Are Musical Geniuses Intrinsically Bullies?

With terse painful poignancy, Glenn Berger details in Esquire Magazine his memory of musicians being brutally humiliated by Bob Dylan forty years ago at the New York recording sessions for Dylan’s historic album Blood On The Tracks. Dylan certainly is in plenty of good company with similar stories from the classical pantheon.

What do you think? Are music geniuses intrinsically bullies? Should their behavior get a free pass because they are great artists?

Morton Feldman’s 4.5 hour "For Philip Guston"

If you have an extra four and a half hours—and who doesn’t?—you might want to listen to Morton Feldman’s For Philip Guston, scored for three musicians performing piccolo, flute, bass flute, piano, celesta, glockenspiel, vibraphone, marimba, and chimes. 

Hear Morton Feldman's For Philip Guston
I don’t know critic Alex Ross, but I thank him for this link. He tweeted it as “Some Thoughts About Taylor Swift.” Gotta love that …

The Missing Quality Found—Garrick Ohlsson’s Chopin Waltz in C# minor

Garrick Ohlsson’s Chopin Waltz in C# minor

What is this missing quality in most concert artists today that seemed in abundance from the 20th century “legends” I heard as a kid—Horowitz, Rubinstein, Segovia, and many others? It can’t be technique or musicianship. Our top artists today have undeniable command of both. But maybe it’s the sense of revelation I used to feel with those earlier artists, the secrets they revealed in each piece, the joy we the audience felt at their concerts combined with deep thought about the music they interpreted that lasted long after the concert. 


There are a handful of present-day artists that do the same. A few weeks ago I had that memory rekindled with pianist Garrick Ohlsson at the Aspen Music Festival. He was playing a work I never felt I needed to hear again, the Chopin Waltz in C# minor.  Ohlsson rekindled the feeling of first love, hearing this music in all its beauty for the very first time…

Ray Kurzweil and Exponential Growth

Ray Kurzweil has spoken for decades about the phenomenon of exponential growth and why he thinks it’s important for us to understand its implications for the future of humanity. We are hard wired to think linearly. This is our intuition about prediction.But information technology follows an exponential pace. Our assumption of linear progression won’t work. And we do live in the Information Age, so we require a different intuition to make meaningful predictions and sense of the world. My gut feeling is that serious music also follows this exponential pattern. Composition, performance practicing, and even listening follow non-linear paths of development. The question then, is if we are hard wired for linear progression, how can we learn intuitions for exponential pattern prediction?

No Vocabulary For Music Today?

No Vocabulary For Music Today?

Three days of new music concerts, two dozen works—that was the Hear Now Festival of Los Angeles Composers May 2-4 2014. It was scrunched between the LA Philharmonic’s Minimalist Festival, a major Philip Glass concert at UCLA, and dozens of new music concerts at professional halls, schools, and universities. A leading music critic attending Hear Now described it as “not minimal music.” Well, yes, that happened to be true. There were no panda bears on stage, either. 

Does Classical Music Need Hooks?

Does Classical Music Need Hooks?

I’m convinced every article I read these days originates from the satirical paper The Onion.  This week’s national headlines were abuzz with the Colorado Symphony’s plans for a “Classically Cannabis” concert series.

Music and the End of Time

TEDx Talk given at Milken High School

Russell Steinberg


I think of art, at its most significant, as a Distant Early Warning system that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it.
Marshall McLuhan

In our electric age, as we humans “race” in transition to become full cyborgs, the new paradigms emerging in music point the way to what we will both gain and lose as we continue to question what makes us essentially human.

Secrets Inside the Brahms Op. 60 Piano Quartet

The great C minor Piano Quartet, op. 60 shows the art of a lion tamer and is easily one of Brahms’ finest achievements. He began the piece while living with Clara Schumann and helping run the Schumann household while Robert was in the mental asylum. Brahms was candid that the brooding quality of the piece was a direct reference to Werther, Goethe’s Romantic hero of unrequited love who eventually commits suicide.  To his publisher he wrote, “On the cover you must have a picture, namely a head with a pistol to it. Now you can form some conception of the music! I’ll send you my photograph for the purpose. Since you seem to like color printing, you can use blue coat, yellow breeches, and top-boots.” That was the exact description of Werther and 20 years later Brahms was able to joke about his hyper-passionate feelings.

Mozart's Marriage of Figaro

Lorenzo Da Ponte’s genius was that while he removed the social taboos and political messages of the Beaumarchais play that offended the royalty, he still pushed right to the edge of morality in nearly every scene of the opera. We sense a tension that the familiarity of the bedroom farce can go off the cliff at any moment into tragedy or irreparable offense. The Countess, Susanna, and Cherubino continually careen near the point of no return in sexual impropriety. But unlike Beaumarchais’ play, Da Ponte never lets them go over. Instead they flirt, they ignite jealousy, they come under suspicion only to be forgiven, only to do something that brings them under suspicion yet again. The battle of the sexes and the battle of the classes play out in the alliances, schemes, and continual regrouping of all the characters. This is comedy that illuminates the essence of human relationships.

The Most Important Musical Invention

Teaching music, you sometimes confront great mysteries. Once a student innocently asked me to explain the difference between major and minor. Two hours later, still enthusiastically into the explanation, I realized it was hopeless. Once beyond the typical and inadequate definitions of major and minor we all learn, this turns out to be a really deep question, and I realized I myself didn’t have a clue. That’s one kind of discovery. Another is when in the process of explaining a tool or procedure you’ve used your whole life, you suddenly realize first how much you’ve taken it for granted, and second, how much everything you assume and care about relies on this hitherto ignored tool or procedure.

What It Feels Like To Play In Carnegie Hall

If you ever wondered what it feels like to perform at Carnegie Hall…

Arnold Schoenberg Breaking Tonality

Impelled by his deep historic perspective and belief in the Hegelian dialectic, Schoenberg  conceived the “next big step” in musical progress. He came to feel that the entire tonal system since 1600 had exhausted its possibilities, and that for music to survive, another system needed to take its place. The three periods of his music differ dramatically:

The Tempo Of Media Evolution: Steve Jobs and Apple Pt. 2

The Tempo of Media response to the many comments from my essay on Steve Jobs and Apple

Complexity Underlying Mozart's Tunes

The beauty and complexity of Mozart’s final concerto is not in drama and surprise, but rather in grammar. My teacher Leon Kirchner was fond of saying that Mozart was the most intellectual composer and indeed this is a piece that bears out that impression, both for its complex phrase structure and its complex form.

Steve Jobs and Apple: Muse and Destroyer for the Creative Artist

This is the opening of an essay I wrote to discuss the powerful ways Steve Jobs and Apple products have fundamentally changed the way creative artists work, for the better and the worse! 

RSS feed