February 29, 2008

That face

Bits and pieces...

Lots of composer portraits this week. Now it's J. S. Bach—as played by Rod Steiger. (Daniel Wolf already expressed some mild skepticism as to the point of this exercise; this clumsy organist would probably have been more interested in reconstructions of the man's feet.)

Feeling low? Wrong way up? Not as discreet as you'd like? Have your entire virtual life scored on a moment-to-moment basis by Brian Eno!

Philip Glass: cello sugar daddy.

And, this being a leap year it's February 29th—Gioacchino Rossini turns 52, Jimmy Dorsey turns 26, Dinah Shore turns 23*, and Anne-Carolyn is still younger than her Knob Creek.

Update (2/29): I originally had all these ages a year off, having factored in the exception for years divisible by 100, but not the exception to the exception for years divisible by 400. Talk about metric modulation.

February 28, 2008

Ich sehe wie in einem Spiegel

On January 24, 1927, Time magazine put the disembodied head of someone alleged to be Richard Strauss on its cover.

For comparison:

So the question is: who bamboozled Time's cover artist by claiming to be Richard Strauss? I vote for a time-traveling Ian Richardson.

February 27, 2008

I Promise to Remember

I'm not usually much for musical anniversaries, but here's one that would probably otherwise go comparatively unnoticed: today marks the 40th anniversary of the death of Frankie Lymon, who overdosed on heroin at the age of 25. He was the lead singer of Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers, who debuted with a #1 Billboard R&B hit in 1956, the enduring classic "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" Here's the group's first TV appearance; the polytonal divergence with the accompaniment notwithstanding, it's quite a first impression:

The group had a few more hits, including "I Want You to Be My Girl" and "I'm Not a Juvenile Delinquent," performing the latter in the Alan Freed-produced movie Rock, Rock, Rock. After a mere eighteen months, the group surprisingly split, with Lymon pursuing a solo career that never quite took off. (They would briefly and unsuccessfully reunite in 1965.)

Lymon's Roman candle of a career is fascinating on a number of levels. He was the first black pop star. Lymon's powerful soprano would echo as a touchstone of the Motown sound, in singers from Smokey Robinson to Michael Jackson. (Staging, too: the group's choreographer would subsequently work with The Temptations.) Lymon embodied the new, post-WWII fluidity of race relations: the Teenagers, were, unusually for the time, an integrated group—black and Puerto Rican. (The only other contemporary integrated group I can think of are The Del-Vikings.) He caused a minor scandal when, appearing on Freed's television show The Big Beat, he danced with a white girl.

And he was, in a way, the first casualty of the music industry's profound shift towards youth. Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers were teenagers: Lymon was 13 when the song came out. A novelty, though Lymon had company in that category (compare Ricky Nelson, Paul Anka, or a personal favorite, the "Female Elvis," Janis Martin). But Lymon was, I think, uniquely stuck between the adolescent and adult worlds. Here's Lymon in 1957 with a solo performance of "Goody, Goody":

Lymon's stage manner is astonishingly suave and polished for a 14-year-old. It puts him firmly in the category of old-time prodigies: young people doing what adults do as well or better than the adults themselves. Compared with somebody like Ricky Nelson, who, after all, was playing a teenager on his family's sitcom, Lymon's demeanor—closer to Louis Jordan than a high-school student—must have begun to erode his perceived "authenticity" as rock-and-roll gravitated towards the raw theatricality of Elvis or Chuck Berry. Trying to forge a solo career in the early 60s, Lymon was, perhaps, in the odd position of seeming old-fashioned to people his own age.

Lymon's air of uncanny maturity probably helped spark his fame, but even being an actual teenager would have been something of an act for Lymon, who, according to some stories, had been hustling prostitutes at age 10, and, by his own admission, first took heroin at age 15, given to him by a woman twice his age—Lymon was never interested in teenaged girls, regarding them as inexperienced. Lymon never managed to kick either habit. The drugs that killed him were apparently in celebration of a new record contract; his marrying three different women without bothering to divorce any of them left his estate embroiled in a legal maze.

While other rock-and-rollers died young—Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran—Lymon was the first to act out the traditional prodigy's cautionary tale in the rock arena. 40 years on, though, we're just left with the music, the performances of a terrific singer and a supreme showman. At a perspective rather longer than his eighteen months at the top, Frankie Lymon was significantly more than a flash in the pan. One only wishes he had hung on long enough to realize it.

