July 03, 2005
I have enjoyed keeping this blog over the last two weeks. In addition to my concerts and other activities here in Asia, the blog gave me the opportunity to share my thoughts and feelings about these experiences with you and our readers. As is often the case, the impact of these experiences is likely to manifest itself in my future endeavors.
I particularly enjoyed thinking about different ways to form strong partnerships among the relevant parties in concert presentation -- the audience, presenters, and performers. Whether in the East or in the West, I continue to explore ways of keeping music alive and vivid through different presentation methods.
The young violinists in Singapore, the arts management students in Japan, and all the other young people I have encountered in the last two weeks will keep energizing and motivating my future activities.
I look forward to continuing our dialogue informally and to hearing from our readers how they think we can better achieve a more active and involved audience/presenter/artist axis.
With best wishes,
July 02, 2005
Rehearsing with Discipline
I spent today rehearsing with the Tama Youth Orchestra in preparation for the concert tomorrow afternoon. We are playing Summer from Vivaldi's Four Seasons. The Tama Youth Orchestra is one of four youth orchestras selected by lottery from a pool of applicants to participate in the Music Sharing Special Concert in Tokyo. Other works being performed this year include Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto (with Koji Oikawa, my pianist-partner for all the Music Sharing concerts in Japan), Eval'd's Sinfonia for Five Parts Brass Choir, and Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 1. Each of the works will be performed by a different orchestra and each orchestra has participated in the past in the Music Sharing Orchestra Visiting Program. Besides Tama orchestra and Shirayuri orchestra, which plays the Beethoven, the other two groups are Matsudo Youth Orchestra Brass Ensemble (Eval'd)and the Fuji High School Orchestra (Tchaikovsky).
Music Sharing is my outreach non-profit organization in Japan. The mission is to bring children opportunities to come into direct contact with music, both classical and Traditional Japanese. The Orchestra Visiting Program is currently in its fourth season at Music Sharing. The goal of this program is to facilitate stronger communication between young and professional artists. In Japan, there is a distinction between youth orchestras that are independent organizations and school orchestras that operate as part of after-school programs or "Club" activities. From tomorrow's program, Matsudo and Tama are in the former category whereas the Fuji and Shirayuri are in the latter.
I was impressed, as we rehearsed with the Tama Youth Orchestra, by the respect the students showed toward one another and toward the adults. The concept of respect is still very important here, and it is fascinating to feel the intent gaze of all the musicians each time I open my mouth to make a comment. There is no yawning, no side discussion with the stand partners, no dropping of music.
We spent some time discussing different colors within the music. I am particularly fond of working with harmonic characteristics and acknowledging them as we play them. Another favorite of mine is to be certain where changes occur in music, whether in character, mood, texture, or articulation. When I listen to music, I want to hear when changes occur as they happen, rather than realize, in retrospect, that the changes have taken place.
The Beethoven First Piano Concerto with Koji Oikawa will be performed tomorrow by the Shirayuri Middle School Orchestra from Sendai. This is one of the "Club" orchestras, which rehearses every day after school. In general, the majority of "Club" orchestra members do not have previous experience playing instruments prior to joining the orchestra in contrast with orchestras like Tama Youth Orchestra, which selects its members by audition. The older students in the "Club" orchestras coach the younger ones, and most of them make decisions rather democratically with support from the adults. Though the teachers and staff are present, the daily management of the activities is left up to the students, including decisions about repertoire. The adults take a supportive role and guide them when necessary, but the students are encouraged to make their own decisions through discussions. Some "Club" orchestras have one of the music teachers as the conductor while others may have a fellow student to stand on the podium.
I listened to part of the Shirayuri Middle School Orchestra rehearsal earlier today, as Koji, with the help of the conductor-teacher, did his best to energize the students. The main focus of the rehearsal was on style. At one moment, I had the sense that all the young musicians made a leap from simply "playing" the notes to "feeling" the music. It was amazing to watch how Koji inspired the students and made them light up. They went from being timid about playing all the notes to playing the music with a sense of purpose. I could hear and sense a big change.
I am often asked whether discipline plays a big role in Asian (or Japanese) music education. It certainly makes it easier for teachers to work within a disciplined environment. The sense of focus I feel from the students in Japan is simply amazing. I suppose one could argue that this discipline "cages" the students into a corner, but after my experiences today with the two groups, I did not feel that this was the case.
At the end of the rehearsal with the Tama group, I reinforced some of the issues I had addressed during the rehearsal, and asked the students to give themselves a few minutes to think them over and look over their music markings before rushing to put away their instruments. I got an amazing chorus of "Hai!" meaning "Yes." Then, as I was leaving the rehearsal room, they all stood up, bowed, and thanked me.
