Category Archives: Composing

GOOD TASTE – Part II: DETERMINANTS & CHARACTERISTICS OF GOOD TASTE

Whistlers MotherWHAT MAKES US AESTHETICALLY DISCRIMINATING (OR NOT)? 

Socio-Economic class?  Not necessarily.  It’s stereotypical to associate discriminating tastes with snooty rich people.  Well this writer (while perhaps snooty) is not a rich person, but here I am writing about good taste, and I feel at least somewhat qualified to do so!

A more accurate indicator of taste might be one’s education level.  The better a person’s education, the more likely that he’ll be equipped with an ability to discern and appreciate great works of art, literature and music, old or new, popular or classical.  Proper education will hopefully provide exposure to, knowledge and appreciation of great music, art and literature.

Unfortunately, such proper education, even in America, is increasingly tied to socio-economic status, even in the public arena.  This is to say nothing of the trend toward de-emphasizing the arts and humanities due to ideology and/or lack of funding.

But educational barriers aren’t insurmountable, especially given technology which has made art and culture more accessible to more people across a wider socio-economic spectrum than ever before.  If we’re interested and we know where to look for it, it’s there, often for free!

Age?  When we’re young – adolescent or college age, we’re living in a time of social and sexual self-discovery, and our hormones often rule the day.  And we haven’t yet achieved the world-weariness and enhanced perspective of having lived – those collective life experiences that seem to feed our appreciation of some of the subtleties and profundities of great art.  Our priorities (hopefully) change as we “grow up.”

Popularity?  There’s certainly something to this.  Popularity usually happens for good reason.  But it isn’t an infallible indicator.  There are plenty of musical works, for example, that are widely considered among the greatest masterpieces, and yet don’t enjoy the biggest mass appeal.  Handel’s Messiah is more well-known to most people than Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.  Beethoven’s late quartets are not so widely known as his Fifth Symphony.  And yet in each case, the less popular work is at least as highly regarded by music historians and aficionados as the more popular one.

Mass appeal can be determined by many things, some of which might be deemed artificial, such as effective marketing, vogue, reputation, etc. – factors that have little if anything to do with inherent quality or substance.  The greatest music and art is that which has withstood the test of time and is above and beyond the forces of current trend or popularity – it is classic.

SOME EAR-MARKS OF GOOD TASTE

What Makes for Tastefulness?  Here are some of the principals that discriminating people pay attention to, consciously or subconsciously.

Substance, not empty showiness.  Dazzle and glitter are nice to engage the audience, in limited quantities, and when properly balanced with substance.  An over-abundance of the proverbial “Look what I can do!” factor has a cheapening effect, whereas honest, restrained sentiment is an important element of substance, and all the better if it can be presented in a unique and individual way.

Avoidance of Cliché.  While music or art of any given era will have its hallmark style and characteristics, the best works are those that, even within the rules of their era, will nonetheless avoid being governed entirely by those rules.  Most of all, they will steer clear of the most over-used clichés.  Avoiding the expected, going with the unexpected – at least some of the time – can be very effective in producing something unique, original, and even transcendent of its time.

Subtlety and Restraint.  Honesty and freedom of emotion are kept within boundaries.  There are some things in our lives that simply aren’t for public consumption.  At the very least, such things should be well-enough disguised, concealed or restrained that, although we sense their presence, they don’t hit us over the head.  This is called subtlety.  Most of the best art and music lives under this rule.

Don’t Be Crass.  In our zeal over the past several years to counteract an endemic cultural puritanism, we have tended to scorn such subtlety and restraint in the movies, TV and popular music, coming out in favor of complete openness, of “pushing the envelope” of good taste, because for many of us, good taste has been unjustly equated with cultural repression.  This over-reaction to puritanical repression is surely yet another reason to disdain that puritanism, because for all of this our culture suffers qualitatively.  It can be argued that certain aspects of life and art are more interesting and intriguing when perceived from behind the vail of subtlety.

Don’t Pander.  Treating the audience with the respect they deserve, even if they might not realize it, is always in good taste, because it helps avoid qualitative decay.  If we wish to challenge our audience, one way to do it is by refusing to cater to the lowest common denominator of taste.

Is It the Money?  It must be said!  So much of cultural degradation stems from market considerations.  Sex sells, violence sells, and there’s the infamous axiom of commercialized journalism:  If it bleeds, it leads.  Of course, it’s a lot to ask of any artist to completely ignore the marketplace, but the more you can do so, the more artistic integrity you’ll have.  It’s a balancing act.  But work that is produced or performed solely to maximize the money is almost certain to be in poor taste.