February 26, 2008

Alternate universe fake photo of the day

February 26, 1962: Luciano Berio visits the set of Radio Milan, the madcap Richard Lester-helmed film biography of the composer, starring Peter Sellers.

February 22, 2008

Ma se mi toccano dov'è il mio debole sarò una vipera

Just in case you missed it, not too long ago, media mogul, gazillionaire, and all-around Doctor Who supervillain Rupert Murdoch bought Dow Jones & Co., publishers of the Wall Street Journal, among other things. One of the conditions of the sale was that the Dow Jones board include a member of the Bancroft family, who had previously controlled the company since 1902. After much Bancroft family dithering, Murdoch ended up selecting 27-year-old Natalie Bancroft, who was repeatedly described in press reports as—hence her appearance on this blog—an opera singer. Business types dismissed the appointment. But can the girl sing? As prima blogger assoluta La Cieca pointed out, nobody knows.

Well, Condé Nast Portfolio magazine scored an interview with young Ms. Bancroft (if she's younger than me, she's young, OK?). Can she sing? Nobody knows, with the exception of reporter Sophia Banay, who was treated to a parking-lot rendition of Rachmaninoff's op. 4, no. 3 (here's Jussi Bjoerling's version). Can she plausibly sit on the Dow Jones board? Nobody knows. The article seems to be going out of its way to paint her as an unblinking naïf:
Ticking off her qualifications to serve on the News Corp. board, [Bancroft] points out that she grew up in Europe, has a flexible schedule (she commutes to Milan for voice classes every few weeks), and sleeps only three to five hours a night. She also says she is multilingual and routinely reads foreign-language newspapers. Instead of being intimidated by the accomplished men who will be her colleagues, she says the prospect thrills her: "I have a much easier time understanding men. I was a tomboy. I love camping. I love sailing. I love doing boy stuff."

Is she planning to get an M.B.A. to help prepare for the position? "In journalism?" she asks.
Nevertheless, Bancroft is the only woman on the board, which, honesty forces me to admit, automatically makes her the smartest one there. A year from now, Bancroft and former Spanish prime minister José María Aznar will be acting out scenes from Born Yesterday while Murdoch wonders what the hell happened to his company.

By the way, the Portfolio article mentioned Parterre Box in passing, calling it "an opera website run by a drag queen," which is rather like calling 2001: A Space Odyssey "vacation home movies." Show some respect!

February 21, 2008

The illegitimate nephew of Napoleon

Next Tuesday, the New York Philharmonic will perform in the East Pyongyang Grand Theater in North Korea. It's a concert that has spurred loud, predictable consternation that the Philharmonic is, in essence, handing an undeserved public relations victory to Kim Jong-Il and the repressive North Korean regime. Most criticism has regarded the mere fact of the trip as unconscionable. Some critics, though, took a more interesting tack, criticizing the Philharmonic for their choice of repertoire: Dvořák's "New World" Symphony, Wagner's Act III Prelude from Lohengrin, and Gershwin's An American in Paris. Terry Teachout in the Wall Street Journal:
How might the Philharmonic emerge from this misbegotten venture with its honor intact? The answer came from the musician who accompanied me to last Friday's concert. In the hush that followed the rage and anguish of the first movement of Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony, she leaned over to me and whispered, "Forget Gershwin—this is what they ought to play in North Korea." And so they should. Instead of handing out musical bonbons to Kim Jong Il, Mr. Maazel and the Philharmonic could pay tribute to his innocent victims by performing a piece that speaks with shattering eloquence of the devastation wrought on an equally innocent people by an equally vicious tyrant.
Jens Laurson and George Pieler came up with the same idea in the Washington Times (a paper which, it is far from inappropriate to point out, is funded by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon):
The Dvorak and Gershwin are considered classic Americana, both premiered by the NYPO. It's nice music that should be attractive to those having a first-time experience with Western classics. But in these circumstances, it risks being an inoffensive sham of a program, offering timid Amerikanisch repertoire while avoiding both serious American music, and serious American civic content.... [T]he orchestra's administration should have accepted on condition their repertoire be Ludwig van Beethoven's Third — "Eroica" — Symphony, followed by Dmitri Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony.
Provocative choices, although the continuing beatification of Shostakovich as a patron saint of speaking truth to power is, I think, a far too one-dimensional assessment of that complex composer. And I can't help imagining that such suggested programming would be less for Korean consumption and more for back-home reassurance—we may be going to Pyongyang, but we're going on our terms. Besides, the Philharmonic, wittingly or not, has already programmed a piece that, in its own way, speaks directly to the Korean situation: George Gershwin's An American in Paris.

