27 October 2008

Flute-Cello-Piano Trio Repertoire: Bigger than You Might Imagine

Meininger Trio, Bergisch-Gladbach/Cologne; photo © Markus Bollen
Flute-cello-piano (FCP) trios are relatively uncommon. Possibly the most frequently performed piece is Carl Maria von Weber’s Op. 63. But the FCP trio sonic palette is an interesting one, though, and the literature is more extensive than you might imagine.

For the person who emailed me asking about FCP trios, especially newer or less commonly-played ones, here is a list. I come up with more than 50. But probably I have missed some—I only spent an afternoon compiling this at home. I have not plowed through a conservatory’s library, only Google and the books listed in the links at the bottom of this post.

Beyond the ‘What to play for senior recital?’ question that led me to put up this list, there are surely other purposes and occasions where these pieces might receive more frequent performance and recording.


Dieter Acker
  • Trio II (1974)

William Alwyn
  • Trio for Flute, Cello, and Piano

Paul Arma
  • Divertimento II (1951)

Richard Arnell
  • Trio, Op. 64


Johann Christian Bach
  • Six Sonatas, Op. 2

Sven-Erik Bäck
  • Sentirè

Richard Rodney Bennett
  • Commedia (1972)


Muzio Clementi
  • Trio, Op. 22

George Crumb
  • Trio (‘Voice of the Whale’, [amplified and masked] Flute, Cello, and Piano)


Norman Dello Joio
  • Trio (1944)

Friedhelm Döhl
  • Sotto Voce (1973)

Johann Dussek
  • Grand Sonata, Op. 65


Elisendra Fabregas
  • Voces de mi Tierra

Louise Farrenc
  • Trio, Op. 45

Jean Françaix
  • Trio (1995)


Phillippe Gaubert
  • Serenade (‘Three Water Colors’, No. 3)

Adalbert Gyrowetz
  • Divertissement for piano, flute & cello in A Major, Op 50


Dietrich Hahne
  • Four Tunes

Franz Joseph Haydn
  • Three Trios
  • Klaviertrio No. 30

Mogens Winkel Holm
  • Transitions II (1973)

Katherine Hoover
  • Lyric Trio

Klaus Huber
  • Ascensus (1979)

Johann Nepomuk Hummel
  • Adagio, Variations & Rondo, Op. 78


Knud Jeppesen
  • Summer Trio (1957)


Elena Kats-Chernin
  • Colours of the Sea: Trio Flute, Cello & Piano

Joseph Kennedy, Jr.
  • Dialogue for Flute, Cello & Piano

Konradin Kreutzer
  • Trio Grande Sonate, Op. 28

Friedrich Kuhlau
  • Trio Concertante, Op. 119


John Lessard
  • Trio

Lowell Liebermann
  • Trios I & II

Otto Luening
  • Trio I

Erik Lund
  • Raccontini


Marcelle de Manziarly
  • Trio for Flute, Cello, and Piano

Bohuslav Martinů
  • Trio for Flute, Cello, and Piano

Karl J. Marx
  • Trio, Op. 61

Wilfred Mellers
  • Trio (1962)

Akira Myoshi
  • Sonate (1966)


Stefan Nicolescu
  • Triplum (1971)


Ignaz Pleyel
  • Sonate, Op. 16


Günther Raphael
  • Trio-Suite, Op. 44

Amédée Rasetti
  • Trios, Op. 13

Elizabeth Raum
  • Cinderella Suite

Scott Roller
  • Trio Set

Ned Rorem
  • Trio (1960)


Elliott Schwartz
  • Trio

Leland Smith
  • Trio (1947)

Harvey Sollberger
  • Divertimento (1970)

Manfred Stahnke
  • Ritus

Wolfgang Steffen
  • Trio, Op. 37


Hilary Tann
  • Gardens of Anna Maria Luisa de Medici

Leifur Thorarinsson
  • Trio for Flute, Cello, and Piano


Carl Maria von Weber
  • Trio, Op. 63

Stefan Wolpe
  • Trio (1963)

Charles Wuorinen
  • Trios I, II & III (1961)

The Jean Françaix trio is one that I had never before heard, until taking up the CMT reader-emailer’s question. Have a listen:

    [Jean Françaix, FCP Trio (1995), 8.1MB MP3 at ‘Piano-Mad’ website]

Not sure what to say about that one. It makes me feel dizzy to listen to it. How does it feel when performing it, I wonder? Does the room spin? The effect is striking...

