Making private space public

Eight years ago, I gave a paper on “house concerts for art music” to economists in love with music in Copenhagen. Today, Groupmuse is one of the grassroot initiatives that intermediates between artists and venue owners to realise such a concept. On Maui, I know of a clarinettist who produces these concerts from his home — always sold out. In and around Utrecht, I know of at least two. What are the issues that confront turning your private space into a concert venue for the public?

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Art and music improvisation: an observation and reflection

Watching an art and music improvisation session reminded me of the various collaborations I’ve had with artists in London, Utrecht, Crete, and Brugges. It’s about the process.

As a finishing touch to my recent application for an innovation grant, I asked the Maui-based artist Mike Takemoto if he would consider having his students collaborate with mine. I was thinking along the lines of an exhibit of paintings of musicians, music instruments, or music notes. It would be an extension of the piano ensemble poster exhibit that I “curated” and organized with the photography teacher Harvey Reed and his photo and design students last spring. Such interdisciplinary collaboration raised awareness of the activities we wanted to promote.

Continue reading “Art and music improvisation: an observation and reflection”

The real thing

After you’ve spent time hearing of, reading about, listening to, discussing with, talking about, and writing about something, you become familiar with it. When you finally get to see or experience the real thing, you value and appreciate it more.

When audio recording technology was invented, there was fear that fewer people would attend live performances.

When sheet music printing became possible, there was fear that people would learn the music and compete with professional performers.

The arrival of the Internet, mobile telephony, smart phones, iPads, Youtube, and Pandora radio made recorded performances searchable and easily downloadable.

All this helped to familiarize listeners and popularize music, composers, and performers.

What does this do for live performances? The audience becomes more informed and more appreciative. It increases the value of attending live concerts.

Radio shows, TV shows, written reviews, and blogs about music and musicians all serve to inform and educate.

We, as the audience, can choose better than before.

Most of us find comfort in the familiar. How much more familiar can we be of a subject that we’ve read about, heard of, discussed with, talked about, and perhaps even written about.

A music, like a movie, a painting, a novel, or any other creative output, requires that process of familiarization before it achieves value to the listener.

Concert promotion by other media: Ebb & Flow Arts in Maui, Hawaii

Promoting a concert involves more than announcing an event in one medium. It requires multiple media: television, radio, newspaper, and posters. View an example by photo, video, and audio of Ebb & Flow Arts Piano Synergy Concert on Maui, Hawaii.

Once upon a time, the concert was the talk of town. It’s the end result of all things. But nowadays there is too much competition for your attention — to0 many other things you can be doing, including staying at home and watching TV. To get people to come to a concert, you’d have to promote it.

Identify a concert’s unique selling points. Below is a photo of something quite rare: 4 pianists sitting at four grand pianos. It would catch anybody’s eye. This appeared in a free weekly paper that gets published on Thursdays — and just in time, too — the Thursday before the Saturday concert.

Pianists at rehearsal. Photo credit: Klazine Pollock
Pianists at rehearsal. Photo credit: Klazine Pollock

How to attract people to come to a concert? Mention the composers and repertoire, particularly if they are interesting and connects. In this case, there’s the premiere of a new piece written by a composer based in Honolulu, Thomas Osborne, who also teaches at University of Hawaii at Manoa. The date of the concert, 14th July 2012, also coincides with Bastille Day, celebrating French independence, hence a concert of music by French composers, including Darius Milhaud’s Paris.

Appeal to different audiences, including those who have access to television. The following 10 minute video clip was aired twice a day, every single day in the week of the concert on Channel 55, the 24/7 cable TV of University of Hawaii Maui College (UHMC).

Reach audiences via different avenues and media. On the Wednesday before the Piano Synergy concert, the following 25 minute clip was aired on local radio.

Kaio Radio: Ebb & Flow Arts (audio clip)

Besides local paper, TV, and radio promotions, there were also color posters, postcards, and local newspaper listings mentioning the forthcoming concerts.

What can we learn from this? While the musicians are busy practising, the concert organizer (producer) is busy letting as many people know about the concert as possible. These “previews” are important to help potential audience decide and anticipate. Here is a blog post anticipating the event.

It’s simply not enough to tell someone to come to a concert. It needs to reach all audiences in more than one way. Before doing so, one needs to think through what appeals, what attracts, what is relevant.

Remembering Villa Maria

Anne Ku remembers performing in Villa Maria in Houston, now up for sale for $5.7 million.

During our tightly packed 5-week concert tour from Boston to Maui (18 Oct – 25 Nov 2010), we did not have the time to write about every concert. Needless to say, this does not mean that we do not remember them!

When my friend Grace e-mailed me that Villa Maria was up for sale, I discovered I hadn’t even mentioned this important concert that flew us into Houston, cutting short our stay in Phoenix!

Villa Maria concert in Houston, Texas, November 2010
Villa Maria concert in Houston, Texas, November 2010. Photo: Rodney Waters

My friend Linda had pushed for us to perform in that mansion. I had no idea it was so grand, the occasion so elegant and completely out of this world.

