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Poetry By Heart. Is it Smart?

January 10, 2013

Reading about the British Government's poetry recitation initiative for school children, Poetry By Heart, in The Guardian over the past few days brings to mind another recent attempt by the UK authorities to inculcate school kids with more sensitivity and smarts through cultural engagement.

The scheme I am thinking of is Sing Up!, which was a government-backed project that ran for four years from 2007 to 2010 to get school kids singing regularly.

Primary schools all over England received training and formed choirs. They learned songs from special songbooks that had been created for the program and worked to achieve various levels of attainment. To promote Sing Up!, the initiative was spearheaded by the composer Howard Goodall, who was dubbed the UK's "Singing Ambassador." At the height of the project, around 90% of schoolchildren in England were involved in Sing Up! according to Bridget Whyte, who was one of the key figures involved in planning and executing the scheme.

Poetry By Heart also has a dedicated poetry anthology as well as a public figurehead in the form of Andrew Motion. There's a strong competitive element to the initiative.

Sing Up! and Poetry by Heart both seem to be guided by the same positive impulse: that kids who get comfortable with activities like singing and reciting poems are more likely to be more engaged human beings.

But I wonder how much genuine good such initiatives really do? It's all very well running a national poetry recitation contest for a few months in 2013. But what about the sustainability that's necessary for truly inculcating the spirit of poetry in students' minds and hearts?

It took a while for Sing Up! to get off the ground. Bridget told me that things were slow to get going and only eventually snowballed their way to success. And even with a plan that continued on for several years, the good work that Sing Up! achieved seems challenged at this point in time owing to a change in business model. The government stopped funding the initiative after the initial four year grant and now it is meant to be self-sustaining through schools paying to be members.

But apparently -- and unsurprisingly -- many UK schools are not very happy about having to pay for the project's resources, which used to be free to them when they were government-funded. As a result, Sing Up! seems to be losing some traction as an agent of change in music education.

What does this mean for Poetry by Heart? I guess that what I am getting at here is that cultural initiatives in the schools can be powerful tools for developing young minds. But if really careful thought isn't given to the long-term sustainability of these endeavors, then their value must be questioned.

A Quick Rant About iTunes

January 9, 2013

I hate iTunes. It's official.

Organizing my digital music collection has always been tricky. Many of the recordings I own aren't commercially available so the data often fails to correspond to the tidy, pop music-oriented categories prescribed by the application.

But since my computer prompted me to download the latest version of the iTunes software a few months ago, the situation has become worse.

At least in the past I used to be able to search my iTunes library in a generic way using whatever term I thought might appear in a recording I wanted to access.

But now that the software seems to force users to search for tracks under the specific categories of songs, albums, artists, genres, videos, playlists and radio, I frequently can't find what I'm looking for. This is due to the fact that the data that goes with many of my recordings isn't categorized "properly" according to the limited iTunes classification system.

When it comes to looking for tracks in a genre like classical music, this has proved particularly frustrating. If I'm in the "song" category, do I search for the title of a complete work or an individual movement? And is the "artist" box filled by the name of an orchestra, an individual soloist or a composer?

In short, I feel like abandoning the latest version of iTunes and going back to the older interface, which at least didn't penalize me for having a non-conformist music collection.


A Day at the MFA

January 7, 2013

It's no surprise that Mario Testino's photographs, some of the most iconic of which are currently on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, are  attracting thundering hordes.

The images, which I ogled yesterday on my first ever visit to the MFA, are huge, colorful, sexy and packed with celebrities and super models from Madonna to Kate Moss. 

But besides Testino's brilliantly disconcerting image of the actor Ashton Kutcher looking Photoshop perfect in a pristine white suit with an arm savagely torn at the elbow to reveal the wires and cables of a robot, I was completely bored by the eye candy on display. It amounts to little more than celebrity porn, even if the colors are rich, the prints, glossy, and the torsos depicted, beautiful. 

