September 29, 2006

"You talk about me just as much as you please... I'll tell God about you when I get on my knees"

Friday's listening list:

As the clouds roll by: on his blog, Jacob Sudol offers a movement from one of my favorites: Morton Feldman's Rothko Chapel.

The Library of Congress has digitized a ton of field recordings from the 30's and 40's. Here's "My Lord Is Writin'" as sung by the Cochran Field Singers in 1943. An unusually sly performance for gospel.

From the recesses of UbuWeb comes Musique pour les soupers des Roi Ubu by Bernd Alois Zimmermann, one of the best collage pieces to come out of that 60's fad. Starts out funny, then gets rather disturbing, then ends up almost uncomfortably funny and disturbing. The juxtapositions in the final section are brilliant.

I stink, stink, stink at keeping in touch with people that I've known, but luckily, most of them are musicians, so I can at least pretend to keep in touch with them by visiting their websites. I went to school with baritone Stephen Powell, who was a fantastic singer and a nice guy (if I remember correctly, he also had a degree in composition, so show a little respect). I'll assume he's still a nice guy, and I know he's still a fantastic singer, because there's a page full of audio clips on his site. There's lots of tasteful and serious stuff there, but you know what you want: pop the cork on the last of the summer rosé and scroll to the bottom for "Rondine al Nido."

Paul at Aurgasm has two tracks by Bitter:Sweet ("Dirty Laundry" is my favorite). Imagine Christian Marclay as a member of Herb Alpert's band. Or Spinderella doing a Bollywood soundtrack. Or... oh, just go listen to it.

You're all reading Felsenmusick, right? And not just because Daniel Felsenfeld was nice enough to send his readers to me. Anyway, you might not know that you can listen to a few of his pieces on his other site. "A Dirty Little Secret" is particular fun.

And, just in time for the weekend, our anti-social friend Kid Seditious has a nice blast of pop for you. Follow this link and click on "Bridesmaid Revisited."

September 28, 2006

The kicker is, down there, "nude" just means you're not wearing a hat

You cannot be serious.

Hey, Mexico: next time? Do us all a favor and skip the siesta.

(Art.blogging.LA and Tyler Green are the bearers of bad news.)

On prodigies

Every art when first discovered seems to resemble a rough and shapeless mass of marble just hewn out of a quarry, which requires the united and successive endeavors of many laborers to form and polish. The zeal and activity of a single workman can do but little towards its completion; and in music the undirected efforts of an infant must be still more circumscribed; for, without the aid of reason and perseverance he can only depend on memory and a premature delicacy and acuteness of ear for his guides; and in these particulars the child of whom I am going to speak is truly wonderful.
From a little gem in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 1779: Charles Burney pays a visit to the three-year-old William Crotch. Crotch, who is mainly remembered today for 1) a couple of pieces in various choral anthem anthologies, and 2) his unfortunately inappropriate name (I always threaten my church choir that we're going to do a concert of William Crotch and John Blow), was one of the more famous musical prodigies: at 18 months, he began picking out tunes on an organ his father built (!), and within a year was enough of a phenomenon in Britain that Burney was sent to investigate.
[A]ccording to his mother, it seems to have been in consequence of his having heard the superior performance of Mrs. Lulman, a musical lady, who came to try his father's organ, and who not only played on it, but sung to her own accompanyment, that he first attempted to play a tune himself; for, the same evening, after her departure, the child cried, and was so peevish that his mother was wholly unable to appease him. At length, passing through the dining-room, he screamed and struggled violently to go to the organ, in which, when he was indulged, he eagerly beat down the keys with his little fists....
In his own time, the adult Crotch, in addition to composing, was well-known as a teacher, textbook writer, and music editor. He developed a theory of the evolution of music in which he divided the history of music into three sections: the sublime, the beautiful, and the ornamental—he regarded the sublime period as the golden age, and spent much of his life reviving, imitating, and encouraging the performance of early English church music.
His chief delight at present is playing voluntaries, which certainly would not be called music if performed by one of riper years, being deficient in harmony and measure; but they manifest such a discernment and selection of notes as is truly wonderful, and which, if spontaneous, would surprize at any age.
Nicholas Temperley, in the old New Grove, takes Crotch's mother to task for dragging him hither and yon during his childhood in order to demonstrate his talents; Temperley blames the resulting "psychological damage" for Crotch's "ultimate achievement as a composer" not living up to his early promise. I have always found this particular criticism, in general, to be largely meaningless—do any of us really live up to our initial promise? But Temperley does make the more interesting point that Crotch's output seemed to reverse the typical pattern of those composers who excel in miniatures but stumble in the larger forms. Crotch's shorter, smaller works are largely uninspired, but in his big statements—oratorios and organ concertos—he showed a real flair for drama, and a surprisingly adventurous compositional palette.
When he declares himself tired of playing on an instrument, and his musical faculties seem wholly blunted, he can be provoked to attention, even though engaged in any new amusement, by a wrong note being struck in the melody of any well-known tune; and if he stands by the instrument when such a note is designedly struck, he will instantly put down the right, in whatever key the air is playing.
Crotch was also a noted landscape painter, he wrote plays, and he dabbled in the sciences like a true English gentleman. As he grew older, he largely turned away from composition (the bulk of his later output is in the arid genre of Anglican chant), and became sharply critical of younger composers, particularly Samuel Wesley, who would succeed him as the preeminent English church musician. Crotch would come to regard as inappropriate much of the innovative vocabulary that the newer generation took from Crotch's own works.
Into what the present prodigy may mature is not easy to predict; we more frequently hear of trees in blossom during the winter months than of fruits in consequence of such unseasonable appearances.
If there is any lingering effect from his precocious beginnings to be found in Crotch's later music, I think there's a case to be made for a certain devaluation of the craft of music. Burney pointed out that the young Mozart was surrounded by the best music and musicians of the day, whereas the young Crotch was largely left to his own devices. Crotch's imagination was fired by the most dramatic and high-profile public projects, but the more everyday corpus of practical church music must have seemed to be hack-work. Apparently he lacked any formal training until the age of 10 or 11, by which time he had already toured the country and played at Buckingham Palace; it must have been difficult for anyone to instill in him a sense of discipline towards the act of creating music.
Premature powers in music have as often surprized by suddenly becoming stationary as by advancing rapidly to the summit of excellence. Sometimes, perhaps, nature is exhausted or enfeebled by these early efforts; but when that is not the case, the energy and vigour of her operations are seldom properly seconded, being either impeded or checked by early self-complacence, or an injudicious course of study; and sometimes, perhaps, genius is kept from expansion by ill-chosen models; exclusive admiration, want of counsel, or access to the most excellent compositions and performers in the class for which nature has fitted those on whom it is bestowed.

