October 31, 2006

Many happy returns of the day

Bach's skull

J. S. Bach's skull.

Originally published in Johann Sebastian Bach, Forschungen über dessen Grabstätte, Gebeine und Antlitz, by Wilhelm His (Leipzig, 1895). Image from Teri Noel Towe's "The Face of Bach: the Search for the Portrait that Belonged to Kittel" (2001).

October 30, 2006

This Is Cinerama

Schoenberg: Moses und Aron
Boston Symphony Orchestra / Levine
October 28, 2006

I think Moses und Aron might be one of those rare pieces of music that absolutely has to be experienced live. It hasn’t been well-served by recordings; the few extant examples, for all their skill and conviction, come off like interesting experiments, spare-no-expense 12-tone concept albums that inspire, at best, polite admiration. But to hear it in person, as a near-capacity crowd did last Saturday, with James Levine conducting the Boston Symphony and an accompanying mob, is to be swept up in its inexorable force. It’s the operatic equivalent of a David Lean movie: a thrilling intellectual drama played out on the grandest possible stage. And like David Lean movies, you need to see it on the big screen.

Here’s an example. In the opening scene, Schoenberg’s orchestration of the voice of God has been much remarked upon: six solo voices, spread throughout and doubled by the orchestra, and a chorus of men and boys, speaking against the voices’ singing, declaim God’s words in counterpoint with each other. On paper, it’s studiedly unconventional; on record, funneled into two-channel stereo, it’s a diverting babble. In performance, it so arrestingly puts the listener into Moses’ shoes that it’s uncanny. Words drift into perception like wind gusts, from every direction at once, a swirl of command on the edge of comprehension. And when the scene shifts to the wasteland, where Moses enlists his brother Aron in his mission, Schoenberg suddenly drops the instrumentation to a solo flute, a solo violin, and a couple of horns, in quiet but uneasy counterpoint: an empty landscape, crackling with tension. The microphone flattens it into merely an interesting choice. But to physically experience the sudden stage distance between the component sounds is magical.

The Sunday school version of the relationship between Moses, the lawgiver, and Aron, the communicator, is one of fortuitous complementarity, a Hebrew Bobby and Jack Kennedy. Schoenberg’s dramatic masterstroke was to make them antagonists. Moses understands the “idea” but can’t express it; Aron tries to express what he can’t understand. And each resents their dependence on the other. As Moses, John Tomlinson was as a man possessed, an implacable pillar gripped by a deathly fear of cracks. His Sprechstimme veered closer to singing than most, giving the impression of someone whose voice has been appropriated by another, racked by thunderous words that suddenly, haltingly spill out.

Philip Langridge’s performance as Aron was so finely shaded and paced that he inadvertently pointed up the one dramatic flaw I sense in Schoenberg’s design: the ease with which the crowd intimidates Aron at the opening of Act II. In the first half, Langridge carefully and slyly traced the degrees by which Aron’s confidence (and pleasure) grows as his oratorical sway over the crowd takes hold. In scene 4, the way his voice dropped to a stage whisper on the words “Schließet die Augen, verstopfet die Ohren” (“close your eyes, and stop your ears”) was seductive and sinister, not inappropriately reminiscent of the emcee in Cabaret. By the end of the act, he had Israel eating out of his hand, which made all the more jarring his sudden Act II acquiescence to the crowd’s demands for an idol. Maybe it’s supposed to be that way: one of the recurring themes of the opera is the frightening unpredictability of the mob.

The mob took a while to come into focus. The biggest casualty of a concert, as opposed to a staged, performance of Moses is the protean character of the chorus. In their first big scene, rumors of possible liberation race through the people, factions form and dissolve, and conventional wisdoms are settled upon and then cast aside. With the chorus a massed block at the back of the stage, Schoenberg’s careful delineation of the desperation and fickleness of each requisite group was largely a wash. Hearing the Tanglewood Festival Chorus this past summer in Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, my sense was that they were struggling to adjust to Levine’s minimalist, undemonstrative conducting style. That uncertainty seemed evident in the first act of Moses as well; thrilling sounds (particularly from the women) were in abundance, but so were lagging tempi and blurry rhythms. But a few minutes into Act II, everything clicked into place, and the chorus suddenly began to peal forth. Their cry of “Juble, Israel” (“Rejoice, Israel”) at the initial appearance of the Golden Calf was filled with a sure beauty as well as a chilling fanaticism.

Schoenberg’s portrayal of public opinion in Moses und Aron walks a fine line between spontaneous joy and calculated agitation. This performance tended toward the latter, creating unmistakable echoes of Schoenberg’s own experience in Nazi Germany, not to mention nervously contemporary accents. When one of the Israelites (Sanford Sylvan, deftly handling multiple supporting roles) exhorted the crowd, “Alles für die Freiheit!… Erschlagt die Fronvögte!” (“All for freedom! Kill the taskmasters!”), the tone was less hope for the future than the clipped certainty of an experienced demagogue; it gave the immediate agreement of the old priest (the magisterial Sergei Koptchak) an uneasy air of self-preservation. The projected translations made the most of the political overtones. When Aron changes Moses’ staff into a serpent, the crowd is suddenly in its power, and they sing what they’re commanded to do. “Kommt hierher, geht dorthin,” they cry. “Come here; go there.” This was wittily rendered as “move to the left” and “move to the right,” making explicit the ideological promiscuity of the mob.

One common way to hear Moses is in the light of Schoenberg’s own aesthetics. In this interpretation, Aron represents “accessible” art while Moses remains uncompromisingly focused on the “idea.” There’s undoubtedly something to this: when Aron tries to explain to the crowd, “Erwartet die Form nicht vor dem Gedanken” (“You cannot have form before idea”) it’s almost as if he’s giving them a masterclass in composition. But Schoenberg complicates the issue by not picking sides; both Moses and Aron are equally flawed and stubborn. When Moses comes down off the mountain to find the orgy around the Golden Calf, the expectation of a righteous, old-testament smackdown is palpable. But the speed with which Schoenberg has Aron turn on his brother, unleashing a full arsenal of guilt, rationalization, and lethal reasonableness, catches both Moses and the listener off guard. Moses is maddening and impractical; if Aron compromises in the short term, what’s the harm, as long as the ultimate goal remains the same? Schoenberg never pretends to have the answer—that thorny uncertainty is the dramatic engine of the piece.

At the end of Act II, Moses is a defeated man; Schoenberg never finished Act III, in which Moses would have brought Aron to justice for his idolatrous transgressions. It makes for a more pessimistic ending, but a more human one. Most commentators think that Schoenberg ultimately decided that Act III was beyond music, but it’s just as possible that the ending we have had more resonance for Schoenberg, exiled in a populist wasteland, struggling to write, a lost and confused prophet. Schoenberg died having heard the bulk of Moses und Aron only in his head. I haven't mentioned the Boston Symphony itself yet; after Saturday night’s performance, the best compliment I can give the players is that, no doubt, the orchestra Schoenberg must have heard probably sounded a lot like them.

October 28, 2006

Train In Vain

It's the weekend. You're going out. You're going to see people. You'll be expected to make small talk. If only there were a goofy little factual nugget out there that you could use to enliven the conversation. If only.

On a totally unrelated topic, the word on the street is that Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber's next musical will be an adaptation of Anna Karenina. Just thought you might like to know.

When you speak of me, speak well.

October 27, 2006

Rock Me Amadeus

Yesterday, Randy Nordschow had a fine rant (that's sincere, by the way; a good rant is not as easy as it looks) over at NewMusicBox about the relative pretentiousness of classical and rock music. Go read it; it'll get you thinking about comparisons between the two genres. Of course, me being me, after a few hours, my brain settled on the most tangential comparison possible:

What's the classical equivalent of a one-hit wonder?

