December 2013

The iOrchestra: can’t stop progress

December 26, 2013 11:58

This fall at Mannes College of Music in New York a new ensemble has sprung up, creating quite the controversy: the iOrchestra. Dean Richard Kessler, whose vision for Mannes mandated the creation of the iOrchestra. What is hiding behind this cool name? According to its creator Todd Reynolds, the ensemble’s name is totally deceptive: no robots or lasers or intergalactic connections of any kind on the program. The idea behind the orchestra is to have students understand technology and start having their own thoughts about what they want to accomplish with it musically speaking. Reynolds is a violinist and new musician who played with Steve Reich. He was also a student of Heifetz and an orchestra player. For him technology is as normal as a violin: “if I had stuff stolen out of my car I am not sure which one would be more important, the violin or the laptop”, he says.

Todd ReynoldsEverybody who uses a computer, plays an instrument, hears music and speaks the musical language is welcome to be part of the iOrchestra, after completing an introductory course called “Go Digital”. “I personally believe that every person has the potential to be a performer, an improviser, and a composer, and an electronic musician, and the iOrchestra is our attempt to synthesize it all.” This new project will culminate at the end of the year with a concert. Students will present works they have written and works from composers, along with improvisations borne out of the environments they create, including soundsculpting, looping and file playback. They will perform together or in small chamber groups using both acoustic and electronic instruments augmented with software, creating a sort of hybrid instrument, and a hybrid ensemble. “Over the next few years, the iOrchestra is going to become a sort of container for teaching all of that new music, classical music, technologies, improvisation all at once on a basic level”, specifies Reynolds. “So that students can then become inspired by it and take it with their own excellence to the next level.” Hopefully, after years of existence, a number of different classes and a couple of different levels of the iOrchestra will be available.

Surprisingly, Reynolds says that one of his models for this new project is Johan Sebastian Bach. Was he not a composer, an improviser, a performer…and an electronic musician? “He was the first electronic musician”, says Reynolds. “Granted there was no electricity but seen through a more universal prism, the organ is closely related to MIDI instruments of today. One can says he used the technology available to him in the same ways that we do today.” If you look around you today, things have changed. Todd Reynolds, and the Dean of Mannes, Richard Kessler who brought him to the school, believes that our education policies have to change as well in order to equip students to have a foot in both worlds: history that we study to get better, and the current practices that we are surrounded by. Truth is that everything – science, politics, technology, etc – moves forward and there is no way to stop things from moving. “You can’t stop graphic design because you want to preserve painting”, points out Reynolds. “You cannot ask somebody to stifle their musical expression because there must be Beethoven.” Everything coexists; nothing will be diminished by anything. There will always be Beethoven, there will always be Van Gogh, there will always be all of those great traditional artists we revere and study from. Classical music exists inside of tradition to be sure, but if it’s stiffly by one mode of thinking or a single approach, there is no room for the actual art form to live and expand.

The iOrchestra is just the beginning of something bigger. Everywhere things are starting to happen. At Juilliard, for instance, Mari Kimura, herself an acclaimed classical violinist teaches a class to performers in Max/MSP, an object-oriented programming environment for music, while at Princeton the Princeton Laptop Orchestra is directed by Dan Trueman. There are different ways that people are already mixing technology and tradition but we haven’t yet seen many ensembles, which mix instrumental performance and digital music as practice. The presence of such an ensemble can be well justified in a performance academy. People today are not listening to classical music in quantities or spirit like they used to. While classical music is of course still venerable, important, the source of our tradition, our knowledge and tastes have extended way beyond that historical genre to embrace many different kinds of musics. And funding has shifted - “There are less classical music jobs of all kinds available to people so what should we do? Fold up classical music and go home? No!” advocates Reynolds. To find its place in the music world, the younger generation will have to be creative and inventive as to how to create more jobs and flourish with its creative expression while doing it. This is why it will have to learn and awaken to new ideas and new possibilities. “Students are going to be living in the present, not back then, not in the 1800s nor even as they did in the 90s”, reminds Reynolds. “You cannot take tradition and crush it. In fact, the very lifeblood of any musical tradition is actually contemporary music. Beethoven and Bach, they were new musicians, what we call “avant-garde artists” or “contemporary musicians” back then.”

It is not surprising at all that some people think that conservatories who go this route will lose their Beethoven, will lose their Bach, will lose their tradition. “But nobody’s going to let that happen”, assures Reynolds. “I will never ever in my life teach new music without teaching old music right alongside of it, or pop music without teaching classical music right alongside of it because one doesn’t exist without the other. It’s a trajectory, an arc, a spectrum where all can be seen as impacting the other.” For him, improvisation, jazz and all the other styles of music make classical music more relevant rather than less relevant. Studying other “musics” would provide a deeper connection and a deeper relationship to the music we have been teaching, writing and performing forever.

This new direction, which is personified in the iOrchestra is about exploring and finding your own way through music in the way that things are today, from the spirit of how things are now. I want my students to look at their instrument as the possibility of being hybrid: acoustic instrument and technology. And hopefully if I do my job right, if we all do our jobs right, people come out of school being super well rounded”, concludes Reynolds. And that is what this whole move at Mannes is about: being a musician at its fullest. Mannes is a new key, a new way, a new school.