September 27, 2006

"Chopin saw a dream of a fairy-tale land populated by people with incurable diseases but also magical powers"

I had a real post for today, but I was forced to withdraw it due to threats of terrorism. Seriously, I love free speech more than Gummi Bears, but honestly, guys—beheading the Prophet onstage? It's Idomeneo, not The Mikado.

In other news: As part of winning a grant from the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, 12-year-old composer and pianist Drew Petersen is meeting with members of New Jersey's congressional delegation to "urge them to pass legislation requiring that classical music appreciation be taught in the nation's schools." More power to him—if anybody can explain a subject in terms that Congress can understand, it's a 12-year-old.

The Amazing Things Arts Center here in my hometown of Framingham is having an online auction to raise some funds. The first item in the "Fine Dining" category: a $25 gift certificate to Honey Dew Donuts. I like their style. Think I can sneak a dozen into Moses und Aron? (Thanks to This Is Framingham for the heads-up.)

New for Xbox: Chopin's death, the video game. In his delirium, "Chopin comes into contact with Polka, a young girl who resides with her mother in the village of Tenuto. Polka is near her death, and Chopin, Polka, and her young friend Allegretto... look for some way to make use of Polka's great powers to help save her." I'm hoping that all the cheat codes involve Schenkerian analysis.

September 26, 2006

"Can't he be both, like the late Earl Warren?"

A follow-up to yesterday’s crankiness.

Over at aworks, Robert, talking about Miles Davis, takes mild but justified issue with my criticism of the oft-heard pronouncement that “jazz is America’s classical music.” Let me clarify: I wasn’t trying to say one was better than the other, I just think that particular metaphor does a disservice to both. (And I wonder if jazz musicians have the same suspicions—I would imagine that at least a few of them would roll their eyes at being lumped in with the sort of classical performance that Virgil Thomson called ”silk-underwear music.”) But it’s a beaut of a coincidence that he was discussing Miles. Because Miles figures in another follow-up, to the whole “uptown-downtown” thing.

The other clichés I was trying to kill off annoy me mainly because of their shallowness, but that one is different. It annoys me because it tries to create an either/or situation where there doesn’t have to be one. I never heard “downtown” music as diametrically opposed to “uptown” music—just the opposite, in fact. I first liked Feldman—the slow pace, the way he makes the decay as important as the attack, the tight focus on short, open-ended gestures—because he sounded kind of like Webern. I first liked Carter—the virtuoso floods of notes, the floating rhythm, the unexpected juxtapositions that keep the drama of the piece in tension—because he reminded me of Zorn. And I first liked Stockhausen, because he reminded me of Miles.

Back in undergrad, one of the first Stockhausen pieces I heard was his first major work, Kreuzspiel. It’s regarded as a seminal work of pointillist serialism. Three instruments—oboe, bass clarinet, and piano—jab individual notes, widely-spaced chords, and occasional melodic fragments at each other, while three percussionists accompany with tom-toms and congas, then cymbals, then both. Listening to the first section, the short, enigmatic interjections by the winds, the sparse piano, the tom-toms a background tattoo with unexpected (serially-determined) accents… we all looked at each other (we were all pretty jazz-savvy—DePaul is a big jazz school) and said, “It’s Birth of the Cool!” Which is exactly what it sounds like. Stockhausen has claimed on more than one occasion that no one had ever heard anything like Kreuzspiel before, but of course they had (and no doubt he had, too.) But by taking away the familiar tonal harmony and the regularity of rhythm, that particular sound suddenly sounded new and shocking again. It reminded me of the excitement I felt the first time I heard Miles—not a triumphalist “this is what I’ve been looking for all my life” excitement, but an excitement that here was music that didn’t behave the way I expected it to, that showed a little more of its hand each time I listened to it, that let my experience of it change over time and place.

Hence my recoil at the uptown/downtown dichotomy. It's not even that such a manichaean view of music is telling me that I can't like both, it's that it's implying that if I do like both, that there must be something wrong with the way I listen. But one of the attributes of great music is that you can listen to it in myriad different ways and still feed your soul. No part of town has a monopoly on that.

