Music of the Spheres

Cassini is sending back some remarkable images of Saturn and its moons. The rings never looked more sublime. And who knew about the blue?

Saturn rings with Mimas

Mimas with rings (Space Daily)


An Equal Music

Music can allow us to rediscover what is in deep inside of ourselves, free from the precision of language and the barrage of rhetoric, free from easy answers to impossible questions.

Aaron Jay Kernis

Everyone can relate to the person of talent who has to play second fiddle. Michael Holme, the protagonist of Vikram Seth's An Equal Music, does exactly that as a member of a string quartet in London. The spicy mix of personalities in his quartet represents just one aspect of the larger and even more complex world of performers, agents, critics, impresarios, patrons, concertgoers, and mentors in which Michael operates. Seth's novel convincingly portrays the musician's ongoing sense of wonder that out of this dynamic mass of elements—clashing egos, diverse priorities, and potential disasters at every turn—an alchemy takes place that permits transcendant music to be born.

Seth's greatest achievement in this novel is the way he enables the reader to hear the music. No one who has never tried it can imagine the impossibility of putting musical experience into words. If the writer tries to do it through a musician's jargon—the kind of shoptalk that depends on both parties already sharing a mental image of how, say, a 'Neapolitan' chord sounds—the description remains flat on the page for most readers. It conjures no sounds and the picture remains mute. If the writer uses metaphors there is the danger that the images will take on a life of their own and become conceits that leave the sound of the actual music behind. In finding the balance there remains the matter of versimilitiude. Readers want not only to hear the music but to hear the way real musicians talk to each other. An Equal Music finds Seth pulling off the highwire act on page after page with seemingly virtuosic ease. It's no mere flourish. The power of the novel depends on this: our experience of the way this story's memorable and vividly realized characters inhabit a world given meaning and energy by sound. The reader has to experience along with the characters how much it matters that an individual string is retuned, that a recital program is put in a particular order, and that a performer is able to buy the right instrument rather than an almost right one. That done, the reader is a better position to appreciate what it might mean to someone whose life is lived in this world if that person loses the ability to hear anything.

At the heart of this tale is a troubled love story involving Michael and Julia, a pianist. The two share a passion for beauty in all its forms that bonds them to each other despite their relationship's troubled beginning and compromised rebirth.

Musicians will find in this novel a convincing portrayal of the world they inhabit. Others will enjoy the authenticity of this look behind the curtains, courtesy of a writer of rare and sure perception.

Random House provides excerpts of the novel online together with an engaging interview with the author. The book can be ordered in paperback or hardcover from Amazon. And for those ready to hear the actual music there is, happily, an audio recording. Enjoy.


John Corigliano

John Corigliano advises composers to learn to stand on a stage during a concert and speak to the audience. 'The minute you say three words, whatever they are, and you're friendly and warm to them, they're so on your side. They so want to love this piece.... All of a sudden, they're thinking of you as a human being in their society who is writing music that could speak to them.'

This is just one of many practical suggestions Corigliano offers his colleagues in 'Overthrowing Composer-Gods and Performer-Gods' in the February 2005 edition of NewMusicBox, the online magazine of the American Music Center.

John Corigliano, a dominating figure in American music today, is probably most familiar to the public as the composer of the music for Francois Girard's The Red Violin, performed by Joshua Bell and the London Philharmonia Orchestra under Esa-Pekka Salonen, and The Ghosts of Versailles, an opera commissioned by the Met.

Composers, performers, and arts administrators all take above-the-belt hits in the frank and invigorating discussion. About the paucity of recordings by American orchestras Corigliano doesn't mince words. 'The unions are screwing up everything,' he says. 'We can't pay those recording fees and put out a record of the most popular work and sell enough to make money, therefore it's dead. What has to happen is they have to understand that it's profit sharing. Put out a record and let the players get a percentage of the sales. If it does well, they'll do well. If it doesn't do well, they won't do so well. But they'll be aware that this is something we're all in together.'

Corigliano characteristically sees the situation for American music improving with a greater creativity and sense of community from all concerned, especially composers. 'I think a composer who has gotten to a certain stage in his life should judge competitions, should donate his time to looking at young people's music and encouraging people.... You can write any kind of music in this country and find an audience. There's always a place for you.'


Orchestra labels

The new century has given rise to a number of orchestras creating their own record labels. Orchestras find this allows them to circumvent the ills of the struggling commercial industry and still reach their audiences. Orchestras are in the habit, after all, of giving live concerts. With a greater investment of expertise and resources in their recording activities orchestras find they can produce viable recordings that circumvent the ills of the struggling commercial industry.

The trend has been led by Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra possessed recording resources of its own and benefited from the presence of reording veterans as players. Its label, LSO Live, scored a with its recording of Berlioz Les Troyens with Sir Colin Davis. The expanding catalog offers LSO performances with Davis of major Berlioz works, Holst's The Planets, Verdi's Falstaff, and symphonies by Dvorak, Elgar, and Sibelius. The new cycle of Brahms symphonies with Bernard Haitink is good news for those of us interested in the work of this conductor of stature at the peak of his career.

Some links to orchestra-sponsored labels:

RCO Live (Royal Concertgebouworchestra, Amsterdam)
RLPO Live (Royal Liverpool Philharmonic)
The Halle Orchestra UK
LSO Live (London Symphony Orchestra)
Monteverdi Productions (English Baroque Soloists)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
New York Philharmonic Orchestra
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra

Thanks to my colleagues at Orchestralist, especially Martin Anderson and Lawrence Yates, for calling my attention to some of these.

Know of more? Please post a comment and I'll add the links.


Change in Classic Music? Bring It On

Today the field of classic music, like every other others, faces change. Some of our colleagues talk of desperation. The situation calls instead for resourcefulness, imagination, and creativity. Fortunately, artists possess these traits in abundance. The creative have always been well-equipped to face history's profound shifts.

We trust our music because we can. Beauty acquires its share of admirers. We know this because we have seen it happen. New listeners are drawn to this music as we were drawn to it ourselves. All the music needs (as a 17-year-old violinist recently reminded us) is a chance to be heard. New and exciting means of ensuring that chance are invented daily.

Critics learned a long time ago how to generate a little extra buzz among readers by touting 'the death of' this or that. On any given day we can read that rock music has died, newspapers have died, classical music has died, movies have died, technologies have died, history has died. There's no end to the body count. But, as one wag observed, no one ever erected a statue to a critic.

The truth: no one knows the future. By definition the word refers to time that has not arrived. It is wide open.

The truth: everyone alive has something to say about what the future will be. If we want our music carried forward, we can see to it.

The last word will rest not with you or me or with those who predict doom, but with the thousands of young people around the world who, as you read, are practicing Mozart.



Naxos Web Radio

Tired of tuning your radio to a shrinking handful of 'classical' stations that play waltzes all day just to stay afloat? Don't despair. Digital broadcasting is here with more options and more variety. Check out this new arrival:

Naxos Web Radio

Naxos doesn't give you just one station of catchall 'classical.' Naxos lets you choose from among a variety of styles and genres. This is the perfect recod company to do it, too. Naxos has one of the more diverse and exciting catalogs out there.

The range of choices in digital broadcasting will only grow. As slimmer formats come into vogue you'll be able to get digital broadcasts to your cell phone, iPod, PDA, and phone-hookup PC. Soon you will find it even more feasible to start your own station. Starting a new digital music station will be as approachable a task as starting a blog is now.

I look forward to discovering many new musical gems courtesy of Naxos Web Radio. We live in exciting times. Stay tuned.