February 28, 2007

Flying By Wire

Reviewing [nec]shivaree.
Boston Globe, February 28, 2007.

I'm paranoid about word counts, so I can never include all the players, but here's a shout-out to everyone else who didn't get a mention in the paper:

In the Wolff Exercises:
Nicole Barnes, saxophone
Joseph Becker, percussion
Derek Beckvold, saxophone/percussion
Danilo Henriquez, trumpet/percussion
Mary Joy Patchett, saxophone
Mark Plummer, trombone
Lauren Strobel, trumpet

In the Lucier Kettles:
Joseph Becker, Kevin Kosnik, Rieko Koyama, Jeffrey Means, George Nickson, timpani
Jeremy Sarna, sound engineer

Their next show is March 6. And it's free. Best deal in town.

Resolution Management

Reviewing the Boston Philharmonic.
Boston Globe, February 28, 2007.

February 27, 2007

Music would play and Felina would whirl

The Hatto scandal may have stumbled to a premature close (Geoff Edgers has a nice summary in today's Globe), but the thievery bug seems to be spreading: according to a report in the El Paso Times, someone absconded with percussionist David Cossin's notes after a performance of Tan Dun's Concerto for Water Percussion with the El Paso Symphony on Saturday. (That's Cossin there, getting his hands wet in Germany last year.) The article isn't clear, but it sure sounds like the pilfered loot was Cossin's marked-up score, which would be a pretty egregious loss indeed: I've hung on to piano music that's barely readable and being held together with three kinds of tape solely because they've got fingerings and markings from Professor Paperno (including the dreaded green marker for when I missed something more than two weeks in a row). It may look like chicken scratches to you—it's autobiography to us.

The silver lining? According to the Times, Saturday's concert was sold out.

February 26, 2007

Tomorrow's News Today

PHILADELPHIA, February 26, 2008—Saying that "nobody conducts the music of dead white males like a dead white male," Philadelphia Orchestra Association President James Undercofler today announced that the late Fritz Reiner has been appointed as Music Director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, starting this fall. Reiner replaces Chief Conductor Charles Dutoit, who abruptly resigned last November after accusing orchestra members of trying to kill him with a poison-laced soft pretzel.

The move ends months of speculation over the post, during which several other candidates, including Riccardo Muti, Simon Rattle, and Terry Bradshaw, were rumored to be finalists. "Muti was a strong candidate," Undercofler admitted, "but, seeing as how he was still walking and talking, we simply couldn't absolutely assure our subscribers that he wouldn't start programming a lot of contemporary music or unfamiliar repertoire. The corpse of Fritz Reiner brings an unbeatable combination of experience and predictability."

Some in the orchestra were upset by the announcement, which was made after only limited consultation with the Players' Committee. In addition, the musicians were skeptical of Mr. Reiner's ability to establish a "rapport" with the orchestra, having not conducted professionally since 1963. Reiner's sole audition was in December, when he was propped up in front of the ensemble for a rehearsal of Strauss's "Death and Transfiguration." Several players, who wished to remain anonymous, characterized his podium technique as "stiff" and "lacking vitality," although one member saw occasional flashes of the Reiner of old. "If anything, his beat's gotten bigger," he said.

The announcement is seen as a blow to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, who were said to be themselves courting Reiner for another term as their director. CSO president Deborah Card played down the rumors, saying, "We've long seen the need for our new director to be not just a superb musician, but an exceptional advocate for music in the community. Mr. Reiner's remains aren't going to be doing a whole lot of outreach." Card, however, had no comment when asked about local news reports that the orchestra had been in talks, through a medium, with the disembodied spirit of Leonard Bernstein.

February 24, 2007

Suffragette City

All right, I think it's time to get organized. One of our local classical stations, WCRB, is having an online poll to find Boston's "Top 100 Classical Pieces of all time." If you aren't familiar with WCRB's programming, I can sum it up by saying that the overwhelming favorites are probably "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" and something by Albinoni. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but said poll might be a way to get some more interesting fare in through the back door—they're going to broadcast the 100 top vote-getters next weekend. Time for some ballot-stuffing! In the interests of efficiency and not diluting the electoral voice of a generation, I propose drawing selections from the following list (which, apart from being limited to living American composers, has no real rhyme or reason, just stuff I would be tickled to hear as "Classics for Relaxation" programming):

  • Robert Ashley: In Sara Mencken, Christ and Beethoven There Were Men and Women
  • Milton Babbitt: Philomel
  • Anthony Braxton: Composition #82 (For Four Orchestras)
  • Elliott Carter: String Quartet no. 3
  • George Crumb: Black Angels
  • Lukas Foss: Baroque Variations
  • Philip Glass: Music in Twelve Parts
  • Alvin Lucier: I Am Sitting In a Room
  • Meredith Monk: Atlas
  • Steve Reich: Four Organs
  • Frederic Rzewski: The People United Will Never Be Defeated
  • Charles Wuorinen: Third Piano Concerto

  • You'll need to enter a name, e-mail, and phone number, but considering how many actual dead people have cast ballots over the years in my home town of Chicago, that hardly seems an impediment to, well, gaming the system. Vote early, vote often!

    February 23, 2007

    Radio radio

    Hey, if you tune into WGBH right now (89.7 FM in Boston, streaming on the Web here), you can catch today's live Boston Symphony concert, which this week includes the world premiere performances of Kaija Saariaho's cello concerto, "Notes on Light." If you're keeping score at home, that's two BSO premieres in two weeks. Enjoy it while it lasts. (You can also hear tomorrow night's concert at 8 PM on WCRB.)

    Critic-at-large Moe and I got ourselves good and lost in the Sherborn Town Forest this morning, and when we got back to the car, WGBH was rebroadcasting a portion of Garrick Ohlsson's Jordan Hall recital from a couple of weeks back. They were playing the Beethoven op. 22 Sonata, which was my favorite one on the program. It's Ludwig at his most relaxed and human, especially the last movement, which takes the traditional Classical opera buffa-style finale and turns it inside out; a cute number for the lovers that you're hearing from backstage, so you also get stagehands running around, scenery creaking into place, and quarrels among the extras. It's enough to make me wish he hadn't gone all Romantic-heroic on us.

    WGBH sent around an e-mail the other day to announce that next Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 9 AM (EST), Cathy Fuller will be broadcasting (and streaming) the 1975 Houston Grand Opera recording of Scott Joplin's Treemonisha. Joplin's a hero around Soho the Dog HQ, so that's information we're happy to pass along.

    February 22, 2007

    Faire Use

    What with all the plagiarism this month, it seemed like a good time to revisit one of the most plagiarized composers of all time—at least in his own mind, that is. The perennially litigous Ira Arnstein, born in 1879, would only be remembered today, if at all, for a few not-unpleasant Tin Pan Alley and religious numbers from the 1920s, except for the fact that he was convinced that other, more successful songwriters were constantly ripping him off. Arnstein brought no less than five lawsuits between 1936 and 1946, against the likes of Harry Warren, Joe Burke, Cole Porter, and others; and in the process, he indirectly paved the way for a refined legal definition of music plagiarism, one that, for better or for worse, persists today.