Of much greater interest is the museum's current The Postcard Age exhibition. The show brings together around 400 postcards from the collection of Leonard A. Lauder. What's fascinating in our age of Twitter, Facebook and email is how powerful the postcard was a hundred years ago not only as a medium of communication, but also as a means of transmitting political, social and commercial messages. Plus, many of the tiny canvases on display are gorgeous works of art. 

I was particularly struck by a pair of postcards depicting photographs of men's neckties on which scantily-clad ladies clung to the central knots. Cards like these apparently inspired the surrealist art movement. A card with a painting of a fat man running down a beach with arms outstretched above the tagline "Skegness is so bracing" made me laugh:  Anyone who grew up in the UK would find this reference to the windswept and barren resort town of "Skeggy" to be funny. 

The exhibition is packed with small wonders that reveal a world of rich communications that seem so much more tactile and personal than the mediums that proliferate today. 

Oh, and I should mention how much I enjoyed wondering around parts of the MFA's permanent collection too. The museum has clearly thought a lot about how to activate spaces that might attract less people than big-draw exhibitions such as the Testino photography show. 

In one of the more gaudy nineteenth century American art galleries packed with white marble sculptures, it was fascinating to chat with a young man who was demonstrating and answering questions about how sculptors work with stone. He was seated in the middle of the room at a table with a plaster cast bust and a stone bust as well as a bunch of artist's tools. The presence of the docent in this capacity makes people slow down and pay attention to the work in a gallery that might otherwise be more of a "walk-through" space. 


December 27, 2012

People in this country can't get enough of old world traditions at this time of year.

Events like The Bracebridge Dinner, a high-end yuletide feast based on Olde Englishe customs which takes place at the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite, and The Christmas Revels, a form of holiday pageant involving singing, dancing, storytelling, poetry and music steeped in similar Anglo-centric traditions, usually sell out. And audience members do things that they don't usually do at other times of the year, like -- dare I say it -- sing and dance in public.

There are a number of Revels troupes around the United States today such as New York, Oakland and Houston. But the version which takes place each year at Sanders Theatre on the Harvard campus in Cambridge, MA is the mother of all of them. It's where the Revels organization took root in 1971, when the pageant's founder, John Langstaff, began producing the event to capacity audiences.

Last night, I attended The Revels in Cambridge. People were wedged into the lovely old theatre's pew-style seats. A jolly atmosphere prevailed. Though pageants of this kind don't generally appeal to me all that much -- they tend to feel a tad canned, kitsch and earnest for my taste -- this one makes for a fun experience because it is so professionally produced.

This year's show has an Irish theme. It begins with the massive cast of some 60 adults and children all dressed in immigrant drag boarding a rusty old bark for America. At the center of the loose narrative of travel and hope for a better life is a cantankerous old Irish poet (Billy Meleady), who doesn't feel so cheerful about leaving his homeland for the United States.

One of the most tightly scripted, humorous and beautifully performed sections of the episodically structured show (which is basically a patchwork of dances, songs and skits aboard the "ark") is a wild tall tale taken from Fairy and Folktales of the Irish Peasantry published by William Butler Yeats. It's narrated by the poet and it concerns a fisherman who befriends a supernatural, fish-like character and travels with him to the bottom of the ocean where he finds and eventually sets free the trapped souls of drowned sailors. The story involves a fantastical folk dance by a group of actors in ruby-red lobster costumes.

On the whole, though, I relished the instrumental music aspects of the performance more than the songs, dances and skits. A warm musical prelude at the top of the show provided by The Cambridge Symphonic Brass ensemble is one highlight. Instrumental sets performed by The Rattling Brogues, a phenomenal Irish music group whose membership includes one of the best harpists I've ever had the pleasure of hearing, had me enraptured.

The crowd, many of whom come back to the Sanders Theatre for The Revels every year, appeared to relish the many moments of audience participation. These ranged from singing carols like "Deck the Halls" to getting up and joining an enormous, snaking conga line at intermission.

The whole thing made me happy, and also made me sigh: I wish that audiences would embrace the participatory spirit at other times of the year. Carols are a great way to bring us out of ourselves. Should start singing them in the Spring too?

