. I felt cool in the dance world as a musician, and I felt cool in the musician world as a dancer. So, yeah, at that point, because I had a degree already, I had almost no non-major classes, which was really nice. So my main focus, I mean all of my classes were like music. I think I took like maybe a year of French and like a philosophy class and otherwise it was just dance and music.

Adam Eason: So you're... You were doing dance... In addition to an intense piano studio experience with an internationally renowned [pianist]

Liz Kohl: [laughs] Yes. Not as intensely. And there was a point where I feel like ballet got kind of replaced with piano because some part of me wanted to be a ballerina. And I was like, "Well, my feet, my hips are saying piano.".

Adam Eason: Yeah. All right. That's fair.

Liz Kohl: Yeah, but I love ballet. I did ballet for a surprising amount of time for the fact that I don't feel I look like a ballerina. I'm not like slender. I'm not like a tiny little ballerina. But, yeah, I loved, I loved dance. I've never stopped loving it. And I also was... I was less involved, but my family was actually really involved with a theater group growing up. And that was a huge part of my life. But I was the nerd who's like, "No, I'm not going to hang out. I need to go practice piano." Like, I was like the not cool [kid]...

I also grew up playing soccer. I grew up, like, being very involved in a church group called Oanna, like I did a lot. Growing up, I it doesn't surprise me that that has spilled over into my adult life, that I fill my time with activities.

Adam Eason: I've done a good amount of work with dancers at Southern Methodist University. They have a really strong dance program there. And just working with them, they definitely have a different sense of... How music is, I think, for lack of a better way of putting it. I'm not a dancer, but working with them, I could definitely tell they were coming at it from a different place. How does that dance experience inform your playing? Or understanding of music just in general?

Liz Kohl: I think the way it impacts me more is that I thought about was what I was going to write my master's thesis on was dance and music. And I actually did a pretty like bold Liz kind of move where I went to the dance department at U Dub, which is amazing. And I know SMU is really great. And, U of O, that was one place I actually applied and got in for my undergrad and my masters and I'm like, maybe I'll go for my doctorate. Like third time's the charm. And yet it was always kind of my desire to be around dancers or maybe still dancing. So we had live dance accompaniment for all of our dance classes. Ballet, modern... Didn't matter. It was so cool.

So the head of that, the music of the dance department, I went to him and was like, "Hey, can I just, like, shadow you and get credit for it? And just like create a credit?" And he was like, "Yeah, but you can't play from notated music. You have to improvise." And that was like at the time... Right now? Like improvising? That sounds great. At that time, little Liz who had almost no experience with anything, and I was still a very insecure pianist because everyone had like 10 years on me, it felt like... That was scary, but very fun. So I would say the biggest way dance impacted me as a pianist was that started to open up my world in terms of improvising.

Adam Eason: How about music in general? Like when you're playing or just looking at a score... Is movement part of your conceptualization of music? Or is it still mostly like sound oriented?

Liz Kohl: I definitely like to move with music. I definitely will find myself like moving my arms a lot, especially in graceful ways. But the ways in which it impacts me... They just always been so tied. Yeah, it's been like dance, music, they go together, and sometimes I do... All of my students, actually. There's a little piece by Gurlitt called Dance and it's like [sings melody]. And the left hand's like, [sings waltz accompaniment]. No matter what I teach every student when they learn that piece a waltz step. OK? The stress of one, two, three. One, two, three. So there are little things like that. But I'm not nerdy enough to go through all the jig and courante and Sarabande. I don't know those dances in Bach suites because I'm not interested. I would say that's maybe the main way that it impacts me. But yeah, I'm more visual than I am even auditory. Yeah.

Adam Eason: No, I get that because, like, when I compose part of how I know I'm done... Like there is a way a score looks. A finished score just looks like it's done. So I understand that side very much. Especially because like instrumental music, it's mostly like... You have an orchestra program or whatever you're learning notation. Right. And that's just how you learn music.

So. I'm trying to remember. So you went to the University of Washington and then you went to Baylor. Yeah. And after having been on the West Coast for your entire life... I've been to Baylor. I can only imagine that was a culture shock.

Liz Kohl: I did a study abroad in my undergrad and went to Paris for a month and traveled a little bit in Europe. I was the first person in my family off the continent. So that was really cool for me. I was way more culture shocked going to Texas.

