November 30, 2007

It's beginning to look a lot

Guerrieri: O Bethlehem (2003), SATB chorus (PDF, 175 KB)

Advent starts this Sunday, which, for the non-Christians out there, is when even the devout start counting the shopping days left until Christmas (NOTE: good-hearted joke which eight years of Catholic grade school qualifies me to make). In celebration, here's a Christmas anthem I wrote a few years back (tinny-sounding piano MIDI here) which has yet to get a public hearing—every year, I pencil it in, and every year, we run out of rehearsal time and I substitute something easy out of the Oxford Carols for Choirs book. This year, we're doing it whether it's properly rehearsed or not.

The impetus for this piece was Guerrieri's Rule of Sacred Text Exigesis: always look up passages in context, since they're usually weirder than you'd think. (This rule only applies to traditional mainstream religions; Dianetics, for example, is pretty much exactly as weird as you'd think.) Given all the slots to fill up in a lessons and carols service, I make it my mission to include at least one that isn't all cheese-curd-smooth John Rutter-esque warm fuzzies. (If you'd rather not encourage me, Benjamin Britten's "The Oxen" also fits this bill nicely.)

By the way, for the month, that brings the current score to Daniel Wolf, 29, me, 1. There's still fourteen hours left, though.

November 29, 2007

Come, wishes be horses

Stravinsky, horse and IgorThis year has been a pretty good one for Stravinsky—Stravinsky the horse, that is. The 11-year-old stallion, son of the legendary Nureyev (take a second to properly categorize that nugget of information) now spends his days shuttling between stud farms in New Zealand and Australia, and the track success of his progeny has him currently ranked as the season's 11th-most-valuable sire in Australo-Asian thoroughbred racing.

His European ranking—51st—reflects more quality than quantity, being based in large part on one horse, the aptly named Soldier's Tale (other Stravinsky offspring include Korsakoff, Balmont, and Pulcinella). Back in June, Soldier's Tale won the Golden Jubilee Stakes at Royal Ascot with a furious close in the final furlongs—which made for quite the storybook ending:
When [Soldier's Tale] was 2, he was unable to race because he had bad knees. He managed to run two races as a 3-year-old and win one of them, but then broke a leg, requiring surgery and six screws. A year later, the horse came back to win two more races, but then had another fracture. Then there was the colic.

"We were within five minutes of putting him down, but he just showed such a will to live," [trainer Jeremy] Noseda said. "I know it sounds sappy and all that, but he's like a personal friend now. I come out and see him every night - I stick my head out of the door and call 'Spam' and he answers back."
Yes, the horse's nickname is "Spam," which is so simultaneously inappropriate and endearing that it pretty much made my day.

November 28, 2007

A Boy Like That

News from here and there while I wait for Gruppen to finish downloading....

The British seem to be in a mood for marathons: first Vexations, then Scarlatti: the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester organized a performance of all 555 of Domenico Scarlatti's keyboard sonatas last Sunday, in six overlapping recitals, packing a day-and-a-half's worth of music into a comparatively breezy twelve hours. Here's my favorite detail:
Punters will be able to hear 449 of the sonatas for nothing (the other six will be played by Aleksandar Madzar in the final pay-to-get-in recital) and can make their selections with the help of a giant screen listing which piece is being played where and when.
I had an image of a Departure/Arrival screen in an airport. L. 263 is now boarding... L. 397 is delayed....

From around the blogosphere: Jeremy Denk revolutionizes music theory (and manages to avoid a "snap, crackle, pop" reference—you're a stronger man than I am); ANABlog looks into the future (Utopia? Dystopia? Depends on how well she plays it, I guess); Brian Sacawa (via Darcy) unearths the subliminal seed for an entire generation of avant-garde composers (I heard that soundtrack on a regular basis from age 5 on up, now I'm listening to Gruppen—coincidence?). And I'm a little late on this one, but Andy at The Black Torrent Guard is taking nominations in possible anticipation of this year's Most Annoying Song contest.

Finally, Chevy Chase reveals just how crazy "Saturday Night Live" nearly got:
But meantime, did you know that "West Side Story" composer Leonard Bernstein almost guest-hosted "SNL" in its first season? "The idea of John [Belushi] and Danny [Aykroyd] coming out doing a number from that show cracked us up," Chevy recalls.

He and writer Tom Schiller were invited by Bernstein to the New York Philharmonic to discuss the idea. After the show they went to see the famous virtuoso with a penchant for young men backstage.

"He put his hand on my knee. When we were leaving, he kissed me full-on, on the lips. I wagged my finger at him and said, ‘No, no, no.’ And that was the last we ever heard from him."
A hell of a town.

November 27, 2007

Les anges musiciens

Practicing has been less of a chore lately due to a larger-than-usual concentration of songs by Francis Poulenc in the to-do pile. Poulenc has an unshakeable spot in the top bracket of my all-time favorite composers, but it's hard to explain exactly why. I usually fall back on turning the most common Poulenc criticism inside-out: yes, I say, he just wrote the same song over and over again, but it's a song I happen to like. A joke, but in a way, it starts to get at just what it is about his music I find so endlessly bewitching.

Two of the songs I'm practicing this week—the "Air champêtre" from the 1931 Airs chantés, and "Il vole" from the 1939 cycle Fiançailles pour rire—both end with nearly identical passages. The "Air champêtre":

Air champêtre, last two barsAnd "Il vole":

Il vole, last two barsThat figure—the repeated open-voiced roulade outlining V7-I—sounds an awful lot like a stock gesture, but I've only ever run across it in Poulenc. And I think that's one of the keys to what makes Poulenc's music tick: his ability to come up with patterns and phrases that sound like clichés, but are completely idiosyncratic and original.

