Category Archives: Musical philosophy

Joyce DiDonato to aspiring artists: "The world needs you"

Joyce DiDonato (Simon Pauly)

When I spoke with Joyce Di Donato just before her last performance as Cinderella in the Met Opera production of Rossini’s, La Cenerentola on May 10, she also told me she had butterflies about her upcoming commencement address at the Juilliard School of Music on May 23. Those butterflies turned into sage advice for those young musicians, and for all of us.

On June 15, my daughter will graduate with a degree in vocal performance from the music conservatory at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis. She’s on her way to pursuing her dream of becoming an opera singer. While some parents are hesitant to encourage their children to pursue the arts because it’s a long, hard, competitive road, with often little compensation, my daughter is fortunate. Her parents understand that for her, there is no other option. Since she was six years old, she’s told us singing is her passion. She can’t imagine doing anything else. She is completely committed, and we believe in her.

“We need you to make us feel an integral PART of a shared existence through the communal, universal, forgiving language of music, of dance, of poetry and Art — so that we never lose sight of the fact that we are all in this together and that we are all deserving of a life that overflows with immense possibility, improbable beauty and relentless truth.”

— Joyce DiDonato, in her address to the Juilliard School’s class of 2014

As Joyce DiDonato points out in her commencement address, the world needs my daughter, and all the artists who are committed to this journey because it’s the artists who help us remember who we really are, and that we’re all in this together.

The Liberating Invitation from the Artworld

“With its stylization and its larger-than-life emotions, opera has never been about unbroken narrative or cinematic realism. It is about going in and out of the drama, in and out of realism.”

(Zachary Woolfe, New York Observer; October 5, 2011)

To bridge the gap, to break through the translucent historical and pedestal’d barrier between the stage and the commonplace, is seen as something of a taboo in the classical world. As an artistic audience, we don’t know how to handle incorporation and conversation with the stage world, the world of moral fragility, the world of the dilemma that pries us from any comfortable choice, a world perfect in its scenarios. We like to sit cozy, knowing that these experiences are at a distance, thinking that the stage world couldn’t possibly portray our own daily experience and struggle with the world, meaning and purpose… But it does.

By all of this I simply mean the act of breaking character on stage, a small aside or reaction that emerges from within the production and addresses the outside world. Throughout history there has been disdain circling this issue.


Recently, Metropolitan operatic star René Pape, while acting the role of Méphistophélès (the Devil) in Charles Gounod’s Faust, broke character by parting with the French language and addressed the audience with an aside in English.

Let me paint the picture: It is Act 4, a scene in Marguerite’s garden. She has just sung the famous “Jewel Song” after having received a box covered in jewels, which happened to have been from Faust through Méphistophélès, who is helping Faust gain the love of Marguerite. After Marguerite’s aria Faust and Méphistophélès reenter the stage and begin their recitative. Amid one of his French sighs Méphistophélès (played by René Pape) turns to the audience and says, in English, “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.” The laughter that followed seemed strained with an underlying current of judgment.

You can see how this would outrage the public, and it did. The concern is duly noted and understandable; classical art should not be tampered with or tarnished. However, allow me to play the part of Méphistophélès’s attorney for a moment (Devil’s advocate, if I may).

The living aesthetician, Arthur C. Danto, rocked the art world in 1981 with the publication of his book “The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: A Philosophy of Art.” The mission, as the subtitle suggests, was to create a philosophy of art, which he thought, up to that point, had been slightly ambiguous and undefined. (Claim to fame: That the history of art is finished. A disturbing statement likened to Nietzsche’s “God is dead. And we have killed him”.)


His book was a reaction to the history of art, which in the decades previous to its publication brought what some might consider strange artistic developments and freedoms. He philosophically addresses these controversial pieces of art, namely Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” (a urinal with “R. Mutt 1917” written on it), Andy Warhol’s “Brillo Boxes” (a stack of boxes with the logo of the Brillo soap pad brand), among other Avant Garde works.