Adam Eason: Yeah, I can see that.

Liz Kohl: Especially because everyone's like, "Well, yeah! It's America." And like, "Oh, yeah, it's all the same!" And in the master's program, I feel like a third of the people were not from Texas. A third were. I was used to being a minority, like not being Asian in a music school. I was like, "Where all the Asian people in this school?" Like, there were almost none! A lot more people were from Latin America because that made sense, like geographically. So, you know, my friends were now all from like Venezuela, Colombia and Costa Rica. And so I'd say the weirdest thing was when people would tell people from other countries, my friends would tell me, “Oh, America's like, doo doo doo doo doo. Like, these things.” And I'm like, “No, it is not. That is Texas. I have lived in America my whole life. That's not what it's like where I come from.”

Adam Eason: Do you have any specific examples you're comfortable sharing or...

Liz Kohl: I think the main thing that stood out to me was... maybe two things. So the fact that I put on makeup, that's just me wanting to look good over Zoom. But I went into living in Texas with the idea that I don't want to change who I am. I'm a bit of a hippie. I just kind of want to defy fitting in because I want to be myself. I almost feel like I played up like, "Oh, I am so like granola. What a crunchy hippie I am!" Even though back home, people think I'm like, you know, I'm not a hippie. So that was one thing that I didn't want, to start wearing more makeup. I still wore mascara, maybe lip gloss. And I didn't want to up that.

The other thing was that I feel like... I feel like sometimes the Northwest can be a little bit passive aggressive culturally, but also especially in Portland, there is this sense that we kind of love this customer service that's not fake, sweet, I'm putting on this face for you of happiness. But, if someone's having a crummy day, you might kind of feel it from them or they might not try to hide it at all. They're just like, "Life sucks and like, here's your coffee, bye." And I kind of like that because it's so honest. And so I really value directness. And it felt a little crummy that I would have people sometimes treat me in a certain way publicly, but find out like, oh, that person is like talking smack about me behind my back. Not that I don't think that happens here. I'm sure people talk about each other behind their backs all the time. But there's not a facade of saccharin ultra, like, "Oh, aren't you great!" Like, there was just a bit of that.

And I don't know... Because I know a lot of people from Texas at this point. I think it may have been specific to the culture that I was in in Waco and Baylor. This wasn't everybody like. I met a lot of people that I'm still friends with and love. Trying not to diss Texas. I'm not saying it's Texas, but some of that culture of ultra sweet to disguise things you don't like was not pleasant to me. I'm, like, be mad at me, if you're mad at me. I don't want to question who actually likes me. Is that like your experience at all from Texas to here? I mean your culture shock.

Adam Eason: It's a little bit odd for me because I grew up in Houston. Well, let me qualify that. I grew up in Katy, which is technically part of the greater Houston area, but is its own place. But my parents are very cosmopolitan people, and Katy is one of the whitest places on Earth, I think. So growing up there, there is always a sense of not quite fitting. But Houston itself is, I mean, it's an oil town. So people from all over the world are coming in. And I know a number of people are like, "You're from Texas? You don't have an accent!" I'm like, "No, I'm from Houston." And that's why I don't have an accent, because it all kind of blends.

So I think actually coming from Houston to here wasn't as big of a culture shift in a lot of ways, at least downtown Houston has a lot of just... A lot of everything. It Is a lot more of a mix than maybe people realize. But Dallas is definitely a different world. Yes. And especially going to SMU like which is just plopped right in the richest part of the city and not realizing how big of a bubble that was until remembering like, "Oh, right. Walking around Waco is not a great idea." Depending on what time of day it is. And having that very... It's very fashion centric and very material centric, I think. And then coming to Portland, which is fashion centric in kind of a different way. Yeah, Dallas to Portland would have been pretty seismic, but Houston to Portland. Not not as much so.

And you got your masters in both pedagogy and performance. Was that like a combined degree?

Liz Kohl: Yeah, it was. I was very specifically looking for programs where I wasn't going to cease being a pianist because I was still... I don't wanna say it's a fear. It's just something I always want to be aware of. I never want to be someone who's only teaching because I know, for me, I am less inspired by people who aren't still doing their craft, [only] teaching. It's been difficult during this quarantine and I've realized it that I'm not performing and during my teaching, I'll even have moments of jealousy of like, “I want to be playing the piano right now. You get to play the piano.”