More than that, though—it's not just his facility for melodic invention, but the fact that he uses such passages as if they were pre-existing clichés. Neither the "Air champêtre" nor "Il vole" foreshadow or set up the closing figure in any way; it's just dropped in, tacked on, like a trill over V-I in Mozart or a 4-3 suspension in a Lutheran chorale. Poulenc is, I think, having some fun with the semiotics of musical endings. We're used to pieces ending with a predictable plugged-in cadential module; Poulenc plugs in a module, but it's not the predicted one, and our musical expectations are yanked in two directions at once.

Poulenc's fondness for these kinds of endings—a sudden, brief introduction of new material—owes something to Schumann lieder, and both composers exploit an ability to make such endings feel like the product of unconscious intuition rather than deliberate calculation. But where Schumann's often extensive postludes serve to bring to the fore the emotions that have been simmering under the surface, Poulenc's have the effect of hinting at an unfamiliar vernacular just out of earshot. To compare with another composer: if Webern's music sounds like it comes from a planet where nobody composes like earthlings do, Poulenc's music sounds like it comes from a planet where everybody composes like Poulenc. It has both the satisfaction of tradition and the frisson of originality. It feels like common practice music, but the practice itself is completely individual.

Poulenc's illusion of an established rhetoric creates a similar combination of intimacy and disorientation as literary experiments with invented languages—compare the fictional Russlish of Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, for example. For Poulenc, though, it's also crucial to his sense of musical structure, which is surprisingly disjunct. Perhaps some of this is due to his fondness for setting Surrealist and proto-Surrealist poetry, but I think that, even more, it reflects the influence of cinema, which, after all, was the most avant-garde medium of the young composer's day. (That "Il vole" cadence, implacably winding around itself, sounds like nothing so much as the last few frames of film lapping against the take-up reel.) Poulenc almost completely eschews a Romantic sense of development in favor of cinematic montage—but it doesn't seem random or scattershot, because his musical materials always feel like they're serving some pre-existing symbolic or rhetorical purpose, even if it's a completely invented one.

In other words, I think Poulenc knew exactly what he was doing: taking the raw materials of tonal music and finding a way to make them behave in a radical way. He figured out how to take his ear for sensuous tonal beauty and his avant-garde aesthetic and, not just cleverly patch them together, but actually have the two reinforce each other. It's a long way from the insouciance of Les Biches or "Toréador" to the devastating power of Dialogues des Carmélites, even though the basic musical language, amazingly, has hardly changed.

Darcy James Argue had this to say this week about one of his favorite composers: "I can't help but feel that there is something fundamentally wrong with people who would dismiss music of such astounding vitality and artistry because it happens also to be very pretty." I would say the same thing about Poulenc—in fact, the more years I spend with his music, the more I realize that its sheer prettiness is, in fact, one of the least interesting things about it, and, given how damned pretty it is, that's saying something. The real beauty of Poulenc's music goes very deep indeed.

November 26, 2007

Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen

Just in time for the annual holiday orgy of rampant consumerism, Strauss and Mahler (previously: 1, 2, 3) have gone into business selling t-shirts. Click on this link, and you'll find the pair in all their countercultural glory on a variety of apparel, suitable for kids from 2 to however many years one can expect to pile up with an uncompromising artistic vision and a difficult wife. Makes a great albeit potentially nonplussing gift! (Any and all profits, by the way, will benefit this place, which, as causes go, is one of the good ones.)

All of Me

Reviewing Les Voix Baroques and Les Voix Humaines.
Boston Globe, November 26, 2007.

One thought from this concert: I appreciate the rationale behind using only period and period-replica equipment, but maybe it's time for a miniature early-music Manhattan project to integrate a little bit of modern technology into the instruments so they don't have to be re-tuned every ten minutes. Especially in a long work like the Membra Jesu Nostri, it's tough to maintain a suspended mental involvement with everyone stopping between movements for peg-turning.

November 23, 2007

Glissade en arrière

The great French choreographer Maurice Béjart died yesterday. I blogged about Béjart a few months back; his work has a combination of rigor, joy, and charm that any medium could claim as its holy grail.

Look For the Silver Lining

More copyright hilarity: a decade-old squabble over the rights to the songs of Jerome Kern has a new lease on life:
The granddaughter of the late composer Jerome Kern won the latest round in a long-standing legal dispute with the manager of a trust that oversees royalties from hits like Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and The Way You Look Tonight.

The nearly 10-year-old conflict made its way to the Kentucky Supreme Court, which on Wednesday reversed a lower court ruling that could have put the case to rest.
The wheels of justice grind exceeedingly fine: this decision only sets forth whether the Kentucky courts are the proper venue to hear the case or not. You can read the overturned Court of Appeals verdict here: basically, Linda Kern Cummings claims that R. Andrew Boose, the attorney who manages the trust that controls Kern's copyrights, improperly took advantage of the "diminished capacity" of Betty Kern-Miller, Jerome's daughter, to alter the terms of her will back in the 90s. I haven't found a whole lot of background on the case, but it bears some hallmarks of a family feud—one of the defendants is Steven Kern Shaw, Cummings' half-brother, and also the son of clarinetist and bandleader Artie Shaw: as of this 2005 New York Times story, the younger Shaw was nowhere to be found, and when one finds his own notoriously blunt father calling him "a very weird kid" in public (scroll down), you start to get an inkling why.

Nevertheless, I will remind everyone that Jerome Kern died in 1945; the fact that people are still hiring attorneys to tangle over his royalties 60-plus years later tells you something about the strange state of our current intellectual property regime. And some of those royalties are apparently earmarked as charitable bequests, as Cummings is also suing the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind. After hearing that, critic-at-large Moe, not surprisingly, showed teeth.

