Schrödinger’s Choir – Tue 26 May

Erwin Schrödinger’s 1935 thought experiment or paradox concerning a cat sealed, unobservable, in a chamber along with some force that that might or might not kill it has taken on an enormous life of its own in popular culture. Schrödinger proposed the thought experiment in the face of remarkable uncertainty about subatomic particles that emerged when Einstein’s began to unseat Newton’s understanding of matter. Its basic point describes the concept of superposition – when two (or more) contradictory states (such as a cat being alive or dead) co-exist indeterminably due to our inability to observe and ‘collapse’ reality into one ‘truth.’

In our time this one part macabre, one part amusing and two parts intriguing paradox is applied indiscriminately (and usually with little or no knowledge of its original meaning) to any seeming logical contradiction (witness if you will, Schrödinger’s Dumpster.)

Like all widely-known truisms (clichéed and otherwise), Schrödinger’s paradox has a way of sneaking up on all sorts of applications, and in my particular corner of the musical world, so dependent on currently unwise or even outlawed gatherings by artistic ensembles and their audiences, I find myself wondering outside of the cat’s chamber.

The novel coronavirus pandemic drags on as a defining presence in the world’s life. It has progressed from a curiosity, to a concern, to an emergency to for the time being, a ‘new normal’ – but perhaps unknown or unconsidered by some there are people, societies, industries and institutions for which it has reached the status of existential threat. True, the interruption it represents to normal life is in some form of ‘temporary’ – months, years, perhaps according to some even a generation – which implies a return to normal. But when abnormal persists for too long a sinister ‘statute of limitations’ begins to creep into effect – people sicken and die instead of recover, businesses flounder and fail instead of pulling through, institutions implode or recede to mere shadows of themselves, and things we have taken to be ‘ways of life’ seep into history or even fade from all memory.

Are, for example, the many virtual choirs whose checkerboard singing faces we see and voices we hear through our screens currently alive or dead? Of course, we tell ourselves, they are alive – choristers, conductors, boards and audiences are deeply invested, technology is bringing people together and unlocking creativity – even making great art at times. But many of them, like ICU patients on ventilators, are certainly threatened in any number of ways, by their older, vulnerable memberships and audiences, by the loss of critical musical and social capital imposed by lockdown, by evaporated ticket revenue and always-uncertain corporate, government and university funding, now thrown into hitherto-unknown stress. And critical to the analogy, our screens may give us hope, but we cannot peer into the chamber, so our choirs are, after Schrödinger, both alive AND dead – we cannot determine which, nor know when or from whence that answer will come.

But before this sobering state of affairs defeats us (and resisting the temptation fully to uncork theoretical physics) let’s consider ‘superposition,’ the concept underlying the seemingly perilous plight of Schrödinger’s Choir. Superposition relies, yes, on uncertainty, but in a glass-half-full sense it must be remembered that it absolutely includes life. In the so-called ‘Many Worlds’ or multiverse view of reality all confined cats survive – as well as perish. Physicists and philosophers use the ironically negative term ‘collapsing reality’ to refer to settling, when the chamber is opened, on a single state for a particle, or a cat, or a choir. Reality while it is undeterminable is open; it is a fantastical ‘house of many rooms’ that will perhaps not stand forever – but on so-called collapse it focuses, it concentrates: it does not disappear.

More practically our families, our businesses, our churches and our musical lives may be redefined by this phase of their shared history, but collectively survive it they will, and whoever is outside the box wondering will doubtless find amid our losses and heartbreaks beauty, creativity, vitality and always music.


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Surround Sound – Tue 19 May 2020

Dolby Digital Plus ironically offers a 5.1 Surround Sound Demo on YouTube
that you can never actually hear through that medium. You’ll have to use your imagination – you’re lucky to get even left and right stereo channels over the Internet.

One of the curious things inherent to growing older is watching technology’s increasingly quick procession from breakthrough, to industry standard, to passé and obsolescence, and then – to vintage.

Realising that in the audio realm the major defining factors in this journey lie not really in the realm of the technological, but rather in connective, storage and other protocols I have a soft spot for what is now affectionately known as ‘vintage audio’, much of which works perfectly well if you invest in a small arsenal of adapters, cables and other measures to allow various devices and recordings to work together. One such piece of castoff technology recently to join my always-evolving home office/studio patchwork of components is a Harmon Kardon AVR5 amplifier/receiver, once on the leading transitional edge of the decline of the home stereo system in favour of the juggernaut of home theatre.