Yeah. I took a long time and I looked at, I think, every pedagogy program in the world. And SMU was actually one of the top... It probably was in my top 10 or something. And I eliminated... I'd like narrowed it down, and I ended up applying to U of O, because I was very interested and I applied to TCU and Baylor. And it was very nice that, like, I got into all of them, but that didn't matter to me. I didn't feel like it was worth it to go into debt. So it was the choice for me, for sure. But it was funny because I actually spent a lot of time at TCU, they took us out to lunch and went to a recital of someone's. But I realized once I got there because they have the... Oh. Oh, I'm embarrassed for blanking on it. It's a huge international piano competition. Oh, what is his name... Van Cliburn. Oh, my gosh. Take out all the pauses.

Adam Eason: [laughs] Yes, I promise, she is a pianist.

Liz Kohl: But because of that, there were so many people there for an artist diploma that I was only guaranteed as a pedagogy major, it was something ridiculous, like two or three hours a day was I guaranteed that I would have a practice room. I thought [are] you lying to me? It wasn't like I got to choose or just be like, these are your hours practice. I'm like, oh, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. That is not the way I roll. So I was like, I think that they're more trying to bring up piano teachers than pianists who teach.

Adam Eason: Right.

Liz Kohl: At TCU.

Adam Eason: Gotcha.

Liz Kohl: So I spent very little time at Baylor and I just knew that that was probably where I was going to go. My pedagogy advisor has actually just come out with a book called Yoga in the Music Studio like she was a yoga instructor. I was like a model in her first book that had a chapter about yoga. So it was clearly the right place for me.

Adam Eason: Yeah, I was actually going to ask about that because you do a lot of yoga lessons here in Portland, and that's dance adjacent.

Liz Kohl: Yes.

Adam Eason: But I also kind of get the sense that musician overall wellness is super important and that yoga is like an expression of that.

Liz Kohl: Yeah.

Adam Eason: When did that start becoming like its own concrete thing? Like joining wellness with musicianship?

Liz Kohl: That's actually a really cool history in my own life to think about, looking back on it. My first class I took, my first yoga class, was at a community college when I was, like, 16. And this lady, she was an odd duck and I loved her. Looking back on it, she was doing all these really cool things with approaching yoga more holistically. Like she started one class, she just had a peach. And she said nothing. We just all, like, came in. We're sitting in like a gym. And she just, like, starts eating it like, like just crazy, slobbering, stuff was falling down her face. And she was like, this is how you should treat life, like, just enjoy it. That was something that was her message, or that's my take away from it. So I took a yoga class. Then I took in, at U Dub when I was in the dance department, I took Vinyasa for dancers. And Vinyasa is to flow. And that's the kind of yoga that I that I'm certified in and teach. And oh, it was so beautiful to watch this. One of my dance instructors I'll totally namedrop: Catherine Cabeen. I mean she's like one of those beautiful dancers I've ever seen. I was so lucky to get to study with her.

And she was very gracious in the way that she presented yoga, because I knew that she and I probably philosophically disagreed about a lot of things. But she created such an open kind of space for everyone to approach yoga with whatever they believed. So that was kind of my like, “Oh, yeah, I'm into yoga.” And I would try other studios and I tried hot yoga. And then I really did go to Baylor with the thought that, oh, my thesis is gonna be about movement and music, probably ballet. And then I started seeing more and more my students who were non-piano majors, but some of them were music majors. Some of them were outside the music school, but they were playing at pretty high levels. And I'm shocked at how much, like, tension was in the shoulders and the elbows. Just everything held to the point that I'm like, I can't even deal with this [gestures at hands] if everything else is tight. So I would like take them away from the piano, do some, like, light stretches, yoga. So it was kind of becoming more and more apparent to me that we needed to rework some of the larger muscles first.

So midway through my masters, when I came home to Portland for the summer, I got certified to be a yoga instructor and I knew that I had the power to do whatever I wanted with my private students at Baylor. So my advisor, Leslie McAllister, was like, anything you put your syllabus your students have to do, you totally have power to do what every whatever you think will benefit them. I was like, I'm going to require them all to take some kind of yoga or awareness class and it doesn't have to be mine. But I started offering free yoga classes and I made them reflect on how it changed or didn't change. And that's included in my thesis. Some of their reflections inspired some of them. It was really helpful. I hope for all of them.