26 October 2008

Emergence: Lisa Bielawa, MMRPGs, and Massively-Multiplayer Chamber Music

 Sweetser book

T    he 23-year-old poet [Rainer Maria Rilke] encountered a phantom self in the Cornet—Rilke’s ancestor whose life was full of wide-eyed courage, action and discovery, but cut short. Rilke’s book was written feverishly, supposedly in just one night. Perhaps Rilke, suddenly aware of his own mortality, was also already aware that—although many of us continue living into more reflective, circumspect years—in a sense all of us die young, because the innocence of our young selves cannot survive the awarenesses that are the inevitable result of prolonged engagement with a troubled world.”
  —  Lisa Bielawa, program notes, The Lay of the Love and Death [of Cornet Christoph Rilke].
A    t daybreak a horseman is there, and then a second, then four, ten. Armored-up, most of them. Then a thousand more behind them: the Army. One must separate oneself.
‘Get home in one piece, Marquis...’
‘Mary protects you, Squire.’
But they cannot bring themselves to part yet. They are friends of a sudden, like brothers. They have more to confide in each other, for they already know so much each one of the other. They linger. Awkwardly. There’s haste and hoofbeat about them. Then the Marquis takes off his right glove. He fetches out the little rose, takes a petal from it ... takes it as one would take and break the host, the communion wafer.
‘That will safeguard you. Farewell.’
Von Langenau is taken aback. He gazes long after the Frenchman. Then he shoves the ad hoc petal into his shirtpocket. It rises and falls on the waves of his breath.
Bugle-call. He rides to join his regiment, Junker does.
He smiles sadly: a woman he does not know is protecting him.

[Einmal, am Morgen, ist ein Reiter da, und dann ein zweiter, vier, zehn. Ganz in Eisen, groß. Dann tausend dahinter: Das Heer.
Man muß sich trennen.
»Kehrt glücklich heim, Herr Marquis...«
»Die Maria schützt Euch, Herr Junker.«
Und sie können nicht voneinander. Sie sind Freunde auf einmal, Brüder. Haben einander mehr zu vertrauen; denn sie wissen schon so viel Einer vom Andern. Sie zögern. Und ist Hast und Hufschlag um sie. Da streift der Marquis den großen rechten Handschuh ab. Er holt die kleine Rose hervor, nimmt ihr ein Blatt. Als ob man eine Hostie bricht.
»Das wird Euch beschirmen. Lebt wohl.«
Der von Langenau staunt. Lange schaut er dem Franzosen nach. Dann schiebt er das fremde Blatt unter den Waffenrock. Und es treibt auf und ab auf den Wellen seines Herzens.
Hornruf. Er reitet zum Heer, der Junker.
Er lächelt traurig: ihn schützt eine fremde Frau.]”
  —  Rainer-Maria Rilke, De Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke
You really should try to avail yourself of the opportunity to hear composer Lisa Bielawa’s new works in upcoming performances in Boston and New York (see links below). Bielawa has written a number of acclaimed chamber music compositions. She regularly writes choral and symphonic works that are also highly regarded.

Bielawa’s conceptions of chamber music and musical intimacy are admittedly broader than most. Her scoring and novel orchestrations are wondrous. Bielawa’s nominally ‘symphonic’ works, such as ‘The Trojan Women’ (2002), entails a large orchestra performing virtuosically, but sans conductor. For the world premiere of her symphonic piece ‘The Right Weather’ (2004), orchestra members were spatially dispersed in and around Zankel Hall, at Carnegie, again performing without a conductor. As such, Bielawa’s symphonic compositions involve the emergent, multi-player intimacy that is characteristic of chamber music. The pieces just happen to involve conductorless ensembles that are the size of full orchestras, playing in halls whose ambient acoustics are larger and more reverberous than is usual for chamber music venues.

 Lisa Bielawa, photo © Liz Linder
C    oncert-hall venues impose social conventions upon classical music. I love orchestras. But I have a problem with the fact that it costs $65 to hear them, and somebody is waving a stick and s/he’s in charge.”
  —  Lisa Bielawa.
Her conductorless pieces are fascinating to listen to and, I imagine, fascinating too to perform, as a member of such a peculiarly deployed ensemble. When done this way, the sense of acoustic depth can be cavernous—far larger than when the same number of performers are under the baton of a strong conductor. The communicative gestures that one uses to stay in-sync with others—or to encourage others nearby to sync-up with you—are complex and unfamiliar. And each performer’s maneuvers to recover or accommodate rhythmic and harmonic contingencies that arise are totally different from those that are routine in small ensembles. Creatively speaking, it’s like being placed in a wilderness survival situation. So much is uncertain. The inter-personal distances and vulnerability seem so great. So much, beyond what’s written on the page of music, can happen.

You become acutely aware of the extreme fragility, the tenuousness of the social fabric that defines the cooperation of the ensemble members. There are people here who, no matter how many years you’ve collaborated with them, you don’t really know very well, and who do not, when it comes down to it, know you. Nor do [some of them] care tremendously deeply about you as an individual. These things are hidden when there is a conductor…

In other words, you become acutely aware of the feral, borg-like ‘organism’ that the ensemble really is, and it is a very different kind of organism than, say, a string quartet. It is an alternate reality; there is no ‘spoon’, not really. (Not, anyhow, if you intend to bend the thing, pitting your will as a performer/ensemble-member against the psychokinetic wills of other fellow musicians.)