Ink Master

December 26, 2012

One fascinating outlet for the analysis of visual art in today's pop culture landscape is Ink Master

I caught an episode of the reality television series, which puts professional tattoo artists to the test for a $100,000 grand prize, a couple of nights ago in my hotel room on Cape Cod. I was on the whole mesmerized, gratified and little amused by the seriousness of the show in terms of digging into the aesthetics of tattoo art.

The series host (Dave Navarro, a rock musician best known for his work with Jane's Addiction) was quite wooden. But the two judges, master tattoo artists Oliver Peck and Chris Nunez, were deeply and pleasingly intense about their craft and merciless in their assessments of the contestants shading, coloring and lining skills.

The three finalists were each given a willing model (known in the business as the "canvas," which has the curious effect of both emphasizing the artistic basis of tattoo art while depersonalizing the fact that the artist is inflicting intense pain on a person in order to achieve the artistic result). Each contestant also received carte blanche to tattoo whatever they wanted on whichever bit(s) of the human anatomy they chose, and could decide whether to use color or just plain ink. Two finalists went for backs and produced aggressive-grotesque heavy metal style tattoos, both without color. The third finalist adorned a pair of copious thighs with characters from Norse mythology in many hues.

What struck me as odd about the whole exercise, however, was how little attention the judges paid to the content of the work being produced. All the analysis seemed to be about the technical aspects of tattooing -- the quality of the line, color, shade etc. But the subject matter, at least in the episode I caught -- the season finale -- wasn't discussed at all.

One of the finalists created one of the most offensive tattoos I've ever seen -- a massive, raging skull, riddled with bullet holes. The head appeared to be bursting out of the woman's back upon which it was inscribed. It was ugly and seemed to be intended solely to shock. The other back tattoo, though technically adept according to the judges, didn't strike me as being particularly interesting to look at. It depicted one of those angry, zombie-like figures that you see on so many heavy metal fans' bodies, T-shirts and posters. The Norse characters seemed to me to be a little more interesting. It was violent in its way (a Valkyrie had a black eye.) But the violence told more of a story and was more subtle. Plus, the colors made the art appear to leap out of the canvas's flesh.

I'm confused as to why the judges offered no insights into what was being depicted by the artists. Nothing is out of bounds in body art, which is one of the best things about it: one of the canvases earlier on in the series had something (I forget what) tattooed on her vagina. But that doesn't mean you can't interrogate an artist for his or her choice of subject and consider things like originality as much as attention to line.

Perhaps the judges talked about content in other episodes of Ink Master and the finale just happened to be devoid of this discussion. It's a shame if that's the case. If not, then I hope that they make it a priority when the next series rolls around.

Oh, and I also hope that Ink Master's success brings about more reality series in which artists working in different media get their work as seriously critiqued.

Gender Imbalance

December 22, 2012

Blue Heron is a high-endy early music-oriented vocal ensemble based in Boston whose members have sung with the likes of Sequentia and Chanticleer and whose work has been written up by Alex Ross in The New Yorker.

But, even though Blue Heron employs some beautiful singers (notably the iridescent tenor Jason McToots and the beveled-edged baritone-bass Paul Guttry) the group's makeup confuses me.

It's mixed gender, but only three of its 12 members are women. I listened hard at a concert of works from 15th century France, Burgundy and Cyprus last night at a billowy church in Cambridge, MA to see if the gender imbalance created something special for the sound.

But I drew a blank on that front.

Though the ensemble worked hard to achieve a good balance and blend, and succeeded on the whole, countertenor Gerrod Pagenkopf's timbre, though lovely, stuck out of the mix. I'm guessing that this happened because the other three high voices in the ensemble are supplied by female vocalists -- Daniela Tosic, Pamela Dellal an Jennifer Ashe.