    Arnstein was born in Kiev, and emigrated to the United States when he was eleven. A sometime pianist, music teacher, and composer, by the 1930s, he had become something of a full-time plaintiff. His first effort, Arnstein v. Edward B. Marks Music Corp. (82 F. 2d 275 [2d Cir. 1936]), set the pattern: Arnstein would take a song of his own and another, more popular song, and, by highlighting selected pitches, altering rhythms, changing octaves, and elevating accompanying notes to melodic status, conjure similarities between them. Jack Lawrence had co-written one of the songs named in Arnstein's suit, "Play, Fiddle, Play." Lawrence recalls:
    Arnstein's lawyer had a piano and fiddle player in court plus huge music charts, an intriguing presentation. The melody line of a song consists of single notes in the clef treble. Arnstein's chart highlighted notes in both the clef and bass and when the fiddler played only the highlighted notes... lo and behold! — it sounded exactly like our song! Our attorneys spent hours trying to explain this to the judge, but he would only accept what he was hearing.
    In fact, as you can compare for yourself via the Columbia Law Library's Music Plagiarism Project, the songs barely rate even a charitable resemblance. Arnstein didn't help his cause by admitting that he had threatened the defendants. The New York Herald Tribune reported Arnstein's testimony: "'I was desperate,' Arnstein said quaveringly. 'I heard my song being played everywhere, and I was starving. I was out of my mind and might have committed murder.'" (Lawrence remembered that Arnstein "paraded in front of the ASCAP offices wearing a sandwich sign that read: 'My songs have been plagiarized by the following writers: Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hart.'") Theatrics aside, Arnstein's suit was eventually dismissed by the Second Circuit. (Judge Learned Hand took the opportunity to excoriate popular music in general, suggesting that pop songwriters were too witless to plagiarize: "[The defendant's] gifts were very limited, and to attribute to him the ingenuity and penetration so to truncate and modify, and thus really to create a melody out of other elements, is harder than to suppose that the extremely simple theme should have occurred to him out of his own mind.")

    Undeterred, Arnstein next brought suit against ASCAP itself. Arnstein v. ASCAP (29 F. Supp. 388 [S.D.N.Y. 1939]) was much in the vein of his previous action, right down to Arnstein's familiar allegations of an enormous conspiracy to pirate his compositions. From his complaint:
    That they have in cooperation with the other defendants and their attorneys conceived the plan of branding the complainant as a lunatic and have worked in harmony with the officers of ASCAP and MPPA (Music Publishers Protective Association) to oust the complainant from the W.P.A. and have caused him to starve.
    That his room was constantly ransacked and many manuscripts and letters stolen. When he complained to the Police Department no action was taken but two gorillas beat plaintiff up and plaintiff produced a Doctor's certificate at the trial to prove that he received medical attention for several weeks....
    That the conspiracy extended even to the Court Room during the trial. Witnesses and Musicians were accosted by defendants attorneys and induced to disappear. That twenty-five (25) musicians from the Union who signed affidavits to the similarity of the Music, were given jobs in the Russian Ballet as an inducement for not testifying at this trial.
    Arnstein managed to come up with two expert witnesses willing to testify that his song "Whisper to Me" bore certain resemblances to Joe Burke's "My Wishing Song," although the force of said testimony was blunted when the experts admitted under cross-examination that both songs bore certain resemblances to a previously existing number called "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" Arnstein similarly tried to sue BMI a few years later (Arnstein v. Broadcast Music, 137 F.2d 410 [2d Cir. 1943]), brazenly citing "Whisper to Me" again, this time comparing it to a tune called "It All Comes Back to Me Now." His next try, Arnstein v. Twentieth Century Fox Film (52 F. Supp. 114 [S.D.N.Y. 1943]), was his most far-fetched yet, asserting that Harry Warren's "I've Got a Gal in Kalamazoo" had infringed Arnstein's Wagnerian parody chorus "Kalamazoo" pretty much on the grounds that they both mention the same city.

    Finally, though, Arnstein caught a break. For his final trip through the judicial system, Arnstein took aim at none other than Cole Porter. "Begin the Beguine" had been stolen from Arnstein's setting of "The Lord Is My Shepherd." "Don't Fence Me In" had lifted from Arnstein's "A Modern Messiah." "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" had its illicit origins in an Arnstein instrumental called "A Mother's Prayer." Arnstein had become accustomed to grants of summary judgement for the defendants—the presiding judge saying, basically, that there wasn't enough evidence to even bother with a jury trial—and he had always lost on appeal. But Arnstein v. Porter (154 F.2d 464 [2d Cir. 1946]) was, surprisingly, remanded for trial by the district court, and Arnstein got his chance in front of a jury. Of course, he lost—but it took some doing. Charles Schwartz relates in his biography of Porter:
    In the two-week long jury trial that followed, Monty Woolley, Deems Taylor, and Sigmund Spaeth all appeared in Cole's defense to support his contention that he had never taken material from Arnstein. Cole also testified that he neither knew Arnstein nor was familiar with his work. When the case finally went to the jury it was dismissed as being without merit after a deliberation of nearly two hours. But though Cole won the case, it was perhaps as a result of the experience gained from this trial that, when asked if he ever went out without a carnation in his boutonniere, Cole answered, "Only when I'm being sued, because a carnation in the buttonhole never helps your case before a jury."
    What changed? The Second District had decided to raise the bar for summary judgements, making it that much harder to simply dismiss nuisance lawsuits like Arnstein's. Now, the plaintiff was only required to demonstrate two things: a) that the defendant might have indeed copied from the plaintiff, and b) that the copying constituted "improper appropriation." Although subsequent case law has once again lowered the impediments to summary judgements, the Arnstein test remains the basis for music plagiarism cases. And both parts of the test are, well, complicated.

    In the absence of a direct confession, to establish the fact of copying, the plaintiff needs to show that the defendant had access to the pirated material, and that the material was actually pirated—that the pieces in question are, in fact, suspiciously similar. (Note that this makes all the evidence for this part of the test circumstantial.) The court recognized the tricky nature of the access question; if that couldn't be proved, the plaintiff could still satisfy the test if the similarities were "so striking as to preclude the possibility that the plaintiff and the defendant independently arrived at the same result." How striking would that be, exactly? Good question. And while the test says that the less evidence of access, the more obvious the similarities need to be, what no court has ever really cleared up is whether the relationship works in reverse—that is, whether more compelling evidence of access allows for less of a resemblance between the original and the alleged copy.

    Demonstrating that the copying amounted to "improper appropriation" is an even stickier wicket. The plaintiff needs to show that what was stolen is what made the original piece distinct and memorable to the ear of "the ordinary lay hearer." That might seem reasonable—anyone can hear if two songs are the same, right? Maybe so, but most people aren't aware that a lot of what they're hearing may not actually be copyrightable. In legalese, such elements are called scènes à faire (literally, "scenes that must be made"), meaning they're so common to a given situation that they've lost any claim to distinction. To allege that one romantic comedy stole from another because they both end with weddings would fail on the grounds that such a denouement is a scène à faire for romantic comedies. So just because two songs both start on do, mi, or sol, or both end on a V-I cadence, or both use, say, a twelve-bar blues progression shouldn't be enough to establish plagiarism, but that's assuming the judge or jury are musically literate enough to know the basic building blocks of tonal music.

