Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Honoring a composer's intentions when he's not dead yet: Indie band San Fermin as musical albatross

So I saw the indie rock band, San Fermin, last night in Ann Arbor.
Their concert was one of the first live indie rock concerts I've attended in a looooong time. In fact, it had been so long since I'd gone to hear an indie band play that two thoughts entered my mind as I stepped into the venue last night to hear San Fermin perform:
1. Would attending this concert garner me some pretty intense street cred among hipsters?
2.  Am I, in the words of Lethal Weapon character Roger Murtaugh (forever immortalized by Danny Glover), officially too old for this shit?

Time will tell on point number one. I'm pretty sure my 19-year-old brother thinks I lack all street cred of any kind. I'm probably irredeemable. A hopeless case. It's time to place my lifeless corpse on a pyre, push it out into the floating waters, and set it on fire. 

But I didn't *feel* too old at the concert. Living isn't just for the young, after all! I can actually leave my house on a weekday evening and do something other than watch Netflix. AMAZING REVELATION.

But the most fascinating part about attending the concert was realizing that all of the critical questions that I think about when I write about classical music - questions that excellent musicologists have trained me to ask, questions that strike right at the heart of contemporary debates about authenticity and performance - were firing off in my brain when I heard this octet perform.

A little background on San Fermin before I go any further:
A motley octet of musicians (trumpet, strings, saxophone, guitars, keyboard percussion) that started performing together in 2013, San Fermin sounds like a mix of Sufjan Stevens, the National (seriously: the male vocalists sound indistinguishable from one another sometimes. It's kinda crazy), and Grizzly Bear. One of their most popular songs is "Sonsick:"
But my favorite by far is "Parasites" (listen with headphones on! You need to get into that bass line!):
They're an indie rock band, yes. But I think that the reason I started questioning what I was hearing so much stemmed from the publicity surrounding the band. People describe San Fermin as a classical music/indie rock hybrid. The term "baroque pop band" gets tossed around pretty fast and loose in descriptions of them and their music. Moreover, much of the band's "classical music" cred centers on the main person who writes their music, Brooklynite Ellis Ludwig-Leone:
Composer Ellis Ludwig-Leone

A graduate from Yale's School of Music where he majored in composition, Ludwig-Leone is the brainchild of San Fermin, and earns praise as the band's "composer."

It's that "composer" label here that I want to start picking at. It's what led me to listen more critically to what I was hearing last night. Why do people use it in their descriptions of him? Why don't we apply the term to all songwriters? Because what's the difference, really, between Ludwig-Leone and other famous songwriters of rock/pop/r&b/rap music (John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Missy Elliott, Timbaland, Kanye - yes, even him)?  

Obviously, his classical music training or, rather, his sense of belonging to the classical music world empowers Ludwig-Leone and others to call him a "composer" rather than simply a "songwriter." Indeed, part of his big revelation that he could be a "composer" in an indie rock world came during college, when he decided to try writing music for rock instruments: "It was like a big step forward when I realized that those two things [rock music and classical music] could be in same room together," he said in an interview with the Washington Post. Inspired in part by the grand, orchestral scale of Sufjan Stevens's album, Illinois, Ludwig-Leone uses a mix of instruments (violin, mandolin, saxophone, trumpet, guitar, and so on) to create indie rock, like many other musicians (Andrew Bird comes to mind).

But unlike Andrew Bird or Sufjan Stevens, Ludwig-Leone doesn't sing on his records. He is entirely dependent on his octet (of which he is the keyboardist) to perform his music. In fact, if one were to listen to the album without knowing about Ludwig-Leone, one might assume that the two singers in it - Allen Tate and now Charlene Key - were the original generators of the music. Because that's how a lot of rock and pop music has functioned, hasn't it? The singer is usually the main songwriter!

Which leads me back to thinking about the role of the composer in contemporary indie rock music. What role does the composer here serve? What challenges or problems arise in the relationship between the composer and the performer in a contemporary indie rock band? Who should get credit for these live performances?