Still, the concert, which felt rather long, had some great moments. The most extraordinary was a quartet of men performing the French-born composer Johannes Ciconia's "Gloria Spiritus at alme," a piece which modulates in such bizarre ways and whose "Amen" coda is so tonally unsettling, that it caused some audience members to titter. I loved it.

Callithumpian Cage Contemplates Catastrophe

December 21, 2012

I can't imagine a more wonderful place to experience the "musical theatre" of John Cage than in the new concert space at Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, which opened less than a year ago.

The cube-shaped room has no stage and seats some concert goers on all four sides at ground level and the rest on three levels above the performance area, again on all four sides. This means that if you're attending the performance of a work that demands a multi-layered, theatrical approach as is so often the case with Cage's music, you're in for a much more immersive experience than you might have if you were simply sitting in rows in a conventional concert hall.

The contemporary music-oriented Callithumpian Consort performed Cage's Song Books, a collection of short pieces involving staging concepts for different combinations of voice and electronics, at the museum last night. The happening was part of the institution's pithily named "Avant Gardner" music series, a showcase for cutting edge music which takes place on Thursday nights during the museum's late opening hours.

Song Books was composed more than 40 years ago in 1970. Yet if feels remarkably fresh. The setting for last night's performance probably played a key role in preventing the work from appearing like a throwback to the halcyon days of happenings in pot-infused New York lofts.

Sitting on the second of three levels above the staging area, I was delighted to be able to look down and get a birds-eye view of Cage's fantastical musical score. Some parts of the work are written in standard musical notation, others use a special type of notation with assorted circles and lines instead of notes, others still employ different schemas of lines and dots, and some sections are not notated at all -- the text is drafted in a variety of fonts for different words.

The performers clearly seemed to be having fun. Singers occasionally materialized on the different seating levels, intoning their notes to create a "surround sound" feel for a while before moving off to some other locale. At one point, an older male performer was wheeled into the center of the space in a plastic cart. He proceeded to take out two small oriental rugs and a tatty bed sheet, make himself an ad hoc bed, and momentarily fall asleep. Meanwhile, a couple of singers sat on a blanket next to him calmly picnicking on what appeared to be pineapple chunks, crackers, potato chips and a chocolate cupcake. At various times, performers rolled coins, made marks on pieces of paper, played chess and distributed apples and plastic cups of cranberries(?) to audience members.

The harmonics created in the space were amazing. The words intoned by the singers -- which became mantras by the end of the piece -- rung up to the rafters. Even now, against my will and beliefs, I find myself chanting the lyric, "The best form of government is no form of government at all."

Two other pieces were performed alongside the Cage -- The Great Learning, Paragraph 7, by Cornelius Cardew, and Christian Wolff's Changing the System. All three works have an anarchic streak  in common. (The anarchist's flag was even unfurled from a balcony at some point during the Cage.)

En masse, they proved a potent way to think about the chaos of recent weeks most palpably encapsulated in this country by the ravages of Hurricane Sandy and last Friday's school shooting in Connecticut. They also formed a fitting prelude for the notion of the world coming to an end on December 21, 2012.

(I'm currently sitting in a Boston Starbucks, preempting The Rapture with a cup of green tea. I wonder if I can fit in a final game of squash?)

More singing boys = fewer wars

December 17, 2012

Last weekend in Davis, CA, I had the pleasure of interviewing Aaron Humble and Adam Reinwald of the Cantus men's chorus based in the Twin Cities.

One of the things the singers said which struck with me was about how they consider it part of their mission to inspire boys to sing.

It's not the first time that I've heard this mission from organizations that are centered on the singing male. Every boy choir in the land talks about the importance of getting boys into choruses and keeping them singing even through the challenging vocal change time during puberty.

But it was only yesterday while attending a concert in Boston by the Youth Pro Musica children's chorus that the importance of encouraging boys to sing hit home.

Youth Pro Musica is like so many youth choruses around the country, which is as much as to say that it is peopled by ten times as many girls as boys. Despite Glee and The Voice, singing still seems to be an occupation that is considered to be feminine in nature.