    And here's where the system fails, because expert testimony on the question of improper appropriation is, at best, severely limited. Under Arnstein, a musical expert can only testify as to the hypothetical effect on that "ordinary lay hearer," completely ignoring any opinion as to whether perceived similarities are scènes à faire or not. (As it is, having an expert witness try to put him or herself into the mind of a non-expert may, in fact, violate Federal rules of evidence regarding expert testimony.) Under a later, non-music plagiarism decision, Sid and Marty Krofft v. McDonald's (562 F.2nd 1157 [9th Cir. 1977])—the first case to concern "total concept and feel" plagiarism—expert witnesses are simply excluded from the improper appropriation test. As lawyer (and trained composer) Jeffrey Cadwell points out in his article "Expert Testimony, Scènes à Faire, and Tonal Music: A (Not So) New Test for Infringement," this means that musicians are shut out of the very part of the process where they're most needed: establishing whether or not similarities between two works are proof of theivery or just part of a generic vocabulary.

    Cadwell points out that the obvious solution—requiring proof of access and letting musical experts testify as to whether similarities between songs are trivial or not—was actually proposed prior to Arnstein, in a 1932 book on music copyright by Alfred Shafter. (Shafter's book, from what I've seen, contains a number of howlers on musical substance, but he correctly foresaw the difficulty courts would have in dealing with it.) And since mass media and digital distribution have made access more and more easy to assume, others have proposed taking the guesswork out of the access question via compulsory music use licenses: basically cheap, no-permission-needed shout-outs to copyright holders that a particular piece of music is being covered, sampled, or otherwise borrowed (see, for example, this article by J. Michael Keyes). Are any of these going to happen soon? Probably not—the wheels of justice do grind exceedingly fine, and judges historically don't like to admit that there's a subject matter that might be beyond their ken.

    So what eventually happened to Arnstein? I don't know; after the Porter trial, he seems to have vanished—there were no further lawsuits, and I can't find any record of him after 1946. Wherever he is, though, he'd probably be pleased to know that he's still causing other composers legal troubles—if only indirectly.

    February 20, 2007

    Inside out, and round and round

    Some things you might have missed while double-checking your Joyce Hatto CDs against your Liberace albums....

    Anyone for a left-handed piano? Christopher Seed, the Jimi Hendrix of fortepianists, had a Dutch instrument maker build him a mirror-image piano, with the treble on the left side of the keyboard, in order to take advantage of his sinister inclinations. Admission: I'm a southpaw myself, but my main gauche still lags behind its more popular sibling in terms of technique, so I'm not sure how much this would help me. I would love to hear how the bulk of the repertoire sounds inverted around middle C, though. (courtesy of Bart at The Well-Tempered Blog).

    Grammys? Boomer nostalgia trips. Oscars? Please. Pulitzers? Until they give one to Lukas Foss, I'll keep raising an eyebrow. No, the real honors come from Andy of The Black Torrent Guard, who's dishing out the hardware in his inaugural Most Annoying Song tournament. The winner? The legendary James Tenney, whose classic earworm "For Ann (rising)" beat out a Rachael Ray mixtape. Something to shoot for next year, although be forewarned: these are the big leagues. How tough is the competition? "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" didn't even get an invite. Yikes.

    Think you know Purcell's Come, Ye Sons of Art? No, you don't. According to Dr. Rebecca Herissone of the University of Manchester, Purcell's beloved piece fell victim to a less-than-diligent copyist in the mid-1700s, who "used different instruments, and changed repeats, notation and words and may even have replaced a whole movement with another Purcell piece." Herissone has attempted to restore Purcell's original intentions, although, lacking the ability to pop both CDs into the computer and compare their waveforms, she's had to resort to certain amount of well-informed conjecture.

    OK, OK, I couldn't stay away from the Hatto thing. The latest: Hatto's husband finally speaks, and his non-denial denials show a certain flair and appreciation for the art. (Jessica and Lisa are good sources for updates.)

    February 19, 2007

    Pentiti, cangia vita / È l'ultimo momento!

    "Doing a Mozart"? According to Jordan Tate, author of The Contemporary Dictionary of Sexual Euphemisms, that's slang for a horizontal gavotte of sufficient vigor to leave one's wig askew. According to the book:
    It was deemed necessary to have a euphemism named after Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, due to his rock-star-like behavior in [the movie Amadeus]. The youth culture of Chicago started using this euphemism as a sign of respect for the somewhat timid or classy music (which was revolutionary in its time) and the juxtaposition of a wild and carnal celebrity.
    Which is all nonsense, Tate says in this interview. "I made up all the histories. Every word of it. There was no scholarship. You can't really prove where a euphemism came from. I used whatever I felt was most plausible, and some of the true facts really came together in a way I appreciated."

    I haven't read Tate's book, but my taste runs to actual etymologies, not half-baked stereotypes of classical music. (Check out the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang for a book that does it right.) And while Tate claims that the euphemisms themselves are authentic, and only the histories are made up, "doing a Mozart" sounds suspiciously pat to me.

    Besides, in Chicago, "Mozart" has another range of reference that's far less cute. No doubt due to the influx of German immigrants in the 1800s, Chicago has a whole row of streets named after German cultural heroes: Schiller, Goethe, Schubert, Mozart. And the intersection of Mozart Street (pronounced with a soft "z," by the way) and Augusta Boulevard, out by Humboldt Park, marks the center of territory controlled by the Insane Dragons street gang (who have their own web page—those Chicago gangs are organized). According to that page, Mozart and Augusta is known as the "Dragon's Pit," and the locale rates its own entry at UrbanDictionary.com. I'm hardly an expert on gangland Chicago, but even I knew that being out around Humboldt Park after dark was liable to leave your wig askew.

    February 17, 2007

    Imitation of life

    Barring any sudden revelations involving Riccardo Muti, a beautiful disaffected ex-KGB agent, and a briefcase full of uranium (TOTALLY MADE-UP STORY, although can't you just see Muti in a plot like that?), the Joyce Hatto brouhaha is certainly shaping up to be the classical music scandal of the year. Just in case you were submerged in therapeutic mud for the past couple of days, here's the gist: a recluse who lost a long battle with cancer last year, Ms. Hatto nonetheless became a cult favorite among aficionados on the basis of her 100+ CDs released on the tiny Concert Artists label. A great story: a musician, initially denied her chance at greatness, perseveres through her physical difficulty to create a lasting contribution to the art. However, as the magazine Gramophone first reported on Thursday, a handful of those recordings have been revealed as spurious, concocted by repackaging other pianists' previously existing recordings with slight digital alterations. The evidence is persuasive, to say the least—and it seems likely that more examples are to come. (Lisa Hirsch has all the pertinent links.)

    Now I have a fondness for well-executed or particularly brazen hoaxes and forgeries, which I've touched on before. What's interesting to me about this one is that although the words fraud, fake, and hoax have been bandied about quite a bit, as far as I can tell, in the initial reports, only Alan Riding's write-up in the New York Times (which Jerry at Sequenza21 wittily purloined) calls the situation what it is: plagiarism. Most forgeries involve taking your own work and passing it off as somebody else's, usually somebody more famous than you. This, if the allegations pan out, is just the opposite: taking someone else's work and passing it off as your own.