Which is not as trivial a question as it might seem. Let's define terms: I'm calling a one-hit wonder a singer/act/composer that comes up with one piece that makes a big enough splash to become part of the common culture, after which he/she/they never do much of anything again. We have to be careful: there are plenty of composers who are only remembered for one piece, but that doesn't mean they were one-hit wonders in their own time: as a quick example, Fromental Halévy is known today solely for his opera La Juive, but the man actually had over 30 others staged in Paris. We won't count composers who died young, and those cut down on the cusp of fame by madness (I'm thinking of Hans Rott and his amazing Symphony in e minor) rate only an honorable mention.

Which leaves—who? The only viable example I could come up with was Paul Dukas, who wrote one honest-to-god brilliant, astonishing, magical, all-time masterpiece, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, and only fourteen other published works, none of which gained any real foothold in the repertoire. (Apologies in advance to all the Ariane and La Péri fans out there, but in objective terms, it's true.)

I'm sure I'm forgetting some obvious candidates, but the point is, they're comparatively rare. One reason springs to mind immediately: popular music is far more beholden to market forces than classical music, which means the business is far more cutthroat. A past hit isn't going to get you very far with your record company if your current effort isn't selling. And given the relatively low overhead for producing a single, there's far more incentive to try somebody new. The pop music industry is based more around product than people: the personality of the artist may be a marketing tool, but the popularity of the song is the bottom line.

It's easy to see why, at one time, the classical music industry would have been based more around the composer than the music itself. Before recordings, there was much more effort required to sample a composer's wares. After an initial hit or two, the composer's name would have functioned much like a brand, a signal to the concertgoer or music purchaser of a certain expectation of quality. The real question is, why has this system persisted?

Partially it's because the classical/"new music" community is small and powered by personal relationships. Partially it's because classical marketing departments have no idea how to market new music, so they market the composer instead (leading to a situation very similar to the old days). But one reason is not so obvious: the fact that most classical concerts are planned at least a year in advance, and usually much farther out than that. You need to pin down your conductor and your soloists, and you need to have the program decided in time to appeal to your subscribers. And I think that's killing the market for classical one-hit wonders.

Let's think about the Pulitzer prizes for a minute. Supposedly, it's given to the best new piece of the year. In reality, that hardly ever happens; it's much more of a distinguished career award. (Ned Rorem certainly deserves a Pulitzer, but does anybody ever play Air Music? Same thing with say, Harbison and The Flight Into Egypt.) Nevertheless, once a year, the Pulitzers are dished out, and, for a bit, a particular piece of contemporary classical music has some buzz attached to it. But by the time any classical organization gets around to fitting said piece into their schedule, that buzz is long gone. Neither Adams' Transmigration of Souls nor Stucky's Second Concerto have made it to Boston yet, and I would bet last year's Boston-premiered winner (Wyner's Chiavi in mano, which I missed, but which all the reviews made out to be that modern rarity, a highbrow crowd-pleaser) won't show up anywhere else for two or three seasons. By that point, the buzz around the piece will be forgotten, which leaves the marketing department to fall back on their standby, promoting the composer.

I know that the idea of an apprenticeship is more important in the classical world, that you should build up a solid career bit by bit, rather than aim for sudden, one-time success. There's something to that, but I think the lack of any possible flashes-in-the-pans does classical music a disservice. The great thing about one-hit wonders is their very unpredictability; think of all those killer singles by obscure bands that became everybody's favorite song for a particular summer. Isn't there some classical equivalent for that?

(P.S.: I thought this post up this morning while walking through the woods with critic-at-large Moe. We get back to the car, flip on the radio, and guess what's playing? The Sorcerer's Apprentice. Freaky.)

October 26, 2006

Fingertips, part 10+x

X-ray of six-fingered handOne of my favorite ways to procrastinate is to use the power and breadth of the Internet to dredge up ephemera. (As if you hadn't noticed.) But I have to say, the Internet is letting me down on at least one search: pianists with more than ten fingers. I've been looking into every dusty corner of this worldwide web for any evidence of such a phenomenon. And I'm more than a little surprised to come up empty-handed.

Adrian CastorpMind you, there's no shortage of fictional extra digits out there. There's the 12-fingered fellow from the movie Gattaca. There's this journalistically suspect 14-fingered prodigy. The Marvel comic The New Defenders (an X-Men spin-off) briefly featured a 12-fingered mutant pianist named—wait for it—Adrian Leverkuhn Castorp (why they didn't just throw "Krull" and "Aschenbach" in there while they were at it, I'll never know). On a more serious note, there's Ben Fountain's haunting short story "Fantasy for Eleven Fingers," which features two eponymously polydactyl characters.

But nary a real pianist to be had. I found a guitarist (the marvelous "Hound Dog" Taylor), and there's at least a couple of references to violinist Giuseppe Tartini's alleged supernumerary appendages (his Wikipedia entry mentions the possibility).

Again, no pianists. Why not? Polydactyly is not that uncommon: most web sources (like this one) estimate that it occurs in 1 out of every 500 children. Now, most of those extra fingers are non-functional, lacking adequate bone and muscle structure, but not always. Given those odds, I would expect at least a handful of examples in the five centuries or so of western keyboard music. So what's going on?

There's the very real possibility that most poor polydactyl children had their extra fingers hacked off before they had a chance to crack open their Hanon. Today, the standard medical recommendation still seems to be surgical removal, even in cases of functional digits. You can probably imagine how much more pressure there would have been back in the day, when people could still get irrationally worked up about witchcraft and satanic possession. (Yes, "back in the day." So I'm an optimist.)

But more than that, while most people would assume that hands that go to "11" would be a boon in playing the piano, I'm not so sure. The piano repertoire is specifically designed for ten fingers. It's comfortable for ten fingers. When it's not comfortable, there's centuries of tradition on how to get around the trouble spots—using ten fingers. This all goes back to something I've frequently pondered—the fact that human physicality is so intricately worked into the fabric of the music we have that we don't even think about it. Fiction writers might think that eleven or twelve fingers would make piano technique easier (and it sure makes for a great metaphor), but seeing as how that technique is nothing more that the collective wisdom of countless boringly ten-fingered pianists, it’s just as possible that the extra digits might make playing our idiosyncratically engineered piano terribly awkward.

Actually, when I said I couldn't find a single pianist? I lied: I did track down one. Unfortunately, I don’t know his name. He was a German-born machinist living in Boston sometime in the 19th century.
[He had] one index finger, two middle fingers, two ring fingers, and two pinkies. … [T]his rare genetic malformation is called a mirror hand. The lower arm beneath the elbow is also symmetric. Whereas a normal lower arm is composed of two bones, a radius and an ulna, this lower arm has two ulnae and no radius. While this impeded the turning motion of the man’s lower arm, he did not let it stop him from enjoying his favorite hobby—piano playing!
That’s from the Warren Anatomical Museum at Harvard University. That’s right, they still have this man’s hand. And heck, yeah, there’s a picture. (WARNING: above link contains image that may seriously gross you out, unless you’re an 11-year-old boy, in which case it’s the coolest thing you’ve ever seen.)

Still, I’m convinced he can’t be the only one out there. Anybody else? Just stop playing for a minute and raise your hand. I can count.

October 25, 2006

Satire: Veritas

A quick one: Alex Ross points to the latest from "Weird Al" Yankovic (whose MySpace page is always a source of myriad delights).

Remind me again why this guy isn't in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?