In the more senior groups that comprise Youth Pro Musica, I spotted only two boys. I think there were around the same number in the younger group. Poor things, the more senior boys were dressed like waiters (see the photo above) and, I guess because their voices had already changed, they were forced to sit out of pieces that were only for treble chorus. Plus the group's concert mood and etiquette was rather rigid and stolid -- especially considering that it was supposed to be a festive holiday concert. The kids didn't exactly look like they were enjoying themselves as they sung their way through Vivaldi's Gloria, a few other Baroquey bits and the odd Christmas carol or two.

If I were a teenage boy, I certainly wouldn't want to have anything to do with this lot. Show me to the nearest Wii.

And yet finding ways to engage boys in vocal music activities -- and keeping them engaged through the vocal change -- is one of the most important things you can do as a parent, teacher, vocal coach or other responsible adult. Countless studies have been done that show how much children benefit from singing, particularly in a group.

I am beginning to think seriously about what other means can be used to bring more boys to vocal music -- I'm not just talking about choral music. Any kind of singing will do.

More singing boys = fewer wars.

Hyper Local, Hyper Interactive

December 12, 2012

Of all the arts, the cinema has traditionally been the most passive from the audience's perspective. We stare at the screen, and any reactions we have (burying our faces in pillows, crying, laughing etc) tend to be solitary.

But when it comes to the Lost Landscapes of San Francisco film series, which received its seventh annual screening at The Castro Theatre last night, interactivity rules.

Curated by the archivist and filmmaker Rick Prelinger and produced under the auspices of the Long Now FoundationLost Landscapes weaves together footage culled from random home video collections, the public library, local historical groups and other sources to paint a vivid picture of the city between the 1920s and 1960s that inspires spontaneous conversation in the dark from its audience.

The footage is different every year (with the exception of one or two pieces brought back by popular demand) and what's startling about it is how the mostly grainy, blurry, black-and-white images of San Francisco feel both remote from the present time and also occasionally extremely close.

One of the most fascinating and weird sequences from the 1920s or 30s depicts a "Wild West Festival" in the Polk Gulch neighborhood. Shopfronts are transformed into 1800s saloons and the locals parade around in cowboy hats and chaps, with guns cocked at each other at every photo opportunity. The Polk Gulch of today couldn't be more seedy and cosmopolitan with its combination of hipster bars and homeless people. Meanwhile, in a fun clip from the post-War era, we see groups of young kids of different ethnic backgrounds skulking around on street corners trying to out cool each other. Plus ca change.

The soundtrack that accompanies most of the movie is provided spontaneously by the audience's chatter as they happily "crowd source" information about what they're seeing on screen.

Members of the audience yell out questions to each other, like "what year was that footage taken?" "what street are we seeing?" and others yell out answers. There's lots of goofing around (at one point someone shouted "Twitter!" as a camera panned the section of Market Street where the tech company  currently has its headquarters.) But interesting and serious questions and answers from scattered local history nuts and the otherwise curious are equally prevalent during the 75-minute-long discussion-in-the-dark.

I imagine that it would be odd for a tourist or newcomer to the city to witness Lost Landscapes of San Francisco. It's an event that's perfectly geared towards the entrenched citizen. And yet the strong community feeling that's generated from the interactivity and hyper-local movie footage makes me yearn to bring outsiders in.

VoiceBox on HuffPo: Tower of Song by Tamsin Smith

December 11, 2012

Slipstream Strategy founder Tamsin Smith who blogs for The Huffington Post just wrote a great piece about singing -- and specifically about VoiceBox -- for the HuffPo. The link to the article on the HuffPo's website can be found here

