cultivating culture

Professor Mephistopheles 02/02/2011

Filed under: Fertilizer — Megan Helm @ 5:12 pm
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In a recent Mind the Gap blog, Kyle (whose last name I’m supposed to know but appears
nowhere on his blog-as a by line or even in a separate “about” page) argues that writing new music reviews is difficult to do under an editorial word count restriction.  I feel his pain.  I crafted a response and decided to post it here so as not to offend any of the highly sensitive (mostly male) Composition faculty writing in the old fashioned deconstructed style of the 20th Century.  Here goes.  Better put on your bullet proof vests!

I write reviews for an audience I hope to encourage to leave their couches and come see the show.  When I write new music reviews, which I often do, I have a hard time making a compelling argument for attendance. New music that is composed by conservatory educated musicians sounds cerebral. New music written by people from the garage band persuation often sounds like a hybrid of rock and Stockhausen.

I’ve actually laughed out loud, long and hard, after reading the pretentious program notes some composers feel the need to craft.  Don’t composers of this genre realize that the music should speak for itself?  The 200 word explanation of the concept is proof to me, as a listener, that there isn’t as much “meat” in the music.  I’m particularly bewildered when the program “notes” don’t match the musical “notes” in any way.   Sadly, the titles of the pieces and the words used to describe the music in the program are often the only things
a human mind can hold onto and make sense of.

I feel your word count pain. Translating a new music experience for a non-conservatory educated audience is daunting.  Trying to provide healthy, thoughtful criticism for the composer or performer is treading on even thinner ice.  I sometimes feel like the young composers of atonal and deconstructed works have been told a lie about what their music should sound like.  Maybe they’ve sold their souls to Professor Mephistopheles.


“Rocco, Rocco, Rocco!” 02/01/2011

I’m so excited today.  I got a deliciously controversial newletter from Thomas Cott who culled together a few snippets of the dialogue launched recently that is sending Arts Managers into a tizzy.

Here at Raw Organum, we consider the ways in which the arts are like food.  The ag model, I think, is a better fit for arts management than, say…plastic products and/or finance.  The arts are nourishing, yet need special conditions in which to grow. Supply and Demand is still active in an agricultural economy…but the product is dependent on many unpredictable variables, like the weather and the fickle tastes of consumers.  Therefore,I am confident that Chairman Landesman’s remarks are simply the scythe clearning and leveling the land so fruitful ideas can be planted and a new crop of  exciting art can flourish. Is it time for us to rotate our “crops?” Let the plowing begin and pray for rain.

From Peter Mark’s Washington Post Article:

The gathering has an aptly wonky title for a meeting in the capital: “Capturing the Moment for the New Work Sector.” It even featured a talk by the nation’s theater-wonk in chief, Rocco Landesman, the longtime Broadway producer and now chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. But if Landesman’s remarks were any indication, finding a baseline agreement on the state of the theater may be easier proposed than achieved. In a session Wednesday, Landesman suggested that the field may be too crowded for its own good.

“We’re overbuilt,” he declared, to an audience in Arena’s newest space, the Kogod Cradle. “There are too many theaters.”

Landesman was addressing comments to an issue he’s pondering at the NEA: whether his agency would have more impact if it made larger grants to a smaller number of institutions. That sensitive subject got tongues wagging at this conference, whose attendees included organizers of embryonic rural arts initiatives as well as leaders of established new play outlets, such as New York City’s Under the Radar festival. Representatives of smaller groups in particular spoke out witheringly at the suggestion that the NEA might set its sights only on larger and richer organizations.

From Thomas Cott:

Commentary: “We are going to have to have some uncomfortable conversations”

Posted by NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman on the Art Works blog, January 31, 2011

Last week, I was able to finally spark a conversation that I have been wanting to have for over a year [about] the mismatch that exists in supply and demand for not-for-profit arts in our country. I decided to write this post to encourage us to keep having the conversation. Two points I want to underscore:

1.     I said that the NEA has been increasing the size of our grants, which means (given a stable budget) necessarily making fewer grants. A number of people took this to mean that the NEA should only fund large institutions. That is totally wrong. The best work in this country comes out of organizations across the spectrum of budget size.  We should never talk about survival of the largest; we are here to ensure the survival of the most creative and most dynamic.

2.     When I say that “decreasing supply” has to be on the table when talking about the future of not-for-profit arts organizations, in no way do I mean that that is the only thing that should be on the table. Here are some other things that I have lobbed out in conversations:

·         Increase arts education. We discovered arts education is one of the only reliable predictors of future arts participation. Exposure to the arts-early and often-builds future audiences.

