News Analysis

News: Music


>> = Important Articles

** = Major Articles



**Study Looks at Music‑Math Link (990315)

**Song and dance boost grades in math, science (National Post, 021127)

**What Does Pop Music Have Against Marriage? (Mohler, 070228)

Pavarotti Says He Can’t Read Music (970722)

Pavarotti denies he’s “musical illiterate” (970723)

Composers give encores by computer (970807)

Orchestras face crisis as children turn off music (971100)

Goodbye, Babylon (WS, 040315)

Bravo! Mozart: Because of his greatness, Mozart cannot help but be edifying. (Weekly Standard, 060130)

So easy a caveman can do it: Music and the human soul (, 061010)

A Composer at Ease With Conflicts (Paris International Herald, 100401)





**Study Looks at Music‑Math Link (990315)


LOS ANGELES (AP) C Music lessons coupled with a special computer program significantly increased the math skills of children at an inner city elementary school, according to a study.


Learning piano and how to read music helped the children to recognize rhythmic values, note values C such as an eighth note being half of a quarter note C and identify letter names C E, G, B, D, F C from a note=s scale placement, the researchers said.


The computer program included spatial exercises such as assembling pieces of a puzzle and arranging geometric pieces in particular orders, according to the report in Monday=s edition of Neurological Research.


“The learning of music emphasizes thinking in space and time,=> the report said. “When children learn rhythm, they are learning ratios, fractions, and proportions. ... With the keyboard, students have a clear visual representation of auditory space.=>


The four‑month project was led by University of California, Irvine, professor Gordon Shaw, whose previous studies have linked music with above‑average skills in spatial concepts found in mathematics, architecture and engineering.


At the 95th Street school, which ranks 48th on the list of Los Angeles= 100 poorest‑performing institutions, 136 second‑graders were divided into several groups, some receiving piano and nonverbal computer training, and others receiving a mixture of computer and English‑language math instruction.


The students= test results were compared to a 1997 pilot study in which 102 second‑graders in below‑average schools in Orange County were given only computer program and traditional math teaching.


The Los Angeles students scored 27% higher than their Orange County counterparts in their ability to understand and analyze ratios and fractions C concepts usually not introduced until sixth grade.


“That 27% increase was just in four months,=> Shaw said Friday. “Continued music training would continue to boost that. Kids who could play more sophisticated music would increase their enhancement in math skills.=>


But a Dartmouth College professor who has studied possible learning benefits from music said he needed to see details of the study before he would agree with the researchers= conclusions.


“You have to be careful that the test subjects do not know what the experiment is designed to show,=> said Jamshed Bharucha, a psychology professor and associate dean at Dartmouth. “A teacher=s high expectation of students can lead to those students realizing a higher expectation of themselves.=>


And the improved math scores may be related to enhanced self‑esteem from the students= music learning, cautioned another psychology professor specializing in learning factors, Robert A. Bjork of UCLA.


“Students who choose to take piano and music lessons are going to be different than those who do not wish to do so. These students are probably going to be highly motivated,=> Bjork said. “Thus, the piano training might identify students who are more motivated and organized.=>




**Song and dance boost grades in math, science (National Post, 021127)


‘We knew it worked’: Study measures effects of music, drama, art


Dabbling in the arts boosts students’ math test scores, concludes Canada’s largest long-term study measuring the effects of art, music, drama and dance on student achievement.


Math scores jumped 11 points among elementary students at 170 schools across the country enrolled in a program that incorporates art instruction into the regular science and math curriculum, compared to schools without the enhanced arts classes, researchers from Queen’s University reported yesterday.


The program, created by the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, brings artists into the classroom to teach children to sing, paint, sculpt and dance during math and science lessons.


“We always knew it worked,” said Bob Rae, chairman of the Conservatory. “Now we have the quantitative evidence to convince the skeptics.”


The three-year study on the program, called Learning Through the Arts, involved more than 6,000 Grade 4 through Grade 6 students and their teachers in Vancouver, Calgary, Regina, Windsor, Ont., Cape Breton and Cornerbrook, Nfld.


Students from low socio-economic backgrounds benefitted most from the program, which was created in 1995 at seven inner-city Toronto schools.


Rena Upitis and Katherine Smithrim, the researchers, also found taking music lessons outside school, reading for pleasure and playing on a sports team were linked to high math scores, regardless of a students’ socioeconomic status. Playing video games every day had a negative effect on school achievement.


“Parents told us their kids are more excited about going to school on the days when art, music or physical education is offered,” said Dr. Upitis, herself an accomplished piano player and singer who obtained a doctorate in education from Harvard and a law degree from Queen’s.


The researchers found the children involved in the study were more alert and engaged in class, likely because the program emphasizes physical activities, such as climbing on top of each other to create geometric shapes, to keep children motivated and attentive.


Student satisfaction was particularly high among Grade 6 girls, who reported being significantly happier to come to school than girls in regular schools.


Although literacy scores were not affected by the enhanced arts programming, Dr. Smithrim said taking time for arts instruction did not diminish students’ overall academic achievement.


Cindy Ashton, an opera singer, was hired to help a Toronto Grade 1 teacher introduce the concept of “energy” in the science curriculum by writing a song about how plants depend on the sun for energy and animals require food energy. The students sang the song, while pretending to be plants.


“This is the complete essence of learning,” said Peter Simon, president of the Conservatory.




**What Does Pop Music Have Against Marriage? (Mohler, 070228)


William Weir of The Hartford Courant asks a very interesting question. What does pop music have against marriage? The central institution of human social life is largely missing from the musical scene, and positive references to marriage are virtually non-existent. Given the influence of pop music, what does this say about marriage in American culture?


As Weir observes:


A look at last week’s Billboard Top 50 finds plenty of songs about relationships in general, a few about dancing; there’s even one about moving to Boston. But a single ditty about two people living in wedded bliss? Not a one. Television and the movies abound with weddings and marriages. The tabloids obsess over celebrity nuptials, or who’s horning in on someone else’s marriage. Pop culture loves marriage. So why doesn’t pop music?


That is a very good question. As Weir notes, popular music was once filled with references to marriage. “Marriage was once something to sing about, and people did — a lot,” he remembers.


Some argue that the absence of marriage is not ideological, but demographic in origin. “Part of it is that it’s a young person’s market,” says Steve Seskin, a California songwriter who has written hits for Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney. “If they’re thinking about getting married, they’re not thinking too hard. They’re thinking about next week.” Well, maybe the next minute. Weir explains that “the gap between pop consumers and the marriage-minded” is now much wider than before.