Gershwin's sparkling surface is just that: a surface. Even from the start, An American in Paris is more emotionally complicated than casual listening lets on. The opening theme, the jaunty stroll that critic W. James Henderson called "without doubt the sassiest orchestral theme of the century," is nonetheless curiously disjunct and unbalanced. The opening takes a simple so-la-ti from the scale and distends the first note into another octave (I'm ignoring the grace note, which doesn't always appear in other statements of the theme):

An American in Paris bars 1-2The result—a downward seventh followed by an upward step—still leaves a gap of a sixth, hanging on the leading tone of the scale. Unusually for Gershwin, the rest of the theme never fills in that gap. (Compare the slow section of Rhapsody in Blue, where each octave leap is patched with stepwise motion.) The melody, quite literally, has a hole in its heart. By two-thirds of the way through the first musical paragraph, the cadence of the opening theme—

An American in Paris bars 7-8—has been stretched into a gaping augmented octave, A to A-flat:

An American in Paris bars 7072The entire opening section is one of Gershwin's most dizzying portrayals of modern life, the disorienting pace and chaos of the city—shifting through keys in a whirl, often by half-step; pushing the accent all over the beat; frequently answering a melody with a sped-up version of itself. (Although originally conceived on a brief stay in Paris, Gershwin actually sketched much of the piece in Manhattan, prior to the longer trip it supposedly commemorates.) And the famous "Tempo Blues" theme at the center of the work, the ex-pat's melancholy (Gershwin indicated "Drunk" on one draft), echoes the opening; the keening long note gives way to another series of disjunct intervals, a tumbling of sixths and sevenths:

AnFor all its joie de vivre, An American in Paris is, at its core, music of displacement and homesickness—two of the defining conditions of post-1948 Korean life.

One of the most famous natural landmarks in Korea is Mount Kumgang (Kumgangsan), which falls north of the DMZ. In 1998, the South Korean firm Hyundai agreed to pay $945 million over six years to the North Korean government in exchange for the right to bring South Korean tourists to Kumgangsan. Hyundai lost money on the deal—yet last year, Kumgangsan saw its one millionth visitor from the South. For all the enmity between the two Korean republics, the line between them is so historically and geographically illogical that a full two percent of the South Korean population has been willing to fund the North Korean regime in order to temporarily erase it.

Indeed, only the carving up of the Middle East after World War I can rival the post-WWII partition of Korea for irrationality. Arbitrarily placed at the 38th parallel by two American army officers who had no knowledge of the country (Dean Rusk and Charles Bonesteel, future Cold Warriors both), the division was added to General Order Number One—for the administration of postwar Japan. It would not be the last time Korean policy was an American afterthought. The line, hardened by war into the DMZ, split the government, the symbiotic economy, and the society: families still remain divided by geography and wartime kidnappings. (That so many promised family reunions have come to nought is indicative of how poorly, on the whole, both sets of leaders—not just the tyrants in the North—have served the Korean people.)

Koreans themselves have long recognized that only reunification can provide lasting stability on the peninsula—the contest between North and South has always been over the terms of reunification, not its desirability. The American government, though, has consistently viewed divided Korea, if at all, through the lens of whatever ideological struggle happens to be occupying American mindspace at the time, be it the Cold War or the War of Terrorism. The recent cautious optimism in North-South relations has been spurred by pragmatic South Korean leaders, leaders who might have come to power years ago, except for U.S.-condoned repression. Despite nominal command over the South Korean army, U.S. officials stood idly by through two South Korean military coups and years of authoritarian rule, culminating in the 1980 killing of pro-democracy protestors in Kwangju; until 1987, the country had enjoyed only two years of democracy since 1948.

Encouraging the ROK to quash liberal dissent, pushing the DPRK into increasing miltarism and isolation, the U.S.—and its troop presence, which continues, 29,000 strong—exacerbated the divide. American lip service towards a unified Korea has long since grown stale to both northern and southern ears. (Kim Il-Sung once cynically admitted to a fellow dictator that one of the main reasons North Korea continued to make diplomatic feints towards reunification was that it was an easy way to make the U.S. look hypocritical.) This isn't meant to be a litany of guilt, or a suggestion that the ongoing sins of the North Korean regime are somehow neutralized by past American mistakes, but a reminder why American moralizing doesn't carry as much weight on either side of the DMZ as we might like to think.