November 22, 2007

Holiday (II)

Julia Margaret Cameron: Saint Cecilia after the manner of Raphael, c.1865
Albumen print from a collodion-on-glass negative
Victoria & Albert Museum, London

The Royals: "Shrine of St. Cecilia," 1953 (MP3, 1.6 MB)

A cover of a minor Andrews Sisters hit, coming shortly after Hank Ballard joined the group, and shortly before they recorded their breakout hit, "Work With Me Annie," and changed their name to the Midnighters.

Im chambre séparée

Reviewing the Boston Chamber Music Society.
Boston Globe, November 22, 2007.

(The harmonic progression in the Bernstein is subdominant to mediant, IV-iii: one of his favorites, particularly in his music for Broadway.)

November 21, 2007

Holiday (I)

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day here in the U.S., which, notwithstanding its official rationale of some business involving Puritan immigrants, is pretty much our national eating holiday. All the usual holiday stress aside, a higher-than-normal proportion of that food is home-cooked, which kind of makes the day a musical occasion, once removed: cooking, when you think about it, is basically composing for the tone-deaf. It's all there—the balance between planning and spontaneity, between creativity and craft, between repertoire and improvisation, the need for an audience, the way you can cover up less-than-ideal raw materials with copious amounts of MSG, &c., &c.

Of course, not everybody is plugged in to a network that includes that kind of food, so, just like last year (mmmm... stuffing—whoops, got distracted there for a second), I'll remind everyone that now is as good a time as any to send a few bucks to organizations that do home-cooking for complete strangers. Here in Boston, you can take your pick from The Greater Boston Food Bank, the Boston Rescue Mission, The Pine Street Inn, the Boston Living Center—those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head. There's Share Our Strength if you want to go national, or you can search at America's Second Harvest for a local food bank. And there's always The Salvation Army, who deserve a kettle full of change just for their motto: "Blood and Fire." Blood and Fire! It's like a three-word Black Sabbath show. Five, ten bucks—admit it, they'll do more with it than you would.

Thus endeth the sermon. Enjoy your holiday—and if you're hitting the mall on Friday, I'd recommend body armor. (Wow, that's one of the craziest home-page index menus I've seen in a while.)

November 20, 2007

9 Symphonies*

I've been busier than usual as of late, and I realized that I'd been slacking off on my solemn duty as a blogger, that of promulgating crackpot theories. Without the constant nourishment of entertainingly improbable hypotheses, this whole Internet thing would beach itself like a disoriented right whale—there, I've met my quota for not-quite-pertinent similes at the same time! Anyway, try this one on for size:

Ludwig van Beethoven was a steroid abuser.

Wouldn't that explain an awful lot? The notoriously difficult personality? The megalomanaical fury of the middle period? The wild mood swings of the late period? The rather remarkable growth of his head? Dude's head went from normal to huge. Not to put too fine a point on it:

Barry Bonds in 1986; Barry Bonds in 2007.

Beethoven in 1801; Beethoven in 1818.

How's that for circumstantial evidence? I will also point out the original words to the finale of the Ninth Symphony (NOTE: not actual original words to the finale of the Ninth Symphony):
Deine Zauber binden wieder,
Alle Sachen das Erhell'n;
Alle Menschen werden Brüder,
Mit ihren großen Muskeln.
Your magic frees all others,
The brightening of all things;
All men become brothers,
With their huge muscles.
Let's review, shall we?



young Beethovedn

Little head

old Beethoven

Enormous head

young Beethovedn

Awkwardly friendly

old Beethoven

Cranky and temperamental

Symphony no. 1

Symphony no. 5

Some literalist is probably at this moment self-inflicting a herniated disc with head-shaking and complaining that anabolic steroids weren't synthesized until around the 1930s. Well, the British novelist and critic Angus Wilson has my back (OK, OK, he's talking about Dickens and Dostoevsky—same difference, I say!):
I think this refutation of evidence of direct influence is not all that important, for the relation... is much more exciting than a matter of provable evidence of somebody being influenced by this particular thing or that particular thing.
Next time: Liszt and crystal meth—of course, you all knew that one already.

November 16, 2007

Because manuscript paper lacks mystery

Thomas Kinkade: THe Good Life, with highlighted, 'hidden' musical notes!
BOSTON, November 15—In a discovery sending shockwaves ineffectually in all directions at once, a "blogger" has claimed to have found musical notes encoded in the painting "The Good Life" by American artist Thomas Kinkade, Painter of LightTM.

Kinkade left clues to a musical composition in his painting, said Soho the Dog, Musicologist of MusicTM. Mr. Dog found that, by turning the painting on its side, photographing it through ultraviolet light, rearranging the positions of the rocks on the pastel-laden riverbank according to a complicated algorithm based around the number "3" (as signaled by the otherwise inexplicable need for the outdoorsman in the painting to have three fires going simultaneously), and drawing the five lines of a musical staff across the painting, the rocks could represent musical notes. The result is a 3-minute "hymn" which Mr. Dog described as "like a soundtrack that emphasizes the true soul of Kinkade's art".

Artassé Vasari, director of a Kinkade gallery in suburban Genoa, said the theory was "plausible," an Italian colloquialism meaning "your cell phone reception seems to be spotty."

Mr. Dog dimissed suggestions that he was jumping on a bandwagon, and took exception to the phrase "The Kinkade Code" appearing in media reports. "If they're going to call it that, I must insist that they spell 'code' with a 'k,'" he said. "You know, like the Keystone Kops."

Mr. Dog said he was currently arranging a 16-part symphony secretly encoded in another series of masterpieces.