When marriage is not ignored, it is often presented in what Weir calls “a tortured view of the institution.” Some assert that marriage just isn’t very conducive to the musical form. Why? As Weir reports:


“The subtle beauty of keeping a relationship together, there isn’t a lot of glamor in it,” says Glen Ballard, who co-wrote Alanis Morissette’s album “Jagged Little Pill,” as well as hits for Christina Aguilera, Michael Jackson and others. “It’s about hard work and trust and commitment.”


Still, there is a sense that marriage has simply fallen off the charts, so to speak. Daniel Goldmark of Case Western Reserve University explains it this way: “We’re not seeing so much focus on marriage because there isn’t a central idea about relationships. There isn’t this great narrative that everyone has tapped into. Now, there are a lot more ways of living your life that people are happy with.”


That is a most interesting observation. Professor Goldmark’s suggestion that marriage is no longer the “great narrative” of life and love in America is haunting. Indeed, all too many Americans do see “a lot more ways of living your life” than marriage, and popular music inevitably reflects this trend.


We should pause a moment and reflect upon what is missing in our popular music — marriage. Music is a reflection of our souls, our aspirations, and our expectations. What does it say about us that our music is devoid of marriage?




Pavarotti Says He Can’t Read Music (970722)


ROME — Luciano Pavarotti, one of the world’s premier tenors, can’t read music and relies on his ear and his own sign system to learn operatic scores, an Italian newspaper reported.


“Yes it’s true. I don’t read music,” the 61-year-old told the newspaper Corriere della Sera during the Festival of Nations in Citta di Castello, a small town in the Umbria region, over the weekend.


“I am not a musician, I don’t go into the technicalities. The score is one thing and the singing part another. If I have the music in mind and sing with my body then it’s fine.”


Pavarotti made the disclosure after Vittorio Gassman, an Italian classical actor, said he discovered the tenor was not referring to the musical score as they prepared for a duet at the festival.


“I was shocked. I realized during rehersals. He was going by ear but not hitting a single wrong note,” Gassman said.


Accompanist Leone Magiera said Pavarotti used his ear and marked scores with a pen to help him remember where the operatic aria rises or falls.


“Luciano suffers a little bit from this. I realized it because every now and again he has an argument with the musicians,” Magiera said.


“He would have wanted to study music properly, but now it’s too late.”


Pavarotti helped popularize opera with Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras, who became known as “The Three Tenors” after an impromptu concert during the 1990 soccer World Cup finals in Italy.




Pavarotti denies he’s “musical illiterate” (970723)


ROME — Tenor Luciano Pavarotti, one of the world’s best paid musicians, on Tuesday denied media reports that he cannot read music.


“It’s all rubbish. Inventions to get a scoop,” Pavarotti said, referring to weekend news reports that the tenor relied on ear and his own rudimentary sign system to learn operatic scores.


“In good faith to those who said I was a musical illiterate, after a career of 36 years, it’s a bit laughable,” the 61-year-old opera superstar said.


The question mark over Pavarotti’s musical ability came when Vittorio Gassman, an Italian actor, said he discovered the tenor was not referring to the musical score as they prepared for a duet last weekend.


Pavarotti admitted he preferred using his own notes to a traditional score but said newspapers had taken this out of context.


“I do prefer my own note book, that’s true. But I am no musical illiterate,” he said.


“The music I know by heart, but I tend to forget the words. Therefore I need this (the note book) and I simply prefer to have it in front of me.”




Composers give encores by computer (970807)


MOZART, Beethoven and Delius are composing again, courtesy of a computer which, it is claimed, can create works in the style of the great composers.


The computer program, called Experiments in Musical Intelligence, has had a symphony, entitled Mozart’s 42nd Symphony, performed by a college orchestra at the University of Santa Cruz, California. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who died in 1791, wrote 41 symphonies. The program has also produced works in the style of Brahms, Chopin, Rachmaninov and Scott Joplin.


In the space of three months it also churned out 5,000 “original” works, including 1,500 symphonies, 2,000 piano sonatas and 1,500 miscellaneous pieces.


The program is the brainchild of the composer and computer expert David Cope, who is based at the Santa Cruz university. He originally devised it to help him to overcome his composer’s block.


It is based on the principle of “musical dice games” once employed by some 18th century composers. Beginning with fragments of music, they would write new works by arranging the fragments according to dice throws. In the same way, the computer takes pieces of music, breaks them up into tiny bits and reassembles them. To avoid producing gibberish, it applies an understanding of the grammar and syntax of music.


The distinctive sound of a particular composer is captured using a “pattern matcher”. Examples of the composer’s music are sifted for characteristic sequences. These “signatures” are dropped into the composition at just the points where the real composer would have used them.


Not all experts are delighted by the arrival of the electronic composer. Douglas Hofstadter, a cognitive scientist at the University of Indiana who studies computer creativity and who is a pianist, told New Scientist: “The program has no model whatsoever of life experiences, has no sense of itself, has no sense of Chopin, has never heard a note of music, has not a trace in it of where I think music comes from.


“I’m comparing that with an entire human soul, one forged by the struggles and travails of life ... and all the experiences that create emotion, turmoil, despair, resignation; everything you want to think of that goes into building a character.”


Nevertheless, Dr Hofstadter admitted to being stunned when he played a Chopin mazurka written by the program. “It sounded, except for a few glitches, as if it could slide right into the book of Chopin mazurkas,” he said.


Critics have said that the works, while impressive, sound like the efforts of lesser composers trying to emulate the work of the great masters. However, comparing its music to that of Mozart’s contemporary and rival, Antonio Salieri, Dr Cope told New Scientist: “This music is better than that.”




Orchestras face crisis as children turn off music (971100)


John O’Leary tells how the basic structure of the musical pyramid has been seriously weakened


A FALL in the number of children taking up a musical instrument is threatening the orchestras of the future, according to a survey published today by music’s main examining body.


While more adults are playing an instrument, the five to ten‑year‑olds who form the seedcorn of musical life are turning to other pastimes. The decline, combined with a shift away from minority instruments, will leave children’s orchestras struggling to fill some specialist roles.


The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, which examines more than 330,000 candidates a year, has traced the popularity of instrumental playing over the past three years. A national poll of teachers and pupils has shown a boom in woodwind instruments such as the flute and the clarinet, while the piano and difficult instruments such as the french horn have suffered.


Richard Morris, the board’s chief executive, said: “The decline among young children is a matter of great concern because it will shake the whole pyramid of instrumental music in the coming years. If you do not start learning an instrument before the age of 11, the chances of ever doing so are slim.