September 25, 2006

Eight sentences about classical music I'd be happy never to read again

"Nobody actually enjoys listening to atonal music—they just want other people to think they’re a pretentious intellectual." For the record, I enjoyed listening to atonal music well before I was a pretentious intellectual. Seriously, stop telling me that I don’t like what I do like, OK? Because otherwise, I’m going to have to bring up that whole Proust thing. And I know you never got through Swann’s Way.

"Jazz is America’s classical music." The music of Adams, Babbitt, Bernstein, Billings, Brant, Cage, Carpenter, Carter, Copland, Corigliano, Crumb, Diamond, Eaton, Feldman, Fine, Flynn, Foss, Glass, Harbison, Heinrich, Imbrie, Ives, Johnston, Kirchner, Larsen, Macdowell, Moran, Nancarrow, Oliveros, Parker, Partch, Reich, Riegger, Riley, Rouse (both of ‘em), Ruggles, Seeger, Shapey, Tower, Williams, and (god help me) LaMonte Young (just to name a few) is America’s classical music. Jazz is jazz. Why is this so hard?

"Mozart and Beethoven were the popular music of their time." Mozart and Beethoven may have been more popular than, say, Hartke and Wuorinen are today, but that hardly makes them 200-year-old equivalents of Justin Timberlake. Both relied heavily on royal patronage and a state-supported musical infrastructure. Both wrote the majority of their works for an aristocratic audience. (Want to breathe new life into this meme? Try working in John Gay.)

"The atmosphere at classical concerts is intimidating." Too formal? Sure. Snobbish? On occasion. But if you find a bunch of well-dressed old people to be intimidating, a suggestion: maybe Mahler 6 isn’t the best entertainment choice for you in the first place.

"Orchestras need to do away with tuxedos because they’re stuffy and outdated." Yeah, that James Bond—what a prudish old geezer. Besides, if all enterprises rose and fell on the aesthetic quality of their uniforms, Major League Baseball would have bit the dust years ago.

"Blah blah blah uptown composers blah blah blah downtown composers." Look, I’m sure this particular dialectic felt terribly, vitally important at a certain place and time. But to all of us living in the vague and undifferentiated string of comical hick towns that New Yorkers regard the rest of the world to be, this is pretty much like listening to your grandparents debate the relative merits of Ovaltine and Postum. Think of how much wonderful music would result if all that wasted energy was applied to something constructive, like making fun of emo.

"In celebration of the [large number]th anniversary of the birth of [dead composer]." Why is it that all those people who reject formalist composition as too intellectual and schematic are perfectly happy to flood the world with concerts/broadcasts/recordings of old-timers for no other reason than a numerological coincidence? Just asking. (Today, for instance, is Shostakovich’s 100th birthday. Strike a blow for reason and listen to him tomorrow.)

"Composers today only write music for other composers." Only if they’re buying.

September 22, 2006

Shana tova, cats

I told Charlie Parker about the Rabbi of Ladi. I explained that during Napoleon's siege of Moscow there was a relentless debate among the Jews on whether Napoleon's victory would be good or bad for the Jews. Rabbi Israel of Konitz wanted Napoleon to win while the Rabbi of Ladi did not. It was decided that they both should go to the synagogue at the same time and whichever one of them was first to blow the shofar would win. The Rabbi of Konitz arrived together with the Rabbi of Ladi but was the first to start blowing the shofar and then the Rabbi of Ladi snatched the notes from the Rabbi of Konitz's shofar and so, from a distance of nine hundred kilometers determined Napoleon's fate at Moscow. Bird said that any jazz musician who doesn't make a lady out of jazz like that Dave Brubeck knows how to snatch notes from a shofar. Outside everybody was playing the numbers and losing pots of money to the black professionals all dressed up to the nines in their colored suits and magnificent neckties. Bird liked to see Jimmy Slide beating Napoleon at Moscow with his tap dancing.

Yoram Kaniuk

More (including Billie Holiday singing Mayn Yiddishe Mame) here.

September 21, 2006

Been there, done that

The music I write hasn't had a lot of repetition in it—I mean taking a section of music and repeating it note-for-note. I got hooked on the whole developing-variation thing fairly early on, and for whatever reason (need for control, excessive affection for ornamentation, short attention span, take your pick), it's served my aesthetic needs rather well. Except for the small wing of my compositional library devoted to ragtime, I don't think I've ever had the occasion to notate an actual repeat sign (and even the last batch of rags were pretty through-composed). There's also the fact that repeating a section sometimes feels almost too easy (especially these days, where it's merely a matter of doing an electronic cut-and-paste), as if I'm just filling up time, or I've run out of ideas.

The piece I'm working on now, though, has a fair amount of exact repetition, for a variety of reasons. The people I'm writing it for also play in a rock band, so I've been consciously and subconsciously using elements of pop music forms. Also, some of the passages are pretty tricky from a technical standpoint, so (although it's never stopped me before) it seems a little churlish to make them do all that work for a fleeting few bars that never come back. But mostly, it's because, all musical evidence to the contrary, I persist in imagining the piece as an analogue to the sort of multi-movement suites and cycles that Schumann wrote. And Schumann is a master of repetition.

Schumann's repeats can break your heart: the end of Frauenliebe und -leben—after the singer finishes sadly admonishing her husband for dying and leaving her, the piano repeats the opening song of the cycle, where they first meet—is one of the three or four most emotionally devastating moments in all of music. (All the more amazing considering that the emotions embodied in the poetry have dated badly; the distance and loss Schumann conjures up with that simple gesture are, I'm convinced, the main reason the cycle stays in the repertoire.) In the Davidsbündlertänze for piano, the second movement magically reappears in the eighth movement, an unexpected repeat that sets up the enigmatic finale. On the other end, there's the opening movement of Faschingsschwank aus Wien, where the lyricism is always being interrupted by a boisterous beer-hall ritornello: Florestan suddenly showing up to shake Eusebius out of his reverie and drag him back to the party.