The pinnacle example is a short, passionate dialogue regarding the statue of a cat that was located in a rotunda on the campus of Columbia University in New York City. For a long time this statue sat there, unmoved, sitting near a staircase. He passed this everyday with little notice. However, one day as Danto walked by he noticed that the statue had been freshly chained to the stair case railing. This provided him a door into the question of where the artworld line is drawn and the ambiguity of the border between art and commonplace.

For Danto, the chained cat could have meant one of two things: an attempt to counteract possible burglaries of the statue, or an attempt by the artist to gift some morsel of artworld status into and onto the commonplace. He chose the latter.

Like the chain, the broken character is an invitation to incorporate the audience in the artistic experience, as a way for the actor to connect their own character to the audience as if to say, “Yes, I am here with you. Let us see the world together. Isn’t this fascinating?”

Of course, it is easy to say that when an actor breaks character they are breaking the tradition and sanctity of that particular artwork. However, under the Dantonian lens it seems that the breaking of one’s character truly is an invitation for involvement, an acceptance between the audience and the artist, a most liberating and inclusive characteristic of art.

Art speaks on behalf of culture, it follows our desires and passions, opening doors, and with such an invitation we as an audience are transcendent up and into the artworld, living, breathing and drinking every morally fragile theme.

Celestial Altercation

As we approach the coming of our special event this Friday, December 9th, the New York Polyphony Holiday Concert at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church, we will take a look at an original work that was recently commissioned for and premiered by New York Polyphony this past November.

The work is titled Missa Charles Darwin, composed by American composer Gregory Brown and was set to text edited by New York Polyphony’s bass Craig Phillips. You may think this title is counterproductive and contradictory, taking a structural paradigm of the Catholic faith and juxtaposing it with the principle text of evolutionary science. However, the piece seeks to exemplify the creativity and ingenuity of the human spirit, as well as portraying the unique position humans have within our reality.

Even though the composer claims this not to be a political statement, his purpose of exemplifying human language, human’s curiosity into reality and its multi-functional viewpoints is certainly a spiritual and poetic one.

Under this light, this work could be considered one of the most important musical works of our time — perhaps not in a purely musical sense, but as a statement of cooperation among seemingly disagreeable mediums, between spiritual understanding and an understanding based on facts.

As humans we question the world, whether regarding the creation and meaning of our existence or to simply understand and grasp the world around us. This work shows that there is beauty in both the spiritual and the scientific and each can assist the other in the collective human effort to grasp and understand reality!

Spotify: Aesthetics and Accesibility

On Wednesday we talked about what Spotify is, and then yesterday we outlined some of the financial issues that Spotify raises for Classical composers.

Today we will explore some of the more abstract issues surrounding Spotify.


Pipedreams host and executive producer Michael Barone said in a meeting the other day that “there’s no such thing as too much good music.” But, is that true? Spotify has resurrected exactly that conversation amongst some classical music composers and bloggers recently.

On one side you have the argument that this emphasis on access devalues the music, making it harder to listen to anything at all. Turning music into wallpaper and taking away the incentive to value it through a transaction is, according to some, surrounding us with more music that we can use – I once knew a man who had collected so many chairs in his house that you couldn’t find a place to sit.

Gabriel Kahane, son of virtuoso pianist and conductor Jeffrey Kahane and hugely talented musician in his own right, illustrated this point of view earlier this week on his Tumblr blog.

The next day, a blogger with the handle ulyssestone posted a response from the other side, saying that the world has changed, and that no one benefits from bemoaning the loss of the old ways. Ultimately, he seems to conclude, we should embrace the shake-up that the access to music that Spotify presents.

Kirk McElhearn, another blogger, also weighed in on the subject, engaging Gabriel Kahane in a back-and-forth where his main original point, taking issue with Gabriel Kahane bemoaning the degradation of “serious” listening, caused Mr. Kahane to amend his post to remove the word.


The question still remains, though, about how accessible the music really is on Spotify. Sure, there might be a lot of classical music on Spotify for us to listen to, but another complaint about Spotify echoes an old complaint about most digital music services – how on Earth do you find what you’re looking for?

The particular problems of classical music taxonomy are unique in music, and have yet to be adequately addressed by everyone from Google to Apple to Spotify. We here at MPR deal with this problem every day, as classical music requires far more variables than most music software can handle, thereby making it difficult to adapt tools for use with the music.

