Be Quiet, Memory

What are we doing when we go to a concert? Or, rather: what are we actually doing, versus what we perhaps ought to be doing? I’m not talking here about concert etiquette. I’m talking about making the most of the aesthetic situation. We have come to a concert, presumably to do one main thing, and that is to listen to music. 

Already, if we’re going to get all Socratic about it, we have two important items to break down here. Let’s take the last part first: music. I’ve taught music courses to older music lovers, beginning music students, and advanced grad students, and in every case we have a lengthy discussion on this topic, indulging in lofty ideals and platitudes and gross over-generalizations (you know how these kinds of college-classroom discussions tend to go). But where we always end up is the same. Music, we decide, is “the art of sound in time.” 

“Now, we all know that people just don’t really listen. Hardly ever. But when you’ve plunked down your money for tickets to a concert, you probably do want to at least try.”

Ugh. See, we’ve bought ourselves the drudgery now of having to define “art” (I mean, I assume you’d rather not also get into defining sound and time). Well, let’s spare ourselves some trouble and agree first, not to try to decide whether something is good art or bad art. We just need to separate art from not-art. Here’s what the great philosophers have come up with: art is something created by someone who intentionally created it as art. The important part of that idea is intention. Essentially, for something to cease being a carton of milk and start being art, all someone really has to do is point at it and say it’s art - they intend it to be, which means they (and then you) have shifted into an aesthetic frame of mind when looking at or experiencing that milk carton. You, with that glorious, logic-driven and very commonsensical mind of yours, who is saying “Please! That’s not art!”, you hate this definition, and that’s okay. But neither you nor anyone could win an argument that it’s not art, because the artist just designated it so. (This is also why when you look at a ten-million-dollar painting that’s one red squiggle and say, “my five-year-old could do that!”, that argument doesn’t hold water, no matter how much you want it to. But it also means that anything your five-year-old does squiggle on cardboard, which you then hang on the fridge, that does fit the definition of art, one hundred percent.) The thing that made it art is that someone put a frame around it. And it’s still art if the frame is merely metaphorical. This has nothing to do with whether it’s good art or bad art, by the way. Just that it’s art, period.

I know. Harebrained at best. But for now, since this is a written article and I don’t have to take interruptions, let’s return to our initial question about the concert experience. We came to listen to music. Second part: nailed. But the first part is what I really sat down to write about: listening. 

Now, we all know that people just don’t really listen. Hardly ever. But when you’ve plunked down your money for tickets to a concert, you probably do want to at least try. Your fellow audience members and the cars and trucks on the highway and all of nature and your own brain are all conspiring against you to make this task really hard to do with perfect attention to detail. But at least it’s not so strenuous: you just shut up and open your ears. 

But, see, here’s the thing. A lot of the time, if you’ve chosen a particular concert to attend, it’s because you’re already familiar with some of the music you’re going to hear. And my friend, I have bad news for you. Once the band starts playing a song you already know, and you start singing along in your head (or, heaven forbid, out loud), you just stopped actually listening. Because you can’t remember and listen at the same time. And, unless you’re a trained musician, you can’t sing and listen at the same time either. The same way you can’t read a book or do your taxes and carry on a phone conversation with your mom at the same time. Listening—really listening—means you’re examining every passing nanosecond for the novelties, the surfaces, the changes in each succeeding sound. You’re looking for patterns, you’re accepting the quick-change subterfuges that are coming at you, and you’re saving your judgment for a little later. You’re keeping that mind hungrily open and the ears unbiased. If you’re humming along, remembering some party you went to back in high school and feeling the warm glow of nostalgia, or savoring the bittersweet memory of someone who broke your heart, that’s cool. But listening has stopped. Or, rather, you’re listening to a tape playing back in your head, not the stuff that’s actually working its way through the air to your earholes.

“...hearing something you’ve never heard before gives you your easiest chance to actually listen. But something you already know presents a challenge.”

In this way, hearing something you’ve never heard before gives you your easiest chance to actually listen. But something you already know presents a challenge. It’s an opportunity not to remember that music, but to try hearing it again for the first time. To shift your attention away from your memory and continually back onto the surface of the sounds coming towards you. Be in the present, and then you’re listening.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with enjoying a memory or being nostalgic. It’s just that those activities are pretty much the opposite of listening. Some people have gone so far as to define music as something which requires a listener. But if that's true, then anything you already know, or are singing along to, in that moment, it’s not music. I don’t know if I buy that completely, but there are some situations where I think this actually does kind of make sense—like with Christmas carols. No one in the shopping mall, on the escalator, in the grocery store in December, is trying to make the aesthetic switch to actually listening to “Away in a Manger,” as if for the first time. Besides, those are places where it would be a little esoteric to try to listen in the sense I’m talking about. (Interestingly, though, according to the ‘music-isn't-music-unless-it-has-an-aesthetic-listener’ model, that lone aesthetic listener could, by their intention and metaphorical framing of that grocery store listening experience, render that soundscape art, instantaneously, all by herself. Try it sometime. It’s awesome.) Finally, “Away in a Manger" is intended to trigger a thousand memories and to mean a thousand things, whereas in the purest aesthetic sense, true listening requires that we refrain from assigning meaning to a sound in the first moment we hear it. John Cage once said, “I don't want a sound to pretend that it's a bucket or that it's president or that it's in love with another sound. I just want it to be a sound.”

