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Architecture Dancing

Last year my friend Peter Flint, the composer and Director of Avian Orchestra, called to commission These Inflected Tentacles, as part of a program on Botony he was putting together called “Vegetative States.” I was thrilled to do it, as my first piece for them, The Vinyl Six (for a program centering on rock-based chamber music) had turned into one of my more successful chamber pieces, getting performed maybe once or twice a season since Avian had recorded it. For a self-published chamber piece with a sax and an electric guitar in it, this qualifies as an enormous hit. So I set off to write, and came back with a piece for a mixed quartet structured in four short movements, based on some quotes I had culled from Darwin’s Insectivorous Plants: a book I had happily stumbled on when I started looking at stuff about carnivorous plants.

But Peter’s program was packed with new music, and the players (all exceptional, busy NY freelancers) ended up having too much brand new and complicated stuff to learn for the show. So we performed the first two movements only. They could have probably played three, but the issue was actually the last movement, a 2-minute Barn Burner with a hellofalotofnotes.

Ending on the third (slowest, and easily playable) movement would have sounded kind of weird, so we went with the first two. In retrospect I probably should have re-ordered them or something to make three happen, but for some reason that didn’t occur to me at the time.

Last month composer Armando Bayolo‘s hot DC-based new music group, Great Noise Ensemble played the whole thing, essentially “premiering” the full 10-minute piece. Having just moved cross-country I couldn’t swing getting there. But Armando sent me some reviews.

Now, reviews are tricky. I enjoy reading them. I enjoy writing them. And I enjoy receiving them (well, good ones). But music criticism is a skinny balance beam. Composers need reviews: to promote their stuff, to validate their hard work, to be part of a community’s artistic conversation, etc… but arts criticism is, and likely always has been, a mixed bag. There are the exceptional critics who really know how to do exactly that kind of writing and make it a true and necessary part of the artistic life of a city or region (Berlioz, or Thomson, or Alex Ross), but in general, there is the occasional brilliant and/or incisive commentary on one end of the spectrum, and what I would call the “non-review review” on the other. The non-review review goes a little something like this:

A concert happened. [Ensemble] premiered [composer]‘s [adjective] [title]. [Performer] performed it [adverb].

And all the qualities of writing in-between. Which is really most of what happens: a serviceable yet important accounting of The Arts in a particular community.

But then there’s the thorny relationship of the composer to the reviews. Sure, there are composers who narcissistically and slavishly follow every word ever written about them. But then again, when I used to work at a music publisher about 100 years ago, I was instructed to never mention reviews to a particular composer in the catalog, even if they were positive, because as a rule he NEVER read reviews. Which is quite laudable. Of course I never believed it for a second. It’s just too tempting as an obsession. I mean, I studied with a composer who used to take his dog out every day to the same corner, specifically to piss on The New York Times newspaper box that resided there.

I, of course, sit smack dab in the large grey area, as a big honkin’ hypocrite. I’ve counseled friends to not give negative reviews a second thought because it’s all bulltwiddle, and I’ve congratulated them when they’ve received good ones. I’ve greedily grabbed quotes from good notices for myself, and bitched about receiving my own non-review reviews. Honestly, for me, we’re not talking about a huge sample. So in light of what I’ve said above, it’s the proverbial blessing/curse.

But there’s a persistent attribute I’ve noticed in music reviews. One composers tend to ignore. Usually?…usually…the review is kind of right.

Obviously, there is the ocassional axe to grind. Thus, dogs peeing on newspaper boxes on street corners. But whenever I’ve attended the same concert as a (generally respected) working music critic, and that critic has chosen to actually express an opinion about what they saw and heard (as opposed to deciding on turning in a non-review review), I’ve pretty much agreed with what was written. Almost always.

So I saw two reviews for my piece in DC last month. And they were what one calls, “mixed”. Both said some some nice things about my music, and both pointed out a problem with the piece. And they both pointed out the same problem. And they are both totally right.

An appealing new quartet by Jonathan Newman kicked off the concert. It’s titled, unforgettably, “These Inflected Tentacles.” It’s a dicey-sounding title, but the work is actually built on Charles Darwin’s 19th-century accounts of dropping glass, hair and other bits of stuff into Venus’ flytraps (back when science was fun!) to see how they would react.

Newman’s piece turned out to be very engaging, if more gentle and dance-like than carnivorous. It was hard to escape the “under-rehearsed” feeling, though: The players were shunted to auditory Siberia on the distant left edge of the stage, the title of the wrong piece was projected over them in big letters and the music’s rhythmic difficulties — the meter seemed to shift every bar or so — required a conductor just to hold the four musicians together. The performance never really felt sure of itself, and the electricity never quite flowed.

