Bruce Weigl, Cambodia, Carlos Chavez, David Letterman, Elliott Carter, Gabriela Ortiz, Grammy Awards, John Cage, LA International New Music Festival, Mineko Grimmer, Nieuw Ensemble, Song Hong Ensemble, Tambuco Percussion Ensemble, Unsuk Chin, Vietnam War, Vu Nhat Tan, William Kraft
David Letterman, the revered American comic who has been keeping us up late at night for over 30 years here in the United States, revealed the two components of a good joke. To be funny the joke has to be 1) Obvious and 2) Stupid. Say all the words right and you can cue laughter.
If you are already one of my 4500 blog readers in 80 countries, you know I don’t see my LA International New Music Festival as an independent endeavor. So many ideas go into artistic decisions that adopting a single viewpoint is at the least annoying and at the worst dishonest. My thoughts and plots for the 2015 Festival continue apace, but for this post I thought I’d create an exposition of idea and concept behind the next installment.
Which brings me back to David Letterman. Artistic ideas also can learn a lot from his advice, though I will translate his second admonition important to create laughter into an appropriate cultural analogy. In the world of the arts my translation of Letterman’s sage advice is that the ideas that are successful are 1) Obvious and 2) Genuine.
To discover the obvious is to dedicate yourself to an omnivorous curiousity about the world around you. That’s why my blog is an organic reflection of my personality, my friends, meetings, meals, travels, ideas, influences, questions and experiences. We have a familiar idiom in English that something “is right in front of your nose” – a good description of the frustration of missing the obvious. I want to dream, support and then act on the dreams with the support.
A good history teacher should teach you that there are multiple viewpoints to events. Stark contrasts, the proverbial black and white, might make for good headlines and click-bait, but the layers of experience needed to comprehend the truth are far more complicated. H.L. Mencken once quipped that to every complicated question there’s a simple answer, and it’s always wrong.
So the first obvious item to consider for the Los Angeles International New Music Festival is, drumroll, the name of Los Angeles. I’ve not called it the ‘American International New Music Festival’ or ‘Look At Us, We’re Cool Festival’ for good reason.
What do I see when I look at the name? Is it LA, the only major city known by an abbreviation? It’s not “The Angels” either.
So look closely. The city’s name is in Spanish. Now the story gets interesting, and for starters the city’s name means we go all the way back to Cortez and his conquistadors landing in Veracruz in the early 16th century. Maybe 1492. But my God, the Jesuit history teachers I had as a young student would be laughing at me for a lack of thoroughness! Because to understand the Spanish Conquest of the New World, you need to understand China and India and the spice trade. The Jesuits started my American history class with a semester from Genghis Khan to Marco Polo. We are in the same story in our own generation, with the major difference being that colonialism and imperialism were violently swept aside in the 20th century, the Cold War has come and gone and now propped up dictators and false, primarily British, colonial borders are being redefined. Welcome to the 21st century.
Naming things, plants, people, animals, stars in the sky, space capsules or automobiles, is a human attribute. Nicknaming them, as in LA for Los Angeles, denotes a sign of familial affection. With a last name of von der Schmidt, I felt I’d be poorly cast if I didn’t learn to speak German, which I did in Salzburg and Vienna in the late 1970s (growing up in Minnesota, my mother didn’t speak English until she was about 6 years old). Words and names are important. They are how we express ideas to each other.
“Mr. von der Schmidt, I’m a young musician with a chamber group. How did you win 2 Grammy Awards and 9 nominations thus far?”
I’ve been asked the question above, in various forms, for the last 10 years. And I have a three part answer: 1) Goethe was right: without commitment nothing happens 2) Drucker was right: develop secondary interests as well as your professional career and 3) Cage was right: study, to the best of your ability, with the president of the company.
These three ideas, to commit, broaden your horizon, and study your profession to the best of your ability, are easy to write but challenging to unravel. And in addition to those ideas, here’s a practical tip: always show up on time.
I love new characters. Now’s a good time to bring a living legend, composer/conductor William Kraft, into my blog, still vigorous at 90. He’s a good example of Cage’s admonition to study with the “president of the company.” A member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic (notice the name of the orchestra) he’s taught me a great deal about music over the last 30 years of friendship. His mind remains prestissimo and encyclopedic, his long association with Igor Stravinsky a wonderful example of a living tradition in, yes, the classical music world of Los Angeles.
And he has the best sense of time in the business!
I’ve gone from watching him play the timpani in the orchestra, inspiring me in so many ways as a young musician (his contribution to performances of Le sacre du printemps are seared in my mind), to working with him on Veils and Variations, a horn concerto world premiered with my best friend Kent Nagano and the Berkeley Symphony, to his suggestion that I would need to work with Ricardo Gallardo of Tambuco to get the percussion sounds right for the music of Carlos Chavez. After all, he conducted the world premiere of Chavez’s Tambuco here in Los Angeles at the Monday Evening Concerts. Tambuco (the group) and Southwest have collaborated on two CD projects, the complete percussion works of Carlos Chavez and the Encounters of William Kraft, a 3 CD set taking three years to rehearse, perform, and record.