Wow. I'm certainly not used to being treated this way!
July 01, 2005
Total Experience with the Students
In the late 1990s, while studying at Gallatin College of New York University, I was greatly inspired by a performance of the Iphigenia Cycle, directed by JoAnne Akalaitis at New York’s American Place Theater. From the moment the audience entered the theater, we were immersed in the theme of the Trojan War. From the hallways to the bathroom walls, the entire building was arranged in such a way that everything suggested the world of the classical Greek story. It was the importance of the theme that impressed me most, rather than the star actors. This was a very powerful feeling and, when I left the theater, I felt I was stepping out into a completely different world.
After that experience, I tried to think of ways in which similar "theme saturation" might be used to present musical events, including concerts. At the same time, I determined to try to make my concerts into more personal or "individualized” experiences that would link the audience, the presenters and the performers.
As you know, there is background information about the Total Experience Project on my website. The first round took place in Japan in 2003; this is also documented on the website.
This year, for the second round, we chose "Wa" for our theme. “Wa,” roughly translated, means circle, round, cyclic, link, (of a wheel) connection, etc. We decided to work with students of arts management at Niigata University and at the Showa Music College in Atsugi, the first school in Japan to establish an arts management curriculum. The students were initially provided with a description of the concept, the program of my recital and access to background about the Total Experience concept on my website.
Interestingly, students at both schools chose to interpret “Wa” as a “link” or “web of communications” rather than simply as a circle or cycle. Each group of students decided independently to create closer links with their surrounding communities.
In Niigata, which is north of Tokyo, and is where the large earthquake took place last year, students prepared a newsletter called “The Link” that they circulated to members of community, through local amateur orchestras and choirs, to publicize the events leading up to my recital. They held a musical walkathon (Walk-Rally), set up a cello seminar in which they offered a free lesson to those who attended and held a listening session tied to violin repertoire, among others. They asked members of the community to draw on pieces of paper their interpretations of the theme of “Wa” and they linked all the responses in a circular display in the lobby of the recital hall. The students at both schools were responsible for preparing program notes, sending out tickets - only those who participated in the community-based events could apply for tickets-, doing all related artwork, and arranging post concert receptions.
At Showa Music College, the students arranged for their instrumentalist colleagues to give community concerts in shopping malls and other public spaces. They also held a session in which they encouraged participants to explore the acoustic differences between various instruments. Like their Niigata counterparts, they asked members of the community to contribute something showing what “Wa” meant to them and displayed the responses on a bulletin board in the concert hall lobby.
The students at both schools were quite shy at first, but I sense that they got a sense in the process of the project the importance of taking action. The challenge of involving everyone and facilitating communication required more energy and effort that they initially expected. I am hoping that they learned something they can take with them in their future endeavors--as arts managers, presenters, and administrators.
June 30, 2005
Ah, The New Music Problem...Douglas McLennan
Of course getting people to be open to contemporary music has been a longtime problem. There really isn't an infrastructure in place anymore to promote and disseminate the best new music. Of course there are many places where new music is performed and encouraged, but what I'm talking about is an eagerness to want to have the best new thing on your program.
Those mechanisms exist in other artforms - it's tough to find an audience for a new book, but if something catches a foothold it gets wide promotion. In theatre, rights to the hottest new plays are fought over by regional theatres. In visual art there's a whole web of gallery owners and curators scouting for something new that can be turned into a hot commodity.
Where is that in music? How are audiences to learn new music vocabulary and follow any sort of new music tradition if they don't hear it regularly? Let's say you found something new that you thought was sensational. You start programming it, but who else is also going to take it up? And who's going to carry the message about this great piece to a wider audience to help build demand for it?
This is a problem, by the way, that I don't think is just confined to classical music. As radio stations have corporatized their playlists and formats have become more rigid, it's more and more difficult for pop music to evolve significantly beyond whee it is.
In this time of exponentially more choice, are we less willing to be adventurous? I greatly admire your efforts to open people's ears...
June 29, 2005
Working with the Contemporary
Greetings from Tokyo where it's pouring.
On the topic of direct interaction with the audience, I believe there are many ways in which we can foster more meaningful relationships among audiences, performers, and organizers. In order to succeed, the communication must run in both directions. It is through the sharing of experiences that people from different walks of life can bond.
I am very excited to be in the Total Experience portion of my Asian tour right now and also to be planning for the Contemporary Music Project which takes place next Spring. I am experimenting with both ideas as ways of encouraging communication beyond the normal concert setting. I would like to write about them over the next two blogs.
