June 29, 2007

Arguments, agreements, advice, answers, articulate announcements

On the heels of research that shows that music you find pleasant does, in fact, reduce pain (although, given what I find "pleasant," I'm going to need a private hospital bed) comes this bit of fun: "Musical Intervals in Speech," by Duke University neuroscientists Deborah Ross, Jonathan Choi, and Dale Purves. Ross et al. analyzed the vowel formants of everyday speech and found, more often than not, that the frequency relationships correspond to the intervals of the 12-note chromatic scale.
To test the hypothesis that chromatic scale intervals are specifically embedded in the frequency relationships in voiced speech sounds (i.e., phones whose acoustical structure is characterized by periodic repetition), we analyzed the spectra of different vowel nuclei in neutral speech uttered by adult native speakers of American English, as well as a smaller database of Mandarin.
... [We calculated] the distribution of all F2/F1 ratios derived from the spectra of the 8 different vowels uttered by the 10 English-speaking participants (i.e., the relationships in 1,000 utterances of each of the vowels). Sixty-eight percent of these ratios fall on intervals of the chromatic scale (red bars), and all 12 chromatic intervals are represented over a span of 4 octaves.
In other words, the 12-note scale isn't so arbitrary after all. Interestingly, there's preference for tuning systems in speech as well:
In so far as the observations here inform this argument, the observed ratios in speech spectra accord most closely with a just intonation tuning system. Ten of the 12 intervals generated by the analysis of either English or Mandarin vowel spectra are those used in just intonation tuning, whereas 4 of the 12 match the Pythagorean tuning and only 1 of the 12 intervals matches those used in equal temperament. The two anomalies in our data with respect to just intonation concern the minor second and the tritone.
That minor-second/tritone anomaly brings up a good chicken-egg question, given that composers who work with more chromatic than diatonic sounds tend not to explore alternate tunings so much: does a preference for crunchy dissonance mean that just intonation sounds "wrong"? Or is it that, in our predominantly equal-temperament world, it's those clashing seconds that sound the most "natural," so that's where the preference comes from? As someone who likes the sound of diatonic music in pure ratios, but opts for equal-tempered dissonance in my own, I'm inclined towards the latter, but I would imagine this is a highly personal impression.

Anyway, turns out Harold Hill was right: singing is just sustained talking.

June 28, 2007

Generalization of the day

My wife works for Harvard, so we get Harvard magazine in the mail, sixty or so glossy pages recounting fabulous adventures of faculty and alumni. Anyway, this month brings a half-page of pithy remarks culled from a confab with John Adams, who picked up the Harvard Medal for the Arts this year, including this one:
Harmony is where the psychological meaning of the music is. [Twelve-tone composers] wrote atonal music, and at the same time Duke Ellington, Richard Rodgers, and George Gershwin were having a fine time with harmony.
Here's a fun game: try and come up with a context in which this out-of-context remark doesn't imply that, say, the Berg Violin Concerto contains no harmony. (Or the Lyric Suite, for that matter.) How about Martin? Henze? I'm spending the week walking orchestration students through a section of Dallapiccola's Variazioni that's nothing but harmonic progressions. And those are just the composers, who, off the top of my head, seem to put their primary emphasis on harmony. Triads are nice, but there's more than one way to meaningfully stack up those notes.

Marquette Interchange

Milwaukee, Wisconsin has joined the illustrious roll of American metropolises that have screwed over their classical radio listeners. WFMR is now—and I'm so glad I'm typing this on an empty stomach—"smooth jazz," as a series of format changes left the city without its daily ration of Dave Koz, and, well, somebody's got to fill that painful void, right? The Journal-Sentinel's Tim Cuprasin explains:
It's part of a chain reaction that started with WKTI-FM (94.5) dumping its morning show to target younger listeners, which led WJZI-FM (93.3) to drop smooth jazz to target disenfranchised WKTI listeners.

Now it's WFMR's turn. General manager Tom Joerres explains that the switch came because of the "opportunity" presented by WJZI's format flip.
You seize that opportunity, Tom! At this rate, all the stations in Milwaukee will keep grabbing each others' sloppy seconds until the median demographic is about four years old.

Just last June, Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett had proclaimed "WFMR Day" in honor of the 50th anniversary of the station, which had, with but one brief interruption, managed to keep classical programming going through a maze of frequency and ownership changes. I'm guessing you can probably pick up that proclamation for yourself if you make Joerres a good enough offer. You Milwaukeeans should be more careful with your civic institutions: the Brewers are having their best season since 1982. The last thing they need is a curse.