The problem is not that the Philharmonic's visit will provide PR fodder for Kim Jong-Il; it's that American policy towards Korea has long been so ad hoc, so tone-deaf to the situation of the Korean people that it almost invariably plays into the North's hands, no matter what we do or don't do. The most comparatively productive period in U.S.-DPRK relations, in the late 1990s, was nevertheless—sound familiar?—a reaction to a Pyongyang-triggered crisis over nuclear ambitions. Time and again, the North's totalitarian leaders have turned outside attention, good and bad, to domestic gain; no doubt, the Bush administrations's "Axis of Evil" rhetorical belligerence has been at least as propagandistically valuable to Kim Jong-Il as a visiting orchestra.

Perhaps the time has come to stop worrying about "legitimizing" a regime that's outlasted ten U.S. presidents and come up with a substantive strategy to get them to open their society, empty their prisons, and feed their people—because isolation isn't doing it. But instead we get the customary incoherence. Even the top U.S. negotiator on the North Korean nuclear question, Christopher Hill—who has been admirably pushing the current, fragile framework for disarmament (in which the Philharmonic visit is almost certainly playing a part)—has had to put up with neocon backbiting from his own administration.

Given such history, I'm pretty pessimistic about the diplomatic prospects for this concert. I'd love to believe that the Philharmonic's visit will lead to something lasting, but I rather suspect that it will just be a particularly grand entry in the ledger of ill-coordinated signals and gestures that have long constituted American policy in Korea. Most likely, Koreans in the North will continue to starve, Koreans in the South will continue to wait, and the majority of divided Korean families will remain sadly divided—and when reunification does finally happen, it will probably be in spite of the United States, not because of us. Those Koreans able to hear the concert will hear neither a satisfying scold nor a new hope. But if they listen carefully to Gershwin's deceptive insouciance, they might hear something even more rare: a hint that, somewhere along the line, at least some Americans have had at least some small idea of what it's like to be Korean.

February 20, 2008

...plus c'est la même chose

What strange times we are living in! We are surrounded by ugliness on every side. We allow horrible buses to disfigure the streets of Paris without protest, and our houses are the ugliest possible.... Yet, there is not a young girl going into town with her mother who does not carry on herself a whole museum: her ring is signed Such-and-Such, her tooled-leather book cover is signed So-and-So, her belt is signed This-and-That, etc.

Our time will have a style of its own when people attach less importance to signatures; then even buses will be graceful. I recognize, however, that there is more than a mere promise in the general effort of our artists to endow us with a style. We may, infact, have a style... "without knowing it," the way Molière's M. Jourdain spoke prose.

—Guillaume Apollinaire, in L'Intransigeant,
March 8, 1910; translated by Susan Suleiman

February 15, 2008

Required coursework

An informal interview with Tamara Hovey Gold, sister of composer/musicologist Serge Hovey, and, like her brother, a one-time student of Arnold Schoenberg. I love the fact that one of the mandatory classes for UCLA music education majors was a composition class with the founder of the Second Viennese School.

Following in her her mother's footsteps, Tamara Hovey had a few credits as a screenwriter—most notably the Mario Lanza truck-driver-becomes-a-star classic That Midnight Kiss and the Dorothy Dandridge vehicle Tamango—before turning her hand to biography, penning lives of George Sand and John Reed.

February 14, 2008

It takes a nation of billions to hold us back

Today's outlandish comparison: why John Adams is like Saint Valentine. This is Valentine's Day, that festival of sending flowers and mash notes to one's sweetheart—all commemorating a priest who was (perhaps) beaten and beheaded in third-century Rome. It's doubtful he imagined he would be remembered with candy hearts, but that's the sort of thing that happens when information is turned loose in the world.

I thought of Valentine last week, when I read (via Robert Gable) about the cancellation of Trinity Lyric Opera's planned (and publicized) performance of Nixon in China. "Sources tell us that Boosey & Hawkes withdrew permission for the production, a highly unusual move at a time after Trinity's public announcement and most of the casting already decided," reported Janos Gerben. "The publisher's action, which cited an error in issuing the license in the first place, makes one wonder if the composer might have denied permission."