The Contemporary Recitals Project has a few unique challenges, among them the fact that audience members, less familiar with contemporary composers than with, say, Beethoven and Mozart, may be reluctant to invest in tickets to an all-contemporary recital. The majority of the audience will be hearing the works on the program for the first time, in some cases with little, if any, knowledge about the composers. While this may be a refreshing experience for some, most listeners would probably benefit from repeated exposure or prior knowledge about the composers or the pieces in the program.
In some quarters, contemporary music has earned a reputation for being inaccessible. I actually find this interesting and somewhat perplexing because the term “contemporary music” covers a very wide range of styles. For example, I have known people who consider all 20th century compositions‘contemporary.’ For the purpose of my project, I have decided to interpret the term 'contemporary' to mean that either the piece or the composer must be from my lifetime. I have decided to include in my recital works written after I became musically aware--in my pre-teens. In other words, the term 'contemporary' can be a personal one that changes from individual to individual.
Next spring, I am scheduled to give an all-contemporary recital in San Francisco, and, in addition to the concert itself, I will spend two extra days over the preceding three weeks involved in a series of off-site events. Coordinated in partnership with the San Francisco Performances, in my experimental project, I will work with young musicians/composers and also with potential audience members. The reason why we are working on different events and activities a few weeks ahead is to give everyone an opportunity to digest the information as there is so much more we can learn if not compacted simply into a more conventional 30-minute pre-concert presentation.
I will encourage as many young music students and composers as possible to get to know the pieces, particularly by playing the works for one another. With each playing and with each player, the tradition for the piece becomes more established. Having each work played multiple times by different individuals can be a powerful method of advocating for the health of contemporary music. I am also interested in working with young composers and gathering input from them on how they would like to see contemporary music is presented to audiences. Since they are living with the most current music on a regular basis and personally trying to arrange for it to be heard and understood, their ideas could be especially inspiring and effective. Above all, it is important for me to set the tone of partnership and the mechanism of collaboration from early in the project.
In addition to working with the young music students such as in a master class setting, we are setting up other events for audience members, including preview performances of works in the recital program, and a series of workshops and discussions exploring the contemporary music scene, as well as the specific works on the program. We may also hold a screening of some rare film footage. Through these different pre-concert events, audience members will gain exposure to the new music in the recital, and at the same time an introduction to young musicians who are advocating for new music.
Not all the activities will take place in a traditional concert setting. Rather, we are discussing holding a demonstration at a local music store and mounting displays in the local arts library and museum. In doing any kind of outreach, I always like to emphasize going "out to them" rather than always having "them come to us." The internet and websites can also be powerful vehicles to reach out to many people.
I initiated the Contemporary Music Project, with the same program and with several special events, last December in Japan. Audience feedback was encouraging and told us that that having opportunities to learn about and experience the works for two weeks before attending the concert was most valuable and effective in helping them to maximize the actual concert experience.
In my next blog, I will write about Total Experience, a concept that first came to my mind when I was still a college student at Gallatin-NYU. Total Experience can potentially set up numerous and varied opportunities for direct communication among many people.
June 28, 2005
More Than making MusicDouglas McLennan
I'm impressed by how hard you work to not just perform music but try to draw people in to it. Most successful musicians I know these days spend a lot of their time trying to develop audiences. Recently I visited with Wu Han and David Finckel in New York and they took me to the apartment they had bought next door where they had an amazing operation going on.
They were preparing for their Music@Menlo chamber music festival this summer by producing audio notes for each concert. David was writing and narrating the scripts, and an assistant was digitally mixing it on computer into performances by the Emerson String Quartet that they had licensed from his record company.
The deal at Menlo is that when you buy a ticket, the CD comes with it. The discs cost only a few pennies to crank out, but the expectation of the audience is that they've done their audio homework before coming to the concert. I think it must radically change the way at least some of the audience listens. Is this an innovation with a similar impact to opera supertitles? The difference between how an audience pays attention with the titles versus without them is pretty big.
There's also the Concert Companion, which had a few tests last year - handheld computers that communicate information about what you hear as the performance takes place. This sounds a bit like the equivalent of the audio gallery guide that most museums have. I love that there are now even "guerilla" museum podcast guides made by those who want to give an alternative reading of the museum. Wouldn't it be great to find ways to harness that kind of audience participation in classical music?
In pop music, some bands are now offering recordings of performances you've just heard. Come to the concert, sign up to buy at intermission, and 45 minutes after the concert you get a CD or MP3. People buy them as souvenirs (better than a T-shirt), but more than souvenirs, they serve as an ongoing connection to fans.