June 27, 2007

Naming of Parts

The quote of the day is from Edmund Wilson's To the Finland Station, his survey of the intellectual precursors of Marxism-Leninism, about the 19th-century French historian Jules Michelet, author of the momumental Histoire du France:
One remarkable device of Michelet's has since been exploited and made famous by the novelist Marcel Proust.... The more important actors in Michelet's history often produce sharply varying impressions as they are shown us at different ages and in different situations—that is, each is made to appear at any given moment in the particular role that he is playing at the moment, without reference to the roles he is later to play. Michelet explains what he is doing at the end of the fifth book of the Revolution—"History is time," he says; and this evidently contributed in Proust's case, along with other influences such as Tolstoy, to his deliberate adoption of that method of presenting his characters in a series of dramatically contrasting aspects by which he produces the effect of the long lines on economics charts fluctuating back through time.
If you're like me, first of all, my condolences, and second of all, then this passage made you think of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Much is made of that work's various "transformations" of the opening rhythmic Morse-code "V" motif, but really, they're not so much transformed as just presented in different surroundings that create the sense of the motif having undergone some crucial change. This is a common enough occurrence in Romantic music—think of the Liszt Sonata in b minor, or the opening and closing of Schumann's Frauenliebe und -Leben, or the idée fixe in Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, to name some more famous examples—that it's not unreasonable to point to a common Romantic idea as the conscious or unconscious spur to the technique in both its literary and musical guises: the notion that there's something about human behavior and human nature that's essentially irrational and unknowable, that the Enlightenment idea of a clear, understandable chain of causality and motivation is a naïve illusion.

But it seems to me that the "thematic tranformation" shorthand we use for this is misleading. It's not what changes about the motif that's important, it's what stays the same, at least from a Romantic standpoint. If a theme is transformed organically and clearly such that it ends up a materially different theme, then, in this sense, it's a Classical influence—the knowable process—rather than a Romantic one—the unknowable leap. And yet we associate the whole idea of "thematic transformation" primarily with Romantic composers.

This is a retrospective association. Take Schoenberg's 1933 essay "Brahms the Progressive." Schoenberg is using the example of Brahms to expain his own preference for developing, non-repeating melody. He traces examples of irregular, asymmetrical melodies and phrases from Mozart through to his own work, with a special emphasis on Brahms. The analysis is all on the level of gradual transformations of motives within the melody.
The most important capacity of a composer [Schoenberg writes] is to cast a glance into the most remote future of his themes or motives. He has to be able to know beforehand the consequences which derive from the problems existing in his material, and to organize everything accordingly. Whether he does this consciously or subconsciously is a subordinate matter. [emphasis added]
I would venture that any Romantic thinker would take issue with that last sentence—the difference between conscious and subconscious motivation would have mattered very much indeed to them, with the true artistic impulse being found in the latter. And its the fundamental unknowability of consequences that many of the Romantics considered vital—it's one of the main reasons they considered Shakespeare a kindred spirit. But the point is not that Schoenberg is some sort of hypocritical Romantic, the point is that when we consider atonality and the 12-tone method to be just an outgrowth of late Romanticism, and, in fact, when we consider atonality and the 12-tone method to be the one and the same thing, we blunt the usefulness of a term like "Romanticism" by lumping in music that is philosophically dissonant with some of the movement's most basic premises. And, not incidentally, we're failing to take Schoenberg at his word:
Analysts of my music will have to realize how much I personally owe to Mozart. People who looked unbelievingly at me, thinking I made a poor joke will now understand why I called myself a 'pupil of Mozart', must now understand my reasons.
Schoenberg got it right: serialism is the result of a neo-Classical impulse, not a Romantic one.

This disconnect between the philosphical and artistic terms we most often use to characterize musical styles and the actual non-musical ideas associated with those terms is something I find more amusing than appalling, but it points up the need to be careful not to blithely assume that one leads to another. A lot of the composers we tend to think of as "late Romantic," in particular, were actually after an artistic experience more in the spirit of the Classical era, their Wagnerian vocabulary notwithstanding—Rachmaninoff, for instance, or post-Rosenkavalier Strauss. Conversely, the juxtapositions and surrealist structures of a lot of "neo-Classical" composers (Stravinsky, Satie, Les Six) seem to be more in sympathy with Romantic literary ideas of fragments and non-linear narratives. Names are useful; realities are more interesting.

June 26, 2007

Make of our hearts one heart

I'm a working fool today, so in lieu of a real post, here's Cher, circa 1978, playing all the parts in West Side Story.

Part 1:

Part 2:

June 22, 2007

My philosophic search / Has left me in the lurch

Here's a little thought experiment. Imagine that you're presenting a concert. You let in half the audience with no preparation, no instructions, just have them take their seats. But you give a pre-concert talk to the other half of the crowd in which you encourage them to enjoy themselves, and point out certain landmarks in the music that the audience will be surely glad to notice. Guess who has the better time?