None of this should bother you in the slightest. If you’re having a good time at a concert, everybody who worked hard to make it happen is super psyched for you. I for one sure can’t help but get choked up in the same exact places in the pieces I hear over and over again, and if that means I’m not 100% nostalgia-free when those moments occur, I’m not going to beat myself up about it. But I sure would hate to miss something fascinating or unexpected at the concert because the volume of the playback in my head was louder than the sounds actually happening in the present.

A place and a namesake

One of the beautiful aspects of my job is that to some degree, as long as there's an airport nearby, I can live pretty much wherever I choose. And so, not too long ago, Art Music Recording world headquarters relocated to beautiful Walla Walla, Washington. 


This literal corner of the West has had many important roles in shaping history. Geologically, too, there is so much cataclysmic change written on the surface of the earth here that in some places I feel I wouldn't be too surprised if I saw a Brontosaurus lumber into view. 

To me, nature and history have always been sources of fascination. It's been exciting delving deeper into the stories of my new home. On a trip to visit a prominent waterfall, a vestige of ice-age floods, I came across a little dot on the map which bore my family name, Lamar. And I determined to find out its story.

Even before I started looking for answers, I had a guess. There are lots of little towns named Lamar around this country, especially in the West. This is because, during the time that the railroads were wending their braided tracks across the continent (1885-88), the United States Secretary of the Interior was Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar II — my fifth-great grand uncle. Currying favor with him was a popular activity among little towns hoping to be designated as a railroad stop, and many of them changed their name in hopes they could attract his attention. I assumed this was the case with this little place, but not so.

Instead, the little town of Lamar, Washington is named after the “Lamar cabin,” which was not built by but purchased by two Lamar brothers in 1872. It later served as a stage stop, and when the railroad came through in 1888, it flourished briefly into a small town.

The property was later bequeathed to a nephew named James, who in his will, directed for it to be held in trust for the purpose of scholarships — so in fact to this day there is a James Lamar scholarship at Whitman College here in Walla Walla — which is a really good school, by the way. 😀

The Art of Art Music Recording

By pure luck I happened across something delightful on the Interwebs this afternoon. It's a short video of the artist Wssily Kandisnky painting, filmed back in 1926. There's even a goofy modernist soundtrack that immediately brought a smile to my face.

Kandisnky's work has always been an inspiration to me; I like the carefully considered theory behind it, belied by the seemingly freeform and capricious quality his work sometimes shows on the surface.

When creating the new logo for Art Music Recording, my friend David Mumm also took Kandisnky's style as an inspiration. So enjoy this rare snapshot of the Artist himself at work.

Festival Season and Moveable Feasts

Each summer, many classical musicians disperse from their urban dwellings to the lovely soft places of the world. In these lush settings where tourists flock for recreation, they are afforded an opportunity to make music with a kind of intensity and artistic engagement they may not have in their day-to-day occupations back home, with colleagues they may only rarely see. After rehearsals and performances they also have a chance to make new friends and maybe even relax over a great meal or get outdoors to reconnect with nature. For many musicians this is an annual tradition, and some return to the same festivals for decades; their kids get to know other festival musicians' kids as family friends only seen in the summertime.

Right now it's the thick of summer festival season for me. I'm in Walla Walla, Washington recording a chamber music festival that punches well above its weight in terms of prominence and stature among the more well-established festivals out there. I won't go into what makes one festival exhilarating and another humdrum in this post, but suffice it to say artistic vision, understanding and building trust with the community, and pitch-perfect programming are key components. It goes without saying that the musicians are world-class, the setting is sublime, and the 'work hard, play hard' mentality prevails. What I would like to tell you is what it's like being a part of a busy summer music festival from the inside. 

First off, for me, the time commitment is considerable. Besides traveling to Denver, Memphis, the west coast, and Michigan for recordings between mid-April and the end of May, I have been in festivals from early June and will be through the second week of August. This disruption in routine has itself become routine.

When I arrive unannounced at the door of my favorite restaurant I’m greeted by name with “welcome home — how was your year?”

