Wednesday, June 29, 2011

New Music Feature, Part 2- James Young

It's been a while since I've posted (I'd actually forgotten the log-in, so what does that tell you?), but I thought it was worth commemorating our 15th follower! We've finally expanded to the point where I don't even know each of our followers personally, which is a new level of celebrity for me. I'd like to continue with part 2 of our new music series, featuring three piano pieces by James Young. For those of you unfamiliar with this feature, I encourage you to check out the first part, where I review a piece by Nat Evans. (I could also refer you to the two or three posts wherein I ranted about getting this feature started, but we're here, so why quibble?) 

In the interest of full disclosure, some background. James and I went to U of L together, where I was continually in awe of his intelligence, sensitivity, and musical intuition. We spent many a night ranting over the confining nature of the modern concert space, and I consider him a close friend and one of the best musical minds I've had the pleasure of working with. He's now at the super fancy Peabody Conservatory, and has just finished his first year of DMA work. I'm writing today about three piano pieces he gave me the first summer I taught in college; I thought it'd be interesting to have my students talk to a real live composer (and Boulez has like a three year waiting list). James shared his time and ideas with my students, who liked these pieces (more or less).*

The first piece, "Game," is structured on three groups of staves. Like Stockhausen's Kalvierstücke 11, the pianist can select from which grouping s/he choses to play from. In James's piece, the pianist begins with one pitch, and then selects the next fragment from the top grouping. Once the pianist plays the groups a set number of times, they move onto the second group, and so on. The fragments get progressively more complicated, but if one listens carefully, one can hear the initial pitch return like an aural anchor throughout the work. The beauty of its work lies in its nature as fragments; despite the fact that my students would inexorably label the music as "random," each gesture is written so that it seems a logical reaction to what came before, and to what follows. In fact, each fragment would probably be worth exploring and developing, so compelling is each idea. I wish that I had multiple interpretations to compare, in order to better realize the potential of the piece's changing nature.

I find myself compelled to criticize the second piece, the evocatively titled "Large Black Window." The voice leading could at times be smoother (for example, in the beginning measures, an E and D changes places, with one becoming the melody note and the other the inner voice, in subsequent measures. To be fair, it looks more awkward than it sounds). There could be greater differentiation between harmonic and melodic elements (or the melodic could come to the fore more prominently sooner), and the syncopated chords at the end don't seem to grow from the earlier music (if that is indeed even relevant aesthetically). This is all by way of hedging, and I fear, like the Queen in Hamlet, that I doth protest too much. I really like this piece. The harmonies are colorful yet accessible and the overall structure of the piece supports its drama, realizing the upward expanding ideas latent in the first bars of the piece. In a purely sonic sense, I find it truly beautiful. If postmodernism is nothing more than accessible modernism, then this piece is postmodernism at its finest. If the same is a blending of elements of a modernist language divorced from the modernist loathing of the moving, then this piece is still postmodernism at its finest. 

The final work, "Motion Machine," features the best aspects of a repetitively based, motoric rhythmic energy, with none of its downfalls (which, at this stage in music history, include lapsing into parody or failing to commit enough to achieve escape velocity for fear of repeating oneself). The main ostinato is perfectly proportioned; it isn't too long or repeated too often without a change in accents to bore. Again, this mix of modernist ideas and postmodern accessibility is at the heart of what makes these works good music. Couple this fact with the music's viscerality, its palpable sense of how fun it is to realize these works at the piano, and you have a maturity in writing for piano that belies James's young age.** I eagerly await his other works for the instrument, and fervently hope that he explores using a larger canvas.

Overall, I was struck with the use of space throughout all three works, both in the sense of utilizing the physical keyboard and between the various musical aspects. No doubt a sensitive performance helps immensely, but the breathing room between gestures in "Game" was just enough to let you absorb each idea without becoming ponderous. The same applies to "Large Black Window." After each arpeggiated chord, performer and composer left a moment to hear the entire sonority, and reveal in the play of overtones that makes the work so colorful. Conversely, the filling of the musical space so completely in "Motion Machine" makes that work a perfect end to the set.

At the risk of generalizing, these piano pieces seem more accessible than some of James's music, and can serve as an excellent introduction only to his music. They should also serve to bolster the supporters of new music, knowing that many talented composers and responsive performers have yet to be discovered. If this convinced you to seek out this music, I couldn't ask for anything more (and if James leaves a comment with his contact info, you can find out where to hear his stuff). And for all of those who I've promised I'd write about, I still intend to follow through. All the names are saved on a sticky note, which constitutes a written contract and will serve as a guarantee.*** Have a happy 4th of July!

* As a disclaimer, it's been that long since I've seen the scores, so if details are wrong, I beg forgiveness, and hope James will rectify them with a comment.

