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It’s my first full day at Avaloch Farm Music Institute, a place which can be described simply as a musician’s paradise. Rural New Hampshire’s isolation offers both seclusion and quietude, and the immediate proximity of practice studios to one’s bedroom and dining hall offer the opportunity to focus and work with as much or as little interruption as you wish. A Grove Dictionary of Music sits at one end of the barn, a sign that one has the time and space not only to practice, but to satisfy any sudden curiosity about a composer or piece. To get to the lake, one walks through an apple orchard where one can pick a snack off a tree (though the home-cooked food here fills and satisfies dozens of New-Yorquinos who might normally be precious about their Phad Thai or almond latte). For those seeking some animal therapy, there’s ample time to commune with Jessie, a large German Shepherd who often appears at mealtimes along with her owner Fred Tauber, Avaloch’s godfather and spiritual leader.

There are broadly no restrictions here, yet the atmosphere engenders a positivity which tacitly enforces one golden rule: don’t spoil it. There are new and familiar faces alike, but no cliques. Though there are discussions about life and work in New York, they somehow don’t revolve around the MTA’s existential state of dysfunction or the price of real estate (subjects of roughly 40% of Manhattanite conversations). Vulgarity is seldom heard. Exhibitions of resentment or negativity are absent. One gets the feeling that this is what summer camp was supposed to be like when you were a kid, had it not been for inhibiting factors such as homesickness, puberty or adolescent low self-esteem.

All of us are here are working on new music in some form. This week, the resident ensembles include several string quartets, a brass group, a jazz ensemble as well as some soloists collaborating with composers on fresh pieces. Having brought my baroque and modern harps up with me from New York, I’ve met up here with composer/violinist George Meyer and mandolinist/composer Tom Morrison. Having worked with each other in various capacities at Juilliard, we decided to see what we could create if we put ourselves and our instruments together in a room.

This morning’s session started off with the first movement of Bach’s Trio Sonata in E-flat, BWV 525. While the exercise was to collaboratively create a unified sound, the process was one of personal humility. Finding ways to feed off the combination of three different instruments, we took opportunity to listen to the correspondence between bow strokes and mandolin plucks, and pay close attention to how the sounds we produce might accidentally sustain over another instrument. String instruments, be they bowed or plucked, are incredibly noisy and fussy. For instance, an expressive scratch on a bow, perhaps ideal for Brahms or Franck, can cover up a mandolin’s phrase or arc. A boomy line from the harp’s mid-range can turn a refined texture into baby-foody mush. Thus, we worked on the initial attacks of individual notes, only then determining the color and spin of the subsequent production of tone. Introducing one’s presence in the texture becomes a humbling enterprise, so as to ensure that one isn’t obfuscating the mellifluous line of another instrument. This is the joy of chamber music: a process whereby happiness can be derived not just from playing with others, but in witnessing how you can lend encouragement to your colleagues so that they might reveal the best of themselves.

From there we took a break and started improvising, simply to enjoy what might evolving out of some free collaborative chemistry. Initially, Tom and I figured out how to make the combined texture of the harp and mandolin line up, so as to give a wide and flexible base for George to work with. (For those who don’t know George’s playing, it’s really fun to play with. He’s to switch between classical and fiddling styles with incredible virtuosic ease, transforming a downtown minimalist vibe into a soundscape from middle America.) Starting with two note-cells and then moving one by one to 4 or 5 note groupings, we found a common language that would allow the other voice to emerge clearly though seamlessly. As George started playing, patterns of implied harmonies started to take the small melodic shapes he would feed us, and in turn all three of us started to learn each other’s go-to ticks and instincts – the tools we use to get messages across. Before long, a structure took shape, and with each miniature jam session, more would be loosely notated.

The morning and afternoon sessions flew by, both insanely productive, so after dinner we decided to have the evening off. As George and Tom headed down to the basement to play ping-pong with members of the Momenta Quartet, I returned to the studio for some time alone with the baroque harp. Lately I’ve been working through the toccatas from Girolamo Diruta’s Il Transilvano, a collection of pieces not only by Diruta, but by several of his Venetian colleagues, such as Claudio Merulo and Luzzasco Luzzaschi. Diruta’s curatorial project offers insight into how organists and keyboardists were taught in the late 16th century. But more importantly for me, it also offers insight into how harp music started to take off in the same period. Though baroque HP nerds talk about the “Italian Baroque Harp” colloquially, much of it characteristic identity as a florid scale and arpeggio machine is derived from a group of composers in Naples who travelled north to study with the likes of Luzzaschi and Merulo. Since Avaloch is a space for exploration, I decided to start from the source and see what harpists and harp composers were being handed by their keyboardist progenitors.