I saw a man; he danced with his wife

How many conceptual links does it take to get from Charles Darwin to the father of chance music to my old hometown of Chicago? Would you believe one?

From Charles Darwin's Beagle Diary: Darwin discovers the origin of graphic notation.
[June 7th, 1835; Guasco]

I called in the evening at the house of the "Governador"; the Signora was a Limerian & affected blue-stockingism & superiority over her neighbours. Yet this learned lady never could have seen a Map. Mr Hardy told me that one day a coloured Atlas was lying on a Pianoforte & this lady seeing it exclaimed, "Esta es contradanca". This is a country dance! "que bonita" how pretty!
Which is pretty much exactly what John Cage did 143 years later with his piece A Dip in the Lake: Ten Quicksteps, Sixty-two Waltzes, and Fifty-six Marches for Chicago and Vicinity. (Cage had already done a similar piece about New York; hey, we wear that "Second City" badge with pride.) From the description in the online Cage catalog:
The concept of this work is to go to the places (in Chicago or any other city, by assembling a chance determined list of 427 addresses, grouping them in 10 groups of 2, 61 groups of 3 and 56 groups of 4) and either listen to, perform at and/or make a recording of the sounds at those locations.
(Hence the dances: quicksteps in 2, waltzes in 3, and marches in 4.) This is Cage's map, from the website of Peter Gena, who produced the first realization of the piece for the 1982 New Music America festival:

Cage: A Dip in the Lake score
Between 2001 and 2003, Robert Pleshar did a new realization of A Dip in the Lake, which you can listen to over at UbuWeb. The waltzes are my favorite, but only because they boast the greatest concentration of sites in Niles, where I grew up. The whole thing is typically Cagean, that is to say, totally unassuming, yet at the same time, completely and unexpectedly absorbing.

Extra bonus material! Charles Darwin, music critic:
[June 14th, 1832; Rio de Janiero]

Dined with Mr Aston; a very merry pleasant party; in the evening went with Mr Scott (the Attache) to hear a celebrated pianoforte player. - He said Mozarts overtures were too easy. I suppose in the same proportion as the music which he played was too hard for me to enjoy.

Update (10/26/06): By sheer coincidence, Marc Geelhoed reports that Peter Gena was just awarded the Chevalier dans l'ordre des Palmes Académiques by the French government in recognition of his distinguished career in arts education. Félicitations!

October 24, 2006

If there's a hell below, we're all going to go

In other churches, having lost every vestige of sanctity, music is regarded outright as one of those forms of moral amusement in which men may indulge without sin, in the church, and on the Sabbath; and they plunge their hands into their pockets and pay for professional singing. Then King David finds himself in the hands of the Philistines. The unwashed lips that all the week sang the disgustful words of glorious music in the operas, now sing the rapture of the old Hebrew bard, or the passion of the suffering Redeemer, with all the inspiration of vanity and brandy....

... And thus music, that should nurse hymns upon its bosom, abuses them, like a cruel step-mother, and thrusts them away. Hundreds of hymns have been served worse than Herod served the innocents—for he killed them outright; but a hymn cursed by musical associations, cannot die, but creeps along like a crippled bird...
Are trouble and music twin brothers? Is there no way of edification through music, or must we regard and endure it as a necessary evil?

—Henry Ward Beecher,
New Star Papers; or Views and
Experiences of Religious Subjects


Illustrated Testimony in the Beecher-Tilton Scandal

October 23, 2006

A chicken in every pot

I hear and read this (or some variation) a lot coming from venerable classical performance organizations: We have a strong commitment to new music. Here's the New York Philharmonic's version:
Placing newer compositions alongside established classics has historically been one of the Philharmonic's responsibilities to its community.
This season, the Philharmonic has two world premieres and one American premiere. The National Symphony::
By adding new works to the repertoire, the National Symphony Orchestra insures a legacy for future generations.
How are they doing? Five world premieres this season. Not bad by comparison, but that's still out of over 100 programmed pieces. How about the home team?
Continuing the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s proud and longstanding tradition of introducing new music from the world’s most important composers, the 2006-07 season will feature the world premieres of four new works...
As you can tell, the standard commitment to new music consists of four or five new pieces a season (if that many) and a few old-school "modern" works tucked into programs as preludes to standard fare. If you mention the rather paltry smorgasbord of contemporary sounds, the usual response involves money, more specifically, its scarcity.

So what would it cost to make a real commitment to new music? I'm talking about an ensemble-commissioned piece on each concert. Sound daunting? Not really.

Let's take the Boston Symphony, for example (since I have their schedule handy). They do about 30 concert programs a year. So here's what you do: commission ten pieces a year. Let's say each commission is $15,000. That might be a little cheap for the BSO, but throw in a promise to perform the piece once more within the next three seasons. So if we call the first-year commissions Y1, this is how we start off:

Year 1: 10Y1
Year 2: 4Y1
Year 3: 3Y1
Year 4: 3Y1

But then you'll have ten second-year commissions (Y2):

Year 1: 10Y1
Year 2: 10Y2+4Y1
Year 3: 4Y2+3Y1
Year 4: 3Y2+3Y1
Year 5: 3Y2

See where this is going? Starting in the fourth season, you have 20 pieces getting their first or second performance:

Year 4: 10Y4+4Y3+3Y2+3Y1=20 concerts

What about the other ten? Well, a contractual obligation with each commission will be that, after the program's been running for seven or eight seasons, the other ten concerts have to include a piece commissioned under the program. (You have to put it in the contracts, otherwise the marketing people will weasel out of it.) Music director's choice: this lets you re-visit commissions that have been particularly successful or interesting or popular. We'll call these Ywc (wild cards). So Year X looks like this:

10Yx+4Yx-1+3Yx-2+3Yx-3+10Ywc=30 concerts

So what's this going to cost? Each year's commissions will total $150,000. Assuming a 4% rate of return, that would require an endowed fund of $3,750,000. Let's round it up to a cool $4 million until we see whether Bernanke has any clue about this whole inflation thing. So there you are: $4 million to have a commissioned piece on every concert. In perpetuity.

Four million dollars is a lot of money. But remember, it's a one-time expense. And that's for the BSO, which has an annual operating budget of around $70 million and an endowment of over $300 million. So in that case, we're talking about a capital campaign to increase their endowment by a little over one percent. The smaller the ensemble and/or season, the smaller the capital you'd need to raise. Let's say you're a chamber group that does a 12-concert season. You'd need four new works every season. To commission four pieces a year at $5,000 per piece:

$20,000/0.04=$500,000 endowment

How about a community chorus that does three concerts every year? You'd only need one new piece per season:

$1,000/0.04=$25,000 endowment

Now, heaven knows there's enough composers in the world to fill out even the largest iteration of this scheme. And it would give enough freedom so that every school and idiom and persuasion would get their innings. But it's still a quantum leap from any current big-ticket classical (as opposed to specifically "new music") organization's programming. Do I think any of the old-line ensembles are going to take me up on this? I'm not holding my breath. But it's at least a way to put commissions and premieres in financial perspective: the next time you hear sombody touting their commitment to new music, you'll know just how much money they'd need to put where their mouth is.

October 22, 2006

The importance of being earnest

Apparently, this blog has generated enough traffic that today, the first bit of spam showed up in the comments. Thank you for your support! In honor of the milestone, here's a special weekend episode.