Tower of Song by Tamsin Smith
The urge to ****. It comes on strong and wild, and it fills you from tip to toe. It may take you in the shower, when you're tipsy in a crowd or on top of a mountain with no one else in sight. The surrender is sublime, and so easy. Just open your mouth, and it's all right there inside. A singular but universal passion. It connects, shapes and propels the human experience. It is the essence of fullfillment and release, fun and power, simplicity and profoundity all rolled into one tight syllable. To SING may be both the root and the flower of the most personal and most communal thing that we do.
Charles Darwin suggested that an early progenitor of man likely "first used his voice in producing true musical cadences, that is in singing." Beyond control of the thorax itself, we certainly know that children learn language skills and develop the joy of communication through song. From pubs to cathedrals, cotton fields to political conventions, song exercises that most intimate of instruments.
How often do we celebrate the miracle of voice though? As with much else, sometime a nudge towards intellectual exploration of a topic, as well as physical indulgence in the same, can be helpful. So, I point you towards a fantastic public radio series and multimedia project dedicated to the art of the human voice, hosted by arts journalist and singer Chloe Veltman. Through a syndicated broadcast, VoiceBox explores everything from the color range of Bob Dylan's voice to the neuroscience of song, and the link between the zen of surfing and choral direction. A recent live VoiceBox event, in partnership with Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, explored the ancient global connection between beer drinking and singing with enthusiastic audience participation in both.

There's something for everyone from a subject matter standpoint. But more importantly, high-quality productions like this remind us that song brings us back to ourselves and to others. Be it ballads or beatboxing, song is the soul's oxygen.
One of my favorite films of all time, Harold & Maude, is levitated by a song that captures the best advice one could ever give or get or follow -- "If you want to sing out, sing out/If you want to be free, be free..."
Circulate the rhythm.


December 4, 2012

I've been thinking about how much audiences seem to value the element of spontaneity in their musical experiences -- and how much this element is lacking from some types of music, notably western opera and classical concert music, today.

Through music history, "in-the-momentness" has taken on many forms, from the way in which composers like John Cage used chance as a compositional tool, to rock musicians performing stage dives in concert arenas, to jazz musicians improvising solos. Even classical music and opera once embraced its off-the-cuff side through improvised cadenzas in solo concerti and operas during the Baroque and early classical eras.

But over the past couple of hundred years or so, it's fair to say that classical music and opera have left little room for the extemporaneous act. And sadly, it's that very quality that often makes art come most alive for audiences.

In recent years, some artists have been making efforts to inject a little spontaneity back into classical music and opera events.

Organizations like Opera on Tap and Classical Revolution have done much to loosen things up by creating experiences that, because they often take place in casual settings like bars, at least allow for more in-the-moment interactions with audiences.

But I'm wondering if it's time for classical music and opera organizations -- including the big ones who typically attract the best talent -- to make more of an effort to bring spontaneity back into the fold in terms of injecting it into the art itself, and not just by creating an atmosphere/setting conducive to less formal/practiced behaviors.

Here's an example of what I'm talking about: It's common enough for opera singers to stand in front of a piano at an art gallery or museum and sing some lovely arias by the likes of Schubert and Wolf. But what if the singers involved were to respond in the moment to a work of art (or entire exhibition) in a museum by creating improvised music rather than always singing perfectly polished pre-existing material?

The outcome doesn't have to have lyrics, an instrumental accompaniment, or even a melody. The singer's response could simply take the form of a beautiful, powerful voice and body "in conversation" with a painting hanging on a wall. The same experience could be created using instruments other than the voice.

Obviously, it would take a brave coterie of singers and instrumentalists to do this. Classically-trained performers aren't typically trained to improvise, though I'm finding that musicians coming out of conservatories these days do seem to have acquired a broader musical palette than was the case in previous generations, and have developed considerable chops in areas such as improvising and pop music backtrack playing.

In fact, I bet there are quite a few top-of-the-line artists out there who are closet improvisers. I wonder if they can be coaxed into coming out of the closet and having a go at celebrating the spontaneity in their art?

The Unsung Side Of El Sistema

When most people think of El Sistema, the amazing Venezuelan-born music education program that's transforming the way in which many countries are approaching the musical development of children, images of little kids playing violins and French horns come most readily to mind.

Few people, particularly outside of Venezuela, consider the fact that El Sistema also has an incredible vocal music education program involving thousands of children.