Throughout Il Transilvano there are scales upon scales upon more scales throughout the manuscript, initially encouraging an impassioned Liszt-like frenzy. Fortunately, Diruta’s accompanying treatise on playing the organ itself offers a key piece of advice early on, telling students that even if they wish to play with force or agility, that they ought to maintain a supple hand, “as if handling an infant.” Luzzaschi’s Toccata del Quarto Tono grants a particular challenge in balancing the sweet with the virtuosic. Because of the huge amount of acoustic ringing that goes on beneath a harp’s sounding board, calculating the proper velocity of attack on the strings takes an anally high level of of care and treatment. For instance, the scales have to pass seamlessly between hands – one has to ensure that the two hands are moving the strings the same amount so that there isn’t a sudden bump when there’s an exchange. The scales themselves also have to sound at an appropriate volume level so that the level virtuosity doesn’t cover up the implicit harmonies. Conversely, one has to accept that there are things that will inevitably not be as clear as on the organ or the harpsichord (confronting the harp’s idiosyncrasies realistically is the flip-side of the coin). The exercise prompts an internal conversation between your hands, the music and the instrument. Each has an equal say in the process, but your hands and sensibilities cannot become constricted or forced.

Sitting in bed, I’m overwhelmed by the care that goes into a space like Avaloch’s. For the first time in a very long while, it feels as if innocence and humility can truly sit side by side with intense and high-pressured creative processes. As my generation’s musical mentors and trailblazers continue to disappoint us in the ongoing revelations of the #MeToo era, a space dedicated to honest and open creative enterprises are more important than ever, as they don’t simply foster musical innovation but emotional restoration. I find myself asking what more I could be doing with my own approach to music this week, as I continue to transport organ music to the harp bench. Organists spend so much time alone, that a week spent with a collaborative mindset is still jarring to the sensibilities. Organists are a notoriously proud breed, isolated by their sincerity yes, but perhaps by a misplaced solemnity which translates into pride. Here at Avaloch, the scenery is too beautiful, the accommodations too comfortable, and the people too honest for any expression of pride. My residency here has already proven to be a humbling experience.

An Interview (7)(8)(9)

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Rather than spending time on the blog, I took a few weeks to interview several figures in the harpsichord world about what it is about the instrument itself that makes them tick. I’m grateful to VAN Magazine in Berlin, for taking these pieces on, as I find many articles and profiles on harpsichordists (including several of my own) to focus on how the instrument it physically approached by human hands, and not necessarily on its autonomy before one sits down to launch into a rendition of the Goldberg Variations.

Robert and Keith Hill graciously explained what it is that makes a harpsichord a harpsichord, not just from a mechanical perspective, but from an acoustical perspective.

Thereafter, I talked to Pierre Hantaï (who himself owns one of Keith’s instruments), about what harpsichordists do with the instrument once they have the right instrument.

Lastly, I skyped one of my favorite harpsichordists, Alina Rotaru. While Robert, Keith and Pierre all talked about the necessity of “historicity” as an aesthetic, Alina talked about the multiple plains on which historicity dwells, both physically and intellectually.

(By the way, placing three articles on this page was intentional, as VAN offers three free articles a month to its readers. If you want to read more…. subscribe! You won’t regret it!)


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While the MTA’s performance has been notoriously underwhelming lately, I’m lucky to live near the reliable Q line for the summer. That said, my commute is by no means uninteresting…

Prospect Park:

Pigeons pecking puke
While I wait for the Q train.
(Yum.) #Sunday.

7th Avenue:

Self-awareness check:
Your DIY pedicure
on the train? Please don’t.

Atlantic Avenue/Barclays:

No 2 or 3 trains
Into Manhattan. EVER.

Dekalb Avenue:

Colgate saliva
On the train floor. But oh, he’s
Forgotten to floss.

Canal Street:

Old Spice fills the train
Like carcinogen incense.
(“B-O? D-O, bro.”)

Union Square:

Gaggle of burly
Hungover muscle queens musc
Le muscle muscle

34th Street:

Costume change: he’s got
Short-shorts, reading “Monster” on
His crotch. (A moving sight.)

Times Square:

MTA delays.
Platforms slowly fill up with
Proud early risers.

72nd Street:

Two fathers, holding
Their twins’ hands, head southwards
To march for their lives.

(Happy Pride.)

Charleston, 4am

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It’s 4am and I can’t sleep. My attempt to whiz through some Thomas Pynchon has been about as successful my brief affair with Infinite Jest. I don’t particularly want to read Middlesex or The Virgin Suicides either. Around midnight, while I was going back through scores and registration sticky notes, Netflix won out over Amazon Prime in the competition for mindless distraction. It’s got The Godfather readily available for streaming.

I admit a certain amount of dread about my recital here in Charleston. Once again, I’ve rather stupidly programmed BWV 532, the “Little” Prelude and Fugue in D Major. Though not particularly famous among the Bach keyboard oeuvres overall, the D Major maintains a Herculean status in the organist’s canon for no other reason than that it places some incredible technical demands on its performer. From the opening bar, the work is a sink or swim test.


The Prelude starts with a quick upward scale from the pedals, followed by an intricate descending pattern in the hands. Backwards and forwards the hands and feet play around with scales and arpeggios until it all of sudden, Bach slams the brakes.


