Wednesday, May 29, 2013

10 ways to celebrate "The Rite of Spring" centennial

It's here. 100 years ago today, Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" debuted in Paris, telling the story of pagan springtime rituals with jagged rhythm and choreography. 100+ theories suggest reasons for the riot that ensued.

You don't want to take any chances with your celebration, because it's going to be a long time before another round number comes up, so you might want to take matters into your own hands. Here are a few humble suggestions to mark the centennial passing of "The Rite."

10. Play a bassoon in an abnormally high range. If you engage in this form of celebration, don't be surprised if you set an ancient pagan ritual in motion.

9. Only travel by stomping.

8. Get down on your hands and knees and kiss the earth.

7. Along with your boos and hisses, bake a cake, put 100 candles in it, and throw it on stage in the riot you start at your nearest theater.

6. Go to France and talk with a Russian accent.

5. Paint some primitivist backdrops for your home.

4. Take time to honor your elders.

3. Dress in something heavy--long skirt, long sleeves, tall boots. If you're worried about being hot, don't worry, you're going to be hot. To truly celebrate, you should be dancing like a maniac.

2. Whether you go to a fortune teller or read the stars, definitely predict the future.

1. Sacrifice a virgin.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

"Sumer is icumen in"

It looks like our cool spring is coming to a close. There's a song for that.

"Sumer is icumen in," or "Summer has come in" exemplifies the 13th-century rota (Latin for "wheel"), something similar to our idea of a canon or round (like "Row, row, row your boat"). It was composed around 1250 in Wessex English, so some words are familiar, but most aren't.

Here's one of many text translations:

   Summer has come in, loudly sing cuckoo!
   The seed grows and the meadow blooms
   And the wood springs anew, sing cuckoo!
   The ewe bleats after the lamb, the cow lows after the calf.
   The bullock stirs, the buck-goat turns, merrily sing cuckoo!
   Cuckoo, cuckoo, well you sing, cuckoo!
   Don't ever you stop now, sing cuckoo now! Sing cuckoo!

Give it a listen as you welcome summer:

Friday, May 24, 2013

My three Bs

Some outdated version of music appreciation taught the grandeur of the three Bs--Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. No offense, boys (except to Brahms: lighten up, buddy), but I'm going to give you my three Bs. These pieces reliably exhilarate me every time I hear them.

In no particular order:

Brubeck's "Unsquare Dance"

Dave Brubeck's playful asymmetrical rhythm brings a freshness to jazz I always crave. There's a great Youtube video of some modernist ho-down choreography, but tragically, the sound has been warped.

Beck: Cell Phones Dead

Beck has always been a favorite, and this song demonstrates everything I like about his music. The coda, in particular, causes a transcendent experience every time I hear it (it shames the coda on "Hey Jude"). If you ask me any of life's daunting questions while the latter half of this song is playing, I can give you a great answer. 

Barber: Violin Concerto, Op. 14

I first heard this concerto in 2009 from a front-row seat at The Philadelphia Orchestra. I bought the ticket cheaply at the last minute, and though a front-row orchestra seat isn't usually ideal, I relished the soloist's proximinity; I could have shined his shoes without standing up. The piece functioned like a soundtrack to the things I was dealing with, lending some semblance of organicism to what felt chaotic on its own.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

North Carolina has seen an 8-percent increase in creative jobs over the past five years

If you're an advocate for creativity and the arts, get ready to be uplifted.

Last week, the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources announced that the Creative Vitality Index (CVI)--a national report that measures the creative economy's health every year--shows an increase of more than 8 percent in creative occupations jobs in North Carolina over the past five years. The creative industry provides almost 320,000 jobs to North Carolinians.

The increase took place in positions including architects, librarians, fine artists, designers, performers, photographers and public relations specialists.

Here are the CVI's specific findings for North Carolina:

  • Creative industries are directly and indirectly responsible for almost 320,000 full-time, part-time and sole-proprietor jobs. This figure represents 6 percent of North Carolina's overall workforce. These creative industry jobs generate over $12 billion in wages, salaries and benefits--$2 billion more than the impact four years ago.
  • The number of jobs in creative occupations increased by more than 8 percent over the past five years to 137,225 total creative jobs. This figure represents nearly 3 percent of the state's workforce. Between 2010 and 2011 our state gained 6,833 creative full-time, part-time and sole-proprietor positions in creative occupations.
  • Creative industries in North Carolina generate more than $18 billion in revenues and more than $7 billion in exports.
You can view the 2013 Creative North Carolina fact sheet here.