    I'm not surprised that the hoax went undetected for so long. I like to think that I have reasonably savvy ears, but I would doubt my own ability to hear the deception, unless I was specifically listening for it—and who listens to music that way? (To their credit, some people were suspicious from the first.) What's really intriguing is that no one else (to my knowledge, at least) has tried this before. It would seem to me that classical music recording would provide great opportunities for plagiarism. Why? Because the logistics of performance are pretty close to plagiarism already. Even though there's no attempt at deception, and there's full attribution, a pianist playing the Transcendental Etudes is using notes, rhythms, and dynamics set down by Liszt—and, at least textually, nothing else. Any two performances of the same piece are going to be largely the same. Of course, the artistry lies in the slight differences; but what the individual performer brings to the table is a historical anomaly, something that has persisted in music long after the notion of plagiarism erased it from other intellectual pursuits.

    In 1747, the English poet John Milton was accused by one William Lauder of plagiarising much of Paradise Lost from a 1654 Latin poem by Jacobus Masenius. The charges were baseless—the Latin lines Milton supposedly stole had, in fact, been added to Masenius's original by Lauder—which was demonstrated by John Douglas in his 1750 pamphlet Milton Vindicated from the Charge of Plagiarism Brought Against Him by Mr. Lauder. But Douglas went on to say, in effect, even if the charges were true, it doesn't matter.
    A great Genius looks upon himself as having a Right to convert to his own Use, and in order to furnish out a more perfect Entertainment, whatever has been already prepared and made ready. But he exercises this Right in such a Manner as to convince every one, that his having Recourse to it is not the Effect of Sterility of his Fancy, but to the Solidity of his Judgement. He borrows only to shew his own Talents in heightening, refining and polishing all that is furnished him by others, and thereby secures his Character as a fine Writer, from being confounded with that of the Dull Copyer.
    Replace "writer" with "performer," and that's as good a description of musical artistry as I've ever read. Composers, too, at least at this time: George Buelow, who quotes Douglas in his article "Originality, Genius, Plagiarism in English Criticism of the Eighteenth Century," goes on to write, "One can only speculate if the greatest composer in England at this time, George Frederic Handel, might have read Douglas' defense of Milton. For he would have surely nodded in agreement, even though a half century later he too would be accused of plagiarism for having followed much the same principles of imitation in his music." The virtues of such imitation have long been interred under modern ideas of originality and intellectual property, but their ghosts still haunt classical performance.

    I'm not trying to excuse the perpetrators, be they Hatto, her producer-husband, record executives, or some combination of the three. Plagiarism is, to this connoisseur, a particularly poor form of hoaxing, marked by laziness and paucity of imagination. But one wonders if there was more driving the Hatto deception than mere pecuniary gain. It's interesting to note that the first Western composer to sign his name to his work was doing so to prop up a fraud. Ademar of Charbannes was an 11th-century French monk who, determined to prove that his countryman Martial was one of the original apostles of Jesus, fabricated a Vita of Martial, purportedly by his bishoprical successor, Aurelian. Ademar's Apostolic Mass was written to commemorate the planned recognition of Martial's promoted status, but the event was a failure, sabotaged by Ademar's more famous monastical contemporary, Benedict, who regarded the Martial hagiography as nonsense; Ademar tried to appeal to the pope, but was denied the chance. But he had his revenge: forging letters that made it appear that the pope had indeed heard Ademar's case and sided with him, he slipped the documents into a library where he knew no one would see them for several generations. Discovered after his death, the accounts were accepted as authentic, a false history that wasn't unraveled until the 20th century.

    Was the Hatto plagiarism something similar? By appropriating the performances of others, was she trying to create an alternate reality, one in which her art triumphed over the vicissitudes of life rather than falling victim to them? It's certainly a more poetic notion. The cynical side of me doubts that the motives were anywhere near that high-minded; but the artistic side of me wants to believe it, that the fraud was, in its own warped way, a type of performance.

    February 16, 2007

    Square-cut or pear-shaped, these rocks don't lose their shape

    Stay with me on this one. There's this company called LifeGem (based in Elk Grove Village, Illinois—if you're from Illinois, and you've ever been to Elk Grove Village, this will make increasing sense as you read on) and what they do is take someone's DNA, extract the carbon from it, and use it to make an artificial diamond. It's kind of like that urn of ashes on the mantel that's all that remains of your late Aunt Gladys, except in a form that can be mounted in a Tiffany setting. (Now I'm wondering if I could have my DNA coverted into industrial diamonds, and be permanently memorialized on the tip of a high-end drill bit for Arctic ice cores. But I digress.)

    Well, as a publicity stunt, they're making three diamonds from DNA extracted from Beethoven's hair. The diamonds will be exhibited at various (as yet unannounced) "museums and opera houses" around the world, and then be auctioned off. Mount it on a ring, and maybe you'll end up starring in your own real-life remake of The Beast With Five Fingers! The hair is being donated by John Reznikoff, who, according to their website, "holds the Guinness World Record for the largest and most valuable collection of celebrity hair"—which, as of now, is the new "Career Objectives" bullet point on my résumé.

    Yep, a diamond made out of Beethoven's hair. Take that, Communism!

    (Via Marginal Revolution.)

    Sticks and Bricks (off-topic Friday)

    In the wake of a fairly stupid list of 150 favorite American buildings that the AIA perpetrated (idiotic example: Louis Sullivan just barely sneaks in at 145, ranked behind, among others, the Bellagio Hotel and two Apple stores), Tyler Green at Modern Art Notes has encouraged everyone to post their own five choices. I seriously considered becoming an architect at one time, and, as my lovely wife can attest to, I am a certifiable nut on the subject, so I have opinions to spare. To keep things honest, I only picked buildings that I've personally been to (which explains the high concentration around Chicago and Boston), and I limited individual architects to one slot each. ("Sticks and bricks," by the way, was the appellation given to the Tudor revival style by my far more knowledgeable classmates in Keith Morgan's 19th-Century American Architecture class at BU, and I still use it.)

    Carson, Pirie, Scott BuildingCarson, Pirie, Scott and Company building, Chicago. Louis Sullivan, 1903.

    The coolest building in the universe. Here's why: there's the ridiculously intricate wrought-iron work at street level, which always gets a lot of attention. There's also somewhat less intricate decoration around the upper windows. And those windows are placed in a regular grid on the façade. So if you stand right next to the building, as your gaze travels from the wrought-iron to the decoration on the first couple of rows of windows to the upper stories receding in perspective, the amount of decorative detail reaching your eye stays constant. Sullivan was building fractals before anyone knew what a fractal was. Breathtaking. (Really, any Sullivan building would merit this list.)

    FairsteadFairstead (Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site), Brookline, Mass. F.L. Olmsted (landscape), 1883-.

    Again, any Olmsted project could have served (I don't care that they're not buildings, his work is better than 99% of the architecture out there, so keep your semantics to yourself), but I'll go with the grounds around the rambling old farmhouse that was his home and studio for the latter part of his life. In a lot of ways, it's the ultimate Olmsted project, because at first, it doesn't seem like he's really done much of anything, and then you remember that you're looking at a one-acre residential plot in a Bostonian suburb, and you realize that he's done everything, every tree, every shrub, every roll in the lawn, and it all flows together like a dream.

    Sears TowerSears Tower, Chicago. Bruce Graham, Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill, 1973.

