January 30, 2007

Where Are We Going? And What Are We Eating?

Baked Carrots

12 medium-sized or 6 large carrots, scraped
3 tablespoons sesame oil
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons chopped parsley or toasted sesame seeds (for garnish)

Soak a covered clay baking dish for 1/2 hour. Place the carrots in the bottom and sprinkle with the sesame oil. Dust with a little salt and pepper, cover, and place the dish in a cold oven. Set the thermostat at 400º and bake for about 1 hour, or until the carrots are lightly caramelized, turning occasionally. Serve immediately, sprinkled with parsley or sesame seeds.

—John Cage

From The Boston Symphony Cookbook (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983). I'll post more as I try them. (Coming soon: Barbara Kolb's Meat Loaf Soufflé.)

Correction (1/29): I got the title wrong. The Cage piece I was thinking of, a culinary gloss on his earlier lecture-piece, is actually called "Where Are We Eating? and What Are We Eating?" It's reprinted in the collection Empty Words.

January 29, 2007

Peccadilles Importunes

Templier Erik Satie coverThe book of the week here at Soho the Dog HQ is Erik Satie, Pierre-Daniel Templier's pioneering 1932 biography, translated into English by Elena L. and David S. French in 1969. (Dig the groovy pink cover at right.) Templier, working with Satie's brother Conrad, produced a remarkably judicious account—although he did miss several of Satie's works and one of his sisters. Still, it's an impressive feat of putting an entire career in perspective, especially coming less than a decade after the subject's death.

Templier, even at this early date, was already wrestling with one of the trickiest aspects of Satie criticism: is the importance of Satie due to the intrinsic quality of his music, or his role as a patron saint to one avant-garde movement after another? Templier warns us:
This book was not written to sing the praise of Satie the prophet: it is precisely this quality which has been used to mask the real musical value of his compositions.
True enough; but any assessment of Satie has to note his unusual talent for finding successive generations of enfants terrible to mentor. Ravel and the Société Musicale Indépendente, the Nouveaux Jeunes and Les Six, Cocteau and Picabia, Dada and Surrealism—Satie managed to get in on the ground floor again and again, and at twice the age of his young colleagues. Templier again:
When he had conceived and produced a work for which he adopted a new style, he would immediately perceive its drawbacks, its weak spots and deformations, as well as the processes by which his new idea would later be altered. This foresight may have prevented him from expressing himself more fully.... Never satisfied with his achievements, he was always searching for something new; at the age of 55 he said to his friends: "If anyone were to find something really new, I would start again at the beginning."
What's more, it was this association with each newer movement that finally brought Satie the stature he craved. You start to see the problem: if it wasn't for Satie's position as a proto-this and -that, Satie wouldn't have written a lot of the music that his reputation should be resting on, rather than his position as a precursor to multiple streams of modern art. The dusty, traditional tripartite structure—life, personality, works—proves an aid to Templier in this regard. He's able to discuss Satie's career, speculate on his motivations, and talk about the music without having to decide exactly how they all fit together, if they ever even did.

You can sense Templier's relief when he gets to talk about Socrate, the one major, high-profile work in which Satie seemed to be aiming for something timeless and personal. But even that is balanced by Templier's recognition that the usual great-artist clichés crumble to dust as soon as they come in contact with Satie.
If [the ballets] "Mercure" and "Relâche" did not meet with great success, it is not because these works are inferior, but because they were overshadowed by "Socrate." In the minds of "serious" people, Satie did not have the right to "sully his hands" with these two ballets, which appeared to them as a regression. To forgive such ups and downs, they could only have invoked the excuse of genius, which is what they did in the case of Picasso and Stravinsky. Satie, however, was considered to be not an artist of genius but simply a practical joker....
A worthwhile read, the book is out of print, but not terribly hard to find. (All good people spend inordinate amounts of time in libraries and used book stores anyways, right?) One more interesting thing: it often seems that either Templier or his translators are consciously aiming for a literary analogue to Satie's musical style: aphoristic and solidly constructed sentences that put the more eccentric and poetic touches into higher relief for being stated so directly. (I once read somewhere that John Cage hated this translation, but Cage was known to be rather touchy and protective regarding all things Satie-related.) Again, Satie himself complicates this judgment: it may very well be that the author(s) were emulating Satie's own prose style, of which there is an ample supply. But I would guess that, for such a stylistic experiment, Satie would prove a good subject. The only other similar exercise I can think of is that recent classic, Louis Andriessen and Elmer Schönberger's The Apollonian Clockwork: On Stravinsky— although Jerrold Northrop Moore's Elgar: A Creative Life, which intriguingly attempts to reconstruct Elgar's compositional thought process, sometimes approaches this territory.

Finally, I can't resist this passage, which Templier quotes. For a time, Satie contributed to a neighborhood newspaper, writing little squibs promoting local events and businesses. Here's his ad for a dancing school:
is less fun than a visit to 60 Rue Emile-Raspail—chez l'Ami Jacob—the dancing school "La marguerite."
I'm sold.

January 26, 2007

Allegra non troppo

In a discovery that has implications for all kinds of things that are probably best left to the imagination, it turns out that listening to Mozart can make you less allergic to latex. Need to read that again? Yeah, I thought so.
[L]istening to Mozart reduced allergen-induced skin wheal responses with a concomitant decrease of total and allergen-specific IgE production. The reduction of wheal response was allergen-specific because listening to Mozart had no effect on histamine-induced wheal responses, that were not allergen-specific.
That's from "Listening to Mozart Reduces Allergic Skin Wheal Responses and In Vitro Allergen-specific IgE Production in Atopic Dermatitis Patients With Latex Allergy" by Hajime Kimata, published in the journal Behavioral Medicine in Spring 2003—you can read the abstract here. (IgE, by the way, is an immunoglobulin in the blood that is often responsible for allergic reactions; one of the symptoms it causes is swelling, which lets you test a reaction by pricking the skin, irritating it with a small amount of an allergen, and seeing how much the spot swells up.) Dr. Kimata performed skin prick tests on latex-allergic volunteers before and after a half-hour of Mozart recordings. Interestingly, he also tried a half-hour of Beethoven.
[T]he skin wheal responses induced by latex or histamine were not changed after listening to Beethoven. In contrast, the wheal responses induced by latex, but not by histamine, were significantly reduced after listening to Mozart. Moreover, whereas listening to Beethoven had no effect on in vitro production of total IgE and latex-specific IgE by mononuclear cells, listening to Mozart significantly reduced in vitro production of total IgE and latex-specific IgE.
...I have also studied the effect of other classical music. Listening to Haydn (Trumpet Concerto in E-flat major 1st mov: Allegro, Symphony No. 101 in D major The Clock, 1st mov: Adagio-Presto, 2nd mov: Andante, 3rd mov: Menuetto; Allegretto, and 4th mov: Finale; Vivace) or Brahms (Clarinet Quintet in B minor 1st mov., Symphony No. 2 in D major 3rd mov., Symphony No. 1 in C minor 3rd mov., and Symphony No. 3 in F major 3rd mov.) failed to reduce allergic skin wheal responses (data not shown).
Dr. Kimata, head of the allergy department at Satou Hospital in Osaka, Japan, has also determined that allergic reactions can also be lessened by funny movies, sad movies, and getting from first base all the way around to home. Who knew that, every time Don Giovanni scratched his itch, it left him with a little less itch to scratch?