·         Take advantage of related demand. We are seeing an explosion of demand for singing and dancing [on] prime time network television. Americans are hungry for and will seek out an expressive life. Our not-for-profit arts need to also be feeding that hunger with what we offer.

·         Offer free samples. If you offer a taste of a high quality product, people will come back for more. Technology is key in this: people who consume art via electronic media are nearly three times as likely to attend live arts events, that they attend a greater number of live events, and that they also attend a greater variety of arts events.

·         Examine our arts infrastructure. There are 5.7 million arts workers in this country and two million artists. Do we need three administrators for every artist?

There are many more things that we as a field need to be considering.  In order to get to where we need to be, we are going to have to have some uncomfortable conversations and prepare ourselves for a not-for-profit arts sector of the future that does not necessarily look the way it looks today.

Commentary: Supply-and-demand is a flawed way to look at nonprofit arts

Posted by Trisha Mead on the 2AM Theatre blog, January 31, 2011

Dear Rocco, You stirred the pot, poking at the survival instinct in the audience you spoke to at our convening.  You were frank with us, and we didn’t have to agree with you to respect your point of view and the transparency with which you shared it. So thank you for that.  Here’s my challenge, however. If, as you say, the Fichandlers and Papps of the world created a non-profit regional theater system to escape the pressures of supply and demand… in order to create space for the “R&D arm” of our culture… then shouldn’t the question of how many “butts” are in “seats” at any given performance be purposefully un-linked from the arts organization’s “value” to its community or the culture as a whole?  After all, you don’t tell the national science community to only do experiments that will have consequences that impact a lot of people, or else stop researching. The nature of artistic inquiry is no different.  Supply and demand is a fundamentally flawed model for looking at the non-profit arts ecology, since it implies that an arts experience is a commodity that can be quantified by the number of people who had one, rather than the quality and resonating impact of each experience.  Of course, a funding organization can’t measure the quality of an experience, or its transformative impact on a community the way it can measure “butts in seats.” So it’s understandable the supply/demand model would feel more comfortable to a sector constantly in search of “metrics”.  But I ask you whether the use of it to make funding decisions is actually at cross purposes with your core thesis… that art contributes something essentially different to our progress as a culture, something that should be protected, at least partially, from not only the dangerous impact of filthy lucre but the destructive reductions of economic language itself?

Commentary: It’s not just theaters that are going to see a shakeout of the weakest

Posted by Lee Rosenbaum on her ArtsJournal blog CultureGrrl, January 31, 2011

I think that Rock-the-Boat Rocco has expressed some hard truths that have relevance not only to the world of theater, which he knows the most about, but also, perhaps, to the world of art museums.  The weakest institutions — those that haven’t built a strong audience and a solid financial base — may not survive.  The situation for art museums is more complicated than that for theaters, because many small, embattled art venues own collections that should, according to professional guidelines, not be sold out of the public domain to defray debts. If the worst occurs, such institutions should make every effort to find a home for their holdings in other public institutions, preferably in the same geographic area.  In my recent post about federal arts funding and the President’s State of the Union address, I ended by observing:

“Arts funding is certainly not sacrosanct and is apt to be adjusted as part of a government-wide effort to reduce the deficit. In the likely event that cultural support is trimmed but not eliminated, the President’s smoked-salmon punchline may acquire new resonance for arts mavens. As all bagels-and-lox lovers know, the most skilled practitioners behind the deli counter slice it extra thin, making a little nova go a long way.”

No matter how you slice it, though, a little can’t go as far as a lot. A scarcity of resources may have dire consequences for certain arts institutions.  And now, like Landesman, I should probably duck.

Commentary: An oversupply of arts orgs, but not an oversupply of art

Posted by Adam Huttler on the Fractured Atlas blog, February 1, 2011

It’s hard to deny the fundamental logic behind Landesman’s assertion.  It seems to me, though, that there are some unspoken assumptions in this debate that are worth bringing to the surface. I haven’t yet heard anyone argue that there’s an oversupply of art, just that there’s an oversupply of non-profit arts organizations. The real problem is our industry still worships the cult of the eternal institution. Not every idea warrants forming a new perpetual entity just to house it. Lincoln Center is not the only valid model for eager young MFA grads to aspire to. In fact, it’s a rather expensive, inflexible one, and it’s particularly ill-suited to artists whose creative interests lie on both sides of the conventional boundary between commercial and non-profit fare.  We need to embrace flexible new business entities like the L3C and make greater use of tools like fiscal sponsorship that allow ephemeral collaborations to raise charitable dollars. And for those of us running the big honkin’ institutions that aren’t going anywhere anytime soon (that includes you, Rocco), we need to get better at supporting and facilitating this kind of work.