But I think there's a lot to be said for the way that our bodies and minds and even our sense of who we are in the world and the universe, like our spirituality, our religious beliefs, how that impacts us as people and how that impacts our music as music creators or even as music appreciators. I don't know anyone who hasn't had a spiritual experience listening to music. I don't know those people. Like, even if you're not a musician, I feel like everyone at some point has been like, "And there was this amazing piece of music. And I just like 'ahhh'..." So that's what I'm always trying to work more towards is thinking about how does this impact our mind or bodies? How does art and even just our beliefs affect where our mind is when we're practicing? I'm very curious about like like neuroscience, as well. Like, if I were to go back and get a degree, it'd probably be in... Oh, well, it could be anything. There are a lot of things that interest me.

Adam Eason: One of the other things that has come up a number of times, playing with you and performing with you has been your dedication to bringing women composers into performance and into concert halls and... I don't know. I feel like... That you and I like started college around a time when women in classical music just started to thaw. Like, it feels really weird saying that because you think, well, I mean, music's been around a long time. But do you feel like that's an accurate assessment on my part?

Liz Kohl: Oh, absolutely, yeah. And I think to the fact that, outside of one teacher I had for a few months, all of my teachers growing up. All of them have been women. And I was thinking about it because I knew you were going to ask me about being a woman in the classical music world and some part of me was like, I don't have any horrible, negative stories. But I know all the implicit things, even like a sweet older maestro who's like commenting on my appearance in a kind of a skeezy way or reading about somebody who makes a comment about, you know, "Well, of course, a conductor can't be a woman because that's distracting," and... Yeah, I really was trying to think through... I'm like, have I ever been affected? I know there's been like micro things that I could point to, but I'm very lucky in that I grew up in a time where I didn't feel that directly. [Not having to] stand up for myself as a woman in the classical musical world.

Adam Eason: I know that, you know, being in Portland, it might seem like a sort of stereotypical thing, though. Like, "Oh, yeah. So, you know, feminism in music, of course, important." But I mean, you've done work... I'm sorry. I'm blanking on her last name. Becca, the singer?

Liz Kohl: Yes. Stuhlbarg.

Adam Eason: Who is very much like, that seems to be her primary angle is representation of women in music. What has it been like working with her? I know you've become very close friends, too.

Liz Kohl: Yeah. I would say we kind of had this immediate connection and kind of like, how did we not know each other? Because she does vocal yoga and I do yoga for musicians. So title of the house show she did recently was "Homemaking for Feminists" or "Feminist Homemaking". Something like that was the title. Very cute. And cute in that it was it was playing up this sweetness. It was nothing negative about homemaking. They all wore aprons at some point during the show. I was playing on one of Becca's songs, and then we had another pianist who was a woman. So everyone performing was a woman. But I think too, she's also very much in the queer world, so not only uplifting female composers, but queer composers.

What was cool was the way there was an interplay of some male composers with female themes, and then a lot of female composers and getting to hear a little bit of the history of their lives. I think it's the same way we're feeling right now, really strongly, the need to historically know about what has happened to people who are black in America. It feels like a similar thing with Becca's vision, at least from my perspective, that there's gonna be a little storytelling and a little bit of like, "Hey, here's what was happening in this woman's life when she was writing this piece." And here's the history of, you know... My mom grew up in San Francisco, my actual mom, and she's my mom, like, that's one generation. And she was living in a liberal place, going to public school. And when she was growing up, she couldn't wear pants to school as a girl. Like that feels like, I don't know, something out of a movie that's not real.

So I think it's more that knowledge and in some ways just appreciation of the fact that you were so good about finding a female composer for us to play. It's like, “Oh, Amy Beach! Yeah! I don't know this woman. Like, I love this woman. She's great.” I love that some of the people I work with at PSU who are like my colleagues are revolutionaries in Portland and probably on a much bigger scale as female composers, Crazy Jane [an all female composer group in Portland]. I feel like there are just so many options of seeing women led, black led, queer led music in Portland. So, yeah, I don't know, some part of me just feels like, oh, I'm a woman. I want to make sure I'm representing at least every program I do to hopefully have a female composer, even if it's just like "It's me!"