Never being one with a lot of time or money to dispose of on audio trends and advances I mostly missed the ‘Surround Sound’ phenomenon that quietly spanned the audiophile era, from Disney’s Fantasia that pioneered the technique in 1940 (where it is still best known, in movie theatres) to the early compositional experiments of the likes of Karlheinz Stockhausen, to the standards emerging from Dolby Laboratories the late 1970s and the gradual fusion of them all into the mainstream for home theatre and even lowly personal computer speakers. Thus it has recently been interesting for me to explore transitional technology like the AVR5, which provided an approach to the broad array of current and historical media which variously follow or completely ignore surround protocols.

Without getting into the tech-talk, it strikes me that the impulse to recreate the most ‘real’ (or otherwise enhanced) home art consumption has become a bit short-circuited lately. Not only have we seen the storage of audio information move exclusively digital in increasingly compression-oriented formats; we have also resoundingly, even pre-pandemic, moved to the Internet as our delivery system of choice, resigning us to the irony of our latest industry standards all but sweeping away the hi-fi advances of the preceding decades. Nor is this loss of definition limited to the audio realm, as even more memory-hungry video too has had to abide within finite bandwidth, storage and transmission parameters. VHS giving way to DVD? DVD to Blu-Ray? PVRs and media servers with massive hard drives to store and provide our media? All gone or going, in the name of hardware-light and lower-quality on-demand streaming.

As COVID-19 has robbed us, at least temporarily, of what is still within memory the gold standard, the live experience and reception of works of art, one wonders about a renaissance in the interest in the home listening/viewing environment. It is early to predict what our return to concert halls, art galleries, even movie theatres will look like, just as it is becoming difficult to imagine a new face for health-secure public transit in our energy-conscious times, so it seems reasonable that something (like some say of electric bikes in the latter case) will compensate.

Sound comes at us not just from left and right, but from all sides at all times. But the curated surround sound of contemporary movie sound design, that encoded from Decca-tree and otherwise quadro-to hexa-phonic audio recording arrays, and especially those intriguing electronic mixes somehow dreamed up by my AVR5 to make up for the size, sound absorption and other issues facing listening in my home office are not in the end about audio realism, but they are certainly about experience. I am gradually moving past my sense of loss of the treasure – both experience and livelihood – of real, live music, and conceding that for as long as my art lives in a box, I want technology held to better standards to redeem the sacrifice.

I also hope that technology will come out the better for the experience, just as I hope I will.


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Unmade Music – 12 May 2020

An iconic, super-minimal version of a song about giving by two of my all-time favourite artists

The social media feeds of us pandemically-despondent musicians, choristers and music-lovers of all kinds are awash not just with our ten selected influential record albums and cool virtual incarnations of the music we once made and shared publicly – they are awash too with unmade music.

As seemingly endless similar days and weeks drift by, musicians facing boredom, financial uncertainty and even crises of identity are posting ennui-, angst-, and even rage-filled notices of the concerts, tours, services that ‘would have been.’ For me, as optimistically postponed or resignedly cancelled freelance dates slip into propositional history and my institutions grapple with a future nearly impossible to plan, the four choirs that surround and in many ways define my creative life seem to sink only further into limbo as longer-term worries about singing and contagion spread almost more quickly than COVID-19 itself.

I watch, sometimes inspired by new challenges on the virtual front; sometimes lying awake wondering how and when music will once again fill our churches and concert halls – and wondering, as one artist put it, how much value has a cobbler to a world that doesn’t wear shoes? To add an uglier side to this snapshot of artistic crisis, singer Bryan Adams is currently reaping the unpleasant fruits of a post including a snippet of his song Cuts like a knife nestled in a racist tirade against the Chinese ‘bastards’ he blames for the pandemic that cancelled three shows he would currently have been doing at the Royal Albert Hall.

Unmade music is relatively foreign to those of us who have grown up making it. As I’ve been chatting informally with colleagues, many of us listen to strikingly little music for recreational purposes, even as we endlessly pore over it coveting to play/sing it ourselves, hear others’ interpretations, learn styles and techniques helpful to our own art. Much as I love music, and I’m probably old-fashioned, but the concept of Spotify offering a playlist designed to suit my tastes or still worse capture or enhance my mood is as other-worldly to me as Gwynneth Paltrow promising me new-age health revolutions.

As, by default rather than qualification, media guru to my congregation, it is a strange new thing to synthesise Virtual Services that can, like a radio show, feature anthems my choir doesn’t have to prepare on time (indeed, might never even learn), and organ postludes there is no need for me to re-prepare (or indeed, that I’ll never have to learn at all). My musician’s constant calculus – finding and researching, physically and mentally learning, rehearsing with others, polishing and offering on time and in various venues – is suspended, or in the case of virtual services mostly reduced to combing the Internet for what can be found that is suitable and legal for me to DJ to the faithful. This is not an entirely unpleasant, unstimulating or unsatisfying experience: but it certainly is different.