As if to oppose the preceding stratospheric virtuosity, wide angular intervals and a jagged rhythmic pattern jerk everything back down to earth. Though not as technically complex as the opening, the stark contrast of these bars poses a problem of how they should relate to the preceding material, if at all. One could make specific inquiries into matters of tempo, rhythm or articulation, but the overriding question is one of affect or exaggeration. Is the music substantively different enough to be played straight? Or does it ask the performer for something more? It’s all too easy to assume that this is a snippet of a baroque overture, or something regal. But the key of F-sharp minor doesn’t really lend itself to huge amount of dignity or determination, but rather to fear or uncertainty. It’s as if Icarus made it to the sun all too quickly, and the prospect of his doomed descent has made time stand still.


Gear shift (again). A sweeping scale spanning two octaves gives way to a subdued, lengthier polyphonic section. Marked Alla breve, the new section looks more like 16th-century consort music, stoic and stable, a far cry from the impression one might get that the opening was made up on the spot. All the tension, the excitement and angst seems to have been for nothing, but was rather just an improvisatory introduction – a prelude within the prelude.


What’s funny is that the most interesting section of the 532 is the least written about. Just as as Bach is about to tidy up the polyphonic section, it all stops again (surprise!). Everything slows down by about half, the texture expands dramatically and some whacky harmonies come out. First you think you’re going to E minor, then to A minor, then to E major… and even to E-flat major… before it settles back suddenly into D Major, the home key.


The polarization can be tricky to keep track of. Which affect is the “real” essence of the prelude? Was the polyphonic section just a ruse, leading us into a false sense of security? Or are all these crunchy harmonies just a distraction from the solemnity of the Alla breve?

Ok, you got me. The tonal scheme of the final section isn’t all that unusual for Bach. Impassioned chromaticism is considered one of his stylistic hallmarks. But these bars are still strange, emotive, stirring. If you’re a Mario Puzo fan, you’ll recognize the music from the revenge scene from The Godfather. As Michael Corleone stands to witness the baptism of his godson Michael Rizzi, bosses of the families Barzini, Tattaglia, Curneo and Stracci are executed. He stands and tells the priest he will renounce evil and serve as an example to his godson. With every vow, a different boss is shot in line with a different diminished-seventh chord from the organ. Michael’s baptism alibi keeps him safe. It’s all part of the drama in that he has commenced his life as mafioso by decisively going to the mattresses. He has become a godfather.

It’s an important scene for Michael, and possibly the most climactic point of the entire movie. Having spent nearly two and a half hours trying to deny to you the necessity of redemptive violence (a metaphor for Corleone family values), he fully ascends the family throne, killing the bosses of the four families in vengeance for his brother Sonny’s death.

Of course, it is this very internal conflict that makes The Godfather a masterwork, and not a mindless litany of violence. Without the struggle between Michael’s dual life as a mobster and an Ivy-Leaguer-army hero, there wouldn’t be a great deal of dramatic content. By the end of the film, you’re left wondering about the nature of his transformation: has Michael undergone metamorphosis or apotheosis? Is he now victor or a victim?

While Bach’s “Little” prelude ends in the same key as it started, the journey has arguably been frought. Such is the intensity of the dissonance at the piece’s closing that the D major chord can be heard more as a sigh of relief than an herald of victory. There’s no doubt that there’s a sense of finality, but knowing how to feel about it is thrown into flux by a musical device called the Picardy third. By raising the middle note of a chord to make it more joyful in a place where one might expect it to be mournful or pained, the Picardy third thrives on the ambiguity of a single note on a staff. By simply placing a sharp sign in front of it, an F is no longer just an F, but a question.


Mired in the Byzantine chaos that is Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Daysits perhaps one of the best metaphorical descriptions of the effect of the Picardy third on the soul. As the protagonist Lew sits in Chicago, listening to the songs of a group of populist-era radicals, he remembers the lines:

Love never spared a sinner,
Hate never cured a saint,
Soon is the night of reckoning,
Then let no heart be faint.

“. . . moving from the minor mode it had been throughout into the major, ending with a Picardy third cadence that, if it did break Lew’s heart exactly, did leave a fine crack that in time would prove unmendable. . . Here, they were expressing the most subversive thoughts, as ordinary folks might discuss crops, or last night’s ball game. Lew understood that this business would not end with him walking out the door tonight and on to some next assignment.”

As Mario Puzo’s own protagonist comes to terms with what he has wrought, he lies to his WASP-y wife about whether or not he has murdered not only four mob bosses, but his own brother-in-law, leaving his newly baptized godchild an orphan. He lies with ease, so as to spare his family anymore pain than he has already been wrought. The ghost of Sonny Corleone’s temper and Vito Corleone’s cautiousness remain so ever-present, that clearing up the family’s collateral damage is the only option for allowing the family to move on, to mourn, to grieve.

The Picardy third in a way is a small lie, a way of tying up something cluttered with tension, ultimately giving it a false sense of finality. In writing on Joni Mitchell’s music, James Bennighof might have been the most damning about the effect of this ancient musical device: “Replacing an expected final minor chord with a major chord in this way is a centuries-old technique, first dubbed a ‘Picardy third’ in print by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in 1797 … to express [the idea that] hopefulness might seem unremarkable, or even clichéd.” It’s a sweep under the rug; a sudden, cheap emotional machination.

