MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Sila: New Music from John Luther Adams

The composer John Luther Adams has been very much on my mind since I conducted a lengthy interview with him shortly after Seattle Symphony brought his Pulitzer Prize-winning Become Ocean to Carnegie Hall in May.
(Stay tuned for my feature devoted to that commission and the world of JLA in the upcoming fall issue of Listen magazine.)

I couldn’t make it to the recent world premiere of JLA’s site-determined piece Sila: The Breath of the World co-presented by Lincoln Center Out of Doors as part of the Mostly Mozart Festival, but I’m eager to encounter it next spring when it will be performed in my old hometown by co-commissioner Washington Performing Arts.

Here’s a vicarious take on Sila from a roundup of reviews I’ve seen:

In “Sila,” as in many such happenings, music is less a finished product than an activity; it both interacts with and creates a space. In the limpid air of a New York summer, it was a sound garden, embracing a multiplicity of narratives as people variously sat in the dappled shade of a stand of trees, or sipped drinks under cafe umbrellas, or talked quietly, or played with their kids, or paced the plaza looking for new viewpoints and that elusive orchestral balance.

–Anne Midgette in The Washington Post

The composer translates the Inuit title of the piece this way: “Sila is the wind and the weather, the forces of nature. But it’s also something more. Sila is intelligence. It’s consciousness. It’s our awareness of the world around us, and the world’s awareness of us.” Even with the buzz of Manhattan so close, Adams and his musicians created a work of music, and of theater, that encouraged listeners to look both deeply inward and out into an imaginary expanse far beyond Hearst Plaza.

–Anastasia Tsioulcas for NPR

[A]s the music evolved, it gained in body and density, though not exactly volume. Choirs of reedy woodwinds and delicate, sometimes scratchy string sounds permeated the space. At times “Sila” was like music depicting continental drift. Halfway through, melodic fragments seemed to emerge, though these were often just instruments rising up the harmonic series.

–Anthony Tommasini in The New York Times

In endeavoring to have the music become part of nature, and vice versa, Mr Adams encourages an open-minded and thoughtful kind of listening. The listeners sat on the ground between and in front of the musicians and, farther back, underneath a grove of trees. A garbage truck growled in the distance; birds chirruped nearby. These unscheduled sounds mingled with Mr Adams’ clouds of sound as they gradually merged and evaporated and grew, letting some motifs imprint themselves and fossilize in our minds.

–Rebecca Lentjes for Bachtrack

JLA’s focus on the note B-flat and its overtones is a fascinating choice. Apparently B-flat has the honor of representing “the lowest note in the universe”, according to the astronomer Andrew Fabian at the Institute for Astronomy at Cambridge University in England in this 2003 report from Dennis Overbye:

Astronomers say they have heard the sound of a black hole singing. And what it is singing, and perhaps has been singing for more than two billion years, they say, is B-flat — a B-flat 57 octaves lower than middle C.

Filed under: American music, commissions, John Luther Adams

Roald Dahl at Work

From an interview with Todd McCormack in 1988 (two years before his death):

When you’re writing, it’s rather like going on a very long walk, across valley and mountains and things, and you get the first view of what you see and you write it down.

Then you walk a bit further, maybe onto the top of a hill, and you see something else. Then you write that and you go on like that, day after day, getting different views of the same landscape really.

The highest mountain on the walk is obviously the end of the book, because it’s got the be the best view of all, when everything comes together and you can look back and see everything you’ve done all ties up. But it’s a very, very long, slow process.

Filed under: creativity

Alien Earworm

I’ve been working on a note for Howard Hanson’s most-popular composition — the Symphony No. 2 (“Romantic”) from 1930, a Boston Symphony commission (same vintage as Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms).
And this is an earworm I cannot dispel (the second theme from the first movement, which cycles back several times later on):

So what is it that makes for an earworm?

Filed under: American music

People Who Need People

MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Carthage in Berlioz's Les Troyens: ROH production by David McVicar (photo: Cooper) Carthage in Berlioz’s Les Troyens: ROH production by David McVicar (photo: Cooper)

The science journalist Ed Yong sums up two recent studies showing the significance of social interconnection:

Now, two teams of scientists have independently shown that the strength of this cumulative culture depends on the size and interconnectedness of social groups. Through laboratory experiments, they showed that complex cultural traditions — from making fishing nets to tying knots — last longer and improve faster at the hands of larger, more sociable groups.

Psychologist Joe Henrich, lead author of one of the studies, brings up the implications of these findings for the Internet era:

“Innovations like literacy, writing and mail allowed us to access the thoughts of people in distant places and times,” says Henrich. “Extend that to the Internet, and things should only speed along even more.”