    I didn't really appreciate the Sears Tower while I lived in Chicago. It was only after I moved away and started flying into Chicago that I finally got it. Seeing the thing from a plane window, surrounded by other buildings, the staggered square tubes seem to break through the cityscape like columns of granite. It's a great effect: a mountain peak rising out of a nominally flat landscape. Maybe the International style was less about not emulating biological organicism and more about giving geology a little respect. (Photo by our good friend Mark Meyer.)

    MIT and HBS ChapelsMIT Chapel, MIT, Cambridge, Mass. Eero Saarinen, 1955.
    Class of 1959 Chapel, Harvard Business School, Boston. Moshe Safdie, 1992.

    So there's these two academic, non-denominational chapels, and they're both kinda small and intimate, and they're both circular, and they both have significant water elements (moat at MIT, interior koi pond at HBS), and they're both done in a modern style that nevertheless includes intriguing, idiosyncratic personal details. Lucky for Safdie he's so good, otherwise this would have plagiarism written all over it. Really, though, it's the differences that make each building: Safdie builds around a prismatic skylight that renders everything reflective and cool, Saarinen encases his geometric space in nubbly, irregular brickwork that's human and warm. News you can use: both spaces make terrific untraditional chamber music venues.

    Music Box TheaterMusic Box Theater, Chicago. Louis A. Simon, 1929.

    The plush velvet seating, the plaster faux-Venetian-palazzo details, the clouds painted on the vaulted ceiling, complete with electric blinking stars—you begin to know why movies were such a big deal back in the day. Think of it as a sublime pop version of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and you start to sense some of the magic. I remember seeing both Jacques Rivette's La Belle Noiseuse and Howard Hawks's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes here during my DePaul days, and it was the perfect venue for both. Neat trick.

    Honorable Mentions (any of which might have made the top five on a different day): Tribune Tower, Chicago (Howells & Hood, 1925; my wife's favorite building—detail at left); Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston (Willard T. Sears, 1923); Stata Center, MIT, Cambridge, Mass. (Frank Gehry, 2004); The Frick Collection, New York (Thomas Hastings, 1914); Mount Rushmore Visitors' Center, South Dakota (the old one, by Harold Spitznagel & Associates, 1957-63; demolished in 1994); Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood, Lenox, Mass. (William Rawn Associates, 1994); and probably more that I'm forgetting.

    February 15, 2007

    Variations (3): Certain rat, dans une cuisine établi

    This study reveals that the ultrasonic vocalizations of the mouse have the characteristics of song. Qualitatively, this is apparent directly from playback of pitch-shifted audio recordings; we have also provided quantitative evidence for the usage of distinct syllable types arranged in nonrandom, repeated temporal sequences. These songs satisfy Broughton's sensu stricto definition of song, as well as many aspects of his sensu strictissimo.... While courtship songs are common among birds, insects, and frogs, song has only rarely been documented in mammals, and to our knowledge only in humans, whales, and bats. However, some rodent species display a variety of calls and at least one other, the rat Dactylomys dactylilnus, utters long sequences of vocalizations that contain some syllabic diversity.

    —Timothy E. Holy and Zhongsheng Guo,
    "Ultrasonic Songs of Male Mice,"
    PLoS Biology, December 2005

    If our present society should disintegrate—and who dare prophesy that it won’t?—this old-fashioned and démodé figure will become clearer: the Bohemian, the outsider, the parasite, the rat—one of those figures which have at present no function either in a warring or a peaceful world. It may not be dignified to be a rat, but many of the ships are sinking, which is not dignified either—the officials did not build them properly. Myself, I would sooner be a swimming rat than a sinking ship—at all events I can look around me for a little longer—and I remember how one of us, a rat with particularly bright eyes called Shelley, squeaked out, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” before he vanished into the waters of the Mediterranean.

    —E. M. Forster, “Art for Art’s Sake” (1949),
    reprinted in Two Cheers for Democracy

    February 14, 2007

    Omnia vincit amor

    One of the most common slams against modernism is that it's no good for love songs. I think that's nonsense, as long as your conception of "love song" ranges beyond trite ditties of the "June-moon-spoon" variety. In honor of Valentine's Day, here's a gorgeous piece I found this week. The late Paul Cooper's Love Songs and Dances was written in 1987, and was dedicated to Ross Lee Finney and his wife. This is grown-up love, rich, deep, sometimes maddening, sometimes magical, always surprising, and sublime—that last movement positively glows. Listen to it here. (Here's some nice tributes to Cooper.)

    Painting by Benjamin West.

    February 13, 2007

    Dramatic license

    Reviewing the Borromeo Quartet.
    Boston Globe, February 13, 2007.

    For some reason I thought this wouldn't run until tomorrow. When it rains, it pours.


    Reviewing Garrick Ohlsson.
    Boston Globe, February 13, 2007.

    February 12, 2007

    Safety Last

    Hey, one of our favorite people here at Soho the Dog HQ picked up a couple of Grammys last light. Osvaldo Golijov's opera Ainadamar won for Best Opera Recording and Best Classical Contemporary Composition. ¡Felicitaciones! As for the rest of the Grammys, suffice to say that Bon Jovi won for a country song. And Lenny Gomulka was robbed. Robbed.

    Here's some good timing: Opera Boston announced this week that they'll present Ainadamar next season, along with Handel's Semele and Verdi's Ernani. Pretty interesting season, no? Also this week, the other opera company in town, Boston Lyric Opera, announced their upcoming season: La Bohéme, Donizetti's Elixir of Love, and Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio—not so interesting. I mean, I'm a committed Elixir junkie, but if you only get three slots a year, you might want to perhaps survey some repertoire that isn't also being sung by college training programs around town. (BU put on Bohéme not long ago; Boston Conservatory is mounting Elixir this spring.) BLO's general manager was quoted as saying, "Our recent audience survey says that both single-ticket and subscription buyers are saying that they really prefer the top 10 or 20 operas, and lesser-known masterworks by popular composers." Hmmm... you asked your audience what operas they liked, and they failed to mention any pieces they didn't know? What a shocker. You know, if your idea of management is giving the customer what they already know they want, there's a bright future for you in retail fast-food sales.

    Here's a fun stat: with Ainadamar, Opera Boston will have presented more works by living composers since 2003 than BLO has in their entire history (going back 30 years). Can you guess who'll be the beneficiary of my pocket money?

    February 09, 2007

    Dogs are not allowed in library

    I've been awfully busy today, so in lieu of a proper post, I set critic-at-large Moe loose at the Library of Congress. It's not like he's been doing that much reviewing lately—time to step up and start earning that steady stream of tennis balls and freeze-dried liver treats! (There he is at right, resting after his labors.) Anyway, after sniffing around for a couple of hours, here's what he came up with:

    "Dogs," a pretty funny old Barbary Coast ditty, as performed by Byron Coffin, Sr. in 1939 (audio recording).

    Billie Holiday's dog
    Portait of Mister (Billie Holiday's dog),
    photo by William Gottleib.

    "That Mastiff Dog She Bought," comic song by F. E. Galbraith, 1879 (sheet music).

    Report Dog Bites WPA poster
    Poster by Earl Schuler.

    "Mr. Bethel Dog Bit Me," a Bahamian folksong, as performed by Theodore Rolle ("Tea Roll") in 1940 (audio recording).

