Sunday, November 13, 2011

Finnegan's Hat

When Dylan Mattingly first introduced me to violinist Finnegan Shanahan, Shanahan was wearing a hat.  He and Mattingly conferred about whether he should wear it during the Contemporaneous concert that night, and they decided:  no hat.

The hat was back at the November 11, 2011, concert, and Shanahan—not to mention every other performer—was in fine form.  (As Shanahan explained, for the earlier event, he was playing as part of a larger ensemble, so the hat would have stuck out.)

The reasons why it’s so exciting to see and hear Contemporaneous in live performance are legion; Shanahan in performance (with hat or without), is one, and I’ll come back to that.  But first, as I continually puzzle over why listening to the work of twenty-first century composers and performers is so particularly thrilling, I want to say something about that.

After all, I’m definitely of the “trousers rolled” set, and there’s plenty of music going back centuries that has me tightly in its grasp (starting with The Sixteen singing Pérotin and continuing on to that young upstart, Johann Sebastian Bach).  I can easily slip off into the world of nineteenth and early twentieth century composers—Ravel and Sibelius, to name just two—and linger there a long, long while.

My first foray into contemporary classical music was accidental:  my mate once met a fellow named John Metcalf when he was a music student in Wales, and, one day, while surfing the internet for music to load on the iPod, looked him up to see “if he’d made anything of himself.”  Well, he had:  his piece, Mapping Wales, captured our imaginations—perhaps particularly mine.  That piece, along with many others of Metcalf’s works, remains among those I turn to often, and he never, ever disappoints. 

Of that, I’ve written about copiously elsewhere, but here’s the point right now:  What Metcalf did was welcome us in to listen (something he does on a grand scale as Artistic Director of the Vale of Glamorgan Festival of Music in Wales).  He showed us there’s far more to contemporary classical music than the soul-deadening insularity of total serialism, that exclusive and excluding club of sounds, that disastrous dead-end to which Arnold Schoenberg’s turn-the-world-upside-down twelve-tone system inadvertently led.

The musicians of Contemporaneous embody Metcalf’s same welcoming spirit in everything they do, say, compose, and play.  They communicate their passionate engagement with every breath.  They know that listeners are not “outsiders,” but the third essential component in the transporting alliance of composer and performer that music is at its brilliant best.  Just as Metcalf does, and as so many young composers and performers do today, the young men and women of Contemporaneous do care if you listen, and more than that, they want you to have every bit as good a time as they do while you’re at it.

The closing Contemporaneous concert for 2011 was a case in point, right from the circles of chairs and (for those more limber) the mats and pillows laid out on the floor, all of which sweetly set the mood.  In Mattingly’s welcome to the group, he said, “tonight’s music is all very personal . . . it’s all music about what to me is the most important thing in living, which is our relationships to each another.” 

See what I mean?

I love, too, the subtle ways in which they teach you what to listen for.  I never feel I’m taking cod liver oil, but rather that I’m being entrusted with a precious jewel of new information:  Something to hear!  Something to do!  A way to participate!  David Bloom, in introducing Meditation (In Memory of John Lennon), told us how composer Aaron Jay Kernis had taken Lennon’s song Imagine and expanded it, so we “really taste every harmony and riff that’s in that song.”  Mattingly added, “it’s as if you were very, very small in time.”

What’s more, there’s often a chance to hear from the composer directly.  Composer Anna Bikales told us how her piece, Brick Elegy (played with elegant precision by Hye-Joong Jeong, as you’ll see in a video clip below the post), sat unfinished for two years.  What finally got her to finish it was, in fact, a Contemporaneous concert.  “I actually left in the middle of the concert and went straight back to my room and spent the next few hours finishing this piece.”  (Mattingly didn’t let that go by, you can be sure:  “It’s a good thing,” he said, “it’s so good.”)

Even without the “extras,” with Contemporaneous, it’s an exciting sonic adventure simply to listen and watch.  Which brings me back to Finnegan Shanahan’s hat. . .

Here’s Shanahan on violin (with Mattingly on piano), in a clip from their performance of Mattingly’s “structured improvisation,” Gravity and Grace:

The thing is, you see, they don’t just know how to play music, they also know how to plain old play.

See what I mean?

Postscript:  Nor are these young men and women short on social graces (though I don’t mean to imply that’s required; beautiful music, well-played, is gift enough).  Some may recall that, in an earlier post, I wrote grandly, but completely inaccurately, about cello strings breaking left and right.  Thanks to Friko, who tipped me off, I realized my mistake and corrected it in the post.  (What I’d seen were bow hairs snapping off.)  