Lisa’s forthcoming CD, ‘The Lay of the Love and Death’, is also a meditation on the tensions between individual and collective action; between individual destiny and collective/societal destiny. It is due to be released next May by Premiere Commission Recordings, a new record label based in New York. The Lay was written for violinist Colin Jacobsen and baritone Jesse Blumberg and based on an epic poem by Rainer-Maria Rilke (‘Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke’), and was premièred at Alice Tully Hall in March 2006.

B    ielawa’s music explores the ritual and phenomenological nature of music-making and listening, employing [emergent] instrumental forces in ways that are both dramatic and intimate in their use of time and space.”
  —  Premier Commission Recordings jewel-case blurb.
Lisa Bielawa’s choice of this Rilke text leverages her degree in literature and literary criticism. Rainer-Maria Rilke’s confabulation based on the death of his ancestor in battle is a dark tale—a study in the limits of human trust; the foolishness (but inevitability) of anticipation; the spontaneity (but random happenstantiality) of genuine friendships; the innateness (but immutability) of our character and personality. It is at once an affirmation of our moral duty to live thoughtfully and responsibly among other people, and at the same time an acknowledgment that the human condition is trouble, no guarantees. Create good and beauty in the face of the void because it is the right thing to do; do not do it in expectation of any reward, in this world or in any hereafter. There is emergent quality to the text, plus the timeless ‘thrownness’ of war. There is an emergent quality to Lisa’s compositional methods that lends a distinctive openness to her writing.

Bielawa is currently composer-in-residence for the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. The present work, ‘The Trojan Women’, paints portraits of three grieving women—Hecuba, Cassandra and Andromache—who lost their husbands in the gruesome Trojan War. The three movements differ from each other in emotional content, tempi, harmonic textures, and modes of expression. But each conveys a distinc kind of mourning. Beautifully written.

    [50-sec clip, Lisa Bielawa, First Takes, ‘Trojan Women-Andromache’, 1.2MB MP3]

    [50-sec clip, Lisa Bielawa, First Takes, ‘Trojan Women-Cassandra’, 1.2MB MP3]

 Bielawa – Handful of World CD

    [50-sec clip, Lisa Bielawa, Handful of World, KafkaSongs-II, 1.2MB MP3]

    [50-sec clip, Lisa Bielawa, Handful of World, KafkaSongs-VII, 1.2MB MP3]

W    itty, dramatic and poignant by turns, [Bielawa’s ‘Handful of World’] songs offer a probing take on Kafka’s texts, and the scoring—for one performer simultaneously singing and playing the violin—makes possible all kinds of tonal resonances and multipart counterpoint. The other music ... is no less arresting or literarily astute.”
  —  San Francisco Chronicle.
Bielawa’s compositions are diverse, but they each bring character development and story-telling to the fore. And, having as I do some acquaintance with both composing and with computer game engineering, I would say that Lisa’s conductorless compositions contain some voice-leading and phrasing ‘devices’ that would be considered by game developers to be classic ‘anti-cheat mechanisms’, designed to insure continuity, preserving fairness and rationality of gameplay.

There are few, if any, opportunities for rogue or errant ensemble members to ‘hack’ the score, or ‘cheat’, or ‘grief’ other players. Would-be ‘Hackers’ spend time discovering and testing exploits to commandeer the score and exert undue influence over the musical outcomes. Would-be ‘Cheaters’ spend time using the exploits devised by others, or riding on the coattails of Hackers’ exploits. Would-be ‘Griefers’ reinforce the side-effects of others’ exploits, to alter the sociology of the game-world and to subvert the score to suit their own purposes or to advance their own perceptions of its statements or value.

  • Hack_type1: Client executable alteration (score annotations)
  • Hack_type2: Rehearsal subversion (adjusting the ensemble's understanding of the inside lore of the game)
  • Hack_type3: Part augmentation (injecting control through extra-textual embellishments)
  • Hack_type4: Denial-of-service attack (preemptiveness or recalcitrance, forcing other ensemble members to accomodate the attacker)
In a large, heterogeneous ensemble, the ‘client’ apps cannot be trusted. They are running on the Cheaters’ hardware—their minds; their performance muscle-memories—and any would-be Cheaters among the group have all of the means to reverse-engineer your score and bypass all of the markings and controls you put in place.

Despite the large number of players (high cardinality) and despite the polyphonic complexity of her writing (high dimensionality), the architecture and phrasing constructs that Lisa uses are cohesive and self-repairing. The virtual sound-worlds she creates are stable. Their beauty can be edgy—there is nothing predestined or deterministic, for individual parts or for the ensemble/society. But the worlds do not readily fall apart nor do they make us worry that they might. Cohesive, stable ‘emergence’—for the individuals and for the group.

Emergence occurs when interactions between players and objects result in consequences that are not explicit in the text and performance rules, a sort of aleatoric runtime indirection that is spontaneous and not explicitly intended by the composer-developer. Emergence requires some stochastic or random elements, but it’s not predominantly random; satisfying types of emergence are reproducible from performance to performance, and they are memorable and rehearsible. That, I think, is a distinctive feature of Lisa’s compositions… Stockhausen and others, not so much.