How disorganized would a publisher have to be to issue a performance license for a full opera by mistake? And even if they did, why is that the opera company's problem? They've hired singers (and presumably signed contracts), secured a space, started marketing—at that point a publisher should suck it up. And if it was Adams who put the kibosh on the performance, presumably in anticipation of a future San Francisco Opera performance—there's a better way to keep control over who does and doesn't get to perform your music: DON'T PUBLISH IT. I rather think that in return for the one hundred and sixteen bucks per piano-vocal score, paying customers get ownership of something beyond exponentially marked-up paper and ink. Maybe Adams and B&H have made things right behind the scenes, but the whole thing is indicative of everything that drives me crazy about classical music publishing.*

In the meantime, the European Union has finally tackled the disparity between composers' and performers' copyrights. In the words of Charlie McCreevey, the EU's internal markets commissioner:
“I have not seen a convincing reason why a composer of music should benefit from a term of copyright which extends to the composer’s life and 70 years beyond, while the performer should only enjoy 50 years, often not even covering his lifetime,” he said.
I agree—life plus 70 years is a ridiculously long time for a work to stay under copyright! Oh, wait: he's actually proposing lengthening performers' copyrights from 50 to 95 years. I'd have more respect for these people if they'd just come out and say that they're in the pocket of large media companies, instead of trying to convince me that individual musicians would actually significantly benefit from such nonsense—I'm sure John McCormack could really use that extra cash. On the other hand, whatever bioengineered iteration of Michael Jackson that's still around in 2075 certainly deserves his royalties from Thriller. (Digression: I'm surprised there hasn't been a comparison of Michael Jackson and Richard Wagner—endlessly controversial figures who made absolutely fantastic music.)

Finally: like Pliable and Daniel Wolf, this blog is blocked in Beijing. I ask you: is that any way to treat the proud owner of a 1938 third printing of Red Star Over China? And yet they let through Norman Lebrecht.

*Update (2/14): Lisa Hirsch, via e-mail, plausibly speculates that perhaps Trinity was planning to use an unauthorized reduced orchestration. Certainly grounds for rescinding the license, but that sort of restriction would have been spelled out in the original contract—so the whole "internal error" thing still puzzles me.

February 13, 2008

Spark plugs and transmissions

The other day, A.C. Douglas pointed out this comment from composer Alex Shapiro:
The music in one’s head and the music on the page are examples of the two cerebral hemispheres, and they really are entirely different animals. The first is the True Inspiration and the latter is how the True Inspiration can be translated into something musicians can actually play and people can actually hear. Left brain, right brain. Maybe they’ll take a picnic together sometime.
Ah, dualism; that left-brain/right-brain caricature is a pernicious one, isn't it? Good and evil, communism and capitalism, atonality and tonality, Dick York and Dick Sargent—I blame it all on bilateral symmetry. If we had three arms, we'd probably think in terms of light, dark, and, say, crepuscular.

But maybe the whole notion of True Inspiration gets at another division: systematic and non-systematic composition. Again, a dualist caricature—composers don't pitch a tent in one camp or another, but take up residence somewhere along a continuum. But where you end up depends on your own relationship to True Inspiration.

Shapiro is obviously a composer for whom inspiration comes first: it's the initial idea, the spark, that drives the actual work of composition. This is, I imagine, how most non-artists imagine artists working. But my own experience is different: every True Inspiration moment I've ever had has invariably happened in the middle of a work session, after I've already been plugging away at the material for a couple of hours. I have no clue if an idea is an inspired one until I've tinkered with it for a while, and then it opens up and I can see where it's leading, what it can become, how it can shape a musical paragraph or movement. Or that it can't, in which case it goes in the trash, and I start from scratch the next time.

As such, I have a natural sympathy for compositional systems—it's how I investigate the possibilities of an idea. Mash it into a chord or stretch it into a melody and see how it sounds. Run an interval vector on the set and start transposing it around. Collect up the remaining pitches to form this or that aggregate and tinker with the juxtaposition. Or a particular rhythm: how's it work in augmentation? Diminution? Canon? Layer it over various phrase lengths—does the pattern shake out regularly? There's the old stand-bys: inversion, retrograde, combinatoriality (be the context tonal or atonal).

For me, once an idea opens up a possible landscape, a lot of the systematic determinism falls away—I live probably just left-of-center on a left-to-right systematic/non-systematic spectrum. I have favorite composers from all over the map—Poulenc was non-systematic and proud of it, as opposed to Stockhausen or Boulez, happily ensconced deep on the other side: the system itself is the inspiration, the music its realization in sound. Which, in a full circle sort of way, is not that far from Shapiro's description.

Thomas Edison perfected the light bulb by methodically testing some 6,000 different filaments; Leo Szilard suddenly glimpsed the entire mechanism of a nuclear chain reaction as he crossed a London street. Of course, Szilard's vision required a Manhattan Project to reach fruition. Edison's old saw—10% inspiration, 90% perspiration, or some comparable ratio—still holds, but some of us have to sweat first before the muse deigns to put in an appearance.