January 25, 2007

We can't all, and some of us don't

The new year has brought a renewed spate of gloomy forecasts for the future of classical music. Just among the heavy hitters, Greg Sandow warns, Terry Teachout concurs, Alex Ross demurs, and Kyle Gann opts for Apollonian detachment. As far as I’m concerned, they’ve all got it right. Sandow et al are correct in saying that classical music is in crisis, but really, classical music has always been in some sort of crisis, artistic or economic; Ross et al are correct to say that there’s good news out there, but again, there’s always been some sort of good news out there. And Gann et al are correct to say that limiting your focus to mainstream classical music means ignoring a lot of less easily categorizable musical activity; again, nothing new there (after all, the opposing sides in the Querelle des Bouffons remained undistracted by the composition of the enduring masterpiece "Yankee Doodle" on the other side of the Channel).

That's a deeply dissatisfying answer, isn't it? We want somebody to be right, and everybody else to be wrong. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, my own opinion probably falls somewhere in between Ross and Gann—Sandow’s analysis of an aging audience, which is based mostly on orchestral concert attendance, is balanced by what I see as entrepreneurial energy in chamber and new music groups (some of them pretty far removed from what we would consider as traditional classical music), and I think that digital technology is changing the rules of recording and distribution in a way that alters that economic landscape in favor of performers. And yes, symphony orchestras are going to feel an economic pinch, but, given their institutionalized fundraising, that doesn’t mean they’re going to disappear, particularly the big ones—consider the Boston Symphony’s $300 million endowment.

The thing about predictions, though, is they're equal parts expression of faith and factual extrapolation; in other words, I don't consider myself to be right, just (uncharacteristically for me) optimistic based on what I can see. The point is, one's opinion as to the future course of the arts depends as much on aesthetic personality as it does on analysis. I’m not saying that arguing one way or another is necessarily a sign of sophistry or cynical calculation—far from it. But our aesthetic personalities aren't imposed from without by force of logic, they're something that all of us who care about artistic values construct for ourselves. That personality affects not just how we perceive art, but the state of the art as well. You’d be correct to say that music as we know it is not long for this world, but that’s always going to be the case: music (like the rest of the arts) is continually in flux, constantly innovating, constantly reacting, constantly adapting to the twists and turns of history and technology—it’s a creative endeavor, after all. Whether you view that perennial change as good or bad is up to you, but not to worry: both views can be artistically fruitful.

Example: British composer, conductor, critic and wit Constant Lambert. Over the past few years, Lambert has become one of my favorite composers, and I think he's one of the most fascinating musical figures of the 20th century. He's a bundle of contradictions: a musical classicist who gave serious recognition to jazz (particularly Duke Ellington) long before anyone else did, a contibutor to progressive journals whose comments could reveal casual racism and anti-Semitism, a prodigy who managed to survive into productive adulthood and then destroyed himself with drink and iatrophobia. (If anyone out there ever asks me to write a musical biography, be prepared for a Lambert pitch.)

Back on topic: one of the main features of the artistic persona that Lambert adopted was to present himself as the last of a dying breed, a poignantly witty witness to the decay of the Western musical tradition. And you have to admit, the artistic results were well worth it. Compositionally, Lambert projects an infectious, dynamic melancholy that's a rich combination of elegiac Romanticism and brittle, jazzy modernism; as a critic, he wrote one of the all-time great musical jeremiads, Music Ho! (Haven’t read it? Head to the library—best I can tell, it’s shamefully out-of-print.) The subtitle is revealing: A Study of Music in Decline. But the book is hardly sad; the musical analyses are lapidary and incisive, and the writing itself is unfailingly lively. Obviously, Western art music hasn’t died out in the years since 1931, but Lambert’s pessimism on that count crucially fueled his artistic activity, which remains engaging and vital a half-century after his death.

It's a touchy chicken-and-egg problem: does pessimism (or optimism) fuel a person's particular artistic values, or are those values shaped by the person's predisposed outlook on life? (And what about avoiding conflict by putting tough questions in a large enough perspective that one can instead muse on the complex process of developing a personal aesthetic? Hmmm....) I think there’s also an interesting study to be made comparing decline-and-fall narratives across topics and media; a lot of the ones I can think of off the top of my head, from Jeremiah to Gibbon to Waugh to Auden, are far more vigorous than you’d expect from the subject matter. (Check out Nik Cohn’s Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom, for example, a late ‘60s eulogy for rock-and-roll that has more energy and point than almost anything else ever written on popular music.) Nietzsche once tried to pin this idea down, in the final version of The Birth of Tragedy:
Is there a pessimism of strength? An intellectual predilection for the hard, gruesome, evil, problematic aspect of existence, prompted by well-being, by overflowing health, by the fullness of existence?
No doubt, for some artists, there’s a bigger charge in channeling Cassandra than Pangloss. Do I take their gloom-and-doom with a grain of salt? Sure, and I’d bet they’d do likewise if I tried to let the sunshine in. But it’s the salt that brings out the flavor.

Update (1/29): Alex Ross has a post on upward trends in the classical recording business that's filled with good links.

January 23, 2007

Your tax dollars at work

OIS support was finally limited to obtaining recordings for radio broadcasting purposes, selected experimentally as to type and quantity. LINCOLN's requirement of recordings (without indication of quantity) of "typical Guatemalan marimba music" could not be supplied through normal commercial channels. OIS therefore ultimately arranged through a cleared agent in New York to hire professional musicians and have recordings made at a professional studio, OIS supervising the selection of musical numbers recorded. The cost of obtaining these recordings, which totalled three hours of playing time, was approximately $800, apart from the cost of liaison and supervision and time and travel expenditures for our search for records from commercial sources.

The recordings were brought to headquarters immediately on completion and were reproduced on tapes by TSS as a precaution against loss or damage and for better technical results in radio broadcasting. TSS gave a priority to this work and the records and a set of tapes were turned over to the Barton Hall office to be sent by air freight to LINCOLN. Through misunderstanding of shipping instructions or negligence in picking up the shipment at LINCOLN, there was a delay of at least two weeks in the receipt of this material by persons cognizant of the requirement. OIS was informed in the course of ope[r]ation that a library of recordings was being acquired directly at LINCOLN. The extent of duplication of effort or cost that may have occurred is unknown. After termination of the operation OIS was informed that typical regional music had been picked up from a Honduran night club and used for rebroadcasting. Whether this rendered superfluous the special procurement of recordings in New York is unknown.
From a report entitled "RQM/OIS Support of PBSUCCESS", dated July 21, 1954 (via the CIA Freedom of Information Act Electronic Reading Room). PBSUCCESS was the code name for the CIA-led overthrow of Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz that year. OIS is the CIA's Office of Intelligence Support; TSS stands for Technical Services Staff. LINCOLN was the temporary CIA station set up in Florida to plan for the coup, which included broadcating propaganda into Guatemala via the radio station La Voz de la Liberacion (The voice of liberation).