What else? Well, systems—and compositions—that possess the quality we would call ‘emergence’ have, I think, the following minimal features:
  • ‘Global’ phenomena emerge from ‘Local’ interactions among individual entities
  • There is [usually] no evidence of the global phenomena at the local or individual level [like much of Elliott Carter’s writing, say];
  • Global phenomena have a time-course that is different from the time-course of individual/local phenomena, and global phenomena are governed by different physics or collective forces than the ones that are exerted on individuals.
And we can recognize, I would say, at least 4 ‘levels’ of emergence. We can recognize them, and composers can bake them in.
  • First-order: When local interactions have ‘knock-on’ or chain-reaction effects and spread by contagion;
  • Second-order: When players use the score and performance environment to improvise their own expressive strategies and deliberately enable para-social interaction types that were not created or intended by the developer; the improvised strategies in turn change how various contingencies in the game play out;
  • Third-order: When new gameplay involves players’ carving new paths or creating new ‘public commons’, that are accessible to most or all players or that directly affect the overall, global character of play.
 MMRPG violins
The Lay of the Love and Death of the Cornet’ is an early Rilke work, written in Berlin in 1899. The event that precipitated its writing was the discovery of a fragment of a family heirloom document, something from a trunk or attic in the Rilke house. He had no expectation of finding any such thing, nor was he planning to write any poem having to do with his ancestral history. This item was serendipitously noticed when he was browsing among some family papers. The document concerned one young Christoph Rilke, who was killed in Hungary in 1663 in a military campaign against the Turks. This fragment of a document concerning the young man’s duties as a cornet in the army was the only historical fact that Rilke had to go on; not much else was known about this Christoph, other than the meager bits that the document fragment contained. The story, however, almost wrote itself. Rilke’s vivid imagination produced overnight this poignant, open-ended 63-page romantic invention.

In similar fashion, Bielawa’s works—including the latest Rilke one—have likewise an open-ended, improvisational feel to them, regardless how carefully orchestrated her scores are. They are natural; playable; listenable. They sound so intuitively true, so plausible that you might imagine them to have almost written themselves, like Rilke in an inspired fever. They evoke a politics of ethical engagedness, an acoustic pluralism, and an expressive ‘commons’—all precious things in an age gone amok with private property, mutual misapprehension, isolation.

Have a look at Lisa’s compositions. They are like fantastic interactive fictions or MMRPGs, each inviting you to discover a richly detailed, extensible story. Consider adding one or more of her pieces to your group’s repertoire, not just to experience the beauty that’s in them but also to extend and further develop the ways that you have at your disposal to achieve new dimensions of expressiveness amongst your ensemble’s members. Lastly but not least, do buy and enjoy her recordings, and try to catch upcoming performances. You’re sure to be emergently pleased.

G    ame developers [composers and conductors] and players [performers] speculate that it would be fantastic if we could achieve gameplay [performance] that is open and natural, where players can choose their own strategies independently, and the gameplay is limited only by each player's imagination and creativity. In recent years, games [compositions] have taken steps toward this with emergent interactions made possible by Valve Corp’s source engine and the availability of advanced game physics middleware... However, game developers [composers and conductors] realize the trade-off between emergence and design. Giving players control [means that the developers and conductors relinquish their own control].”
  —  Penny Sweetser, Emergence in Games, p. 3.

 Lisa Bielawa, photo © Azzura Primavera

25 October 2008

Hespèrion XXI: Unreliable Utopias + Unreliable Narrators = Top-Flight Meta-Meta Fiction

 Savall, Abraham & Hespèrion XXI

D    on Quixote,’ Menard explains, ‘interests me profoundly, but it does not seem to me to have been—how shall I say it?—inevitable. I cannot imagine the universe without the interjection of Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘Ah, bear in mind this garden was enchanted!’ or without the ‘Bateau ivre’ or the ‘Ancient Mariner’, but I know that I am capable of imagining the universe without ‘Don Quixote’... ‘Don Quixote’ is an accidental book; it is ‘unnecessary’. I can premeditate writing, I can write it, without incurring a tautology... My memory of Cervantes’s ‘Don Quixote’, simplified by forgetfulness and indifference, is much the same as the imprecise, anterior image of a book not yet written. Once this image has been postulated, my problems are undeniably considerably more difficult than those which Cervantes faced. My precursor did not refuse the collaboration of fate: he went along composing his immortal work a little ‘a la diáble’, swept along by inertias of language and invention. I, on the other hand, have contracted the mysterious duty of reconstructing his spontaneous work. My game is governed by two polar laws. The first permits me to attempt variants of a formal and psychological nature. The second obliges me to sacrifice them to the ‘original’ text and irrefutably to rationalize this annihilation. In spite of these obstacles, the ‘Don Quixote’ of Menard [Savall] is more subtle than the one by Cervantes. The latter indulges in a rather coarse opposition between tales of knighthood and the meager, provincial reality of his country; Menard [Savall] chooses as reality the land of Carmen during the century of Lepanto and Lope.”
  —  Jorge Luis Borges, ‘Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote’.
Romances y Músicas de Don Quijote’—performed Friday night by Jordi Savall and Hespèrion XXI with F. Murray Abraham in Kansas City at the Friends of Chamber Music Early Music Series—includes ballads, songs, madrigals and other musical forms quoted and mentioned by the various characters or otherwise described at various points in Cervantes’s book. Each is matched with its corresponding passage from the Quixote text. The majority of the ballads and songs are ones that were preserved in songbooks, and treatises of the period but, in all those cases in which there is no extant documentary record of the music to which the poems were sung, Savall uses a ‘contrafactum’ approach—widely used in Cervantes’s time—selecting melodies of the period that closely match the mood and metre of the poems. All the musical pieces are integrated with the narrative, as recited by F. Murray Abraham, and performed according to the indications given in the novel.