    Aaron Copland, his German landlady, and her dog,
    photographer unknown, 1927.

    (In retrospect, I should have guessed this was coming.)

    February 08, 2007

    Late Show

    Screenshot: Philip Glass on SNLLive, from 1986, it's Philip Glass and his eponymous ensemble, appearing on a major-network sketch comedy show which shall remain unnamed. Added value: great shots of all the vintage gear, and George Wendt (!) introducing the major operatic composer of our time.

    Philip Glass Ensemble performs Rubric, NYC 1986 (YouTube)

    February 07, 2007

    All the world's a stage

    The word "revolutionary" gets thrown around a lot with reference to new music. But how do you measure just how revolutionary a musical style is? Who's the greater innovator: Debussy or Stravinsky? Is serialism or minimalism a bigger break with the past? Here's a possible criterion: do the critics go through all five Kübler-Ross stages?

    The Kübler-Ross model is usually associated with death and the surrounding grief, but Kübler-Ross herself intended it as a representation of how people deal with any catastrophic information. So if an avant-garde vocabulary/technique/philosophy really has the shock of the new, we should see the results greeted with those five little words:

  • Denial: This isn't music!
  • Anger: I'm insulted that this music is being inflicted on me.
  • Bargaining: Perhaps other people might accept this as music, but please don't let it happen while I'm around.
  • Depression: If this is what passes for music these days, we're in a sorry state indeed.
  • Acceptance: Hey, maybe this stuff isn't so bad after all.

  • Note that the Kübler-Ross stages don't have to happen in any particular order (although acceptance usually comes last). And some of these could be combined: denial and anger, for example (I'm insulted that you would try and make me think this is music).

    So what do the stages look like in the field? Let's try everybody's favorite bugaboo, Arnold Schoenberg.

  • Denial: Arnold Schoenberg's famous, or notorious, Five Pieces for Orchestra are worse than the reputation that preceded them.... There is not the slightest reason to believe that their squeaks, groans and caterwaulings represent in any way the musical idiom of today or tomorrow or of any future time. (Richard Aldrich, New York Times, November 30, 1921)
  • Anger: The performance of a new string quartet by Arnold Schoenberg must also be mentioned.... [I]n the middle of the last movement people shouted at the top of their voices: 'Stop! Enough! We will not be treated like fools!' And I must confess to my sorrow that I, too, let myself be driven to similar outbursts. (Ludwig Karpath, Signale [Berlin], January 6, 1909)
  • Bargaining: I fear and dislike the music of Arnold Schoenberg... If such music-making is ever to become accepted, then I long for Death the Releaser. (James Huneker, New York Times, January 19, 1913)
  • Depression: How miserable would our descendants be, if this joyless gloomy Schoenberg would ever become the mode of expression of their time! (Hugo Leichtentritt, Signale [Berlin], February 7, 1912)
  • Acceptance: One likes to think that just as the Five Pieces paved the way for Pierrot Lunaire so the Variations are paving the way for a second masterpiece of a similar calibre. Even if this be not the case, the Variations remain among the most outstanding works written since the war and are undoubtedly the most important music Schönberg has written for twenty years. For whereas the post-war piano suites might have been written by any of Schönberg's followers, the Variations could only have been written by the master himself. (Constant Lambert, Music Ho!, 1935)

  • (The first four from, where else? Nicolas Slonimsky's Lexicon of Musical Invective.) In a similarly teutonic spirit, what about one of Schoenberg's favorites, Brahms?

  • Denial: What is then nowadays music, harmony, melody, rhythm, meaning, form, when this rigmarole seriously pretends to be regarded as music? If Herr Dr. Johannes Brahms intends to mystify his admirers with this newest work, if he wants to make fun of their brainless veneration, then it is of course something else, and we marvel at Herr Brahms as the greatest bluffer of this century and of all future millenia. (Hugo Wolf, Salonblatt [Vienna], December 5, 1886)
  • Anger: I played over the music of that scoundrel Brahms. What a giftless bastard! It annoys me that this self-inflated mediocrity is hailed as a genius. (Tchaikowsky's diary, October 9, 1886)

  • ...and so forth. I would guess that a scrapbook of Philip Glass reviews would yield five pertinent examples without too much trouble, and a survey of "respectable" reactions to the coming of jazz in the early 1900's would make a fine case study, as well.

    I find it hard to believe that I'm the first person to think of this, but a quick web search didn't turn up anything similar. (I did find this article that analyzes Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra as a series of Kübler-Ross stages.) Anyone know if somebody out there has taken this beyond a mere blog post?

    February 06, 2007

    Learning the blues

    Over at "Dial M" last week, Phil issued his iPod challenge, while Jonathan offered some career advice. Jonathan said that popular music, in his opinion, wasn't necessarily the best musicological wall to toss your prospectively employed cap over, but of course, popular music was what turned up in spades on the hard drives of those to took up Phil's dare. (This led to its own Brundlefly-like combination meme.)

    In the spirit of things, here's a little souvenir of the initial incursion of pop into the ivory tower. The first jazz theory class, ever, wasn't offered in the United States—it was at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt, Germany, taught by a young Hungarian composer named Mátyás Seiber. Seiber started the class in 1928, and by 1931, had achieved enough notoriety that he and the Hoch Conservatory jazz band were invited to perform for German radio—and you can listen to their performance of Peter Packay's "Oh My" courtesy of the Deutsches Rundfunkarchiv. (Real Player only, which is a mild annoyance.) How do they do? Not bad at all—except for a few ragged syncopations, they could easily pass for an American or British "hot" band of the period.

    The Nazis, pretty predictably, didn't take kindly to Seiber's class, and, upon its cancellation in 1933, Seiber emigrated to London, where he kept busy as a teacher and composer, appropriately working in a wide variety of styles and genres, from avant-garde to pop. (His cantata on Joyce's Ulysses, which I remember perusing the score of, is an unjustly neglected gem.) He died in a car crash in 1960; Ligeti dedicated the score of Atmosphères to his memory, which gives you some indication of the breadth of his career and influence.

    February 05, 2007

    Reading Session

    [C]redibility persists as a criterion of musical quality both because there is no more functional alternative criterion and because it is self-confirming. These mechanisms can help account for both conservatism of musical style and of musical evaluation.
    Composers crave credibility. Even if we don't care about popularity, or academic honors, or maintaining a cutting-edge reputation, we at least want the respect of other musicians recognizing that we know what we're doing. As it turns out, there's a lot more at stake than a bruised ego.

    Back in 1973, Karl Weick, David Gilfillan, and Thomas Keith published a curious study in the journal Sociometry called "The Effect of Composer Credibility on Orchestra Performance" (from which the above quote is taken). They took two jazz bands and, giving them a cover story to conceal their true motives, had each band play through the same three anonymous pieces. (Fun trivia: two of the pieces were by Alf Clausen, now famous as the composer for The Simpsons.) The first was to establish a baseline for the skill level of each group. The second two comprised the experiment. For each piece, the conductor read a short "press release" purporting to be a publishing company's promotional bio of the arranger.
    The press release for the non-serious composer read as follows: "After spending many years writing thousands of the better known dance arrangements, the arranger is attempting moderize his style and is trying to reach a new audience, with the hope of getting into movies or television. We at Mission welcome the chance to reintroduce him to you."