The problem stems from the relationships between the many parts of a classical piece of music. In every other type of music besides classical, there are only 4 major considerations for organizing a song:





Nearly all digital music management software is set up along these lines – just look at iTunes – and it works great. The problem is when you try to fit into those categories most classical music, which uses 6 related, but ultimately different organizational elements:







You see this problem constantly when labels are forced to merge “Piece” and “Movement” into the slot for “Song”. And, of course, there is the perennial problem of who belongs in the “Artist” category – the composer, conductor, soloist, or ensemble? Different labels tackle that question in different ways, with some even putting all four into that one field.

It is this difference of structure, combined with a lack of standards amongst labels, that can make searching for a particular recording a difficult and sometimes frustrating activity.

Steven Smith, critic from the New York Times, fills us in on how Spotify stacks up on this issue.


There are, of course, other issues that have been raised about Spotify by classical musicians, composers, and audience members over the last two months, but they live in the technical realm, and will probably be addressed in subsequent updates to the service.

1. Playback is not gapless (there is an ever-so-brief pause between each track), which is not how many Classical tracks are designed to be consumed.

2. Sound quality is an issue for some audiophilic Classical fans, as free accounts can only stream at a maximum of 160kbps (a CD is around 320kbps.) This is not as much of an issue if you want to put up $9.99 per month for the Premium service that allows you to stream at the coveted 320kbps, except that reports are that only about 30% of available music is offered at that higher quality.


At the end of the day, streaming services like Spotify have come, in the last few years, to signify a new dominance in music distribution. While it may not mean the end of the physical musical object, or of the composer, or of the audience, it feels to many like the musical landscape is shifting, and will continue to shift as we intuit our way forward. As with previous models for distribution, the unsustainable portions will hopefully be identified and addressed with an attention that comes from exactly this conversation.

A new way of consuming music, and of having your music consumed, may ultimately affect the music itself. This is a necessary adaptation that is the natural byproduct of any intersection of technology and art. How we address that issue, when it starts to become apparent to us, will shape a new generation of musicians, and will hopefully give us all a new way to listen.

Spotify: The Money Problems

Yesterday, we outlined what Spotify is, and why it’s pretty cool. There have been, however, some classical music composers, players, bloggers, and audience members who aren’t so thrilled.

Any new technology has its naysayers. The written word was heralded as The End, as was the printed word. Sheet music was seen as an encroachment, and recorded music in each of its many and varied delivery systems over the years has been criticized as being the death of an art form.

And it’s true that with every technology there is a give-and-take that occurs with the old paradigm. With Spotify, the argument of its detractors is that the take is a lot more than the give.

As with most things, it all comes back to money. One of the largest and most vocal criticism of Spotify since it landed in July has been the compensation model that it uses for artists.

Here’s how that model works:

Every time anyone plays enough of a track to be considered a “play”, Spotify pays that record label (reportedly) one-third of one cent. That record label then pays the composer and the artist their share from that one-third of that one cent.

It seems like a pretty straightforward they-pay-as-you-play model, but when you look closer you see that the formula heavily (some would say cripplingly) favors major pop labels at the sacrifice of the rest of musicdom.

To elaborate —

Major Labels:

It’s a simple issue of scale.

In its first week of sales in early May, the new Lady Gaga album, “Born This Way,” sold 1.1 million units. Contrast that with the statistic that only around 25 classical records (not including crossover) have ever, in the history of recorded music, topped a million in total sales over the entire lifetime of the album.

With such a small per-play rate, you need to have millions of listens in order to make any meaningful amount of money. Small, and even mid-sized independent labels, who don’t get those mega pop star numbers, are looking at paltry returns on their investment.

Additionally, as some those smaller labels would argue, each of those plays on Spotify for which they get so little represents one CD – the current “model of sustainability” with it’s $9 price point – that they weren’t able to sell.

Pop Labels:

Think about this – classical tracks can run 30 minutes, for which the label gets $0.0033 for every play. A pop tune lasts 2-4 minutes, for which the label gets $0.0033 for every play. Therefore, if you were to play a full Beethoven symphony (4 tracks) on Spotify, the label would get $0.0133 (or, more dramatically – one and one-third cents) for your listen. If you were, however, to play that full Lady Gaga album with 14 tracks, the label would get $0.0462 (or just about four-and-a-half cents).