November 15, 2007

Gloria sei dir gesungen

Word came simultaneously from Emmanuel Music and Richard at Ear Trumpet that Craig Smith died yesterday. Smith became music director at Boston's Emmanuel Church in 1970, and promptly founded Emmanuel Music, with a mission to perform the complete cycle of church cantatas by J.S. Bach—within their original weekly-service context—a mission completed in 1977. After that, he embarked on a series of similar explorations, the bigger, the better—the Mozart-Da Ponte operas with director Peter Sellars, the complete vocal and chamber music of Franz Schubert, a similar Schumann cycle—all the while still mounting a Bach cantata every Sunday.

I only met Smith a couple of times, and I can hardly say I knew him, but in a sense, living in Boston, you ended up absorbing his musical personality anyway—Emmanuel Music and the musicians who have passed through it are such a potent constituency in the city that the fabled six degrees of separation shrink down to one or two. Smith fostered his share of big stars throughout the years, but also engendered an enviable amount of loyalty and stability, especially given the amount of local college-town transience. The last time I saw him, back in April, it felt, as Emmanuel productions often felt, like a bit of a family reunion, with a couple new cousins to be introduced around by their genial bear of an uncle. At the time, one heard whispers that Smith's heart troubles had been getting worse, but you wouldn't have known it to see him on the podium; he simply wasn't going to let health or age get in the way of making the music that needed to be made. Smith conducted his last cantata on November 4th: BWV 72, Alles nur nach Gottes Willen—"everything solely according to God's will." One suspects that God, in this case, was glad to have the help.

De Paso

I'm running out the door to catch a dress rehearsal of Elliott Carter's new horn concerto.

El tiempo no pasó:
Aquí esta.
Pasamos nosotros.

Sólo nosotros somos el pasado.

Aves de paso que pasaron
y ahora,
poco a poco,
se mueren.


Time did not pass by:
Here it is.
We passed by.

Only we are the past.

Migrating birds that passed overhead
and now,
little by little,
are passing away.

—José Emilio Pacheco,
trans. Cynthia Steele

And another:

Para mí para muchos es lo mejor del mundo.
No cesaremos nunca de alabarlo.
Jamás terminará la gratitud
por su música incomparable.

En cambio para Strindberg todo Mozart
es una cacofonía de gorjeos cursis.

La variedad del gusto,
la magia de la crítica.


For me and many others he is the best in the world.
We will never tire of singing his praises.
Our gratitude
for his incomparable music is infinite.

For Strindberg, on the other hand, all of Mozart
is a cacophany of pretentious warbling.

The variety of taste,
the magic of criticism.

—José Emilio Pacheco,
trans. Cynthia Steele

(Both poems found in this highly recommended volume.)

November 14, 2007

Where my time goes

So the other day, I was digging through a box of old choral music, and I found this ad on the back of one of the octavos:

Ad: Now is the time to order the Banana Boat Song!
This amused me no end, partially because the guy hauling the bananas looks a little like Muammar al-Gaddafi, and partially because I was imagining my church choir—HEY, WAIT A MINUTE, ALAN ARKIN WROTE THE BANANA BOAT SONG?!

Well, yes and no. As it turns out, prior to his acting career, Arkin (who's a hero around Soho the Dog HQ on the basis of The In-Laws alone—serpentine!) was part of a folk trio called The Tarriers, who released a version of "Day-O" in 1956. Harry Belafonte's better-known version, already recorded but still sitting on the shelf, was rushed into release after The Tarriers' rendition became a hit. Some poking around the Web turned up a guy who's gathered more than you'll ever need to know on the topic.

But it was while I was chasing down that topic that I found Mento Music. "Mento" is the Jamaican name for the pre-reggae style of music that made it to these shores in somewhat gussied-up form as Calypso, and Mento Music's webmaster, Michael Garnice, is a fan—an obsessive, exhaustive fan. And after seeing several hours disappear down the rabbit hole exploring the site and perusing the dozens of sound clips (RealPlayer only, but it's worth it) I'm a fan, too. So now there's a couple hours of vintage mento crowding up my hard drive, and, at least until this enthusiasm burns out, I'll be hanging out with the likes of Lord Flea, Lord Messam, and Harold Richardson & the Ticklers.

Aaaaannd that was time that really needed to be spent practicing. I swear, someday somebody's going to load my house on a truck and drive off with it by distracting me with shiny objects.

