April 29, 2008

Hub helmer headlines crix confab

At a Boston Symphony Orchestra press conference with James Levine yesterday, the always voluble music director had some interesting things to say about where new music fits in running an orchestra. Levine has fashioned the BSO into perhaps the leading major-orchestra exponent of a kind of serious, mostly American modernism—the living composers for the 2008-09 season are Carter, Schuller, Kirchner, Boulez, and Previn (the last with the composer conducting). The BSO hasn't completely ignored other contemporary styles, but, as with Golijov and Adams performances in the past couple seasons, they tend to come in with guest conductors. Levine talked about this, saying that he saw his job as not so much personally ensuring a wide variety of music, but making sure that what is performed receives a fully committed performance, and that it would be irresponsible for him to conduct music that he can't establish a strong personal connection with; better to leave composers he doesn't feel close to—which also include Bruckner and Shostakovich—in the hands of conductors who do. (His impression of a lot of neo-tonal new music is that it has too much "pastel droopiness.")

Levine was asked about the pros and cons of his modernist programming: "The most gratifying aspect is that I have lots of warm feedback"—something he loves about the city. But the downside was more fascinating: "The only sad side of it is, some kinds of music take more time for people to want to hear it, and I can only present it at certain intervals." Levine firmly believes that all music will find an audience as long as there are regular chances to hear it—he made comparisons with the BSO's current project, Berlioz's Les Troyens, which wasn't even fully published until the 1960s; he pointed out with wonder that he made his 1972 BSO debut with what was the Tanglewood premiere of Mahler's 6th. But he also clearly believes that the orchestra should be a specialist in all historical genres of music—much of the discussion was about the various ways the programming is designed to keep all kinds of styles and composers, new and old, in front of the players on a regular basis.

Perhaps because Levine has perhaps been pouring his modernist energies into this summer's staggeringly encyclopedic Elliott Carter festival—or, always a consideration, perhaps because of marketing concerns—the upcoming season is pretty light on even 20th-century repertoire, especially in comparison with the BSO's multi-concert Beethoven-Schoenberg series of two years ago. Levine clearly loves the idea of presenting modernism in such an illuminating context: he talked at some length about all the ideas that pairing was able to encompass, and self-deprecatingly lamented a dearth of similar inspirations. It's in keeping with Levine's new-music enthusiasms, his championing of a generation of composers who, in his view, never found the audience they deserved because listeners were more swayed by the idea that those composers were breaching the historical tradition, rather than continuing it. Levine takes a long-range view of modernism—"Music made a great leap forward with the Beethoven late quartets," he said, starting a parallel tradition that Schoenberg carried on—and there's quite a bit to be said for simply getting the music out there: anyone familiar only with Charles Wuorinen's thorny reputation had a chance to be sensually surprised by last season's BSO performances of the Eighth Symphony. But I later found myself wondering if that focus on context was the cause or result of Levine's comparative neglect of younger composers: one could say, after all, that really new music doesn't need a presented context—we're already living in it.

Levine did say something rather striking, subtly turning a half-century of critical energies on its head. "What can you do," he said, "when there are still people out there trying to sell the idea that unless a piece of music has [a tonal orientation], it's not music?" I never thought of anti-atonalists as actively "selling" their position, but it makes sense; it takes just as much energy to deny something's worth as to proclaim it. Maybe that's why I tend to like both tonal and atonal music with equal enthusiasm—because I'm too lazy to take on an aesthetic belief system that requires actual effort to maintain.

Treasury notes

Reviewing Blue Heron Renaissance Choir.
Boston Globe, April 29, 2008.

April 28, 2008


Lisa Hirsch tagged me with the following meme.
1. Pick up the nearest book.
2. Open to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people, and acknowledge who tagged you.
Wait a minute—those directions sound awfully familiar. Even memes are in reruns now? Civilization really is going to hell in a handbasket. But I knew that already.

Anyway, here you go.
Well, this trick of the trade was well-known to me. I therefore decided to speak to the young white-washed eagle in the overt slander!

'Ruler of the firmament! Son of the mightiest bird!' I told the feller in jeering vernacular, 'thy sister my darling, thy name?'

—G.V. Desani, All About H. Hatterr

I'm not much of a fiction reader, but back in the day, I searched high and low for a copy of this one, and it was worth it—consider yourselves lucky to have it readily available. I won't tag anyone else, lest this thing turn into the Beethoven's 5th of memes.

April 26, 2008

Observation car

Reviewing Boston Lyric Opera's "The Abduction from the Seraglio."
Boston Globe, April 26, 2008.

A bit of research too arcane for the Globe: an itinerary between the five co-producers of this production—Opera Pacific, Opera Colorado, Houston Grand Opera, Kansas City Opera, Opera Minnesota, and BLO—would cover approximately three times the distance of the original Simplon Orient Express Istanbul-to-Paris route.

April 23, 2008

Miso, Soy of Man's Desiring

The Marujyu Soy Sauce and Seasoning Corporation (est. 1844) has a new product: Bach-infused bean paste.
A food company here has produced luxury miso bean paste made while music by maestro Johann Sebastian Bach played constantly during its 150-day fermentation process, company officials said.
Marujyu's President Tomoaki Sato was inspired by a similar Mozart sake, which will be duly assessed as soon as a bottle finds its way to Soho the Dog HQ. The Bach effect apparently enables a pretty fair mark-up in the Japanese market—300 grams of the stuff will go for over six bucks, which is more than you'd expect to pay for a whole kilo of paste born in silence. (Unless it's John Cage silence, in which case you can make pesto.)