January 22, 2007

Cakewalking Towards Gomorrah

The Model Factory bars 1-4Guerrieri: Three Utopian Rags
1. "The Model Factory" (PDF, 5 pages, 141 KB)
2. "The Old Phalanstery" (PDF, 2 pages, 76 KB)
3. "The Fellow Traveler" (PDF, 6 pages, 196 KB)

One of my New Year's resolutions (for 2006, that is—never let it be said that I don't procrastinate vigorously and enthusiastically) was to have my composer website up and running. No website yet, but at least I have a domain, so here's a bit of ragtime to get things started. (Thanks to Mark Meyer for forcing the issue and providing technical help.)

January 21, 2007

Giusto mezzo

A profile of Susan Graham.
Boston Globe, January 21, 2007.

Somthing that didn't make it into the article that's worth mentioning is a piece I wasn't familiar with, Ernest Chausson's Poeme de l'amour et de la mer for mezzo-soprano and orchestra. (There's a couple of free mp3s of questionable legality on the Web; I won't link to them, but they're not hard to find. Graham has recorded the piece as well.) Graham sang it on a European tour last year with conductor Phillipe Jordan, who learned the piece from his father, Armin Jordan, who used to perform the work with Felicity Lott. It's a gorgeous slice of French Romanticism, kind of a Gallic counterpart to Elgar's Sea Pictures.

Chausson is often dismissed mainly because he wasn't Debussy, much the same way that 19th-century French academic painting is unfavorably compared with Impressionism. Chausson has something in common with those older painters—they take a dramatic situation or mood, then put a certain distance between the audience and the drama via careful composition and a polished surface. In Chausson, the result is a kind of reticent grandeur that I've always found intriguing.

Update (1/22): My taste is validated: it turns out that the Poèmes already have a formidable fan club led by Opera Chic.

January 19, 2007

Funfair for the Common Man

Illinois Symphony posterHere's my prescription for a successful symphony orchestra: cheap tickets and a ton of new music. Pipe dream, nothing—I'm merely picking up where the Federal Music Project left off. Part of the New Deal-era Works Progress Administration, the FMP was tasked with finding work for thousands of unemployed musicians around the country and promoting American culture while they were at it. In the end, if they never achieved the notoriety of the art, writing, or (especially) theatre projects, the FMP didn't do too bad, and in some cases, the results were truly impressive in terms of both artistic value and attendance (in fact, on the latter score, they had the theatre program beat).

The FMP eventually organized 34 full symphony orchestras around the country—two in New York City alone—as well as chamber orchestras, concert bands, dance bands, and quartets, quintets, and sextets of all varieties. (Conlon Nancarrow, fresh back from the Spanish Civil War, conducted a group here in Boston.) You can see the ticket prices for the Illinois Symphony on their poster up there (via the Library of Congress): anywhere from 15 cents (for the rabble) up to 55 cents (if you were feeling particularly luxe). That's pretty much in line with other FMP-sponsored ensembles—that is, when they weren't giving it away for free at outdoor venues or school outreach concerts. As for the programming, orchestras adopted an unprecedentedly American slant: for example, over the course of the FMP's seven-season lifetime (1935-1943), Philadelphia's WPA Civic Symphony programmed American composers on forty-three percent of their concerts (nearly double the rate of the Phildelphia Orchestra), including a host of premieres from local composers: Samuel Lacier, Arthur Cohn, Harl MacDonald, Otto Mueller, James Francis Cooke—and the fact that none of those names graduated to the household variety is what's so great about it. These were local musicians playing music by local composers for local audiences, and by all accounts, the audiences ate it up. The Civic Symphony alone averaged over 1,000 people per concert over their brief lifetime. (Facts and figures from this fascinating article by Arthur J. Jarvis; Alex Ross tried to track down some of the FMP composers a while back.)

And, yes, they were doing it while going up against the established Philadelphia Orchestra. The situation was common: the Illinois Symphony, for example, was sharing a town with Frederick Stock's Chicago Symphony Orchestra, but carved out its own niche with adventurous programming and newsworthy premieres.
When great Finnish Composer Sibelius' Fifth and Sixth Symphonies got their first Chicago hearings, it was not the venerable Chicago Symphony but the sprouting Illinois Symphony that played them. The Illini played few symphonic chestnuts, never repeated a composition. By the end of last season they were giving even more "first performances" than Serge Koussevitzky's pioneering Boston Symphony. Some of their firsts were imported, some domestic. [In March of 1939] they played their hundredth composition by a U. S. composer.
That's from a Time magazine profile of the Illinois Symphony's conductor, Izler Solomon. The Illinoisians focused on modern novelties and cleaned up at the box office, actually turning a profit off of those 55-cent tickets. As Time put it, the Symphony "was rated as Chicago's spiciest highbrow musical institution, and Chicago's wide-awake concertgoers were afraid to stay away for fear of missing something good."

Could a program like this exist today? There's almost certainly enough musicians out there—maybe not as many as in the 1930's, when even movie theaters continued to have live bands, but most major metropolitan areas already field at least one freelance orchestra in addition to the local civic insitution. (There are two that I can think of that even emulate the Illinois Symphony's programming philosophy—the American Composers' Orchestra in New York and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project—but the freelance aspect limits their season to only a few concerts a year.) Brand-new music is a built-in "unique selling proposition," to use the appropriate jargon, and the focus on local composers could probably expand from a point of local interest to one of local pride if the ensemble built a high enough profile. The ticket price? There's the rub—live performance has become so cost-intensive that there's no chance of the equivalent of a 15-cent admission without some serious outside funding, be that private or governmental. Right now, the modus operandi of the NEA and similar state and local funding bodies is to support specific projects undertaken by existing groups, but the FMP experience hints that a better approach might just be to start your own band—it's a jobs program, an economy-booster, and a community-builder rolled into one. Of thee I sing, baby!

January 18, 2007


Slouching has never been so cool—now you can park your retrograde tonal answer on an authentic replica of Glenn Gould's chair. Designer René Bouchara and Italian furniture manufacturer Cazzaro have teamed up to offer the sunken seat, which is being offered at the introductory price of 990 euros. Me, I'm waiting for it to be marked down.

The Long Goodbye

From Phil over at Dial "M":
Here's the Dial M thought for the day:

The aesthetic ideal of pop is the perfect realization of the expected pattern.
Because of this, he goes on to say, "pop is a classicizing aesthetic, not an innovating, modernizing one". Which probably goes a long way towards explaining the enduring popularity of Mozart.

Hey, wait a minute—isn't Phil talking about American Idol? Same difference, I say: the main reason Mozart still packs 'em in, relatively speaking, is the main reason people can't seem to get enough of the not-terribly-suspenseful "suspense" dished out by Simon Cowell et al. You see, they're both a lot like a detective novel.