Mattingly, of whose cello I wrote, never made a peep, though I suspect he had to cringe at the prospect some might think he was trying to play his cello minus some strings.  At this concert, close to the end of Gravity and Grace, I saw a very big something fly up from Mattingly’s cello.  I was pretty sure, this go round, what it was.  After the concert, though I didn’t inquire, Mattingly caught my eye and said, "this time, it was a string."  See what I mean?

The Program (to read more about the program, click here)

Aaron Jay Kernis (b. 1960): Meditation (In Memory of John Lennon) (1981)
Anna Bikales (b. 1992): Brick Elegy (2010)
Philip Glass (b. 1937) (arr. for four cellos by Joan Jeanrenaud): Metamorphosis No. 4 (1988)

— Intermission —

Dylan Mattingly (b. 1991): Gravity and Grace (2011)
David Moore (b. 1985): And Then it Rained (2010)

(If you have Spotify, you can also click on Finnegan's Hat to hear John Metcalf's Mapping Wales and Paths of Song.)


Hye-Joong Jeong playing Brick 1 from Anna Bikales's Brick Elegy:

Credits: The image of Finnegan Shanahan is a still from the video of Shanahan performing Andrew Bird’s Why?, which can be found here. The image of Johann Sebastian Bach can be found here. The image of Arnold Schoenberg can be found here. The image of the Contemporaneous program cover can be found here.


Suze said...


Listening to the structured improvisation of 'Gravity and Grace' as I type this.


'They know that listeners are not “outsiders,” but the third essential component in the transporting alliance of composer and performer that music is at its brilliant best.'

This is the essence of Ink Blot Fiction, as is a sort of structured improvisation-- the birth of a free-flowing, highly fluid text borne out of years of writing within structure and having the work careen through the firmly-developed filter of knowing what is required and trusting that the foundation already in place will support the experiment.

So happy to see Shanahan in the hat. And, quite frankly, I'm bit in love with Mattingly after listening to him expound for just 21 seconds in the first clip.

Another delectable journey, Sue. Over too soon.

shoreacres said...

Let me be honest: one or two paragraphs here might as well be written in Urdu, for all the sense they make to me. This isn't due to any lack on your part, only to lack of experience on mine.

That said, there are some hints here that contemporary classical musicians have something in common with the breed of contemporary writers called "bloggers".

I'm thinking particularly about your mention of the personal aspect of the performances and the possibility of active participation with the musicians. Their desire to bring their listeners "inside" the experience is analogous to my view that blog entries and blog comments belong together - that only when each is taken seriously can this new form, "blogging", fulfill its full potential.

You say the same thing here, in a slightly different way, when you point to the transformation of monologue into conversation.

This is a wonderful post, and quite stimulating. I find myself thinking of blog entries and their accompanying comments as verbal themes and variations. ;-)

And I thought Brick 1 from Brick Elegy was marvelous.

David said...

Well, this needs time to digest. I will. In the meantime, glad that you're giving youthful communication the eloquent support it needs.

Britta said...

Dear Susan,
thank you for this post!
You write 'They know that listeners are not “outsiders,” but the third essential component in the transporting alliance of composer and performer that music is at its brilliant best.' - that is so interesting because it is - in another form - one thesis on the approach to 'entertaining literature - meaning pop-culture' that husband writes, too.
A hat - as I see it - is creating an 'Image' - very important in a world of so many impressing individuals. He will be recognized!
The incident with the cello strings - I sometimes blush when I think of something wrong which I quickly uttered... but: to make an error is a way to learn :-)
You are teaching me a lot about music, thank you!

Mark Kerstetter said...

Throughout the 20th century, people used to say about the visual arts and poetry that the experimenters, the so-called avant-gardes, had contempt for their potential audience, that they were insular, stuck into an enterprise of their own devising, etc. I don't hear it so much now. Maybe I'm not listening. By nature, I tend to approach all innovators with an attitude of respect, even if it turns out that I don't care for their work.

Basically, I gravitate toward artists who are passionate, and avoid those who seem to fall, with a remarkable lack of curiosity, into well established forms. It seems to me that lackluster performance is more common by far among those working in established forms as opposed to those who innovate new ones, even though I'm well aware of artists who seem to blindly wallow in weirdness for its own sake.

These introductions to Mattingly & co you've been sharing show an exciting group of artists that promise to command more and more attention as time goes on. It's hard not to catch their passion.