F. Murray Abraham
What does it mean to provide narrative history under the sign of Cervantes? It cannot mean to speak from within a reanimated 16th-Century society with the voice of Cervantes—remember Borges’s Pierre Menard story about the inauthenticity of attempting to write ‘Don Quixote’ as if one were Cervantes. It must instead mean to speak as oneself, as an historically-informed musician/actor, using period instruments and period text, but from one’s own contemporary vantage point.

And that is precisely what Jordi Savall and Hespèrion XXI and F. Murray Abraham gave to us. There was a constant interplay between an ‘addressive’ mode and a ‘performative’ mode—from narratives about the self and others, to narratives to the self and to others. The mimetic, performative acts of the artists called for corresponding mimetic, performative acts by the audience members. At several points during the performance, Abraham and Savall extemporaneously addressed a young girl in the front row of the audience with her mother, who responded appreciatively. Abraham descends the 1-meter stairs—from the stage set up for the performers in front of the altar, to the floor of the church—and strolls down the aisle into the audience, and then bounds back up on-stage. On several occasions, he emerges from behind the harp and tenor viola da gamba, wending his way to center-stage as he delivers his peripatetic Quixotic recitation. In other words, this is a participatory, improvisatory production, not a recital/reading passively received. Musicians and actor-reader proposing, exposing the Self… selves, patterned after or assimilating qualities and stances of the characters created by Cervantes. Life into story, story into life.

Jordi Savall, photo ©2007 Hans Speekenbrink

    [50-sec clip, Jordi Savall and Hespèrion XXI, 1.14. Primera Parte - Arde La Biblioteca, Capítulos V-VI: Romance De Don Beltrán, ‘¿Los Dolce Pares?’ (Juan Vasquez), 1.2MB MP3]

    [50-sec clip, Jordi Savall and Hespèrion XXI, 2.01. Segunda Parte - Llegada Al Toboso, Capítulo IX: Pavana I, ‘Arpa’ (Alonso Mudarra), 1.2MB MP3]

    [50-sec clip, Jordi Savall and Hespèrion XXI, 2.20. Segunda Parte - En La Entrada De Barcelona, Capítulos LXI-LXII: Conde Claros / Recitado, ‘¿En Fin, Por Caminos Desusados?’ [In the end, we travel by abandoned/disused roads?!] (Alonso Mudarra / Cervantes), 1.2MB MP3]

Savall’s program notes meditate on the fact that Cervantes’s literary accomplishments brought him little worldly success during his lifetime. Cervantes, thwarted and humiliated, found that the music and the ballads provided some respite; they transported him (and us) to a utopia in which cultural affirmations and myths inspire and encourage us to endure. Cervantes’s narrative, according to Savall, is designed to take us into a magical realm of imagination that goes beyond what can be expressed or suggested by words alone.

The whole of ‘Don Quixote’ is full of exotic illusions of the kind that, during the 20th Century, Jorge Luis Borges became famous for. It is meta-fiction. In fact, in Savall’s ingenious hands, it is transformed into high ‘meta-meta fiction’: musico-theatrical fiction about fiction about fiction.

Meta? Meta-meta? Well, Cervantes tells us in Volume 1 that the original story of Don Quixote was written in Arabic by some Muslim Moor named Sidi Hamid Benengali, and that Cervantes is merely a ‘translator’ or intermediary rendering it in Spanish. This isn’t true, of course—it was a narratorly ruse by Cervantes. Cervantes tells us that Benengali isn’t the most accurate of historians. But Cervantes does call Benengali an historian—suggesting that Don Quixote/Alonso Quixana was real and that the narrative is a documentary worthy of the regard that we give to things that are real. Later, The story is narrated by ‘Cervantes’—but this time a fictional Cervantes: the meat-world Cervantes’s virtual-reality representation of himself. The SecondLife in-world character ‘Cervantes’ claims he has uncovered the translated manuscripts of Sidi Hamid Benengali and proceeds to tell us the story of Don Quixote, not as Benengali ‘wrote it down’ (because Benengali’s story has errors) but to cure Benengali’s unreliability and fix the errors and fill in the gaps. So by now we have been four times removed from the original author/narrator and nothing—Nothing!—is certain. With Savall’s and Hespèrion XXI’s and Abraham’s added interpretations, make that five times or six times! By this time, Cervantes’s unreliability as a narrator makes us hold in abeyance everything he says; makes us wonder what is reliable, if anything. Click here to have a look at Dissociative Identity Disorder DSM-IV 300.14. Does Cervantes’s familiarity with this psychiatric condition inform the way that he writes what he writes here?