In his witty essay "The Myth of Superman" (reprinted in The Role of the Reader), Umberto Eco has a fascinating digression about detective novels.
The reader of detective stories can easily make an honest self-analysis to establish the modalities that explain his 'consuming' them. First, from the beginning the reading of a traditional detective story presumes the enjoyment of following a scheme: from the crime to the discovery and the resolution through a chain of deductions.
Eco points out that this particular "iterative scheme" includes not just the basic outline of the story, but a "fixed schematism involving the same sentiments and the same psychological attitudes"—returning characters show little emotional development from story to story. What's more, the habits, preferences, and recognizable tics of the characters are also part of the scheme: Sherlock Holmes' pipe and violin, Nero Wolfe's orchids, Lord Peter’s incunabula, etc. Such props and mannerisms let us "find an old friend in the character portrayed, and they are the principal conditions which allow us to 'enter in' to the event."
The attraction of the book, the sense of repose, of psychological extension which it is capable of conferring, lies in the fact that, plopped in an easy chair or in the seat of a train compartment, the reader continuously recovers, point by point, what he already knows, what he wants to know again: that is why he has purchased the book.
Eco compares this with eighteenth-century popular fiction, in which "the event was founded upon a development and the character was required to 'consume' himself through to death." This was the preferred entertainment for a time in which ideas of class, morality, and tradition were fixed, unchanging, and continually reinforced. People living in a society of such constant, redundant messages had no need of redundancy in their fiction. Goodbye to all that, though:
In a contemporary industrial society, instead, the alternation of standards, the dissolution of tradition, social mobility, the fact that models and principles are 'consumable'—everything can be summed up under the sign of a continuous load of information which proceeds by way of massive jolts, implying a continual reassessment of sensibilities, adaptation of psychological assumptions, and requalification of intelligence. Narrative of a redundant nature would appear in this panorama as an indulgent invitation to repose, the only occasion of true relaxation offered to the consumer.
Which is as sensible an explanation for the modern popularity of Mozart as any I've ever heard. People whose societal expectations have been continually upended crave redundancy, and eighteenth-century classicism, it seems to me, provides more opportunity for experiencing redundancy than any other “serious” musical genre. In comparison with the Baroque, it's more regular in its phrase length and more digestibly discrete in its form; unlike Romanticism, it's less liable to sonic novelty and more formally well-behaved. Themes come and go on schedule, cadenzas crop up right where they're supposed to, and that familiar 6-5 trill brings every V-I cadence satisfyingly home. And Mozart's talent was uniquely suited to the style. Bernard Shaw once quipped, "If it hadnt been for this cursed dexterity of his, Mozart would have enlarged music more than he did; for when there is no cliché that will serve he produces something new without effort." Not just a Shavian paradox: it was the struggle to avoid such clichés that led less fecund composers like C.P.E. Bach towards more experimental forms and harmonies, which has relegated them to curiosity status, while Mozart still reigns supreme. (Can you make this argument for other canonical composers? To a certain extent, although I think Mozart works the best—and he’s also the most popular. Coincidence?)

So the next time I’m rolling my eyes at the nth variation on the thematic scold that modern music is too cerebral, too complex, “too much head and not enough heart” (love that one—think those people would want their doctor to adopt a physiological concept that outdated?)—in their view, not Mozartian enough—I can remind myself that the complainers simply don’t want the same musical experience that I do. I want to be excited, challenged, exhilarated, and changed; they want the experience of knowing what they already know, of having an idea of an orderly universe summarized and confirmed. (In the Idol universe, that order even gets confirmed by popular vote.)

Let me be clear: I’m not making a value judgment. People want what they want. Sure, I believe that listeners who go to a concert hoping not for surprise and wonder, but for its absence, are shutting themselves off from an awful lot, but what do I know? The popularity of a host of cultural artifacts mystifies me. But at least you can't accuse American Idol of false advertising: the very season-to-season premise of the show, in fact, trumpets its own redundancy and predictability loud and clear. Whereas composers and musicians are working overtime to conjure up wonder and mystery for an audience of which a significant portion is just sitting around, waiting for that great "Elvira Madigan" theme to pull into the station again. Is there another medium that has this much disconnect between the intent of the producer and the expectation of the consumer? It’s like we’re selling them Henry James and they think they’re buying Tom Clancy.

What does this mean for the music of our own time? Well, if Mozart's popularity is really due to his comfortable redundancy, then there's no hope in convincing those Mozart listeners to embrace new music, be it tonal or atonal, minimalist or maximalist; its very newness, its inherent unpredictability, is what is objectionable. “Modern music” is now more deliberately audience-friendly than it’s been at any time since Mozart’s, and that hasn’t translated into a bumper crop of converts. (And don’t start arguing that atonality somehow scared everybody off for good sometime between the Kennedy and Nixon administrations. Was there ever a time when “difficult” contemporary music even came close to making up a majority of any mainstream classical ensemble’s repertoire? Besides, this is America—we don't make decisions based on anything that happened more than five minutes ago.)

On the other hand, the forces that cause people to scamper back to the sonic safety of eighteenth-century Vienna may be waning. My generation is one of the last to have to make the transition from the pre-computer industrial age to the present information age, with all the insecurity that accompanies such disruptions. The present generation is growing up surrounded by a sea of information, and doesn't seem to regard it with any great apprehension. The sheer number of new musical genres and sub-genres that have sprouted across the digital landscape would seem to confirm that redundancy is becoming less and less important as an entertainment value, or, at the very least, that there is room in the culture for a near-endless variety of different redundant schemes. Combined with lowered barriers to production and distribution, it’s a good time to be writing just about any kind of music.

Will Wolfgang be cast aside in this brave new world? Nonsense. I rather think that people will learn how to listen to him the way he meant: not focusing on the redundant aspects of his music, not taking temporary comfort in his similarities, but becoming alive to the invention he brings to each new piece, the subtle ways in which he toys with form and harmony and expectation. And once he's hot again? I can't wait for Zauberflöte night on Idol.

Should I choose a noble occupation?

Proving that, deep down, we're all just Tennessee Ernie Ford cover bands: NPR had a good story yesterday on local faves The Dresden Dolls and the brutal economics of indie rock.

January 16, 2007

Bang a gong

Nothing to say today—I'm trying to get some writing done—but here's a bit of fun: George Antheil's Ballet méchanique performed by 16 computer-controlled pianos and a host of robotic percussion courtesy of LEMUR, the League of Electronic Musical Robots. (I would bet that L. Douglas Henderson wouldn't be too pleased with this realization, but for my money, the xylophone alone makes it all worthwhile.)

The inevitable question: did Antheil and Hedy Lamarr really get some secret patent for remote-controlled torpedoes or something? Yes, they did. Putting Antheil's experience with pianolas to good use, he and Lamarr proposed using piano rolls to rapidly switch between 88 different transmission frequencies, making frequency-jamming nearly impossible. It was the prototype of the "spread spectrum" idea that's crucial to modern wireless communication.