** Hand to God, I didn't originally intend this pun, but it's well worth keeping.

***This does not actually constitute a written contract.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Yay! I have a Master’s Degree! Now What Do I Do? -Part II

I want to start off with an apology for taking so long to get this to you, our loyal readership. In explanation of my tardiness I will say that I have been consumed by a project that I intend to publish; I have been examining the significance of the invocation of place in Memphis rap. As a tangential aspect of the research, I have also been working on a proposal for presentation at a national conference, which was just submitted (as in, about an hour ago). So, without further delay, here is a recap of my first year as a doctoral student.

Yay! I have a Master’s Degree! Now What Do I Do?

–Part II: Doctoral Studies

I recently finished my first year as a doctoral student in the Musicology/Southern Regional Studies program at the University of Memphis. During the first two semesters, I was able to take ethno courses in American Folk/Popular Musics, The Blues, World Musics, and Fieldwork and Methodology; my final papers ranged from the important of place in local rap (see above) to measuring the acculturative process on the indigenous music of Easter Island. I learned a substantial amount and I thoroughly enjoyed the process of doing in each case. I also realized that there is an exciting (read: intimidating) amount of material out there. Even after working in two separate traditional music archives and spending countless hours reading about/playing/listening to music that is not Western art music, not to mention serving as the graduate assistant for three separate World Music courses under two instructors, I went into this year with only the slightest understanding of humanity’s musical capabilities. The great (read: scary) part is that in reflection of my first year of doctoral studies, I am now even more aware of the vast amount of music with which I am still not familiar.

In addition to the ethno courses, I also had the chance to take a couple historical musicology courses: Renaissance Music and American Amateur Brass Band. Though the latter is more akin to the folk/pop side of the coin, my final paper focused on Ives’s compositional relationship with the brass band. Coming into the program I was worried that I would not be able to take musicology courses as the SRS coursework is a hefty load, so I was relieved to have the opportunity to fit these in (I have a M.M. in Music History and Literature). The brass band course was particularly fun as we spent the last portion of the semester playing the music, all of which was new to me. This experience also served as my foray into the bass drum, which was cause for lots of laughs and hopefully not too much frustration on the part of the actual musicians.

One of the most valuable lessons that I have learned over the last year is that ethnomusicology is not a science and it cannot be approach like one—historical musicology, while I will still argue is not a science, is at times more “scientific,” especially when the analysis is based on universal theories and the composer/performer is able to explain his/her intentions using a language that is understood by the field at large. By this, I mean that music, as a part of living culture, is always in flux. The ethnomusicologist is responsible for documenting music in situ, as it existed, exists and changes and the ethnomusicologist must be willing to arrive at a destination other than the one s/he was aiming for. As such, I now see that the music we study is not benefited by examination in a vacuum, which is a problem that many historical musicologists face.

I believe the hardest lesson that I have learned is that not everyone in a doctoral program (be it musicology, performance or otherwise) approaches school the same way I do, and that this is not necessarily a bad thing. I obsess over assignments and am notorious for tackling papers from the moment they are assigned. I also write dozens (I mean this literally) of drafts, editing for hours on end. And, after all of this, I am rarely satisfied with the final outcome. For others, a 25 page final paper can be whipped out in a week and still receive a good grade, with which the author is content. In doing so, those who prescribe to the latter method are spared my anxiety and mental distress. The lesson being that what works for me doesn’t work for everyone, and that is ok. Also, I guess the better lesson is that I shouldn't take my self so seriously.

Another hard-to-learn lesson is that undergraduates are often times morons. Though I have been in academia for the better part of a decade now, this past semester’s Italian I was the first 100 level course I have had in many years. I was dumbfounded by the lack of focus, the reprehensible behavior and the desire to distract from others’ learning. I am inclined to write this off as an isolated incident, though I think that Prof. Hausmann might be able to support the contrary. We will see, I suppose, if the situation is any better in Italian II.

Like Prof. Hausmann, the biggest difference between the fall and spring semesters was also my comfort level. Just having a semester’s worth of experience with doctoral studies really helped me to produce better work. Not only had I had time to get comfortable with the new expectations of a doctoral student, but I was already settled into my job and into the city as well. I also didn’t have to spend the entire break leading up the semester studying for entrance exams, which was certainly a plus.

The most difficult adjustment I have had to make, aside from being 8+ hours from home, is that I have had to work on building a new support network. By the time I left Louisville, I had made many great friends and developed wonderful relationships with a handful of faculty members. Needless to say, it was never difficult to find someone with whom to share a meal and drinks, or even to coerce someone into reading over a draft or a proposal. Though I am starting to build those sorts of professional and personal relationships here, it was not easy. It also is taking longer than I seem to remember it taking when I first arrived in Louisville, though I am not sure why.

The biggest benefit to doctoral work, at least for me, is my assistantship and stipend. Working in the music library I am surrounded by scores and books all day, which is a nice reminder that I should be doing something productive. I also work with some amazing and talented people, which is always a good thing. The best part, though, is that I don’t have to work an outside job. I spent my time at UofL working in an art museum, which was a lot of fun, though it was less convenient. I also feel more appreciated now that I have a fancy scholarship and stipend. If you can get paid to go to school, I highly recommend it.