Friday, January 08, 2010

Monday Evening Concerts: Mostly Californian

Last May Sequenza21, a New York music blog, wrote about the retirement of Randy Coleman, a professor of music composition at Oberlin. He described a concert from Oberlin's "glory days" (maybe the late sixties?):
"...to enter you needed to take a sugar pill with a dot on it...and you rolled the dice, cause 1/3 of the dots were LSD..."
I had never heard of Coleman before, but this description made my jaw drop just enough to bookmark the reference.


Today I ran across a YouTube video of composer Clint McCallum, that's him on the gun. Some of the things he said made my jaw drop just enough to want to share them here on Mixed Meters. Turns out that McCallum is a student of Randy Coleman. Now I've heard of Randy Coleman twice.

McCallum, clad in black cowboy hat and black t-shirt with the word "Death" on it, is describing his composition for soprano saxophone and piano. The piece is called "In a Hall of Mirrors Waiting to Die." (ah, the t-shirt does make sense) and it will be performed Monday night, January 11, 2010, at the venerable Monday Evening Concerts, a Los Angeles institution which has somehow survived until its seventieth season or so.

Here are Mr. McCallum's words:
I come from a tradition of avant garde academic composition and so a lot of techniques and a lot of ideas that have inspired me are very heady, very philosophical and very technical. But, there's also a side of my music that's just plain stupid.

He has to hold the same note which is very high at the very top of the range and very loud for a very long time. That adds a whole sense of anticipation for the whole piece. For one, you're wondering, okay, how long can this guy possibly hold this. You see his face get red, he seems to be in pain. On top of that, you're sort of in pain. I mean, it's loud and it's incessant and it won't stop.

By the time things change in the piece, we as listeners kind of are half deafened by this note.

My music, and particularly this piece, I think this is a good example of this, takes tropes of art music. I mean it's written for a concert hall, it's written for a concert audience, and that situation. The way it's written and the way it's performed, over the course of the piece, takes it outside of that. And gets to something that is more visceral but also just more physical and seems maybe not so much concert music anymore. I'm not going to say it's rock music, but there's something there that is breaking down that third wall.

It's not important to me whether the audience enjoys my music or not. But that is purely for the reason that as a listener I have found the most meaning in music comes from music that has challenged me, that has challenged my sense of self and my self of aesthetics. And if musicians had worried too much about whether I was going to enjoy the music they were playing for me, I never would have had these experiences where music literally changed me, where it literally changed my life.

So I have to approach music the same way because I do want my music to change lives.


This particular MEC concert is called Mostly Californian. The title perplexes me because three out of the five composers are very recent transplants to California, while the others, Anton Webern and Milton Babbitt, have no known relationship to the Pacific coast. Still, MEC is to be commended for even this small attempt at showcasing local talent.

Clint McCallum's home page. When he talks about the "third wall", I suspect he means this. The picture of him on the gun barrel comes from his MySpace page. The picture of the baby on the gun barrel sculpture comes from here via here.

Other MM references to MEC:
In Which David Says Good Riddance to Bad Acoustics
30 Second Spots - The Medallion (sorry, the mp3 of The Medallion is not available. If anyone cares, I'd be happy to repost it. This post prompted my Musical Manifesto)

MEC Tags: . . . . . .

5 comments:

Red Zebra said...

Hmm, I'm trying to understand the design of only 1/3 of the participants getting acid on their sugar.

Another meaningless observation, the image of McCallum on the canon barrel seems reminiscent of Slim Pickens riding the bomb in Dr. Strangelove--wonder if there was a connection there.

John Steinmetz said...

I'm glad that L.A. offers such a huge range of music, and this is one reason I'm grateful for Monday Evening Concerts, because the series makes for a more complete musical ecosystem. I feel this way independent of my reactions to a particular program.

David, I looked at your earlier post about the final MEC performance at LACMA, and so much of what you said eventually came to pass. The series is now at Zipper, a much friendlier hall for musical sound. The energy around the concerts is much more lively and exciting, and the audiences have been good-sized—sometimes it's tough to get a ticket.

I also read your "Manifesto." I didn't keep score, but I feel similarly about some of the stuff. I also connect with what Daniel Wolf said. There does seem to be a lot of objecting in the music world, complaining about what others like. I don't quite understand why there's so much negativity (maybe it's easier or more fun for humans to write about what we don't like), but it's so hard to make performances happen (let alone good ones) that I think it's more fruitful to give encouragement to those moments we like. (That's assuming that the goal is to foster more of whatever we like.)

Once I attended a new music salon where a local critic shamed the audience for not attending more new music concerts. That really upset me; I don't think concertgoing should ever be an obligation or a duty. People need to be free to make their own decisions about what to attend, if anything. And sometimes it really is better to make one's own music than to listen to others.

docker said...

Mr. Zebra - yeah, I thought about Dr. Strangelove when I saw that picture. It's Photoshopped - notice the sharp shadow of his hat versus no shadow whatsoever for the large bronze phallus. And I wonder what kind of music they were presenting on that "maybe-you'll-get-dosed" event at Oberlin. I hope the pieces were pretty damn psychedelic.

John - much of what makes the Monday Evening Concerts problematical for me is distinguishing between the institution and the content. After reading Dorothy Crawford's history of MEC, I realized what a vital, essential element of the community it was once. Today it seems almost vestigal and the small number of concerts makes it next to impossible to cover all the deserving music. Over the decades the institution has shrunk considerably but the potential content has grown by leaps and bounds. It's like looking into a room through a keyhole - what does get programmed is given far too much importance through the sheer infrequency of the events.

By the way, I was not trying to say that I didn't like Clint McCallum's sax and piano piece - there was not enough of it on that video to make a judgement. What I heard made me think it wasn't worth traveling to the concert for. I was taken aback by some of the naive ideas in his narrative however. Calling his own music stupid is not a good career move for a composer.

Whenever I hear someone suggest that they want their music to change people, my eyes roll. I've been hearing sentiments like those for decades and I've concluded that you cannot change people via music. (They can change themselves after listening - that's quite different. But composers don't have the power to create change in others.)

McCallum's MySpace page had several lengthy "tape" pieces which I found much more interesting.

Thank you both for posting.

Red Zebra said...

This line about LSD got me reflecting and I know it's not the focus of the post but I have another personal observation. Other than some private "jam sessions" I never attended a live musical event under the influence of LSD. I wasn't inclined to do so for one particular reason, I didn't like "surprises" in music on that or any hallucinogenic drug. I really enjoyed listening to music but it needed to be recorded works which I was familiar with. Music was a means to "comfort" the drug. On the other hand one of the things that is most valuable to me in my sober musical experience is surprises.

Office of the Cultural Liaisons said...

I just take his statement as a way to guide the listener toward a direct experience of the music away from the serious, pretentious, and over cooked approaches to music making by so many before him. I have found quite a few younger composers sharing similar ideas and exploiting outrageousness [especially from cal arts:) ]