Last week, Phil over at "Dial M" had a great post about the tricky business of trying to bend one's critical mind around the whole idea of sampling, and he expressed proper skepticism about the tenuous theory that hip-hop artists choose their beats and samples with a sense of "ironic distance." I always assumed that it was pretty much the same thing we all do when we find a really wicked piece of music and immediately begin pestering everyone we know to listen to it. You have to hear this. And the more I thought about it, the more I decided that the whole concept of "ironic distance" was dissing hip-hop musicianship. Because real musicians are hardly ever ironic.

Phil illustrated his his post with a neat video of the Beastie Boys' Mixmaster Mike doing his thing. (If this is all new to you, watch this video of Mixmaster Mike and Q-Bert tossing off a string of object lessons in old-school scratching.) The Beastie Boys have always been my favorite hip-hop group. Why? Because they're nerds like me, essentially.

Actually, no. I doubt they're anywhere near as nerdy as I have been and still am. But there's still nerdiness there, in the best sense of the word. Take my favorite album of theirs, Paul's Boutique. Throughout the album, there's a recurrent riff on the common trope of rappers' boasts, a series of variations on the formula:

I'm as/more [attribute] as/than [cultural reference]

Now a couple of these are hip-hop references, like:

I seen him get stabbed I watched the blood spill out
He had more cuts than my man Chuck Chillout

But for the most part, they seem to have taken particular delight in making the cultural references as esoteric and off-the-wall as possible. For example:

Bum cheese on rye with ham and prosciutto
Got more Louie than Philip Rizzuto

Or then there's this string:

Got more stories than J.D.'s got Salinger
I hold the title and you are the challenger
I've got money like Charles Dickens
Got the girlies in the Coupe like the Colonel's got the chickens
Always go out dapper like the Harry S Truman
And I'm madder than Mad's Alfred E. Neuman

And my favorite:

There's more to me than you'll ever know
And I've got more hits than Sadaharu Oh

This is transcendent nerdiness. In order to get the joke, you have to be enough of a baseball trivia junkie as I am. But the reference is so far out that, if you don't get it, you're not even aware of what you're missing. If they were trying to be smarter or more hip than their audience, the Boys would have had to drop a name that the listener wouldn't have thought of, but nevertheless could recognize once presented with it. But Sadaharu Oh? That's just a nice piece of candy tossed out to fellow baseball nerds.

The great thing about being a nerd is, you're guilelessly generous and enthusiastic about whatever it is you're a nerd about. Irony doesn't even enter into it. In his post, Phil includes this quote, from Prince Paul, asked whether he was being ironic in his sampling of a Hall and Oates song:
PP: Wow. That's pretty deep. But I think the bottom line is just: that was a good song! . . . We didn't consciously think of "Hall and Oates," "Resurrecting," you know, "Postmodern." We was just like, "Wow. Remember that song? That's hot!"
Non-musicians may see irony in music, but musicians? We're all music nerds. We keep pestering you to listen to whatever piece we happen to have just discovered, and we don't give two hoots about whether other people think it's cool or corny or what. I'm forever grateful to the fellow musicians who got me hooked on Viennese operetta, Myron Floren, Whitney Houston, western swing, and Sammy Davis, Jr.'s cover of the theme from "Shaft." (Especially that last one. Thanks, Jim.) Let's call it Guerrieri's Law of True Musicianship: real musicians can be identified by their temperamental inability to keep their guilty pleasures to themselves. In fact, they're not even all that guilty about it. Their eyes light up, and they get this big smile on their face, because they know that they're about to play you something that'll make your life just a little more dazzling. You have to hear this.

October 20, 2006

L'audace impresa a compiere / Io ti darò valore (liquido)

Lest you think composers only expend their creative energies on boring old music, here's a concoction for the weekend (name courtesy of my Shakespeare-loving wife).

Dark Lady

2 oz. gin
2 oz. tart cherry juice
1/2 oz. kirschwasser
1/2 oz. cassis

Shake with cracked ice and strain into a large martini glass.

While you drink, treat youself to the thermonuclear Shirley Verrett as Shakespeare's darkest lady of all (via Verdi).

October 19, 2006

Unfortunately, I'm not making this up, you know

Anna Russell, R.I.P.

You can aurally bask in the presence of genius here.

Out of Time

So now two of the singers I'm accompanying this semester are singing Samuel Barber's "Sea-Snatch," which means I've been working it up again. (I swear, repertoire leaves my fingers in a matter of minutes.) You can hear Leontyne Price sing it here; it's only thirty seconds long, so the entire song fits within most online retailers' sound clips.

"Sea-Snatch" isn't technically that difficult, but it's tricky for me, because I have to turn my accuracy monitor off when I perform it. If I start to listen for right and wrong notes, it's all over, because the piece goes by so fast. So I have to figure out how to psych myself up to just plunge in and hope for the best. The way I do this is to pretend that what Barber was really doing was writing a rock and roll song. Now, I don't know that Barber even knew what rock and roll was (he probably must have heard some of it at some point), and I certainly have no evidence whatsoever to claim that "Sea-Snatch" was written with that sound in his ear. But in this case, a completely unfounded stylistic assumption makes the piece work for me.

I don't know if other performers do this, but I do it a lot. And often the stylistic choices are wildly off-base. The easiest way for me to get the phrasing right in "Parto! ma tu ben mio," Sesto's aria from Mozart's La clemenza di Tito, is to imagine that it's gospel music. I finally started to get the hang of Joseph Marx's "Marienlied" by playing it like a Cole Porter ballad. For me, baroque music and bebop have an odd affinity. (It works in chronological reverse, too: I often think Stephen Sondheim to be Schubert reincarnated.) And the list goes on and on.

I think I first started doing this when I was an undergrad. I remember playing Schubert's "Shepherd on the Rock" for a clarinetist friend's recital. At the time, I had been listening to a lot of Schubert on the fortepiano, and I thought it would be neat to try and emulate that delicacy and transparency on a modern instrument. We had a coaching with my friend's teacher, John Bruce Yeh. John would have none of it. "Play it like Wagner," he said. He was right.

And then there's Exhibit A in why I think musicians need to know as much music as they possibly can (not to mention how I often miss the painfully obvious). I had the good fortune to study piano with Dmitry Paperno, who studied with Alexander Goldenweiser, who studied with Alexander Siloti, who studied with Rubenstein and Liszt (making me by far the most unlikely and wayward pianist of the great Russian tradition ever). Paperno was no slouch when it came to contemporary music; he had played Shostakovich for Shostakovich, he was friends with Shchedrin, and he knew brilliant Ukranian atonalists I had never heard of. But he had never played or taught Schoenberg's Sechs kleine Klavierstücke when I brought it in one day. I had been fascinated with Schoenberg since high school, but I had never quite figured out how to get the notes from the page into my fingers in a convincing way. Paperno figured it out in about ten seconds: it's Romantic music. Play it like Brahms.

Well, duh. Not the first or the last time I've walked through a room without seeing the elephant in it. But what if I hadn't known anything about Romantic style? (Not unlikely; given my teenage preferences, if it hadn't been for the piano, I wouldn't have learned about that repertoire until much later.) What if no one had come along with the patience to prod my dense self into seeing the connection? What if I had stubbornly insisted that Schoenberg was Schoenberg, and to interpret his music in light of an "outdated" tradition was anachronistic and heretical?

I've become convinced that, after a certain point, a big part of music education just becomes a daily effort to apply what you already know. (Every time I do a Chopin piece, I still hear Professor Paperno scolding me into a legato line: "All your friends are singers. How can you play this so badly?") With all the stylistic balkanization going on in the classical world, all the specialization, all the concern with performance practice, I run into a lot of performers who think they "don't know how to do" early music, or Baroque music, or (especially) contemporary music. Yes, you do. If you know Bach, and it reminds you of Bach, play it like Bach. If you know Broadway, and it reminds you of Broadway, play it like Broadway. If people tell you it's inappropriate, screw 'em. I've heard far too many concerts in which the performers were so concerned about being stylistically "appropriate" that they forgot to make music. If you're convinced, the audience will be convinced, at least for the duration of the piece. Maybe they'll pick apart your choices after the concert. But that's infinitely better then them falling asleep while it's going on.