Looking Back Looking Forward 01/05/2011

Filed under: Fertilizer — Megan Helm @ 3:40 am
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Last year, I was so convinced I would have time in my life to devote to my buddy Beethoven. I really wanted to delve into his mighty oeuvre and untangle his complex transitions. But there were too many other men in my life, demanding my attention. Sorry, Ludwig.  Best laid plans and all of that.

I had the partial pleasure of listening to Symphony #9 last night on the local public radio station. His themes rivet me. I’m not ashamed to admit it but those confusing transitional moments when he’s changing keys and winding all over the place…UGH. It really sounds like he doesn’t have a clue where he’s going or where he’ll end up. Of course the bastard does this intentionally to freak out the audience. That’s just how he is and I’m his perfect audience. I fall for it, I get pissed. Then, FINALLY, he remembers what he wanted to say and reveals….another awesome theme. Damn, him!  So, as you can see, my reaction to Beethoven is still the same as it ever was. Love and hate. Just the way he likes it.

2011 is shaping up to be another busy year. I’m trying not to take on too much writing so I have to be judicious. I spent Nov and Dec in bed with pneumonia and I’m just getting back on my feet.

Look for a piece in KCMetropolis in late January on the KC Lyric Opera’s outreach collaboration with the GaDuGi Safe Center in Lawrence, Kansas focusing on female social aggression.

I also have some other stories brewing about American music-bluegrass and contra dancing.

I want to write an editorial piece about taxes, a biography and some theater criticism in an effort to make enough money to apply for a fiction writing program in London so I can finish my damn novel. If I can swing a free trip on the QE2 as some sort of travel writer, my life will be complete. 🙂

What does my family think about all of this? They don’t believe I can do it and therefore don’t pay attention. What do I think about that? I’ll show them! Wish me luck. 🙂

Here’s wishing everyone in the blogosphere a happy, healthy, productive, proactive, gentle and generous 2011.


Flash Mob Phenomenon 12/22/2010

Filed under: Fertilizer — Megan Helm @ 2:24 pm
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It’s everywhere!  People all over the country are covertly organizing and launching themselves on unsuspecting food courts in the name of holiday cheer.  But…is it cheerful? or is it weird?

After watching, in awe, as the participants in the Nov 13 viral you tube video sang a glorious rendition of the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah, I was cheered.  They had sung the chorus immaculately from memory.  Obviously a professional ensemble with top notch talent.

I got an email a few weeks later to join singers from the KC area at Crown Center for the same sort of stunt.  I haven’t been feeling well, so I didn’t go but 450 other singers did.  Armed with their scores they milled about the food court in anticipation.  It was broadcast on all of the local networks and even garnered an interview on…dare I say it…..NPR!

So…is this musical flash mobbing a good thing or glorified busking?  Well, the singers aren’t asking for money…so it isn’t busking from that perspective.  However, most malls, at this time of the year, organize their musical entertainment.  They have stages with legitimate lighting, festooned with garland.  An inconsiderate flash mob could possibly destroy the well laid out plans of mall events organizers.  But….if the flash mob does too much ground work, reserving the space ahead of time and making other arrangements, then it isn’t really a spontaneous event, is it? It would be sanctioned caroling and no longer a deliciously subversive act of musical merriment.

The members of the KC flash mob did an amazing thing.  They mobilized 450 people to come to a shopping mall at Christmas and that has to be good for the economy.  Unfortunately for the poor people in the food court, they were unwittingly forced to listen to a haphazard chorus of eager and enthusiastic church ladies who had little respect for dynamics.  It was loud. There also wasn’t much of an element of surprise.  Passer by’s knew something was up.  The only positive was…the chorus only lasts a few minutes then it’s over. Everyone goes back to their normal lives. The organizer was pressured to continue singing carols by members of the flash mob but she made a good call.  They were there, uninvited, and they need to respect the space for other scheduled performers.  Given an inch, it is better not to take a mile.

Imagine a Holiday season where every five minutes a noisy flash mob descends on shoppers.  Food courts would be full of people “waiting to go on.”  Maybe they would overlap.  There are no formal flash mob rules or codes of conduct.  The country music choir would sing carols next to the classical singers who would have to arrange themselves around Miss Donna’s dancing school of twirling toddlers.  How uncomfortable.