To Cervantes, the world is this multivalent, polysemous, polyphonic, multi-layered, hybridized, impossibly pluralistic thing—very different from the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church at the time. Cervantes tries to link things, to map things (in what some analysts say is a ‘Neoplatonic’ way?)—microcosmos to macrocosmos; explicatio (unfolding) to complicatio ([re-]folding). The ‘Don Quixote’ novel is this way and, musically, ‘Romances y Músicas de Don Quijote’ is this way as well. It is as though it is an early 17th Century mash-up.
I    t has become a commonplace to typify modernity as both intrinsically sociological and reflexive, and to cite modernism’s self-consciousness as one of its direct results... an increased anxiety about what it means to render oneself, and to affect others, narratively. What does it mean to assume (or defy) the responsibilities which storytelling perforce assigns? ... It is the rise of the modern city or the invention of abstract labor by a market-driven economy or the legal and philosophical redefinition of personhood which underpins modern narrative... [In a realist novel] the autonomous individual continues to pursue an idealism he/she recognizes as no longer tenable, positing an immanent ‘return to itself’ in a world permeated by metaphysical homelessness. In contrast, modernist fiction disembeds the self [and substitutes instrumentalizing societal power] and, by abandoning the tempered irony which enables the self to be deployed as a fictive construction in the first place, breaks faith with ‘the only home the novel has ever known’.”
  —  Adam Newton, Narrative Ethics, p. 31.
The mashup juxtaposes conflicts, contradictions, jokes, tensions, post-Reformation accomodations of authority and defiances of authority. We experience blending of Biblical narratives and traditions of Church Fathers, colliding with Islamic/Moorish concepts and tensions ... with the Jewish Conversos culture of Cervantes’s family, with pagan myths, with humor, with post-Copernican science—and with restlessness as a way of modern life.

What I’m saying is that Jordi Savall et al. have concocted far more than a beautiful, historically-informed musical-theatrical production. This is not your typical ‘Early Music’. They are rendering a multi-cultural, post-modern new-music multi-media mashup that concomitantly is authentic Spanish Renaissance early music ... that is to say, a work that’s positively brilliant as post-modern Web 2.0 culture and, as such, is as fresh and radically ‘meta’ as any artistic work you’ll find anywhere. The literary and musical effect is, much as Cervantes once wrote, ‘exemplary’—the elements juxtaposed in this way enable us to contemplate many thoughts, different interpretations, roll them around in our minds. ‘Exemplary’ fictions, told in a light-handed, exemplificatory, ‘meta-meta’ way—the reader-listener turned out on her/his own, to figure out what to make of the mashup’s meaning.

M    enard’s aim was never to produce a mere mechanical transcription of the original ‘Don Quixote’; he did not propose to copy it. His ambition was instead to produce a work that would coincide—word for word, line for line—with those of Miguel de Cervantes... The initial method he conceived was relatively simple: to know Spanish exceedingly well; to re-embrace the Catholic faith; to fight against Moors and Turks; to forget European history between 1602 and 1918; and ultimately to be Miguel de Cervantes... Shall I confess that I often imagine that he finished it and that I am reading Don Quixote—the entire work—as if Menard [Savall] had conceived it? Several nights ago, while leafing through Chapter XXVI—which Menard had never attempted—I recognized our friend’s style and, as it were, his voice in this exceptional phrase: ‘The nymphs of the rivers, mournful and humid Echo’.”
  —  Jorge Luis Borges, Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote.
Hespèrion XXI’s account conveys this sort of uncertainty and cross-cultural mashup. The theme of surviving culture wars and other adversities through self-reliance—a [post-]modernistic sense of this is well-represented in these pieces. So also is Cervantes’s rejection of doctrinaire superstition and magic while still nurturing hope in things unseen. Savall and the ensemble musicians deliver animated, convincing performances. And Abraham (perhaps best known for his Academy Award for Best Actor in 1984 for his portrayal of Antonio Salieri in ‘Amadeus’) has stage presence and dramatic skills that are magnetic, riveting—ideally suited to this historically-informed production. The poetic urgency of Abraham’s delivery is wholly compelling, especially when evoking the Renaissance Jesuit’s skeptical regard for faith as a way to explain events in the physical world; when evoking Cervantes’s ironies; when rendering his humor and ruses.