“Our examination entries show that there is a particular problem with some minority instruments, which will have hideous consequences for orchestras eventually. Some children’s orchestras are already finding it difficult to find people to play instruments such as the french horn or the bassoon.” Part of the problem lies in the provision of school music, the board believes. The shift in control of music teaching from local authorities to individual schools has encouraged governors to cut music budgets and left many authorities unable to offer specialist tuition in some instruments.


The number of lessons taken in school has dropped sharply since the board’s last national survey, in 1994. Mr Morris said: “I feel very strongly that instrumental music teaching should be organised at the level above individual schools. A school cannot afford its own french horn teacher and, unless budgets are earmarked, a local service cannot work properly.”


Traditional children’s instruments such as the piano were already in decline when the board carried out its 1994 survey. Only 18 per cent of children were playing the piano, compared with 48 per cent of adult musicians, but the vogue for electronic keyboards offered hope.


The keyboard boom proved a false dawn, however, with few players transferring to the piano. Mr Morris said: “The market has moved on and the keyboard is no longer everybody’s fun Christmas present. Those who did take them up were able to make very quick progress but it requires hour after hour of practice to play the piano to any level of competence.”


Chris Smith, the Culture, Media and Sport Secretary, is expected to attend the launch of the board’s report in London today. He has backed plans for the establishment of a new fund to support instrumental tuition, using lottery money. He is also considering a proposal for a National Schools Music Trust, with the backing of celebrities such as Sir Paul McCartney and Lord Lloyd‑Webber, to bring in private funding.


The board’s report will show that the number of lessons given by teachers in their own homes has held up well since 1994. The number of pupils to each teacher has, however, declined.




Goodbye, Babylon (WS, 040315)


A new collection of old-timey gospel music shows everything that’s right about praising God and everything that’s wrong with the contemporary Christian music scene.


WHEN I WAS A KID, my parents found Jesus, took to Him like otters to water, and left the more traditional churches of their upbringing to enlist as full-fledged evangelicals. Depending on where my military-officer father’s assignments took us, we did turns in all kinds of nearly indistinguishable denominations: from Evangelical Free to Bible churches. But we spent the bulk of our time with the Southern Baptists. I liked the SB’s, as we called ourselves. They were steady and without pretense and highly egalitarian, yet still earthy enough to kick dirt on our charismatic, Pentecostal brothers, what with all their emotive pew-jumping and tongues-speaking. If we wanted people carrying on from the pulpit in languages we didn’t understand, the SB’s reasoned, we’d have become Catholics.


In the one-dimensional world of easy secular stereotypes, many mistakenly think that most Baptists have a bit of the snake-handler in them. But the only time I saw a rattler at church—behind the education building—one of the deacons killed it with a shovel. Being Baptist was actually much less dramatic than getting bitten by poisonous snakes. The articles of faith were easy to keep track of. Baptists generally believed that faith in Christ and His redeeming sacrifice earned you salvation, that you would evidence this faith by climbing into a baptismal one time in your life to get dunked by a preacher in fishing waders, that you were to religiously attend potlucks to which you’d never bring a store-bought sheet cake, and finally—and this one was

open to some interpretation—that you would refrain from drinking, dancing, and especially drinking while dancing. If you lapsed, and did either or both, you could still ask forgiveness, and were in no danger of getting your name scrubbed from the Book of Life. But you were taking your chances in gossip circles—gossiping being Baptists’ official sport outside of church, and often inside of it.


THE NO-DRINKING-AND-DANCING PLANKS never bothered me much. Though I’ve since made up for lost time with the former, I still cite the no-dancing rule, not for moral reasons, but because it keeps me from getting dragged onto the floor at wedding receptions during “The Electric Slide.” What did bother me, however, was when my moderate parents briefly fell sway to peer pressure, as the youth minister called it. A fire-breathing band of aspiring church splitters (splitting churches between quarrelling factions, also being a favorite Baptist past time), decided rock’n’roll was Satan’s theme music. Unlike other zealots of that time, they didn’t conduct any record-burning bonfires in the church parking lot, or listen to Zeppelin albums backwards to hear Robert Plant pledge fealty to the Prince of Darkness. What the records said forward was bad enough for them.


This wasn’t good news for me. In addition to suffering through the pop offerings of the day—from rock gods like Toto and Michael “She’s a Maniac” Sembello—I also regularly dipped into my dad’s old soul records, enjoying a 101 course in everything from the Motown sound to Ray Charles, to funkier stuff like War and the Jimmy Castor Bunch. When my parents decided it would be best to lock this vinyl gold away, I was forced, like thousands of Christian kids before me, to cop my music fix in the artistic wasteland known as Contemporary Christian Music (CCM). The moratorium lasted about three years, and it was a dark time for all.


Since the CCM world didn’t offer enough selection to be truly discriminating, my friends and I tended to gravitate toward those who’d made their bones in the secular world—closer to what we actually wanted to be listening to. It was our sincere hope that though they were singing for Jesus now, our new idols had once snorted their weight in cocaine and boinked arenas-full of groupies. It was bad for the soul, we reasoned, but good for the music. We liked Kerry Livgren because he’d co-founded the group Kansas, Joe English, because he’d been a drummer for Wings, and Leon Patillo, because he’d played keyboards for Santana. Never mind that I hated both Kansas and Wings, or that the Santana résumé-sweetener was nothing to brag about (considering they had 16 lineup changes from 1966 to 1984 alone, it’s quite possible that I played keyboards for Santana, and just don’t remember).


With some exceptions, the music tended to be too on-the-nose—saccharine and over melodic—all light and no shadows, all gaiety and no grit. And when Christian artists tried to dirty themselves up, it was often painful to watch, such as when the hair-metal band Stryper came around in the mid-’80s (their name, they said, was an acronym for “Salvation Through Redemption Yielding Peace Encouragement and Righteous”). Stryper released albums like To Hell With the Devil. They wore matching yellow-and-black spandex, making them look like bumblebees with Farrah-hair. They didn’t scare anybody. Except maybe when they’d play bars, where they’d try to have it

both ways by chucking bibles at patrons from the stage, making the more pragmatic among us wonder how you’re supposed to win people to Christ when you’re making them spill their drinks.


I had to get out. So I went to my folks with all the theological profundity a 14-year-old could muster, asking them: How could a God who doesn’t appreciate the beauty of the “yeah-yeah” echo in Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home To Me”, or the Saturday-morning horns in Curtis Mayfield’s “So In Love,” be a God worth serving? My parents, being reasonable people, didn’t think God had bad taste. So we resolved to serve Him, and go back on the hard stuff. They took to listening to all the soft-rock hits of the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. I became the eclectic paragon of musical refinement that I remain to this day.