Knowing our human weakness for suggestion and self-delusion, you might think it was the second bunch. You'd be wrong. Researchers Jonathan Schooler, Dan Ariely, and George Loewenstein actually tried this: they had a bunch of volunteers listen to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, dividing the volunteers into four categories. The first received no instructions. The second were told to try to be happy. The third were told to try to monitor their moment-to-moment happiness. The fourth were told to try to do both. They had the volunteers assess their own mood both on a numeric scale and by adjusting the smile/frown on a representation of a face.
To assess the impact of our experimental manipulations on happiness, we examined the changes to individuals' responses to the critical happiness questions before and after listening to the music. The results of this investigation provide preliminary evidence that both monitoring and efforts to maximize happiness can actually impair the achievement of happiness. ...[M]onitoring happiness significantly reduced happiness as indicated on both the numeric happiness scale and smile-face happiness measure. ...[T]rying to be happy also reduced individuals' hedonic experience, albeit primarily by reducing the reported mood.
The title of the paper says it all: "The Pursuit and Assessment of Happiness Can Be Self-Defeating." In his book Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert sums up why:
Two reasons. First, we may be able deliberately to generate positive views of our own experiences if we close our eyes, sit very still, and do nothing else, but research suggests that if we become even slightly distracted, these deliberate attempts tend to backfire and we end up feeling worse than we did before. Second, deliberate attempts to cook the facts are so transparent that they make us feel cheap.
I wish I had found this research 12 hours earlier than I did, since it puts a rather provocative spin on just about everything that was said at yesterday's Engaging Art confabulation between ArtsJournal and the American Symphony Orchestra League. The event was partially a hive-mind brainstorm on how, or whether, to change the classical concert experience to attract more and younger audience members. There was lots of talk about increasing interactivity, about engaging the audience in conversation, in making them feel as if they had a hand in creating the experience. Schooler, Ariely, and Loewenstein's research would suggest that this would reduce the overall pleasure of the experience, since thinking about what makes you happy tends to interfere with your ability to be happy—they compare it to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle: "[I]ntrospection about happiness may be impossible because introspecting affects (and potentially undermines) happiness." There's also the complication, reiterated again and again throughout Gilbert's book, that what people say makes them happy almost invariably doesn't.

But it also suggests that the traditional, temple-of-art music-appreciation presentation (which I've always rather liked) is self-defeating as well, since it promotes monitoring of the experience. You're encouraged to listen for landmarks, to notice things, to sense the connection between the local and the global. And it turns out that all that encouragement just gets in the way of the joy of listening.

The first point I find mildly counterintuitive to my own experience, but the second I find really counterintuitive. A fair portion of my listening takes place on the analytical side, and I don't feel like it reduces either the experience or the memory of that experience. In fact, if I'm deluding myself at all, I would bet that it's in retrospectively enjoying a performance more—my tendency is to store away the good parts of a concert, and let the mediocre moments fade from memory.

What's going on here? I admit that I don't know; but my gut feeling is that it has something to do with the fact that my own musical education was primarily physical, and only secondarily intellectual. I started with piano lessons long before I knew what chords were called, what sonata form was, what orchestration meant. My primal experience of music was getting my hands dirty with the actual building blocks themselves, not just watching somebody else construct the house and learning the name for the pattern of bricks. So in listening to a piece, my ear starts mapping out the form and the flow intuitively, not because somebody has just told me to.

If this is indeed correct (and I'd love to know if there's any data out there—I couldn't find any), then it would suggest that the best way organizations could spend their outreach money is in simply buying instruments and getting them into the hands of kids. Anecdotally, this fits in with the corresponding decline of applied music education in public schools and classical mindshare in popular culture; my own experience is that getting rock fans to listen to Mozart can sometimes be a tough sell, but getting rock musicians, even self-taught ones, is a piece of cake.

It also suggests that the best concert experience would be the most neutral and music-focused, and that any form of window-dressing, be it old-fashioned or new-fangled, is just a distraction. Odd—you may be thirsty, but if you have to have the well pointed out to you, the water isn't as sweet. It turns out what jazzes us the most is serendipity.

June 21, 2007

Working Class Dogs

Reviewing Sick Puppy.
Boston Globe, June 21, 2007.

More concerts tonight and tomorrow at 8, and a marathon on Saturday beginning at 5—check here for more info.

June 19, 2007

Germ-Free Adolescents

Miscellaneous dispatches piling up here at Soho the Dog HQ:

From the Fighting the Good Fight desk: Project STEP turns 25. You can wring your hands about the state of music education, or you can quietly, modestly, and effectively do something about it.

From the Hell Is Other People desk: Here's an article managing to condescend to symphony patrons and NASCAR patrons simultaneously. Never have so many ostentatiously italicized foreign words been deployed with so little effect! And what's wrong with cowboy hats anyway? (Bonus: this letter, in which a reader brags of stifling a nine-year-old fellow audience member. Fight the battles you can win, I guess.)

From the Kill a Slow Work Day With a Surreptitious Downloading Project desk: just in time for the solstice, Jon Savage picks the 50 greatest teenager songs of all time. (Yes, X-Ray Spex made the list.)

And from the Good Things Come to Those Who Wait desk: Meet the Composer announces their 2007 Commissioning Grants. It's a lot of the usual suspects, but this one caught my eye: Christian Wolff is writing a new piece for the Callithumpian Consort. Having heard an absolutely bang-up performance of some Wolff Exercises by the Callithumpian's student wing, [nec]shivaree, I'm psyched.

June 17, 2007

Prick Up Your Ears

A flaming skull just isn't me.
Boston Globe, June 17, 2007.

More on classical music and tattoos. Includes appearances by one-fourth of The Curses, soprano Andrea Gruber, gamba heroine Matchless Orinda, and prima blogger assoluta La Cieca.

June 16, 2007

as a wagoner would his mudheeldy wheesindonk

It's Bloomsday, the anniversary of Leopold Bloom's 1904 ramble around Dublin in James Joyce's 1922 novel Ulysses. I guarantee you that most of what you read about Ulysses today will emphasize its shock of the new, its revolutionary style, its impact on the avant-garde. All true, but I thought it might be fun to mention one aspect of the book that's thoroughly 19th-century: Richard Wagner.