January 15, 2007

I dreamed kind Jesus fouled the big-gun gears

We will not build a peaceful world by following a negative path. It is not enough to say "we must not wage war." It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it. We must concentrate not merely on the negative expulsion of war, but on the positive affirmation of peace. There is a fascinating little story that is preserved for us in Greek literature about Ulysses and the Sirens. The Sirens had the ability to sing so sweetly that sailors could not resist steering toward their island. Many ships were lured upon the rocks and the men forgot home, duty and honor as they flung themselves into the sea to be embraced by arms that drew them down to death. Ulysses, determined not to be lured by the Sirens, first decided to tie himself tightly to the mast of his boat and his crew stuffed their ears with wax. But finally he and his crew learned a better way to save themselves: they took on board the beautiful singer Orpheus whose melodies were sweeter than the music of the Sirens. When Orpheus sang, who bothered to listen to the Sirens? So we must fix our visions not merely on the negative expulsion of war. But upon the positive affirmation of peace. We must see that peace represents a sweeter music, a cosmic melody that is far superior to the discords of war.

It is still not too late to make the proper choice. If we decide to become a moral power we will be able to transform the jangling discords of this world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. If we make the wise decision we will be able to transform our pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of peace. This will be a glorious day. In reaching it we can fulfill the noblest of American dreams.

—Martin Luther King, Jr.,
"The Casualties of the War in Vietnam,"
Los Angeles, February 25, 1967

January 12, 2007

There you see the young and old, twisting the night away

Non-classical links for the week.

I don't have cable, and now I know what I'm missing out on: the invaluable hometown compendium This Is Framingham reports that one of the programs on local cable access is music—specifically, big band and pre-WWII popular music—and the accompanying visual is simply each 78 rpm record spinning around and around. Take that, minimalists! (This probably relates in an interesting way to the bias in modern society against music and towards the visual arts, but I haven't had enough coffee to parse it out yet. Maybe next week.)

Weren't able to make the International Association of Jazz Educators confab in New York this year? You can enjoy it vicariously through Darcy James Argue, who's blogging the experience in his usual concise and stylish fashion—Day 1, Day 2, and more to come. (By the way, if you're not familiar with the estimable Mr. Argue's own music, you should know that he makes a habit of posting live recordings of his own band's performances, which is surely the classiest way around to fill up your iPod for free.)

If you're a Bostonian, and you've never been to a Pan9 show, you've been missing out—imagine a bunch of experimental music, experimental rock music, not-so-experimental rock music, and just plain goofiness all thrown onto the same program, being performed in a big old loft with an atmosphere that's half exotic-bohemian and half good-vibe house party, and you'll start to get the idea. One of the more popular acts here at Soho the Dog HQ, Fluttr Effect, got their start via Pan9, and lived next door. I say "lived" because, just before New Year's, a fire caused significant damage to both the Pan9 space and the apartment of half the band, and they're currently homeless, out an awful lot of equipment and stuff, and dependent on the kindness of strangers. There's a website up with info on upcoming benefits for the space and the band, including a a few shows, and possibly an art auction—and now would be a good time to finally pick up those Fluttr Effect t-shirts and CDs you've been meaning to get anyways, right? (I can testify that the acoustic trio EP is some of the best driving music out there.) Besides, I think we should all make it our mission to get any place that the Boston Herald considers a "hippie community" back up and running as soon as possible.

January 11, 2007

"First you're another sloe-eyed vamp..."

Yvonne DeCarlo died this week. The general public might have known her best as Lily Munster, but did you know that she was the muse behind some of the greatest masterpieces of Russian music, if only fictionally? She played Cara, the Moroccan cabaret dancer who inspires "Nicky" Rimsky-Korsakov to compositional stardom, in the so-ridiculous-it's-marvelous Hollywood concoction Song of Scheherazade, a 1947 contribution to the brief but entertainingly wrong wave of composer biopics that swept through studios after the invention of long-playing records, apparently. It may not be up to the level of The Great Waltz (and if you've seen that treatment of Johann Strauss, you know exactly which scene I keep hoping will turn up on YouTube—anybody for a ride through the woods?), but as our fledgling naval-cadet-with-a-song-in-his-heart smuggles DeCarlo back to St. Petersburg to sing at the opera, you're at least in the presence of a certain kind of minor greatness.

DeCarlo went on to introduce the song "I'm Still Here" in the original Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim's Follies, by the way. Not a bad follow-up.

Song of Scheherazade poster

January 10, 2007

Langsam und schmachtend, baby

Pearl Frush flautist pin-upIt has come to my attention (via oboeinsight, I think) that Muso magazine ("The Music Magazine That Rewrites the Score"—but still keeps it within the point spread) is conducting an online survey in advance of St. Valentine's Day. And since they're "the magazine for the younger, more open-minded generation of classical music fans," the survey is naturally about sex: which instruments are the sexiest, which instruments get the most action, which instruments have sharp metal bits that you might want to look out for. Personally, I'm impressed that they got through the entire thing without a pun on the term "combinatorial." (Though remember, kids, thanks to ballot initiatives in the 2004 election, retrograde inversion is now illegal in 35 states.)

Do you think playing a certain instrument can make a person more or less attractive?

Does signing a commission check count as "playing an instrument"?

It's mostly multiple-choice questions, though really, asking which instrument is the sexiest and not including "accordion" is like asking which Prime Minister is the greatest and not including "Churchill." And maybe I'm old-fashioned, but under "How many sexual partners have you had?" I would have included "1,003" just for sentimental reasons.

What is the most romantic thing you have ever done?

Once, I was overcome by madness and threw myself into the Rhine—oh, wait! Sorry! Lower-case r. My bad.

The questions do get pretty personal, and although they "can assure you this is completely confidential", you just know that if you show an unusual predilection for the oboe, your picture is going to end up on the cover of Blair Tindall's next book. Still, I suppose it's an optimistic sign that some group of marketers out there thinks that the classical-music demographic somehow overlaps with the readers of Cosmopolitan. In next month's issue: 16 alternate fingerings that will leave him begging for more!

Pin-up by the legendary Pearl Frush, courtesy of The Pin-Up Files (parts of which are definitely NSFW, as if you needed to ask).

January 08, 2007

Back In Black

Bellini: I Puritani
Metropolitan Opera/Summers
Regal Cinemas at Solomon Pond Mall
High-definition simulcast, 1/6/07

The last scene of I Puritani makes me think that bel canto opera composers had better plot instincts than we give them credit for. Presented with one of the most dramatically preposterous situations in theatrical history—an avowed traitor, sentenced to death by the government, tries to win over the mob by pointing out that beheading him might upset his over-excitable teenaged fiancée—Bellini had the good sense to pack the scene ("Arturo? Arturo? Lo sciagurto!") with some of the most amazing music he ever wrote. Arturo and Elvira, the threatened lovers, sing achingly soaring pleas; Riccardo, Arturo's rival, and Giorgio, Elvira's uncle, provide a menacing undertone; and the chorus ratchets up the tension with halting, staccato interjections over a steel-gray orchestration. It's so heart-stoppingly beautiful that Bellini almost pulls it off.

In fact, up until its final, even more preposterous deus-ex-plot-twist finale, I Puritani is a perfect example of how operatic music can trump operatic plotting. Unlikely coincidences abound; motivations change on a dime; yet the whole thing not only survives, but thrives on a diet of Bellini's most inspired melodies and most reliable stock gestures.