Jong points out an additional issue suggested by the two studies:…

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Filed under: Uncategorized

How the Other 1% Lives


A friend of mine unearthed this job posting on Craigslist:

Writer Needed For Support Community for Affluent Individuals

Special community for people who have earned a lot of money or been born into a wealthy family needs a blog ghostwriter. The focus of the community is providing psychological support for the problems money brings — family tensions, unfulfillable expectations, boredom, etc. To do this you must be intimately familiar with the problems faced by wealthy people. If you grew up wealthy or through some other means can write detailed blog posts on this topic, please get in touch.

The posts need to be highly personal, emotional and have a strong editorial voice. These are anything but generic lectures. We are looking for 3 posts per week and each post pays $30. If you’re interested, please send a cover letter telling us about your background and experience and why you would be a good writer for this. If a resume would be helpful please send that as well. Finally, please send a few suggested topics so we can see that you really can come up with specific topics which touch the hearts of people from affluent families. Thanks!

(hat tip: Ben Lukoff.)

I should assume this is a parody, right?

Filed under: fun



Fearless chipmunk: between people and precipice (a view from Tiger Mountain).

Filed under: photography

A New Look at New Romanticism

Jacob Druckman in 1986; photo by Irene Haupt

Jacob Druckman in 1986; photo by Irene Haupt

This summer’s 65th anniversary season of the Aspen Music Festival is keyed to the theme of “The New Romantics.” Here’s the feature essay I wrote on current manifestations of “New Romanticism”:

In the summer of 1983, the composer Jacob Druckman triggered something of a mild shockwave in the musical world by programming a festival interrogatively titled “Music Since 1968: A New Romanticism?” This would be the first of two annual new-music festivals that Druckman curated around the rubric of “New Romanticism.” Both were given by the New York Philharmonic during his tenure as the orchestra’s composer-in-residence.

Druckman’s manifesto-like essay introducing the program declared that “the tide began to change” among composers during the mid-1960s, and that amid the profusion of recent new works could be discerned “a gradual change of focus, or spirituality, and of goals.”

He adapted Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous dichotomy of the logical, rational “Apollonian” versus the ecstatic “Dionysian” as representatives of the polar impulses driving creativity (both gods, it’s perhaps helpful to recall from ancient Greek mythology, being sons of Zeus and thus half-brothers). The recent tidal shift, argued Druckman, was toward the “Dionysian qualities” of “sensuality, mystery, nostalgia, ecstasy, transcendency. Whether this new music will be called ‘Neo-Romantic’ or some other term is yet to be seen….”

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Filed under: aesthetics, American music, Aspen, style

Summernight Music


Filed under: photography

A Salute to Tobias Picker

Tobias Picker

The American composer Tobias Picker turned 60 this month — another to add to the list of composers born in July (Henze, Gluck, Janáček, Mahler, Unsuk Chin, Birtwistle).

The revised version of his opera An American Tragedy opened on Sunday in a new production directed by the wonderful Peter Kazaras — not a bad way to celebrate a milestone birthday.

I had the privilege of writing the program essay for Glimmerglass:

In an interview from 1927 — two years after “An American Tragedy” was published —Theodore Dreiser’s fellow mid-Westerner F. Scott Fitzgerald praised the novel as “without doubt the greatest American book that has appeared in years.” It’s a judgment that Tobias Picker’s father Julian heartily affirmed when the composer was growing up. “This was his favorite book by his favorite writer,” recalls the composer. “My father even had a signed original edition from 1925.”

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Since no videos of the revised version are available yet, here’s a taste of the Met premiere from 2005:

Filed under: American opera, composers

Apollo 11

This week marks the 45th anniversary of the first human moon landing via Apollo 11: on July 20, 1969, at 20:18 UTC (unless you’re a conspiracy theorist who believes the event was staged — possibly also buying into the claim that the temperature on Mars “disproves” the reality of human-caused climate change).

So in this week filled with depressing reminders of humanity’s dark side and cruelty, reminding ourselves of our greatest aspirations seems more needful than ever.

Discovery offers this trove of rare photos from inside Apollo 11. is paying tribute to this historic anniversary with a retrospective including memories from Buzz Aldrin, an Apollo quiz, historic photos, “scariest moments,” and more.

For the 40th anniversary in 2009, the Telegraph compiled a list of music (mostly pop) inspired by the moon. Oddly, Holst’s The Planets is mentioned (none of its movements is devoted to the moon), but these are omitted:

–the “Song to the Moon” from Dvořák’s opera Rusalka
–Haydn’s opera buffa Il mondo della luna
–Bellini! Norma’s prayer to the moon (“Casta diva”) or the arietta “Vaga luna”:

Filed under: science

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