April 21, 2008

The air up there

Despite the Canadian Broadcasting Company's recently-acquired talents for sowing consternation, at least they're doing right by Canada's leading avant-garde trickster, R. Murray Schafer, on the occasion of his 75th birthday—all week long, Radio 2's evening program The Signal is running tributes. The party kicked off yesterday night with a live recording of my favorite Schafer opus, the inimitably mischievous "...No Longer Than Ten (10) Minutes"—you can listen to the entire Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra birthday concert online. The program also includes the string-quartet-and-string adventure "Four Forty," not to mention Schafer's own idiosyncratic contribution to the concerto repertoire—"North White," for snowmobile and orchestra.

Hello, I must be going

Reviewing the Ying Quartet.
Boston Globe, April 21, 2008.

April 18, 2008

Variations (6): Big Pharma

Gould was by now going to no less than four Toronto doctors.... And the doctors kept prescribing drugs. Aldomet for the high blood pressure, Nembutal for sleep, tetracycline and chloromycetin for his constant colds and infections. And Serpasil and Largostil and Stelazine and Resteclin and Librax and Clonidine and Fiorinal and Inderal and Inocid and Aristocort cream and Neocortef and Zyloprim and Butazolidin and Bactra and Septra and phenylbutazone and methyldopa and allopurinol and hydrochlorothiazide. And always, in addition to everything else, lots and lots of Valium.

—Otto Friedrich, Glenn Gould: A Life and Variations

The nurses' log books for February 1969 make depressing reading, except that Stravinsky's fighting spirit shows through on every page. Here, for example, is the beginning of an entry for February 5: "6:00 A.M. Threw his pillow at me but later calmed down." The reasons for the calm may be attributed in part to the following medications:
10 A.M.
11 A.M.
12:30 A.M.
3 P.M.
4 P.M.
6:30 P.M.
9 P.M.
9:50 P.M.
12:25 A.M.
2 A.M.
3:45 A.M.
3:50 A.M.
6:15 A.M.
1 Pronestyl
100 Mg. Heparin
1 teaspoonful Butisol
½ Comp. Tylenol
1 Comp. Pronestyl
1 teaspoonful Butisol
Myloran tablet. Darvon tablet.
Pronestyl capsule. Placidyl capsule (500 mg)
Placidyl 200 Mg. p.o.
Placidyl 200 Mg. p.o.
Placidyl 200 Mg. p.o.
Pronestyl 250 Mg. p.o.
Tylenol tablet p.o.

—Vera Stravinsky and Robert Craft,
Stravinsky in Pictures and Documents

April 17, 2008

I'm a brand new note on a table d'hôte

If you ascribe to Wolf's Law, then it will come as no surprise that one of the finalists at this year's Pillsbury Bake-Off® was pianist/composer Sherry Klinedinst, who made it to Dallas with her Creamy Smoked Salmon Cups. Klinedinst tours around Indiana on a regular basis (or you can just watch videos); her music is cheerfully all over the map—described on her website as "Yanni, John Williams, Jim Brickman, Aaron Copland and George Gershwin all rolled up into one." My tastes bat .600 from that list, but sound clips reveal her latest to be better than the average jazzed-up hymn album, with "I Want Jesus to Walk With Me" reimagined à la "Minnie the Moocher," and a "Holy Manna" laced with nice instrumental touches that call to mind Smile-era Brian Wilson.

Critic-at-large Moe and I did our journalistic duty this morning and whipped up a batch of salmon cups.

creamy salmon cups
The verdict? I could eat these all day long.

April 16, 2008

E pur si muove

I finally had time over the weekend to catch up with Robert Flanagan's report on orchestra finances, commissioned by the Mellon Foundation. It's a comic masterpiece—a hilarious parody of those diagnoses of dire orchestral health that appear like 17-year cicadas....

No, actually, it's supposed to be serious. But the report is a bit of a familiar mess. I'm beginning to think that when economists take a look at the performing arts, especially economists who don't have any experience in that sector, on some level, it fries their brain. Remember, the fundamental activity of economics isn't analysis, it's the construction of predictive models. And the default assumptions behind those models are usually based on the idea that people will always act in their own financial self-interest. Confronted with an orchestra—an organization pretty much guaranteed to lose money—economists used to for-profit assumptions often seem in danger of self-destructing, like a sentient robot confronted with a clever Captain Kirk paradox. (Robert Levine summed up the difference nicely: "Businesses make things, or provide a service, in order to make money. Orchestras make money in order to provide a service.")

Professor Flanagan retreats into his biases, which appear to be pro-management and pro-market. The first one is so transparent, it's almost ridiculous. Not only—as ICSOM's Brian Rood has pointed out—does Flanagan rely uncritically on management-supplied, non-audited financial data, he changes his methodology depending on the point he wants to make. Revenue streams, for example, are reported in real terms, in inflation-adjusted dollars. Musician salaries, on the other hand, are presented in relative terms:
Between the 1987 and 2003 seasons, the weekly salaries of symphony orchestra musicians also increased more rapidly than the average wages and salaries of other unionized workers in the United States, of nonunion workers, and of other professional service workers. (pp. 52-54)
Flanagan doesn't bother comparing that salary increase to highly-skilled workers, which is the more pertinent analogy; nor does he consider the possibility that musicians' salaries in 1987 lagged sufficiently behind those of other highly-skilled workers such that a more rapid relative increase was necessary to bring them back into line. Flanagan is also conspicuously silent on administrative salaries, even though his own graph (p. 20) shows that while artistic costs have declined as a percentage of overall expenses, general administrative costs have increased. Flanagan is quoted on the report's home page (linked above):
"Some [orchestra managers] say it doesn’t surprise them because many symphonies have a bias towards revenue growth strategies and a bias against cost-cutting strategies," Flanagan said, adding that nonprofit board members often shy away from conflict. "It’s not clear that they’re willing to be as tough minded about costs as directors in the private sector."
I was wondering when the hallowed tough-minded capitalist was going to put in an appearance. Based on his report, Flanagan's idea of a hard-nosed manager is one who cuts everybody's pay except his own.