It can even, as it turns out, survive a certain amount of hack camera work. This was my first experience with the Metropolitan Opera's much-vaunted movie-theater simulcasts, and while the overall experience is exquisite fun (I'm already scoping out my free Saturdays for the rest of the season), the visual choices made for I Puritani by the video director, Gary Halvorsen, either worked against the drama, or largely ignored it—ignorance being comparative bliss in this instance. Gratuitous camera movement and a profusion of cuts, particularly in the first act, were more distracting than illuminating, and one particular camera angle, looking out from the stage past the conductor and into the audience, was spectacularly ill-conceived, killing the dramatic illusion every single time it appeared.

Luckily, the rest of the Met's video extras were at least competent. A profile of prima donna Anna Netrebko boosted the fashion quotient, and a brief bit on operatic mad scenes was enlivened by Renata Scotto, still the elegant diva, offering a witty, 30-second survey of various types of insanity via her marvelously expressive face. Backstage interviews conducted by Renée Fleming were inoffensive, and while the time-filling talk segments during the intervals could have been unwelcome interruptions, they were saved by the presence of Beverly Sills, in finest down-to-earth form (the biggest laugh at Solomon Pond: "I had great fun as Elvira, even though I had no idea what the hell was going on").

The production itself, by Sandro Sequi, was thoroughly old-fashioned, both in style and vintage; those were 30-year-old sets being subject to the unforgiving attentions of the high-definition cameras. Sharon Thomas's stage direction was largely limited to getting the chorus on and off efficiently—her main dramatic punctuation seemed to be a sudden cross in front of another character and across the length of the stage—but really, how much can you do with an opera in which the composer can move an entire number ("Suoni la tromba") from the beginning to the end of an act with no harm to the continuity? (Although the chorus could have moved with a little more alacrity and delicacy at the outset of "Qui la voce.")

Among those characters without mad scenes, John Relyea took the laurels as uncle Giorgio, pouring out his supple, focused bass while dramatically staying within each moment, probably the best strategy for navigating the unlikely twists and turns of character. Franco Vassallo, as Riccardo, opted for the other extreme, adopting a concerned-yet-resolute mien and maintaining it for the entire afternoon; his rich, warm singing was only marred by a couple of unfortunately over-muscled high notes. Eric Cutler was ardent but cautious as Arturo—though his high notes were sure, secure, and only mildly hooked, he seemed a little too nervously eager to get off of them as soon as he had hit them, and didn't settle into a truly relaxed phrasing until the final scene. (He may have still been a bit under the weather after battling bronchitis earlier in the run.) Eduardo Valdes, Valerian Ruminski, and Maria Zifchak were solid as Bruno, Gualtiero (Elvira's father, a curiously small role), and Enrichetta, respectively.

But, of course, I Puritani, like most bel canto productions, is all about the soprano, and the big question is whether Anna Netrebko, singing her first Elvira, is the real thing. I think she is—the voice itself is beautiful, and the variety and musicality of her phrasing and color kept the endless repetitions of "lasciatemi morir" from getting old. If her acting in the first act was a little frantic and awkward—one imagines she wasn't given much more direction than "be impetuous"—during the second act, throughout one of the most epic fits of insanity in all of opera, she was riveting and affecting, sustaining surprisingly real drama even during the one indulgent directorial misstep, when she was forced to sing coloratura on the floor, leaning back into the orchestra pit (depicted onscreen with that awful stage-to-audience angle; if that couldn't sabotage her, nothing was going to). Besides, she looks for all the world like a young Greer Garson, and when the director had the common sense to just point the camera at her and hold it there, you realized the genius of the Met's movie-theater scheme: forget the satellites and digital projectors, this was opera as Hollywood intended, a blast of pre-TV silver-screen glamour, a bit of the old studio magic transforming a ridiculous costume drama into something sublime and memorable. One suspects that Bellini, an old hand at working around an unworkable script, would have approved.

January 05, 2007

Out for a random walk

Matt Van Brink tagged me on this one.

Find the nearest book.
Turn to page 123.
Go to the fifth sentence on the page.
Copy out the next three sentences and post to your blog.
Name the book and the author, and tag three more folks.

You are, however, not to make unkind inferences, when I forbear to reply to your kindness; for be assured, I never receive a letter from you without great pleasure, and a very warm sense of your generosity and friendship, which I heartily blame myself for not cultivating with more care. In this, as in many other cases, I go wrong, in opposition to conviction; for I think scarce any temporal good equally to be desired with the regard and familiarity of worthy men. I hope we shall be some time nearer to each other, and have a more ready way of pouring out our hearts.

James Boswell, Boswell's Life of Doctor Johnson.
New York: Modern Library, n.d.

Hmmm... elegant, but not the most scintillating passage in that book, by any means. (It's an excerpt from a letter Johnson sent to a printer in Scotland who was reprinting The Rambler.) How about the second nearest book?
"Mama's talking about Mr. Verkhovensky's son, Peter, whom she insists on calling a professor for some reason," Liza said, and led Shutov off to the other end of the drawing room, where they sat down on a divan.

"When her legs swell up like that, she's always irritable," Liza whispered to Shutov, continuing to examine him with the utmost curiosity, especially his eternal tuft of unruly hair.

"Are you in the army?" asked the old woman, with whom Liza had heartlessly left me.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Possessed,
trans. Andrew R. MacAndrew.
New York: Signet Classics, 1991.

Better, although out of context, it reads more like a Woody Allen parody of Dostoyevsky than actual Dostoyevsky. How about the third closest book?
Some of them say to thee, 'Allow me to remain at home, and expose me not to the trial.' Have they not fallen into a trial already? But verily, Hell shall environ the infidels!

The Koran, trans. J.M. Rodwell.
London: Phoenix (Everyman reprint), 2001.

Now we're getting somewhere!

A thought: if you did this with music ("Take the nearest score. Go to page x. Go to the yth measure on the page," etc., etc.) you'd most likely end up with far fewer duds—you could get at least a couple of paragraphs of interesting commentary out of almost any three bars in the repertoire. Is this because: a) unlike prose, music is not figurative, and thus needs more explication; b) unlike prose, musical notation is primarily a set of instructions for recreating sounds, and only secondarily a source of enjoyment on its own; or c) music simply has a greater signal-to-noise ratio than other artistic forms of communication? Probably a combination of all three. Discuss among yourselves.

I won't tag anyone else with this, lest they prefer to stay at home and not be exposed to the trial. Feel free to pick up the ball and run with it, however.

January 04, 2007

New Romantics

Duran DuranOne of the last times I stopped by the Cambridge outpost of Tower Records, I was greeted by boxes upon boxes of the Duran Duran compilation Greatest at $2.99 a pop. A fine waste of three bucks, even if every song runs on a minute too long. (Except "Notorious," which has become my favorite single ever, at least until the end of this week.)

I liked Duran Duran when they first made it big in the 80's, but not because of the hair, or the clothes, or the videos—nope, it was for the sampling keyboards. By the time they recorded Seven and the Ragged Tiger, their third album, they were deploying sampled keyboard riffs like nobody's business, and to me, budding mid-80's musician, that was the height of coolness. Not anymore, though; the last time I went browsing through new keyboards at the local gear shop, the sampling models were few and tucked into the back corner, crowded out by digitally recreated pianos, digitally recreated drawbar organs, and even digitally recreated analog synthesizers. What happened?