Joyce was an amateur opera singer, and, according to evidence, rather a good one—he himself occasionally only half-jokingly wished he had pursued singing instead of writing. He knew the repertoire, and his works abound in operatic references. The use of Wagner, though, goes a little deeper.

The most famous Wagnerian bit in Ulysses comes in the "Circe" episode, when Bloom and Stephen Dedalus visit a brothel. Stephen carries an ashplant cane that becomes an ersatz version of Siegfried's sword:
STEPHEN: AH NON, PAR EXEMPLE! The intellectual imagination! With me all or not at all. NON SERVIAM!

FLORRY: Give him some cold water. Wait. (SHE RUSHES OUT)

THE MOTHER: (WRINGS HER HANDS SLOWLY, MOANING DESPERATELY) O Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on him! Save him from hell, O Divine Sacred Heart!

STEPHEN: No! No! No! Break my spirit, all of you, if you can! I'll bring you all to heel!

THE MOTHER: (IN THE AGONY OF HER DEATHRATTLE) Have mercy on Stephen, Lord, for my sake! Inexpressible was my anguish when expiring with love, grief and agony on Mount Calvary.


Certainly there's a lot going on here, but the "Nothung" reference to Siegfried's sword, importantly, echoes one of Joyce's Irish compatriots, the writer George Augustus Moore. Moore packed his novels with music, especially Evelyn Innes and Sister Teresa, both of which concern music and music-making, abetted with copious detail. ("I hear it has to be played on the piano," Oscar Wilde once quipped about one of Moore's books.) Moore consciously tried to emulate Wagnerian leitmotif structure in his work, which was not unusual for novelists of the time, but the quest for a specifically "Irish" literary identity gave Moore's efforts extra urgency. Towards the end of his autobiography Hail and Farewell, Moore writes this aria:
Ireland has lain too long under the spell of the magicians, without will, without intellect, useless and shameful, the despised of nations. I have come into the most impersonal country in the world to preach personality—personal love and personal religion, personal art, personality for all except God.... I asked myself if I were Siegfried, son of Sigmund slain by Hunding, and if it were not my fate to reforge the sword that lay broken in halves in Mimi's cave. It seemed to me that the garden filled with tremendous music, out of which came a phrase glittering like a sword suddenly drawn from its sheath and raised defiantly to the sun.
At this point in the text, Moore inserts, in musical notation, Wagner's "Nothung" motif.

Stephen's swordplay, is then, in the prism of Moore, as much a reflection of his aspiring-writer character as it is a Joycean operatic flourish. Hail and Farewell was first published in 1914, and it's highly unlikely that Joyce didn't read it—Joyce has Stephen name-drop Moore elsewhere in Ulysses. Both Moore and Joyce knew and were influenced by the French writer Edouard Dujardin, Joyce crediting him with inspiring his own stream-of-consciousness style. Not coincidentally, Dujardin was a thorough Wagnerian, co-founding a Révue Wagnérienne and providing the template for much of the Irish Wagnerian experimentation. The ashplant brandishing is as much satire as mythmaking, but it points up the deeply Romantic underpinnings of Ulysses. Moore and Joyce were asymptotically converging on a myth of Irishness reminiscent of the way 19th-century German's attempted to construct their own national identity. Isaiah Berlin, in lectures published as The Roots of Romanticism, put it this way:
Therefore we must have modern myths, and since there are no modern myths, because science has killed them, or at any rate has made the atmosphere unpropitious to them, we must create them. As a result there is a conscious process of myth-making: we find, in the early nineteenth century, a conscientious and painful effort to construct myths—or perhaps not so painful, perhaps some of it could be described as spontaneous—which will serve us in the way in which the old myths served the Greeks.
As the most successful mythmaker of the Romantic era, Wagner was an inspiration to an entire generation of Irish artists catching up to the century-old idea of a created cultural nationalism. For all its modernity, the energy of Ulysses is just as much about making up for lost time.

Further reading: Alex Ross highlights more Wagner allusions. If you have JSTOR access, you can read William Blisset's 1961 article "George Moore and Literary Wagnerism" and Timothy Martin's "Joyce, Wagner, and the Artist-Hero." Martin's full-length study Joyce and Wagner is out of print: hunt around.

June 15, 2007

Gang of Five

Phil at Dial "M" was kind enough to consider this concatenation of ramblings the work of a "Thinking Blogger", which is certainly a generous assessment of somebody who can't even quote Beatles lyrics correctly. (I'm leaving it up there, though, just to bait humor-challenged baby-boomer rockists.) Ah, but honor comes at great price, Daniel-san. See, here are the rules of this "Thinking Blogger" thing:
1. If, and only if, you get tagged, write a post with links to 5 blogs that make you think,
2. Link to this post so that people can easily find the exact origin of the meme,
3. Optional: Proudly display the 'Thinking Blogger Award' with a link to the post that you wrote.
See that sidebar over there? Those are all blogs that make me think. (And that list is badly in need of updating, as I notice that, for example, neither ANAblog nor Roger Bourland are up there.) So I'm supposed to pick five of those and leave the rest seething in resentment? That's no fun. So here's my cop-out: I'll pick five non-music blogs that make me think. Ha! Sweep the leg, Johnny!