BUT I TAKE THE LONG WAY around the barn to pose the question that has haunted Christians for centuries. Proto-Jesus rocker Larry Norman actually crystallized it in song, once, asking “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?”—a question that purportedly dated back at least to the time of Martin Luther, who asked it concerning his own hymnody, when he was attacked for appropriating tavern songs. The going understanding of both Christian and heathen alike has been that when God banished Satan, and carved up their respective fiefdoms, He kept all the key stuff: the clouds, the mansions, the streets paved with gold. But as a sop for assigning Lucifer to an eternity in fiery darkness, he gave him most of the good music. Therefore, Satan got the Rolling Stones and Robert Johnson. God kept Debbie Boone and George Beverly Shea. Most people think that God got screwed.


But the new six-CD boxed set, Goodbye, Babylon, shows God may have been slyer than originally thought—having held in reserve long-forgotten and recently discovered gems that have been dusted off by Lance Ledbetter, a 27-year-old Atlanta software installer and former DJ. Having become obsessed with sacred music from the early part of last century, Ledbetter, over a five-year period, scoured the bins and collections of knowledgeable musicologists, enlisting help from everyone he could lay hands on, including his father, who pulled appropriate Scripture passages as companion notes for songs. He financed this labor of love on his credit cards.


What he came up with is 135 songs and 25 sermons—the largest collection of sacred music ever assembled. Instead of relinquishing control to some major label (which, with Goodbye Babylon’s critical success, will hopefully inspire knockoffs), Ledbetter put the whole thing out on his own start-up label Dust-to-Digital. It’s an appropriate name for the time-consuming process of finding, cleaning up, and finally transferring source material from the scratchy, hissing records. As Charles Wolfe, one of the many invaluable liner-note contributors writes, the records, which predated mixing or multiple microphones, often cut in makeshift studios, were carried everywhere from coal camps to railroad yards to juke joints. But for the love of a few obsessive custodians, the music would’ve been lost forever, as most of the records were “worn out, broken, thrown away, made into ashtrays, used as target practice for local carnival-ball throwing contests, plowed into landfills, or donated to scrap shellac drives during World War II.”


What these salvagers have preserved is a gospel hodgepodge, everything from Sacred Harp singing to hillbilly romps to field holler/prison chants to front-porch blues to jubilee quartets to old timey country to Sanctified congregational singing to Pentecostal rave-up’s. They all come down in a rain of clamoring tambourines and bottleneck slide guitars, clawhammer banjo-picking, booming jug band-blowing and barrelhouse piano rolls. The songs come from many traditions, though the overwhelming influence comes from both the black and white strains of Holiness music—which resulted from the merger of the Fire Baptized Holiness Church and Pentecostal Holiness Church in 1911. This came five years after the 1906 Azusa Street revival, in which the black holiness evangelist William Joseph Seymour sparked a movement which church historians say resulted in thousands receiving the “Pentecostal baptism with the Holy Ghost with the apostolic sign of speaking with other tongues.”


PENTECOSTALS had spent the first years of the 20th Century breaking away from the Methodists and Baptists from which they sprang, who just weren’t cutting it worship-wise. Some Baptists would eventually catch up—Thomas A. Dorsey, an African-American secular musician who became the “Father of Gospel,” was a Baptist—as was Mahalia Jackson. But Pentecostals rejected the starchy hymns, non-rhythmic accompaniment, and non-improvisational singing of these established denominations.


Those who became Pentecostals were a largely hardscrabble lot accustomed to having cosmic bricks dropped on their heads. This formed both their musical vernacular (derived from everything from mountain music to old spirituals) and perception of God (many Blacks were still around who had lived through slavery). When it came to worship, Holiness types didn’t play around. In both song and sermon, they portrayed a fierce God—one of redemption, but also of vengeance—not the simplistic elbow-patched grandpa, or open-armed hippie-Jesus of the modern superchurch soundtrack. In a 1930 song called “Memphis Flu,” Elder David R. Curry, pastor of the Oakley Street Church of God in Christ, and his congregation sing over barrelhouse piano runs, handclaps, and interjections of “Praise Jesus!”: Yes, He killed the rich and poor / And He’s going to kill more / If you don’t turn away from your shame.


REFERRING TO THE GIFT OF TONGUES—central to their theology—the Holiness types spoke of being “baptized with fire”—as opposed to their gentler cousins the Baptists, who stuck with water. And while there’s no tongues-speaking on Goodbye, Babylon, it would be difficult for anyone listening to the holy roar of Rev. Sister Mary Nelson on the tune, “Judgment,” to tell the difference. (Well, all you hypocrite members / You wasting your time away / My God’s calling for workmens / And you had better obey.)


All of this strange and wondrous music comes in a package that itself lessens the pain of the $100 outlay required to own it (it would be a bargain at twice the price). I’ve had it for a week, and already it is among my most indispensable possessions—right up there with my Complete Hank Williams box, my Stax Singles, or my ‘70s Soul Experience set, itself ingeniously encased in something resembling an old 8-track tape holder. The packaging is as beautiful as anything I’ve seen. It comes in a slide-off wood box slightly smaller than the family Bibles salesmen used to peddle door to door. (Ledbetter contracted with a wine-box manufacturer). The cover is adorned with a Gustave Dore Tower of Babel etching from the late 1800’s called Confusion of Tongues.


Open the box, and you are met with the smell of cedar, as if from an old dresser drawer full of lost treasures. It is packed not only with six CD’s and a 200-page booklet intended to represent an old hymnal, but also with raw cotton, which Ledbetter, if he’s not putting me on, told me was “handpicked from Alabama—my uncle’s brother helped us out with it.” The cotton is not intended to keep the box’s contents from rattling around inside, but rather, as a note says, “This set is dedicated to all the artists who wanted their message to be heard. The cotton is a reminder of the struggle, strife and sorrow that so many of them endured.”


By now, the figure of the ethnomusicologist has nearly become one of sport—the earnest white guy in search of The Source of All Things Authentic—looking for some gnarled old black man held together with nothing but epoxy or suspenders, missing half his teeth and all his wits, preferably sitting on a porch, ready to throw down with a self-taught instrument, exhibiting his primitive genius. These sleuths follow in the footsteps of John and Alan Lomax, who scoured the plantations and prisons of the south for Library of Congress field recordings, or that of Harry Smith, whose 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music is considered the genre’s seminal work. Neal Pollack, in his recent novel Never Mind the Pollacks, nicely lampoons the phenomenon, as his protagonist, a pretentious rock-critic, is on a holy quest to locate “Clambone Jefferson,” a bluesman who was raised in a three-room outhouse, who sings songs like “The Devil Bit My Ass In Two,” who went to jail for disemboweling his uncle with a tuning fork, and who was “the horrible essence of American music. He is my god.”