But…what if the chorus’ were sponsored by shops in the mall to stroll around singing carol parodied jingles, just like on the TJ MAXX/Marshalls commercial?   If they were auditioned and well rehearsed, that might actually work to lure people into stores!  Give those unemployed singers some extra cash and discounts!

My personal opinion.  As cute as the flash mobs are to watch on you tube, I hope its just a short lived fad.  I would hate to see the holiday season co-opted by renegade church ladies armed with scores of Messiah.


My few of my favorite musical things 08/29/2010

Filed under: Fertilizer — Megan Helm @ 11:14 pm

1.  NPR Music

I love this site.  It’s like a playground for the musically inclined.  Every genre is represented, folk, jazz, hip hop, pop, rock, classical.   If it’s “trending” in some way, it’s there. Podcasts, video, audio samples, well written and insightful articles, tiny desk concerts,applications, festival reports… NPR music has it all.

I had the pleasure of meeting the director of NPR Music, Anya Grundman, last year in NY for 10 days.  She’s a veteran “sound catcher” from the days when pulling up to a show with a giant audio recorder and mic booms were the only way to capture live music in the field and share it on the airwaves with others.  She encourages her staff to play.  Play music, play with the technology, play with each other and the audience.  There is a sense of joy on this site.  That is why it is one of my all time favorites.

Sign up for their free e-newsletters and enjoy being ahead of the music game.

2.  Instant Encore

I don’t know who is bankrolling this site but it’s a beauty.  Its the Cadillac of classical music websites mixing international performance calendars with social networking.  Applications abound on this site where you can track everyone from Susan Graham to your local orchestra. Create your own profile, chose your favorite performers, presenters and venues, add friends, write reviews of concerts you’ve attended.

Instant Encore is working hard to develop partnerships with local arts organizations and universities in order to aggregate calendar information and concert reviews.   It’s nice to see Classical music treated with the same fanatical attention as sports.

I hope the site populates in a way that allows people from all over the world to begin discussions about  performances.  I think performers will benefit from more feedback.  Classical music is a field where disingenuous and faulty feedback is a problem.  I hope instant encore can roll down the windows, put the top down and shine some much needed light on the interior of classical music.


Beethoven v. Higdon 05/20/2010

It’s been nearly 6 months since I started this blog under the assumption that I would be giving Beethoven a good chunk of my attention this year.   I was convinced that I hadn’t been fair to the old dead guy, I didn’t appreciate him enough and I needed to try harder to understand him. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, Jennifer Higdon has intervened. 

When I picked up my copy of “The Singing Rooms” by Higdon on the final night of the megalith Messiah, I was thrilled.  “Yippee!” I screamed with excitement, “A NEW-ish work by a man-ish WOMAN!”  I didn’t really say that but I was relieved to be working on something I’d never seen or heard before.

So I took a peek.  Hmmmm.  Interesting.   Is this a…..Violin Concerto? Hmmmm.  The voicing looks choppy.  Maybe that’s to accent the significance of the poetry?  OK. That’s weird.  Why would she do THAT?  OMG!  Does she really mean these dynamic markings?  She must.  They are all over the place and so specific.  She can’t really expect us to sing pianissimo when the orchestra is going nuts all around us, can she? Yes she can.  Hmmmm.  Interesting.

So went my initial purusal of the score. 

A week or two into the rehearsal period I was “in HATE” with the piece.  I hated the poetry. It was stupid and I sounded like an idiot singing it.  The imagery seemed disembodied and her setting made it all worse.  I wondered…”How far can a composer deconstruct  line before it loses all meaning.” I was convinced that poetry should NEVER be mistreated by a composer in this way.  Setting already complicated, multilayered poetry to complicated, multilayered music was a really bad idea.  It wouldn’t end up serving anyone, not the orchestra, not the chorus and certainly not the soloist.

Choppy snippets of semi-atonal phrases stitched together by the wild linear violin solo made this piece feel like an Alabama crazy quilt.  Rehearsal was excruciating.  Marvie, our accompanist heroically held up the orchestral reduction so we could have some sonic connection to the overall piece.  Charles grilled each and every consonant and ending so that the text sounded more like Esperanto than English.  Then we were told by Stern to sing it like we mean it.  I had no idea what it all meant.  The poet clearly spent time following the Grateful Dead.  “Once I dressed in luminous dust….” That line alone explains it all.