1. Marginal Revolution. I don't always agree with economists Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok, but the great thing is, they don't always agree, either, and they regularly link to opinions they don't agree with. Their blog is one-stop-shopping for the state of the dismal science, on topics trivial and profound. There is no way you will click that link and not learn something. Bonus: Tyler's Northern Virginia-DC Ethnic Dining Guide. If I ever perjure myself sufficiently on the application form to land government work, my gut will be happy.

2. Arms Control Wonk. Jeffrey Lewis and his fellow wonks keep tabs on once and future nuclear weapons around the world. Scary and funny: kind of like if The War Game were directed by Richard Lester. Bonus: potential opera libretto material.

3. Language Log. The hub of international anti-prescriptivist revolutionary activity—in other words, a sharp-as-nails bunch who know that the way language should be used is far more boring than the way language actually is used. Bonus: no such thing as a dumb question.

4. Renewable Music. Fine, I'll include a music blog. But this is seed capital, OK? I expect this "Thinking Blogger" award all over the classical blogosphere by Canada Day. We're all thinkers, dagnab it! I'll start it with Daniel Wolf, just because he knows that the point of intellectual activity isn't the grand a-ha conclusion, but all the fascinating waystations along the journey. Bonus: really, you're too skinny.

5. We have a tie! Barbra Streisand-Katharine Hepburn-style duplicate hardware to a couple of fine newspaper bloggers: Geoff Edgers of the Boston Globe and Jim Emerson of the Chicago Sun-Times. Bonus: follow Emerson's sidebar links to a whole bunch of movie blogs, and classical music bloggers will feel like they're in some kind of parallel universe.

Now, I'm off to assume a Rodin-esque pose.

June 13, 2007

Indicate precisely what you're trying to say

I was in a Starbucks for coffee this morning, which is unusual for me, but my local joint is closed for vacation this week. This is a long way of explaining why, although I knew Starbucks had been hawking Paul McCartney's new solo album, I hadn't actually seen the tag line they were using to promote it:

The solo album worthy of his musical legacy.

That there is some semiotically complicated advertising copy. I'm guessing the immediate subliminal message is supposed to be a solo album as good as the stuff he did with the Beatles, but what really fascinates me is that, although the vocabulary is supposed to hint at classical-music high-art timelessness (for better or worse, nobody talks about Lipps, Inc.'s "musical legacy"), almost every word of that sentence points up some difference between pop music and classical music.

The: It's not "an" album, it's "the" album, implying that fans have universally been waiting for the event of this CD. This is a pretty common conceit in pop music—lots of releases are touted as "the new album"—but it's one you almost never see in classical music. Next season, the BSO is premiering a new symphony by John Harbison, and I'll bet money that's how it will be described in the press release: "a new symphony by John Harbison," not "the new John Harbison symphony." I'm not sure why this is: more focus on the piece than the composer? A tacit agreement to withhold judgement on the work's significance until after it's been heard? Unconscious self-effacement due to classical music's comparatively marginalized status in popular culture? You make the call.

One other thing: notice how "the" in this case also separates this album from all of McCartney's other solo albums, which presumably weren't worthy of his musical legacy, although it leaves open the possibility that the Wings albums were.

Solo: Well, of course it's a solo album, unless you think Paul McCartney is arrogant enough to form a new band and then name the band "Paul McCartney." But the word is due to the complicated fact that McCartney's musical legacy is indelibly bound up with three other guys. Take out "solo" and the playing field is uncomfortably expanded—I'm sure there are plenty of people who think that the one album really worthy of McCartney's musical legacy is Let It Be.

I can't think of a classical performer that's in this boat—for example, a solo violinist who's in constant competition with memories of his or her string quartet days—and the only composer I can think of is Arthur Sullivan. In rock and pop, though, this happens all the time.

Album: Even forty years after Sgt. Pepper's, the single still rules the pop world, whereas masterpiece status in classical music still tends to accrue to large, multi-movement works. I always think of McCartney, who's at his best on a three-minute canvas, to be caught in between that particular rock and hard place. Really, what would be worthy of his legacy would be a bright, melancholy pop gem that ruled the charts for a summer.

Worthy: The most loaded word here, because it's talking about three things at once: the album itself, which (according to the ad) is something good enough for McCartney to put his name on; McCartney himself, who (according to the ad) has finally lived up to the potential he's teased his fans with all these years; and, most importantly, the fans who (according to the ad) at long last have the album they've been patiently awaiting that whole time, suffering through McCartney's previous presumably sub-standard efforts. This one word, I think, encapsulates the essential impossibility of McCartney's position, and makes me glad to be in the classical world, where simply reliving your past glories or doing what everyone expects of you tends to get old really fast. I may never have millions of fans, but I'll never have millions of disappointed fans, either.

Of: Equally loaded. Think about this one for a minute—the ad is saying that the intrinsic essence of this album somehow deserved to have Paul McCartney's musical legacy bestowed on it. (Maybe it's supposed to mean "worthy of being part of his musical legacy"—but that's not what it says, is it?) The idea that creations take on a life of their own, independent of the creator's intentions, is pretty common; here we have the notion that creations are out there, totally independent of their creators, and whether or not the one you happen to stumble on is amenable to your own talents is pretty much a crapshoot. This one could apply equally well to any genre, really; in classical music, it's usually used as a warning against slack diligence. Think of Ravel's comment to the effect that, he composed every day, because when inspiration struck, he wanted to be sure he was around.