But it's the free-market bias that's more interesting. Flanagan's main focus is the "performance income gap," the discrepancy between ticket revenues and overall expenses. Given that ticket revenues haven't covered orchestral expenses since the days when people seriously imagined flying blimps to the moon, one might think that orchestras had some awareness of this particular issue. But Flanagan pounds it home—and for a supposed "fact-finding study" (p. v), he uses some revealingly loaded language:
  • The resulting performance income gap has worsened over time and will worsen in the future. (p. v)
  • Even this group of comparatively healthy orchestras has encountered significant economic challenges, including a worsening of the performance income gap (p. vi)
  • The continuation of the historical worsening in the performance income gap (p. 22)
  • The difference in the cyclical sensitivity of revenues and expenses results in a worsening of the performance income gap (p. 27)
  • the industry confronts a worse performance income gap (p. 27)
  • In short, the majority of orchestras have continued to experience a long-term worsening of the performance income gap (p.28)
  • ...and so on. (Italics mine, except for that last one.) The factual statement is this: the so-called "performance income gap" is widening. Worsening? That's a value judgment. That "gap" has been an economic fact of life for the better part of a century, and a recognized fact of life since Baumol and Bowen analyzed it in the 1960s. Flanagan, of course, knows about the cost-disease, and, to give deserved credit, summarizes it a lot more concisely than I did:
    Variously referenced as “Baumol’s curse” or “Bowen’s disease,” the crucial facts are that labor productivity advances more rapidly in the goods-producing sector than in the performing arts (and in many other service industries), but broadly speaking, both sectors compete in the same labor markets. (p. 2)
    But the customary way for getting around the cost-disease—philanthropic support—involves what are, for all practical purposes, investments with no possibility of financial return, and that flies in the face of economic assumptions about self-interest. (There is a self-interest factor, of course, but one that's nowhere near as eminently quantifiable as money.) Flanagan can't shake the feeling that, if an organization isn't covering its costs with the direct revenue from its output, it's somehow cheating.
    Concert performance is the central objective of symphony orchestras. Addressing the relentless deficits—performance income gaps—that accompany this central activity requires attention to enhancing performance revenues and controlling performance costs. (p. 50)
    Note that if you rewrite that second sentence:
    Concert performance is the central objective of symphony orchestras. Addressing the relentless deficits—performance income gaps—that accompany this central activity requires attention to enhancing philanthropic revenues and controlling administrative costs
    ...it makes just as much economic sense as Flanagan's prescription.

    We can open up a whole can of economic worms by looking at one of Flanagan's other assumptions, one he makes almost in passing. In discussing the NEA's 2002 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, he notes that the percentage of respondents who attend classical music or opera performances has remained pretty much the same since 1982. Good news, right? Wrong.
    It is therefore puzzling that the proportion of the population attending symphony concerts has been so stable during a period in which both real income and the proportion of the population with at least a college education increased (p. 34)
    —because historically, classical audiences have been rich and college-educated. Given the emphasis on regression analysis in the rest of the report, I waited for Flanagan to decouple those two factors, income and college education. He never does—because he hasn't bothered to factor increasing income inequality into his analysis. Aggregate real income may have increased, but middle-class wages, for example, have remained largely stagnant, even as the middle class has become increasingly college-educated. Even if you accept that a college education makes one more likely to enjoy classical music (I've never been convinced of that causality, in either direction), there's the very real possibility that the spirit is willing, but the pocketbook is weak. And rich people can only go to so many concerts.

    Just for fun, let's bring in, as befits any discussion that touches on class, the one and only Karl Marx. It struck me not long ago that the mechanism of Baumol and Bowen's cost-disease is awfully reminiscent of Marx's labor theory of value. Marx was looking to explain how capitalists made money, and he famously proposed that they do so by cashing in the surplus value created by workers, that is, the amount of labor they perform above and beyond what's necessary for their subsistence. In Marx's theory, the price of a product was the sum of three factors: constant capital (factories and machines), variable capital (labor-power sufficient for the worker's subsistence), and that surplus value. That's at least how he put it in Volume I of Capital; by Volume III, there were some difficulties to deal with, mainly the fact that most products are made from raw materials that have their own set of values, and that one couldn't necessarily assume that the price-value equality would remain constant throughout the chain of production. Marx shifted the equality to the macroeconomic level, saying that, as long as profit rates remained constant across the economy, prices and values would equal out in the aggregate, even if they were unequal within a given industry. The economist Meghnad Desai explains:
    Marx's solution was to say that money rates of profit are equalized by some commodities' prices being above value, while others would be below. Commodities which had a high organic composition of capital (ratio of constant capital to total capital) will have price/value ratio larger than one. For those with a low organic composition of capital, the price/value ratio is smaller than one.

    Another way of putting Marx's solution is to say that while living labour generates surplus-value, there is a compensation for those companies (capitals) which use more machines to labour than the average because their price/value ratio is larger than one. Labour-intensive goods cede surplus-value to machine-intensive goods via this imbalance in the pricing process.
    If that imbalance is directional over time, you've got yourself a cost-disease.

