How to Be Creative

Off Book is a bi-weekly video series by PBS Digital Studios. Subjects range from technology to art to pop culture. While it isn't specifically about music, this video, "How to Be Creative," has some great insights to the creative process.

Creativity has always been essential for our cultural growth, but there are still many misconceptions about this elusive process. Not the left-brain/right-brain binary that we've come to believe, being creative is considerably more complex, and requires a nuanced understanding of ourself and others. Being a powerful creative person involves letting go of preconceived notions of what an artist is, and discovering and inventing new processes that yield great ideas. Most importantly, creators must push forward, whether the light bulb illuminates or not.

via PBS Arts

Andrew Bird on Performing

Tumblr's Storyboard posted a nice interview with musician Andrew Bird in February. I've loved Bird's music since I first heard it. His music is eclectic, polished, emotional, and unpretentious. My favorite songs include "Cock o' the Walk" from the Bowl of Fire album and "Measuring Cups" from The Mysterious Production of Eggs. Some may know him from the recent movie The Muppet's, where he performed the whistling for Walter's performance. He also performed a sweet and touching version of "It's not easy being green" for the movie album. He plays violin, sings, and dabbles in many other instruments.

In this interview he focuses on why he tries to capture an amateur spirit in his performances. If I understand him correctly, he's talking about when a performance becomes so highly polished that it lacks personality and emotion. I tend to agree with him that many modern performances lack spontaneity and genuine feeling. Instead of treating each performance as a new opportunity, many musicians tend to try to recreate the exact sound from a studio album. On the other hand, I think his training and skill as a professional give him far more choices when communicating with the audience. Without that skill set any mistakes he made would be awkward, and he would not be able to "use the mishap as fuel to bring the whole performance to even greater heights."

For a little more background on the interview, see the original post at Storyboard.

Radiolab Explores Tempo in Beethoven's Music

WNYC's Radiolab is one of my favorite programs. It's hosted by Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad, who explore the world around us. In a recent podcast, they discuss the metronome markings in Ludwig van Beethoven's music, which have been quite controversial. They focus on Beethoven's Fifth Symphony since it is so well known. Some performers feel that his markings are too fast, while others take him at his word. The faster you go the more exciting it is. Radiolab wanted to explore how fast is too fast. Here is a quartet from the Brooklyn Philharmonic performing the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony at 160 beats per minute. Beethoven's marking is at 108, so this is a little silly, but also kind of fun. 

One thing that is left out of the discussion is performance practice and how that has changed over time. Our understanding of the "correct" tempos have come through the filter of the Romantic Era, where bigger is better and therefore slower (and schmaltzier) is often the norm. Early 20th century recordings bear that out, but as we come to realize that classical orchestras were not as large, and that the pieces were performed in smaller halls, performances have become faster. Conductors who are part of the historically informed performance movement, like John Eliot Gardiner, tend to take Beethoven's symphonies as marked; they seem perfectly reasonable and – in my opinion – better served. You can hear the whole "Speedy Beet" episode (18 minutes) at Radiolab's website.

Fun with Musical Instruments

Jimmy Fallon had a great game on his show Monday night. Keira Knightley, Dave Matthews, Michael Bublé and Jimmy Fallon take turns playing and guessing the names of songs they pick blindly and play on instruments also selected blindly. It looks like lots of fun. I think this would be a great game to play in a music appreciation class. Enjoy!

Google Universal Orchestra

Google has an interesting lab project called Universal Orchestra. You can participate in live music making with others across the world. The lab is set up in London at the Science Museum where visitors to the museum and those on the internet can collaborate. To participate, you wait in a virtual line to play one of four percussion instruments and then you can select pitches and control rhythm for the different parts of the instrument. The controls are pretty intuitive and It runs in a loop, so you can change the pattern over time. You can try things out on virtual instruments while you wait to play the live ones. There are four additional instruments that can only be accessed by museum visitors. While the music is minimalist in nature, the number of instruments allows for a nice variation in the loops.

Google creates a video of your time with the orchestra; my first attempt is above. I missed the tactile aspect of making music, but I liked the intuitive collaboration with other performers. I think it could be a fun way for new musicians and non-musicians to participate in collaborative music making without worrying about hitting a "wrong" note. Give it a try! Google Universal Orchestra

Elliott Carter: 1908-2012

American composer Elliott Carter died yesterday after a very long life and an excellent career. He died a few weeks before his 104th birthday, composing to the end. His 100th birthday was celebrated by many performances of his pieces, new and old. He had several premieres of new pieces this year and he finished his last composition in August. His music can be challenging for listeners, but often the best music is.

My first exposure to Carter was in college; we sang his setting of Emily Dickinson's poem, "Heart Not So Heavy As Mine." I think it was the most difficult piece I had learned to that point, but it started my interest in "new music." It seems a very appropriate way to remember him.

There are excellent obituaries at the New York Times and NPRs Deceptive Cadence.

Cosi fan tutte: "Soave sia il vento"

This trio is one of my favorite compositions by W.A. Mozart and this is my favorite recording of it. Despite the Peter Sellars production feeling very dated, (hello, 1986!) there is something about this performance that is very touching. Susan Larson plays Fiordiligi (in pink), and I had the honor of studying with her my junior and senior years at the University of New Hampshire. She and the other singers (Janice Felty as Dorabella and Sanford Sylvan as Don Alfonso), along with conductor Craig Smith give a beautiful performance.