Houston was where house concerts started for me. In February 2001, I performed in a concert of improvised music. There were two Steinways, one from New York, the other from Hamburg, side by side. It was River Oaks. It was my first house concert.

Who would have thought that I’d be back in Houston nearly 10 years later, actually giving concerts?

I invited my friend Grace to the concert at Villa Maria. She probably thought every house concert was just like that — something out of a movie or ancient Rome.

It was a guitar extravaganza — a program already full. But the organizers managed to squeeze us in – just 20 minutes which became 15 minutes – 2 pieces: Vivaldi’s Winter from Four Seasons and Manuel de Falla’s La Vida Breve.

The owners sat directly in front of the stage like the patrons of days past. The concert hall was purposefully built and opened onto the balcony. Beneath was where we warmed up — a converted gym. Robert recalls: “it was my first time, being in a 5-star gym as a green room and the stage was like a Roman villa, complete with paintings: the perfect backdrop for a program with Vivaldi.”

The article neglected to mention the prized and decorated Doris Duke Steinway grand piano that I played on. I wonder if that is for sale, too? [Open the article in full view and scroll to the middle to read about this 1901 New York Steinway Model B.]

Improvisation workshop

Miss Lee Pui Ming is an exceptional improvisation pianist who began her classical music training from the age of 3. Her approach to improvisation is very unique. After giving an improvisation workshop in Kahului, she will give a solo concert in Makena the next evening.

The workshop was in full swing when I arrived — 5 minutes late. The pianist, Lee Pui Ming, looked up and acknowledged me. She said that they were just going around introducing each other. She’d let me catch my breath and get to me last. I didn’t have to feel guilty. I already felt like I was part of the workshop.

Only glass doors and an entire glass wall separated the inside of the Maui Music Conservatory from the rest of the mall. It was a Friday night. Teenagers were out and about. Where else do you hang out on Maui, as a pre-drinking aged teenager? At night?

Yet inside the spacious reception of the conservatory where 4 grand pianos stood in a fan shape, lids wide open, ivories fully exposed, waiting to be consumed, was a different kind of space. No teenagers sat here — only individuals my age and older. The Friday night here was filled with purpose.

Every person there was interested in improvisation.

“Can you practice improvisation?”

“Do you know what you will play before you play it?”

“Can you repeat yourself if you like it?”

“Is there any structure to it? Where does your inspiration come from?”

At some point, I wished the questions would stop. I wanted badly to hear the pianist play.

Nearly 45 minutes into the workshop, after several hints, someone finally asked her to play. She stood up and said, “I feel like a teenager again.” She gestured, “My mother is telling me: go, go play for these people.” In other words, she was not ready to perform for us.

Instead, she asked three volunteers to sit at the pianos. She asked one to start, and the second to join in whenever he felt like it. When the first one takes a break, the third pianist should then enter. It was like a relay duo.

Robert Pollock, the founder of Ebb & Flow Arts, the nonprofit organization which introduces such variety of interesting contemporary and avant garde music to Hawaii, began his improv on the black grand piano. Although the trio had never played together before, they sounded like they knew just what to do. The transitions to different genres were organic and unpretentious. They listened to each other. Each got to lead with their forte. I could almost sense what they were feeling and thinking as they improvised. I felt no anticipation or worry about how long they would play or get out of sync. Amazingly they ended their performance at the same time.

We discussed the improvisation performance. I had forgotten that it was possible to enjoy watching others improvise together.

Years ago, I was invited to an improvisation concert in River Oaks in Houston. I had brought half-the audience. When it was my turn to improvise, I played just the white keys on the Steinway Grand. I didn’t know what to think or say about improvisation then. But tonight, there was much observation and articulation.

It was nearly 9 pm. Lee Pui Ming wanted to stop, but we didn’t. Upon urging of the conservatory’s owner, Ruth Murata, I went to a piano. Lee Pui Ming started tapping an ostinato on the wood of the piano. I barely sat down before I copied her on the piano bench. Then I moved to the keys. She was behind me, so I could only hear her. Another person joined me on the other piano. I crescendo’d and added more fingers, then the palms of my hands, my fists, my elbows. I did clusters all over the keys to a fortissimo. I could sense the audience’s reaction behind me. I was pounding on the piano, like the young boy whom I taught in Utrecht. He had pounded on my piano to vent his frustrations. So did I. The piano suffered. The pianist next to me changed his tune. He wanted to move into a soft, melodic soundscape. I resisted joining him until another pianist went to the 4th piano. I was overpowered. And the world ended in a whisper.

Tomorrow evening, Lee Pui Ming gives a solo performance in a stone church at the very southern beach of Maui. It’s a church I’ve seen from the waters. She wanted to hear the ocean as she plays, so she said.

I want to walk the beach, watch the Summer Solstice sunset, and listen to her improvisations.