I'm not schooled in any of the discourses on music, but the term "contemporary classical music" sounds a little strange to me, almost like a contradiction in terms. It also seems to suggest a rejection of modern forms. Not to read too much into a label, but a piece like 'Gravity and Grace' seems to strain at the seams of this label. I'm curious if Mattingly & co use the term to describe their own music.

Dylan Mattingly said...

First of all, I just wanted to thank Sue for this wonderful blogpost, and all those previously. It's such a beautiful thing to have someone so passionately devoted to curiosity, and I'm honored to pass through her dauntless expeditions into the unknown and the wondrous.

Mark said above:

"...the term "contemporary classical music" sounds a little strange to me, almost like a contradiction in terms. It also seems to suggest a rejection of modern forms. Not to read too much into a label, but a piece like 'Gravity and Grace' seems to strain at the seams of this label. I'm curious if Mattingly & co use the term to describe their own music."

I agree completely, and in fact, I never use the phrase "contemporary music" to describe music that has just been created. Whether or not "contemporary" means "from the now," it has developed certain connotations in the "classical" music world, that I'd say date it somewhere around 1988 to the late '90s, with some leeway on either side.

To describe music that has just been created, I usually use "new music," which makes a lot of sense to me, although I'm sure in twenty years, "new music" will describe 2000-2015.

Even the name of our ensemble, Contemporaneous, is an attempt to provide a new connotationless word which we might be able to use as a blank slate.

There's no science to this, but usually when you hear people use these word, they use something along the lines of the following categories:

"twentieth century music" = very early 20th century, i.e. Mahler, Sibelius, Scriabin, etc, though it can also include later composers who were more tonal, particularly neo-romantics or populists, i.e. Barber or Copland

"modern music" = most of the twentieth century, but with a particularly atonal slant, starting with Schoenberg and Stravinsky, and then continuing to include Darmstadt, i.e. Boulez and Stockhausen.

"contemporary music" = more of a transitional phrase, like what became of "modern music" when it became less obligatorily serial, which coincides with the fall of the Berlin wall, '88. Think early-to-mid John Adams, along with the music of many of the composers who are now well-established as conservatory academics today.

"new music" = now.

Friko said...

I've been before and have now come back again. This post has given me much to read and much to listen to.

In the way of such posts and my late return, everything that needed saying has been said, incl. the comment by Dylan Mattingley (what a bit of luck I cam back late!)

I still don't find 'new' or 'modern' music instantly accessible, but anything so heartfelt and so enthusiastically presented must be given appropriate appreciation. Carry on educating me, Susan, I am grateful for any crumbs your generosity lays before me. You never know, I might yet become a disciple.

Susan Scheid said...

Suze: I’m so pleased you quoted what you did—you do have a way of reaching right into a post and finding its beating heart. Delectable to me (to use your delectable word!) is the resonance you note between structured improvisation in music and its kin in writing in the form of Ink Blot Fiction.

shoreacres: Well, I had a good laugh at your reference to Urdu. (I suspect at least one spot in the post to which this would apply was my little rant about total serialism, which, among other things, is not a sentence I’d wish on anyone to try and parse!) As for your main point, about the “theme and variation” interplay of blogs and comments, I so agree. Certainly the comments on this post are a case in point, each throwing off sparks in all directions.

David: I look forward to any thoughts you have time to share. (Meantime, I’m laughing my way through Winder!)

Britta: I love the string of associations you took away from the post, not least the way your style-sharp eye picked up on Finnegan’s hat itself. As for the music, believe me, I’m learning a lot about new/contemporary/classical music, too!

Mark: So much to think about here, I don’t know where to begin. Here’s one: “It seems to me that lackluster performance is more common by far among those working in established forms as opposed to those who innovate new ones.” I was set to thinking about what innovation is, and am wondering: does it really matter whether the artist is working in an established form or creating a new one? Won’t a passionately engaged and talented creator necessarily innovate, whether inside an established form (I think of Elizabeth Bishop’s villanelle, “One Art”) or by breaking through the boundaries of existing forms (I think of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf)?

Dylan: Names and connotations, such a minefield! I struggle mightily with trying to name things in music—and that struggle is amplified by my awareness of the struggles of composers and musicians seeking to stay free of enclosure in a definitional box. I can’t thank you enough, therefore, for giving us all the gift of a wonderfully clear and thoughtful set of definitions (with subtle recognition of the way definitions are always subject to fraying at the edges).

I was also struck, though from a slightly different vantage point, by Mark’s comment about the term I used, contemporary classical music, “as a contradiction in terms. It also seems to suggest a rejection of modern forms.” It’s fascinating to get Mark’s perspective, as the phrase doesn’t carry any of those connotations for me. Worth a post of its own, though I’m not the one to write it, I don’t think. What I feel I’ve learned (and continue to learn) in my journeying into the classical music of my own “now” (which spans at least the categories of contemporary and new music, in the terms you’ve set forth) is how vibrantly alive and multi-varied it is.