Ledbetter escapes this fate by concentrating on sacred music exclusively—which has been neglected by all but the most rabid collectors. Instead of the telegraphed blues cliches we’ve become accustomed to as one collection after another rolls down the remastered assembly line (one servicing one’s big-legged woman, one dusting one’s broom, one selling one’s soul to dicey characters one meets at crossroads in Mississippi) Ledbetter’s set has all the rawness and vitality of the blues masters. But lyrically, the artists he collects—many of whom were secular stalwarts who dabbled in or switched full-time to gospel music—are playing for much higher stakes.


THERE ARE ALL SORTS OF GRAND THEMES running through Goodbye, Babylon: deliverance and judgement, mortal expiration and eternal salvation. Many secular critics haven’t quite gotten past the buckets of blood, alluded to in songs like the one by Da Costa Woltz’s Southern Broadcasters, a 1920’s string band, who ask “Are You Washed in the Blood of the Lamb?” Or there’s the number by Ernest V. Stoneman—Thomas Edison’s favorite hillbilly artist—who, along with his Dixie Mountaineers, sing, Oh, the blood of Calvary’s brow I can see it flowing now. But to the church-steeped whose ears are already acclimated, it’s standard Sunday-morning viscera.


The more striking leitmotif is the blindness. The collection boasts Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Roger Hays, Blind Benny Paris and his blind wife, Blind Alfred Reed, Blind Joe Taggart, Blind Mamie Forehand, and no less than four Blind Willie’s (Davis, Harris, McTell, and Johnson)—the last of whom was blinded when his stepmother threw lye in his eyes during a fight with his father. And that’s just the artists with “blind” monikers. There’s also blind Roosevelt Graves and Brother (his brother wasn’t blind, but only had one eye), and blind Jimmie Strothers (found by John Lomax in a Virginia State prison, where he presumably came to Jesus after murdering his wife with an ax). So fashionable was it to be a blind gospeler, that it is said Blind Joe Taggart wasn’t even blind, he just had cataracts. And then there was blind Arizona Juanita Dranes, an influential gospel singer who once traveled from Chicago to Texas with a note of introduction that read, “Since she is deprived of her natural sight, the Lord has given her a spiritual sight.” Even nonbelievers have to give God points for consistency: He sticks with His blind people.


Such physical impairments are a keen reminder that this is hard music made by hard people—singers to whom grace did not come cheaply, and who are not big proponents of today’s prosperity-gospel, Prayer-of-Jabez type rhetoric. In a song recorded at the Parchman State Penitentiary in 1940’s Mississippi, a prisoner names Jimpson sings “No More My Lord,” his rhythm section nothing more than the sound of splitters thudding against wood on his work gang (at one point during the recording, a wood chip actually hits the microphone). Then there’s Elder Effie Hall and Congregation, who did their version of Thomas A. Dorsey’s “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” Dorsey, widely known as “The Father of Gospel Music,” was a jazz and blues sideman who decided to stick on the Gospel Highway after composing his most famous song, which he wrote after locking himself into a room for three days after the death of his wife and son during childbirth. They are the songs of people who had accepted their lot, and weren’t holding out for a much better deal—at least not in this life. (Precious Lord, take my hand / Lead me on, let me stand / I am tired, I am weak, I am old.)


WHILE MUCH CONTEMPORARY CHRISTIAN MUSIC strives not to even mention the J-word—favoring double entendres that could serve, depending on the listener, as either sacred music or generic love songs, these were singers who took their Jesus straight, without chasers or apologies. While plenty of the artists of Goodbye, Babylon are famous—Mahalia Jackson, Bill Monroe, Skip James—just as many are one-offers who, in addition to being coal miners or migrant farmers, were sisters and elders, deacons and reverends. Not viewing the church as a springboard to popular success as so many legions of R&B stars have through the years, they sang with conviction and without embarrassment, maintaining that the believer conformed to the belief system, not the other way around. They were direct and raucous; in short, they put the “fun” back in fundamentalism.


They were groups like the Jubilee Gospel Team, who sang, in 1928, that Jesus will Be your lawyer / He’ll be your lawyer all the way. They were singers like Mother McCollum, who sang, over her own slide guitar in “Jesus is My Air-o-plane,” Reeling and rocking, you can hide no sin / Jesus coming in His air-o-plane. They were stiff-necked dogmatists like Sister O.M. Terrell—a street minister from the Fire Baptized Holiness Church of God—who, with a wink, put everyone from adulterers to “snuff dippers” on notice, singing: You know the Bible right / Somebody wrong / God knows / You’re wrong. They are people whose God often seems to have failed them, but who believe anyway—whose songs and wails and murmurs are often defiant affirmations. Death does not make them blanch, or intimidate them from tending the pressing business of “getting right,” which explains sermons like Rev. J.M. Gates’s 1926 Christmas pick-me-up, “Death Might Be Your Santa Claus,” followed by “Will the Coffin be Your Santa Claus?” and the capper, “Will Hell Be Your Santa Claus?”


As musicians and vocal stylists, they took a backseat to no secular artists of the day—and often, they doubled as the secular artists of the day. Legendary blues guitarist Blind Lemon Jefferson, of Primitive Baptist stock, went so far as to record religious material under the pseudonym “Deacon L.J. Bates” to conceal his secular identity. They were singers like Brother Claude Ely, who in the Kentucky holiness tradition, sings and plays the perennial Church of God in Christ shout, “There Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down,” with a ferocity that suggests he was getting sawed in half while performing.


There are tracks of mysterious beauty, without equivalent in any of today’s gospel, blues, R&B or country idioms. In a 1927 cut, Washington Phillips, in his laid-back Pop-Staples like way, sings, matter-of-factly, Oh lift him up, that’s all / Lift Him up in His word / If you tell the name of Jesus everywhere / If you’ll keep His name a’ringin’ everywhere that you go / He will draw men unto Him.. Phillips, whose demise was long thought to have come in a mental institution, was found only recently by researcher Michael Corcoran to instead have passed on from head injuries sustained in a tumble down a flight of stairs at a welfare office in Teague, Texas. The otherworldly instrument he played is also the source of scholarly debate. Some think it is a dolceola—a portable baby-grand-piano-like instrument, of which only 50 are thought to exist today. Others who knew him said it was a zither-like instrument of his own creation. In any case, it sounds like a ghostly calliope from some half-remembered dream.