    Well, you might say, that's all very fascinating, but we were talking about the Flanagan report, remember? Bear with me—we're getting there. Desai's explanation of Marx's theory is one of the more intelligible I've ever read, unlike Marx's own explanation (part of the sheaf of notes and incomplete drafts that Engels fashioned into the second two volumes of Capital), which is impenetrable even by Marx's standards. The murkiness of Marx's writing led to all sorts of refutations and counter-refutations (though recent research has at least demonstrated the empirical plausibility of Marx's theory). But take a look at an early mathematical approach, by Ladislaus von Bortkiewicz. In 1907, Bortkiewicz realized that the fuzzy heart of Marx's theory—the "transformation problem," how to correlate values and prices—had an elegant solution under a set of certain simplifying conditions. Bortkiewicz divided all commodities into three categories: (1) means of production, (2) workers' consumption goods, and (3) capitalists' consumption goods—luxury goods, in other words. And then he related their constant capital (c), variable capital (v), and surplus value (s) like this:
    Three equations, three variables—that means there's a solution. Caveats: Bortkiewicz's approach is, again, wildly simplified (later on, the transformation problem would be tackled in the general case with linear and matrix algebra), and by no means uncontroversial (even some Marxists consider it far too distorted a caricature)—and the whole idea of trying to equate value and price leaves some profoundly unconvinced (both the Marxist Joan Robinson and the anti-Marxist Paul Samuelson found the transformation problem ultimately pointless). But remember what Marx was doing: trying to see capitalism in the big picture. And take another look at that last equation: the total value of luxury goods is equal to (or at least proportional to) the total surplus value created in the entire economy. And then consider that music is, after all, a luxury good—and that classical music is hardly the only genre feeling the pinch these days.

    If you buy Marx's analysis (and I think he was on to something), then Bortkiewicz's simple model hints at how the available capital for luxury goods would be squeezed as income inequality increases—if wages remain stagnant, i.e., don't keep pace with inflation, then more labor is required to reach subsistence levels, leaving less available for surplus value. And here's where Flanagan (see, I told you we'd make it back) doesn't take a wide enough view. The point of the report is to separate cyclical factors (economic factors that orchestras have no control over) from structural trends (economic factors brought upon orchestras themselves by their own policies). Flanagan clearly regards the flat attendance among affluent-and-educated potential concertgoers as a structural trend—a failure of programming and marketing. But by failing to separate out education from income (come on—any graduate music student can anecdotally confirm a very weak correlation) he misses the possibility that such data is cyclical, the result of external economic conditions, in which case the proper prescription would quite possibly be an increased focus on fundraising and development—go after the only sector with sufficient surplus—the opposite of what the report recommends.

    This may seem like a minor, if long-winded, point. I don't think so—I think it gets at the heart of what's wrong with the report (and many like it). Marx's guest appearance may seem either oblique or jarring—especially if you're rabidly laissez-faire or prone to confuse Marx with "Marxism"—but I like having him here because his holistic intellectual cast, trying to analyze the entirety of society, is exactly what the report needs more of. Flanagan expends much effort in trying to isolate possible factors—but never considers how those factors might interact. (And when he can't isolate factors—as with unemployment rates and stock prices—he sort of just throws up his hands.) Most importantly—and this is getting downright endemic among analyses of The State Of Classical Music—there's paltry indication of anything beyond the largest organizations. String quartets, entrepreneurial chamber ensembles, new-music groups, community choirs, we'll-try-anything festivals: perhaps the presence and efforts of all those musicians might have some salutary effect on the viability of orchestras? (Sure, that might not be reflected in the orchestras' own data, but that didn't stop Flanagan from, for example, pulling in the NEA study.)

    In other words, the report doesn't put orchestras into a sufficiently community- or society-wide context such that an orchestra does make economic sense. Orchestras exist, after all, and persist even as report after report predicts their downfall. It's like plugging values into the Drake equation that make even intelligent life on Earth improbable. The normal plea at this point would be for an economic analysis that focuses not on why orchestras will disappear, but why they continue to survive. But, honestly, I enjoy reading demonstrations of the impossibility of heavier-than-air flight or a sub-four-minute-mile. How long until the next one?

    April 14, 2008

    Flams and drags

    The national anthem at last week's home opener at Fenway Park—performed by a Boston Pops contingent—included the now de rigueur obbligato of a military jet flyover. (I'm enough of a 12-year-old boy that I still think jets are pretty awesome, but come on, that's a public-school teacher's salary* for the whole year right there.) Anyway, this year's flyover—F-16s, if you're a connoisseur—had some problems. Not Arthur Hailey-level problems, but problems nonetheless.
    An unexpected delay in the playing of the national anthem during the Boston Red Sox opener at Fenway Park on Tuesday contributed to the unorthodox maneuver by a Vermont Air National Guard pilot during a flyover moments later.

    The resulting spectacle—one F-16 fighter jet looping over and then under the other three to find its place in the traditional V-formation—ended in the pilot's grounding this week, which in turn prompted a flurry of media attention.
    That's according to a Burlington Free Press report (via) complete with video (not to mention priceless comments). The source of the delay? Government sources are pointing the finger at the percussionist.
    "There was a false start, a 'hack,' caused by a drum roll before the anthem," said Lt. Col. Lloyd Goodrow. "When the controller on the ground at Fenway realized that, we had to put the pilots back into a figure-eight holding pattern."
    A drum roll from the Boston Pops Orchestra, assembled in centerfield, followed, then was halted as [Red Sox public-address announcer Joe] Castiglione began speaking again, this time to salute members of the armed services and tell the crowd who was performing the anthem and doing the flyover.
    The pilot "was going faster than the rest of the formation was going," Goodrow went on. "Then, it seemed the tempo of the music slowed down, so the leader in the formation slowed down. By then, the pilot was approaching faster than he needed to." It's like high-school band, isn't it? All it takes is for one person not to follow the conductor and it's CHAOS! (Or a personal favorite: "If you come in early, I can't help you.")