We were 100% captivated by this superb performance—diverted by it, yes, but also led to reflect on the ambiguities and conflicts that the elements that were juxtaposed in the meta-meta-mashup conjure … to decide what they mean for us in the audience, and what they signify to Cervantes and to Jordi and his colleagues. [Jordi’s trick faux-encore to surprise Murray Abraham by having the ensemble sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to him—before the group did their real encore—was a nice, impromptu touch. Abraham was genuinely moved by this gesture, and so, too, were we in the audience. Bravo!]

T    o make the world plausible [the playwright; the composer] has to create someone with a substantial ego, someone who would recognize the existence of many other egos, but subdue them sufficiently by the sheer size of his own generous, charming, overwhelming confidence—someone who would believe himself to be the center of any universe—in other words, an actor. ... Inventing worlds is our stock in trade.”
  —  F. Murray Abraham, Midsummer Night’s Dream: Actors on Shakespeare, p. 2.

I    t seems to me that the situation we find ourselves in today because of fundamental interpretations of religions has steered us into violence, which is what most religions suggest they are against. The point is that it’s not true. If Christians really practiced what Christ suggests, which I believe is great and revolutionary, and if people really followed the tenets of Mohammad, which embraces many religious ideas… But they’re not. … People who are suffering because of religions still cling to their religions. I don’t quite understand that. It’s possible they don’t want to think for themselves. It’s possible they prefer to give over their responsibilities as thinking sentient human beings to some ‘powers that be’, [prefer] to relinquish their responsibilities to their children, their families, their future.”
  —  F. Murray Abraham, interview in Gothamist, 21-APR-2008.

21 October 2008

Performing Arts, Free-Market Failure, and New Institutional Economics

Market w/ externalities, social and private ‘goods’ and ‘bads’

W    alt Whitman was democracy’s poet—who understood that democracy is not just a form of government but a way of life rooted in culture. Bill Ivey is culture’s eloquent advocate who knows that, as democracy needs the arts, the arts need the advocacy of government. His manifesto [Arts, Inc.] is a passionate attack on the commercialization of culture and a plea for a cultural ‘Bill of Rights’ that will restore to all Americans their right to a heritage, to creative expression and to a creative life. This is not just a vital book about the arts, but a vital book about democracy.”
  —  Benjamin Barber, author of ‘Jihad vs. McWorld’ and ‘Consumed’.
A    rts, Inc.’ is the first comprehensive effort to explore the role and potential of a coordinated vision for art, culture, and expression in American public life. Through strands of personal and professional memoir, policy analysis, for-profit and nonprofit industry insights, and personal conviction, Bill Ivey defines a new canvas for more productive and inclusive conversations on the expressive life of our nation and its citizens.”
  —  Andrew Taylor, Bolz Center for Arts Administration, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
T    he boom in music festivals poses a challenge to economists because of the glaring contrast to the financial distress that standing orchestras and opera companies and other performing arts entities find themselves in. Unit costs of production in the performing arts are still steadily increasing while labor productivity in the art is constant. This is the essence of [Baumol’s & Bowen’s] so-called ‘Cost Disease’. As a result, the performing arts ... are faced with a secular threat of survival because of [their] continually increasing cost relative to other consumer goods and services. The relevance of the Cost Disease has been challenged for various reasons. In particular, if demand [for concerts] rises more quickly than that for other goods (income elasticity > 1) and the price elasticity of demand is larger than –1, then prices and revenues can possibly be raised sufficiently to keep pace with the rising costs... The basic idea [of the validity of Cost Disease in the performing arts] has, however, been accepted and [today] provides one of the major building blocks for economic analysis of the arts.”
  —  Bruno Frey, Arts & Economics, p. 73.
Should we change our ticket prices or booking fees this year? How much discounting or comping should we do to get more attendee butts in seats and, if we do more than we’ve done in the past, will that help or hurt sales of regular tickets or subscriptions? If our ensemble does pro bono or deeply-discounted performances in some cities, will that help or hurt our bookings for bigger-margin gigs elsewhere?

These questions are perennial ones, for artists, agents, presenters, governmental and NGO policy makers, and others. For all of these stakeholders, the questions are even more salient during the present economic downturn.

There are several new books that elucidate how to go about making these decisions—both the microeconomic/operational ones, and the macroeconomic/policy ones. The books by Bruno Frey and by Bill Ivey are especially notable.

Bruno Frey
Frey maintains that people are genetically, evolutionarily disposed to seek status and strive for experiences—it is part of the psychology and ‘economy of happiness’, which is the subject of his new book. The analysis and its logic are, I think, particularly germane to chamber music and other of the performing arts. Frey focuses on ‘taxes on positional externalities’ [not necessarily the ordinary types of taxes; ‘taxes’ can equally well be embodied by specific, differentiated price structures such that not everybody pays the same price]. Economists who advocate ‘taxes on positional externalities’ underestimate the consequence of the innate human drive for status: when one outlet is blocked, individuals aggressively and reflexively seek alternatives to differentiate themselves. All economically-active individuals do this, able-bodied and non-able-bodied alike. Even if taxation of consumption were successful in countering negative positional externalities, people would still try to distinguish themselves. (The only ones who do not are those who are institutionalized or otherwise economically inactive.)