But it's the other kind of repetition, the immediate repetition of the phrase, the melody, we've just heard, that Schumann makes his own. Flip through the various pieces that make up the piano cycle Carnaval and you're struck by the sheer variety of where and when repeats turn up. Sometimes it's the opening section ("Promenade"); sometimes the closing section ("Chiarina"). Sometimes a tightly repetitive exposition will give way to a free-wheeling new structure ("Préambule"). Sometimes it's almost as if the music can't let go of the melody ("Aveu"). And sometimes it's as if, by chance, we stumble upon a sudden discovery that freezes us in our tracks ("Florestan"). Schumann, more than any other composer, realized that repetition is it's own form of expressiveness, that, in practice, there's no such thing as an exact repetition, even if the notes are identical. The fact that we've already heard the material means that we'll hear the repeat differently, whether it's finding more meaning in the music, or feeling the meaning of the music slip away into insensibility, the way a word becomes meaningless if you say it over and over. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously declared that we never set foot in the same river twice—but he also used to argue from that proposition to the paradoxical idea that, at the same time, everything exists and nothing exists. I don't know about you, but to me, that combination of the fullness of life and the nihilism of the abyss seems awfully Schumannesque.

This past month I found a marvelous use of repetition in music by György Kurtág, who is the closest thing to a modern Schumann that I can think of. (All my MIT keyboard harmony students started with Kurtág pieces this year; sometimes it takes extraordinary measures to get myself psyched up for the semester.) "Hommage à Schubert," from the ongoing piano collection Játékok (Games), is a short piece in two parts. The first part starts:

Kurtag Hommage part a
The second part starts:

Kurtag Hommage part b
The notes are exactly the same. But what in the first part is an out-of-tune hymn, becomes, in the second part, a delicately awkward negotiation between the hands. With an economy of means, he shifts the focus from the disembodied nature of the sound to the physical effort of its production. Not bad for a cut-and-paste. Robert would be proud—although he'd probably repeat it a few more times, just for good measure.

September 20, 2006

"A job in Heaven's textile plant"

Joe Glazer, R.I.P.

Scroll to the bottom of this page to see and hear the man in action at the Kennedy Center in 2002.

Oscar Wilde, blogger

I feel now as if the extreme reticence of wearing a body was almost indecent. It is far more decent to go about blaring one's loves and hates, blowing them in the faces of those we meet—as it were, being so much on the outside that we cannot be said to have an inside.

Oscar Wilde, communicating through Hester
Travers Smith via ouija board, June 20th, 1923
(as recorded by Mrs. Travers Smith in
Oscar Wilde From Purgatory, 1924)

September 19, 2006

The Constitutional Monarch of Swing

News out of Thailand today: an attempted coup by the military. Taking advantage of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's trip to New York for the opening of the UN General Assembly, military units, under the command of Army Chief Sondhi Boonyaratkalin (and apparently acting with the approval of the king), have taken control of Bangkok.
On a television station controlled by the military, a general in civilian clothes said that a “Council of Administrative Reform,” including the military and the police, had seized power in the name of King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
What's that? This is supposed to be a music blog? Well, any junta that claims to be operating in support of a composer rates a mention here. That's right, in addition to reigning as the (largely ceremonial but widely beloved) king of Thailand for the last half-century, Bhumibol Adulyadej is also a jazz saxophonist and songwriter. Here he is jamming with Benny Goodman.

King Bhumibol (who was born here in Massachusetts, by the way) has forty-some compositions to his name; his song "Blue Light" was featured in the Michael Todd-produced Broadway revue Peep Show in the 1950's. Upon ascending to the throne, the king formed his own 14-piece band and started a state-run radio station to broadcast its performances. Lionel Hampton once complimented him as "the coolest king in all the land," although, seeing as how he's the only king in all the land, it's possible that Hamp was hedging his bets a little.

I won't pretend to have an informed opinion on the Thai political situation (the brief breakdown seems to be probably-corrupt-but-rurally-supported-populist-PM vs. disenfranchised-elite-and-business-backed-disgruntled-military, with the king giving at least token support to the generals and the Thai economy on the line, which gives you an idea of the gray areas involved), but I am an expert on musician day jobs, and I'd say Bhumibol takes the prize. (If anyone's reading this in Thailand, please stay safe. Kor hai chok dee.)

Update (9/21): King Bhumibol's support for the coup is now explicit. Here's a good summary of what's been going on.

September 18, 2006

Alone together

This morning's driving music (I don't usually drive into town, so when I do, I choose my music carefully) was Brahms 3, which is slowly but surely supplanting 2 as my favorite Brahms symphony. It's among a small group of Brahms pieces that don't feel like they've been planned so meticulously; if I don't listen too closely, there are things happening that sound like they're in there not because they develop a motive, or set up a new theme, or make some structural point, but just because Johannes damn well felt like it.

It's an illusion, of course—it's as tightly constructed as anything else he wrote—but it manages to nail that simulated spontaneity that composers are encouraged to strive for in their academic training. Sound fresh and surprising, but using material that's developed organically. I suppose it's natural for that to be a teaching aim; practice grows out of analysis, and to teach analysis, you need music where it's easy and logical to demonstrate where the notes are coming from. (Over on his blog, Kyle Gann had a great post on this topic a couple of weeks ago.) A lot of composers react to this sort of training by going to the other extreme: music that refuses to develop, themes following themes with no transition, relying on the drama of juxtaposition to carry the piece forward. (I often like music like this—Feldman and Zorn spring to mind as varied examples—but I do think it's much harder to pull off.)