November 13, 2007

Amo, lloro, canto, sueño

While the Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra (who we caught last week) continue their brief but triumphant roll across the United States, a certain amount of carping has been on the rise, particularly from Pliable at On an Overgrown Path. Yesterday, he ran photos of "protests against Chavez’s decision to shut down opposition-aligned television station RCTV in May 2007.... Perhaps DG will use them on the next Dudamel CD sleeve?" This was in the context of quoting an approving link (N.B.: calling flattering compliments "wise words" has a tendency to sound a little arrogant) from The Penitent Wagnerite:
Supporting Dudamel, his youth orchestra, and other Venezuelan cultural products is akin to saying that we love the produce of a nascent dictatorship, even if we don't so much care for the dictator. While Mr. Dudamel should not be made to suffer for being the product and superstar of the music-education program of Venezuela, we should not get in the business of supporting Chavez or the end-results of his projects until it becomes clear that Chavez is committed to democracy and human rights.
For the record, particularly since the 2004 recall vote, Hugo Chávez has moved steadily into this lefty's "bad arguments for a position I hold dear" category, although, for a little perspective, he's hardly the first or, so far at least, the worst demagogue to hold power in the Americas. (Amending the constitution to run for a third term? Old joke.) But all the innuendo about Dudamel et al. vis-à-vis Chávez (Penitent, for example, mentioned Furtwängler) needs to be parsed in light of two salient points:
  1. El Sistema has been around for over thirty years, founded by José Antonio Abreu in 1975, pre-dating even Chávez's failed coup attempt by nearly a generation; and
  2. El Sistema is currently providing an education for a quarter of a million children and teenagers that the majority of them wouldn't get otherwise.
So what exactly should Dudamel and Abreu do differently? The orchestra isn't a self-contained touring ensemble, they're the representatives of the entire system, a system that still gets the vast bulk of its funding from the Venezuelan government. When Chávez comes calling, and asks you to record the national anthem for state TV, what do you do? Jeopardize the entire program in order to express your displeasure? It's worth noting, by the way, that the station that state-run network replaced, the above-mentioned RCTV, wasn't "shut down." It came up for license renewal, which the government denied. Playing semantics? Not exactly: as the media watchdog group FAIR pointed out back in the spring, RCTV has hardly been a beacon of enlightened discourse itself, and had clearly violated the "public trust" that most countries require in return for access to the broadcasting spectrum. (RCTV, incidentally, is still viewable throughout most of the country via cable.) Should they still have kept their license? Maybe, maybe not—the point is, the situation in Venezuela is far more complicated than the simplified stories that make it back to the American and European mass media.

Should El Sistema, then, just keep a lower PR profile until Chávez behaves? I rather think that the orchestra is doing exactly what they need to do in order to insulate El Sistema from any current or future Venezuelan administration. In his New York Times profile of Dudamel a couple of weeks ago, Arthur Lubow called the simultaneous celebrity of conductor and orchestra "a stroke of auspicious timing." I don't think it's coincidental: Abreu is consciously using the orchestra's tour as an El Sistema roadshow—sow goodwill and money will follow. (And already has: the system's latest expansion is being financed mostly by the Inter-American Development Bank, signaling the group's evolution from a national symbol to a regional one.) Recordings, tours, PR—if Chávez makes you uneasy, isn't it an improvement to replace his financial support with Deutsche Grammophon's?

In fact, it's that pose of vague uneasiness that bugs me. For all the delicacy of the political situation in Venezuela, and El Sistema's place in it, the calculus here is not really all that complicated. Do you think the mission and accomplishments of El Sistema are worthwhile? Worthwhile enough to justify Abreu and Dudamel playing nice with Chávez while they cast their net for less fraught, more diversified institutional and financial support? Or is Chávez so awful that reliance on his government is a taint that renders El Sistema's educational achievements worthless? The association benefits Chávez, to a certain extent—but it also benefits 250,000 other Venezuelans, and I would say those benefits are far more real and long-lasting. That's my opinion; yours may be the opposite. But as various constituencies begin to try and replicate the System's model in the U.S. and Europe, I think it's time to actually have an opinion, rather than furrowing one's brow and murmuring inconclusively.

And, of course—the flag jackets. Maybe I'm inured from years of baseball games and seeing the red, white, and blue unfurl from the Symphony Hall ceiling every time the Pops plays "The Stars and Stripes Forever," but any flag that every side can convincingly wrap itself in doesn't bug me that much, Eddie Izzard's warnings notwithstanding. Pliable pointed out that those protesters were flying the Venezuelan flag as well—how do we know that some of the orchestra weren't wearing their jackets in that spirit, and not a pro-Chávez one? We don't. I mentioned last week my sense that El Sistema's popularity cut across party lines; writing in the Observer last summer, Ed Vuillamy made the same point:
El Sistema sank roots in Venezuelan society deep enough to survive the winds—hurricanes, indeed—of tumultuous political change, military coups and now the Chavez revolution. El Sistema is probably, and remarkably, the only organism immune to politics in one of the world's most highly politicised societies.
Maybe both Ed and I have simply been effectively snowed, but I rather doubt it—Abreu has woven El Sistema into the fabric of Venezuelan life on a level deeper than politics. If you look at the upside of El Sistema and the downsides of the Bolivarian Revolution, it's not cognitively dissonant for the former to win out over the latter. It's awfully comforting when pragmatism and moral absolutism coincide, but most of the time, you throw as much as you know on the scale, and see which side tips the balance. For me, it was the kids on the Symphony Hall stage.

Update (11/15): Pliable responds with yet more hints, innuendo, and oblique comparisons. The penultimate paragraph still stands.

Update (11/16): I cheerfully declare the penultimate paragraph moot: Pliable takes a stand in the comments on his post (as I expected, it's the opposite of mine).

