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I get an enormous amount of criticism from opera purists about the fact that I require light amplification. And even some of my singers have been insulted about that because I’ve made comments in the press that I don’t like large operatic voices because I think they’re a strange mutation in the species that started with Wagner. But, what I like is a singer that can be natural and not forced, and while there are a couple of opera singers who have strangely huge voices that don’t sound forced – Thomas Hampson and Bryn Terfel are two examples of this – most singers really have to go in overdrive to fill a three thousand seat hall. And I don’t like overdrive. I don’t like it Wagner, I don’t like it in Verdi, and I certainly don’t like it in my own music. So, I still view amplification technology as in its infancy. I think we are, when it comes to speakers and microphones, we’re at where the Wright brothers were in aeronautics.
In terms of getting the sound to really sound like the source…
Yeah, I’m saying if I can set the standard now and say "O.K., things are not ideal now but this is what I want" and I’m willing to suffer through an occasional bad speaker or a mike that, you know, crackles or something like that and doesn’t have full frequency response, in a hundred years this will be normal, halls will be built already with sound systems in them and people won’t have to scream. And there is this whole generation of young singers – people like Audra McDonald and Dawn Upshaw for that matter – who are totally comfortable with miking. And it’s just the opera companies who feel that, you know, that the Huns are at the door with their body mikes and their speakers. You know, I was told by someone at a major American opera company that she would never do Nixon in China as long as I insisted on amplification. It simply would not be performed in there, in her house!
Well, you know, it’s interesting because this gets into the whole "does place make the space" question, to paraphrase Sun Ra. But, you know, halls determine largely the sound of the music you hear in them, and I’ve heard amplified music in Carnegie Hall and it sounded wretched. And I’ve heard unamplified music at Iridium and it also sounded wretched. Or at the Knitting Factory, I was at a concert of this great jazz pianist, Andrew Hill, and they amplified his drummer because the sound guys there are used to amplifying drummers for rock gigs. It was a disaster!
Oh yeah. Well, look, you know, everything is based on situations. You know, I’ve done an amplified piece of mine at the Concertgebouw and, you know, it was a disaster with amplification and it would have been even more of a disaster without amplification. So, you know, no situation is ideal. But we, as composers, simply have to decide what it is that we want. For example, Steve Reich always uses amplification, and sometimes it sounds great, sometimes it sounds terrible, but that is the model.
Right. And, certainly when you use certain instruments, like in El Niño you’re using guitars in the orchestra, and people who write guitar concertos or people who play guitar concertos with an orchestra, have to be very careful how to do that in terms of how things are orchestrated around the guitar part or how the guitar is amplified or where the guitar is placed with the other musicians, otherwise it won’t work.
It’s been an instrument I’ve become very excited about in the last four or five years. There’s a large guitar part in this huge orchestra piece I wrote last year, Naïve and Sentimental Music, and there’s a guitar in my Violin Concerto, there’s guitar in Ceiling/Sky and also in a piece called Scratchband.
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