October 18, 2006


I have an article over at NewMusicBox today on musical accompaniments to the decline and fall of everything. If you've never read NewMusicBox, stop wasting your time with me and start patronizing them (in the good way) immediately! If you do read them, you can spend the rest of the day wondering how I got in there.

Citius altius fortius

flagpole sitterWhat's it going to take to get you people out there to respect musicians? World records or something?

How about an ensemble of 8,000 drummers?
(Not impressed? How about 11,000?)

What about 105 consecutive hours of deejaying?

How about putting on a concert 994 feet below the surface of the North Sea?

230 banjos, anyone?

Alas, the 2,500 harmonicas didn't quite pan out. But I'm guessing that Bad Brad Wheeler doesn't give up that easily.

October 17, 2006

How it's done

I'm no journalism critic, but this morning's Globe has a classical review by freelancer David Perkins that reads the way I wish all classical reviews read. The lede is particularly sparkling:
Brünnhilde made a guest appearance Friday night in the middle of J.S. Bach's joyous Cantata No. 51 ("Jauchzet Gott!"), a piece usually sung by lyric sopranos of the Kathleen Battle mold. On the word "Alleluja," a remarkable high C came out of the mouth of Barbara Quintiliani and, parting audience members' hair on the way, blazed out of Faneuil Hall into the night sky.
That might have just made my day.

Where you're terrific if you're even good

A few days ago, while thinking over the latest chapter of Greg Sandow's book-in-progress in performance, I remembered a great comic riff on avant-garde music. It's from the 1964 movie of "The World of Henry Orient," featuring Peter Sellers in one of his early Hollywood roles. He portrays a lecherous concert pianist who's a) having an affair with a married woman, and b) being stalked by two teenage girls who have engineered a rather unlikely crush on him. (It's actually a pretty innocent and sweet movie—it's 1964, after all.) The film establishes Henry Orient's musical bona fides with a set piece in Carnegie Hall: he performs a "modern" piano concerto (during which he gets lost, and only gets through the cadenza with hints from the conductor). If I recall it correctly, the climax of the piece involves an on-stage steam whistle.

Shockingly enough, YouTube, normally reliable for flagrant copyright infringement, was no help in finding this scene online, and nobody else seems to have uploaded it. (A DVD is available, but I'm cheap; you can watch the trailer here.) But you can at least listen to a portion of the concerto on the website of its composer, Ken Lauber. Elmer Bernstein scored the movie, but only after David Raskin was fired from the project, which left the concerto uncomposed at the time of filming. Lauber, a 23-year-old assistant in United Artists' publishing division, got the nod. As he puts it:
The dialogue went something like this...

Mike Stewart [Lauber's boss at UA]: "Hey kid. Can you write a 7 min. piano concerto and record it in three days? We need it for playback for a shoot with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall."

KL: "How much do I get paid and do I get credit?"

Mike Stewart: "You're already getting paid so forget the money. If they use it, I'll see what I can do to get you credit at the end of the film somewhere."
I'll go out on a limb and say that this is the best 3-day, 7-minute avant-garde piano concerto ever written. It's quite entertaining, and, at least musically, a pretty knowing and affectionate pastiche/parody of "modern music" as it was in the 60's (visually, I remember the orchestra members being portrayed as rather eye-rollingly jaded about the piece).

Lauber has gone on to have the kind of career I would probably enjoy, never quite breaking through to wide recognition, but keeping busy on an unusually wide range of projects as a composer, arranger, orchestrator, producer, etc. (He also just started a blog.) Any CV that includes studies with Gene Krupa and Vincent Persichetti, arranging backup choirs for Lieber and Stoller, and scoring everything from avant-garde independent films to TV mini-series to Playboy videos is my kind of résumé.

October 16, 2006

Minor Threats

In which musicians do their part in contributing to the climate of fear.

It seems one of the Vercotti brothers has joined the Seattle Symphony. (Via ArtsJournal.) See, my standmate is a little clumsy. It'd be a shame if he were to break something. (I'm happy to see that Seattle is so quiet and peaceful that would-be terrorists can't find a better cause than Gerard Schwarz. That's like going after a bakery because their bread isn't white enough.)

Update (7/22/09): There used to be a link to a story about George Spicka here. However, per this statement from the Maryland Transportation Authority (MdTA):

"The MdTA advises the public that it has no information connecting George F. Spicka with any illegal activity including an alleged event of October 11, 2006, at Thurgood Marshall Baltimore Washington International Airport (“BWI”). MdTA sincerely regrets any damage to Mr. Spicka of Baltimore County, Maryland, which may have been caused by any prior MdTA statement or press release inconsistent with this present statement.

We are requesting that after making this posting, any prior information or records in regard to this specific event about George F. Spicka be removed from your web site and/or search results."

OK. Anybody actually still reading back this far?

Yeah, those airports can be scary places. Good thing the national no-fly list is on top of noted terrorists like Robert Johnson and John Williams. I suppose Robert Johnson's alleged dealings with the devil might freak out the current administration, but I really don't think you can hold John Williams responsible for "Stepmom" just because he wrote the music. (My favorite part of the story? They keep the names of actual terrorists off the no-fly list so terrorists won't find out that they're on the no-fly list. Our government has been infiltrated by a secret cabal of Oulipians!)

Of course, any activity can be turned to nefarious purposes. From an article in the USAF's Air University Review, March-April 1972:
[T]here may be uses of music that might have military applications. To cite a rather grim example, certain frequencies can kill. Specifically, a sound wave at 7 Hz (much too low to hear) can penetrate the soft tissues of the body, cause them to vibrate sympathetically, and if it lasts long enough the result can be death. Another example: a 37-Hz tone, roughly D in the bottom octave of a piano keyboard, can crack a wall if it is loud enough. The military implications of these examples need not be mentioned.
Put your hands in the air, and back away from the accordion.

October 13, 2006

Talkin' Blues

By a random coincidence, two explorations of language and semitonal pitch crossed my path this week. First, Mark Liberman over at Language Log had a long post on pitch analysis of everyday speech. A team of Dutch linguists analyzed recordings of volunteers reading excerpts from Winnie-the-Pooh—first, some dialogue of Tigger (the happy, hyperactive tiger), and then Eeyore (the pessimistic donkey). Their conclusion: the readers tended to use major intervals for Tigger and minor intervals for Eeyore. The results, needless to say, are highly sketchy; it's a small sample and a rather suggestive methodology. But it's a neat concept, the idea that people associate major and minor with happy and sad even in speech. (Go ahead and open up another can of nature-vs.-nurture over this one.) Liberman then took the next step and did pitch analyses of various other types of recorded speech, finding that most examples did tend to revolve around two or three approximate pitches. (I think that just might be a matter of the natural range of non-trained speakers. I'd be curious to see more results for really well-modulated voices.)

