Teenage wasteland?

It's too easy, when making broad statements about young people, to focus on the negative--all they do is look down at their phones...their teachers...their parents...

The last two days made any of that stern generalizing impossible.

Sunday, I heard the fabulous Chorus of Westerly (Rhode Island) in concert. A beautiful program--Bernstein Chichester Psalms, Ola Gjeilo Dark Night of the Soul, Dawson spiritual arrangments, and more. The music was sung at a very high level by this "amateur" chorus. And mixed into the group, looking out at us with lively eyes and confident voices, were dozens of young singers from age 8 to 18. Singing every note right along with the adults. This group has always been inter-generational, which makes it unique in the choral world. I sang in this chorus as a child, and know how amazing it feels to be a part of something so special. It teaches children about great music through immersion and performance, not dry lecture. And it works. There are singers in the group who started over 50 years ago as young ones. It's a powerful, magical chemistry.

Monday, I accompanied 5 high school singers in a performance at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford. They sang numbers from classic musical theater productions. And a couple of the singers could be added to the cast of any pro show out there, and thrive. Seeing and hearing teenagers perform Sondheim, Rodgers, Porter, and others with such command and flair and beauty filled my heart. To watch the art of these composers being kept alive by a new generation was breathtaking.

Young people will embrace art, given the chance.

Give them the art.

Give them the chance.




Bach to the future

Follow the path of a river from high in the air, and see the twists and turns it takes. One would think the powerful force of moving water would create straight lines from the mountains to the sea. But nature has other ideas.

The serpentine river of music history also moves in mysterious ways. How did plainchant morph into Renaissance polyphony, which morphed into amazing Baroque fugues, which morphed into Classical homophonic elegance, which morphed into Romantic dramatic, chromatic sprawl, which morphed into two parallel courses: 12-tone and neo-classical, which morphed into minimalism and Neo-Romanticism, which continues to morph every year?

How could the stunning complexity of Bach's writing appear at the early time it did, only to be followed by many generations of simpler styles? And then a new serial complexity appears hundreds of years later, but without the tonal logic or melodic beauty of the Baroque. 

And what about today? Many contemporary composers seem to work from a self-imposed set of rules. No repetition. No tonality. Only repetition. Only tonal. They seem to feel the necessity to strait jacket their writing and call the constricted results their "voice" or "style." 

This self-limiting attitude is why the 12-tone system was a dead-end road. It rejected so many basic elements of music that it didn't sound or feel like music. It came off to most listeners as a dry science experiment. Happily, the experiment ended and new, historically-grounded compositional techniques became the norm.

The composers that intrigue me are less concerned with being cutting-edge and highly stylized. Their music is...musical; drawing on everything that has come before it, and maybe some techniques created in the moment.

There is amazing music being written today that is fresh, communicative, and beautiful.

But will there ever be another J.S.B.?



They won't back down

The topic of musical similarity has surfaced again. British pop star, Sam Smith (who took home 4 Grammy awards) just settled a case (out-of-court) with Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne. Petty and Lynne co-wrote I Won't Back Down back in the late 80's. Sam Smith and 2 other songwriters (James Napier, William Phillips) co-wrote Stay With Me in 2013. Stay With Me has become a huge hit, and Tom Petty's people came to Smith's people to argue the new song borrowed too heavily from their guy's old song. The agreement that was struck: Petty and Lynne are now legally co-writers of Stay With Me. They will receive a percentage of the writing profits that previously went to Smith, Napier, and Phillips. 

This is crazy stuff. There are only a handful of notes and chords available to pop/rock songwriters. Statistically, there will be phrases that resemble phrases from other songs. It's not done intentionally. It's simply impossible for it not to happen.

The notion of a writer and publisher owning a short musical phrase is ridiculous. [When someone pointed out to Brahms that a section of his First Symphony resembled a phrase by Beethoven, he snarled: 'Any ass can see that.'] But, if several measures are virtually identical melodically, rhythmically and harmonically (see: Lady Antebellum's Need You Now vs. Alan Parsons' Eye in the Sky) then, yes, the lawyers should start sending the scary emails. But, going after writers for 3 notes or 3 chords is overreaching and...