But then I started to try and imagine a piece that's an illusion in the opposite direction: a hodge-podge that fools you into thinking it's tightly, organically constructed. My favorite example of this is Tosca. Think of the very beginning, those three big chords:

First three measures of Tosca
Which is immediately and suddenly followed by all this activity:

Next four measures of Tosca
So we have a bunch of harmonies with no functional relationship to each other, and a couple of diametrically opposed tempi jammed together with a fermata. With your ear thus primed, Puccini is now free to go to any harmony or tempo he wants without the need to modulate. And in this context, paradoxically, the lack of modulation makes the piece sound more like everything's connected. There's no long transitions, no musical gymnastics to get from place to place; he just does a sudden bump change and your brain subconsciously says, "Aha! Just like the beginning." Then, without any preparation, he just brings back the three big chords at the act breaks, and you're suckered into thinking that there's a grand structure unfolding, when in fact, the only real planning he's doing is saving a couple of tonalities for big arias.

Please note that I don't think this is in any way dishonest or underhanded on Puccini's part; I actually think it's an extremely clever way to maintain the speed and dash he wants without being tied down to musical niceties. (Charles Rosen offers a similar compliment to Mendelssohn in The Romantic Generation regarding a "fugue" with no counterpoint.) I do wonder how often one could get away with it—you get the feeling that Puccini is trying the same thing at the opening of Turandot but then realizes that it's unsuited to the grandeur and spectacle of the story. And I can't for the life of me imagine how to do something similar with serial music, which is (at least analytically) organic by definition: everything springs from the same sequence of intervals. Maybe Tosca really is an organically developing piece, but the generating source is just the sounds of triadic tonality, an idea so far in the background that we take it for granted.

Something I've been trying in my own music for a couple of years now is applying serial techniques to groups of triadic harmonies: for example, devise a tone row that divides up into triads and seventh chords, and then put those chords front and center, voicing and doubling like you normally would. I like the sound world that results—because my ears are tuned to tonal progressions, the sequences sound simultaneously familiar and surprising. The harmonies don't go where they "should," but they're still moving in consistent ways (thanks to the row) and that seems to hold the piece together. I suppose you could pretty easily use something like this to set up more arbitrary progressions á la Puccini, but the effect would still be based on that tonal ground. Odd—I'm used to hearing atonal music criticized as a violation of musical grammar, but here's an instance where it's actually too grammatical.

September 17, 2006

"Symptomatic of the decline and fall of everything"

Odds and ends:

A-Rod’s goal was not simply to fail at the game... but to raise deep philosophical questions about the nature of human achievement. The philosophy of "Atonal Baseball." (But let us recognize the serialist mastery of Gary Matthews, Jr.)

One of my hometown's classical radio stations is a proud sponsor of the Newport International Polo Series. Elitist, you say? If you know of a better way to get horses interested in classical music, I'd love to hear it.

A follow up to last week's rant about airline carry-on restrictions and musical instruments: witness the travails of the Simon Fraser University Pipe Band, who, fresh off of a second-place finish at the World Pipe Band Championships in Glasgow, was forced to check their equipment with an airline who promptly lost $27,000 worth of their stuff. The items included thirteen drums, in cases, which is pretty much like misplacing a hippopotamus. Terrorist threat, my eye—I rather suspect somebody in the British Home Office is still bitter over the Battle of Bannockburn. (Thanks to Jeana and Glenn Stewart, sister and brother-in-law/master piper, for the tip.)

Last, but not least: Henry Kissinger and Len Garment, art critics. (I love the Freedom of Information Act.)

September 15, 2006

Let's Cool One

The fruits of today's grocery run: Thelonious Monk Belgian abbey ale.

bottle of Thelonious Monk ale
Now if only someone would brew a Sorabji IPA.

Almost (but not quite) Persuaded

In the car last night, I was thinking about the post I put up a couple of weeks ago regarding the Great American Opera, and I realized that I had missed something. I had suggested that such a piece would never come about because the latent Puritanical streak in American culture was fundamentally at odds with the exuberant vulgarity of opera. But there's also the possibility that religion is a factor in another way, a deeper and more subtle way.

The one common thread throughout the history of home-grown American religion is the premium placed on the transcendental experience of the divine. The First and Second Great Awakenings that swept the country starting around 1730 were all about this: feeling and emotion were more important than reason, personal "rebirth" was more important than theological understanding. Such movements would culminate in Pentecostalism.

All of which had an abiding influence on the culture. In a way, the holy grail of American culture has been an experience of secular transcendence, one which successfully mimics the transporting emotional catharsis of a revival meeting. But opera is, for the most part, about inflating human emotions to gargantuan proportions: we thrill to see ourselves writ large, but it doesn't move us beyond the experience of this world.

Ah, you might argue, but the addition of the music makes all the difference. I don't think it's enough of a difference, though. The first reason is something else I missed, in last week's post about materialism and the primacy of vision. In essence, music may be the least material of the arts, but in practice, it can be the most—with live performance, you're constantly aware of the human presence behind the music, the physical action needed to produce it. I would guess that such a persistent reminder of human effort (and fallibility) would counteract any draw towards the divine.

