So, yes, I’m back from vacation, and already plunged deep into the new year. (Years really do seem to start in September.) Wednesday my Juilliard graduate course on music criticism began, and today, Thursday, I spent the day at a major music school outside New York, serving on a private panel to help the school decide what to do with technology. My Juilliard link, by the way, takes you to the same webpage the students use in the course, so you can do the assignments along with them, if you’re somehow interested in doing that. You can also look at the course overview page, for a quick look at what the course is about.
And I also started working with Jenny Lin, the terrific pianist, on some pieces of mine she’s going to premiere. These are evocations of Anne Carson poems, in which Jenny not only has to deal with some tricky rhythms (and fleeting musical metaphors for Carson’s words), but she also has to play a drum, at the same time that she plays the piano. So we spent time Tuesday at the Harlem School for the Arts, where Jenny (along with her other distinctions) is artist in residence, looking at drums, deciding what kind of drum to use, where it should stand or sit while Jenny plays it, and whether she should use a stick or her hand. Plus many more details. Tricky stuff.
I longed for a comprehensive composers’ website, something like the astonishing Ravelry site for knitters. A knitter, who, let’s say, has just acquired the entire fleece shorn from a sheep, and wants to know how to turn it into knittable yarn (cleaning the fleece is the hardest part), can go to Ravelry and find people who’ve already done that. But I don’t know any site where I could ask thousands of composers if any of them have written pieces for a pianist who also drums, and how they solved the technical problems involved. Fascinating, that knitters (Ravelry has nearly 200,000 members) should be better organized than classical composers.
What I said (or some of what I said) at the private technology panel: that there was always a danger of solving last year’s problems, or, to use a military metaphor, arming your forces to refight the last war. Thus you think of the web as a way to get information out, when all the most vivid current online stuff is focused on participation, on bringing people in. I even suggested that this school open-source its questions (if “open-source” is a verb), by asking potential users of their technology to join an online discussion of what they should do. I also warned of some dangers, especially the dangers of doing something simply because technology makes it possible — starting a blog, for instance, when you haven’t figured out what you want to say, or streaming thousands of musical performances online, when you don’t know who wants to hear them.
A housekeeping note: comments now can be posted here without my apprpoval, just as some readers urged. This means discussions can break out as soon as someone writes a comment, with no need for me to sign off on what anyone says. Not that I ever rejected anything (except for a couple of nonspecific one-line flames that must have come from teenagers). The approval process was designed to weed out spam, but the captchas on the comment page (the graphics you have to read and interpret before you can post) seem to have taken care of that. I’ll surely jump in, and comment on the comments, so if you find yourself reading a discussion here, you might want to come back another time, and see if I’ve added anything.
Vacation, as usual for Anne and me in recent years, was a month in the Yorkshire Dales in England. We never did see any hedgehogs, but (despite the coldest, wettest August on record) we took some marvelous, strenuous walks up the high fells (as they call their stark, steep hills), and enjoyed many British things you just can’t get here, from Coronation Street (the best TV soap opera ever), to the BBC’s intent coverage of the triumphant British Olympic team, to the fabulous flavors of British potato chips (which they really are starting to call chips, as opposed to the more traditional “crisps”). Beef and horseradish was my favorite, I think, but other flavors involving lamb, or chicken, or Thai spices ranked pretty high, too. The Brits are way ahead of us here.
And here’s one of my musical delights of recent weeks. It’s something I heard from Ben Verdery, who teaches guitar at the Yale School of Music. Ben wants to know which guitarists auditioning for the school have real musical imagination, so he asked a Yale composer to write an audition piece for auditioners to play — a piece with all the notes written down, but no expressive markings at all (no tempo markings, no dynamics, no articulations). The students had to decide for themselves how the piece should go. This is a brilliant idea, and Ben tells me it worked out just the way he hoped. It weeded out the students who play stunningly — as long as someone else tells them how to play.