Knowing Your Audience means respecting their expectations, and avoiding unpleasant or unwelcome surprises.  We don’t try to force Mozart on a jazz or rock crowd, and vice versa.  In a worship setting, for example, dignity and modesty are the order of the day.  And if we’re going to challenge the audience, it’s wise to ensure that they want to be challenged.

Beauty.  What is it exactly?  It’s hard to describe or define.  Beauty moves us in a profound, elevated way.  So why have we become so afraid of beauty in art and especially in music?  We explored some possible reasons for this in Part I of this post on Good Taste.  We should never underestimate the value and importance of beauty.

Balance.  One of the hallmarks of beauty in art and music is the idea of balance, of restraint.  As we’ve already seen, it shows good taste to ensure that emotional expression and technical display are kept within sensible boundaries.  Maintaining balance is one of the wisest principals in life, and in art.  It’s a sure-fire method of avoiding tedium, and of keeping your audience engaged.  Emotional restraint is the mark of artistic and intellectual maturity.

It’s Not About Being Snooty.  Let us repeat that the principals of discriminating taste are applicable to pop culture as well as high culture.  The fundamental purpose or effect of pop culture may be more modest, less lofty or ambitious than high culture, but it still lives by many of the same rules of good taste.     Join Email List

THE CASE FOR MORE APPROPRIATE SHUL MUSIC

Hallelujah - Psalm 150 by Winikoff

Dignified Joy in Music

Contrary to what many rabbis, cantors and synagogue boards might choose to believe, not every congregant really cares to come to services and sit through endless repetitions of simplistic “chassidic” melodies, clapping, drumming (using actual or makeshift drums) or a faux party-like atmosphere.

Contrary to what they might believe, most congregants don’t come to services to “have fun.”

Contrary to what they might believe, not every congregant believes that pop-style music is appropriate as mainstream worship music.

Contrary to what those who (understandably) fret about declining shul attendance might be dying to believe, pandering with pop music is not a wise approach in attempting to lure more attendees to services.

Contrary to this misguided mindset, is the well-known Jewish principle of dignity, modesty and respectfulness in worship.  Hence the customary and powerful motto found over many synagogue pulpits, serving to remind us of this tradition:  “Da lifnei mi atah omeid – Know before Whom you stand.”

We all love fun, even if we might each harbor varying ideas of what constitutes fun.  Be let’s ask ourselves:  Is shul really supposed to be fun?  Are we confusing the sort of regenerative (and under ideal circumstances, transformative) joy we are to experience on Shabbat or Yom Tov with fun?  And aren’t there ample opportunities in our secular lives for fun?  Hence another Jewish principle –separation of the sacred from the secular.

Shouldn’t worship should be a unique and elevated experience in our lives, rather than just another manifestation of our broader culture?  Shouldn’t it harbor a higher spirituality rather than a spirit of simple hedonism.  Should it not reflect our tradition of dignity and respectfulness “before Whom we stand?”

The Schtik Factor.  Sometimes, I think we Jews have never quite separated our illustrious secular American pop cultural legacy of “showbiz” from what should be the loftier realm of our spiritual practice.  In doing my own rather thorough survey of American Conservative Jewish congregational websites, I’ve noticed something reflected from time to time in the contents of most of these sites:  a sensibility of schtik – of comedic silliness embodied, for example, in clever plays on words to describe events – for example, the commonly coined “Friday Nite Live,” which seems to evoke the spirit of that long-running late-night Saturday evening comedy series which is the very embodiment of adolescent “fun.”  Or the many too-clever-by-half plays on words used to describe a congregation’s musical or choral ensembles.  All of which contributes to an air of Jewish cultural self-parody.  There should be more to Jewish culture than Henny Youngman.

The “Cool” Factor.  One suspects the new obsession with the pop idiom in worship music might be partially rooted in our deep-seated and often subconscious need to feel “cool” or “hip,” or at the very least not to appear passé or out of step.  Trouble is, what’s considered cool or “happening” now will almost certainly be passé before very long.

The pop-music-in-shul phenomenon may also be simply a manifestation of an out-and-out ignorance of other better types of music, or perhaps a misguided fear or loathing of anything too closely resembling “church” music.  Through this ignorance and this fear we have limited our choices.

We Jews must stop feeling apologetic for our good and honorable religious life in all its rich complexity, stop feeling the need to hide behind the schtik, and learn to embrace and celebrate the great moral dignity and beauty of Yiddishkeit by treating it with dignity and beauty.  Too often I sense even from rabbis a kind of reluctance to recognize these qualities in some of our rituals, a kind of shame or embarrassment about them.  Our rituals, if they are to be effective and inspiring, must be taken seriously as the wonderful high theater that they are, and the music – whether congregational, cantorial or choral, should reflect this.  It’s time to raise our standards of what we consider appropriate music in shul.