The result of those projects? Four Grammy nominations, two from the mainstream Grammy, for Best Classical Album and Best Small Ensemble and two from Latin Grammy for Best Classical Album. Two tours to Mexico City and Guadalajara. Indirectly this visibility encouraged FONCA in Mexico, their version of our NEA, to fund a CD of Gabriela Ortiz, which resulted in a 2013 Latin Grammy nomination. By most every definition these activities are called success. Turning towards Mexico was easy for me. Look again at the name Los Angeles and you’ll see what I mean.
Now let’s look at that city map again.
Here is another reason why I love LA. Because what else is obvious here is the Pacific Ocean. We live at the end of the Western World. Next stop Asia. When Rama Krishna sent Sri Vivekananda from India to the West in 1899, his first few weeks were in South Pasadena. So if you’ve eaten yogurt or practice yoga that late 19th century visit was key.
But when you think of the fact that we all live in a transformed world of technology and social media, California and the Pacific Northwest come into obvious view. Microsoft in Seattle, Apple, Google, Facebook and Twitter in the Bay Area, and still Hollywood in Los Angeles. Harvard doesn’t have an engineering department, are you kidding me? No wonder Stanford is overtaking their perch as the most important American university.
Obvious being my operative word for this post, heading towards Asia is a given if you live in Los Angeles, which by its own name heads you to Latin America. The three most populous counties in the United States for Asian immigrants? You won’t need to rub your eyes: Los Angeles County, Orange County and Santa Clara County, all in California. Notice Spanish surnames for two out of three, with the third being a tremendous Asian symbol of prosperity.
My use of the word obvious now can take on some perspective. What’s obviously similar about the preceding two photos?
War. As in World War II and the Vietnam War. Devastating, tragic and wounding to all involved. Japan lost, Vietnam won as did we in reverse order. And so what is the purpose of music, of the arts, of culture? As artists we need to say “Enough” with loud voices to those painful memories. Collectively we try to warn people of consequences, to express results and dream of a better future. As Americans shaped by the Vietnam War with parents who fought World War II, it was obvious to turn our energy to Southeast Asia. The U.S government had no coherent plan for the Vietnam War, that’s become a painful historic fact. Stopping Communism was a hope, not a strategy. That naive hope, based in the HUAC hearings of McCarthy, paved the road to confusion and defeat.
But the arts can often succeed where politics and business fail.
Southwest was the first American new music ensemble to tour to Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge and to Vietnam after the Vietnam War. Accomplished in 2006, a long time ago, a little trailblazing is also part of being a new music ensemble living in Los Angeles, and set the stage for our current developments.
And another obvious thing to do is to deepen our relationships with Vietnam after producing the largest cultural exchange in history for Secretary Hillary Clinton’s State Department in 2010. Composer Vu Nhat Tan was the first composer in residence for the inaugural LA International New Music Festival in 2012, we returned for a substantive fact finding trip in September and October of 2013 and the Song Hong Ensemble of Hanoi visited Los Angeles this April in 2014 (search four earlier blog posts for those stories).
An obvious new music idea? Create the environment for a major artistic statement, a work that will sum up the experience of war, its aftermath, its impact, on human beings. We had done that for Cambodia with Chinary Ung’s Aura in 2006. When I met Bruce Weigl, a Vietnam War veteran and distinguished American poet, I knew the next step with composer Vu Nhat Tan. Many thanks for my friend Howard Stokar in New York City, who manages Steve Reich, David del Tredici and Charles Wuorinen and introduced me to Bruce (via Howard’s introduction to Bruce from Annie Proulx). I put Bruce and Tan together so Tan could explore Bruce’s poetry. Remembering my translation of David Letterman, here was the making of an obvious and genuine project.
I’ve never had a good project come together quickly, one of the reasons I am deliberately reflecting a lot in planning the 2015 Festival. My rule of thumb is that I find the project ready for the public after I’ve read a minimum of 1,000 pages of research, unrelated to music but pertaining to the narrative of the subject. Nothing falls fully formed from the sky into your lap easily, that’s been my experience.
The world premiere of The Song of Napalm with music by Vu Nhat Tan and words by Bruce Weigl needed from 2006, when I first met Tan in Hanoi, to 2012 to become reality. The shattering work received a standing ovation at our first festival and will lead to many more exciting ideas. It was commissioned by Randy Schoenberg, Arnold’s grandson, a wonderful and again obvious friendship for us in our community.