His: A near-symmetrical reinforcement to "solo." Interestingly, in classical music, one's personal legacy is usually transmitted through other people: students, adherents, disciples who continue to work in the stylistic furrow you first plowed. In pop, it seems, your legacy is transmitted to yourself, which would echo the American ideal of self-invention—and re-invention.

Musical: Something that pop music does much better than classical music is put aside the musicians' personal foibles. Is this album worthy of McCartney's personal legacy? Who cares? It's all about the music, man. In the classical world, we're constantly talking about Wagner's anti-Semitism, or Tchaikovsky's homosexuality, or Mozart's potty mouth, as if they were some window into the interpretation of their works. The thing is, the translation from music into notes and back into music again is so fuzzy at each step of the way that a good performer will inevitably turn to the composer's life for any possible clues or insights. Does this mean Wagner's anti-Semitism should somehow inform how you play (or hear) his music? No—but it's much, much harder to ignore. Pop songs, as we experience them, are pre-existing sound, not notation that needs to be converted to sound—any personal information you might need to understand it is usually already part of the finished product.

Legacy: For pop music to be talking about legacies is a big change from the 1950s and 60s. Nik Cohn, in his fantastic late-60s rock eulogy Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom, mentions a Stan Freberg satire on pop music of the 1950s: a young heartthrob is ushered into a recording studio and just sings the words "highschool highschool highschool" over and over again. That's what rock and pop was: music for teenagers. I've always thought that big shift in popular culture in the 60s wasn't the fact of rock-and-roll, but that everybody started talking and writing about rock-and-roll in the same way that previous generations had talked about classical music, which, to my ear, was always in uneasy conflict with the ephemeral, youthful nature of the music itself—the vocabulary that had evolved to talk about music as an art form was a square peg in the round hole of a genre that didn't put a premium on ambiguous reflections on the essential decay and mortality that's part of the human condition. (Not that all classical music mines this ore, of course, but when you think about it, a lot of the really celebrated monuments do, either with rue or defiance.) McCartney is now, famously, sixty-four, and even the title of the new album hints at the constant presence of the past, the interlocking network of time within which we construct our perception of the world and ourselves. Rock and pop songs navigating this territory have been in the minority; looking around now, though, you can see a new confluence in the psychic landscape of pop and non-pop.

Yeah, yeah, I know this post now represents an approximately sixteen-thousand-percent expansion on a bit of text from an advertisement. But it puts into words the sort of thing that all musicians, especially composers, try to embed in the music: a management of expectations that results in a more meaningful experience for the listener. In this case, the goal may only be measuring that experience as meaningful in so far as the listener forks over his or her money to buy the album. But, in a sense, every piece of music is also functioning as its own tag line; it gives a little taste of the inexhaustable complexity of music to realize just how complicated even a simple advertisement can be.

June 12, 2007

As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses

We're heading into the patriotic season here in the U.S. (Flag Day, Independence Day, Carl Garner Federal Lands Clean-Up Day), and if you're going to be singing the national anthem, Howard Weiss has words for you.
People forget the original purpose, and now the national anthem has become a vehicle for shameless self-promotion by many popular entertainers.

Singers and instrumentalists tastelessly ornament the original melody by adding high notes that were not written, actually singing/playing wrong notes and rhythms and holding notes way beyond the composer's written intentions. They are calling attention to themselves and not the more noble purposes of the national anthem. The self-aggrandizing posture is loathsome!
Weiss is the former concertmaster of the Rochester Philharmonic, and the founding conductor of the Rochester Youth Symphony (not to mention a long-suffering Cubs fan, apparently), so we'll take his rant seriously, but even still, I think he's trying to lasso a river here. (As a sometime organist, I also need to point out that the Ives "Variations" are on "My Country, 'Tis Of Thee.") Is it unpatriotic to fess up and say that I think "The Star-Spangled Banner" is a less-than-stellar piece of music? It's far too hard to sing (an octave-and-a-half range? Yikes), it commemorates a war that wasn't one of our more shining moments; and unless you know any verse beyond the first, it ends on an unanswered yes-or-no question. (It's not accidental that the renditions Weiss holds up for admiration are instrumental.) And as for "the more noble purposes" of the anthem, the only reason I don't advocate switching to "America the Beautiful" (a lovely Katherine Lee bates poem sung to Francis Ward Smith's lovely Materna), is that the current tune was originally a drinking song.

No, that's not the only reason. We need this anthem. I think it's a good bulwark against fascism and undue state-worship to have an anthem that's so inevitably caterwauled. It's a reminder that songs, or flags, or rituals aren't what made this country great; America has been at its greatest when fallible individuals have reached out to other fallible individuals, with all the risk it entails. The anthem is, like the country, more a hopeful ideal than a fixed artifact. When the crowd cheers for the high note, they're recognizing the chance the singer is taking; when the singer misses, it lets just enough air out of the dignity of the proceedings to remind us how far we have to go. The awful, beautiful thing about this country is that it is, still, an unresolved question.

And hey, every once in a while you get Marvin Gaye.

June 11, 2007

Whistling towards the graveyard

Charles Addams, the great New Yorker cartoonist whose lugubrious turn of mind suggested an important source for a death fantasy, wrote (without sending an illustration) as follows: "I am hoping to break into a thousand tiny pieces while attending a theremin concert in Malone, N.Y., in mid January."