    The press release for the serious composer read as follows: "This chart is a 'classic' done in the style that has made the arranger so popular. His credits include work done for the top motion picture, television, and recording industries. We at Mission are proud to welcome him and hope to publish many of his works."
    Which bio went with which piece was reversed for the two bands. They recorded the bands reading through the charts, then rehearsing them a little, then playing them again. They then analyzed the recordings for accuracy.
    The seriousness or credibility manipulation had a considerable effect on the first playthrough of the tunes. Not only did each band make a smaller percentage of errors on its serious than on its non-serious tune, but in both cases the serious play of a tune was done with fewer errors than the non-serious play.
    The graph says it all:
    Percentage Error Chart
    What's more, subsequent testing revealed that the players remembered less of the "non-serious" tune than the "serious" one.

    Here's the really interesting thing: the effect pretty much disappeared once the bands had a chance to rehearse each piece. After a bit of familiarization, the "serious" and "non-serious" tunes were rendered with equal accuracy. And Weick et al can hear the implications loud and clear:
    The present data, however, suggest that extended direct exposure to the work of art itself can reduce, and even eliminate, the impact of attested credibility. Brief exposure favors conservatism and rejection of the novel, prolonged exposure favors change. Thus, an additional unexpected contributor to conservatism in the social system of music may be the time pressure which musicians experience in studio orchestras, symphony orchestras, rehearsal orchestras, or in recording sessions. In each of these settings, abbreviated rehearsing is the rule, prolonged rehearsing the exception. This should reduce opportunities to study, gain familiarity with and positively evaluate the novel.
    Weick, Gilfillan, and Keith weren't studying music; they were studying organizations. Weick still does, focusing, in part, on how organizations use self-imposed limitations on the interpretation of information to reduce equivocality, that is, when one fact can be considered to have multiple meanings. The problem is, orchestras and the like are among those organizations for which the reduction of equivocality is almost necessarily happenstance.
    Weick and Gilfillan (1971) suggested another reason why innovation is resisted—a reason that bears directly on the nature of evaluation in the arts. They demonstrated that if a social system produces a specific strategy from among a set of alternatives that are equally functional, plausible, and defensible, and among which choices can legitimately be made on nonevidential grounds (such as taste), the chosen strategy will persist unchanged for eleven generations. The strategy gains the force of tradition and when the initial choice is not demonstrably better or worse than an alternative, the choice is labeled warrentedly arbitrary.
    In other words, since artistic taste is completely subjective, arts organizations are more likely encrust arbitrary operational procedures with the force of tradition, and less likely to break out of old habits. Not enough rehearsal time? Not enough repetition of a new piece to give it a chance at a foothold? Well, geez, that's the way we've always done it. (If it's good enough for Brahms, it's good enough for you.)

    Might this explain why so many new orchestral works sound suspiciously similar these days? Vaguely to overtly tonal, rhythmically simple, with gestures lifted whole cloth from the Romantic and Impressionist repertoire—I'm not saying there isn't valuable music being written in that style; but there's a whole lot of other styles out there that already have a strike or two against them going into a symphonic or operatic environment. And it's a vicious cycle: without that major-arts-ensemble performance/commission on your CV, your credibility takes a hit, and it's that much harder to get a proper hearing of your music. Schoenberg waited decades to hear some of his pieces; Cage's experience with major orchestras was, to say the least, unrewarding; the minimalists got tired of the whole game and formed their own performing ensembles. Maybe that should be a warning sign—credibility applies to organizations, too.

    February 02, 2007

    Can you detect what's coming next from the flex of the wrist?

    From Phil, over at "Dial M":
    I issue this challenge to my fellow pointy-headed music-bloggers: post a randomly-generated Ipod playlist on your blog, with relevant commentary.
    Apparently this is a new activity among the cultural elite. Phil mentions an alternative weekly in Seattle in which "hipsters hand over their Ipods and get grilled on the most incriminating songs that reside therein." Of course, among musicians, the whole idea of any song being "incriminating" runs afoul of Guerrieri's Law of True Musicianship, which is why I'm mildly ticked that my own random sample failed to turn up either The Chipmunks or Ferrante & Teicher. But this particular exercise puts us at the mercy of the machine—so here's the baker's dozen that the gods of chance have decreed to be a window into my soul.

    1. "Take This Job and Shove It" (Johnny Paycheck)
    A good example of the Comedy Song Inverse-Absurdity rule, which I just made up: the goofier the lyrics, the more polished and elegantly constructed the music needs to be in order for a song to work. "Take This Job and Shove It" wouldn't get half the laughs it does if it was a sloppy, parodistic country song, instead of a real, solid, well-crafted one. This, incidentally, is why faux-country numbers in musical comedies are never, ever funny.

    2. Fauré: "Fleur Jetée," op. 39 nº 2 (Barbara Hendricks/Michel Dalberto)
    I have a weird history with this song. The first time I encountered it, I was sight-reading, and I was apparently having an unusually good day, as I read it down cold. Since then, every time I've played it, things haven't gone nearly so well, but I really hate practicing it; because of the memory of that first read-though, I can't shake the feeling that the song is, somehow or other, wasting my time. Still, a great song, although it ends up sounding way too bombastic on non-Pleyel modern pianos.

    3. Barraqué: Sonata pour piano: premiére partie (Stefan Litwin)
    I'll admit, I don't dial this one up on my own very much (40 minutes of free time doesn't come along that often), but it's a big smile when it happens to turn up on shuffle mode. Every time I wonder about the historical worth and necessity of serialism, a shot of Barraqué reminds me: exquisite, astonishing music that couldn't possibly be conceived of in any other vocabulary. One of the greats.

    4. Tchaikowsky: The Seasons, op. 37a: August, "Harvest Song" (Dmitry Paperno)
    "The Seasons" is the piece that finally sold me on Tchaikowsky, who for the longest time didn't inspire much affection beyond "Sleeping Beauty." But these twelve polished jewels are so sure-footed not only musically, but physically at the keyboard, that you end up appreciating not only the craft, but the aesthetic. (Prof. Paperno was my piano professor at DePaul; he'll shake his head knowingly when I reveal that "Harvest Song" is one of the movements I still can't really play.)

    5. Heuberger: "Im chambre séparée" (Elizabeth Schwarzkopf)
    From the album Elizabeth Schwarzkopf Sings Operetta, which I listened to all through college, thus completely missing out on the whole grunge thing. To which I can only say: thanks, Liz!

    6. "Be With You" (The Bangles)
    Not my favorite off their Greatest Hits (those would be "Eternal Flame" and "Everything I Wanted"), but the fade-in from a warming-up orchestra is a nice touch. One great thing about this album: it contains harmonic dictation examples for all skill levels. Keeping it close at hand saved this TA on more than one bleary morning.

    7. Gershwin: "Mine" from Let 'Em Eat Cake (McGovern/Kert/Tilson Thomas)
    The Gershwins were meta before meta was cool. The leads sing a fairly standard (if melodically adventurous) romantic song ("Mine / more than divine / to know that love like yours is mine"), after which the chorus joins in contrapuntally, explaining the number to the audience ("The point they're making in the song / is that they more than get along"). Ira Gershwin is a god.