Monday, May 20, 2013

The assault

As I write this, about 1,000 cyclists from around the world are huffing it up the tallest mountain east of the Mississippi River.

The annual Assault on Mt. Mitchell, a 102.7-mile ride, began at 6:30 this morning in Spartanburg, S.C., ending at Mount Mitchell's peak--that's an elevation of 6,683 feet.

The pros finish in about five hours. I know a guy who once took 12 (talk about masochism), and if I remember correctly, he was the last finisher.

The ride contains 11,000 feet of climbing--4,000 in the first 70 miles and 7,000 in the last 30. Check out this graphic half way down the page to make sure you're properly impressed. Whether first or last, cyclists usually take the same amount of time to ride the first 70 miles as they do the last 30.

Several hundred riders signed up for The Assault on Mt. Marion, stopping at the 70-mile point, a respectable ride no matter who you ask. They have barbecue and showers at Marion's summit--who in their right mind would agree to ride 30 more vertical miles?

So if you know someone who has ridden either assault today, or if you see any sweaty people in spandex looking tired, think about how many miles you didn't ride today and give them a pat on the back.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Charlotte's Children Choir and Charlotte Folk Society join forces for "The Great American Folk Song" event

This Saturday, the Charlotte Children's Choir teams up with the Charlotte Folk Society for a concert featuring "The Great American Folk Song." The Descant, Treble, Lyric and Concert choirs will perform traditional songs and folk harmonies with a string band. The folk society will provide musicians on the guitar, banjo, fiddle, bass and mandolin.

When: 3 p.m. on Saturday, May 18
Where: Matthews United Methodist Church, 801 S. Trade St., Matthews, NC
Tickets: $8-$10; 704-372-1000 or

The Charlotte Children's Choir is a nonprofit organization that provides music education to Charlotte's youth, ages 8-18. Their education is performance based.

The Charlotte Folk Society, conceived in 1982, preserves and promotes the traditional folk arts in the Piedmont region, including music, crafts, dance and folklore.

With such a rich regional musical history, this should be a great concert!

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

A new batch of artists at McColl

McColl Center for Visual Art has seven new affiliate artists. On Tuesday night, they each introduced their work. Here's what they shared:

  • Jason Watson's (drawing, printmaking) work has these elements in common: they're on paper, they include bodies or figures and collage and found materials usually play a role. Watson likes to spend time in museums or thrift stores that have carved busts--he sketches the heads and later incorporates them into his work.
  • Linda Luise Brown (painting) creates abstract, colorful, non-representation paintings. A lot of her process is spent priming her canvas so that her starting surface resembles an older material. Her paintings hint towards landscape, though she has "dissolved" the edges of any noticeable shapes.
  • Virginia (G.H.) Boyd (mixed media, printmaking) said she makes art to exercise things from her head. She makes pieces profiling women mavericks in the South, contradicting the fragile and dim-witted stereotype that goes along with the Southern Belle.
  • Natalie Bork (mixed media) takes inspiration from an Italian tradition of carving into glass. She creates a similar feel by layer paint onto pieces of metal and carving the surface, revealing the layers of color. She also embraces wabi sabi, the Japanese aesthetic that fixates on imperfections.
  • Natalie Abrams (encaustic) uses a wax-based substance to explore the dimension between painting and sculpture. Often on plywood, she combines ribbons of wax with pools of it, creating a topography reminiscent of the ocean floor. 
  • Jennifer Parham Giloman (drawing, painting, mixed media) looks at how memory defines who we think we are in her work. She often uses figures in domestic materials--wallpaper, fabric--to represent loss, layering or excising parts of pastoral scenes.
  • Aspen Hochhalter (photography) explores wet-plate collodion, a photographic process from the mid nineteenth century. She experiments by pigmenting her photographs with the ash from burned photos or hair.
Charlotte can look forward to the work these artists produce during their time in McColl's studio space.

Monday, May 13, 2013

An ode to my dumbphone

This weekend, an uncooperative charging port in my four-year-old phone forced me to join the ranks of every other journalist in this country: I now own a smartphone.