Musicologists offer much insight here. Through their research on the history of performance practice in classical music, we've come to learn that by the early 20th century, performers and listeners were invested in performing a piece of music "as the composer intended." The sense that one should try to divine the composer's intentions has greatly shaped the history of classical music performance in the 20th century, too. There was (and remains for many) a real sense that one could perform a Bach invention or a Mozart symphony authentically through close musical analysis and historical investigation. One could, in other words, reconstruct a musical event or recreate the musical object. 

And here's the kicker: we've tended to see the performer's role in the recreation of a musical work as a servant to the music, an obedient musical worshipper whose sole job is to dogmatically pursue the composer's orthodoxy and implement the composer's musical design. The performer daren't think about wavering from the piece of music, about steering off course, about creatively altering the piece in any way. To alter Beethoven's music would simply be heresy!

But (and many of you see this coming)! Musicologists have taught us to push back against this. In the 1980s and 90s, Richard Taruskin and others came to criticize the Early Music movement, for example, for their attempts to create an authentic early modern musical performance. The more that Early Music folks tried to painstakingly recreate a musical work, the more they revealed their own ideologies and subjectivities in our contemporary world. What are we doing here in trying to honor a composer's wishes, Taruskin and others started to ask. What does it say about us and how we understand classical music today? To many people, these musical orthodoxies were proof that a strict canon of music had been set in place, and that the concert hall had become what Lydia Goehr calls "an imaginary museum of musical works." We go to the concert to admire these sacred musical works but not really to experience them, to be moved by them.

But to take things further - and to get back to thinking about San Fermin - some musicologists began arguing something even more controversial in the 90s: there is no such thing as a musical work. Not really. The only thing that exists at all is the performer! It is the performer entirely who determines what a musical moment will sound like. So why do we spend so much time obsessing over the composer when really all of the power lies in the performer's hands?

Freeing yourself from the composer's intentions is all well and good when the composer's dead. Do whatever you want. You want to make a Mozart sonata slightly more atonal? Go for it. Do your thang, girlfriend.

But what if the composer is alive? And is your friend? And you're in a band together?
Allen Tate, the lead male singer of San Fermin and BFF of composer Ellis Ludwig-Leone

At last night's concert, I found myself becoming increasingly uncomfortable/fascinated by two things:
1. For the first 45 minutes of the show, the composer never revealed himself. He never said that he was Ellis Ludwig-Leone, the composer of all of this music that the band was performing. If he hadn't said anything, one would have (rightly) assumed that the two singers were the leaders of the group.
2. After Ludwig-Leone did out himself as the composer, all of the performers praised him repeatedly as the sole creator of this music. They called him "the creator of all of this music," as if they had no say in it.

But that's not true, is it? The performers are the creators, too. Through moments of musical improvisation and good old-fashioned jamming, they made the music sound like it did and brought it to life. I doubt, for example, that Ludwig-Leone told singer Charlene Kaye to perform that specific vocal melisma at that specific time in one of the songs. I wonder who first suggested that saxophonist Stephen Chen create that basso ostinato in one of their closing numbers: Ludwig-Leone, who as far as I know doesn't play the saxophone (or not nearly as well as Chen), or Chen, who might have been fiddling around on the instrument during a jam session and came up with a cool musical pattern? Who is the originator here? And even if Ludwig-Leone had suggested that Chen play that ostinato bass line, it's Chen's act of performing it that brought it alive during the concert, and who made it fun by bouncing around on stage while performing it.

I really wish I could ask the performers at what point are they in control of their own music-making? At what point are you all pursuing Ludwig-Leone's wishes?

On the other hand, different performers have left the group over the years. The band is now on the third female lead singer:
Charlene Kaye (a University of Michigan alum! Go Blue!)

Clearly the composer's music has continued to resonate with his audience in spite of who might be singing it.

Musicologists studying Western art music have taught us for some time now that the relationship between the performer and the composer is way more complicated, messy, and blurry than we might think. Who is the agent of a musical experience?

I found myself asking the same question last night when I heard San Fermin perform, a band steeped in the world (and perhaps rules!) of classical music while also supposedly being free from many of these debates surrounding authenticity, performance practice, and musical orthodoxy as an indie rock band.

The band has embraced the composer label pretty fiercely. But how do they live with its power?

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