I was very excited by this, but not knowing what a "theremin" was, I had to reach Mr. Addams on the phone to ask. I said I was embarrassed not to know; someone had assured me that a theremin was a kind of "Eastern" religion, and the "cracking into a thousand pieces" was the consequence of being peered at by a waiflike holy man enveloped in a white shroud.

"No, no, no," said Mr. Addams. "Heavens no. A theremin is a musical instrument... a sort of electrical coil which gives off a humming sound."


"It works by the distance you hold your hand to it. The closer you put your hand," Mr. Addams went on, "the higher the tone, and right up close you can get a terrific vibrational shriek. It's a bona fide musical instrument and by making the proper hocus-pocus gestures you can get Beethoven's Fifth out of it, or anything else."

I said I was relieved to know that he didn't want to be extinguished by a guru's glance, and he said, "No, no, no, no," again. "A theremin. A theremin." He said that he had thoroughly enjoyed working out the problem. "A real challenge," he said.

—George Plimpton, Shadow Box

June 08, 2007

Who walks in the classroom, cool and slow?

News and opinion of a musicological bent from all over:

Over at Sounds & Fury, A.C. Douglas, in his inimitable style (i.e., framed as some sort of righteous smackdown), waxes knowledgeably about dynamic markings in Wagner. This is part of a subject close to my heart, the difference between notated scores as representations of the music or as instruction manuals. Some composers (Schumann and Webern, for example) seem to construct their scores as paper versions of the end effect of the piece on the listener: you can read the score and imagine the sounds in your head without any translation. Wagner aimed for the latter: his markings are designed to take into account what he suspects the individual musicians are going to do naturally, and he either countermands it or tacitly allows it to happen. (This is one of the reasons I like to know as much about a composer's personality as I do about his or her music before I perform it—you can get a sense of how they approach this sort of communication.)

The guys at Amusicology are back blogging now that the finals crunch has disspated, and it's like coming across a network summer-replacement series that's exponentially better than anything on the fall schedule. The latest fun: Ryan tracks down a persistent, suspiciously too-good-to-be-true anecdote about George Gershwin's childhood, and in the process, points out the slippery nature of even what seem to be primary sources.

George Hunka, from a theatrical perspective, lays it on the line with regards to challenge and accessibility. As time goes on, I get the sense that the move towards audence-friendliness is in large part due to increased modern opportunities to be played for a fool—with the number of scams, hoaxes, and misinformation we run into every day, people are less inclined to give the avant-garde a chance if there's any hint of a con about it. Personally, I learned to enjoy being a fool, because a) the payoff for risking being an audience-member patsy has been so high for me, and b) you go through three-quarters of your life as a fool anyway. (However, I do have my new shorthand for meaningless, artistically cynical provocation: "No soap; radio!")

Phil Ford calls for lolmusicologists. I give this lol thing about eight more weeks—enjoy it while it lasts, meme-aficionados! I'll play along, not least because "lolTaruskin" is the funniest-looking word I'll type all week.

Richard Taruskin: can I haz six volumes?

June 07, 2007

The band in Heaven, they play my favorite song

The other day was a good one for serendipitous musical juxtapositions. In the car, I got Glenn Gould's performance of the b-minor prelude from Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier drifting slowly in and out of rhythmic phase with the clicking of the turn signal; waiting in the dentist's chair, the ceiling speaker serenaded me with the Talking Heads ballad "Heaven," which I imagine is the closest my life will ever get to turning into a Jim Jarmusch movie; later, while correcting papers, I needed to reference something on iTunes, and mindlessly leaving it on, six songs later, Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters started singing "White Christmas," which is always much more poignant in hot weather anyway.

I think this intersection of everyday life with random pre-recorded music, an experience unique to the last 75 years or so, has changed the way we expect to interact with music. This sort of serendipity goes way back, of course—think of Clément Janequin's "Les cris de Paris," a quodlibet of 16th-century vendors' cries; In the 19th century, there was a bit of a vogue for the combination of worldly concerns and overheard church music, Schumann's song "Sonntags am Rhine" being a gorgeous example. But it's only in the 20th century that music begins to be piped in everywhere, where it's possible for the sort of surreal found art you get from hearing doo-wop in the supermarket, or free jazz in traffic, or Mozart's greatest hits while on hold on the phone. We're far more used to music grabbing our attention in unexpected and often inappropriate situations.

Occasionally there's a bit of music that pays knowing, beautiful homage to this novel ubiquity. One of the other songs that turned up during my grading shuffle play was "Dance, Dance, Dance" by the Beach Boys, a fragment of pop at its most ephemerally joyous. There's an upward modulation to the final chorus that always sticks with me—a jarring, shift-without-a-clutch harmonic crank in the backing track disguised by a genial slide in the voices. It's an uncanny musical representation of an old car radio, the kind where the presets were accessed with those black push-buttons that physically yanked the needle to the appropriate place on the dial. Normally, any piece that conjures an experience so time- and place-specific tends to dilute its purely musical impact for me; I'm pulled out of the piece and into another world of reduced possibilities. This one always works for me, though—I'm there in the car, peeved that the current offering isn't bright and rhythmic enough, punching the radio, looking for an epiphany. It's an appropriate fantasy for listeners saturated with music: to be able to grab control of the ambient mix, and tune the ether to the exact song for that moment of your life.