Among our various depressed, disjointed and terrified outbursts online also dwell thoughts of optimism and resilience: as one colleague recently put it:

My boat is strong and it has no leaks, it just also has no anchor… Or it has a different anchor that I don’t know how to utilize yet.

I made my first-ever trip to give blood yesterday – a tremendous feeling of honest service to my species – and I was struck by the hauntingly familiar (from more musical days) welcome, gratitude and satisfaction I felt offering up this simple gift. To all of you who feel music coursing through your veins as I do, and are uncharacteristically unable to give it at the moment – never forget to give in the ways that you still can, and never forget the connection. To turn, turn, will be our delight ’til by turning, turning, we come round right.

-CD (dedicated to Tina)

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Stolen Bach – Tue 5 May 2020

Aria from Bach’s Cantata 82, “Schlummert ein” – quarantine collaboration between me at the Georgetown Christian Reformed Church and my old university buddy Dave Kutz, who is now Principal Tuba in the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra

Looking into the realm of musical transcription (setting music written for one instrument or combination of instruments for a different instrument or combination, sometimes taking on new stylistic attributes) it is not long before one notices the prominence among the works chosen of baroque music in general, and the works of J.S. Bach in particular.

Baroque music is known for many characteristics that may have contributed to its favourability as a target for transcribers – but addressing the question must begin not with the music, but with the act of transcription. Why transcribe, when the composer bequeaths to us a perfectly authentic and successful version with instruments and style attributes he/she actually knew and chose? The answer originates in love: we don’t transcribe works we dislike: we transcribe out of a wish to play or hear a work on our instrument or ensemble (organists, having an enormous authentic repertoire for their instrument, are implicated here, perhaps second only to pianists). Baroque music is often the very first music we encounter when beginning our music lessons; Bach and Handel’s names, the first we come to know, and their hugely popular melodies the first to become stuck, welcome or otherwise, in our heads. The Baroque era’s interest in ornamentation offers a particular benefit as a tool for learning: it has a perfectly viable (if inaunthentic) “easy-play” form omitting ornaments.

If we learn by playing and singing Baroque music we are perhaps predisposed to like and transcribe it – but what makes it work so well? Let’s consider this 1989 MCA release by the Amherst Saxophone Quartet, a compilation of Bach orchestral and keyboard works, including one meta-transcription, a Concerto Bach himself first transcribed (from Vivaldi) for organ, now ending up for a quartet of instruments that didn’t exist until about a century after Bach’s death.

Here’s the program (you can hear the whole album or read the liner notes online): Badinerie – Suite No. 2 in B minor BWV 1067; Overture No. 6 in G minor BWV 1070; Art Of The Fugue, BWV 1080 (excerpts); Fantasia & Fugue in C minor BWV 537; Suite No 1 in C major (excerpts) BWV 1066; Fugue In G major BWV 577; Concerto after Vivaldi No. 1 BWV 592. A quick ‘needle-drop’ listen (that’s a vinyl reference for you young-‘uns!) anywhere in the program reveals a range of styles spanning the exuberance of orchestral suites, the academy of fugues, the freedom of an organ fantasia and the trademark tunefulness and general simplicity of Vivaldi. Bach may have brought Baroque music to its ultimate flowering, but his range of styles can be found across his 18th century colleagues, and from around Europe.

A range of styles? You can find that in any era, and while Bach is one of history’s most prolific composers (perhaps giving him a statistical advantage) one doesn’t find arbitrary modern classical quartets wildly transcribing Mozart, Beethoven, or even other Baroque composers to the same degree. Nor does one find the same degree of interest in transcribing these giants among groups like the Modern Jazz Quartet, Hooked on Classics or the Swingle Singers (all of which wrested Bach from its classical gatekeepers in the 1970s).

Perhaps the answer comes in the person of Bach, who was himself not just a musical genius, but a great transcriber in his own right. He admired Vivaldi’s music and so respectfully transcribed it for his own use. He had an open enough view of, for example, his solo violin Partitas to transcribe parts of them for keyboard and even orchestras and choirs. Father to twenty children, he also had enough of a sense of humour to compose works like the secular Coffee Cantata. These attributes were by no means unique to Bach, in his own age or in the ages that have followed – but perhaps they aligned in a rare, proto-planetary way, giving us this remarkable legacy of transcribed gems.

When my old university friend Dave Kutz, now Principal Tuba in the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, contacted me early in COVID-19 quarantine about a virtual collaboration there was no need to ask what might be on the menu. And the ethical concerns expressed at times earlier in my own career about the act of transcription from a composer’s “original intent” now seem quaint and even ridiculous. The world already owned Bach’s music – blessings upon him for having given it us!


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