    This sounds like a conductor-announcer problem to me, but of course, it's the performers who get the blame—and not just the drummer. "Goodrow said he did not know if the incident Tuesday would jeopardize the Air Guard's chances to perform flyovers at future Boston-area events." Is that the Air National Guard equivalent of being bumped down to fourth chair?

    *Update (4/14): More like a few salaries.

    April 12, 2008

    A misero prezzo tu, a me una vita, io, a te chieggo un istante!

    Daniel Kruger of the University of Michigan School of Public Health has been asking some rather personal questions of 475 U-M students, and the result is a paper in this month's Evolutionary Psychology called "Young Adults Attempt Exchanges in Reproductively Relevant Currencies." Does that vaguely euphemistic phrase mean what you think it means? From the abstract:
    Adults in many species exhibit exchanges in reproductively relevant currencies, where males trade resources for sexual relations with females, and females have sex with males in exchange for provisioning.... The current study investigated whether young adults who are not in acute need of resources intentionally attempt reproductive currency exchanges outside of dating relationships or formal committed relationships such as marriage; and whether young adults have awareness of being the target of such attempts made by others.
    The answer: yes and sometimes—not really all that surprising, given the college-student demographic sample, but Kruger's trying to make the point that such behavior is an evolutionary holdover from societal situations where such exchanges were life-or-death transactions. Nevertheless, like a lot of academic study these days, the really important information has been relegated to the press release:
    Overall, the strategy of attempting to exchange investment for sex is only successful about 25 percent of the time, the paper found. Some of the attempted trades included: tickets to the U-M versus Ohio State game; studying assistance; laundry washed; a Louis Vuitton bag; and voice lessons among other things.
    Voice lessons? Apparently, I went to the wrong school. There's no indication whether such instruction was bait or prize, although the discovery that voice teachers accepted anything other than legal tender would, I suppose, be scientifically significant on its own. (Accordion lessons? Pure catnip.)

    The paper itself includes this deadpan gem:
    The low success rate of exchange attempts may indicate that such explicit offers are not usually an effective strategy. On average respondents reported initiating more exchange attempts than receiving offers of exchanges. Although the sample does not represent a closed population, this finding suggests that respondents were less aware of others’ exchange attempts than they were aware of their own. It is also possible that females receive so many male solicitations on a continual basis that many incidents are easily forgettable. [emphasis added]
    Hey, Scarpia—line forms to the right.

    The Young Ones

    Nurturing the next generation of opera lovers. On the Boston Lyric Opera's children's productions.
    Boston Globe, April 13, 2008.

    April 11, 2008

    Honor among thieves

    All composers steal from other composers, and good composers are unapologetic about it. But it's sometimes interesting to look at just what it is they choose to pilfer—and how that relates to the reputation of the composer being looted. Today's meandering concerns a rather unlikely confluence of borrowing.

    Example 1 comes from Hugo Wolf's Spanisches Liederbuch—the eighth of the Geistliche Lieder, "Ach, wie lang die Seele schlummert!" The opening section is one of Wolf's typically obsessive, austere, serpentine bits of chromatic counterpoint. But when we get to these words—
    Doch nun ihrer Sehnsucht Licht
    Blendend ihr in's Auge bricht:
    Zeit ist's, daß sie sich ermuntre.

    But now the light of longing
    Shines blindingly into [the soul's] eyes:
    It is time for it to wake.
    —the harmonies become suddenly opulent:

    Wolf Ach, wie lang measure's 16-19That ii7-V9 color sure sounds familiar, doesn't it? It's almost the same harmonies Puccini later used for the "Te deum" finale to Act I of Tosca:

    Tosca Act I finaleNow, the question is whether Puccini stole from Wolf, or whether both composers were paying homage to a common source—or both. The Spanisches Liederbuch was published in 1890; Tosca appeared in 1900. (Mosco Carner, in his Puccini biography, mentions that the "Te deum" was partially recycled from an unpublished 1880 church anthem, but no other source sees fit to mention this, so I'm guessing that, if Puccini was stealing from himself, he changed the source material quite a bit along the way.) A search through the published letters and biographies shows no mention of "Ach, wie lang," but I can't imagine that Puccini—a composer ever keen on staying abreast of every latest musical development—didn't know at least some of Wolf's music, so it's at least plausible that Puccini had Wolf's refrain in the back of his mind. It certainly fits the point in the opera—Scarpia is exulting that his best-laid plans are now on the verge of snaring Tosca for him; his pitch-black soul is, at last, fully awake.

    More likely, though, that both composers were borrowing from the inescapable Richard Wagner—to my ear, one of his bridal processions, possibly Lohengrin, but more probably Götterdämmerung:

    Götterdämmerung Act II, scene 4Wagner settles this motive into a V7-I pattern which then embarks on familiar Wagnerian chromatic excursions. But Puccini and Wolf translate the harmonies into a static loop where tonic is delayed. It's far closer to the language of Tristan—or, in a way, the epic E-flat-major triad that opens Das Rheingold (which, when it finally does move, goes to the not to the dominant but the subdominant—where Wolf and Puccini start). Wolf and Puccini are stealing one of Wagner's most reliable dramatic conceptions—the stately tread of ceremony as a backdrop for a tightening or release of emotion—and, seemingly, conflating it with some of Wagner's most radical harmonic experiments.