As with any story, what comes after alters the context or narrative. For Puzo, Michael’s Picardy third is prescient of the Corleone’s eventual inability to overcome their violent inheritance. Pynchon’s protagonist continually witnesses the changing 20th century through a lens of heartbreak. With Bach, however, there is hope. There is a fugue: a difficult, lengthy, yet ultimately joyous reconciliation of all of the prelude’s angst and complexity. But whatever the outcome, the Picardy third is a reminder that life’s baptisms of fire – ultimately periods of discomfort and stress – are ultimately short-lived. What comes next is what really matters.



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While I have many faults, there is one which comes up every time I head to an art museum: no matter what I’m looking at, I will likely end up drawing a parallel between the artwork in front of me and a piece of music I know. Blends of colors and indeterminacy in impressionistic paintings always lead me to one or another piece of Debussy. The balance of strict proportion and high ornamentation in 18th Century portraiture will lead me to C.P.E Bach or Gluck. Medieval paintings of courtly love mingled with the divine parable of human sacrifice correspond to the motets of Guillaume de Machaut.

It’s hard to say whether it’s a filter, a means of translation or a tendency to apply some complementary historical context. More often that not, there’s little direct historical or constructive correlation between art and a piece of music I see. It’s all very vague, general. There are similarities between art and music, admittedly, but often the difference between the physical phonomena of light and sound often render the two mutually exclusive. Take ornamentation for instance. A musical ornament strikes me as spontaneous, and even superfluous to a musical performance. A musician can leave it out, lengthen it, change it. But an extra flower, a touch of gilding or any other small addition in a painting is usually seen as a product of something far more willful. Once it’s on the canvas, it’s done (though presumably the artist may have changed his mind several times in the process).

It’s often the case that performers tend to think of process of music as an action executed in real time, while a painting is often seen as a finished product of a past action, somehow immutable. Such distinctions are arguably false, as the composition of music is a process unseen (though often less glorious than painting), and the very processes of how a painting was constructed can be divined through some careful gazing. It’s really a matter of where you want to position yourself when you look at a piece of art or listen to a piece of music. That’s why I love getting to see a piece of art or music that challenges you to sit in multiple time spaces at once.

In visiting Francisco de Zubarán’s (1598-1664) paintings of Jacob and his twelve sons at the Frick, I was struck by their sheer size. Each is not just life-size, but larger, close to seven feet tall. And yet, despite their size, none seemed unsubtle or overblown. Every detail about the sons’ clothing, posture, and possessions bore to me the significance of the blessings bestowed upon by their father in Genesis 49.

Some like Issachar are more conventional and obvious.

Issachar is a strong donkey,
Lying down between the sheepfolds;
He saw that a resting place was good,
And that the land was pleasant;
So he bowed his shoulder to the burden,
And became a slave at forced labor.

Benjamin, Jacob’s youngest son, is dressed as a dandy. His duplicity can be seen not just in his posture, but in the occlusion of half of his face, starkly contrasted against the Carvaggio-esque green paleness of the half left in the sunlight.

Benjamin is a ravenous wolf,
In the morning devouring the prey,
And at the evening dividing the spoil.

Asher has more layers. Carrying a loaves of bread and sporting an emblem on his garb used in Zubarán’s Adoration of the Magi, he prefigures Christ as the final incarnation of Melchisedech.

Asher’s food shall be rich,
And he shall provide Royal delicacies.


But in Naphtali, there was something different. He’s sporting a shovel. Why?

Naphtali is a doe let loose
That bears lovely fawns.

His stance is also oddly commanding compared to that of his brothers. In looking at the Frick’s informational plaque, it said that this particular study was based on a depiction Naphtali’s by Jacques de Gheyn’s II (1565-1629) prints of Karel van Mander I (1548-1606). In particular the rhetorical shape of the hand is very similar. It’s open, though not relaxed. The face in van Mander’s is based on a woodblock of Christ’s apparition to Mary Magdalene by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). Christ’s garb and sporting of the shovel however, are seen explicitly in Zubarán’s later painting. Dürer’s? On an engraving of Saint Bartholomew by Martin Schongauer (1445-1491).

Immediately, the music of organist and harpist Antonio de Cabezón (1510-1566) came to mind. In 1570, his son Hernando published a volume of what he described as “mere crumbs of his father’s achievements.” The collection included some of the larger and more popular keyboard works that Antonio had composed in his lifetime, transcribed by his son due to a near total loss of his sight. The volume contains a work entitled “Stabat Mater I” and another, “Stabat Mater II.” Containing the same harmonies but with different variations and ornaments, they stand out because the cantus firmus (that is, the fundamental melody) doesn’t align with any contemporary liturgical chant setting of the Stabat Mater.

At the Cross her station keeping,
stood the mournful Mother weeping,
close to her Son to the last.

Can the human heart refrain
from partaking in her pain,
in that Mother’s pain untold?

Indeed, it turns out that they are both embellishments of Josquin des Prez’s (1455-1521) monumental setting of the hymn, which uses not a Gregorian chant as its basis, but a secular melody taken from composer Gilles Binchois (1400-1460). Binchois melody was originally set to a text also about the sorrows of a woman.