And then, by way of gracious commenter Valdemar Jordan's long-dormant blog, I found Joe Monzo's microtonal analysis of Robert Johnson's "Drunken-Hearted Man." Fascinating, especially his efforts to pin down the exact nature of the "blue" flatted third:

After analyzing this song, I believe I have found a possible reason for hearing the "halfway between" 3rd. Johnson sings a common blues figure in

Robert Johnson muscial example

in the second half of the first two lines. It gives an interval of 11/10 [= (2(2/12) - 35 cents) = 1.65 semitones] between G+ 111 [= 5.51 semitones] and F# 51 [= 3.86 semitones]. If G+ 111 is interpreted casually as the 12-equal G 2(5/12), it makes the F# 51 sound like it could be either F 2(3/12) or F# 2(4/12), or somewhere between.

Short version: the equal-tempered scale makes for a pretty clunky approximation of speech and vernacular singing.

But since my ears are more accustomed to music than speech, I think I actually tend to hear things the other way around. Here's an example. Most American and British speakers tend to end their sentences on the lowest pitch of the sentence. You can hear this in newscasters: there's a baseline "tonic" pitch; most of the sentence is pitched higher than that, but the full-stop punctuation is signaled by a return to that low tonic. (Peter Jennings, in particular, used to do a neat gloss on this: he'd deliberately undersell the final punch line of a story by putting the whole thing on the baseline pitch, like a closing tonic pedal point.)

My current favorite news voice, though, is a gentleman who's been filing reports from India and Pakistan for the NPR morning news roundup. (I haven't been able to catch his name, and the NPR website is useless in this regard. He was on two or three days in a row last week. Can anybody help me out?) His voice, which sits in a tenor-ish range, is very well-modulated: he uses a huge range of pitches, and, like a lot of Anglo-Indian and Anglo-Pakistani accents, the sound is quite melodic. What's interesting, though, is that he finishes his sentences in what, to my ears at least, is a typically subcontinental way—his final one or two syllables are higher than the "tonic" pitch of the sentence, which instead comes on the penultimate or antepenultimate syllable. If I had to put it in equal temperament, it might look like this:

do, mi, mi-flat
I don't know if this is a feature of Indian or Pakistani languages, or if it's something that might have been picked up from indigenous musical style. To me, though, it sounds rather elegantly sly, and infectiously charming, regardless of context. Why? Probably because it reminds me of a jazz inflection—an ornamental blue note after the final tonic chord. It's completely unfounded judgment—my favorable opinion of this man's speech patterns is due to a totally unrelated and culturally irrelevant coincidence derived from my own idiosyncratic musical tastes. But we all form our impressions of people, at least in part, on the basis of the way they talk, and until now, I, for one, never thought very carefully about what that impression might be based on. I wonder how many other intuitive, snap judgments I'm making on the basis of my mental record collection?

October 11, 2006

Mystery Date

I spent last week looking forward to my usual Saturday night fake concert date, where the lovely wife and I sit around the house and listen to the BSO on the radio. Last Saturday's concert had Daniel Barenboim, one of my favorite pianists, playing my favorite Beethoven piece (4th Piano Concerto) and my favorite Schoenberg piece (only Piano Concerto). Levine also programmed Verklärte Nacht, apparently because he likes to lengthen programs solely to annoy the union. (I kid because I love.)

I listen to WGBH for my classical fix, but, in the mornings, the missus and I have the clock-radio set to the other classical station in town, WCRB. WCRB is awfully conservative with their programming, but WGBH chooses to put on "Morning Edition" instead of music, and we've decided that waking up to yet another damn Baroque oboe concerto is marginally preferable to waking up to presidential soundbites. Anyway, the WCRB announcers will periodically throw in one-line teasers for that week's BSO concert. So all last week I was hearing this: "This weekend, James Levine and the Boston Symphony welcome Daniel Barenboim for a concert of Beethoven... and more!"

Don't get me wrong: it's fun to wake up laughing my head off. And I've decided that one of my career goals is to have WCRB announcers refer to me as "and more." But it got me wondering again about something I've always wondered about: why do classical-music organizations devote so much of their advertising to the specific repertoire that's going to be played? Talk about preaching to the choir. Obviously, the marketing types think that Schoenberg's name is going to scare people, but really, the mention of any composer's name is going to drive some portion of your audience away. (Tchaikovsky-haters may be vastly outnumbered by Schoenberg-haters, but trust me, they're out there.) And there's a huge segment of the population for which the mention of any composer is an instant eye-glazer. How do you square this circle? Easy: don't tell the people what you're going to play.

Every time I walk by Symphony Hall here in Boston, I'm met with a phalanx of posters, identical in every way, except for a listing of each concert's repertoire. Instead of a marketing dart aimed at the emotions, I find myself reading fine print. Is this really the best way to get people inside? Sure, there will always be a schedule—I don't think an orchestra could get away with not telling what's going to happen on, say, a subscription series; rich people like to know what they're paying for, right? But that doesn't mean you need to advertise to the non-subscribing public in the same way. If the bulk of your prospective audience doesn't know any classical music (or, more likely, has heard some of the big hits but doesn't know what they're called), telling them what you're playing isn't going to do much. So focus your energies on making it easy for them to take the risk.

Here's one possible scenario: set up another series of concerts. Schedule them on Friday nights, on the late side—9 pm, maybe. Cheap admission: five or six bucks, paid at the door (yeah, it's a loss leader of sorts). And don't advertise the repertoire. Announce everything from the stage. (Better yet, have a beautiful girl in a skimpy outfit put big placards on an easel. It worked for vaudville.)

Yes, it's an extra burden on the orchestra in terms of rehearsals and performances, but not having to plan the repertoire months in advance means flexible programming: you could reprise a piece from a previous subscription concert, preview a piece from an upcoming concert, do a pops piece or two, some contemporary music, throw on a warhorse... change it at the last minute? Sure. You could tailor the concerts to the orchestra's workload, and not the other way around. Your local assistant conductor (quick, name that guy/gal) can get extra podium time and exposure. There's even a possible benefit with your existing audience base: all those snobs who think they're tired of Beethoven? All those stick-in-the-muds who stay away from new music? Can't avoid it if they don't know it's coming, can they?

I sometimes daydream that I'm at a concert like this: the orchestra dives into "Rite of Spring" or "Bolero" or (hey, it's a daydream) "Symphony of Three Orchestras" and the audience applauds at the recognition of the piece, like they do at rock concerts. How cool would that be?

October 10, 2006

These kids today

I am astonished at the foolish music written in these times. It is false and wrong and no longer does anyone pay attention to what our beloved old masters wrote about composition. It certainly must be a remarkably elevated art when a pile of consonances are thrown together any which way.

I remain faithful to the pure old composition and pure rules. I have often walked out of the church since I could no longer listen to that mountain yodelling. I hope this worthless modern coinage will fall into disuse and that new coins will be forged according to the fine old stamp and standard.

Samuel Scheidt, writing to Heinrich Baryphonus,
January 26, 1651

(From Volume 51 of The German Library. Ach! Du Kinder gehen von meinem Rasen weg!)

October 09, 2006

The Fruits of Research

Mystery solved! Not "atonal" at all, but At-tunal, which means "Water-Sun" in Nawat, the language of the Pipil, who are indigenous to El Salvador. It's supposedly the name of a Pipil prince who helped another Pipil, Atlacatl, repel an attempt in 1524 by Cortes henchman Pedro de Alvorado to bring present-day El Salvador under Spanish control. (Alvarado was successful a few years later.)

If you don't know Salvadoran history, the Quick Response Infantry units ("Atlacatl" was the first) were formed in the early 1980's to go after leftist guerillas. After plowing through all the human rights reports that mention the Atonal division, I'm glad to find the name has nothing to do with music.

Going to the Chapel

For my wife: in gratitude for another year, and in hopes of many, many more.