Further Reading:

Brian Brandt from Mode Records outlines his frustration with the Spotify model and why he doesn’t want his label to be a part of it.

A breakdown of what an artist earns through various sales media.

TOMORROW: How well does Spotify actually work? And are we better listeners for having this much access to music?

Spotify: An Introduction

Spotify is something you may have heard about. For some, it is a long-awaited music streaming service. For others, it’s just something else they don’t use that might or might not (and who really cares?) be like Pandora, Rdio, iCloud, Jango, Slacker, Maestro, Grooveshark,, MOG, or Turntable.

But whether you are excited about it or ambivalent towards it, Spotify is here, and Spotify is changing music distribution.

That change has been met, as all changes are, with skepticism, anger, elation, and all of the other reactions produced by the friction of that change. The rub from Spotify has been keenly felt, and discussed, in the classical music community recently, causing conversations and even arguments in the Twitter and Blog-spheres for months.

So, for those of us who aren’t following the exact conversation, what exactly is Spotify, and why is it causing all of this hubbub?

For the next three days, Classical MPR will explore those questions and hopefully give some clarity about what Spotify is, why people are upset, and why others think it’s great.

So, let’s start with a little context.

First, what is Spotify?

In short, Spotify is an online music library that you can access, completely free of charge. Think of it as an iTunes account that has been pre-populated for your use by several major record labels (including Universal, Sony, EMI, and Warner Music Group) with their music catalogues. Imagine, if you would, waking up tomorrow to find that overnight your iTunes library had been expanded to include a large portion of all recorded music. Well, imagine no longer, because that is the reality of Spotify.

Once you sign up, which you can do with a free, but limited, account, you can search out and immediately stream (to your computer) any song or piece of music that has had rights cleared to be in the database. That database is currently over 15 million songs, and is growing every day.

There is a social element to Spotify as well, which can link to your Facebook and Twitter accounts to share playlists with friends. Through Facebook you can even “send” songs to friends, highlighting for them something you’ve just discovered, or an old favorite you love. You can also collaborate on playlists, allowing multiple people to add songs to the same playlist.

So, Spotify is a huge collection of recorded music that I can listen to at any time for free? That sounds pretty cool.

TOMORROW: So, why are people so upset about Spotify?

Is Andre Rieu Amazing?

In the great debate of integrity and relevance, every art form has its pulp and its grit.

Recent cinema releases include both Tree of Life and Transformers: Dark of the Moon.

Restaurants flourish that feature Tater Tot Hotdish on a paper plate and others that showcase a slow-cooked short rib, hand-picked baby green bean, porcini béchamel, and hand-made “tater tot” hotdish deconstruction.

You can find in your local Big Box Book Shop both David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress and Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino’s Here’s the Situation: A Guide to Creeping on Chicks, Avoiding Grenades, and Getting your GTL on the Jersey Shore.

And in the Classical Music world, we have Andre Rieu.

Andre Rieu does not, and will not (as far as I’ve been told) publicly perform the Chaconne from the Partita No. 2 for Solo Violin in D Minor by Bach, Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto, or Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. These are, some would argue, serious pieces that take some serious listening.

He will, however, premier a new Waltz by none other that Sir Anthony Hopkins. Yes, the guy who played Hannibal Lecter.

Notice how genuinely happy Sir Anthony is with Mr. Rieu. Notice the tear shed by his wife as she is genuinely moved by the moment. Then go to YouTube and watch an endless parade of clips from stadium concerts full of chanting, singing, dancing fans being equally moved by Andre Rieu’s version of Classical Music.

Which leads me to the question – is Classical music a serious business?

Video Games and Classical Music – Industries in Parallel?

Late last week I was reading a blog entry on Game Theory, a video game design site that I read frequently (I am a not-so-on-the-D-L Gamer.) The blog entry was by Nadia Oxford, who contends that social games (the newcomers to the video game world, often centered around mobile play and short gaming experiences,) suffer from Bad Imitation Syndrome because they aren’t given enough room to breathe by the established giants of the industry (so-called “hardcore games” – long-play games on console systems.)