Update (2/13): ACD demurs:
[B]y the end of our reading he’d set our teeth to grinding, for what he described with some affection is a virtual definition of precisely what's wrong with most so-called New Music; a veritable instruction manual of how NOT to go about the making of the thing.
Let me be clear: I'm not saying this is how things should be done, but it is how I personally do things. As for affection, I would hazard a guess that I do have affection for a lot of music that ACD doesn't care for, but my affection has nothing to do with its construction, but rather its effect in performance. My point was that there's a lot of different ways to realize that final effect, and that the spark of inspiration can happen in a lot of different places during the work of composing. I would love it if entire pieces or even entire well-formed musical ideas came to me out of the blue while I was sitting on park benches, but for whatever reason—temperament, brain chemistry, undiagnosed ADHD—they don't. So I do what I can to get the muse in the mood, as it were.

It's worth pointing out that I was fascinated with systematic manipulations of musical material long before I heard of set theory or total serialism. I learned augmentation and diminution from the d-sharp-minor fugue in Book I of the WTC; I learned inversion from Rachmaninoff's Paganini Variations—the old stand-bys are old indeed. For an exceptionally fine example of consciously, systematically manipulated materials, look no further than Sondheim's
Sweeney Todd; I spent the better part of a semester in grad school happily tracing all the mutations of the Dies irae theme in that score. And after all, music itself is already a highly organized system—that the end results are so wonderfully varied is as much a testament to the power of that system as it is to the power of inspiration.

Update II (2/18): Marc Geelhoed has sharp observations from a more performer-centric perspective. He also references the "divine afflatus," which is as good an excuse as any for linking to what, for a few months at least, was my favorite mural in all of Boston.

February 12, 2008

Orchestration 101

green curry paste
Thai cooking is a paradox: it uses robustly flavored ingredients—garlic, shrimp paste, chillies and lemongrass—and yet when these are melded together during cooking they arrive at a sophisticated and often subtle elegance, in contrast to their rather coarse beginnings. Often the ingredients employed in a recipe can be an extraordinary, bewildering array of up to 20 items in a single dish. In any other cuisine this would guarantee a cluttered and confused finish, yet in Thai cooking these disparate ingredients are transformed into a seamless whole—the honed result of generations of Thai cooks. This does not mean that all the tastes are blended into an indistinguishable unity, but that the diverse flavors work harmoniously in concert—rounding, contrasting, and supporting each other.

—David Thompson, Thai Food

February 08, 2008

Early to rise

It's Lent already? As of last Wednesday, yes. For those of you who got to play outside rather than go to Sunday School, Lent is the 40-day period of preparation for Easter in the Christian calendar. It coordinates with Passover, which corresponds with the lunar calendar, which means it moves around a lot. (Trivia: the last time Lent started this early was 1856.) Then, of course, Orthodox Christians figure their Easter a little differently; and they're split between old calendrists and new calendrists. This was much easier when I was in Catholic school—one day they'd haul you off to church in the middle of class, which was usually the first inkling you'd have that Lent had started. Once you become a church musician, you actually have to plan for this sort of thing.

Which is why this year's Lenten introit was finished the day of rehearsal. (I have become more deadline-driven than Edmond O'Brien.) Download it for free—for free—and you can decide for yourself whether the nuns would have given me a gold star or sent a note home to my parents.

Guerrieri: I Wait for the Lord (2008) (PDF, 74 KB; MIDI here)

February 07, 2008

Il ciel l'ho fatto nascere per far beato il cor

Ali and Chamberlain on the Howard Cosell Show
Memes always get a sympathetic ear here at Soho the Dog HQ, and here's a beauty, via Wellsung (who is, I see, not on the blogroll—bad dog), Parterre Box, and Steve Smith: find out what the Metropolitan Opera was performing the day you were born.