June 06, 2007

Cover Version Cage Match—International Edition

Today's competition honors America's greatest and most successful export of all time. I refer, of course, to "Endless Love." Seriously, if he was British, Lionel Richie would have his CBE by now for writing this thing.

  • Representing Spain: Daniel y Saray.
  • Representing Brazil: Cidia e Dan.
  • Representing Korea: Park Hyo-Shi and Hwa Yo-Bi.
  • Representing Hong Kong: Jacky Cheung (remember, the guy who looks like me) and Sandy Lam.
  • Representing Australia (and the 80s in general): Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan.
  • Representing the United States, and dedicating their performance to my lovely wife, who's a big fan: Whitney Houston and her brother Gary.

  • And the winner, by unanimous decision in the seventh round: Diana Ross and Placido Domingo.

    June 04, 2007

    E nulla! Arida landa… non un filo d'acqua

    Phil at Dial "M" requests drink recipes. Even critic-at-large Moe starts licking his chops at that kind of prospect. So here's a nice summer companion to the Dark Lady. Name, as always, courtesy of my thoroughly operatic wife.


    2 oz. gin
    2 oz. dry rosé wine
    1/2 oz. rose water
    1/2 oz. grenadine
    1/2 oz. triple sec or Grand Marnier

    Shake thoroughly with cracked ice and strain into the stemmed glass of your choice.

    A squirt of lemon juice is a salutary addition as well. You'll want to shake it until it's quite cold, due to the grenadine and the triple sec; if it's still too sweet for you, better to cut down on the former than the latter.

    While you're at it, mix up a couple for these two. They look like they could use it.

    That's Kiri Te Kanawa and Placido Domingo in Puccini's take, Manon Lescaut. The late, great Giuseppe Sinopoli conducts.

    Put your hands together

    Lest you think that the gatekeepers of classical music are unduly harsh about the issue of excess applause (for the record, I say clap whenever you want), behold the five graduates of Galesburg High School in Galesburg, Illinois, who were denied their diplomas at commencement because their family members cheered when their names were announced.
    “Lots of parents complained that they could not hear their own child’s name called,” said Joel Estes, the school’s assistant superintendent. “And I think that led us to saying we have to do something about this to restore some dignity and honor to the ceremony so that everyone can appreciate it and enjoy it.”
    Look, the only thing to appreciate and enjoy about a high school graduation is hearing your kid's name, because the rest of it is insufferably boring. My poor parents have had to sit through six of these hot, overcrowded dronefests—you want to tell them they can't cheer? Because no jury of their peers—namely, anyone else who's ever listened to what passes for high-school principal inspirational rhetoric—is going to convict them. Oh, and by the way, those five students who were singled out? Black and hispanic. Proving once again that nothing curdles the minds of those in power in places like Galesburg, Illinois like the realization that you'll never be in charge of anything larger than Galesburg, Illinois.

    In the same subject area, our friend Alex Freeman sends along this photo. As he descibes it: "Rare footage of Fidel Castro trying to coach Pierre Trudeau in a pick-up performance of Clapping Music."

    "Come on, asere, you just do the same thing over and over again.... No, no, you pasty man, I'M the one going out of phase. Stay on your own part! STOP CLAPPING WITH ME!"

    Lather, rinse, (exposition) repeat

    Beethoven hair for sale! Beethoven hair for sale! Louis Mushro, hair collector, is selling clips from his collection, including 1/16"-long scraps from everyone's favorite happy-go-lucky proto-Romantic symphonist. (Warning: Louis will start talking to you when you load the page.) Bidding starts at $500; let's see, figure 100,000 hair follicles per head, about 3-4 inches long... that's $800 million for the whole head. Then, I'll convert all that hair into diamonds, and encrust Beethoven's skull with them. Whaddya think, $10 billion? Top that, Damien!

    June 01, 2007

    Ce n'est pas un concert review

    I'm always glad to see an Oulipian incursion into the mainstream media, so I was amused to read this review by Bernard Holland in today's New York Times, in which he says provocative things about the heyday and waning reputations of George Crumb and Krzysztof Penderecki. Here's the thing: I had to read the review twice to figure out that there was no actual Penderecki on the concert—it was an all-Crumb affair. Toying with the technical structure of a music review to create a vague and disorienting sense of the modern world's alienation—I like it! (I actually did like it—the connection between Crumb and Penderecki is an interesting one, and one I've not really pondered.)

    Gottes ist der Orient! Gottes ist der Okzident!

    If you're in Boston with nothing better to do this coming Sunday (the 3rd), drop by the Museum of Fine Arts at 1:30, where the Boston Jewish Film Festival will be screening Knowledge Is the Beginning, a 2005 documentary about the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra the Israeli-Arab student ensemble founded by Daniel Barenboim and the late Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said. They'll also be showing the group's 2005 concert at the Cultural Palace in Ramallah; in between, yours truly and the terrific Israeli flutist Amir Milstein (of Bustan Abraham and Tucan Trio fame) will do our best to say eloquent things about the movie, the group, and anything else that might come up. (Scroll down here for details.)