Burning Man Confronts The Rising Beat Desert Music

tumblr_static_tumblr_n15ya6dzlg1sxx7m7o1_500Noise complaints are not an issue you would expect to associate with Burning Man, the week-long, outsider arts festival that takes place in Nevada’s remote Black Rock Desert. But that is exactly what happened after the event’s namesake ritual on the last Saturday in August of 2014, the 28th version of Burning Man. The symbolic torching of an oversized effigy designed by festival co-founder Larry Harvey is the culmination of the gathering for many of the 65,000+ freaks, geeks and free-spirited revelers for whom the festival has become a global destination. It is a bacchanalian end-zone dance full of banging beats and fireworks, which continues well past the break of dawn, celebrating the survival of what can be a grueling existential slog in the elements. But last year, the evening’s Dionysian abandon left detractors in its aftermath, incensed with the volume and vibe of the party. The criticisms not only raised questions about music’s place at Burning Man, it also drew lines in the meaning of the event’s “radical self-expression” ethos.

“We do not expect to hear a DJ exhorting a crowd in a way

What Does a Conductor Do

conductor-cartoonI’m standing on a podium, with an enameled wand cocked between my fingers and sweat dampening the small of my back. Ranks of young musicians eye me skeptically. They know I don’t belong here, but they’re waiting for me to pretend I do. I raise my arm in the oppressive silence and let it drop. Miraculously, Mozart’s overture to Don Giovanni explodes in front of me, ragged but recognizable, violently thrilling. This feels like an anxiety dream, but it’s actually an attempt to answer a question that the great conductor Riccardo Muti asked on receiving an award last year: “What is it, really, I do?”

I have been wondering what, exactly, a conductor does since around 1980, when I led a JVC boom box in a phenomenal performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony in my bedroom. I was bewitched by the music—the poignant plod of the second movement, the crazed gallop of the fourth—and fascinated by the sorcery. In college, I took a conducting course, presided over a few performances of my own compositions, and led the pit orchestra for a modern-dance program. Those crumbs of experience left me in awe of the

Why we love repetition in music

repetitionagainWhy do we listen to our favourite music over and over again? Because repeated sounds work magic in our brains

What is music? There’s no end to the parade of philosophers who have wondered about this, but most of us feel confident saying: ‘I know it when I hear it.’ Still, judgments of musicality are notoriously malleable. That new club tune, obnoxious at first, might become toe-tappingly likeable after a few hearings. Put the most music-apathetic individual in a household where someone is rehearsing for a contemporary music recital and they will leave whistling Ligeti. The simple act of repetition can serve as a quasi-magical agent of musicalisation. Instead of asking: ‘What is music?’ we might have an easier time asking: ‘What do we hear as music?’ And a remarkably large part of the answer appears to be: ‘I know it when I hear it again.’

Psychologists have understood that people prefer things they’ve experienced before at least since Robert Zajonc first demonstrated the ‘mere exposure effect’ in the 1960s. It doesn’t matter whether those things are triangles or pictures or melodies; people report liking

Artist Bios Be Better

Over in London, the Independent‘s arts editor, David Lister, recently published a scathing commentary about the paucity of valuable or even interesting information in artist biographies. He wrote it in a fury after paying £4 to obtain the program for a Proms concert he attended, featuring the excellent German violinist Julia Fischer. (Yes, one pays for the privilege of reading about programs and performers at various international halls.)

What did he find? “A mine of useless information,” he says — a list of where Fischer had played in recent seasons, where she going to be performing over the next several months and a list of her recordings.

Sound familiar? It should. A whole lot of biographies provided by artists and their teams read exactly that way. And in the aftermath of Lister’s commentary, quite a lot of lively conversation has erupted online about his complaints, both on Facebook and Twitter.

To me, it’s not just an issue of trite phrasing or poor grammar, though those problems exist. It’s a larger matter of conception and approach. Even soloists and groups who go to great lengths to project a bleeding edge artistic image fall, all too often, into the tropes Lister mentions. Here’s a typical

The Audition

Mike Tetreault has spent an entire year preparing obsessively for this moment. He’s put in 20-hour workdays, practiced endlessly, and shut down his personal  life. Now the percussionist has 10 minutes to impress a Boston Symphony Orchestra selection committee. A single mistake and it’s over.  A flawless performance and he could join one of the world’s most renowned orchestras.

It’s close to 5 o’clock on a late afternoon in January when Mike Tetreault, a tall, lanky redhead, turns off Massachusetts Avenue and enters Symphony Hall through a side door. He checks in with the security guard and then heads for the basement, wrestling with more than 150 pounds of gear (mallets, snare drums, tambourines) in a backpack and a roller bag. The rest of the instruments he’ll need tonight will be supplied by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He’s an hour and a half early.

The basement of Symphony Hall is nothing like the velvety opulence upstairs. It’s cold down here, with concrete walls and harsh fluorescent lights. As Tetreault signs in at a table and waits to get into a practice room, he notices the oversize instrument travel cases that are strewn everywhere, ready to safeguard harps and timpani during symphony tours.

American Communion

ohnny Cash thought his recording career was over. Then he met legendary producer Rick Rubin. Together, Nashville’s Man in Black and the co-founder of Def Jam records made a decade’s worth of astonishing albums, culminating with the new American V. But their incongruous partnership, which ended with Cash’s death last fall, was about much more than music.

The last song that Johnny Cash ever wrote is called “Like the 309.” Like the first single he ever recorded, “Hey Porter,” from 1955, it’s a train song. Cash loved trains—he made two concept albums about them in the early 1960s, Ride This Train and All Aboard the Blue Train, dangled his legs from atop a boxcar on the cover of his ’65 album, Orange Blossom Special, and, in the liner notes to his 1996 album, Unchained, listed “railroads” second in his litany of favorite song subjects, right after “horses” and just before “land, judgment day, family, hard times, whiskey, courtship, marriage, adultery, separation, murder, war, prison, rambling, damnation, home, salvation, death, pride, humor, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny, determination, tragedy, rowdiness, heartbreak, and love. And Mother. And God.”

Trains resonated with Cash, and no wonder. He spent his first years in

For violin maker Howard Needham a rarefied world

Howard Needham is standing in a room deep in the bowels of Catholic University’s Ward Hall, listening to Samantha Cody play violin.

“The wolf notes are gone,” he says to Emil Chudnovsky, a CU music professor and violin soloist hovering nearby.

Chudnovsky cocks an ear, listening for the undesirable overtones, and looks skeptical. “I think the post is tight,” he says.

“I loosened it already,” responds an irritated Needham, shaking his head. “I loosened it a lot.” Still, he gestures to Cody to hand over the fiddle. Using a worn brass tool that he slides inside one of the curving f-holes cut into the violin’s top plate, Needham makes a small adjustment, then passes the instrument back to Cody.

She raises it to her chin and resumes playing. The two men look at each other and nod simultaneously. The sound is better.

This is a meeting with several motives. Cody, a 16-year-oldChevy Chase resident and one of Chudnovsky’s star students, is about to play in a string competition; to best her rivals, she’s playing Chudnovsky’s own violin, which has a much more powerful sound than her own.

Needham, a Maryland-based violin maker, built that violin, and he’s on standby today to help it reach its potential.