To begin to accomplish any of this requires, first of all, knowing and appreciating the meaning and tenor of our liturgy and the rituals it supports – the sublime beauty and grace of L’cha Dodi, the grandeur of K’dushah, the mystical drama and power of Hashkiveinu, the pathos of Havein Yakir Li, to name a few examples.  And by extension, it points to the need for better understanding and appreciation of our nusach, our musical chant, which is perhaps the most authentic embodiment of our worship music tradition – the better to sense what is appropriate music for these prayers.

Fulfillment of these needs ought to be preached and validated by our cantors and rabbis, taught and touted as a vital resource for composers of serious, authentic, appropriate and substantive Jewish sacred music.

The desperate pandering to popular taste that is currently happening may be great fun for some of us, but it’s not likely to work for long, and it carries a high price tag:  the mortgaging of our musical heritage.  Let’s leave the “fun” for its appropriate occasions, and strive to bring a higher sense of beauty and joy to shul.    Join Email List

RUMINATING ON PROMISES CUT SHORT

This last Sunday of October 2013 was yet another of many momentous communal concertizing efforts in which I’ve been privileged to participate.  It succeeded another recent such Sunday at the same venue, the stately Central Lutheran Church in the southeast corner of downtown Minneapolis.

That first Sunday was a coming together of several premiere ensembles in the Twin Cities choral community, a show of solidarity with the Minnesota Chorale, the official chorus of the long-silenced Minnesota Orchestra.  It was a wistful occasion, joyful as an opportunity for several ensembles to sing for one another, yet mournful, rankling, and frustrating with respect to the underlying events which prompted it – a protracted year-long contract dispute between management and players of our Minnesota Orchestra which has resulted in the recent resignation of its great music director Osmo Vanska, and the apparent exodus of many of the principal players.  All of this represents a promise cut short, just at a time when this orchestra had reached what was arguably its zenith of world reputation and artistic standing.  They have recently made a widely acclaimed recording cycle of the entire 9 symphonies of Beethoven.  In 2010 the MO had the honor of performing twice in London at the BBC Proms.  They were considered perhaps one of the top five orchestras in the world.

This second Sunday saw another mass gathering of players and singers, including the Northfield (Minnesota) Youth Choirs, the St. Olaf Choir, and VocalEssence Chorus and Ensemble Singers, two fine soloists, soprano Maria Jette and tenor Dan Dressen, and a fine group of orchestra players, to present the featured work, the U.S. premiere of Jonathan Dove’s “There Was a Child.”  The work, which might be called an oratorio or cantata, features vigorous cross-rhythms and other fascinating rhythmic permutations, brilliant and picturesque orchestration, and insightful settings of such great poets as Walt Whitman, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and others.  It was commissioned as a tribute to a young man whose promise was cut short. 

Third Grade Photo of Michael Reid Winikoff

Michael Reid Winikoff – 3rd Grade

Dove and his poets present many memorable musings on childhood:  the desperate euphoria of daily escape from the “prison” of school; the joys of our first fleeting independence, of first discovering and partaking of nature, of flying effortlessly over the smooth ice on blades as evening casts its spell.  When such youth is robbed in death, there is mortification on discovering the fleetingness and apparent insignificance of our lives, as we ruminate on the tragedy of “what might have been.” 

The work was not easy to learn, and it proved to be a full-throated sing.  For the rhythmically challenged like me, learning and performing it demanded great concentration and careful counting of beats.  The change of venue from what would have been the premiere performance in the newly refurbished Orchestra Hall to Central Lutheran, which was necessitated by the effects of the Orchestra’s contract dispute, proved challenging given the sheer number of performers (about 300 in all) which had to be shoe-horned into a wide, shallow space.  This configuration was cramped, hot and acoustically problematic for the performers, and the principle of light travelling faster than sound took on profound importance as we were compelled to rely (almost solely in some passages) on the able baton of Philip Brunelle rather than on hearing one another. 

All of which is to say that, as a composer myself, it was well worth such hardship to participate in mounting such a powerful work, and the promise of this performance effort was wonderfully fulfilled.  As it always has been in my 11 seasons singing with VocalEssence, there was a great deal to be learned, and I was stirred to my very core.  But this time, the resonance was even deeper.

Each time I pass by Orchestra Hall, the pangs of tragedy and loss reassert themselves.  Here is our newly refurbished venue, all dressed up with no place to go.  Of course, as tragedies go in this world, there are far bigger ones than our cultural loss.  But we feel it nonetheless.