Discoveries of America

Over at aworks—just in time for Columbus Day—Robert Gable had an interesting comment this past weekend, a gloss on Steve Smith's reactions to winning the Deems Taylor award (congratulations, by the way—anyone who can go from death metal to King Crimson to Korngold [as he did recently] and maintain not only sanity, but a high level of intelligence and empathy, deserves as many awards as there are). Steve wrote:
And truthfully, it works both ways: Knowing Mozart's music doesn't require me to know Schnittke's, but knowing Schnittke's music enriches my engagement with Mozart's.
And Robert responded:
This is so wrong *grin*. Every year that I listen to Ives/Cage/Reich, I lose my ear for European music. I need to be precise here; I've probably listened to Sibelius more recently than any other non-American composer but it's all those German/Austrian guys, circa 19th century, that I no longer relate to. I never expected that.
They're both right—the more you know about Mozart (or Mendelssohn, or Beethoven, or whoever he's channeling at the moment), the more you appreciate Schnittke. But enjoying Cage or Reich doesn't really require any knowledge of past repertoire. (I'd disagree slightly about Ives, who was more engaged with 18th-century Romanticism than he likes to let on.) I don't think this is just a function of quotation or stylistic games, either; I think it's an American/European thing.

Think about it: the experience of most European music is enriched by a knowledge of their predecessors, even when there's not an overt link. You know Chopin better if you know Bach. You know Debussy better if you know Wagner. You know Mahler better if you know, well, just about everybody, really. In the modern era, too: Britten and Purcell, Webern and Isaac, Barraque and Beethoven, to name a few. But most recognizably "American" composers never really fall into this category. (The one obvious exception is Bernstein, an omnivore of Mahlerian dimensions. Copland and Stravinsky? Nah.) Consciously or subconsciously, both the composers and their listeners are continuing this country's long tradition of trying to surpass the old world by ignoring it.

In Europe (WARNING: large but entertaining overgeneralizations directly ahead), the usual path to cultural innovation is to first engage the past head-on and demonstrate its alleged obsolescence. Manifestos denouncing the present state of artistic affairs are common. Scandalous premieres abound (point being, they wouldn't be all that scandalous if they weren't being presented as the modern equivalent to the great works of yore—to have a scandal, you need a crowd that can be scandalized). The goal is to challenge and defeat the history of art on its own turf. Over here, though, the usual way is to pretend that the past doesn't exist, that the culture is an empty page on which the artist can inscribe anything. Cowell's early music comes out of left field with regard to the musical culture of its time. Cage as well—there's no effort wasted on explaining what he did and didn't learn, or unlearn, from Schoenberg. He just starts putting music out there. Think of Philip Glass: trained in a European vein, he completely erases that aspect of his musical thinking when he turns to minimalism, withdrawing and trashing his entire catalog. What's interesting here is the blank-slate aspect: the ideal seems to be that of the fait accompli, sprung full-grown from the forehead of new music, as it were.

There are plenty of American composers that don't fit this description, of course, but they tend to be thought of as more "European" than the others. Elliott Carter, for instance: even now, in his grand-old-man-of-American-music phase, I never read anything about him that doesn't see fit to mention how much more popular he is in Europe. Given the relative cultural landscapes, I'd bet that Steve Reich is more popular in Europe than he is here. But it's not pertinent to Reich's music, which is perceived as more authentically "American." The difference? Carter's music engages the European "modernist" past (albeit from an American perspective). Reich's ignores it. It's the American way.

I've been reading Henry Adams' huge History of the United States during the Jefferson and Madison Administrations. Most of it has to do with foreign policy—specifically, in the midst of the Napoleonic upheavals in Europe, America's struggle to remain neutral and above the fray. It wasn't just a tactical move, or an economic concern. Government officials saw the United States as historically beyond the old European ways, and were afraid that any contact with European quarrels would somehow taint and infect the ideals of the new nation. Old habits are hard to break: witness our long-standing and, unfortunately, current addiction to isolationism followed by rash unilateral action. But it's the same tendencies that give rise to the American artistic habit of staking your claim out on the aesthetic frontier and not looking back. Me, I'm a backwards-glancing omnivore; if anybody ever sees fit to write about my music, expect qualifications about my relative popularity here and abroad. But my appetite happily encompasses Reich and Cage and Feldman and all the rest. It's too bad we can't make sure people with an ahistorical bent go into music instead of government.

October 06, 2006

"His accordion's done wonders for his personality"

Today's news round-up: now with pictures!

Dvorak in America posterOpening this weekend: Dvořák: The Musical! "Young love, mature love and illicit love are all a part of the summer in this new world." A bushel and a peck, and a hug around the Czech....

Klimt portrait of Adele Bloch-BauerRemember this painting? The one expropriated by the Nazis? The one recently returned to the family of its one-time owners and then sold for $135 million? Know who's getting a forty-percent cut of that? Arnold Schoenberg's grandson.

atonal patchSpeaking of which, I suppose if the Pentagon ever extends "don't ask, don't tell" into the realm of compositional proclivities, at least Salvadoran serialists will still be able to serve their country. (Seriously, every Spanish-English dictionary I have says "atonal" is the same in both languages. Can somebody enlighten me on this? And where do I get one?)

accordion comic"Tom sure gets around since he learned to play the accordion." Hey, they don't call it a squeezebox for nothing, honey. (With special thanks to Lisa Boucher and Katie Hamill.)

October 05, 2006

Division of Labor

The piece I’ve been working on (yep, same one—who do you think I am, Dennis Báthory-Kitsz?) is for two instruments, and in the movement I’m looking at, one of the instruments is working a lot harder than the other one. This wasn’t by design, but it got me thinking about what a piece that was designed that way would be like. I mean a piece where the technical demands of each respective instrument were so divergent that it was noticeable to the listener.

I’m not counting didactic pieces, where one part is for the student and one for the teacher, or occasional pieces written for amateur performers (like Barber’s “Excursions”)—with that type of music, if it’s done well, the contrast in skill is mediated, rather than exploited. I want music where the disparity is part of the drama. I’ve only ever heard one piece like this: a Charles Wuorinen song called “Christes Crosse,” really a recomposition of a song by Thomas Morley. (There’s an mp3 sample on Wuorinen’s website.) The soprano sings a simple hymn-like tune over and over again; with each repeat, the piano realization becomes more dense, complex, and frenzied. I’m not sure what effect Wuorinen was aiming for, but in performance, the result is a Beckettesque comedy of desperation. The pianist struggles mightily, while the singer grows ever more alienated from the collaboration, ultimately oblivious to the accompanist’s suffering.

There must be other examples—I can’t imagine that Cage or Berio (two likely suspects) never thought of something like this. The effective possibilities are intriguing; I could imagine using the idea to allude to narratives of cruelty, indifference, political disenfranchisement, stoicism, or slapstick.

What’s really interesting to me is that there was a time when I wouldn’t have even been able to come up with this idea. I remember a couple of years where my compositional thinking became so divorced from the physical necessity of performance that I was writing abstract sound, without any thought of how it would be produced. My guess is most composers go through a phase like this. I can’t imagine they stay there for long, though: we need performers, or else we perform the music ourselves. But I’m only realizing now that one of the main tenets of my aesthetic view of the world—the wonderful messiness of life—makes that materialist side of creating music a particularly enticing playground.

October 04, 2006

"Une lune rose et grise"

One of my several jobs is accompanying singers. (Composer? "Job" implies money to me.) I've been at it on and off since high school; I like singers (I even married one in one of my smarter moments), I like the repertoire, I like the fact that, in performance, the audience is paying more attention to the soprano's dress than to anything I do. But one of the things I've never gotten quite used to is the multiplicity of keys.