Unsure what to do with a dead phone incapable of being charged, I put it on my dresser. Leaving the house this morning, I felt traitorous as I picked up the iPhone instead of the LG. The old phone facilitated elements of almost all the relationships and exchanges I've had over the past four years, including a transition to journalism and dozens of subsequent interviews. In gratitude, I give you some high points:

  • Last summer, I interviewed Dame Stella Rimington, former director general of MI5 and author of seven spy novels. You know when James Bond movies introduced a female M? Judi Dench's character was based on Rimington. I was petrified to talk to her, a situation made worse by a phone problem in the newsroom and inclement weather; with nowhere to go, I huddled with my dumbphone under a squatty awning and asked her what she thought of M's management style. She felt M tolerated far too much erratic behavior from Mr. Shaken-not-stirred.
  • Two weekends ago, I texted a bass who sings for the Metropolitan Opera. He arranged for me to take a backstage tour of the Met and see "Das Rheingold," one of my all-time favorites. Amazing.
  • A year ago, I called violinist Geoff Nuttall to discuss his thoughts on the chamber music series at Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, S.C. As the series director, Nuttall may be America's greatest ambassador for chamber/classical music--he demystifies and humanizes an art form padded in pretension without diminishing its quality; his audiences laugh and listen in equal parts.
  • As I worked on a musicology master's thesis at Florida State, I cried over the Kafkaesque cruelty of academia on my phone--graciously, the moisture didn't cause the keys to stick. I also used it to call my parents and tell them I'd passed my thesis defense, and then again to say I was withdrawing from the doctoral program to pursue arts journalism. I called when I got into the journalism graduate program I would later attend.
  • I interviewed author Roger Rosenblatt about his friendship with and admiration for Norman Lear and his writing. Glorious. I have loved Rosenblatt for a long time.
  • Also at Spoleto Festival USA, I talked to conductor John Kennedy about the last American John Cage debut. All of Cage's work has now been heard in the U.S. On the same concert, the orchestra played a piece by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood.
  • Just a few weeks ago, I talked with composer Carlisle Floyd, who wrote "Ain't it a pretty night," one of my favorite arias. Our conversation illuminated a startling number of similarities between us: we're both from rural towns in South Carolina; we both attended Converse College; We both attended Syracuse University; we both lived in Tallahassee; and for about a week, we were both in Charlotte simultaneously. The last one is pretty unimpressive, but look at all our other parallels!

I will talk to other artists on my new phone, and--bonus--I will check my email and get directions to exhibits or concert halls. Even so, my old LG will probably remain on my dresser for a few months, reminding me of all the great conversations I've been happy to have.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

This one goes out to all the mothers

In honor of mothers, and the debt we children can never repay. Give this a watch, you won't be sorry:

Billy Collins reads his poem, "The Lanyard."

Friday, May 10, 2013

24 hours of Beethoven

In a graduate seminar on Beethoven's ninth symphony I took at Florida State, I learned about Leif Inge, a Norwegian artist who slowed a recording of the iconic work down so it stretched over 24 hours. He called it 9 Beet Stretch. But a clever name does not a clever project make.

My sadistic professor made us listen to about 45 minutes of it in a room with no windows--probably so we wouldn't have the opportunity to hurl ourselves out of them.

The work was performed about a dozen times in its entirety, and in those performances, only about a dozen people ever sat through the whole thing.

I can only imagine that anyone listening to 9 Beet Stretch would feel a sense of urgency, mentally fighting the sound, trying to push it along. At least in the first few hours. Maybe something more comes later, maybe there's a revelation at the eighth or seventeenth hour, but I will never know. And it's not because I can't endure things of great length--I love the "Ring" cycle.

My physical reaction is one thing, but intellectually, I still don't support it--and I can acknowledge that there's some carry over from the former. I'm not a purist, so I would never say something shouldn't be done because "that's not how the composer intended it." All I can do is tell you why I hate it. There are small moments in the music that Inge bloated by drawing them out. They still have the same proportionate relationship to the big moments, but you would never know it. You can't discern the small and the big in this form; honestly, I don't think you could discern the voices from the violins. This project neutralizes the hills and valleys, and who wants that?

The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra will close their season this weekend with Beethoven's ninth symphony. I'm really looking forward to the normal tempo.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Beethoven and rape. What?

The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra will conclude their season this weekend with the perpetually popular "Symphony No. 9" by everyone's favorite deaf, disheveled German.

In graduate school, I took a seminar on Beethoven's ninth symphony taught by a reception historian. We looked at all the ways communities and people used the iconic music to illustrate or symbolize something. The spectrum is quite wide for a well-known work like the ninth.

Feminist musicologist Susan McClary, for instance, felt that Beethoven's joyful symphony told a more violent story--one of rape. In a 1987 issue of the Minnesota Composers Forum Newsletter, McClary wrote, "The point of recapitulation in the first movement of the Ninth is one of the most horrifying movements in music, as the carefully prepared cadence is frustrated, damming up energy which finally explodes in the throttling murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release."