Jonathan Dove’s “There Was a Child” is a piece that seems emblematic of this monumentally troubled era.  So much that needs to be done, so many promises cut short in such an unnecessary and avoidable way.  Dare we hope for more promises fulfilled?        Join Email List

GIVING BIRTH TO MUSIC – The Thrill (and Fright) of Showing a New Child to the World

Hayom T'amtzeinu by Michael Reid Winikoff - photo of sheet musicTo Change the World?! – One of the great dramatic prayers of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, begins, “Today the world is born.”  The old traditional interpretation of this is that Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of Creation.  Another even more compelling version is that today, each year, the world is re-born, created anew.  Each of us has the opportunity to re-create our own world, and by extension the whole world, for the better.

As composers, many of us hold the audacity of hope that each of our new compositions, to which in a very real sense we give birth, and which we often think of as our children, will in some small way make the world better, will introduce into it a tiny sparkle of joy, of hope, of inspiration, of a more profound understanding of things.

This past week, on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, I had the great honor of having one of my liturgical choral works, a setting of the concluding litany Hayom T’amtzeinu, introduced to my lifelong home congregation.  Although I was leading services at another synagogue and so wasn’t able to hear it sung for the first time in situ as part of the service, I had been attending the choir rehearsals and helping them to prepare the piece, and had the privilege of hearing it come into full flower.

Winning Over the Performers – I was delighted (and relieved) at the very positive response to the work by everyone involved.  While the parts are occasionally tricky with unexpected melodic turns, I knew pretty much from the first read-through that the group would be able to tackle it quite easily – that they “got” it.  Much of the harmony came through immediately, and they seemed to catch on quickly.  It also didn’t hurt that they found the parts vocally comfortable.

I’ve been fortunate not only that we have a particularly fine choir this year, but also that the two cantors and the conductor have all been strong advocates of my new piece, both in deciding to take it on and in ensuring meticulous preparation of the choir.  They too seemed to “get” it, and I didn’t need to say very much.  By all accounts, it came off very well in the service.

The Best Laid Plans – There was, unfortunately, one frustrating aspect of this wonderful adventure.  This year the synagogue is using a new prayer book, in which the editors felt it necessary to change the order of verses in the text.  It’s the sort of frustration that undoubtedly many composers of sacred settings in many faiths have had to experience – that of having to try and accommodate text changes for an existing musical setting or risk that setting becoming unusable and irrelevant.  Fortunately, I think I’ve found a way to address the changes.

Winning Over the Audience – Given that this place in the service is a beloved opportunity for congregational song, it can be daunting and risky indeed to dare make any change of tune, let alone introduce a choral setting.  This is perhaps the chief reason my Hayom was sung only once, on the second day, so that congregants would only be confronted with it once, after they’d gotten to sing the old tune on the first day.  But mine features a very singable, congregation-friendly melody, and I’m hoping they’ll come to embrace it and not resent the change too deeply.

What’s So Good About It?  In the wake of this gratifying experience, I’ve been trying to understand the possible reasons why my setting has been so well-received by the musicians.  Here are some thoughts:

Consider Both Performer and Listener.  I tried to think of both as my audience, and to know that audience.

Make it Accessible – For this particular audience, I ensured it wouldn’t be too avant-garde or esoteric – this is not the place for experimentation.  On the practical side, it couldn’t be unduly difficult, either musically or vocally – it would need fit the resources of the average synagogue choir.

Appropriate.  I endeavored for something not only beautiful and memorable, but especially apropos of the particular mood and occasion.  In this case, it meant knowing and making creative use of the special chant idioms for the High Holy Days and, of course, understanding the meaning and significance of the text.  Thus the old adage of authors – “Write what you know.”

Singable.  I made certain the music was tuneful and coherent, taking special care to fit the music to the rhythm of the text in an optimal way for maximum singability.  In our Jewish community at least, all too often we encounter a congregational melody that doesn’t really fit the text, which has been shoe-horned in.  This doesn’t make for a very satisfying singing experience.

Concise.  I knew this would be no place for undue length, so I got to the point, avoided repetition and stayed within two minutes.

Ledgible.  I also made sure the score was easy to read – this seems obvious, but is not to be underestimated, and too often it doesn’t happen.  In general, if the performers are presented with too many obstacles, the frustration and wasted time can prove counter-productive.  This is especially true with an orchestra, but it applies here as well.  I try always to grease the skids in introducing new music by making things as easy as possible for everyone.

Interesting.  Finally, I tried to achieve some degree of musical depth and substance.  A bit of harmonic interest, a touch of counterpoint, a compact and cohesive sense of form, all sprinkled with occasional subtle touches of the unexpected.  This may constitute a bit more challenge in learning at first, but properly done it can increase the gratification factor for both performer and listener, and might increase the durability of the piece in your repertoire over time.  Boring pieces can quickly become passé.

Think of your perennial musical favorites, and try to figure out some of the things that make them work so well for you.  Then apply those principals to your own creations.  It’s sure to make for more successful, well-bred “children.”       Join Email List