Like a woman most distressed,
more even than all the others,
with no hope of being consoled on any day of my life,
weighted down by my misfortune,
I desire death, day and night.

The trick in performing Cabezón’s piece however comes in deciding a tempo. There are phenomenal number of notes, indeed too many to play on a keyboard at once.

E775403C-35D9-43E0-B1D5-ECCCC10B283EThere are several possibilities (all conjecture, mind you). Perhaps that the work is intended for the harp, where the natural sustaining quality of the strings allows you pluck a note and leave it. Alternatively, maybe all the notes aren’t meant to be played – much music of this period was written down for the purpose of showing people how to improvise themselves, rather than be performed directly from the score. But supposing that decision is made, what speed to we play it at? There are roughly sixteen of Cabezón’s notes in scales for every half note beat of Josquin’s motet. Is the piece meant to go at a speed similar to which it’s supposed to be sung? Or is it “its own thing?” Indeed, in teasing out how to perform the work, you’re subconsciously determining primacies of authorship, based on pure aesthetics and gut feeling.

I look at Zubarán and I can’t help but wonder if these are really “his” paintings? We know his students’ hands are on them, and we know that the emotive symbols that make each of the characters individual are borrowed from earlier masters. While I can see Zubarán’s genius in bringing all these elements together, I can’t help but also see the beauty in the accumulation of symbols and influences across centuries. In the end, authorship or attempts to divine a scheme of construction dissipate the more you look. It’s as if the artist – or artists – fade away. These are paintings intended to showcase not the self, but the divine – that is, something untouched by time.

May Day Mezcal

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As is often the case after an evening concert, my partner and I stopped by our local taco shop on West 72nd Street for a quick bite before walking the dog. I love the place, even though there’s nothing remotely Mexican about it. Owned run by a Korean family, absolutely none of the ingredients are homemade (including the frozen steak they reheat) and any chili or semblance of spice comes in the form of countless bottles of Sriracha along the counters and in a cardboard box next to the refrigerator. This is so classically New York. Like your Cuban-Chinese takeout restaurants, or your Eastern European owned fried chicken shops, places like these are testament to the fallacy of authenticity. Late-night drunk food doesn’t have to be authentic, or even homemade. Why? Because it’s late night drunk food (and it tastes fucking great).

Tonight’s post-libation nutrition was necessary as I attended a Mezcal tasting cum contemporary music concert, the first of its kind in NYC. Curated by composer Felipe Perez-Santiago and distiller Alejandro Aispuro, the event was hosted Andrew Ouseley and Unison Media, a social media and publicity firm based in Long Island City. Around 5pm, I arrived at Bowery Electric on the Lower East Side, where the smell of fermented agave whacked me in the face as soon as I walked in the door. I looked to the bar, and around 100 glasses of Mezcal were lined up and ready to go for a different sort of happy hour.

As guests wandered in, I spoke with Alejandro and Felipe about what it meant to pair a spirit tasting with a concert of contemporary Mexican music. Alejandro began, “Mexico is going through an interesting period of cultural self-discovery right now. Local culture is increasingly more important, and a product of that is a revival of interest and appreciation for Mezcal.” He went on explain that Mezcal, a spirit made from agave, is the father spirit of Tequila but is much more refined. In the wake of mass alcohol production in the twentieth century, the Mexican government has inadvertently sanctioned the cheapening of the distillation process in order to increase exports to the United States. Tequila only needs to be 51% agave-based to be called “Tequila” and even then, the agave may not be cooked or treated, but simply processed raw. “It’s a fascinating time, as we have started to see a wave of immigrants return to the region of Oaxaca to take back up the family business of making Mezcal. The profits are high, and families are increasing sending their kids to business programs in universities, the fruits of which are brought home to help foster sustainable business models. It’s very exciting, as there’s something with true Mexican identity that is seeing economic growth.”

Felipe echoed Alejandro, saying “contemporary music is also booming in Mexico, especially in Mexico City where we have the most number of composers per capita on earth. Our state orchestras regularly perform new music by Mexican composers, and we have started to see the emergence of new orchestras devoted solely to contemporary Mexican music.” But in seeming contrast to the native significance of Mezcal, the success of contemporary Mexican music comes in a certain rejection of national paradigms. “The composers you will hear tonight (including) regularly get performed all over the world. In Mexico, composers are not nationalists in the way that other countries in Latin America might be. In Brazil, there’s still pressure to sound like Villa-Lobos. In Argentina, like Piazolla. We Mexican composers live and work all around the world. I myself lived in Amsterdam and Berlin for almost twenty years, but am now back in Mexico. There’s no ‘Mexican’ sound.”