The second reason, though, is just another manifestation of the idea that everything in this country has to be more grand and fantastic than it's ever been anywhere else. European composers historically tended to aim not for transcendence, but sublimity: an aesthetic that doesn't try to duplicate the emotions of a revealed experience, but instead hints at them. It's as if they realized that the most you could accomplish with musical means was a fleeting glimpse of heaven, not the real deal. But we're Americans, by golly—we want it all.

(And, incidentally, yes, I really do tend to think up this sort of esoterica when I'm in the car. It's Boston, after all—it's not like I'm actually getting anywhere.)

September 14, 2006


Over at La scena musicale, Norman Lebrecht has posted a column of unusual inanity.* See, there's been an outcry among musicians in the UK over new, stringent prohibitions on carry-on items for plane travel, since it means that musical instruments now have to be checked into the plane's hold. So plenty of players have opted for trains, boats, or just plain staying home, rather than entrusting their axe to the airline industry. You selfish, awful, privileged people! Canon Lebrecht has words for you.
The ones who are affected are the international premier class of violin and cello soloists and a handful of jazz musicians whose instruments are insured for upwards of half a million pounds or are so personal to the players that they cannot be replaced.

This elite – we are speaking of no more than 200 or 300 artists – have found a way around the restrictions by taking Eurostar to Paris or Brussels and catching an onward connection. Inconvenient, true, and a terrible waste of time and money but surely preferable to a breach in the security firewall that protects everyone else who flies.
First of all, just how much of a "security firewall" do we need for musical instruments anyway? It seems to me that any instrument out there can be inspected and x-rayed to a point that would satisfy even Dick Cheney. Is that special treatment for musicians? Sure is, because it's a special situation—musicians rely on their own particular instrument to an extent that's unparalleled in any other industry. If the airlines lost my laptop, I'd raise hell—but at least I'd have my data backed up. How do you back up a viola?

Besides, Norman, we're speaking of quite a few more than 300 people here. All performing musicians have to travel, and frequently by plane. And just because a non-famous musician's instrument isn't insured for a gazillion pounds doesn't mean that its loss would be any less catastrophic. What if you're an entry-level orchestral musician traveling to an audition? A young chamber group on tour? Are you going to entrust your instrument to an airline under the disconcertingly large probablility that it could get damaged or lost? I'd sure sweat over a $20,000 violin if I only made $30,000 a year.

I remember a few years back when an up-and-coming opera singer here in Boston had a fire at her apartment. Not only did she lose her music, she lost all her recital gowns—a staggering financial blow for someone trying to get career traction. How is that different from Cut-Rate Air redirecting her garment bag to Vladivostok? News for you, Norm: the big stars might be getting inconvenienced, but the future stars are getting screwed. Get a clue.

*Correction: this line originally referred to the column with the phrase "absolutely breathtaking stupidity." Upon reflection, I thought that to be a bit of a cheap shot—while I did consider the column stupid, at no time was my breathing adversely affected. Hence the change.

September 13, 2006

September 12, 2006

Don't fear if you hear a foreign sound to your ear

The latest chapter of Greg Sandow’s online book-in-progress is up, and he brings up (among other things) Brahms—specifically, how Brahms and his generation were the first composers laboring under the weight of a pre-existing canon of great music (Bach and Beethoven, mainly). Along the way, he makes an interesting comparison:
Later, when Brahms encountered Robert Schumann (a composer who embodied, though in his own poetic way, reverence for the pantheon), and both Schumann and his wife (a famous pianist) hailed him as...well, as what rock critics a dozen years ago would have called "the new Dylan," what they meant, of course, and quite explicitly, is that he was the new Beethoven. This didn't only bring encouragement. It brought responsibility; the pantheon was weighty, and composers who aspired to it had to write the kind of weighty music Beethoven had written, which above all meant symphonies.
Think about the contrast between Brahms and Dylan for a moment. Brahms held off writing a symphony for years because of the anxiety of Beethoven’s influence and the awareness that others regarded him as having inherited the master’s mantle. Can you imagine Dylan, on the other hand, putting off Blonde on Blonde because he was worried about what, say, Pete Seeger would think? (Anxiety of expectation isn’t a classical-vs.-popular issue, either—consider Brian Wilson post-Pet Sounds or, in another medium, William Friedkin’s post-Exorcist filmography.)

In an important way, though, Dylan represents an attitude and a temperament that’s almost completely absent in the classical world. I can’t think of a classical composer who ever adopted the sort of persona Dylan did in order to deflect and neutralize the “responsibility” that comes with a public anointing as a “great artist.” It’s that character—the trickster, the charlatan, answering questions with aphoristic absurdities, and going out of his way to subvert the expectations of loyal disciples—that classical music could use more of. John Cage is the closest example I can think of, although maybe you could make a case for Michael Tippett. Lukas Foss has done a fair amount in this vein, but (unjustly) has never had the public reputation of a canonical composer; Stravinsky never really risked his public reputation, for all his stylistic peregrinations. (I need to hear more of R. Murray Schafer—he seems like a possible candidate.)

With all the big premieres I’ve heard, in every case, good or bad, the piece pretty much confirmed what I already thought about the composer. It’s been an awfully long time since a classical event unleashed a ruckus like Dylan going electric, or even, dare we say it, Self-Portrait. What’s missing? More premieres, for one thing; most composers are lucky if they get even one major commission, and it takes a special kind of recklessness to risk a train wreck, even a spectacular one. But the dominant ethos of the classical music industry these days is to play it safe, even with regards to innovation. (It’s one of the reasons there’s more early music than new music—early music is unusual and novel without being threatening.) And when the big organizations do program contemporary music, they bend over backwards to make sure it goes down easy (well-known composers, advance publicity, pre-concert talks, reassuring program notes, etc.). Why not just pull the rug out from under people every so often? It’s worked for Bob.

