Meiravi Quartet Debut

Sunday, March 20th, 2011

For several months I have been pleased to be working with a group of fine musicians on the debut performance of our newly formed Meiravi String Quartet. The ensemble, all long time friends, consists of Igor Szwec and Greg Teperman on violin, Vivian Barton Dozor on cello, and me on viola. The concert is at 8pm, Saturday, April 9, 2011 in the Hall of the Flags, Houston Hall, UPENN, 3417 Spruce Street, Philadelphia, PA.

We have had the good fortune to coordinate our program with the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts (PIFA) which, likewise, is commencing its premier season this year from April 7 to May 3. PIFA’s theme this year is PARIS: 1910-1920. After consultation with PIFA’s Artistic Director, Barbara Silverstein, we were inspired to program our concert in the following manner:

A) We open the concert with Anton Rubinstein’s lovely Kammenoi Ostrow, Opus 10, #22. We say this is how music was in the late 19th century: Dreamy, melodic, a beautiful phantasy of life as it never was.

B) Then, we play Stravinsky’s Concertino for String Quartet: Brutal, rhythmic, mechanistic. We say that Stravinsky’s music explodes with reality as it was, expressive of tensions that are a result of the industrial revolution and also of an increasingly smaller world with nationalities and cultures increasingly in contact and conflict. Plus, add into the mix an expanding human consciousness of, and reaction to, internal and cultural conflict, and you might have the essential ingredients for the looming World War.

C) After the Stravinsky we discuss the interesting developments in the music of other composers in Paris at the time.

Satie – Six Gnossiennes: #1 and #3: In stark contrast to the music of Wagner, Strauss, Mahler, and other more prominent composers, Eric Satie’s music has a remarkable simplicity endowed with an unusual harmonic sophistication within an almost surrealist emotional attitude.

Debussy – Golliwog’s Cake Walk: Debussy takes off from Wagner but moves in an entirely unexpected direction. Musical “insiders” will note the little Wagnerian “joke” Debussy plays quoting from Tristan and Isolde in the middle section of the work.

Ravel – Pavane pour une Infante Defunte: Ravel often displays a beautiful, but reserved melodic quality in his lovingly constructed works.

D) After the trio of French composers, we say that during the musical and cultural revolution of Paris, another musical revolution was occurring across the ocean in America. While not as explosive as the Parisian revolution, the American musical revolution was maybe more raucous, equally as deep, and perhaps broader and more comprehensive. The musical revolution to which I am referring, of course, is Jazz. We then say that the music of George Gershwin perfectly illustrates the rhythmic energy of jazz and the high spirits of the American cultural revolution. We then play:

Gershwin: 3 Preludes

-Intermission-

E) My own String Quartet #1 in Blue is based on a three note motive from Arnold Schoenberg’s seminal 1912 chamber work, Pierrot Lunaire. Simply stated, the many facets of the motive are comprehensively transformed in each of the work’s four movements. An apt summary description of the work might be to imagine that, one fine day, composer Nocella happens to meet composers Arnold Schoenberg and Duke Ellington, film director Frederico Fellini, and they all sit down together to have a musical party.

F) To close the program, we perform Astor Piazzolla’s Libertango, a fitting tribute to musical and personal freedom.

For tickets go to Meiravi Quartet on this website or go to www.meiraviquartet.com. For further information: (email) meiraviquartet@peternocella.com or (phone) 610-662-7000 or (address) Meiravi Quartet, Box 893, Narberth, PA 19072

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Payola Theory: The “Gimmick” in Minimalist Music

Friday, January 21st, 2011

The minimalist music of such composers as Steve Reich, Philip Glass, John Adams, and others, as commonly understood, is formed by the repetition of certain simple phrases, harmonic progressions, or patterns over and over with small variations to maintain interest. The manner in which the repetitive element is processed is understood as the key stylistic element, and the nature of the subject material doesn’t seem to much matter. For example, it does not seem to make a difference whether the subject is an early 19th century harmonic progression, a Debussyian or Stravinskyian melodic motif, or a Haydnesque scale pattern, the important element is the repetitive process to which it is subjected.

Also, this repetitive process in minimalist music is often associated, or possibly even “glamorized” with the mystique of an Eastern philosophy or musical aesthetic. While I would not reject this association, I would maintain that the repetitive process also serves a more mundane purpose: It persuades the mind that it is “enjoying” the music it is hearing. Remembering that the listener during the performance is a “captive” audience member, the constant repetition seems to make an hypnotic mental imprint and induces the listener to accept the subject musical material as being pleasing without much regard to its intrinsic quality.

This musical practice is not without precedent. In the American popular music industry there was an illegal practice known as “payola,” in which recording companies, popular singers, and songwriters, would bribe radio disc jockeys to have their recorded songs played on air as frequently as possible. While obviously there were social implications in Payola and the songs, themselves, tended to be simple and repetitive, I will restrict my comments to the purely musical effects. In this case the main idea is that the listener, having heard the song enough times, would be persuaded to like the song and would then go out to purchase the recording. Payola reached a high water mark in the 1950’s and 60’s and sharply declined after public scandals involving music producers, artists, and DJs revealed the scam.

The suggestion here being made is that cleverly, whether consciously or not, minimalist music composers somehow hit upon the idea that the constant repetition of phrases, patterns, etc. would make said imprint on the listener, and in effect, achieve the same desired result that the purveyors of payola had hoped for: have their music accepted by the listening public resulting in increased sales and profit. And it was all done legally by simply writing in the number of repeats necessary to input the music into the listeners’ mind. You might say that minimalism is the “Rock’n Roll” of the classical world, in which the constant repetition of simple melodic and harmonic patterns makes an appeal to the lowest common denominator in our music listening abilities.

Historically, on a more positive note, the advent of minimalism along with the “Sound Theater” of composers like George Crumb or Michael Colgrass can be viewed as a welcome respite from the much more ascetic serialism of Boulez or the mathematic/scientific pretensions of Stockhausen and Xenakis which held sway in much of the 50’s and 60’s. And in truth, I myself am not immune and have incorporated something of minimalism in my own musical style.

Currently, minimalism, as such, has been on the wane for quite a while though it has undoubtedly contributed concepts of interest to contemporary composers and their audience and can often be quite enjoyable on its own terms. However, minimalism was destined to be a passing fad appealing, as it does, mainly to the instinctual level of the human mind and not also to the higher mental processes. Ultimately, it lacks the power of the best music in the Western tradition. The greatest music of such composers as Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Mahler not only reaches the instinctual level, but also seems to have an integrating and transformative effect on the higher mind. Small wonder, then, that we value the “Mozart Effect” in Western education. It is also no surprise that people of other cultures likewise share the same high regard for Western music as exemplified by the increasing numbers of Asian children taking violin lessons or participating in other such musical training.

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