Felipe and Alejandro have been friends for years, and have recently been teaming up to pair tastings with concerts. When asked why, Felipe laughed and said, “well first of all, we’re musicians. We like to drink!” But they spoke of the craft and detailed processes common between distillation and composition. “Like being guided through a tasting, learning how to listen to new music is essential for building a new audience.” When I asked why they came to New York, they said that it’s the ideal place for both Mezcal and music. Alejandro said, “with the growing affluence of a Spanish speaking population here in New York, the demand for Mezcal has only gone up and up.” Felipe was more explicit, saying “the benefits of waves of immigration to a city like New York mean that there are musicians and musical styles from all over the world. But with that, there are also several ways of listening. There are concert halls and recital venues, but this is the city of people like Terry Riley and Steve Reich who didn’t wait around for commissions. They got their friends together in bars or in their living rooms and did it themselves. In New York, nights like tonight are just as valid as a concert in Carnegie Hall.”

As the tasting proceeded, I surveyed the crowd. It was thoroughly multigenerational, international, multiethnic – that is, with the glaring exception that I didn’t manage to come across a single Mexican or Latinx guest. On the other hand, it was nice to see that there weren’t any other musicians in the room. While Felipe pointed out that musicians in New York often get their friends together, it’s very easy to go to New Music concerts in the city and see the same faces in the audience: your fellow musician colleagues. But tonight I spoke to one couple who commuted in from Princeton, NJ simply to attend an event hosted by Unison Media. “We’ve been trying to get tickets to Crypt Sessions for over a year, but haven’t been able to.” When asked if she came specifically for the music or the booze (or both), the wife said, “Neither! We really just wanted to see what the atmosphere was like.”

For the last several years, Andrew Ouseley and Unison Media have held monthly concerts, pairing music with chef-tastings in the undercroft of gothic-revival church in Upper Manhattan. These concerts have been a hit. Tickets sell out virtually instantly. Indeed, tonight’s event comes on the heels of Unison Media’s announcement that they will be starting another concert series in the catacombs of the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. As I spoke to more attendees, one elderly couple said that they came because wanted to try more Mezcal after visiting Oaxaca earlier this year. One sharply dressed millennial said she wanted to “do something classy for Cinco de Mayo.”

At around 6:45 the attendees departed Bowery Electric to head to Le Poisson Rouge (better known as LPR) on Bleecker Street. However, the commute was somewhat interrupted on Broadway by a May Day protest against immigration raids and deportations under the Trump administration (along with a handful of Anarchists, anti-Israel marchers and Black Lives Matter activists). The marchers were maybe only 200 in number, only holding up traffic for 5 minutes or so. And yet the centrality of immigration to this labor protest contrasted sharply to dressed-up, bourgeois evening devoted hearing and tasting Mexico in the comfort of two bars in Lower Manhattan.

After the guests settled in, musical curator Conrad Cummings stood and walked the audience through a new composition by a young composer named Juan Pablo Contreras. Listeners were told what open strings sounded like on a cello and how harmonics create an ethereal quality on the violin. Much like the Mezcal tasting, attendees were being guided through how to listen, like tasting with their ears. Thereafter, the concert proceeded with a live broadcast on LPR’s radio show “Relevant Tones,” hosted by Seth Boustead. While each of the pieces was immaculately played, two facets of the evening stood out very starkly. First, it was clear that there was no focus on the musicians whatsoever. Programs were printed without artist bios, and there was no discussion of the music by the performers. While some might argue that it’s irrelevant that none of the musicians on stage were Mexican, I personally found it a little difficult at first to engage with a performance where the musicians had no explicit connection with any of the composers, let alone the country of Mexico. Second, it became apparent the composers represented were interconnected in some form or fashion. Felipe Perez Santiago had not one, but two compositions performed at the beginning and end of the set. A colleague and former teacher of Felipe’s composed the second work, Tres Danzas Seculares by the name of Mario Lavista. Composer Gabriela Ortiz’s De Animos y Quebrantos was workshopped in new music scheme developed by radio host Seth, and Ana Lara, composer of Y Los Oros La Luz was apparently instrumental in getting Seth his first radio broadcast as a composer. Indeed, while being advertised as evening of contemporary music from Mexico, it was apparent that the Mexican composers were chosen not necessarily based on how representative they were of the Mexican contemporary classical music scene (which I was told was one of the largest in the world), but on their proximity to Felipe and Seth.

Anyone familiar with the new music world will know that a personal connections are often how you get your music off the ground. But what is slightly bizarre is that an evening of extremely high music making took place in which the performers were seemingly alienated from both the music and its presentation. While it was true that all the music was composed by living Mexican composers, there was nothing significant about the performances or works themselves that made them particularly Mexican. After all, Felipe was keen to stress that the composers tonight were not nationalist, but global in their outlook and appeal. I admit to having left the event slightly wondering what the point of marketing music as a national product, when the product itself apparently eschews national definitions. On one level, it’s a cognitive dissonance seen in the ongoing debates about America’s Dreamers. What makes a Dreamer any more or less American if they’ve lived their lives here, are part of our culture and fundamentally share the American dream? And if America really is an “immigrant culture,” how are we deciding which immigrants are worthy and which aren’t? Then again, on another level, I was content as the quality of compositions and playing alike were so incredibly high, that national provenance didn’t really matter. Like my not-Mexican taco, this dubiously Mexican concert was fucking great.