Alas, I'm a summertime baby, so no Met performance for me. Hmmm... I wonder what they were doing the night I was conceived?
October 26, 1970

Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848)

Don Pasquale............Fernando Corena
Norina..................Reri Grist
Ernesto.................Alfredo Kraus
Dr. Malatesta...........Tom Krause
Notary..................Gabor Carelli
Servant.................Judit Schichtanz
Servant.................Frank D'Elia
Servant.................Arthur Backgren

Conductor...............Carlo Franci
Maybe that's a too-much-information situation. La Cieca's solution for us Leos was to visit the Salzburger Festspiele:
Montag, 26. Juli 1971, 19.30 Uhr

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)

Favola in musica in einem Prolog und fünf Akten
Libretto von Alessandro Striggio
Freie Neufassung von Erich Kraack

In italienischer Sprache


Bernhard Conz, Dirigent

Giorgio Zancanaro, Orfeo
Maria Maddalena, Euridice
Gabriella Carturan, La Musica
Carol Smith, La Ninfa Messagiera
Anton Diakov, Caronte
Carol Smith, Proserpina
Anton Diakov, Plutone
Paul Esswood, Apollo
Not bad for a composer. But my birthday could have been marked by one of the craziest performances ever. July 26, 1971, was the scheduled date for a heavyweight boxing match between Muhammed Ali and basketball star Wilt Chamberlain, which would have been possibly the ring's all-time-great novelty match-up. Chamberlain eventually backed out, allegedly over money, although perhaps his better judgment had started to kick in—Ali, even fresh off his punishing, marathon loss-by-decision to Joe Frazier, hadn't even planned on training for the fight. "The Greatest vs. the Biggest" was not to be; instead, Ali spent my birthday defeating his old sparring partner Jimmy Ellis; he eventually won back the heavyweight crown from George Foreman (who had taken it from Frazier) in 1974's "Rumble in the Jungle." Boxing and opera are close enough for me.

Update (2/7): My lovely wife checked her own guardian angel: a Leontyne Price Manon Lescaut. "YIPPEE!!!!" she writes. "I always knew my life would devolve into an existence of shallow indulgence and despair."

February 06, 2008

You must eat a beefsteak

GENTLEMAN WITH TOP HAT. I am your patron. Do you recognize me?

He throws him a purse.

I buy your genius. I buy your good digestion. I order big yellow billboard advertisements for your concerts.

On the rear wall, big placards appear: "THE MUSICAL GENIUS, SEBASTIAN, BACH'S NATURAL GRANDSON!"

You are my indivijiol!

SEBASTIAN. Mercy, sir! What have I ever done to you? Have pity on me: I am a harmless artist. Leave me my unheard obscurity. Leave me the sorrow which whips me, and which my darling Olga has left me. Are you perhaps blaspheming?

POLICEMAN. In the name of the law: you belong to the state. The collective community has a claim on you, but you have no claim to starvation and loneliness.

THE CROWD. Social liberation!

On the rear wall appears a bog placard in red: "SOCIAL LIBERATION! HUMAN KINDNESS!"

POLICEMAN. Loneliness is strictly forbidden! I'm giving you a reprimand! You must eat a beefsteak and take a walk in the park every day! And a minimum of work?

A man climbs upon the windowsill and unfolds a newspaper as large as himself: he is the JOURNALIST. He screams: "Sebastian, the musician-saint of the people!"

At the same instant appears on the rear wall in fat black newsprint: "SEBASTIAN, MUSICIAN-SAINT OF THE PEOPLE!"


The CROWD shouts. Then it disperses. Through the door enters LUPUS, THE LANDLORD.

Celebrated maestro!

SEBASTIAN. Pardon me, Mr. Lupus, don't underestimate me. Be frank. I know I owe you sixty marks. I slave for it day and night. I am perfectly aware that sixty marks for such a view and mice under the bed is not too much. Oh, I know everything. Just two more years of patience, Mr. Benefactor, then I shall have finished my forty-seventh opera!

Yvan Goll, The Immortal One
translated by Walter H. and Jacqueline Sokel

February 05, 2008

You'll Never Get Rich

Today is Super Tuesday in American politics: two dozen states are holding primary elections or caucuses to choose the parties' nominees for November's presidential election. The first Super Tuesdays were in the 1980s, held in early March. Now they're a month earlier. This thing has been going on for the better part of a year, and it still has to drag on until November. Hoo-ray.

None of the candidates are composers—Mike Huckabee, still hanging on by the ribbon bookmark in his bible, comes the closest, playing a respectable garage-band electric bass. In fact, except for the occasional accidental tourist, there's never been a composer that also made significant strides as a politician in the U.S. (A couple of rock and/or country songwriters in the Congress is as far as it's gone.) Certainly not an avant-garde, non-pop-music composer. The reason, I think, is that the majority of American voters don't take composition seriously as a job. And when it comes to picking leaders, we fetishize work in this country. Business experience is always a big plus. Made a lot of money? Good for you! Garry Wills once pointed out that the Republican establishment didn't really respect Richard Nixon until he joined a high-powered New York law firm, i.e., until running for president meant giving up real money. He worked hard in business; he'll work hard for you in Washington! (Note that it's never necessary to indicate exactly what the candidate will work hard at. It's oddly non-judgmental. I mean, I'm sure Hitler put in some long hours at the office.)