    In other words, they're not just stealing something because it works, but because it also signals—to listeners, performers, or maybe even just to themselves—that they, too, are on the cutting edge. It's a claim of modernity. Interestingly, a lot of musical quotation/borrowing/pilfering today seems to go in the opposite direction—composers borrow to assert continuity with the past, with tradition, with a long-standing musical vernacular. Maybe it's a gesture of reassurance—either to the audience, that the music is not aiming for the shock of the new at any cost, or to themselves, that they can reconstitute the narrative of cultural success and prominence of the great composers of the past: a claim of canonicity. Choose your causality: the preponderance of conservative programming, the recorded ubiquity of the entirety of musical history, the more forbidding nature of recent modernism. (My biases: maybe, yes, probably not.) But it does make for an odd state of temporal affairs—the idea that being up-to-date is less up-to-date than it was a hundred years ago.

    Update (4/11): I coincidentally ran across a pleasantly loopy echo of that last idea today, a blurb on the cover of a 1995 sci-fi novel called Strange Attractors: "A 2001 for the nineties."

    April 09, 2008

    My Prerogative

    The Composer's Role In Society is one of those subjects that seems to occasion much furrowed-brow reflection (the sort of confab Eddie Izzard would call a "strokey-beard meeting"). I sometimes think that the subject is not really that complicated, but that people would rather not admit that the Role of the Composer is essentially whatever each composer wants it to be—because, I don't know, maybe they don't like to think they have no recourse against a piece of music they don't like. Better to cast about for philosophical justification, and, if possible, blame.

    Here's a couple of recent, pertinent examples, which I point out not because they're particularly outlandish, but because they're rather pure versions of the canonical complaints against composers that have been around pretty much forever. The first comes courtesy of musikwissenbloggenschaft, in which Brent gives it the old college try teaching serialism.
    i led what has to be my worse discussion session this year in the music history survey i co-teach. the subject was the second viennese school. problematic was: (1) trying to sum up atonality and the twelve-tone method in forty-five minutes, (2) hiding my seething dislike of all-things serial, (3) teaching to the half of my students that have done thorough serial analysis and before the other half that were encountering this sort of music literally for the first time.
    (First, a digression. IU's a pretty big school; might it not be possible to find someone to lead the discussion without a seething dislike of the subject at hand? Because in my experience, not only is such seething dislike well-nigh impossible to hide, but also inevitably results in nothing being learned. And: if one is a teacher, and one's class is a) bored, and b) having their lack of curiosity validated rather than challenged, perhaps one shouldn't be so, well, smug about it? I mean, I had a high school history teacher that could make bimetallism exciting.)

    Anyway, here's the money quote, from the student discussion:
    "was it music like this that made people stop going to concerts? it all seems so arrogant."
    my response: again, no comment. but i laughed on the inside.
    Ha-ha. I amused myself sitting in traffic this morning imagining how this discussion might play out under other hypothetical seething dislikes: the designated hitter rule, Miracle Whip instead of mayonnaise, silent letters in words, &c. ("Was it spelling knife with a k that made people stop doing crossword puzzles? It all seems so arrogant." I laughed on the inside.) Nevertheless, there is a real response to this that's far better than "no comment," and here it is: all composers are arrogant—maybe not personally, but certainly in the act of composition. Putting your name at the top of a piece of music is hardly an act of humility. For Wagner to present me, as a listener, with four hours of Tristan is equal parts generosity and cockiness. What's more: the composition of a piece you like is just as arrogant as the composition of one you don't.

    And, boy, that rubs some people the wrong way. Via the gimlet-eyed crew at The Detritus Review, I give you Pierre Ruhe.
    The telling moment came when Arrell... led a discussion with his [composer] colleagues. His simple question—about how the composer thinks of an audience when writing music—was met with awkward silence, then nervous chuckles.

    Did this suggest these local creators share an I’m-too-cool-to-care attitude toward the recipients of their art? When pressed, each composer had a properly respectful answer about the value of audiences....
    I encountered something more distressing last month, as a panelist at a national composer’s conference....

    When someone in the crowd asked, “Why don’t [living] composers get more attention from the media?” I rashly shot back, “Well, isn’t that the composers’ fault?"
    Um... no: if living composers aren't getting any coverage in the media, that's because the likes of Pierre Ruhe don't feel like covering them. Now, Ruhe can like and dislike—and write about—whatever music he wants, but to say that it's the composers' fault is just plain goofy. It makes it sound like a moral failing to write music that doesn't match Ruhe's particular tastes. (I sometimes spout off my opinions in the Boston Globe, but that doesn't make them any more "right," just—in theory, anyway, if not always in practice—more informed and more entertaining.)

    Of course, there are composers who want as many people as possible to like their music—and I've never met or read about any composer who didn't want at least somebody to like their music. But here's the thing: writing music that you think the audience will like is a compositional strategy, not a moral imperative. It is no more or less valid than any other compositional strategy. It produces the same mix of greatness (La Traviata) and crap ("My Heart Will Go On") as any other compositional strategy. You're free to swap Violetta and Celine if your taste is different than mine—but that doesn't mean you get to call James Horner a more "responsible" or less "arrogant" composer than Verdi, just because Verdi doesn't happen to write music you like. And Schoenberg may not have been aiming at the greatest common factor, but he was writing music that he wanted to hear, and frankly, why is his status as an audience member less privileged than yours?

    Music is one of the few things that everybody, regardless of whether they actually know anything about it, feels entitled to have an opinion about. That is, in fact, one of the best things about it. But those are tastes, not moral guidelines or philosophical truths. If a composer isn't pandering to your preferences, you're free to not like it—but really, try not to take it so personally.