Adam Eason: Yeah, for sure. And it can be... That's something that I've been bumping up against. Like the historical representation is hard to puncture, right? Because like first you have to find them, which can be a little bit tricky if they're not Amy Beach. And then once you have found them, that doesn't necessarily mean that their scores are readily available. I think that's been the biggest thing for me is finding a name and going, "This person actually seems pretty interesting." And then, like, where is their music? It's nowhere. I mean, obviously, it must be somewhere, but it's not like in the public record in the way like Bach is. Yeah. So still a lot of work to do on that front.

Liz Kohl: I read... I don't know if it was All Classical or maybe a more national organization put together a list of like 10 black composers you should know. And I listen to someone and thought, "Ooh! This piece is really cool. I'm interested in this." And then I went into “Where to find the [sheet] music?”

That feels like a bummer because it feels like... I'm so glad they wrote that. But it also feels like, OK, so the work is half done then. Exposure, but no possibility for the experience. I like that you brought that up because there's all kinds of things to think about, there's all kinds of layers when it comes to people who are underrepresented in certain areas.

Adam Eason: We're coming up on an hour, so we should probably wrap this up, but you've started composing recently for the first time. You have like. Two or three compositions?

Liz Kohl: So right now as we speak, music videos of my compositions are being edited by my filmmaker housemate and very dear friend. I actually have... I think we did nine or ten recordings of my originals. I do have a couple more originals, primarily for students, like one is about finger numbers, the Finger Number Song. One is Ode to the Tritone. One is Snowy Day Blues. They're all shorter pieces. But yeah, I realized when I started compiling things that I'm like, “Oh, I've actually been composing my whole life.” But very like just kind of like a little thing here, a little thing there. But some of my compositions go back almost twelve years? Like one here, one there.

But I'm actually going to launch a Kickstarter in the next couple of days to start selling like these books of them, because I also do arrangements for my own students of classical pieces. You know, some that are written not for piano or some that are written for way too hard of a piano part for a student to do. So I would say I already have multiple pieces close to done and I'm already planning for the next time that I record them, which is scary and intimidating, especially to speak to a composer who is like this is your... I don't want to say this is your life, because your life has many different parts that I think of you so much as a composer.

Adam Eason: I wouldn't feel I wouldn't feel too bad about that. I didn't complete an actual composition until a couple years after graduating from college. I think I had one composition that I wrote in college. And I did take a semester's worth of composition lessons from Dr. Kevin Hanlon. But yeah, I was there for cello and I knew that I wanted to compose, but fitting that into my life and figuring out how to do it or that kind of tricky.

Liz Kohl: So how do you do it now? Like, you teach, which, I don't know if it's more or less exhausting for you depending on your workload. But when I do in-person piano lessons, I'm not super exhausted as an extrovert. I still feel I almost have more energy sometimes when I get done teaching. So what is your balance like?

Adam Eason: Most of my time right now is pretty free because school just ended. So, yes, my cello classes are over. But during the during the school year, I'd say it's probably like 70 percent teaching, maybe like 15 percent practicing, and then the rest composing. I just am lucky that I have the teaching there because my composition brain isn't always on. So I don't know that I could actually be just a composer and force myself to keep writing stuff that I didn't want to write when I'm not wanting to write. So that that's a whole conversation I could have about like how how I imagine all these different facets of music intersecting for myself.

Liz Kohl: Can I interview you?

Adam Eason: Sure, if you'd like to.

Liz Kohl: Oh yeah, of course I do. I have a lot of composer questions, especially now. And I am trying to talk to all my friends who are composers. I'm considering taking lessons in composition. Do you know Stephen Lewis?

Adam Eason: Oh yes.

Liz Kohl: We met up and chatted and I was like, hey, I'm potentially interested in learning from you. And then I just straight up have a friend. I don't know if you know Nicholas Emerson?

Adam Eason: No.

Liz Kohl: He just had his his piano trio premiered at Fear No Music, and it was like his therapy going through PTSD in the military. So we're doing a trade for his feedback for me, teaching his son piano. And by the way, when I met him, he was my students. Yeah. He was a piano student.