September 11, 2006

The tension of such hope is sharp and hard

A! Nay! Lat be; the philosophres stoon,
Elixer clept, we sechen faste echoon;
For hadde we hym, thanne were we siker ynow.
But unto God of hevene I make avow,
For al oure craft, whan we han al ydo,
And al oure sleighte, he wol nat come us to.
He hath ymaad us spenden muchel good,
For sorwe of which almoost we wexen wood,
But that good hope crepeth in oure herte,
Supposynge evere, though we sore smerte,
To be releeved by hym afterward.
Swich supposyng and hope is sharp and hard;
I warne yow wel, it is to seken evere.
That futur temps hath maad men to dissevere,
In trust therof, from al that evere they hadde.

—Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales
The Canon's Yeoman's Tale, 862-876

(The same in modern English.)

September 08, 2006

What you see is what you get?

A long one today.

One of the perennial questions in the culture industry is why avant-garde music has never been embraced by the public to the extent that similarly experimental works in literature and the visual arts have. Museums of modern art thrive, Joyce is still in print, but conceptual post-Romantic music still remains a tough sell. The conventional wisdom on this is that modern music is too modern, in comparison with painting, film, etc.; it’s gone so far beyond the traditional models it evolved from that it’s well-nigh incomprehensible even to otherwise sophisticated listeners. But here’s another possibility: have listeners become too modern for modern music?

The British philosopher Jonathan Rée, in his book I See a Voice, points out that, with the onset of 20th-century ideas of “modernity,” hearing began to be considered an old-fashioned sense; the contemporary world was one in which people saw. Both friends and enemies of the modern bought into this idea. Oswald Spengler, not surprisingly, hated it. As Rée puts it:
The optical mind was the master of mechanical invention, but too fascinated by “static, optical details” to have any sense of the tragedy and mystery of “life”. Vision had cut us off from the ancient wisdom of ordinary pre-theoretical mutuality, annihilating vocality and, with it, the “inward kinship of I and Thou”. Now that modern civilization was confronting its ultimate crisis—a crisis of its own making, a crisis of technology—it was stumbling uncomprehendingly towards catastrophe: twentieth-century humanity, Spengler thought, having lost its voice and its sense of hearing, was destined to “go downhill seeing.”
Rée also quotes Heidegger: “The fact that the world becomes picture is what distinguishes the essence of the modern age.” Heidegger disapproved, but the younger generation, particularly those concerned with various theories of the novel and the new “textual” criticism, thought hearing impossibly quaint. Rée again, summarizing the Bulgarian feminist Julia Kristeva:
Literature, or written language in general, was not the companion of speech, but its opponent, because it belonged to the open world of light, space and the eye, not the closed world of sound, time and the ear. We needed to break out of the ancient prison-house of speech and one-dimensional temporality, and disport ourselves in the multi-dimensional spaces of writing or “textual productivity” instead.
And there it is: time, temporality, the one aspect of music that’s changed the most since the heyday of classicism. Between the time of Beethoven and the time of Schoenberg comes the Industrial Revolution, and with it the mechanization of time: assembly lines, efficiency experts, and mass transit meant that temporal experience became less determined by the rhythms of nature, and more related to the orderly grid we imposed on top of it. At the same time, the classical regularity of phrase and rhythm was abandoned in favor of an organic approach that shaped time more idiosyncratically.

Why should this be a problem? Two reasons, I think. The first has to do with materialism. We’re fairly addicted to the physicality of objects and space, which we primarily experience with the eye. But with the advent of industrialism, our experience of time became almost equally material. Hearing is, in many ways, the least material of the senses, so in the absence of an orderly rhythmic structure, the resultant disorientation would be an affront to our materialist habits. Think of two fairly contrasting composers—Elliott Carter uses metric modulation to continually frustrate your perception of a regular pulse, trying to get you to only feel “downbeats” at structurally important moments; Morton Feldman slows down the pulse and expands the size of the phrase to such an extent that your perception of the music’s temporality becomes detached from the everyday experience of time. In both cases, your ability to estimate how much “real time” has passed becomes tenuous, weakening your grasp on time in a materialistic sense.

Which leads us to the other issue here: power and control. Roland Barthes, one of the structuralist pioneers, is particularly revealing here. Rée quotes him taking the modern world to task for thinking that it is “ushering in a civilization of the image,” when in fact he believes it to be still stuck in “a civilization of speech.” Barthes also talks about music:
There are two musics (or so I’ve always thought): one you listen to, one you play. They are two entirely different arts, each with its own history, sociology, aesthetics, erotics: the same composer can be minor when listened to, enormous when played (even poorly)—take Schumann…. It is because Schumann’s music goes much farther than the ear; it goes into the body, into the muscles by the beats of the rhythm, and somehow into the viscera by the voluptuous pleasure of its melos….
(Quoted by Richard Leppert in The Sight of Sound.)
But all music is a physical sensation—it travels on the air and enters the body through the ears (and more subtly, through the sense of touch, for that matter). For Barthes, listening is inferior to performing because it entails giving up the performer’s control over the experience, particularly the temporal experience. If the modern condition is dependent upon this need to maintain control over the way we feel the passage of time, then all rhythmically asymmetrical music is hopelessly behind the times, no matter how avant-garde.