After finishing the post it occurred to me that this debate is familiar. On the suggestion of a co-worker, I paused, copied her post, and did a word replacement search to change phrases like “social gaming” to “New Music”, and “game developers” to “musicians”. After editing for grammar, a very familiar commentary on the New Music debate emerged in front of me.

New Music: Too Many Imitators

Originally Social Games: Too Many Imitators by Nadia Oxford, cut-up by Hans Buetow

There is a significant divide between core classical music listeners and New Music listeners. Though the latter doesn’t pay much attention to the former, core listeners tend to regard New Music with scorn.

One reason can be narrowed down to a mild case of xenophobia. Our unfortunate human nature causes us to bristle when we believe someone is intruding on our territory and changing the landscape in ways we don’t regard for the better.

But there’s one other reason behind the criticism of New Music, and it’s a valid one: Some of the more successful New Music ape ideas that were done earlier and better.

Imitation music is inevitable regardless of the platform. But it’s disturbing to see blatant rip-offs breed because New Music is in its infancy, and original ideas in the genre are already rarer than baby unicorns. Though it’s not popular opinion, New Music deserves the chance to come into its own and flourish. Clones are certainly popular, and will make money-but they won’t do much to help New Music grow to become a strong, healthy genre brimming with must-play music.

But it’s also important to remember that there are musicians who sincerely love the idea of New Music. They want to help the genre grow, and they want to do it using their own ideas.

“We are not like them, and we do not come from that world,” said Brenda Brathwaite, the COO of Loot Drop. “Like you, we want good music, we want compelling experiences, we want casual, and we want hardcore. We want to make great music for the 43-year-old Facebook Mom, because – damn it – she deserves great music, too. We are not the ones making what some of you call “evil music” but rather the first wave, the Marines storming the beach to take our medium, our culture, and our potential back.”

“And as you look upon these musics and curse them, know that we look upon the very same horizon and see a great space of possibility. I hope you will someday be the occupying force.”

Regardless of how you feel about New Music, it’s going to stick around for a while longer-probably forever. And if you’re worried about clones and copycats, fear not. Musicians who matter know the state of things, too, and they’ve decided it’s unacceptable. Hopefully their works will rise above the undulating sea of imitators and deliver the medicine that will help ease New Music through its growing pains.

It is interesting, I think, to note that classical music is not alone in its debate to reinvent itself. Even something as ubiquitous as video games – arguably one of the largest cultural forces of the late 20th century – goes through the same arguments, trials, and growing pains.

And change can be difficult. Blockbuster games, the huge, multi-million dollar productions involving villages of developers, are scared of losing the stage to the younger generation of developers with small development teams, different aesthetics, and different ideas on form, vocabulary, textures, audience, and distribution methods.

It’s a debate familiar to Classical and New Music fans alike.

Here's your brain on improvisation…

What is improvisation? Isn’t it just making things up as we go along? And that’s what jazzers do, not classical musicians, right? Does it really make a difference in performance? How does it work and how does it sound?

Members of Cantus join me today to answer your burning questions and discuss the art of improvisation, how they use it and how it sounds when it’s done right. Join us at noon on Classical MPR and get in on the discussion.

Traditions Old and New

Here’s a note from Bob Christiansen on the great Messiah debate.


As the holiday season is winding down, I look at the traditions that I’ve

cobbled together from my childhood and my preferences. Christmas Eve

dinner, an echo of long ago, is a meal where I bring together my Danish,

Swedish and German roots (red cabbage, potato sausage and spaetzele) and

Christmas music, of course, always has to include Handel’s “Messiah”.

It’s the music where things get really interesting because I love the old

Beecham recording (I know, I know, he uses 3 more orchestras and 6 more

choirs than he needs and even the arias can be heard in the Andromeda

Galaxy)! I don’t care. Handel was announcing the birth of the ruler of the

universe, and the Beecham version proclaims that with gusto.

On the other hand, there is the pure, clear, crystalline recording with John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists; night and day. I love them both. I just alternate them from year to year.

Bob Christiansen