This sort of mindset is so ubiquitous that we don't even notice it anymore. Here's National Endowment for the Arts head and poet Dana Gioia, quoted the other day in Wall Street Journal:
"See, I'm an artist," [Gioia] says, "and so my primary goal is really bringing the transformative power of great art to the broadest audience possible. And I'm a business person, and I had a day job for two decades, and it taught me that there are ways to take a good idea and make it more effective and more affordable."
Because, of course, artists have no idea how to do this themselves. I'm certain there are millions of non-musicians out there who still think that composition consists of elegantly waiting around for inspiration, jumping up from the chaise, throwing on a velvet smoking jacket, and dashing off a Great Symphonic Theme. There may have been a time and place when that image could at least have hinted at the possibility of a Balfour-esque noblesse oblige. But nowadays, you'd better have earned that money. And everybody knows that composers don't earn their money—they subsist on highbrow handouts.

This leaky dinghy of an argument against government funding for the arts has been going around the ether for a few days now. (I found it via a message from the Fredösphere.) I originally wasn't going to bother writing about a hypothesis so patently absurd (taxpayer funding for avant-garde music was "unlimited"? In Germany and France? Just after World War II? Really?) but I realized that, were a composer of "modern music" to run for president, these are exactly the sort of specious insinuations that would be used to club him/her. Modern music is elitist; the public hates it; it's a waste of government funds.

All these arguments can easily be framed as laissez-faire free-market capitalist boosterism. It's elitist—it's arrogant and foolish not to appeal to as large a segment of your potential market as possible. The public hates it—if a majority of the market isn't willing to pay for it, then by definition, it has no value. Governments shouldn't pay for it—if it can't make it's own way in the market, then it's irresponsible of government to artificially prop it up.

That last one has been deployed against arts funding for years now. When the government funds arts that wouldn't gain sufficient traction in the free market for survival, those making this argument see it as somehow cheating, bending the rules, gaming the system. What they can never let themselves admit is that the rules of free-market capitalism are bent all the time—if they weren't, capitalism and any society based on it would collapse. When the Federal Reserve tinkers with interest rates and the money supply to ensure that the markets don't slip into runaway monopolistic inflation or an insurmountable depression, it's gaming the system. When Congress engineers tax credits and deductions to encourage corporate behavior that the market would otherwise unduly punish, it's gaming the system. Medicare? Unemployment benefits? Face it—it's government spending that keeps the economically disaffected from turning into revolutionaries. Any free-market capitalist system requires perpetual benevolent interference to protect it against its own potential for economic and political damage.

In receiving and expecting state support, the arts aren't playing outside the rules, they're playing by the exact same rules everybody else does. Of course, to say this in American politics is unthinkable—far better to blame government itself. Or individual incidents of corporate malfeasance. Or, yes, industries that unfairly leech off your taxes in violation of a magically self-sustaining market.

It's too bad, because I think a composer would have a terrific sense of how to utilize and capitalize on the true nature of democracy. We like to think that democracy is all about choosing the best person for the job. Now, I'm not sure the best possible person has ever been chosen for the job, and frankly, democracy's record at being able to pick out even the lesser of two evils is pretty spotty. But that's not the point—democracy is less a process than a performance, a choreographed drama designed to give voters the satisfaction of feeling like they have some control over their own governance. It's a formalized, orchestrated, arranged, conducted ritual. It's composed, in other words. It's incredibly dense textures. It's irregular, sometimes unpredictable rhythms. It's aleatoric—what is an election, after all, but chance operations within a tightly controlled framework? A modernist composer would find the levers of democracy awfully familiar. They know the job. The trouble is convincing the electorate that it's a real one.

February 01, 2008

Over my head, I hear music in the air

Those of you in the Boston area feeling the need for some church, stop by The Presbyterian Church in Sudbury this Sunday morning , where we'll be having a pre-Lenten carnival of American sacred music. Anthems and choruses by Julian Wachner, the Williams Bolcom and Billings, Brian Wilson, and more—including commissions from Brett Abigaña and Dennis Báthory-Kitsz. Services are at 8:45 and 11:00. (We're the one next to the town hall, with the Revolutionary War cemetery in our backyard.)