    8. "Don't Worry Baby" (The Beach Boys)
    The most romantic song ever written about a drag race, and the fact that it's not a left-handed compliment to say that is testament to its indelible genius. Brian Wilson is a god.

    9. "I Only Have Eyes For You" (The Flamingos)
    This is a cool mind-bender. Listen to this song while reading the chapter on the uncertainty principle (the one that says that the more you know about an object's position, the less you know about its trajectory, and vice versa) in Werner Heisenberg's The Physical Principles of the Quantum Theory. You'll swear that's what the song is really about.
    I don't know if I'm in a garden, or on a crowded avenue... are there stars in the sky? Maybe millions of people pass by, but they all disappear from view; for I only have eyes for you.

    10. "We've Got a Groovey Thing Goin'" (Simon & Garfunkel)
    I often wonder what phrase I'm blissfully batting around today that'll sound as hopelessly dated as "groovy" twenty years from now. Sometimes I think it might be "human being." Then I wake up in a cold sweat, screaming incoherently about evil robots. (I actually use the word "groovy" quite a bit. "Swell," too.)

    11. "Oh Boy!" (Buddy Holly)
    Here's something interesting about Buddy Holly songs. When the persona he's adopting is totally earnest, the rhythm is straight-eighths ("Peggy Sue," "Everyday," "Oh Boy!"); when the persona is one of you-cannot-be-serious sarcasm, the rhythm is a triplet-based shuffle ("That'll Be the Day," "Think It Over"). Someday I'll write an article on this for an academic journal. I'll call it "Triplets of Incredulity: Disbelief and Hermeneutic Swagger in the Buddy Holly Oeuvre."

    12. "The Way We Were" (Barbara Streisand)
    When you think about it, Streisand is one of the great crossover artists of all time—the crossover being from straight musical theatre to radio-ready Adult-Contemporary. "The Way We Were" is the perfect example: essentially a typical second-act Broadway ballad that effortlessly becomes a 70's pop hit with just a little wah-wah guitar and one Babs melismatic excursion towards the end. Go ahead: imagine Ethel Merman singing this song. Works just fine, doesn't it?

    13. "Nearer to Thee" (Sam Cooke with the Soul Stirrers)
    I don't know if there's a heaven. If there is, I don't know if I'm going. But I know this: if I get there, Sam Cooke's going to sing me in the door.

    February 01, 2007

    Still They Ride

    Geoff Edgers passes along the news that the July 4th headliner at Tanglewood will be Journey (you should click on their link just for the "Space Invaders" flash intro). In their effort to bring in a younger crowd, the BSO is turning to a band that was formed prior to the birth of the entire TMC student body. (Though, to be fair, "Don't Stop Believin'" is turning out to be the Elina Makropoulos of pop songs.) Geoff is rightly perturbed at the Steve Perry-less lineup, but really, they've had so many singers that, if they all showed up, Levine could reprise Gurrelieder from last summer.

    Screenshot from the Atari 2600 game Journey: Escape, released in 1982. That's right, they got their own video-game cartridge. Take that, Copland!

    Update (2/7): "Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)": they aren't coming after all.

    I tried to fake it; I don't mind saying, I just can't make it

    Here in Massachusetts, we've had a minor outbreak of things not being what they seem. All day yesterday, the Hub of the Universe was anthropomorphically reduced to a nervous old lady with the shades drawn by a bunch of "bombs" that turned out to be misguided guerilla advertising. Then we find out that our boy wonder Red Sox general manager didn't get married at Coney Island after all. Ha, ha! Joke! It's enough to make you pine for simpler times—you know, the kind that Howard Hughes wrote about in his autobiography.

    Anyway, I got to thinking why there haven't been more musical hoaxes over the years. I'm not talking about literary hoaxes that revolve around music, which have ranged from the ridiculous (that whole Webern-Nazi thing) to the sublime (Shostakovich's alleged memoirs). I'm talking about creating a piece of music that's presented under false pretenses. The really notable examples don't take up many counting fingers:

  • Violinist Fritz Kreisler had a knack for unearthing forgotten violin works from minor masters of the 17th and 18th centuries. When I say "unearthing," I mean composing. The actual pieces, though, are not bad, and still turn up as encores now and again.
  • In a similar vein, it was confirmed in 1977 that Mozart's early Violin Concerto in D, nicknamed "Adélaïde," had in fact been composed by Marius Casadesus (Robert's uncle) in 1933. Like Kreisler, Casadesus was listed as the editor on the first printed edition. (Apparently, the Casadesus family were such notorious forgers that, as doubts about the "Adélaïde" concerto began to trickle in, the piece was attributed to Marius's brother Henri.)
  • The 1948 discovery of Nikolai Ovsianiko-Kulikovsky's 21st Symphony, dating from 1809, was seen as evidence that early 19th-century Russian composition wasn't as barren as previously thought—until it was revealed as a fraud, most probably composed by its "discoverer," violinist Mikhail Goldstein.
  • French music-lovers were thrilled when, in 1951, a previously lost coronation mass by the Baroque composer Étienne Moulinié was premiered in Paris. They were less thrilled when it turned out the piece was really by Father Emile Martin, the director of the choir that re-premiered the mass.
  • In 1961, the BBC broadcast Piotr Zak's Mobile for Tape and Percussion, which was revealed to be an avant-garde parody cobbled together at random by BBC radio technicians. The spoof fooled at least a couple of critics.

  • One of the reasons there's so few musical hoaxes is that the field is fairly limited: you can either create fake antiquity, or fake avant-garde. The former means running a gauntlet of hungry musicologists. The latter carries with it the very real danger that the genuine article has already surpassed the purported absurdity of the ersatz; that Zak Mobile sounds suspiciously like a retread of John Cage's Williams Mix, doesn't it? (There's also what I'll call the Ern Malley problem—named for an imaginary modernist Australian poet who was invented to mock modernist pretention, and whose supposedly nonsensical poems actually read pretty well.)

    There's another reason musical hoaxes aren't all that prevalent, though, and that's because music is already pretty close to a hoax itself. Think about it: as a listener, you're presented with a sequence of sounds, that may or may not have some arithmetically vibrational relation to each other, being generated by serious-looking people working machines that aren't terribly practical, usually in some sort of formalized setting, and somehow, from this non-figurative gibberish, you convince yourself that these sounds mean something, either emotionally or narratively, and you're moved by it. You're kidding, right?

    On the one hand, yes, of course I'm kidding: music does move us, and for those of us who care enough to waste time reading music blogs, it's a vitally important part of our emotional lives. And the creation of music, unlike a hoax, isn't usually an act of dishonesty. But I've often thought that music is a lot like stage magic. We don't for a second believe that the magician is really sawing the lady in half, but we still enjoy watching the lady get sawn in half. To point out the obvious unreality of the situation ruins the fun. Music is the same way: it doesn't really communicate anything, in the practical sense, but we choose to believe that it does, because that's what opens the door for a meaningful artistic experience.

    Orson Welles, a connoisseur of hoaxes, was also no mean magician himself, and when he performed his magic act as a cameo in Follow the Boys, he introduced it by saying, "We trust you like to be fooled. We hope we fool you." Sometimes I feel the same way as a musician—which is why I think music is pretty barren ground for hoaxes. A hoax involves fooling people without their knowing it; but on a crucial level, the fact that people listen to music means we can trust they like to be fooled.