If we accept these ideas, then the crucial feature of popular music isn’t triadic tonality, but rhythmic regularity and, in particular, predictability—and I think it is about rhythm; listeners seem to enjoy having their harmonic expectations violated more than their rhythmic expectations. (Which, interestingly, would mean that the reaction against atonality is less about the intrinsic properties of tonal harmonies and more about it’s ability to create the illusion of rhythmic symmetry.) I don’t think this analysis is a complete picture, but I think it points the way to a different approach to talking about experimental music, particularly as it relates to a society in which power and control—and especially fears of losing power and control—maintain such sway over people’s everyday decisions. Personally, I adore music that plays with perceptions of time the way Carter, Feldman, etc. do, because I get a charge out of that sort of disorientation, that freedom from the need for an absolute position in the material world. The big question: is it possible to sell that as a strength in a society that currently seems to regard it as a weakness?

September 07, 2006

Pasargadae the Hard Way

OK, OK, orchestras are in trouble, we can't play too much new music, too radical, we'll scare away the audience, blah blah blah. And at the same time, the Tehran Symphony Orchestra is playing Frank Zappa.

Yes, that Tehran Symphony. A couple weeks ago, the orchestra traveled to Osnabrück, Germany, where music director Nader Mashayekhi led a program including Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet”, Beethoven’s 7th, Mashayekhi's own “Fih-e Maa Fih”, Riahi's "Persian Suite"... and Zappa's "Dog Breath Variations." (Keep in mind that Western music is at least nominally banned from Iranian media.) Upon their return, Iran's Culture Minister, Mohammad-Hossein Saffar-Harandi, congratulated the orchestra by saying that "[t]oday’s society needs genuine music and the Islamic community disapproves of Western-style music that encourages debauchery." (Well, thank you for those kind words.)

So, all you orchestra directors out there—the next time you're worrying over how your subscribers will react to your programming, just ask yourself: are your subscribers liable to start enriching uranium?

September 06, 2006

Will they show the dancing hot dog?

The Metropolitan Opera, having mastered the cutting-edge technology of billboard advertising, is now setting its sights on the rest of the media landscape, as it existed under President Eisenhower. Starting on December 30, the Met will broadcast live opera performances into movie theaters. You know, like the Kefauver hearings and the Marciano-Moore fight.

Actually, I don't think this is a bad idea at all, but it's just so easy to make fun of, so that's what wins out here. Here's a preview of their inaugural broadcast.

(That's an interesting approach Seiji seems to be taking over there in Vienna.)

September 05, 2006

All in green went my love riding

Various and sundry economists I like to peruse have been musing on the subject of envy as of late, so it makes perfect phenomenological sense that I'm reading it into everything this morning. Take two stories via ArtsJournal: one from Wired about David Cope's continuing efforts to program a computer to write stylistically convincing imitations of famous composers (he's tacking Vivaldi now), and a brief shout-out to The Really Terrible Orchestra, a Scottish amateur group that puts its technical incompetence front-and-center with its enthusiasm.

The Really Terrible Orchestra is in the time-honored tradition of defeating envy by flaunting one's own lack of skill and making it as likely an object of admiration as another's excellence. (There's also, it seems, a bit of Scratch Orchestra anti-determinism thrown in for fun, albeit with a far more genial mien.) The RTO played one of the Edinburgh Festivals this year, and the Festival's blurb says it all:
Shocking but true. The Really Terrible Orchestra is improving. This may be your final chance to hear them play really terribly. Book early. Last year sold out by 31st July.
(I suppose there's a line to be crossed between bad enough to be an entertaining send-up of unscalable professional heights, and just good enough to be, well, just plain bad.) I'm of two minds about this whole thing. The members of the orchestra sound like they're just in it for fun, and their enthusiasm should easily transfer to an audience, but I have a feeling that most of the audience is there to subconsciously stick a thumb in the eye of "high art" and its attendant level of discipline. Interestingly, you don't see this sort of thing in the realm of, for example, athletics; but then, most of us can engage in some form of athletic activity that's fulfilling even in its unskilled amateurishness. I wonder if the RTO would be as much of an audience draw if amateur music-making were as widespread.

The computerized Vivaldi seems to have issues of its own.
Cope reveals a key ingredient of virtual Vivaldi's secret recipe: works by other composers. When Emmy [the computer program] created music based solely on Vivaldi's oeuvre, he explains, the results sounded authentic enough, but bland. So he threw in a few pieces by baroque contemporaries such as Tomaso Albinoni and Giuseppe Tartini. Emmy's Vivaldi then began to stretch a bit, take risks, and, ironically, produce music that sounded more like the real Vivaldi.
So in order to make the computer sound like a real composer, you have to program it to envy other composers enough to steal from them. Now that's accurate modeling.

September 01, 2006

Debout, les forçats de la faim

A quick one before the long weekend: the Boston Symphony has finished knocking out a new musicians' contract, and they're cutting how much they pay freelancers, apparently in celebration of Labor Day. Given that my other hometown's history of employee-management relations were so egrigiously skewed towards Gilded Age wealth that even the Congress of the 1890's felt the need for a compensatory holiday, you can probably guess what I think about this. (I'll be marking the occasion with culinary reminders of where it all began.)

Critic's Corner

In which Moe, our critic-at-large, reviews what's on Matthew's record player.

Moscow Philharmonic/Kondrashin: Prokoviev: Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution, etc.
Prokoviev Cantata album covernoble dog

BSO/Tilson Thomas/Zukofsky: Schuman: Violin Concerto; Piston: Symphony no. 2
Piston and Schuman album coverdog with tennis ball