The positional externalities in those other dimensions might be weak, in which case the taxation of consumption differences may be warranted and effective, according to Frey’s theory. But if the negative external effects created by differences in the other dimensions are strong—as they are with performing arts—then taxation of consumption differences will be ineffective and counterproductive. Frey’s highly-readable chapters assess in detail the consequences of substituting other dimensions when positional externalities due to income or consumption are effectively blocked by taxation.

Frey is, in the end, open-minded as regards taxing positional externalities; he takes a pragmatic view, and makes his determinations on the goodness or badness of the consequences of the policies on a context-sensitive, case-by-case basis. For Frey, the answer to the public agency’s or presenter’s or manager’s or ensemble’s question of whether positional externalities due to differences in income and consumption should be taxed depends on the effects of taxation on incentives, on consumer’s buying decisions, and on the resulting net public welfare. If the nonprofit presenter (or government or other agency) tries to reduce prevailing inequalities by setting a ticket price-structure (or discount or comp ticket policies that back-handedly ‘tax’ those who are more able to bear a larger expense) and that price-structure only weakly affects the buying decisions of those market segments who are affected by the top-tier prices, then the taxation is effective and justified in terms of the net public welfare or public good. If, on the other hand, the ‘progressive tax’ on positional externalities in income and consumption causes the top-tier market segments to transfer their drive for status to other consumables or other dimensions, then the pricing/taxation scheme is ineffective and unjustified, on the grounds that it harms the public good.

Under Frey’s rubric, the same could be said of performing artists or ensembles. If an ensemble establishes a ‘progressive taxation’ structure in which engagements have booking fees priced according to the ‘ability-to-pay’ and/or incremental kickers (‘base-plus-percent-of-boxoffice’) and this policy does not deter presenters from booking the ensemble, then the scheme can be said, post facto, to have been effective and justified. By contrast, if many presenters will not accept the price structure and terms, then in hindsight it can be said to have been a failure and unjustified in terms of the net public good, insofar as the pricing will have deprived the public of valuable cultural experiences or in some way diminished the cultural diversity.

Bill Ivey
Ivey’s book analyzes the consequences of relentless corporatization of the arts and of performing arts outputs in particular. Bill Ivey had served as NEA Chairman from 1998 to mid-2001. While he had prior to that time had a long career as head of the Country Music Foundation and as an advocate for the arts, it was that 3-year term of service that appears to have galvanized his concept of the arts as a collection of public goods—a set of resources as vital as clean air and water and endangered species and wilderness—to which everyone has a basic human right, and to which government and other institutions owe a duty of stewardship. Prior to 2002 he would merely preach; but today in this book his ‘hair is on fire’ as he expounds prophet-like words of alarm and proposes essential elements of public arts policy in his call-to-arms.

V    ery few observers of the contemporary U.S. and global arts worlds have Bill Ivey’s capacity for first-hand examples of how trade representatives, artists, music executives, corporate attorneys, elected officials, non-profit executives and many other participants influence the course of the arts, and in particular, the public’s access to the arts. ‘Arts, Inc.’ is an important work because it asserts, in an urgent manner, that people have a right to a better expressive life.”
  —  John Kreidler, formerly Executive Director, Cultural Initiatives-Silicon Valley.
These recent books are each, in their own ways, emblematic of New Institutional Economics (NIE), an interdisciplinary field that has emerged since about 1995, combining economics, law, organization theory, systems engineering, neuroscience, philosophy, political science, sociology, and anthropology—to understand the institutions of social, political, and commercial life, and to help set policy and perform quantitative program evaluations. The objective is a set of rational frameworks for future developments of regional politics, regulations and protection, infrastructure amenities, finances and taxes so that the public goods are sustainable and can have durable popular support. NIE inevitably entails intensive political re-evaluation. NIE draws upon various social-science disciplines, but its primary language is economics. Its broader goal is to characterize what our societies’ institutions are, what purposes they serve, and how they change and how they might best be improved and changed—all institutions, not just arts organizations. Have a look at the International Society for New Institutional Economics (ISNIE) and other of the links below to find out more about this.

It’s these days inconceivable that politicians or government agency officials will choose well or support a sufficient diversity of programs or foster robust innovation and creativity. The politics of divisiveness and fear and recrimination is too extensive, and CoverYourAss ‘cartels’ are too strong.

But it’s also lately inconceivable that the illustrious so-called free market will sustainably support diversity in the arts either. The free market has done so well, after all, in messing up such ordinary things like banking. Leaving things to the free market, we end up with ‘McWorld’ lowest-common-denominator populism and commodification of the arts.

So NIE-style approaches and deep re-evaluations of the sort that Bill Ivey and Bruno Frey are advancing are therefore timely. I strongly recommend that you pick up copies of their books. And, imagining that some of you CMT readers may like to contact Bill or Bruno regarding speaking to your group or collaborating on research or other activities, I’ve put their contact coordinates in the links below.