My mom taught me to be thorough. Here is another obvious fact: the Vietnam War was simultaneous with the Civil Rights Movement, both being turned up full blast during the summer of 1964 with the Freedom Summer in Mississippi and the Gulf of Tonkin Incident in North Vietnam. So undertaking the world premiere of Ten Freedom Summers by Wadada Leo Smith, a cycle of works concerned with nothing less than the huge canvas of the Civil Rights Movement needing three consecutive evenings for performance, was a logical choice and a natural sibling to our work in Vietnam.
I am proud this monumental work was a runner up for the Pulitzer Prize. I remain stunned a young composer with virtually no body of work to her credit bested Wadada’s vision of this defining moment of American history (at 70 he’s not getting started or younger), but I’m afraid that’s another story. Talk about not doing the obvious….
Did I mention that Terrence Roberts of the Little Rock Nine, is a neighbor in Pasadena? He read the opening Thoreau inspired preface of John Cage’s Lecture on the Weather for our Cage 2012 series. Another example of seeing the obvious.
So the origin of my LA International New Music Festival was clear. We needed a format to celebrate the experience of our ensemble, based in Los Angeles, as it related to international projects and new friends developed over a considerable period of time. The inaugural festival coincided with our 25th anniversary season, so this is not, as they say, our first rodeo.
The tenth anniversary of our work with Tambuco occurs in the 2014-2015 season, and there are many ideas being considered with our friends in Hanoi, too many to be easily brought down to one idea or concept for a specific announcement right now. There are also important connections from another obvious source of my life, the East Coast, as my wife Jan’s grandmother was born in Brooklyn in 1904. So the word obvious starts to unravel its meaning and complexity.
And after all my travels in Asia and Mexico, I’ve not at all left out our friends in Europe. Certainly my most important apprenticeship was in the the 1970s in Vienna, where I studied French horn with Roland Berger of the Vienna Philharmonic and then attended all the rehearsals in Bayreuth for Wagner’s Ring with Pierre Boulez and Patrice Chereau. I need to scan some old documents but will hope to write a separate blog post about observing that epochal production first hand.
Our ties with Europe, through the support of Sue Bienkowski and Wang Chung Lee (they commissioned Ung’s Aura in 2004), were strengthened with the co-commission of Unsuk Chin’s cosmigimmicks for our 2013 Festival with friends in the Nieuw Ensemble in Amsterdam. The group’s founding members, Helenus de Rijke and Hans Wessling, have performed at our first two festivals with great acclaim.
And so, putting people together becomes a next step, but finding the right project is always a fascinating journey. Determining the best idea takes time. The photo below might be a hint of things to come.
This photo from 2012 is of a performance of Tan’s Rainflower for flute and guitar, written while he was at UCSD studying with Chinary Ung, who you met earlier in the blog. We’re in a global world, and an international festival is what we’ve needed for our next step, that’s for sure. Seeds have been planted between Los Angeles, Mexico, Vietnam and Europe. They need time to grow during this period of thought and reflection. Snapping your fingers doesn’t work out that well!
And so you’ve got an idea of a major festival under construction. They don’t fall fully formed from the sky. I’ll leave you with the one composer I’ve known who has had a most powerful impact on me. At 103, Elliott Carter left us the day before the re-election of Barack Obama in 2012. Elliott had voted absentee I’m sure. I doubt he could have stood a Republican victory, but I digress…
Robert Mann of the Juilliard Quartet summed up our feelings about Carter eloquently: “Schuppanzigh had Beethoven, Joachim had Brahms, but I had Elliott Carter.”
I asked Elliott a question at our last meeting in New York City a few months before he passed away. I was talking to him about Hans and Helenus of the Nieuw Ensemble in Amsterdam, who had commissioned Carter’s Luimen. We had played Schoenberg’s Serenade in 2012 and I had always wanted to talk with Elliott about Neo-classicism. A complicated topic in many ways, I wanted to hear from him what he thought. I’d mentioned the objections to the style by his good friend Pierre Boulez as a starter to the conversation.
“Compositional style has no bearing on the impact of a piece of music,” began Elliiott, his occasional stammer under control. “It’s the quality of idea that is important. Now, with Schoenberg and Stravinksy the ideas are usually pretty good, with other people not so much.” Then he broke into his Cheshire Cat grin.
Remember, always try to go to the president of the company, as much is possible, when you want to study a subject seriously. At 103, Elliott Carter was a definition of life experience and I am taking time to reflect about his impact this summer. The beauty and inspiration of his last decade of music is a worthwhile endeavor to undertake, and all his scores are constant companions. He seems alive every time I study one, which is comforting.
I hope you stay connected as the thoughts and plots from around the world come together for a great adventure for the next Los Angeles International New Music Festival in 2015. There are sure to be some new surprises as well. Sometimes all you have to do is look at what’s right in front of your nose. Dream, support, and act.
And pay attention to comics like David Letterman to bring you a fresh perspective!
Best, best, best, Jeff