Adam Eason: Oh, OK. I see. Yeah. These worlds are colliding.

Liz Kohl: Yeah. Really weird worlds. I've wanted to talk to you about composing, but I'm just so grateful, I want this to be part of the interview, I'm so grateful that you and I have worked together. You're my most like... I don't want to say most beloved, because I'm sure a lot of people are loved in my house show series, but my mom always talks about how amazing you are, how talented you are. And I just can't believe how much mutual respect and pouring out of of effort I feel like there is in each of us for each other. The fact that you wrote Suites for each season for my house show series just is like the biggest honor, like that first composition I ever got to play. It was like this huge honor that my friend wanted me to play her piano solo. It's a huge honor that you did this to support and love me.

Adam Eason: Awesome. I mean, it is a pleasure. And I felt like it was something I mean, like... Those house concerts were among the first concerts that I played here. So I felt I should write something for us kind of in honor of that. So I'm glad to hear that things have meshed well.

Liz Kohl: It sounds like it was intended to be awesome.

Adam Eason: Yeah! Well, I guess we'll wrap this up then. Any questions you wish I asked? For another interview sometime.

Liz Kohl: You asked great questions. I love that you did any reading about me. That's the funniest part. I mean, as someone who's done a lot of interviews, it's hilarious to me when I would have someone come in for an interview... Many of them haven't even been to our web site. Like, we had a full web site! I figured there were things you knew about me and things you really didn't know about me, because I don't tend to talk about my background in a lot of detail with people because I'm too busy talking. Like, I just want to talk with people. I'm like, enough about me. So, yeah. Thanks for giving me the chance to just chatter away about my life.

Adam Eason: Of course! Thanks for joining me. I appreciate it.



Liz's Website: http://lizkohlpianist.com/



Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Canon in the Smelting Pot: Olly Wilson

There's been a trend, lately, of programming concerts of music by various minorities. In America, these concerts tend to follow a kind of secular festival calendar, in the way medieval chant cycled through the year. Black History Month? A program of African-Americans. Women's History Month? Program women. And... actually, in my immediate awareness, it just kind of ends there, but Google assures me there are months for other minority histories as well. Why we can't just program music of minorities throughout the year like normal people would is beyond me, but I guess it's better than nothing.

I bring this up because I, too, have tried to program off-canon music, although being a heathen, I don't adhere to the strict lunar cycle of minority months. But I consistently bumped into a problem that I am sure is familiar. I would find an interesting composer, think to myself, "Man, I want to play their music," search for their sheet music, and... find nothing. It's like their music only exists on old 78s and in no other form. A key part of the historical record (pun intended, you're welcome) is missing.

This trend runs deep. In 1977 and '78, musicologist and researcher Eileen Southern published an interview of Olly Wilson in her music journal, The Black Perspective in Music. She was specifically discussing Wilson's musical education, from childhood through just past his doctorate, and two moments stood out to me. The first was, Wilson mentioned almost in passing that Black composers didn't get their music reviewed in papers. The second was how, after performances of his music, Wilson would often hear from admiring audience members, "That's not how I expected your music to sound."

To the first point, the repercussions are obvious. If your concerts don't get reviewed, the number of musicians who even know about your music to ask for a demo is limited to your personal social circle. Without that key media circulation, a new work gets its premier and then dies on the vine. (Aside: Mr. Wilson mentions that one of his most successful works got 8 performances in a year, to give you an idea of what "success" looks like in this job.) If the music doesn't get played, the sheet music doesn't get ordered/rented; if the sheet music doesn't make buck, publishers don't publish it. And that's IF publishers of the time had any interest in publishing the works of Black composers to begin with which, surprise! Wasn't exactly a common thing either.

To the second point, I can't help but notice that the music of some of the bigger African American names in composition (Florence Price, William Grant Still, Margaret Bonds) have a beefy segment of their works devoted to arrangements of spirituals or works which draw upon various other strands of African-American music: jazz and ragtime in particular. Hence the "I didn't expect your music to sound like that" comment. Wilson had a strong modernist streak. He didn't much like Romantic or programmatic music (he didn't tie his music to concrete images, for instance), and a number of his early works used the 12-tone method to generate musical material. You can hear elements of spirituals and jazz, yes, but he was a dyed in the wool, mid-20th century modern composer and he wasn't shy about it.