That's not what you hear?

Here's some context: different parts of a musical piece function like characters. The key a piece of music is in--or the note that sounds most like home--is one team. There's also a second team, and the different components of each team follow certain conventions in their interaction (like people!)--for instance, the chief key usually starts the piece, and it certainly ends it. Somewhere between the beginning and the end, that key persuades members of the opposing team to the other side. This is a crude explanation, but the point is that music (not all music, but this is narrative music) has a drama that's determined by the way the chords work together.

McClary is arguing that the second team is not being persuaded, and the first team is forcing the exchange.

And here's the thing: she's not wrong. You can see the music that way--it's true that the chords interact in a way that mimics rape. But in order to agree with her, you have to be willing to put on her glasses.

When McClary published her assessment of the ninth symphony, many people thought she had taken up residence in a cuckoo clock. That's not what I believe, but I don't choose to see it the way she sees it. It's valid, but I'm not interested in that particular reading (sometimes I wonder if she saw the film "A Clockwork Orange" and decided not to put on Stanley Kubrick's irony glasses).

That's what's so great about narrative music: you can hear so many different things in it. It's incredibly versatile. Maybe the reason Beethoven's ninth symphony is so popular is because of its versatility. Yes, it's beautiful, but lots of beautiful music is stranger to the ears that know the ninth. Its relevance to so many stories, and therefore lives, could be the factor responsible for its iconic status.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Technology and art: New York City edition

After seeing how Charlotte combines technology and art, I decided to see how New York does it.

On May 4, I saw Robert Lepage's production of "Das Rheingold" at the Metropolitan Opera. The first of four installments in Wagner's "Ring of the Nibelung," the show uses a machine as the set: long, rotating panels that can flatten into a stage or rise into a vertical spiral staircase, covered with screens. The production has been critically lambasted and flogged, not only for a failed vision, but for the failed vision's expense. The Met spent $16 million on the production, including reinforcements for the stage; it couldn't hold the 40-ton set.

"In their fetishization of technological brilliance at the expense of just about everything else," wrote The Boston Globe's Jeremy Eichler, "Lepage's productions remain a chilling, cautionary tale."

The New Yorker's Alex Ross wrote that “pound for pound, ton for ton, it is the most witless and wasteful production in modern operatic history.”


They're not wrong. Even if you put aside the fact that the thing fails artistically, it's an obstacle to the singers--two of them unintentionally slid down the tilted panels during Saturday's production, which is not an uncommon occurrence. Again, yikes!

But there were plenty of beautiful moments, many of them enhanced by the machine (A lesson I've learned recently: actively lowering your expectations can do wonders for your experience. Too pessimistic?). The opening, for instance, shows the panels rippling against a blue horizon, creating the surface of the Rhine River. Slow, undulating waves gave way to the Rhinemaidens (mermaids) swimming through air as bubbles floated from their mouths on the panel screens. When Wotan and Loge trekked to Mime's lair, they went by the machine's vertical stairs suspended in the air, resembling a double helix; they were suspended from cables as they walked on the vertical surface--if it were a movie, the camera would have been in the ceiling. This highlights video shows the machine. Don't ask me why the opera highlights video doesn't have any singing in it...

I don't know how to reconcile my knowledge that the set was not worth the money with the stunning experience I had. I'm so intoxicated by Wagner's music, and we all know the story is a hit (J.R.R. Tolkien used the same mythology to form "The Lord of the Rings"). And that's not a bad outcome, making your audience weigh and contemplate for days to come. Check out the most famous snippet from the "Ring:"

"Ride of the Valkyries" from Robert Lepage's controversial production of Wagner's "Ring" cycle at the Metropolitan Opera.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Music for May

For years, I’ve associated the month of May with Debussy’s “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair.”

I learned this two-page piano piece in the ninth grade. Like any musician, I remember certain lessons in the context of the piece that taught it to me. For instance, I remember the Chopin nocturne that taught me to play three beats against four and I remember the etude that taught me that you don’t have to play as fast as you can—that was Debussy, too.

“The Girl with the Flaxen Hair” taught me about the depth of beauty that lies just after the bright-eyed ambition deflates—when newness has worn off, but before cynicism shows up. This is how May feels. In the scope of a year, May begins the second third, spring is in motion, and things have settled without becoming stale. The brand of beauty in Debussy’s piece identifies that feeling May gives me.

Have a listen. The intoxicating chord is at 1:47.