This past Christmas my mother gave me a subscription to Listen: Life With Classical Music, “America’s classical music magazine,” which is published by Arkiv Music. In the Summer 2010 issue, there’s an interesting article about Brett Richardson, a pianist who performs regularly in a bar in New Orleans called The Spotted Cat. Along with the usual suspects–stride piano, ragtime, blues–he also plays Chopin, Poulenc, Bach, Prokofiev, Schumann, and the music of other classical composers. The article isn’t available on Listen‘s website, but Richardson had a couple of great quotes that I hope they won’t mind me sharing with you here.

“I’m disgusted with [the institution of classical music]. And I participated in it for a long time before I was able to articulate what bothered me. Basically, I don’t think the tradition is currently conducive to the masses. It’s a stuffy thing. To force someone to sit still and pay attention, it’s just alienating and furstrating. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone! But if you go somewhere and play some Scott Joplin, play some blues, and then sneak in some Beethoven, people are like, ‘Oh, man, that’s great! Some fine piano-playing right there.’ People like Beethoven, they really do. But if you present it in a lofty way, people will be put off, agitated, even insulted…. Ultimately, I would prefer to contribute to the atmosphere rather than be at the center of it. To be on stage and playing Rachmaninoff is a big responsibility. To say, ‘Okay, you have to be still and quiet and pay attention while I do this,’ well, hey, you better do it damn good. But if you’re playing where people are telling jokes and flirting and you’re contributing to that, that’s the whole point of sharing music. If people want to sit and listen quietly, they can do that, but if they want to get in fights, well, that’s fine, too.”

Although I wouldn’t say I’m “disgusted” with the institution of classical music, I do agree with his comments about it to some extent. That’s the reason why the institution is struggling all over the country–because it’s not conducive to the masses. And that’s why a lot of the contemporary classical music that matters isn’t being written for and performed in concert halls (though some of it is, to be sure). It’s being fused with popular music and played in spaces like galleries, lofts, and yes, even bars; places where it’s not portrayed as “sophisticated” or “high-brow,” for the “hallowed halls,” but for people to come together, hang out, share and enjoy. I certainly wouldn’t want my only experiences of listening to classical music to be in a noisy club. But if I knew of a bar nearby that played classical music, you’d definitely find me there a lot.


Bach, Beethoven, Brahms–and Bits and Bytes?

Posted by AJ Harbison at 10:11 am

Slate.com has another intriguing article in their music section, this time a profile on modern composer David Cope, who wrote one of my college textbooks and works primarily in the field of computer music. He’s apparently created a computer program (christened “Emily Howell”) that takes input from the greatest composers of Western music, including Bach, Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Barber, and Copeland, and composes its own music by recombining elements from the music in its database. Now Cope’s primary method of composing is to listen to Emily Howell’s work and tell it what he likes and doesn’t like–most of his music is created by the computer. As usual, several clips of Emily Howell’s music are included in the article, though unfortunately they’re too short to make any judgments of quality.

Cope’s case is that all great music is created by this process of synthesizing bits and pieces of music that the composer has heard before, which is of course true and seemed rather self-evident to me, though not (it appears) to the author of the article. But what do you think? Is there something “inherently distasteful” about composing through a computer–or rather letting a computer compose for you? Do you have any aesthetic objections to the process? Why or why not?

“I’ll Be Bach: A computer program is writing great, original works of classical music. Will human composers soon be obsolete?”


Anything Goes (Film)

Posted by AJ Harbison at 8:54 pm

If you’re interested in the Cole Porter musical Anything Goes, and you’re considering seeing the 1956 film of the same name starring Bing Crosby and Donald O’Connor, here’s a word of advice: Don’t bother.

Anything Goes is one of my wife’s favorite musicals, not least because she acted in a production of it in high school. She introduced me to it, and I’ve enjoyed getting to know the music by listening to the soundtrack at work. It sounds like a great show, and I’d really like to see it live someday. I thought that getting the movie from Netflix would be the next best thing, but unfortunately that wasn’t the case.

The film has a completely different plot with completely different characters, features multiple new songs not in the show, and takes a few of the songs from the musical and puts them in a completely different context–not to mention rewriting the feel and orchestration of the songs so they’re sometimes barely recognizable. The style of the movie is the same style of every Bing Crosby movie from the 50s, White Christmas being the example coming most readily to my mind. Crosby plays the exact same character, Donald O’Connor plays the exact same character as Danny Kaye does in White Christmas, the music style is exactly the same, even the plot is very similar (two male entertainers who get romantically tangled with two female entertainers as hilarity ensues). It’s a perfect example of a formulaic movie, made simply to feature Crosby singing songs in a particular style. There’s nothing inherently wrong with formulaic movies, I suppose, but in this case they took a perfectly wonderful musical and disfigured it to the point of being unrecognizable in order to shoehorn it into the formula.

I’m not a fan of that general style of music, either. It all tends to sound the same, and in many ways it’s just as formulaic as the movie. The melodies can often be bland and staid, the harmonies are predictable, and the orchestration is always in the same style without much variation in timbre or texture. There’s much more energy and creativity in the music for the show.

So, unless you’re a fan of the Bing Crosby formula, you can avoid Anything Goes. Just get the soundtrack to the show, or better yet, see it live instead!


A Personal Update

Posted by AJ Harbison at 3:20 pm

I am sad to announce that I was laid off from my day job yesterday, effective immediately. Unfortunately, my day job was what supported my music, and therefore I’m going to have to devote my time to looking for a new job. I may post more infrequently on here, and the release of my upcoming CD Songs From My Shelf and the party that comes with it will now be delayed. I don’t want to say “delayed indefinitely,” because that sounds like a long time and I hope to still be able to finish the CD by summer’s end; but I can’t make any promises. I hope you’ll still continue to read the blog and follow my updates–I will be sure to keep you posted as to when and where the CD will eventually be coming out–and in the meantime my wife and I would appreciate your thoughts and prayers that I would find a new job soon. Thanks so much!