But then, last night, the miraculous occurred.  Jennifer Koh took the stage with Maestro Stern and the symphony complete with an interesting assortment of percussion filed in.  The piece began. 

So many bits of beauty filled in the empty holes I had gotten used to.  The rests were no longer lonely acres of prime compositional real estate, they were landscapes of rolling triplets, cascades of thirty second notes, flute trills and the most agonizingly georgous English Horn duet with violin.  It started making sense.

I’m glad I stuck it out.  I’m glad I challenged myself and made it to the finish line.  This may not be her best work but it’s damn good. I hope more female composers can rise to the level Jennifer Higdon has.  I’m looking for a portrait of her to place next to my dusty old cardboard composer portraits I hang in my music classroom.  Now…what about bringing back some Ellen Taaffe-Zwilich next season?  More women!
Here’s a nice story about her Symphony #4.


Bill’s Bach 04/17/2010

William McGlaughlin and the Bach Aria Soloists are “Inspired by Bach”

William McGlaughlin is sentimental about Kansas City.  “The look of the town, the rolling hills, the Missouri River and the Flint Hills further out in Kansas, it’s a beautiful place with the nicest people.”  As artistic director and conductor of the Kansas City Symphony from 1986 to 1998 he educated as well an entertained the classical music community with award winning, innovative programming.  “Kansas City is an amazing town for music.”

When I asked Bill McGlauglin, now a resident of New York City, what he’s been doing lately he chuckled, “Bothering musicians.”  Composing, conducting and educating audiences around the world, McGLaughlin’s life is inextricably linked to the players with whom he works.  His latest collaboration brings him back to his old stomping grounds in Kansas City where he will be “hosting” a concert with the Bach Aria Soloists.

As host of the Peabody award winning, St. Paul Sunday Morning, he invited the world’s best musicians into his studio for an intimate chat.  “People want to know how music is done” says McGlaughlin, “and musicians are so articulate.”  He speculates that as teachers, musicians know how to demystify music to make it understandable and McGlaughlin is one of the best teachers in the business.  For over 25 years, McGlaughlin’s unpretentious style broke down the barrier between listener and participant.

His passion for getting to the heart of great music is still as strong as ever.  He has a daily show on WQXR  called Exploring Music where he examines a theme each week and curates a thoughtful collection of insights and inspiring music.  He is also developing a concert series at Bryant Park.  “I’ve been calling up my old friends like Mark O’Connor and the Imani Winds.”  His long time partner and three time Grammy winning jazz artist, Karrin Allyson (who I remember from her gigs at the Phoenix Bar and Grill in the early 1990’s) will also be on board.

Elizabeth Suh Lane, Executive-Artistic director of the Bach Aria Soloists, knew that bringing McGlaughlin back to Kansas City would be an exciting venture.  Celebrating their 10th year of ground-breaking music making, the Bach Aria Soloists built their reputation on being a unimposing and accessible ensemble.  “Our house concerts are an intimate venue where performers and audience can converse.”  The relaxed vibe allows curious concert goers to ask the questions that pop into their minds as they are listening.  “He has such a great style and approach.  He speaks directly to the audience.”

According to Lane, The concert at Village Presbyterian Church will be like sitting in the old St. Paul Sunday Morning studio.  Bill will prepare the listeners and the ensemble will play.  “We’re looking forward to hearing Bill’s engaging stories and anecdotes.   A dialogue can take place onstage.” says Lane.

In addition to pieces by Bach, the program features composers who were influenced by Bach, “Which is just about everyone“she laughs.  Beau Bledsoe will join her for guitar transcriptions of Bach preludes and local favorite Rebecca Lloyd will sing Villa Lobos’ popular Cantilena from his Bachianas Brasileiras. Harpsichordist/organist, Elisa Blickers will be performing and improvisation on a baroque chorale.  Lane will also be performing two movements of the beautiful but excruciatingly difficult, Bartok Solo Sonata for Violin.  “Playing this piece is such a thrill.”

As for Bill McGlaughlin, he’s happy to come back and see old friends. When asked where he thinks Classical music is headed he quickly responds. “It’s exploding.  More people are listening to classical music than ever before.” Technology is helping people access wider varieties of music through on-line radio, iTunes, websites and podcasts.  Applications are invented everyday that help link listeners to classical music.  But listening to the music on-site, with live performers in real time is still a joy to be treasured. Getting to interact and engage in person with the players is priceless.