    April 08, 2008

    The best e-mail subject line in my inbox today

    Toby Keith Joins Wayman Tisdale on Barry White Remake

    Now that's an exquisite corpse.


    Sophie Menter
    No doubt the admirers of Schumann were disappointed by the performance of his concerto by Madame [Sophie] Menter at the Crystal Palace on Saturday. But what could they expect? To the superb Sophie, solid, robust, healthy, with her mere self-consciousness an example and sufficient delight to her, playing Schumann was like bringing a sensitive invalid into the fields on a sunshiny day and making him play football for the good of his liver. You could hear Schumann plaintively remonstrating in the orchestra, and the piano coming down on him irresistibly, echoing his words with good-natured mockery, and whirling him off in an endless race that took him clean out of himself and left him panting. Never were the quick movements finished with less regard for poor Schumann's lungs.

    The intermezzo delighted me beyond measure. Ordinarily, no man can put into words those hushed confidences that pass in it between piano and orchestra, as between a poet and a mistress. But I can give you what passed on Saturday, word for word. Here it is:
    SOPHIE: Now, then, Bob, are you ready for another turn?
    SCHUMANN: Yes. Just half a moment, if you dont mind. I havnt quite got my wind yet.
    SOPHIE: Come! You feel all the better for it, dont you?
    SCHUMANN: No doubt, no doubt. The weather is certainly very fine.
    SOPHIE: I should think so. Better than sticking indoors at that old piano of yours and sentimentalizing, anyhow.
    SCHUMANN: Yes: I know I should take more exercise.
    SOPHIE: Well, you have got enough wind by this time. Come along, old man: hurry up.
    SCHUMANN: If you wouldnt mind going a bit slower—
    SOPHIE: Oh, bother going slow. You just stick to me and I'll pull you through. You'll be all right in a brace of shakes. Now: one, two, three, and—

    (attacca subito l'allegro).

    And it really did Schumann good.

    —Corno di Bassetto, The Star, 25 April 1890

    Nothing turns a lousy day around faster than a good shot of G.B.S.

    April 04, 2008

    In this corner...

    The Boston Symphony Orchestra has announced their 2008-09 season. I'll leave you in the able hands of Jeremy Eichler for the details (of which some remain state secrets—which version of Simon Boccanegra is that going to be, maestro?), but it's interesting to see the inevitable Mozart crammed into the sort of three-concert marathon dumping-ground normally reserved for new music. (World premieres by Carter, Schuller, Kirchner, and André Previn, who must be the designated driver.)

    Like sands through the hourglass

    My mother-in-law came over last night with a big bag of videos so she and Critic-at-Large Moe could catch up on Korean soap operas. My own current favorite, "First Wives' Club" (조강지처 클럽, Jogangjicheo Keulleob), is especially operatic fun, not only in that it turns on a dime from comedy to drama, but in the way that both acting styles—serious drama and broad comedy—happily co-exist, often in the same scene. (It's also—very important—the sort of show that's pretty easy to follow even if your Korean language skills are, for all practical purposes, nonexistent.)

    Anyway, there's something curious about the music in the show. Most of it is standard dramatic cuing, but whenever there's a setting that would realistically have its own piped-in music—a store, or a restaurant (lots of scenes in restaurants)—that music is always a bit of American popular music, sung in English, with lyrics that only coincidentally have anything to do with the plot at hand. I've never been to Korea, but my guess is that such English-language ubiquity is not all that accurate. But it's clever as incidental music: for a non-English-speaker, the unintelligibility of the lyrics causes the mind to automatically relegate it to the background.

    Even more interesting is that the choice of music seems to be genre-neutral. Adult contemporary, 50's rock, country—it all shows up with equal frequency, in a way that would never happen in an American setting. Part of this may be cultural—Korean variety shows certainly display a pleasantly anything-goes aesthetic—but my sense is that merely singing in English semiotically signals a certain kind of Muzak quality within a dramatic context.

    Of course, my own perspective on this is probably skewed, since my ear is inclined to gravitate towards the music anyways. (Every time I have occasion to visit Super 88, I end up wandering the aisles, hypnotized to the point of madness by the ruthlessly chirpy Chinese and Taiwanese pop background.) So maybe we should get back to the real question: will the fish-selling housewife finally dump her unfaithful husband in favor of the long-suffering contractor who loves her?

    Thanks for sharing

    Four students from my alma mater have at least temporarily stuck it to the RIAA. I've never been much for school spirit, but: go Terriers!

    April 02, 2008

    Who Cares If You Save?

    In light of the drumbeat of news that the U.S. economy continues to underachieve more than a surly teenager, a little quiz: here's two quotes, with certain terms in bold. In one quote, the boldface words are what was actually said, in the other, they're words that have been changed. Which one is the actual economic analysis?
    [T]he structural characteristics of a given financial instrument are less representative of a general class of investments than they are unique to the individual financial institution itself. Particularly, principles of relatedness... are more likely to evolve in the course of market actions than to be derived from generalized assumptions. Here again greater and new demands are made upon the perceptual and conceptual abilities of the regulator.

    Our current regulatory structure was not built to address the modern financial system with its diversity of market participants, innovation, complexity of financial instruments, global integration and interconnectedness.... Moreover, our financial services companies are becoming larger, more complex and more difficult to manage.
    If you're a C-SPAN junkie, you'll know it's the second one—it's from Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson's recent remarks introducing a proposed new federal financial regulatory regimen. But if you're a new-music junkie, you'll recognize the ringer. Here's the original:
    [T]he structural characteristics of a given work are less representative of a general class of characteristics than they are unique to the individual work itself. Particularly, principles of relatedness, upon which depends immediate coherence of continuity, are more likely to evolve in the course of the work than to be derived from generalized assumptions. Here again greater and new demands are made upon the perceptual and conceptual abilities of the listener.
    That's Uncle Milton—Babbitt, not Friedman—from his (in)famous 1958 article "Who Cares If You Listen?" Indeed, watching such figures as Paulson or Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke try and stay on top of the current financial turmoil has been rather like watching a casual audience try and bend their ears around a particularly uncompromising bit of total serialism. They're trying, but goshdarnit, it's complicated.