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Benjamin Beilman, music is the best way to understand yourself

December 3, 2013 12:00

The first time I met Benjamin Beilman was on a bus during the Montreal International Music Competition. I had my violin on my back, he had his and this common citizenship was enough for us to introduce ourselves. I remember how awfully sure of him he looked, bold, casual and summery with his sunglasses and his grey T-Shirt. More than three years later – the morning after his Carnegie Hall debut in New York – he recalled the time of the competition: “there was that obsession, I was thinking: this is my time, I want to win a major international competition, I am ready, I am worth it, I have something special to say, I am going to do this, I want this!” There is actually something very interesting about the young man’s determination. He wants to succeed in a sincere childish way I would say, just like a child who wants something for Christmas, who asks Santa Claus everyday, think about it all the time and tries to behave well. “I think you are actually spot-on”, confirms the violinist. I heard Benjamin Beilman play a lot: in Montreal, in Paris, in New York. I heard him perform at an international competition, in a small bistro, at his CD launch and even play the full Paganini caprices in mid-summer stifling heat. I never saw anybody else try his best on stage as much as he does. I also never saw anybody change and learn as much as he did in the past years: from one performance to another he could sound completely different. By his sound and his expression, he ranks among the greatest. By his eagerness to learn, by his struggles to make the best of everything, he is one of us, human.

Ben Beilman“I am sorry I feel like I am not giving a good article but essential what we are talking about [finding who you are as a violinist, as an artist, as a person] is what I am trying to discover myself too,” worries Benjamin after 30 minutes of interview. “I feel horrible admitting it because I think if you get on stage you should have it very clear in your head: this is why you should be listening to me, this is why you should come to my concert.” In fact, I did catch the violinist in a time of struggles about figuring out who he really is. You play great music, you occasionally have lessons and you have instructions on how to play but what is your personal thing, what makes you different as an artist? There is an incredible amount of exceptionally talented people but what is the little something that you need to say? “That’s a very hard thing to look in the mirror and say why am I different, what’s great about me. I can ask friends of mine, their answers might be helping and refreshing to hear but trying to figure that out for yourself is the hardest step. I don’t know what will help me to find it. I think it’s just time and experience. You don’t really become the person you are supposed to be until you die. You are not a fully formed person until it’s the end. ” Fortunately, to find himself, the young man has music. “All this has been said before – and that’s the beauty of music – but music is an examination of who we are as humans throughout time. To me, classical music is the most refined language, the most refined palette, and it’s the most concentrated version of conveying a message, the best expression. It is also the best way to understand yourself.” Here Beilman quotes Mitsuko Uchida who once said that it frightens her how much Schubert knows about her as a person. That’s what is so fantastic about playing music: somebody – the composer – sometimes understands who you are at the very core of your being without having met you. That links to the fact that everyone goes through the same things, no matter the time, no matter the place.

Besides trying to understand and find himself, Beilman says he is struggling to combine and reconcile childhood influences before he was 18 or 19 - meaning a juicy romantic old school and great tradition of sound – with a new way of thinking of music as a provocative art form. I couldn’t help but think of his mentor, the sublime violinist Christian Tetzlaff who might have influenced Beilman’s preoccupations of the moment. In fact, the German violinist made a striking statement in an article published in The New Yorker. “Beauty is the enemy of the expression!” he says. The way I understand it is that one shouldn’t take expression for granted because of beauty and that complacency in beauty could damage genuine expression. Beilman comments: “I don’t think Christian [Tetzlaff] has any problem with beauty of sound, he has an extremely gorgeous sound. I think he is just someone who is in favor that dolce beautiful sound shouldn’t be the constant. Moreover, composers aren’t obviously confining the musician to one sound throughout their pieces.” Just as with the matter of embracing different kinds of sounds, Beilman said he would be a bad musician if he preferred one kind of music or a composer to another. “I think you have to have a love for everything that you play. Trying to choose your favorite work or composer is like trying to choose who is your favorite child, you can have special connections with one but you cannot choose.”

About his Carnegie Hall debut, the violinist feels happy for the most part. “I wasn’t too uptight about trying to make things right and perfect and everything. I felt like I was confortable enough to portray the characters and emotions I wanted.” And about the parts he was not so happy about, he believes that playing the violin “is a process. There are times when you need to inject something as a result. Sometimes we add things, sometimes we subtract things and hopefully in the end it all sounds better, gets better.” Beilman was very lucky to have a friend with him on stage, the pianist with whom he played for the past five years, Yekwon Sunwoo. They met at Curtis and since then have become very close friends. “It’s fun to go to all these cities around the world whether they are glamorous cities or little tinny towns and learn. I mean we teach each other. We are both very much coaching each other in our rehearsal. We have side-by-side paths and we are growing-up in music together.” It seems like the young man has always been beautifully surrounded. He nods: “all the teachers and people that I worked with had such a genuine love for the music that it would have been hard not to do what they did too!”

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