The sound of the clarinet. I heard it in the Beatles song “When I’m 64” when I was a kid and really was fascinated. Maybe more formative: I have this memory of seeing a performance of Sibelius’s Swan of Tuonela by the Savannah Symphony Orchestra when I was like 13. It’s hard to recollect precisely, I only know that the experience was powerful and new and elusive. Something about the way the string chords made my body feel, like I was enveloped in sound. It was some sort of complete experience, a bodily one, a temporal one, an emotional one, a generally overwhelming one. This may sound exaggerated or self-involved, but it was like being born; or at least the memory of the experience makes me want to use language like that. It lives in my memory as a kind of traumatic thing happening to my personhood. And it made me drawn to musical experiences like that (which a bit ironic, since I tend to be risk-averse; but maybe doing music is my way of sublimating that impulse). Along those lines, I recall in college reading the ancient Greek text “On the Sublime” by Longinus and relating to it strongly. The aesthetic category of the sublime remains an area of great interest for me today.
More specifically, what got you interested in conducting? And even more specifically, what do you love about conducting new music?
Thanks for asking this question; it’s something I’ve thought a lot about. My initial impulse to be a conductor was probably ego-driven, as I imagine many people’s choices about their instruments/fields are. Though it’s hard to reconstruct accurately, I bet that I fantasized that conducting, would, you know, make me feel good. Is that right? Like, it seemed like the conductor was the one having the most fun, and that’s the person I wanted to be.
As my life has gone on, my attitude towards the role of the conductor has evolved considerably, and no doubt will continue to do so. And this lives in a symbiotic relationship with my interest in conducting new music. While conductors are in many cases necessary and sometimes even helpful, I’ve also seen conductors often get in the way or become (much, occasionally) more trouble than they’re worth. While this can happen in obvious ways—we all know the trope of the tyrannical, high-maintenance, diva-type conductor, one who exercises power simply for the sake of exercising it—it can happen subtly as well. Conductors can both aide musicians, but also impinge on their autonomy in long-term and detrimental ways. I think this really works on all levels: from how one thinks about programming to how one runs rehearsals to the actual conducting technique itself. Conductors that are hard to play for—and I think all instrumentalists and singers know what I mean by that—really do impose upon a performer’s personal musicianship in a way that is harmful, even if the affects are only perceptible over time.
I think there’s a reason I felt a strong connection with the composer mathias spahlinger when I met him. He has a work from the 1993 called vorschläge/konzepte zur ver(über)flüssigung der funktion des komponisten (hard to translate without sounding fancy, but I’ll do my best: propositions/concepts on the liquidation/redundancy of the function of the composer). I get the sense that for both him and I, the goal is our own elimination. The utopian goal of the composer is to make it so everyone composes music for themselves (Attali has written about this as well, and I sort-of review a performance along those lines, that you can read about here); similarly, for a conductor it should be for people not to need conductors. I don’t think this has a Cage-ian flavor as such, but a more straightforwardly politically emancipatory one. Though I don’t want to make my claims too grandiose; what I do is limited in scope and in any case I don’t expect a utopia to arrive, as such. (And I’m not even sure I have a clear idea of what I mean by utopia.) But if we can slowly and asymptotically approach it, well, I can be part of that. I admit that that seems far-fetched in 2017’s political climate.
So so so very important to me is how I relate to the musicians I conduct. If it’s not an actually collaborative atmosphere, I just don’t want to do it. With the Dal Niente musicians it’s easy—they give me plenty of pushback when they don’t like stuff I do, and they are very independent and autonomous musicians. With orchestras, though, sometimes, it can be a challenge. Some (certainly not all) musicians really are habituated to simply just doing whatever a conductor says, and it can cause discomfort when they are asked to have an opinion. Well, really it’s a continuum—some musicians want to be super independent, and some just want to be blue collar workers, and there’s everything in between. But I strive to do what I can to be some part of helping them be able to self-realize better; in some cases it’s a lot, in some cases it’s not much. But it’s a process, and it’s important that it continues, and that I’m conscious of it all the time, and that I’m conscious of my own limitations. I’m sure I fuck up a lot.
Do you do much performing, or is your work primarily rooted in conducting?