Then there are songs like “O Day” by Bessie Jones and The Sea Island Singers—as satisfying as music gets. Sung typically as a Christmas and New Year’s shout after an all-night worship service, this version, recorded by Alan Lomax in St. Simon’s Island Georgia in 1960, features voices twinning, yet not quite harmonizing. They overlap and swirl and loop around each other over a guitar, syncopated varying-tempo hand-clapping, and a fife that threatens to derail the entire process like a fluttering wheel on a runaway shopping cart, but which instead, provides the perfect tension that holds it altogether. It is infectious Holiness music, that when I play it—over and over and over again—sees my one and four-year old boys bounding through my office door, clapping and dancing as if in some tent-meeting trance. I’d probably join them, if I hadn’t been raised Southern Baptist. The lyrics, simple and repetitive, pretty much sum up the whole ball of wax, redemption-wise: Yonder come day, I heard him say / Yonder come day, it’s a dying day / Yonder come day, it’s a burying day / Yonder come day, I was on my knees / Yonder come day, when I heard him say / Yonder come day, that’s a New Year’s day / Day done broke into my soul / Yonder come day, well, come on, child / Yonder come day, Jordan roll.


IN A RECENT PIECE for the Washington Post, Eddie Dean, one of the great chroniclers of lost America—which isn’t a crowded field—interviewed Dick Spottswood, who, at Ledbetter’s behest, served as both music and liner notes wrangler on much of the Goodbye, Babylon set. Spottswood, himself a Washington, D.C., institution as host of the local public radio station’s invaluable Obsolete Music Hour, is no holy-rolling Bible thumper. But he perfectly nailed the difference between the old and new sacred music: “It’s not like contemporary Christian songs, which are all praising Jesus, with nothing about sin or guilt. They’ve turned Jesus into a very cheap, off-the-shelf, one-size-fits-all Jesus. There’s nothing of substance left, and the music reflects this sort of mindless cheerfulness. With the old-time gospel songs, like (the Monroe Brothers’) ‘Sinner You Better Get Ready,’ there are dark clouds and tragedy and death and all the unpleasantries you have to go through before you can stand in line at the redemption counter.”


As a kid, I would get chills when we used to sing the old 1899 Lewis E. Jones hymn, “There is Power in the Blood.” The women, trying to out-falsetto each other, would sing “There is power, power, wonder working power in the blood, of the Lamb.” The men would double-time, walking a steady bass-line underneath, with “There is power, power, power, power, wonder-working power.” And there is, in fact, power, listening to Jesus bleed into the Devil’s music.


IT’S A SENSATION I GET over and over again, watching secular artists reach up to address the sacred. The great ones often seem to get greater (the Rolling Stones singing “I Just Want to See His Face” and “Shine a Light” ). The not-so-great acts often achieve greatness doing the same (the closing flourishes of Lionel Richie and the Commodore’s much-overlooked 1981 song, “Jesus is Love” is one of the most pristine acts ever committed in a studio).


I was reminded of this during a recent re-viewing of The Last Waltz, the universally-acclaimed 1978 film, in which The Band took a final bow by inviting tons of more famous guest stars like Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan to turn them into a backing band at their own farewell concert. In between all the high-wattage stage performances, which made the soundtrack, came a quiet moment tucked in between which has been all but forgotten. It is one of my favorite moments in The Band’s history, and by extension, one of my favorite moments in music. At some flophouse, The Band, looking desiccated and debauched from Lord-knows-how-many-years on the road, was enjoying one of their last moments of total camaraderie. Keyboardist Richard Manuel sat in a chair, while Robbie Robertson and Rick Danko sat on an adjoining couch.


They seemed blissfully unaware that their best years were soon to be behind them. (Manuel, less than a decade later, would hang himself in a motel room.) And Danko, who played the loose bass lines and sang the yearning, desperate harmonies that crystallized their sound, looked beautifully doomed as always. (He would later lose a son, and died prematurely himself.) Monkeying around for director Martin Scorsese, Manuel suggests the boys strike up “‘Old Time Religion’ for the folks.” Robertson and Danko oblige. Robertson strums his guitar, while Danko, not even bothering to lift his fiddle to his shoulder, saws off the opening notes. Robertson sings it straight—give me that old time religion . . . it’s good enough for my grandpa . . . it’s good enough for me . . . while Danko, still fiddling, lays down some percussion, kicking tables and stomping floors as he echoes Robertson, while improvising “good enough” interjections around the song’s nub. The whole moment is ragged and off-the-cuff and only lasts about 45 seconds. But somehow, it is perfect. At it’s conclusion, with the spell broken, Robertson takes a drag off his cigarette, and offers, ironically, “it’s not like it used to be.”


INDEED, IT ISN’T. Which is why we should study and cherish collections like Goodbye, Babylon. There is something ennobling about watching fallible man—tired and weak and old, in Thomas Dorsey’s words—stumbling around to find God in the dark. Vicariously, we take their ride, as men and women who knew difficulty hope that the best parts of themselves cross the goal line—that they, in the words of cataract-addled Blind Joe Taggart, get to the “great camp meeting on the other side of the shore.” Meanwhile, we are left with the documentation of their struggle, the bottleneck slides and jug blows and handclaps of those who left the next best part of themselves behind on scratchy vinyl, pointing the way for the rest of us, still stumbling around in the dark.


Matt Labash is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.




Bravo! Mozart: Because of his greatness, Mozart cannot help but be edifying. (Weekly Standard, 060130)


by William Kristol


“POSTERITY WILL NOT SEE such a talent for a century to come.” So said Josef Haydn, shortly after Mozart’s death at age 35 in 1791. Haydn might safely have said posterity would not see such a talent for two centuries to come—and counting.


But talent is one thing. Talent that becomes greatness is another. Mozart’s greatness is far more widely, and intelligently, appreciated today than it was 100 years ago, or even 50. And no one can complain that Mozart’s 250th birthday is going unnoticed, or that his legacy isn’t being treated with appropriate respect. But when the New York Times weighed in a few days ago with a silly, pseudo-ironic debunking of anticipated excesses in this year of celebrating Mozart, I was reminded of how much trouble we have with human greatness.


And always have had. The English critic W.J. Turner wrote Mozart: The Man and His Works in 1938. Much of it has been overtaken by subsequent scholarship, but it remains full of insights: “The truth is that we mediocre men cannot even imagine what it is to be a great man like Mozart and Shakespeare and thus to be free from the domination of the contemporary prejudices, beliefs, morals, artistic rules, scruples (call them what you will) with which even the most enlightened of us are—often unconsciously—obsessed.”


Real greatness causes discomfort. You’d think it would make people feel better—you look up at someone’s achievement and think, gee, the human condition isn’t as hopeless as I suspected. But greatness is nervous-making. And it can be, in a way, depressing. Charles Gounod said, “Before Mozart, all my ambition turns to despair.”