He didn't fall into a good marketing box, is what I mean. People think, "That time of year again, lets do an all Black composers concert for Black History Month," and they program all manner of musics drawing upon what is familiar Black music, perform it, and then the audience will nod and say, "Yes, this is Black music," and suddenly huge swathes of 20th century musical experimentation and technical developments are shown the door and never heard*. It's the musical version of "Well, you don't sound Black..." Would you guess that the first prize winner of the first electronic music contest was a Black man? Was Olly Wilson? Or that he established Oberlin's TIMARA, the first conservatory program in electronic music? Probably not, because when we think "electronic music," we think Varèse or Pierre Schaeffer, not Halim el-Dabh.

So what does Olly Wilson's music sound like? Well, it sounds kind of like this.


That was Wilson's work, "Voices," commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra for Tanglewood's 1970 season. If you thought you heard musicians humming and whistling, you thought right! If you thought, "Wow, that's not what I was expecting it to sound like!" well... Go listen to more music, I guess? There's more out there than can be dreamed in any of our philosophies.


*Huge swathes of 20th century musical experimentation and technical developments are shown the door just as a matter of course, but that's a whole other blog.

Monday, June 15, 2020

A Composer for Every Country: Switzerland

Approaching Switzerland, it occurred to me that the US view of the country is rather negative. Swiss bank accounts, a broil of conspiracies surrounding the Knights Templar, they only have half a flag, and, worst of all in America, the Country of Neutrals. Maybe that's not just the US view, but outside of watches and cheese, the default view of the country from here Stateside is not especially flattering. Still, it's hard to argue with results. Switzerland is ranked highest in nominal wealth per adult, according to... wait a minute. *flip flip flip* According to a list compiled by Switzerland? Not exactly helping your case there, Swisslanders, but numbers don't lie, I guess.

Among other things, Switzerland stands out for NOT having a bloody revolution during the 19th century because their leaders were remarkably proactive in drafting a democratic constitution. This came in response to a comparatively minor conflict called the Sonderbundskrieg, in which Catholic cantons within the Swiss Confederation fought against increasing state centralization. The response was the creation of the Swiss Federal State in 1848, creating a government inspired largely by the USofA, with the greatest exception being their constitution can be totally rewritten, in full, basically at any time. Turned out to be a necessary trait later in the 19th century when the Industrial Revolution wholly changed the structure and workings of society in Europe.

Culturally, Switzerland is interesting because so many different nationalities are attracted to the area, and different cantons in the Federation have different European leanings, depending on geographic location. Recognizing the complications that could arise from language barriers, students in Swiss schools are required to learn a second language beyond the official Swiss German, resulting in an exceptionally high bi-lingual rate. The government is also required to communicate in all the official languages (German, French, and Italian). 

This cosmopolitanism is as much a reflection of geographic centrality as it is an outgrowth of Switzerland's largely neutral status with regards to war and European politics. This neutrality made the country particularly attractive to intelligentsia looking for a haven during the first half of the 20th century. James Joyce and Vladimir Lenin made Switzerland their home, as an example. Other artists, perhaps less famous, ended up in the country as well: Herman Hesse, Tristan Tzara, and Paul Klee are prominent examples.

So Switzerland has a lot more going on than shady bank dealings, is what I mean. My composer for today is Ernest Bloch (1880-1959), not to be confused with German philosopher, Ernst Bloch. Known today primarily for compositions inspired by his Jewish heritage, Bloch was also a prominent teacher and education administrator. He was (takes a deep breath) the first composition instructor at the Mannes School of Music in New York City, the Music Director at the Cleveland Institute of Music, the Music Director of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, one of the founders of Music Conservatory of the West, and summer lecturer at University of California, Berkley. That's... quite a mouthful. He was also a rather prolific photographer. In 1941 Bloch settled in Agate Beach, Oregon, where he lived for the rest of his life.

The piece I share here is In Memoriam, written in memory of pianist and founder of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Ada Clement.


If you're looking for a longer length piece, it is impossible not to recommend his rhapsody for cello and orchestra Schelomo, a musical meditation on the life and character of King Solomon.