Documentaries about El Sistema focus strongly on the instrumental training, as do news stories. Most of the photographic documentation related to the program that's disseminated around the world captures kids blowing, plucking and hitting various orchestral instruments. Very rarely do we see images of El Sistema kids singing. And it's the Simon Bolivar Orchestra, the top tier instrumental group of the El Sistema program, that most of us here in the US have been lucky enough to experience live on stage. The ensemble has been touring this country for a number of years now. The Simon Bolivar Choir, by contrast, only made its US debut this fall, and has only undertaken one previous international tour.

At a conference about El Sistema hosted by Cal Performances last week, the singing side of El Sistema was once again invisible. At least it was until I asked a question of keynote speaker Eric Booth about why so little emphasis is placed on the choral activities of El Sistema in the marketing of -- and international conversation surrounding -- the program.

Booth replied that although the singing program is very extensive and impressive, it doesn't have the same marketing cache as the orchestral program. What it boils down to is this: Seeing a picture of a little kid holding a violin, as above, left, is somehow much more impressive and compelling to people than looking at a picture of a bunch of children, as above, right, with their mouths wide open singing a song.

This wasn't a very satisfactory answer to my question. I don't think Booth felt very comfortable talking about singing.

Funnily enough, people who attended the conference picked up on the singing issue several times for the rest of the day, so it clearly touched a nerve. Gillian Moore, of London's South Bank Center, said during one panel discussion that the El Sistema choral program, "is going to be the next big story coming out of Venezuela."

I certainly hope that this will prove to be true.

It's time for marketers and media types to pay attention to singing as a core component of music education. The voice is the most primal and widespread instrument. It's arguably the most powerful too, in terms of its ability to touch vast numbers of people both at the individual and community level. The brilliant vocalists who come out of the El Sistema choral program can help to demonstrate just how important singing is to the world.

But their efforts would be much more visible if they didn't have to stand in the shadow of the El Sistema orchestral juggernaut all the time.

Fluid and Porous

December 3, 2012

Cultural industry workers who happened to attend Clas/sick Hip Hop at The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts this weekend, would very likely have been impressed and probably envious of the audience that the performance event combining hip-hop dance with live/DJ'd music led by the violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain attracted.

The crowd was predominantly young (20s and 30s) and very ethnically diverse, but there was also a smattering of people in their 50s and 60s as well as kids as young as 10.

There was something about the fluidity and porosity of the event that strikes me as being very powerful. The first thing that happened was that the big open floor of the YBCA Forum (one of the venue's two performance arenas) was not treated as a traditional theater, but as a space for dancing. So most people started by moving about to DJ'd electronic music, or first getting a drink from the mobile bar that was set up in front of the DJ podium in one corner of the room, and then dancing, drink in hand.

Then, when the performance actually started, there was no call to attention. A young, female hip-hop dancer simply started doing her thing in one part of the room and automatically, the crowd cleared a space around her. Eventually she finished her dance, and the audience gathered to dance en mass again.

The same thing happened a few more times with more solo dance performances by virtuoso and emerging hip-hop dance artists including hip hop pioneer Rennie Harris, trail-blazing b-girl Ana "Rokafella" Garcia, Montreal's b-boy Arthur “Lil Crabe” Cadre, and Bay Area new comers Ladia Yates and I Dummy

I didn't take to all the dance. Some of the performers were more varied and arresting than others. But what I responded to immediately was the spontaneity of the way the room reacted to the performers and the interactions between the soloists and the group at large. In short, we all felt included in the experience.

Later on in the evening, Daniel Bernard Roumain, a fellow violinist, the DJs and the dancers took to the floor for a more formal performance predominated by duets of varied emotional and movement qualities between pairs of dancers. Somehow the audience instinctively knew that it was time to take to the stadium seating that had been set up on all four sides of the auditorium. Even though at this point the experience was more of a traditional performance set up with the audience watching the musicians and dancers do their thing "on stage," the atmosphere remained charged.