But we have far more reason to be grateful than to despair. Allan Bloom believed that listening to Mozart was as close to the “experience of the beautiful” as he ever encountered in his life. And when things feel stale, you can listen to Mozart, and see what moved Robert Schumann to ask: “Does it not seem as if Mozart’s works become fresher and fresher the oftener we hear them?”


Not just fresher, but more interesting. Mozart’s music transcends all the obvious categories. By this I don’t mean that he wrote amazing works in every genre—operas, symphonies, piano and other concerti, chamber music, sonatas, and so on—but that he transcends the usual moods. Mozart is light and grave, pretty and profound, masculine and feminine, comic and tragic—often all in the same work.


This seems particularly clear in the great operas written in collaboration with Lorenzo da Ponte. The Marriage of Figaro is a comic opera, but like many of Shakespeare’s comedies, it’s a short step from tragedy. Don Giovanni pretends to be a moralizing tragedy, Così fan Tutte a demoralizing comedy—but both are like Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” neither clearly comic nor tragic. Turner observes: “What puzzles the average person is just this strange blend of the tragic and the comic. Most people like to have these elements carefully separated into different works of art so that they may feel safe. They are prepared to look upon life as either a comedy or a tragedy, since in such a presentation life is made a little less real and provides a form of escape, a convention or refuge. One may thus laugh or weep to the full, knowing in one’s heart that life is not quite like this; it is neither so comic nor tragic.”


Mozart provides no such comfort or escape. He does inspire, as Aaron Copland said, “a certain awe and wonder.” We’re short on awe and wonder these days, long on cheap cynicism and solemn sanctimony. Mozart has little use for either. Bloom notes Mozart’s “capacity to be both deep and rational, a combination often said to be impossible.” And he adds, “As Rossini recognized, no composer was witty as Mozart.”


For Bloom, Mozart’s music was “an antidote to all the seductions of nihilism present in our world.” Does Bloom here run the risk of trying to make Mozart’s music edifying? Of course he knew that great music does not necessarily make its listeners better human beings. And he was aware that the leading nihilists of our age, the Nazi regime in Germany, tried to make a big production of the 150th anniversary of Mozart’s death. But it didn’t quite work. Mozart resists political appropriation.


“Mozart took so very much for granted which lesser minds argue about,” said W.J. Turner. “He was too understanding and too profound (though active) a fatalist to be a partisan. He never turned his works of art into judgments. He merely—like the Creator of nature—gave them individual life, and in his works his music, like the rain and the sunshine, falls alike on the just and the unjust.”


And yet, because of his greatness, Mozart cannot help but be edifying.




So easy a caveman can do it: Music and the human soul (, 061010)


By Chuck Colson


Most people simply listen to music. If they think about the origins of Bach’s B-Minor Mass or St. Matthew Passion, it’s probably to wonder how a man with twenty children had the time and energy to write such music.


Arguably, the most wondrous thing about music is that it exists at all. After all, it isn’t necessary for the survival of our species; in fact, throughout history, there have always been dour souls who regarded music as frivolous and a waste of time that would be better put to other uses.


Yet, despite this apparent lack of utility, music is a universal human experience. Why this should be so is a subject of debate among scientists. According to a recent article in the Boston Globe, “neuroscientists and psychologists” have concluded that we are “hard-wired to be musical.” They cite changes in brain activity while listening to “stirring passages of music” as evidence of this “hard-wiring.”


This still leaves the questions of “how?” and “why?” Most of the answers proceed from the assumption that this “hard-wiring” has to be the product of evolution. One proposed answer is that aptitude in music “originated as a way for males to impress and attract females.” Proponents — I’m not making this up — point to the phenomenon of “groupies,” women who sleep with rock stars, as evidence for their hypothesis.


While that might “explain” why men want to be good at music, it says little or nothing about why they might like music themselves or why women like music.


Another hypothesis says that “music arose as a way for groups of early humans to create a sense of community.” Singing together not only forged “a common identity,” it also served as a “rehearsal” for “more high-stakes” activities like hunting and defense. Again, I’m not making this up.


Evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker calls these explanations “completely bogus.” Pinker is right: They are bogus. But Pinker’s assertion that our love of music might simply be “a useless byproduct of language” is equally foolish.


Then again, a non-bogus answer, such as “beats me,” won’t cut it, either. That’s because the biggest challenge to the materialist orthodoxy of the kind on display in the Boston Globe article is its inability to satisfactorily account for those things — like music, ethics, and altruism — that are most distinctly human.


A worldview that insists that we are merely animals must be able to explain those traits that most set us apart from animals in terms that are consistent with that materialistic worldview. That leaves us with Stone Age groupies and “kumbaya” as preparation for hunting mammoths. What nonsense!


Truth is, these “explanations” are the best you can do if you will not entertain the possibility that the imago Dei, the image of God implanted in humans, is what makes us distinct from animals and makes us capable of appreciating truth, beauty, and goodness. It’s what gave Bach his creative genius for us to appreciate.


If you ignore this reality, the result is what philosopher David Stove once called a “ridiculous slander” of human beings — the kind of slander that becomes obvious if you would simply listen.




A Composer at Ease With Conflicts (Paris International Herald, 100401)


THE Dutch composer Louis Andriessen has a gift for embracing conflicting values, musical and otherwise, and making it seem as if they fit together naturally. He has, for example, written 12-tone works and Minimalist scores, and has no problem using elements of both — along with rock rhythms, quotations from Bach, Mozart or Sweelinck and occasional jazz harmonies — in the same piece. He considers himself influenced by the French Romantics and staunchly anti-Germanic, yet he describes Bach as “the real god in the house” and says he plays and studies something from “The Well-Tempered Clavier” or Bach’s organ works every day.


Mr. Andriessen’s music is carefully structured, strictly notated and technically demanding, yet he loves to improvise and is passionate about jazz. (Stan Kenton comes up regularly in interviews.) He says he is uninterested in pop and disdains the Beatles, but he quickly adds that he loves the Supremes and other Motown groups. And though he says he dislikes opera, at least in its traditional form, he has written five theater pieces that he calls operas.


The latest, “La Commedia” (2008), will be performed in a concert version at Carnegie Hall on April 15, the centerpiece of Mr. Andriessen’s Perspectives series at Carnegie Hall. The series, which begins on Friday with a performance by the American Composers Orchestra and runs through May 10, draws on all sides of Mr. Andriessen’s work and explores his interest in other composers as well.