November 10, 2007

Southpaw Grammar

Norman Mailer, the bad boy of American letters, died this morning. By sheer coincidence, this past week I had picked up Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Mailer's guided tour of the 1968 Republican and Democratic conventions. It's not as strong a book as its predecessor, Armies of the Night, but the beginning is sufficiently terrific that it sucked me in for about a hundred pages before the seams started to show. The opening paragraph is worth quoting in full:
They snipped the ribbon in 1915, they popped the cork, Miami Beach was born. A modest burg they called a city, nine-tenths jungle. An island. It ran along a coastal barrier the other side of Biscayne Bay from young Miami—in 1868 when Henry Lum, a California 'forty-niner, first glimpsed the island from a schooner, you may be certain it was jungle, cocoanut palms on the sand, mangrove swamp and palmetto thicket ten feet off the beach. But by 1915 they were working the vein. John S. Collins, a New Jersey nurseyman (after which Collins Avenue is kindly named) brought in bean fields and avocado groves; a gent named Fisher, Carl G., a Hoosier—he invented Prestolite, a millionaire—bought up acres from Collins, brought in a work-load of machinery, men, even two elephants, and jungle was cleared, swamps were filled, small residential islands were made out of babybottom mud, dredged, then relocated, somewhat larger natural islands adjacent to the barrier island found themselves improved, streets were paved, sidewalks put in with other amenities—by 1968, one hundred years after Lum first glommed the beach, large areas of the original coastal strip were covered over altogether with macadam, white condominium, white luxury hotel, and white stucco flea-bag. Over hundreds, then thousands of acres, white sidewalks, streets, and white buildings covered the earth where the jungle had been. Is it so dissimilar from covering your poor pubic hair with adhesive tape for fifty years? The vegetal memories of that excised jungle haunted Miami Beach in a steam-pot of miasmas. Ghosts of expunged flora, the never-born groaning in vegetative chancery beneath the asphalt came up with a tropical curse, an equatorial leaden wet sweat of air which rose from the earth itself, rose right up through the baked asphalt and into the heated air which entered the lungs like a hand slipping into a rubber glove.
I think Mailer's prose is a great example of how compositional style and compositional intent are two different things. It's odd to call writing that extravagant efficient, exactly, but look how much Mailer crams into that paragraph: a little history lesson, a lapidary sense of place, a quirky theory of archaeology and atmosphere, and, lest we forget who's writing, an outrageous simile tossed in like a drum break. His oversized personality oozes from every phrase, but, unlike a lot of similar writers, Mailer's always telling you stuff, showing you stuff, because he never forgets that he has stuff to show you. Sometimes the style works with the intent—notice how the breezy swagger lets him compress all that history into telegraphed details. But where the two are at odds, the intent trumps the style; later in the same chapter, in place of a baroque description of Miami Beach's slightly stale, old-movie neverland glamour, Mailer just tells you the names of all the hotels, which ends up being more evocative than any description, anyway.

Some of the things Mailer had to say throughout his career were more profound than others, but I don't think I've ever read anything by him that was a mere stylistic exercise—having something to say was the driving force behind everything he wrote. I was never a particularly rabid Mailer fan, but in retrospect, his work has a lot of the attributes I like in music: ambition, risk, a sense of the absurd, but most of all, a two-way street between creator and audience. Mailer never adopted a pose of indifference; his literary persona, at least, cared very much whether you liked him or not, but at the same time, was honest enough to not pretend to be something other than he was. The best art doesn't pander, nor does it hide its intent behind a stylistic cushion. Mailer told you what he thought, the way that he thought it, and hoped for the best. He often made me want to throw the book across the room—but I'd still pick it up and finish it.

November 09, 2007

The long grave already dug

     I know you
     Met before, seventh floor
     First world war, I know you

— The Byrds, “I See You” (1966)

This Sunday is Veterans' Day here in the U.S. I prefer its old name, Armstice Day, not because veterans don't deserve their own day (they do) but because detaching the day from its original context—November 11, 1918—diminishes the palpability of that crucial moment in history. Eighty-nine years on, the end of World War I is still regarded as the birth announcement of the modern world. Everything on the ancient side of that historical divide—the unchallenged governing status of authority and class, the optimism of the Enlightenment, the belief that mankind was in control of historical forces and not the other way around—seemed to perish in the conflagration. In Robert Graves’ famous formulation: good-bye to all that.

But in a crucial sense, the brave and/or craven new world that suddenly confronted humanity in 1918 had been around for quite some time—it just hadn’t been popularized. The writers and intellectuals who defined the modern world in the wake of the Great War were, in their own way, crossover artists, taking something that had been the purview of a marginalized minority and repackagaing it for the population as a whole. They were, in other words, like early rock-and-roll musicians.

The founding myth of rock-and-roll is unusual in that it simultaneously tells a creation story and acknowledges the historical circumstances such stories normally gloss over. The accepted gospel is that the early stars—Elvis Presley, Bill Haley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and so on—took a style of music that was already prevalent among African-Americans and, by virtue of their skin color, made it palatable to the majority white population. Like most creation myths, it’s an oversimplification, ignoring both the formidable influence of country-western music on 50s rock and the concurrent popularity of Little Richard, Fats Domino, and other black artists.

But the notion at its core, that rock-and-roll already existed, but needed white performers to inoculate its potential audience from the perceived social stigma of its origins, is a powerful enough narrative to have been refashioned in watered-down form ever since, whether in the form of blue-eyed soul or (most notoriously) in the case of Vanilla Ice, greeted as the purported Elvis of hip-hop. (As it turned out, hip-hop was able to make its own way in the world, thank you very much.)

What was it that swept across societies in the 1920s and 30s with the cultural force of early rock? Disillusionment. The feeling that all organized human endeavors almost inevitably, somehow, are frustrated in their noble goals is so common today that it’s hard to imagine a time when such emotions didn’t exist. But disillusionment is a recent innovation, first making its appearance in the violent, messy wake of the French Revolution of the late 18th century. The ideals of that epoch had themselves been percolating for some time, but it was the failure of the Terror that first showed how such ideals could lead to a disappointment of previously unknown profundity. Throughout the following century, revolutionaries of all stripes would be buffeted against the twin shoals of optimism and disillusionment. As the poet Ferdinand Freiligrath put it after the failure of the revolutions of 1848: "We stood on the threshold of paradise, but the gates were slammed in our faces."

