MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Paying Attention


light-bulbAccording to the sociologist Frank Furedi in a recent essay for Aeon, today’s anxiety about not being able to focus is just another manifestation of a long-standing pattern:

The first time inattention emerged as a social threat was in 18th-century Europe, during the Enlightenment, just as logic and science were pushing against religion and myth. The Oxford English Dictionary cites a 1710 entry from Tatler as its first reference to this word, coupling inattention with indolence; both are represented as moral vices of serious public concern.


Often the failure to inspire and capture the imagination of young people is blamed on their inattentive state of minds. Too often educators have responded to this condition by adopting a fatalistic approach of accommodating to the supposed inattentive reading practices of digital natives

I found another curious term for distraction: “leaky sensory gating,” as used in a study from Northwestern University examining “why the inability to shut out competing sensory information while focusing on the creative project at hand might have been so acute for geniuses such as Proust, Franz Kafka, Charles Darwin, Anton Chekhov and many others.”

Filed under: education

A German Maverick: Lachenmann’s Concertini

Getting to encounter the latest crop of Lucerne Festival Academy students is always inspiring, but tonight’s concert included an especially thrilling discovery. With the composer in the house, the Academy players performed Helmut Lachenmann’s Concertini, which was given its world premiere at Lucerne nine years ago.

In a brief interview with Mark Sattler, the Festival’s new music dramaturg, Lachenmann made some very interesting observations, his Swabian accent reinforcing the no-BS, down-to-earth perspective of this genuine German maverick. He noted the difference between safe, unchallenging “listening” (when we’re looking for the same old dependable emotional reactions in a piece of music) and actively “observing” a musical landscape — which also leads us to observe something about ourselves. And he declared he doesn’t think of himself as a poet but as someone working with instruments and sounds as “objects.”

The phrase “risk-taker” gets thrown around a lot in new music circles, to the point of irrelevance, but Lachenmann is a great model for the guts behind that overused label. Though they are several universes apart, in a way his attitude reminds me of the radicalism of Harrison Birtwistle.

About the aesthetic principle in works like Concertini, Lachenmann writes:

From the beginning I have been concerned not just with ‘noisiness’ and alienation but with transformation and revelation, with real ‘consonance’ in the widest sense, so that rhythm, gesture, melody, intervals, harmony — every sound and everything sounding — is illuminated by its changed context.

The concertante arrangement allows an ever-shifting balance between accompanying, disguising, covering, uncovering, counterpointing, how and where transformation occurs, every aspect of this ad hoc collection of sound categories: explorers in a self-perpetuating labyrinth, yet fixed in a rigid time-frame; searching an overgrown garden for …

Filed under: composers, education, new music

National Youth Orchestra: Season 2


The National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America has just launched its second season. Tomorrow brings the NYO to Carnegie Hall for its official debut there, with a program of music by Bernstein, Britten (Gil Shaham soloing in the Violin Concerto). Mussorgsky, and a newly commissioned orchestral piece by Samuel Adams. David Robertson is serving as the NYO’s conductor this year.

For the new season I wrote a feature that appears in the Summer 2014 issue of Listen: Life with Classical Music:

It’s a ploy that always generates controversy: announce the death of “classical music” (however you define it), furnish your obituary with a sauce of ominous statistics and watch your site traffic explode. Another death knell hit the blogosphere and Twitterverse this January, courtesy of a Slate article titled “Requiem: Classical Music in America Is Dead,” which came illustrated with a gray-haired conductor stationed in front of a tombstone. Predictably, the piece triggered a raft ofindignant but thoughtful counterarguments in response.

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Filed under: American music, commissions, education, essay

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