Friko: Though you may say everything has been said, I’m delighted that you weighed in. How could I not be, when what you write is, “anything so heartfelt and so enthusiastically presented must be given appropriate appreciation”? Your generosity of spirit—not to mention your willingness to venture forth and save me from error—are great gifts to me, and I thank you.

David said...

I guess the real distinction is between 'popular/populist' - ie something immediately grasped, which breeds many masterpieces of its own - and 'serious', a term which would frighten some people off. But I did hear one commentator rightly complaining about the way both were lumped together in the 'world music' bracket, and needed demarcating.

Susan Scheid said...

David: You've given us a pithy example of the fraught business of naming things—so essential to help us find our way around, and yet the names of things can trap us, too.

Or maybe words are simply inadequate to the task? Hilary, over at Positive Letters, wrote this about Leonardo da Vinci: “Apparently he thought words a poor substitute for seeing. No description, to him conveyed the insight, or complexity, of a drawing. ‘My advice’ he said, ‘is not to trouble yourself with words unless you are speaking to the blind.’”

Dylan has written, “Music is my optimal language.” As the comments to this post so delightfully confirm, the music has communicated itself better than my words about it can begin to do.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Susan .. as Shoreacres said (as I'm so unmusical) some was Urdu to me too ..

I'm pleased to see I'm not one of one in their lack of musical education .. I really need to spend time here - but being around .. I'll grasp some of the messages as I go along.

I thought The Saturday Times editorial ending which I quoted in my post about Leonardo da Vinci .. was exceedingly interesting .. and I'm sure ties in with synesthesia ..

Yet here you all are discussing words with music and the how to describe said music ..

It's fascinating how many sensory conditions/perceptions can meld together - we just need to realise.

So music is music to you all, as are your words, I struggle and perhaps words are my path .. but to Leonardo and other artists (eg Gauguin) they were synesthetes ... seeing various experiences as one - obviously as appears to be pointed out Leonardo was scrying into the structures, his drawings, life itself.

It's 'funny' how blogging finds links everywhere - so informative and educative ..

Thanks Susan .. I need educating and you're attempting to do that .. I enjoy visiting .. if I can work my way through your erudite Urdu?! Don't change!

Cheers Hilary

David said...

I don't know, Sue, I think measured writing like yours that springs from genuine enthusiasm and passion can guide people to finding the key to music. It's never AS good as the real thing, but it can be ALMOST as good - and runs parallel.

And actually, sometimes just writing 'listen to this' and putting up a sound or vision clip can be enough; that's why blogging and YouTube combined can be so effective.

Mark Kerstetter said...

It's hard coming up with a term for a contemporary art form or to describe a contemporary artist or group of artists. I think of what happened with the so-called Minimalists. Not one of the artists the term is associated with accept it. But no one else came up with an alternative that stuck, so we use it.

On what I said about lackluster performance: the more I think about it the less I feel I can defend my comment with a convincing rational argument. I think it just comes from the bias of my tastes. Even so, my idea of innovation may not be as generous as yours. I just don't believe that all artists are innovators. I've seen too much evidence to the contrary! I accept your point about 'One Art', but surely a matter of degree becomes a matter of kind. There's no comparison between loosening the constraints of the villanelle and writing 'Mimnermos: The Brainsex Paintings'. This doesn't mean one is better than the other or that Carson has more passion than Bishop had. It just means that 'Mimnermos' is so much more innovative than 'One Art' that they're very different in that respect.

I like what David says about sharing one's enthusiasm and passion in writing about the arts. There's always someone who will disagree or who won't like the art in question, but writing that is fully engaged with its subject will shine a light for those who need it.

Susan Scheid said...

Well, now it is absolutely clear that the conversation generated in the comments is a post of its own (or several).

Hilary: Yes, I loved the way your post fed right into something I wanted to say in response to comments here. Life is rich!

David: Ah, you give me courage with your words. And, indeed, the music post I've put up just now really is one where the main point is "listen to this" (and look, too, as the whole event was an absolute charmer).

Mark: And here I thought I was so clever coming up with Bishop's "One Art." You have absolutely trumped that with Anne Carson's "Mimnermos: The Brainsex Paintings." (You would have trumped with pretty much anything by Anne Carson, by the way.) I really enjoy the way you think. You do keep me on my toes in the best of ways.

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