-Stephen Brookes, The Washington Post, October 21, 2012

And this one, from blogger Noah Mlotek:

The program began with These Inflected Tentacles, a quartet by Jonathan Newman (b. 1972) for marimba, piano, violin, and cello, in its first complete performance. Each of the piece’s four movements was titled with a decontextualized quotation from Charles Darwin’s Insectivorous Plants, in which the scientist luridly recounted his experiments on meat-eating flora. The music seemed too breezy and lighthearted for having supposedly been inspired by descriptions of “experimentation ranging from the curious to the cruel,” as described in Newman’s program note. Since there was really no apparent connection between music and quotes, that was easy to ignore while taking in the piece’s soaring lines and elfishly shifting rhythms. The Great Noise musicians negotiated these adeptly, though at times the performance felt like an effortful mad dash rather than a carefree romp.

IONARTS, October 22, 2012

Zeroing in on only the criticism of the music itself, my take-home is a general sense that the music does not match the Darwin quotes. And the thing is, it kind of doesn’t. At least, not obviously. This realization was, in fact, my sole torture as I was writing the thing. I knew that the sound world that was snowballing successively in the movements as I wrote them, was way more pleasant, way more lyrical, than my original intentions when I pulled out those quotes.

But I learned long ago that you really should just let the music do what it wants to do. Sure, you can fight it. You can try to reel it back in and force it into your original plan. But don’t. Just let the thing go the way it wants to go. It might not be the same as you had originally intended—maybe it will be even be better! But probably not. It doesn’t matter, because it will be more truthful. I say this every once in a while to students, or in presentations and such: the composer should listen to the piece as it’s being written. It often tells you how to proceed.

This kind of froofy touchy-feely-granola stuff doesn’t come out of me very often. I mean, you’re currently reading a guy who rolls his eyes at any utterance of the word, “Inspiration”. But I believe this wholeheartedly. In this case, though, the result seems to be a disconnect. At least on first impression. And it’s a disconnect I was aware of while writing, which makes me particularly uncomfortable. But I “went with it”, as they say, and whether I was deluding myself or not, I ultimately decided that there were less “obvious” ways of thinking about carnivorous plants and scientific dickering with them, and this piece leaned more in those directions.

And so, the critics called it out. Which is heartening. It means my ears work fine, as I heard the problem, too. But I stand by my letting the piece organically “take over”, and not forcing it back to a more instantly-realized-expression of the quotes. If I had fought it, I’m fairly certain the thing wouldn’t have been described as “an appealling new quartet”.

Which is totally what I will snip out for my ‘press quotes’ page.

Great Noise Ensemble performs These Inflected Tentacles again tomorrow night at 7:30 pm, The Catholic University of America, Ward Hall, 3976 Harewood Rd NE, Washington, DC.

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  1. Jonathan-

    You are quite right about the two extremes of concert reviews. The ones that simply account for the pieces played, the names of the soloists and guest conductor, and the size of the audience are worthless other than having a public written record that the concert actually happened. The ones that have an axe to grind tell us more about the reviewer than the reviewees (this can be either maddening or hilarious, but not helpful to anyone but the reviewer’s ego). Years ago (probably equivalent to your 100 years since working for a publisher), as a grad student, I was hired by the local big city paper as a concert reviewer. They clearly wanted me to write reviews of the first variety (even asking me to get and include the exact house count for the Symphony concerts). Idealist that I was, I had loftier goals for my reviews:
    1. Say something about the MUSIC itself (especially if this was a concert that was to be repeated)
    2. Say something about the HISTORY of that music
    3. Present an honest take on how the performance went, but without trying to ruin anyone’s career

    In general, I wanted to use the review as an opportunity to (gasp) teach the reader something about what went down. This probably falls somewhere in the middle of your review spectrum, but I did what I could. This was not always easy. Sometimes I only had an hour or two to write the review for the next morning’s paper. Sometimes I only had 6 inches to work with to say what I wanted to say (newspapers measure the size of the story in print inches, not in word-count). Often the ‘profound’ responses I had to a concert were severely edited before they reached print (which occasionally actually changed the meaning of what I wrote). Ideally, I would have a day or two to write the review, to really ponder what I had heard (and this after spending a day or two PREPARING before the concert, making sure I knew the standard rep well enough to say something intelligent about it). Thoughtful criticism takes time to ponder and construct (eg – Alex Ross). That’s certainly not what my editors were after! But I do have a healthy admiration for those people who do take the time to write thoughtfully about the listening experience and who can maintain an openness to new musical experiences. Sometimes they really are the bridge between us and our potential audience…

    Posted on 08-Nov-12 at 11:03 AM | Permalink
  2. Ditch the quotes?

    Posted on 08-Nov-12 at 8:07 PM | Permalink

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