Revolutionaries, though, were the pariahs of the Victorian age, an affront to the stability that respectable society clung to like a life preserver. And their disillusionment was regarded as a symptom of a cast of mind that was, at best, an indulgence of youth, at worst, an assault on the verities that held civilization together. That civilization would be revealed as impotent in the stalemate of the trenches and the pettiness of the peace. The centuries-old structure of the West seemed to collapse like a revolutionary plot.
It might risk trivialization to compare the violence and destruction of World War I with the ephemeral joys of Elvis. But both phenomena are manifestations of a great historical antagonism within their respective eras. Rock-and-roll put the the enduring racial tension at the core of American history on stage, front and center. Post-World War I anomie reflected the long-standing friction between the power of the state and the freedom of the individual, a conflict that even the only enduring revolution, our own, still hasn’t resolved.

One could, in fact, argue that the rising hegemony of specifically American culture after World War I was similarly lying in wait, that the Civil War had set in motion a distinctly American psychic engine running on equal parts idealism and anxiety; American participation in the Great War simply kicked that motor into gear. Ann Douglas, in Terrible Honesty, her study of postwar Manhattan, points out how a writer like Ernest Hemingway was far better prepared to make sense—and art—out of his wartime experience than his European counterparts. “The Great War as a military, industrial, and psychological force was already in America’s history, one could say, before it broke out in Europe in 1914,” Douglas writes. “Hemingway had been to boot camp without knowing it.”

Perhaps this is why both the First World War and the advent of rock-and-roll seemed to come about so inevitably, in the face of widespread disbelief. The reverberations of the revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries have continually buffeted civilization for so long now, that upheavals aren’t really what catch us off guard, but merely their sometimes unexpected source and size. The raw materials of revolutionary emotions have become commodities. The Mexican writer Octavio Paz put it best: the modern world waits for revolutions like “the early Christians expecting the Apocalypse,” he once said. “And revolution comes; not the expected one, but another, always another.” Each time, we’re reintroduced to what we already know. Hello to all that.

November 08, 2007

Boston Latin

Something's coming, and it's about to be played by 20 violas.
(Poor-quality cell phone photo by your faithful correspondent.)

Here's all you really need to know about the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra. At Symphony Hall last night, their final encore was the "Danza final" from Alberto Ginastera's Estancia suite, and they pretty much screwed around the entire time: swaying, jumping up, stamping their feet, dancing out of their seats—towards the end, Gustavo Dudamel left the podium and began sawing away on a cello, while the cellist joined the mêlée on the podium, raising his arms in mock conducting. And even in this free-for-all, they still had better ensemble and rhythmic drive than many professional orchestras on any given day.

The crown jewel of El Sistema rode into Boston this week on more classical music hype than the town's seen in years. The place was packed; Tony Woodcock, the new president of the New England Conservatory (a concert co-sponsor, with the BSO and the Celebrity Series), gave an effusive introduction with a record-high incidence of the adjectivally-modifying "absolutely". And then the enormous (quadruple winds, eight horns, eleven basses) orchestra started to play, and it all managed to justify the buzz.

The main attraction of the opening, Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, was hearing the unwieldy hydra on stage move with such precision. Apart from the frisson of programming this Koussevitzky specialty in Koussevitzky's house, the interpretation didn't reveal anything about the piece most listeners didn't know, but the flexibility of the ensemble, given its size, was wondrous. Dudamel not only has some of the most fluent stick technique I've ever seen—every cue arrives in flawless time as part of a completely natural-seeming choreography, and his repertoire of gestures is huge and judiciously deployed—but is also a terrific conduit for the enormous amount of energy that flows through the group. The playing, uniformly joyous, is almost unbelievably exuberant and intense; in lesser hands that could result in unfocused chaos. Dudamel channels it into exact paths. The calibration of the rustling crescendo at the beginning of the finale was quite possibly the best I've ever heard.

Beethoven's Seventh Symphony opened the second half in grand style—reduced personnel in this case still meant four horns and four trumpets. Dudamel didn't keep the group on a classically-proportioned leash: the dynamic contrasts were wide and powerful, the sort of thing Mahler was aiming for when he would re-orchestrate Beethoven. But they made it convincing—even the loudest portions (which were quite loud indeed) still had a clarity and balance that let you pick out any voice or line. The pacing, particularly in a somewhat faster-than-normal true Allegretto second movement and a somewhat leisurely Presto third, seemed designed to build the structure around great, cresting waves of sound, something Dudamel excels at. Also breakneck finales: the final Allegro con brio, like the fifth movement of the Bartok, was a turbocharged sprint.

James Levine himself slipped into the first balcony to catch the orchestra's showpiece, the "Symphonic Dances" from Bernstein's West Side Story. The flashy rhythmic stuff didn't disappoint—glorious, swinging, with the economy-sized full band (two tubas? Sure, why not) displaying a tightness that a four-piece punk outfit would kill for, all the while the players seeming to have an amount of fun that could make you jealous. But the delicate portions were equally assured—the cha-cha had a perfect halting lushness, and the wash of strings that signals the tragic denouement was magical. Dudamel kept the focus on the drama, telescoped as it is, which effectively raised the stakes for the less-extroverted parts of the score, keeping each note alive.

Encores brought out the Venezuelan flag jackets, which seem to attract uncomfortable comment wherever they appear, on account of the current Venezuelan administration. Pre-Beethoven civic ceremony—honoring, for the most part, José Antonio Abreu, El Sistema's founder, who was in attendance—glossed over the political situation in Venezuela while reminding you that it was there, but one got the impression that the orchestra and the program are regarded as a national treasure regardless of political persuasion; even the presumably anti-Chavez ex-pats seated near us, who heartily booed the Venezuelan ambassador to the United States, readily and enthusiatically joined in the standing ovations Abreu received seemingly each time his name was mentioned. El Sistema, it's worth remembering, pre-dates Chavez's "Bolivarian Republic" by many years, and if the level of support at Wednesday's concert—audience and institutional—is any indication, it should survive whatever twists and turns are in Venezuela's political future. Levine was waiting backstage to greet Dudamel, and could be seen putting his own scarf around Dudamel's neck as a gift. In the car ride home, my lovely wife felt similarly protective. "I just want to put a halo around all of them," she said, "so they can stay that happy forever." The orchestra doesn't just perform; they make you feel like part of a movement. This group is something.