“When I first spoke with Jeremy Geffen,” Mr. Andriessen said in a recent interview in New York, referring to Carnegie Hall’s director of artistic planning, “I asked whether I could program my own music, and he said, ‘We’re intending to do that, but you could also choose some of the music that made you the composer you are.’ That was the way he formulated it. But the main, and most ambitious, project I had in mind was ‘La Commedia,’ and I said: ‘I know this is probably very expensive and difficult, but for the last five or six years I have been concentrating on this one work. And even if it’s a concert performance, it would make me happy to see it here.’ For me, it’s very representative of what I have been doing.”


A complicated 90-minute “film opera,” as Mr. Andriessen calls it, the score is a collaboration with the filmmaker Hal Hartley, who staged it at the Theatre Carré in Amsterdam in 2008. It explores Dante’s “Divine Comedy” in five sections, moving from the City of Dis into the Inferno, then through the Garden of Earthly Delights toward Paradise and Eternal Light, and includes both live action and filmed scenes, shown on screens. A staged production with the original film was immediately ruled out, mainly for logistical reasons.


“We had a long discussion,” Mr. Andriessen said, “and we quickly realized that once you do the film, you should also have stage direction, costumes and everything else, and that immediately started to generate a lot of problems.”


But a concert version presented problems too. Mr. Andriessen originally hoped to have supertitles (the libretto is in English, Italian, Latin and Dutch), but Carnegie couldn’t accommodate that; a printed libretto will be included in the program. Also, the music for a bar scene, performed by a jazz quintet, is heard only on the film soundtrack. Now it has been added to the live score. (The opera will be performed by the Asko-Schoenberg ensemble, Synergy Vocals, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and soloists, led by Reinbert de Leeuw.)


At 70, Mr. Andriessen is unquestionably Holland’s most prominent living composer, and probably its most widely known master since Sweelinck, whose career straddled the turn of the 17th century. He was born in Utrecht in 1939, the son of Hendrik Andriessen, a church organist and composer, and after studies with his father he became a student of Kees van Baaren, an early Dutch advocate of 12-tone music. In the early 1960s, he studied with Luciano Berio in Milan and Berlin.


Though his early works embraced European postwar avant-garde styles, including serialism and electronic music, Mr. Andriessen kept an ear on American developments too and quickly found his own path. Hearing Terry Riley’s “In C” in the 1960s, he was drawn to Minimalist techniques, and by the 1970s and early ‘80s, with pieces like “De Staat” (“The Republic,” 1976) and “De Tijd” (“Time,” 1981), he found ways to meld the repetition and drive of American Minimalism with the sharp-edged harmonies of his earlier style. In scores like “De Materie” (“Matter,” 1988) and “M Is for Man, Music, Mozart” (1991) he wove jazz, rock and Broadway theater styles into his music as well.


“Louis is remarkable in that his ears are as open as his mind, and he is a sponge for musical ideas from a great variety of sources,” Mr. Geffen wrote by e-mail, explaining why Carnegie named Mr. Andriessen to its Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair. “He has similarly provided inspiration for musicians working in idioms from jazz to improvisation to new music to rock. We therefore wanted to ensure that his residency reflected his omnivorous nature — and his characteristic intolerance of intolerance.”


Even so, Mr. Andriessen had some difficulty with Mr. Geffen’s suggestion that he program works that influenced him. The concerts include scores by several former students (John Korsrud, a Canadian, and Missy Mazzoli and Michael Fiday, both Americans) and a few colleagues (John Adams and the Dutch composers Martijn Padding and Mr. de Leeuw). But apart from a single Stravinsky work, there is little here to show what shaped Mr. Andriessen, at least in classical music terms.


“I certainly thought of including some of the New York, or let’s say, American influence on my work,” he said. “But after a while, I thought, well, all that stuff — if it’s Carter, Feldman, Cage or Reich, not to mention Stan Kenton and the other jazz greats — it’s like carrying coal to Newcastle. And my European influences — Stravinsky, Ravel — are done here all the time, too. So instead, we came up with what we’re calling the ‘Crazy Girls and Naughty Boys,’ wild people who work in improvisation. This is a musical practice that has been very important to me as a composer, ever since I was a kid and buying 78-r.p.m. records by Miles Davis and Charlie Parker.”


Mr. Andriessen will perform in one of the three improvisation performances at Weill Recital Hall, accompanying the vocalist Greetje Bijma on April 16. “Greetje is not only a singer,” he said. “She can do anything you ask her, or whatever comes to her mind: a Russian peasant, a Chinese person, or she will invent languages on the spot. When I play the piano with her, I have to react to what she’s doing. Sometimes I follow her. Sometimes I go in a completely different direction. And sometimes she follows me. Not always.”


Also among Mr. Andriessen’s works offered in the series is the quirky “Symphony for Open Strings” (1978), a 25-minute score for 12 strings, in which every instrument has its own tuning. Dawn Upshaw will sing Mr. Andriessen’s “Dances” (1992), and the Bang on a Can All-Stars give the American premiere of “Life” (2009), a work Mr. Andriessen composed for the ensemble, with video by Marijke van Warmerdam. But after “La Commedia,” the highlight is likely to be “De Staat,” now a Minimalist classic, thanks in part to a recording on Nonesuch, part of a series devoted to Mr. Andriessen. Robert Hurwitz, the president of the label, said that he felt that works like “De Staat” would be even better known if Mr. Andriessen were more flexible about them.


“I was once having lunch with him,” Mr. Hurwitz recalled, “and I said: ‘Almost all of your pieces are difficult for American orchestras to play because the instrumentation is so unusual. Your works don’t use traditional forces, and often many extra players have to be hired, something orchestras, with their union agreements, don’t like doing too much. Have you ever thought of perhaps creating adaptations of pieces like “De Staat,” so they could actually be heard live in this country more than once every 20 years?’ “


But Mr. Andriessen has long been ambivalent about the symphony orchestra. He told Mr. Hurwitz that since composers in Holland receive state support, he didn’t need to worry about how widely works were performed, and preferred to write for new-music ensembles. But as it turns out, he may be softening his attitude.


“I’m very skeptical about orchestra,” he said. “I think the problem is not only the mentality of the orchestras themselves, and the public. It’s also the fact that the sound I want is so different from what the orchestra does. There is an administrator at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam who is always asking me to write, and I always say to him: ‘Who knows? But when I compose a piece, I want to compose it as I hear the music. And that would mean having to send half the orchestra away and adding a lot of instruments that you don’t have in an orchestra.’


“So, if I were to write a commissioned work for an orchestra — which is not impossible — there are questions to deal with beyond the questions of programming and the public. I know that other composers, like John Adams, add synthesizers and other instruments to the orchestra. But his approach is friendlier to the mainstream repertory. My character is probably a little more difficult.”