Well, if were to self-identify in a capitalist-division-of-labor type way, I would say I’m a conductor first, a teacher second, and a writer third. But I’d immediately problematize this statement, and say that really teaching is part of my artistic work. While I do strive to make sure that my students are appropriately trained to be professionals—that they can get orchestra jobs if they want to work at that, say—it’s much more important to me for them be artists and people who can work on their own self-fulfillment. I’d rather them be happy, or approach happiness, than have a so-called “good job” that they actually hate. Sometimes this means being super real with them about their chances of success in fields where things are tough; sometimes it means encouraging them to take risks I know they want to take; sometimes it means introducing them to repertoire, or coaching their chamber music group; sometimes it means putting them in an uncomfortable position with music they don’t like. Honestly, I find teaching to be much harder than conducting, and it’s a minefield of artistic and ethical and financial quandaries; I’m not a natural at it, so spend a lot of time second-guessing myself. I tend to hope this second-guess-y nature is a net positive for me.
Do you assist with the concert organizing and repertoire selection for Dal Niente?
Yes, but I should hastily add that I am not the artistic director of Dal Niente, and that it doesn’t have an artistic director, and that it will never have an artistic director. ...something about power and corruption and absolute power and absolute corruption… The programming process for us is complex and messy and takes a long time. There is a sort of programming committee, but the players have plenty to say if they want to do so. I definitely have an agenda of my own, one that I try not to hide: I’m interested in—depending on how you look at it and how you define words—canon expansion or canon destruction. By which I mean not that we (I’ll leave “we” intentionally undefined) shouldn’t play old (or even last-50-years or contemporary-but-conservative) music by dead white guys, but that we must make sure to have complex and nuanced understanding of why we do so and why it is/was influential; while at the same making sure to understand that such music is highly historically contingent and doesn’t necessarily have to be played; while at the time trying to make so that music we play is representative; while at the same time not reducing programming to a question of identity politics. Basically: what was or is or could be or will be music is huge; and it’s getting huger, and I’m interested in feeling as much of that hugeningness as possible.
What is one of your most memorable moments as a conductor?
The bit in Haas’s in vain where I don’t conduct, lolz. The bit where I’m just standing on stage in the dark while everyone else plays. It’s electrifying, terrifying; sublime, to use the word I did earlier.
(sidebar from Jon: Dal Niente’s February 28, 2013 performance of Haas’ in vain is one of my most cherished live performances to date. I couldn’t be there in person [unfortunately], but watched a live stream and to this day rewatch the video here)
You've also done some writing on various topics of new music. What drives you to write and what are some of your primary topics of interest?
I think there are many people who are doing terrific (non-academic, say) writing on music these days and in the very recent past; the following come to mind in no particular order: Doyle Armbrust, Ellen McSweeney, Deidre Huckabay (who, full disclosure, is my partner), Steve Smith, Ray Evanoff, Marek Poliks, Ian Power. Cacophony Magazine, an heroic Chicago DIY effort (started by Bethany Younge and Lia Kohl, currently run by Jill DeGroot and Kelley Sheehan), is trying very hard to cultivate a sort of thoughtful online discourse in this city. (I intentionally don’t mention a bunch of brilliant young scholars working on new music, which is a different and v exciting topic.) I note that almost of my favorite non-academic writers on music, though, are not journalists in mainstream media publications. I don’t think I’m saying anything too controversial by asserting that discourse one reads in such publications (newspapers, say) about classical and new music has been frustrating in recent years. (...hastening to add notable exceptions who do terrific work, and who may be responding to this very problem: Will Robin (with his various hats), Anne Midgette, Mark Swed, Zachary Woolfe among others.) Perhaps we’re at a crossroads. We might genuinely question the relevance and purpose of the concert review as we’ve inherited it. While there are some good exemplars, there are many more that are problematic: sometimes boring or unhelpful, occasionally actually detrimental. For standard rep concerts, reviews might be, say, vague speculations about what a conductor might have thought, mixed with congratulatory or cutting remarks about a performer; for new music shows, reviews are often one paragraph about each piece, with some descriptive language and then an evaluation (either that the reviewer liked it or didn’t like it). I've read many reviews during which I've asked myself why it was written, and what it contributes to the discourse, and I end up thinking that it's actually just an unconscious expressions of neoliberal ideology—where there's a tacit commodification of a musical experience, a turning the concert into an athletic event. Such writings reify the music and the performers, and really strip away something meaningful about their listening experience and their humanity. The performers often feel misunderstood or patronized. And what does someone reading a review after the fact really get out of it besides gossip?