Lastly, I've been intrigued by the experiments some performing arts institutions have made recruiting some of their more interesting audience members to blog about the performances they see. It works like this: In return for free tickets an audience member writes a review of the performance and posts it to the organization's website right after the show. Easch show has three or four bloggers, and the hope is that after psoting their reviews they'll interact between them and those who read the blog online. These aren't professional critics, but they often have startlingly original things to say. I wonder how it would work if you tried to interact with your audience online after a concert...
There are lots of ideas like these being tried, and I think it's encouraging that artists such as you keep looking for ways to innovate. I'd love to hear more about your Total Experience project...
On the Way to "Experiencial Experience"
You were asking about how we might get audiences more deeply involved in music. It is difficult to think of a general plan, as every individual reacts and responds uniquely to music. Each person's encounter with music is different. The first crucial step is to initiate public interest in listening to music. Presenting historical information could help spark interest, as a contextual explanation is attractive to some people. With others, focus on the artist, the human being, is more effective.
As an artist, I want to cooperate with presenters that cater to the varied audience’s range of interests and needs. My effort takes the direction of introducing new opportunities for listening which, hopefully, lead to the audience being able to have what you call an "experiencial experience."
For several years now, I've tried different ideas to build a stronger connection with the audience. While these ideas are not necessarily ground-breaking or new tactics, I list them here anyway:
· Letters to the Audience – Every season, I write a letter of greeting for the recital programs. It is up to the presenters to incorporate it or not.
· Program Notes – I write my own notes for the recital repertoire, which hopefully gives the readers insight to the player's perspective about the specific pieces. This is also left in the hands of the presenters to be printed. As some presenters have contractual obligations with their own program annotators, I don't insist on the use of my notes. However, they are all available on my website.
· Meet and Greet – I've already written about this.
· Q & A and Post-Concert Discussions – these are usually done in the context of an already-existing format with the presenters, and I am almost always happy to oblige.
· Website – most of the written materials on my website are my own words and not the work of a professional publicist.
· Audio Program Notes – A few years ago, I made an audio version of program notes with musical samples for a modern work for one of the recital programs. This included sound explanations of certain musical terms such as Twelve Tone Row. This ultimately didn’t work out, due to delays relating to copyright, and during the trial run, the CDs were not used for the purposes for which they were designed. For example, some were distributed after the performance, while others were used as a "treat" for signing up for subscription tickets for the following season. The rare few who did receive the disc in advance of the concert found it to be interesting and useful, but in the end, the CDs were way too expensive for me to produce and to wish that they can be passed out correctly. In the words of one presenter (as I was told second hand), "Yes, it was helpful, but what would have been really helpful was for you not to have programmed a modern work at all." (Sigh.)
· DVD – While the Audio Program Notes were financially disastrous for me and my morale, the DVD which I produced last year in Japan in connection to the All Contemporary Recital Program proved to be a greater success. The DVD featured interview snippets with some of the composers, sound clips, composer and artist bios, etc., and these were passed out upon request to the ticket holders free of charge. The airline ANA sponsored the project, and I was grateful.
Doug, any more ideas? I do want to stay strictly in the mainstream classical music, but I would love to hear your thoughts.
In my next entry, I will write more in detail about my project in San Francisco next spring in partnership with San Francisco Performances. And, of course, I am in Japan right now, in the midst of Total Experience concerts, another community-involving initiative.
Interview Questions from Singapore
Singapore was great – and hot! (But no rain!) Humidity was high, and the de-humidifier in my dressing room was running full-force at all times.
Along with the masterclass, I did give a recital, which was my first appearance in Singapore. The concert took place at an impressive cultural complex along Marina Bay called the Esplanade. It is a beautiful building with a shopping center and several world-class theaters, all set on the waterfront.
What struck me even before my arrival in Singapore were the interview questions I received in preparation for my concert in the country. In recent years, I have been conducting preliminary interviews with journalists via email. After sending my responses, I speak with the interviewer on the phone when possible. I have found this method to be much more thorough than the conventional 10-minute phone conversation. In writing my answers, I can give at least quadruple the amount of time and ten times the energy of a long-distance phone call. I am able to give in-depth answers to most of the questions, which I would never have a chance to do otherwise.
I had a total of four email interviews several weeks in advance of the Singapore recital. I was intrigued by the orderly manner of the questions. The recurring theme of the interviews emphasized categorization: most questions wanted me to name the best, the most famous, the most favorite, the most special, and the most memorable. It seemed that such questions were asked in an effort to elicit answers that were tangible and methodical.
When I arrived in Singapore, I was fascinated by the country’s very systematic nature, at least on the surface. There are no traffic jams, the streets are clean and litter-free, and I got a sense that "everything works." I clearly saw the connection between the type of questions I received over email and how the country felt as a whole. This was very interesting indeed.