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If you go to church, you’ll know that your organist was somewhat occupied last week. During Holy Week, the standard schedule of one or two services per week is upended entirely. There are perhaps two services on Maundy Thursday, a long service on Good Friday (lasting up to three hours or more), a service late Saturday evening, and as many as three services on Sunday morning (the earliest of which may well be at six o’clock). On top of that, there are extra rehearsals for the brass, some hand-holding sessions to teach your sopranos innumerable hymn descants, and a lot of conversations with the clergy to reassure them that nothing about this year’s music will come as a surprise to the parishioners who only attend church on Christmas and Easter. It is in this week that organists become miracle workers. They are exhausted.

Compared to other Episcopalian organists across the country, my own Holy Week was relatively light. At Christ & Saint Stephen’s, I managed to get away with only one extra rehearsal, as I only had to play and conduct one service per day from Maundy Thursday to Easter Sunday. Other perks: we had no brass on Easter morning (my trumpet player fell ill), nor did we have any hymn descants (as I despise them).

Most of the musical energy this week went into Good Friday, not to ramp it up, but to wind it down. In years past, it’s been customary for the full choir to provide a series of large-scale meditations to accompany the Passion story. This year, the forces were much smaller, comprising two sopranos, a viola da gamba and a baroque harp. The austerity was fitting. Just the night before, the church had been stripped of all ornaments and decorations, depriving worshippers of any visual reassurance. The ensemble performed portions of the Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah as set by François Couperin. Though it speaks of desolation, abandonment and misery, the music never gives in to the extreme emotionality or pain of the text. There is often a steady tempo throughout, and a sameness in affect for the duration of the work.

The harmonies tend not to wander terribly far. The voices tend to stay in consistent registers. As if suffering is a matter of fact; the lack of extreme external expression of sadness beckons listeners to fill the emotional gap themselves. It is fundamentally music designed to evoke a sense of distance from your surroundings.

How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people! how is she become as a widow! she that was great among the nations, and princess among the provinces, how is she become tributary!

She weepeth sore in the night, and her tears are on her cheeks: among all her lovers she hath none to comfort her: all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they are become her enemies.

She is gone into captivity because of affliction, and because of great servitude: she dwelleth among the heathen, she findeth no rest: all her persecutors overtook her between the straits.

Couperin’s preface to the Lamentations informs the performers that the work can be accompanied by an organ and/or a harpsichord. In using neither, I admit to openly admit to ignoring the composer’s intent. But for Good Friday, I wanted to use acoustic stringed instruments. The harpsichord, though it decays, is too loud and clunky. The organ, though soft, does not naturally decay but sustains until the finger is lifted out of the key. In short, these are not “expressive” instruments in the manner a harp or a lute might be—they don’t whisper or naturally expire in the way a human might. Neither breathes and dies.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was lutes, gambas and harps that were often used to materially compliment the story of the Crucifixion, because like the cross, they were made of wood. No example is more famous than Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, in which the gamba accompanies the haunting aria “Komm, süsses Kreuz.” But more than that, the tension of gut strings and the sheer stress placed on the instruments themselves more graphically mirrors the physical process of crucifixion: as the body lies on the cross, the chest muscles and rotator cuff are extended to the point of hypertension, prompting death not by exsanguination, but by asphyxiation.


Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part
With all thy art.
The crosse taught all wood to resound his name,
Who bore the same.
His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key

Is best to celebrate this most high day.  (George Herbert, 1633)

Baroque harps have three rows of strings, lending the player an ability to play harmonies twice over in quick colorful succession. But the sheer number of strings (92 total) allows for a long natural resonance and decay. Since getting my new baroque harp, I’ve had a bit of fun learning to improvise and get the instrument sound extravagant. But this week, allowing the instrument simply to sound and die was enough. The strings curiously don’t have to be plucked to sound. Just providing sympathetic vibrations helps the harmonies bloom, take shape and fade.

Once Easter services had ended and I’d taken a nap, Richard and I went to the movies to see The Death of Stalin, a fictionalized account of the days after Stalin’s demise, comprised of countless anecdotes from the span of the dictatorship. But, my expectations of escape were somewhat foiled by the manner in which the film is set up. The film begins with a performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, in which a last minute repeat performance has to be arranged so that comrade Stalin can have a recording. The situation in the film based on the true events of 1944, in which pianist Maria Yudina had to repeat a performance of the concerto and record it for Stalin.

The story is most famously recorded in Dmitri Shostakovich’s memoirs:

In his final years, Stalin didn’t let anyone in to see him for days at a time. He listened to the radio a lot. Once Stalin called the Radio Committee, where the administration was, and asked if they had a record of Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 23, which had been heard on the radio the day before. “Played by Yudina,” he added. They told Stalin that of course they had. Actually, there was no record, the concert had been live. But they were afraid to say no to Stalin, no one ever knew what the consequences might be. A human life meant nothing to him. All you could do was agree, submit, be a yes man, a yes man to a madman.

Stalin demanded that they send the record with Yudina’s performance of the Mozart to his dacha. The committee panicked, but they had to do something. They called in Yudina and an orchestra and recorded that night. Everyone was shaking with fright, except for Yudina, naturally. But she was a special case, that one, the ocean was only knee-deep for her.