What happened now has its own entire showroom next to the keyboards. Turntables happened; hip-hop brought them into public consciousness as musical instruments, and within a decade they had supplanted those keyboards in the pantheon of cool. Even when samplers were being used, they weren't being used for the orchestral hits or rapid-fire brass riffs that had already become clichés, they were being used to lay down loops and recognizable pre-recorded bits in imitation of turntabling techniques. Which is kind of weird, when you think about it—I mean, a turntable is essentially a low-tech version of a sampling keyboard, with a lot less control and a lot fewer options. Everything you can do on a turntable is easily imitated on a keyboard, and the keyboard can do a lot that would be well-nigh impossible via vinyl.

And therein lies the answer, and the reasons behind it actually bode well for the future of classical music, oddly enough. Turntables are cooler than sampling keyboards because they're low-tech and harder to play. Why? The lack of advanced technology makes the techniques of turntabling easily understandable by the listener and/or viewer. And the difficulty of those techniques makes the act of turntabling a hell of a lot more impressive to the audience. Here's a video of DJ Q-Bert scratching—you can see how he's doing what he's doing, but he's doing it way, way better than you can, and that's what makes it entertaining. It's the old 19th-century Romantic virtuoso thing all over again.

It's also why those old, 19th-century, technologically backward instruments have survived into the 21st century. One of the main rules of virtuosity is that the mechanism has to be in plain view, and the technique has to be easily grasped by the observer. We could probably engineer, for example, a piano that makes beginning pianists able to play Alkan. But that's not the point; the point is to be able to be amazed by someone taking a physical action that anybody could do and doing it at a level that almost nobody can achieve. Hence the persistence of performers who are willing to devote their lives to gaining mastery over a particular piece of equipment, and of audiences willing and wanting to actually leave the comfort of their own homes to see that mastery in action. In music, at least, the better mousetrap isn't always better.

January 03, 2007

Pro Patria

After yesterday's library nonsense, I started to wonder: what's it like to grow up in a culture that has a centuries-long heritage of art and culture? Apparently, it's a lot like here in the States—except there's just that much more material.

For example, there's Monsignor Marco Frisina, director of the liturgical office for the Vicar of Rome, and the composer of The Divine Comedy: the Opera, a new version of Dante's venerable masterpiece. Paradise? Classical music, of course. Purgatory? Gregorian chant. The other place? Rock music—including a "rave" scene for the circle of hell reserved for heretics.
Frisina said the use of rock music to describe the Devil's den was not a value judgment on the genre but that rock's "violent and rebellious tones" help create "a hellish atmosphere."
Really? If that's not a value judgement, then the Catholic Church has gotten pretty theologically lax, hasn't it?

Meanwhile, over in the UK, the home of Purcell, Handel, Elgar, Tippett, Britten, etc., etc., the Queen has made Rod Stewart—Rod Stewart—a Commander of the British Empire for "services to music." Do said services include all those volumes of "The Great American Songbook"? Because those are pretty awful—maybe Britian is getting ready to declare war on us or something.

Ah, but Germany—nobody guards the treasures of German culture like Germans, right? Hence this clip from the German TV channel Sat.1, with DJ Mozart ringing in the new year with the the help of Johann Strauss and a bevy of horsewomen.

Actually? Mozart would have loved this.

January 02, 2007

Book-learnin' is for sissies

"Nine Plays by Eugene O'Neill" sat on the top shelf of a cart in the back room one day in late December, wedged between Voltaire's "Candide" and "Broke Heart Blues" by Joyce Carol Oates. The cart brimmed with books that someone on Schlekau's staff had pulled from the shelves. Sometimes she has time to give them another look before wheeling them to the book-sale pile. Sometimes she doesn't.

The Oates would return to the shelf, "because she's a real popular author at Woodrow Wilson," even if "Broke Heart Blues" isn't, Schlekau said. The Voltaire would go. An obscure Edgar Allan Poe volume called "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket" might be transferred to another branch.

Schlekau hesitated over the volume of O'Neill plays, which was in good condition but had been checked out only nine times in its lifespan at the library, falling short of the system's new goal of 20. She sighed. "The only time things like this are going out is if they're [performing the plays] at the Kennedy Center."

But, she said, she's disinclined to throw O'Neill into the discard pile: "That's the English major in me."
That's Linda Schlekau, manager of the Woodrow Wilson library in Fairfax County, Virginia. Apparently, since she wasn't a Romance Languages major, Voltaire gets the axe! Here's some more books that have been booted off the shelves at various Fairfax County branches: Doctor Zhivago, Remembrance of Things Past, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, and The Education of Henry Adams. (Odd, that last one's American—somebody must have screwed up.) Read the whole infuriating thing here. (Via Marginal Revolution.)

Still, it's better than Jackson County, Oregon, which is planning to close all its libraries. Not reduce the number of branches, not limit the hours, not free up shelf space by culling the classics, just close them altogether. Did I miss the ballot measure that said we all should be stupid from now on? Yipes.

An imbalance of humors

We spent last week in Chicago, visiting family (including Soho the Dog's Midwest critic-at-large, Wilson, seen at right), and while we were there, we had a chance to revisit one of the coolest places in the universe—no, not Superdawg, although, yes, we did go there, too—I'm talking about Bookman's Alley in Evanston. It's a labyrinthine dream of a bookstore, one dusty room of treasures after another. My lovely wife picked up a volume of handwriting analyses of famous people (including composers, which means it may put in an appearance here someday). I scored this curiosity: Bluebeard, by Kate Douglas Wiggin.

Bluebeard cover
This short little book is not what you would expect from the author of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Bluebeard is a burlesque in the form of a transcribed lecture-recital describing a purported long-lost Wagner opera on the subject of the titular serial monogamist-murderer. (In case you're wondering, Wiggin's book dates from 1914; Bartók composed his version in 1911, but it remained unperformed until 1918.) Wiggin is trying to satirize three things at once: "modern," Ibsen-like views on love and marriage; explications of Wagnerian music-drama for the benefit of wealthy dilettantes; and Wagnerian opera itself. The first subject crops up here and there, but you get the sense that, beyond the choice of the opera's subject, Wiggin's heart really isn't in this one, and what few jokes there are fall pretty flat. As for making fun of the typical operatic audience, she starts out with some promise:
Learned critics, pitifully comprehending the fathomless ignorance of the people, began to give lectures on the "Ring" to large audiences, mostly of ladies, through whom in course of time a certain amount of information percolated and reached the husbands—the somewhat circuitous, but only possible method by which aesthetic knowledge can be conveyed to the American male. Women are hopeless idealists! It is not enough for them that their brothers or husbands should pay for the seats at the opera and accompany them there, clad in irreproachable evening dress. Not at all! They wish them to sit erect, keep awake, and look intelligent, and it is but just to say that many of them succeed in doing so.
That's as far as it goes, though—the rest of the gags are just restatements of this theme, although Wiggin is a good enough writer to get a fair amount of mileage out of the various faux-genteel variations.