But what makes festival season fun is the variety and the intensity. There's no time to get bored; one day I'm recording a Mahler and Strayhorn arrangements in a surprisingly acoustically lovely wine production facility with barrels stacked to the ceiling — the next, it's the Poulenc Sextet in a refurbished power station, with a surprisingly great refurbished Steinway. In my next festival, which begins this weekend in Steamboat Springs, CO, the venue doesn't change but the range of ensembles and repertoire is even broader—we'll go from an evening of solo piano (with Van Cliburn winners, usually) to full orchestra plus soloist(s) in the space of three days, with a pop/country/jazz/rock/whatever act in between (these I am thankfully not tasked with recording). [I've taken to posting each new venue on my facebook page as a continuation of a "today's office" series.] On days when there are no performances to record, there's a lot of yesterday's audio to mix, edit, bounce, upload, and share with artists and music directors for approvals. Keeping all of this straight means being as organized as possible, while keeping a certain openness to inevitable last-minute changes is key to staying sane.  

The icing on the cake for any good festival is the generosity and enthusiasm of the community around it. Here in Walla Walla avid friends of the festival think nothing of opening their homes to the lot of us for lavish dinners, always accompanied by the rich and subtle wines of this region. Local artists bring us into their studios; restaurateurs treat us as priority guests; winemakers walk us through their fields. Conversation often goes deep into the night with friends old and new. In Steamboat Springs, when I arrive unannounced at the door of my favorite restaurant I'm greeted by name with "welcome home — how was your year?"

I'd better get back to work — enjoy the summer, and be sure to go out and listen!

The Surprising Joy of the Sunday Matinee

The weekend before last, I recorded performances of a small but incredible orchestra — an orchestra that I work with a lot. In connection with these concerts I also give a series of pre-concert talks about the music on the program; these talks are something I really enjoy, and I get lots of positive feedback from audience members about them.

The orchestra in question is unique in many ways, but in most essential aspects it is just like every other orchestra. Though it has doubled and redoubled its outreach and educational programs (sometimes there are up to seventeen such services delivered in a single five-day period around concert weekends), concerns about audience development remain high, even though its flagship Saturday-night concerts sell very well.

The next logical step was to add a Sunday matinee.

As the first season with these added matinees comes to a close, it is interesting to note some of the artistic ramifications. What I've found is that in Saturday evening performances, which are typically performed to full or very nearly full houses, there is a lot of energy coming off the stage. Fortes are stronger; tempos are jumpier. More risks are taken.

By contrast, the Sunday matinees, typically performed to a much smaller audience, and therefore a in much quieter and slightly more resonant environment, are more poised. The pulse is more stable, yet breathes more naturally; tone quality is more pliable and nuanced; there's more air around the sound of the whole orchestra. And accuracy is typically much higher. (This latter fact is partly just due to the musicians having that much more time to really smooth out the rough edges in their parts.)

I have no doubt that for many audience members, the near-manic energy of the Saturday night performances is exciting. But I prefer the more centered, graceful, and self-assured Sunday matinees. If you're a concertgoer, you might consider checking out the matinee instead of the Saturday night show sometime; the tickets are often cheaper and the orchestra may well actually give you a better performance than they did for pearls-and-tuxes crowd.

From that weekend of concerts I headed to Denver where I am assisting with the world premiere recording of The Scarlet Letter. There's so much to love about recording opera; the sheer complexity is a technical challenge that keeps the adrenaline pumping, and few pleasures compare to being part of the process of bringing a new work into the world. More than anything though, it's the affective power of the human voice that reminds me why someone might take the fantastic leap of faith to pursue a career in the performing arts. I can't wait to get started.

The Promise of Schoenberg's Scatter

Art Music Recording is looking forward to recording next weekend's premiere of Scatter, a work commissioned by a consortium of orchestras from LA-based composer Adam Schoenberg and featuring Project Trio. IRIS Orchestra, under the direction of Michael Stern, will give the world premiere performance next weekend at the Germantown Performing Arts Center in Tennessee. I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of working with the Trio, IRIS, and Adam in the past, and to have all three overlap in one work is an uncommon thrill. 

Schoenberg’s music was brought to my attention a few years ago when IRIS Orchestra premiered another of his works, Finding Rothko.  I found the work to be evocative in a broadly appealing way, and yet crafted with thorough professionalism and with a voice notably confident in a composer so relatively young. Adam was also very engaged in the recording process, and his keen ears and enthusiasm made this component of the creative process meaningful.

The musicians of Project Trio have been acquaintances for some time, and working with them has been something I’ve always looked forward to. Besides their consummate skill as instrumentalists and their total dedication to their own insanely high performance values, these three men are just a blast to be around and work with. And the same has to be said of IRIS Orchestra itself—that band of bright-eyed, impassioned artists united under by their friend and leader, conductor Michael Stern. So these stellar forces - orchestra, trio, and composer - are simpatico in a really special way, and it’s going to be an invigorating thrill to participate in bringing their collaboration to life.

And a link to the project itself:

- Jamey Lamar