Yudina later told me that they had to send the conductor home, he was so scared he couldn’t think. They called another conductor, who trembled and got everything mixed up, confusing the orchestra. Only a third conductor was in any shape to finish the recording. I think this a unique event in the history of recording—I mean changing conductors three times in one night. Anyway, the record was ready by morning. They made one single copy and sent it to Stalin. Now, that was a record record. A record in yessing.

Soon afterward, Yudina received an envelope with twenty thousand rubles. She was told it came on the express orders of Stalin. Then she wrote him a letter. I know about this letter from her, and I know that the story seems improbable; Yudina had many quirks, but I can say this—she never lied. I’m certain that her story is true. Yudina wrote something like this in her letter: “I thank you Iosif Vissarionovich, for your aid. I will pray for you day and night and ask the Lord to forgive your great sins before the people and the country. The Lord is merciful and He’ll forgive you. I gave the money to the church that I attend.”

And Yudina sent this suicidal letter to Stalin. He read it and didn’t say a word, they expected at least a twitch of the eyebrow. Naturally, the order to arrest Yudina was prepared and the slightest grimace would have been enough to wipe away the last traces of her. But Stalin was silent and set the letter aside in silence. The anticipated movement of the eyebrows didn’t come.

Nothing happened to Yudina. They say that her recording of the Mozart was on the record player when the leader and teacher was found dead in his dacha. It was the last thing he had listened to.

By all accounts, everything about Yudina’s musicianship and performances was bound up with her faith, even to the point of fanaticism. She would perform publicly wearing large crucifixes, or read poems by banned poets such as Boris Pasternak before sitting down to play Bach, enduring numerous periods of blacklisting because of the outlandishness of her… piety? In Yudina’s recording and interpretation of the concerto, she’s cool as a cucumber. In particular, the second movement is totally devoid of emotion, empathy or sensitivity. It’s almost deadly.

If we’re to believe pianist and musicologist Robert Levin, such an interpretation arguably flies in the face of Mozart’s own intentions. Slow movements were the musical zones for musicians to take off, improvise and demonstrate their technical fluidity. Furthermore, Levin tells us that “When improvisation regains its former position at the center of classical music making, perhaps the gap between composer and performer, between old and new music, between vernacular and art music, and between classical performer and audience will narrow.”

Until last night, I would have said that I agree with Levin 100 percent. But intimacy between performer and listener is not always the choice means of communication. If one is perhaps accustomed to outlandish or “external” performances, a cool or distant performance can prompt a different sense of confidentiality: by creating as much distance as possible, the listener has to fill a gap themselves, look inside.

Yudina was atypical in her approach to the instrument. In listening, I don’t hear any of the hallmark muscularity or flat-footedness associated with mid-century Soviet pianism. In her time and place, it was relatively radical musicianship, though now it would be seen as passé or old fashioned. I’ve had Yudina’s second movement on loop for an hour or so now, and I’m admittedly mesmerized. In a month or so, when I’m in a different place, it will likely have less meaning to me. But at the very least, her recording is a testament to the ways in which any interpretation can be meaningful, regardless of its attitude towards history.

Those of us in historical performance spend a great deal of time dressing things up: we improvise, we ornament, we play with extreme tempi, etc. It’s exhilarating or moving in its own right, but I admit to having gotten tired of it as of late. There’s only so much affectation one can add before it becomes an empty convention of its own. If one isn’t careful, the best intentions to “draw out” the past in music can override the music itself. It becomes less a matter of historical performance, but rather historicism performed.

As ever, reading the news these days causes me to cringe. Empty protests over gun control walked through our streets, demanding gun control for citizens, though not for the police forces who wage violence on the nation’s most vulnerable. The gap between the political activism and the motivations behind the activism itself continues to grow, and I fear that no significant political change will result. It’s as if the act of screaming has come to override the reasons for which we raised our voices in the first place.

I’ve done my best to stick to the New York Review or Times Literary Supplement to get my news. In a recent issue of the TLS, I came across a wonderful quote applicable to our time. In a letter to Alberto Moravia, Pier Paolo Pasolini posited:

I wonder, dear Alberto, whether this angry anti-fascism vented in the piazzas these days, when fascism is no more, isn’t actually a weapon of distraction the ruling class uses to tie up the dissent of workers and students.

Like an over-ornamented performance of Couperin or Mozart, the delivery or packaging of our politics can detract from the matters at hand. While the Russia probe drones on, Obamacare is being dismantled, piece by piece. While we are talking about 7,000 annual gun deaths, thousands more are dying of opium overdoses. As we decry a negligible increase in interest rates, it has become clear that many Americans’ investments in the Chinese economy may have been wasted. I know I’m a grouch, but America is simply getting distracted.

Like politics, music has the potential to be derailed. It can get off track, become too eccentric and lose sight of what’s at the core. But a trademark of a highly trained classical musician is that of extreme focus, and the ability not just to concentrate on matters of execution but of what the performance will have communicated by the end.

Folks, the midterm elections are coming. Voters are not exempt from the rules that beset politicians and musicians: they too can stay focused and cut out the noise, the excess, the ornaments. They can stop yelling, and start thinking.