It's the actual musical humor where the book really sparkles. Wiggin had musical training, and worked as a church organist for a time; armed with experience, she takes the material farther than a less-practiced observer would know how to do. She has particular fun devising suspiciously pedestrian leitmotives that only reveal their true meaning under expert analysis:
Immer-wieder-heirathen MotivWhat does this portend—this entrance of another theme, written for the treble clef, played with the right hand, but mysteriously interwoven with the bass? What but that Bluebeard is not to be the sole personage in this music-drama; and we judge the stranger to be a female on account of the overwhelming circumstantial evidence just given.

Bluebeard, when first introduced—you remember the movement, one of somber grandeur leading upward to vague desire—was alone and lonely. Certainly the first, probably the second. If his mood were that of settled despair, typical of a widower determined never to marry again no matter what the provocation, the last note of the phrase would have been projected downward; but, as you must have perceived, the melody terminates in a tone of something like hope. There is no assurance in it—do not misunderstand me; there is no particular lady projected in the musical text—that would have been indelicate, for we do not know at the moment precisely the date when Bluebeard hung up his last wife; but there is a groping discontent. At the opening of the drama we have not been informed whether Bluebeard has ever been married at all or only a few times, but we feel that he craves companionship, and we know when we hear this "Immer-wieder-heirathen Motiv" (Always About to Marry Again Motive) that he secures it.
This is just enough over the line to be parody—it's actually not that far off from the old Ernest Newman Stories of the Great Operas—but as the "lecture" goes on, the examples get progressively sillier:
Siebente-Frau MotivThis Fatima, or Seventh Wife Motive seems to be written in a curiously low key if we conceive it to be the index to the character of a soprano heroine; but let us look further. What are the two principal personages in the music-drama to be to each other?

If enemies, the phrase would have been written thus:
separation of 5 octavesIf acquaintances, thus:
separation of 3 octavesIf friends, thus:
separation of 1 octaveIf lovers, thus:
separation of less than one octavethe ardent and tropical treble note leaving its own proper sphere and nestling cozily down in the bass staff. But the hero and heroine of the music-drama were husband and wife; therefore the phrases are intertwined sufficiently for propriety, but not too closely for pleasure.
Wiggin eventually arrives at a ridiculous plateau worthy of John Cage and Monty Python:
Ausgespielt Motiv—three empty barsThe "Ausgespielt Motiv" is written in four flats, but as a matter of fact only one person is flat, viz.: Blue-beard, who has just been slain by Mustapha. The other three flats must refer to the sheep accidentally hit by the younger brothers, who aim for Bluebeard, but miss him, being indifferent marksmen.
The best jokes in the book aren't really about marriage, or rich people, or Wagner; they're self-referential musical absurdities—which, I think, is indicative of the difficulty in making music the literary repository of ideas about anything other than music itself. Fiction that uses the visual arts as a metaphor for something or other is far more common than fiction that uses music in the same way; novels that similarly use theater (or the novel itself) are a dime a dozen. It's easy to imagine why: those disciplines, even in their most avant-garde guises, are figurative in ways that no music, however programmatic, can ever be. And the workaday experience of making music is both more mundane and more mysterious than non-musicians ever seem to imagine. It's why novelists often stumble so badly when it comes to capturing both the craft and the effect of music (Anthony Powell and Robertson Davies are the only authors I can think of off the top of my head that come close, though Thomas Mann gets it wrong in such an interesting and deeply thought-out way that it doesn't bother me, and James M. Cain is so damned entertaining that I forgive him).

I'm not saying that music can't be used to depict such prosaic things (that is, things that are well-suited to prose)—but I am saying that it's not really what music does best. Think of Rossini comic operas: the music is marvelously illustrative of every pratfall and plot twist, but for my money, the funniest parts are those choruses where everybody just stops, turns to the audience, and sings what they're thinking over and over again, in increasingly clever counterpoint. The words become meaningless through repetition, and the comedy takes flight on purely musical wings. It's funny because it's true, in a way that I think Wiggin grasped: a literary joke that uses music always runs up against the language's limits at describing music; but a musical joke about music gets better the farther you push it into the absurd, because, at its core, the essence of music is so ungraspable as to be, in a wonderfully literal way, nonsensical.

January 01, 2007

For old long since

New Year's Day brunch with my in-laws: bibimbap and duk gook—according to Korean tradition, the latter is said to make you one year wiser. (Not likely in my case, but a man can dream.) Unlike Christmas traditions, which seem to get more homogenized every year (well, except for Krampus), New Year's traditions persist in their quirky glory. You have your Hogmanay in Scotland, the Mummers' parade in Philadelphia, crazy Polar Bear Clubs in northern climates, excesses of football (both kinds) on both sides of the Atlantic, etc. And my favorite: Strauss waltzes in Vienna. So I put on some Strauss while my lovely wife and I chopped ingredients for the bibimbap.

I've loved Strauss waltzes as long as I can remember. And one set of them is one of the reasons I became a composer: the Kaiser-Walzer, op. 437. Mercy, there's a lot going on in this piece. In the first place, it starts off in 4/4 time, which I always thought a nice pre-surrealist touch. (Ceci n'est pas une valse.) Then there's a sly bit of thematic transformation when you go from 4/4 to 3/4—when this:
Kaiser-Walzer opening themeturns into this:
Kaiser-Walzer first waltz themeBut for me, the magic moment is in the second waltz. It starts off:
Kaiser-Walzer second waltz first phraseAt the next phrase, Strauss could have just repeated this motive. But instead, he changes the opening harmony from major to the relative minor.
Kaiser-Walzer second waltz second phraseAll he does is drop the root of the chord a third, and it's like the moon comes out from behind the clouds and you can suddenly see for miles. I've ripped off this little trick in one way or another more times than I could list here, and it always works—although it's never quite as effective as when Strauss does it.

My fondness for this turn of phrase goes a long way towards explaining why I eschew exact repetition as much as I do (even when I'm trying not to)—once you've had the rug pulled out from under you by such a simple harmonic switch, you start to see every possibility of repetition as a chance for variation. The thematic transformation, too; each event becomes an opportunity to turn your listening ear in a direction you weren't quite expecting.

Music doesn't have to work this way, of course—repetitive music from Renaissance dances to G&S to Minimalism can cast wonderful spells of its own—but it's what I tend to gravitate towards, and it's why I don't find it cognitively dissonant to go from Strauss to Schoenberg. For that matter, neither did Schoenberg; he knew a kindred developing-variation spirit when he heard one, and among his works are a few ingenious arrangements of Strauss waltzes—you can listen to his chamber version of the Kaiser-Walzer at the Schönberg Center website. I wouldn't go so far as to call Strauss a proto-Expressionist, but it's remarkable how much of a piece with the rest of Schoenberg's works the Waltz King can sound when the music is boiled down to its bare essentials. The surface is all charm and delight, but at their shifting, whirling core, those Strauss waltzes may have had an inkling of the dizzying chaos of the modern world.