    But the point of the comparison isn't just to analyze the economy—it is complicated, and that's part of the problem—but also to look at how Babbitt's article has been and continues to be misunderstood, mostly by people who can't get past the title (which wasn't even Babbitt's to begin with). Babbitt's position is as hardcore as you'd expect, but he's explicitly realistic about where his position fits into the musical world as a whole. The article is less a manifesto in support of a particular musical vocabulary than a philosophical justification for the cultivation of a niche audience. He actually puts it in economic terms:
    I am concerned with stating an attitude towards the indisputable facts of the status and condition of the composer of what we will, for the moment, designate as "serious," "advanced," contemporary music. This composer expends an enormous amount of time and energy—and, usually, considerable money—on the creation of a commodity which has little, no, or negative commodity value....
    Nowadays, that last sentence is hardly limited to composers of "serious," "advanced," contemporary music. I think that Babbitt doesn't always get credit for noticing that this was the tendency of music—all music—in the second half of the 20th century: away from universality, towards stylistic fragmentation, thousands of ministers, each preaching to their own choir. The composer no longer comes out of a unified tradition, but picks, chooses, and combines from a plethora of traditions: the composer "lives no longer in a unitary musical universe of 'common practice,' but in a variety of universes of diverse practice."

    Paulson's proposed regulatory plan has been criticized for assuming that the markets can still be regulated in a comparatively unitary way. From NPR this morning:
    "Remember, we have seen in the last eight months repeated instances of CEOs of large, complex financial institutions being fired because they didn't understand their balance-sheet risk at their institution," [economist Vince] Reinhart says.

    How likely is it, he asks, that Fed staff members making far less money will be able to understand them any better? In other words, Paulson may want the Fed to anticipate potential meltdowns, but in an ever-more-complex securities market that's not always so easy to do. And critics note that the Fed has had a spotty record detecting excessive risk-taking in the housing and stock markets.
    But that complexity puts any regulatory agency in a bind. Regulation is necessary to avoid turmoil in the markets, but the markets are getting too advanced to regulate. Here's Fed chair Ben Bernanke, also this morning, defending the Fed's bailout of investment bank Bear Stearns in Senate testimony:
    Our financial system is extremely complex and interconnected, and Bear Stearns participated extensively in a range of critical markets. With financial conditions fragile, the sudden failure of Bear Stearns likely would have led to a chaotic unwinding of positions in those markets and could have severely shaken confidence. The company's failure could also have cast doubt on the financial positions of some of Bear Stearns' thousands of counterparties and perhaps of companies with similar businesses. Given the current exceptional pressures on the global economy and financial system, the damage caused by a default by Bear Stearns could have been severe and extremely difficult to contain. Moreover, the adverse effects would not have been confined to the financial system but would have been felt broadly in the real economy through its effects on asset values and credit availability.
    I would have personally preferred not to see yet more corporate incompetence bailed out with tax dollars, but the problem is, as Benanke explains, that the economy has become such an intricate network that there's no way for me, as an individual, to opt out of a portion of the economy that's too Rube Goldberg for my taste. The difference between the musical world that Babbitt predicted and the economy is that, if you find a certain music too complicated and cerebral, you can listen to something else. "Why should the layman be other than bored and puzzled by what he is unable to understand, music or anything else?" Babbitt asks. "It is only the translation of this boredom and puzzlement into resentment and denunciation that seems to me indefensible. After all, the public does have its own music, its ubiquitous music: music to eat by, to read by, to dance by, and to be impressed by." In other words: listen to what you like. And he's not saying that composers shouldn't write for a potentially large audience, he's saying that composers that don't should still have some opportunity to pursue their craft, because you never know where musical taste is going. I agree with Kyle that countercritic put it particularly well: "Post-war atonality made today’s taste for oblique tonality possible." I don't know what Babbitt makes of that oblique tonality—probably not much—but the evolution of such taste and variety is entirely in line with his argument.

    Alas, no such choice in economic life—you may have stellar credit, and may have never come near a subprime mortgage in your life, but you're still feeling the resultant pinch. I'd never use it myself—I love the crazy modernist noise—but here's a line to try out on an aesthetically reactionary investment banker: how bad is the economy these days? It's worse than atonality.

    April 01, 2008

    Salut à la France

    I'm not much for April Fool's Day jokes—I'd much rather pull a hoax when everybody's not expecting one—but Pliable passes along a fine example of the genre from today's Guardian. (Carla should be glad that Damon Albarn doesn't have a daughter.*)

    *Update (4/1): Actually, he does. (Note to self: always fact-check jokes.)

    Update II (4/1): Even better—it's a meta-joke (see comments). Well played, sir!

    Best headshot ever

    Today's nominee is Komitas, the pioneering Armenian composer and musicologist. I've run across his music before, but I had never seen this particular photo of him until today. It's not just the monk's hood—it's the look of bemused disdain, as if someone in the room has just asked an incredibly tactless question.

    Komitas had an undeserved end—he died in a Paris psychiatric hospital, mentally crushed by his experience during the Armenian nightmare of 1915—but his music shows equal parts austerity and humor, and he had a particularly searching ear for rich and unusual sonorities. (Lots of good listening here.)