The only let-down was that as soon as this part of the performance was over, the lights went on and everyone was abruptly ushered out into the night. It would have made much more sense for the proceedings to have been allowed to continue with more dancing, drinking and other ad hoc performance interventions for a while longer.

Still, the effect was overall strongly galvanizing. I don't know if the elements of fluidity and porosity were responsible for attracting audiences in such large numbers in any conscious way. But perhaps there's a subconscious understanding among the community of what an event like Clas/sick Hip Hop might entail. And this is what draws people in.

More arts organizations should take these qualities on board and find ways to make their experiences more fluid and porous.

A Conference on El Sistema in Berkeley

November 29, 2012

Cal Performances is hosting a two-day conference about music education centering on El Sistema, the lauded Venezuelan approach. The conference is part of a bunch of offerings organized around Gustavo Dudamel's present tour with the Simon Bolivar Orchestra of Venezuela.

It seems that symposia on music education are springing up in many places that Dudamel and the SBOV are landing during their journey across the United States. And if the first half of the one organized by Cal Performances yesterday is anything to go by, music educators across the country, even those who profess to knowing quite a bit about El Sistema, are going to be getting a transformative experience.

It's tempting to provide a blow-by-blow account of the day's activities. But that would use up too much typewriter ribbon. So I'm going to jot down out a few of the ideas that came up during the discussions that made the strongest impression on me...

1. Eric Booth, the erudite and compelling arts education pundit who gave the keynote speech, on why Gustavo Dudamel thinks El Sistema has been so successful: "There are two reasons for this: One, it makes every child feel like he or she is an asset; and two, we never forget to have fun."

2. According to Booth, the greatest determinant of the success of a music education program is the motivation of the learners.

3. Teachers in the El Sistema system are described as "C.A.T.S." which stands for the four qualities that they all possess. An El Sistema teacher is at once a Citizen, Artist, Teacher, and Scholar.

4. Perhaps the most interesting thing I learned about the El Sistema way of spreading music education to large numbers of children is how the kids grow up being both students and teachers at the same time. There are several orchestral levels and those in the second level and above teach the students in the junior levels. I imagine that this duality must inspire a lot of pride, self-esteem and patience in the El Sistema tribe from a young age.

5. Jose Antonio Abreu, who founded the El Sistema movement in the mid 1970s, impressed me with his long, visionary answers to panel chairman Matias Tarnopolsky's questions. Of the many amazing things the guy said, the most compelling idea -- or at least the one that stands out for me -- is to do with how he views El Sistema not as a musical organization but rather as a movement for social change. He also added that the word "Sistema" is misleading because it makes people think of a strict and rigid system when in fact he views it as a network of educators and learners.

Paloma & Co.

November 27, 2012

Sasha Frere-Jones' recent article in The New Yorker about the British songstress Paloma Faith’s entrée into the United States market got me thinking about the fortunes of British female singers on this side of the pond.

Jones explores the potential success of Faith, who hasn’t been on the British scene for very long and is on the verge of launching over here, in relation to the most popular of the recent UK women vocalist imports – Amy Winehouse and Adele – and declares that there’s room over here for another Brit diva if Faith can come up with a certifiable hit as Winehouse and Adele did before her.

I’d argue that a hit song isn’t the only thing that will more likely ensure Faith’s name recognition in the US. The type of voice and the image the singer possesses is also an important factor. What Faith has in common with Adele and Winehouse is her old-fashioned persona and a big, soul-centered voice to go with it. That’s what American audiences seem to go for, judging by the rapturous way in which they have responded to Adele and Winehouse.

If being a 1950s throwback is what it takes to make it big in America, then it’s no wonder that singers whom I think have much more unusual and interesting voices, such as the bracing Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine, don’t get the same airplay over here.

This is a shame. Paloma Faith is a fine singer. But her voice doesn’t have much of a grain and she lacks physical presence in spite of her retro hairdos and little girl lost gaze. In short, I’d like to see more variety in the US market’s tastes when it comes to importing singing talent from the other side of the ocean.