I’m intentionally speaking in generalities by using language I have above, “many reviews,” “reviews are often,” that sort of thing, because I’m not trying to call people out. I can only assume that everyone’s doing the best with what they have and I don’t mean to be insulting. It’s more that I wish music journalists who write like this, and who have jobs at newspapers and such, would self-reflect honestly. Written, non-academic mainstream media discourse about music is a hugely problematic aspect of our culture; and I’d speculate that some sense of this problem drives the people I mentioned above to do the excellent work they do.
Put yet more positively: there are so many musicians and composers and writers in this rapidly changing field who are doing actually genuinely mega-exciting work. So how do we understand and interpret this work, and how do we construe its meaning, what does it do in our lives? It seems to me that the role of the critic in these questions is central to this ecosystem. While it’s deeply frustrating to see a poverty of discourse in some places (especially publications with money and reputation and readership), it’s life-affirming to see to see it develop richly in others.
Since actually you asked about me, and I didn’t answer your questions, I’d say this: I wrote mostly because I enjoy writing and I have stuff to say. I’m a bit uncertain and insecure about my writing, but I think Deidre actually described my attitude accurately: that I seem to view it as an act of good citizenship. I think this is right. I feel a duty to communicate in every way I know how, and I’m ok being wrong about stuff.
This is a huge topic with no easy answer, but what direction do you see contemporary music going in the 21st century? Or is it proceeding in any clear direction?
I feel like reading the last chapter of Attali’s Noise, the one about composition, is a good place to start.
It’s pretty hard to hazard a guess what going to happen, but I will say this: I have been really heartened by the sometimes angry sometimes perplexed but very energetic reaction of musicians to the terrible, terrible political situation in this country. I find myself almost saying something like: I hope this leads to a more engaged, political sort of art. But I don’t think that’s quite accurate; rather, art is instantiated politics; it is always already political. Maybe what I feel is new music waking up to that realization. It would irresponsible to make a self-important or aggrandizing claim about new music—that it can advance a concrete political cause effectively—but I do want think that how we conduct ourselves, how we interpret the music we make, and how we interact with our audiences, really does have transformative potential in some areas. Culture is a big thing; music is a part of it, and let’s not pretend that it’s above or removed.
Do you have any exciting upcoming events or projects?
YES, YES I DO YES VERY EXCITED OMG!!!! We’re releasing the record we are finishing of George Lewis’s pieces at the Art Institute of Chicago in a multi-day event in September. In October, we’re doing two new monodramas by Eliza Brown and Katie Young as part of our Staged series. I think these are two of the most exciting composers working today, and I think these pieces will do things that will feel strong and real. More immediately, I’m looking forward to being resident conductor of the soundSCAPE festival in Italy this June and July.
Longer term, I’m lucky enough to have just been granted tenure at DePaul. I’m still trying to process what exactly that means, and how I might best use the security of such a position for the best artistic and education ends. I have programming ideas, of course, but I bet I can do better.
And for the always-necessary top 5 list: what are the top 5 pieces/albums/scores that have been your biggest influences over the years?
1) Beethoven’s Eroica symphony: in a sense, I use this as a yardstick for myself; I’ve known this piece for a long time, and it’s never lost its power over me, though my reading of it has changed a lot.
2) Mahler’s 9th symphony.
3) Some Shostakovich pieces, say the 4th and 5th symphonies, but maybe not for the reasons you might think. It’s a very personal association: it’s from when I was 16-17 years old, studying with Prof. Musin in St. Petersburg, and remembering how Musin conducted that music; he was just so good at embodying it, like really “em-bodying” it, having it in his body.
4) Ligeti’s Lontano was a piece that I encountered early in my life on Chicago Symphony radio broadcast, and maybe was actually my introduction to doing such a thing with an orchestra; and it’s a piece I’ve returned to frequently over the years.
5) Hard to identify just one work, but George’s Lewis’s music and thought—particularly how broadly he construes the practice of improvisation—has been tremendously important to me recently. If you don’t mind the shameless plug: do pick up Dal Niente’s our George Lewis record when it comes out. This is a way of doing music that everyone should encounter.
I find myself noticing that all this music ^^^^^^^ is by dudes, and I regret that there aren’t any ladies on my list; this reflects a complex, long-standing and thorny problem from which I do not exempt myself and in which I have surely been complicit. But I also recognize how much this is changing, and I wonder what it will look like if you ask me this question in 20 years?
For more information about Michael Lewanski and his work check out the links below:
Personal website: www.michaellewanski.com/
Ensemble Dal Niente: www.dalniente.com/
The following are videos of performances by Dal Niente with Lewanski conducting