In song repertoire, singers never let their particular voice type dictate their choice of material. Most pre-WWII vocal works are published in two keys, high and low. In the old days, pianists would also be expected to transpose at sight up or down a step or two to accommodate particularly fussy divas. By the time I got into the business, that sort of thing was frowned upon—I've only ever had to do it a handful of times. But now, thanks to notation software and online services like Schubertline, it's making a comeback. Which is how, last week, I was introduced to the dubious pleasure of playing Fauré's "Mandoline" in F major.

"Mandoline" is a Verlaine setting in which the singer views a party from some distance; wry comments about the attendees are followed by a rhapsodic description of their elegance as they seem to dissolve in the moonlit air. Debussy set it as well, and he changes the musical material with the mood of the poem, but Fauré seems to do very little musically—a quiet, jaunty figure in the piano conjures the title instrument, and a returning rising scale between stanzas directs our view from detail to detail. A contrasting section introduces some whirling arpeggios to illustrate the turn of the dance; and that's about it. But Fauré chooses just the right key: the mandolin starts to play in G major, bright enough for wit, but not so bright that it's catty. And at the first scene change, the rising scale is suddenly in F#, all the black keys coming into play—a sudden bit of legerdemain that perfectly captures the swoon of disorientation in the dim light, not to mention the whole affair's hushed choreography as perceived from without.

G major, though, is considered the "low" or "medium" key—the "high" key is A-flat. Now the whole piece sounds deep and subdued, like old wood paneling. The contrast of moods is diminished, the shift of focus now in a comparatively prosaic G. But the A-flat version is still better than F. Fauré took great care to make his accompaniments pianistically elegant; even the most technically demanding of his piano parts lend themselves to the illusion of suave effortlessness. A-flat sits on the black keys enough to allow you the flatten out the fingers and glide, but the F major transposition is impossibly clunky. Chords that are tossed off in G now require odd shifts of the wrist, and the thumb keeps landing just a little too hard. The whole thing sounds deliberate and turgid.

Which, of course, it shouldn't, since we live in an equal-tempered world, and all those keys are supposed to sound the same, right? But they don't, because each key still retains its own place in the sonic spectrum, and its own physicality, be it of the hand or of the voice. (If you think a half-step difference between a "low" key and a "high" key is trivial, you haven't hung around singers very much.) On the keyboard, keys in which the root is a black key are always going to sound different from their white-key counterparts because of the way they fit under the fingers.

Some pieces don't transpose for obvious reasons. (I once encountered some Duparc songs in the low key; they were so far down on the keyboard I couldn't tell what I was playing half the time.) And sometimes you trade one evil for another: a few years back, I played the Schumann op. 24 Liederkreis in a transposition for "low voice," and I was so horrified to find that the Peters edition didn't maintain Schumann's key relationships that I ended up writing out half the cycle myself. In retrospect, I wonder if the editor wasn't sacrificing that aspect of the piece in order to choose keys that more closely matched the color of the originals. (On the other hand, the old Peters edition left out the last song of op. 24, which I can only attribute to insanity. Particularly if you know the penultimate song.)

Composers are more sensitive to this sort of thing now. The only major post-WWII composer I can think of who published most songs in high and low keys was Barber. I think the same concerns hold for atonal music as well—certainly Ligeti got a lot of mileage out of the white-key/black-key dichotomy of the keyboard, and for an older example, compare numbers 4 and 5 of the Schoenberg Sechs kleine Klavierstücke. But now that transposition is available at the click of a mouse, I fear an entire generation of singers is going to assume the license to try out different keys until they find the one that's the most comfortable. And ultimately, it's not about which key is the most comfortable; it's about which key sounds right.

October 03, 2006

I couldn't p now if I tried

I was home sick all day yesterday. I hate being home sick. It's one thing to be home all day and feeling great, just sitting around and doing absolutely nothing. But illness requires constant distraction from the fact that my head feels like a medicine ball full of hot mayonnaise. Luckily, there are economists in the world.

Specifically, economists Tyler Cowen and Gabriel Rossman, who both pointed the way to the 1993 General Social Survey. The National Opinion Research Center has been doing these every couple of years; they tabulate all kinds of opinions—cultural, religious, political—so you can cross-reference them. And in 1993, they saw fit to ask everybody how much they liked classical music.

So now I know that, for example, we classical music lovers are also avid campers (the more red the box, the more significant the correlation):

chart comparing incidence of camping with preference for classical musicAnd that we want more trains and buses:

chart comparing desired mass transit spending with preference for classical musicAnd that we're a bunch of drunks:

chart comparing consumption of alcohol with preference for classical musicBy now, logical types among you are limbering up your fingers to post comments regarding post hoc fallacies and what-not. ("Your love of classical music has nothing to do with the fact that you're drunk," etc.) But if recent history has taught me one thing, it's that, as an American, I have a God-given right to narrowly interpret ambiguous data to suit whatever conclusions I please. Besides, apart from repeated exposure to Peter Grimes, how to explain this?

chart comparing preference for spanking children with preference for classical musicWhat about Der Freischütz?

chart comparing incidence of gun in the home with preference for classical musicMadama Butterfly?

chart comparing acceptability of suicide to avoid family dishonor with preference for classical musicOn the other hand, we seem to have forgotten how Don Giovanni ends.

chart comparing number of sexual partners in past year with preference for classical musicHow many sexual partners a year? Eleven to twenty. In Spain alone!

(Title courtesy of Mark Glickman, who has more silliness here. Click here to get all the jokes.)

October 02, 2006

Les animaux modèles

Like all one-time Bostonians who have been chased west of town by the Wellesian extravagance of the housing market, I spend a great deal of my life on the Massachusetts Turnpike. As such, I see the Boston Symphony's billboard right around Watertown every day. And here's this season's new marketing slogan: Defining tradition & innovation.

Ugh. Unless you're going to follow that with the phrase "and letting them tear at each other like rabid dogs," I can't think of a worse, more forgettable tag for a performing arts orgaization. Even something like "Our audience is old, and our repertoire is older" at least has the virtue of clarity. So I sit there on the pike, wondering a) how I can get a nice sinecure in the BSO marketing department, and b) just what I'd do if I were serious about putting a civic arts organization front-and-center in its hometown's consciousness. And I start to think: what this orchestra needs is a mascot.

Now, if the word "mascot" makes you think that I mean something like the San Diego Chicken and his Muppet-esque progeny, let me reassure you: yeah, that's pretty much exactly what I mean.

A couple of months ago, critic-at-large Moe and I were down on Boston Common to hear the Boston Landmarks Orchestra premiere Julian Wachner's children's piece, Lifting the Curse. Since the piece had a Red Sox theme, the team sent over Wally the Green Monster to kibitz with the kids and take pictures before the show. Wally was a big hit with the kids, naturally; but his presence also was a great signal to the grown-ups that, yes, it was OK to treat the concert a little informally, and yes, it was OK to have fun.

I'm not saying that our friend Skippy here should be warming up the crowd prior to Il canto sospeso or the Penderecki Threnody. But for free concerts, kids' concerts, etc., it's just the sort of goofy yet festive touch you need to put the newbies at ease. And for parades, neighborhood festivals, and the like, well, it's not like you can drive around the whole orchestra in an open-top car. But you can send over Skippy and a few brass players to serenade the crowd. The fact is, there's so much competing for the average citizen's attention these days, if you want to be a beloved local institution, you're going to have to do some legwork. Besides, it's the perfect comeback to all those complaints about how stodgy and uptight orchestras are. How uptight can you be if you're willing to pay somebody to run all over town in a foam-rubber suit?