November 06, 2007

Nickel in the Slot

I was out of town last week, so I'm a little late to Steve Hicken's quiz.

1) What five operas would you most like to see performed?

1. Schoenberg: Von Heute auf Morgen. Believe it or not, Schoenberg was actually offered an awful lot of money by a publisher for this piece, but his wife Gertrude thought the publisher was being annoyingly pushy, so Schoenberg turned it down. He credited the refusal with saving his life—had he taken the money, he said, he might have ended up too comfortable to flee the Nazis in time. So how come no publishers are offering to save my life in this way?
2. Britten: Owen Wingrave. His second-to-last opera, a brilliant anti-war ghost story, originally written for television. Just don't let premium cable near it, or Owen will face his family's demons buck-naked. And the demons will be played by B-list starlets. I spoke too soon: that's a travesty I'd actually watch.
3. Tippett: The Ice Break. Some people are vaguely embarrassed by Tippett's self-written libretti, but is there anybody else, in any genre, who goes where he goes? I mean, besides Pink Floyd?
4. Babbitt: Fabulous Voyage. Uncle Milton's 1946 Broadway musical, based on Homer's Odyssey. If Babbitt had gone on to have Jerry-Herman-esque success on the Great White Way, would the alleged serialist hegemony in 1950s and 60s America still have come about? If not, would all those people continually complaining about said alleged hegemony find something else to complain about? Yeah, probably.
5. Stockhausen: Licht: Die sieben Tage der Woche. Bonus points if the production is financed via a series of high-tech international jewel heists.

2) What five pieces would you most like to hear performed?

1. Busoni: Piano Concerto. Anybody who looks at a draft of a massive, late-Romantic concerto and thinks, "You know what this thing needs? A men's chorus!" is my kind of guy.
2. Barraque: Piano Sonata. I've never heard it live.
3. Ives: Symphony no. 4. See above. Might as well throw in Gruppen while we're at it. Think of how many freelancers you could feed with a program like that.
4. R. Murray Schafer: No Longer Than Ten (10) Minutes. For reasons previously noted.
5. Nam June Paik: Danger Music #5. You're going into that whale's vagina a nobody, but you're coming back a star!

3) What five living performers would you most like to meet?

1. Riccardo Muti. I'll invite him over, put on a Pavarotti record, and hide behind the furniture.
2. Jean-Yves Thibaudet. I could use a makeover.
3. Placido Domingo. Mr. Domingo, I have this album you recorded with John Denver that I'd love for you to sign... Mr. Domingo? Where are you going?
4. Jessye Norman. I'd just keep giving her money until she agreed to record the outgoing message on my voicemail.
5. Oscar Peterson.
OP: Hi, I'm Oscar Peterson.

4) What five living composers would you most like to meet?

After ten minutes of thinking, "Oh, yeah, I'd like to meet him/her; oh, wait a minute, I already did," I gave up. Hanging around Tanglewood for the better part of seven summers will do that. Not that any of them would remember me, anyway. (Five that are fun to meet, if you haven't already: Steven Mackey, Marjorie Merryman, Tan Dun, Andre Previn, Osvaldo Golijov.)

5) What five living musicians (composers, performers, writers, scholars, etc) would you most like to play three-on-three basketball with/against?

My team:
Michael Daugherty
Tommy Tune
Other team:
Alicia de Larrocha
Jimmy Scott

I like those odds.

November 05, 2007

Unlikely music critic of the day (literally)

Bernstein has taught me, too, what Hegelianism is. I knew I was a Hegelian, but never knew what it was. Now I see that a Hegelian is one who agrees that everybody is right, and who acts as if everybody but himself were wrong. What a delightful idea—so German—that Karl Marx thought himself a Hegelian! It is equal to Wagner's philosophy...

—Henry Adams to Brooks Adams,
Paris, November 5, 1899

Bonus quote!
The nieces took me to Philadelphia to hear Ternina as Ysolde [sic], and Looly taught me what to say about it. To you, the formula doesn't matter. To me, the singular part of it was that the music of Ysolde should be interpreted to me by two young and perfectly pure girls. Another Americanism! I could not even hint to them what it meant, and they couldn't have hinted it to me if they had known. The twelfth century had the audacity of its passions, and Wagner at times talks almost plain twelfth century language.

—Henry Adams to Elizabeth Cameron,
March 12, 1900

Previously: 1, 2.

DJs communicate to the masses

Bryant Manning reports that things are still pretty much as I remember at my alma mater. (A major scholarly highlight of junior year was the co-discovery, with this guy, that the opening of Brahms op. 120, no. 2 could be played over the accompaniment pattern of "New York, New York.")

Via Alex.

November 02, 2007

File under miscellaneous

Classical Notes.
Boston Globe, November 2, 2007.

The Lexington Symphony, the national anthem, a French Baron, and fried chicken.

November 01, 2007

Off-Topic Thursday: Eat Your Words

Obscure twenty-five-cent words, wasting valuable work time, and feeding the hungry? Free Rice is three of our favorite things, in one convenient website! Idly test your vocabulary, and for every one you get right, ten grains of rice are donated to the United Nations World Food Program. Waste a couple hours on the job, and you can help someone else's economy while undermining your own! Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to work larboard and clapperclaw into my everyday conversation.

(Thanks to Lisa at Exploding Aardvark for finding this one.)