September 30, 2008

You Stepped Out of a Dream

Franz Schubert has to be one of the most subtly great of the Great Composers. I mean, he is a great composer, but so much of the time he doesn't seem to really be doing anything very special, and you're left wondering what exactly it is about his music that makes him so much better than, say, Carl Friedrich Zelter. So here's an idea. It has to do with one of my favorite Schubert lieder, his Goethe setting "Heidenröslein." Here's a score, courtesy of the IMSLP:

And here's a translation of the lyrics:
A boy saw a rose,
A rose on the heather,
It was young and beautiful as the morning,
He ran to get a better look
And viewed it with joy.
Rose, rose, red rose,
Rose on the heather.

The boy said "I'm going to pick you,
Rose on the heather."
The rose said, "I'll prick you,
So that you'll always remember me,
And I will not let you."
Rose, rose, red rose...

And the wild boy picked
The rose on the heather;
The rose fought back and pricked him,
But the pain did no good, and oh,
Such suffering must happen.
Rose, rose, red rose...
Let's take a look at this little tale using Freudian dream interpretation. (Why Freudian dream interpretation? If the flowers are talking back to you, you're probably dreaming, right?) I don't think any of us would have too much trouble coming up with a pop-Freudian interpretation of Goethe's poem, one having something to do with, oh, I don't know, maybe sexual loss of innocence. (Every rose has its thorn.) I think that's a pretty reasonable interpretation, and one that would probably be reasonably obvious to anyone listening to the words.

But for dream interpretation, as Freud saw it, that's only half the process—and not even the most important half. Freud would call the actual dream—in this case, the poem's literal meaning—the dream-content, while our pop-Freudian analysis he would characterize as the dream-thought. Freud prescribed interpreting the dream-thought, but only as an intermediate step. Because what he was really interested in was the dream-work, the specific translation from latent thought to actual dream. Here's how he put it in the sixth chapter of The Interpretation of Dreams:
All other previous attempts to solve the problems of dreams have concerned themselves directly with the manifest dream-content as it is retained in the memory. They have sought to obtain an interpretation of the dream from this content, or, if they dispensed with an interpretation, to base their conclusions concerning the dream on the evidence provided by this content. We, however, are confronted by a different set of data; for us a new psychic material interposes itself between the dream-content and the results of our investigations: the latent dream-content, or dream-thoughts, which are obtained only by our method. We develop the solution of the dream from this latent content, and not from the manifest dream-content. We are thus confronted with a new problem, an entirely novel task—that of examining and tracing the relations between the latent dream-thoughts and the manifest dream-content, and the processes by which the latter has grown out of the former.
Freud agreed with previous theories that dreams were a psychological effort at wish-fulfillment, but saw the representation of those wishes not in the dream-thought, but in the dream-work; the unconscious desire that fuels the dream can be found in the particular way the dream-thought is transposed into an actual dream.

So how would this apply to "Heidenröslein"? We've established that a plausible dream-thought for the song is the loss of sexual innocence, but why turn that into a ditty about a young boy and a rose? Freud would probably say that the unconscious desire behind the poem is for sexual activity to be regarded as carefree and natural as children's play. Which is exactly what Schubert portrays in the music. The musical content is that of a children's song; the strophic structure actually diminishes any sense of conflict; the insouciant ritornello—

—resets each verse like rounds of a game.

But I don't think it's just coincidental—Schubert is, at the same time, acknowledging the desirous intent musically: the shift from C-natural to C-sharp between measures 2 and 6, the way the repeated "Röslein" of the refrain is set to a rising scale, one that them humorously tumbles back down the octave range of the song. Schubert's genius is that he is anticipating Freud's psychological insights by nearly a century, and illustrating them with his musical choices.

This is a pretty specific example, but I think we all have some intuitive sense for this sort of thing. I wonder, in fact, if it's how we decide whether or not to accept people bursting into song during musicals—that transition, after all, pretty definitively shifts any narrative's level of realism into the realm of dream-reality, so maybe we only buy it if the musical addition sufficiently mirrors what we (perhaps subconsciously) recognize as the dramatic dream-work, the unconscious desire motivating the shift from speech into song. A lot of my favorite opera works this vein as well—Verdi's music often seems to be at tonal odds with the events of the plot (the final ensemble of the ball scene in Traviata, for instance), while Puccini's often seems too big, too melodramatic for the plot to justify (pretty much all of La Bohème), but they're not illustrating the action, they're illustrating the desires that fuel the action, which are psychologically dissonant or out of proportion with not only the characters' actions, but sometimes even their own testimony.

One last thing: what makes music such fertile ground for this sort of interpretation is its semiotic flexibility; what a particular bit of music "means" can slip into a slightly different meaning without too much trouble. Freud again:
I know a patient who—involuntarily and unwillingly—hears (hallucinates) songs or fragments of songs without being able to understand their significance for her psychic life. She is certainly not a paranoiac. Analysis shows that by exercising a certain license she gave the text of these songs a false application. "Oh, thou blissful one! Oh, thou happy one!" This is the first line of Christmas carol, but by not continuing it to the word, Christmastide, she turns it into a bridal song, etc. The same mechanism of distortion may operate, without hallucination, merely in association.
Play a piece of music for an audience of 100 people, and you'll get 100 different interpretations. The basic outline may be similar across the board. But the variations? They're hints to what each person really wants.

September 27, 2008


According to certifiable genius Alex Ross, today is Worldwide Atonality Day, in honor of the 100th anniversary of Schoenberg's lied "Du lehnest wider eine Silberweide," from Das Buch der hängenden Gärten. Alex also noted that this month marked the 50th anniversary of the composition of LaMonte Young's "Trio for Strings," as plausible a birthday for Minimalism as any.

The calendar is unusually cooperative in this case, but fifty years does seem a relatively reasonable tick of the clock for musical styles, give or take. Try these birthdays on for size:
  • Baroque: ca. 1685 (birth of Bach)
  • Classical: ca. 1750 (death of Bach)
  • Early Romantic: ca. 1809 (death of Haydn)
  • Late Romantic/Impressionist: ca. 1869 (death of Berlioz)
  • Atonal expressionism: ca. 1908
  • Minimalism: ca. 1958
I wouldn't face down a firing squad over that chronology, but I don't think it's totally out of bounds. It does seem that every 50-60 years, the historico-stylistic playing field changes.

Which, of course, means that we're due. If you accept Barzun's concept of Decadence, if not his pejorative sense of it, we do seem to be in a decadent period, a transition between stylistic epochs—or, at least, the dawn of a novel one. So if you're in the mood for prognostication—what's the new school/paradigm/category/thing?—what should you be looking for?

Before we answer that, it needs to be pointed out that, especially in the past century, such overarching categorization is ignoring a lot—neo-this and -that, jazz-classical hybrids, various nationalist styles, that whole Hindemith thing, &c. Atonality and Minimalism have just been the most coherent stylistic developments, the ones that were a big enough break from what came before, while being possessed of a repertory of features that made them easily recognized as styles. And one more thing: I think they're both kind of like religious fundamentalisms, in a particularly post-Enlightenment way.

From one of Slavoj Žižek's more recent efforts:
No wonder then that religious fundamentalists are among the most passionate digital hackers, and always prone to combine their religion with the latest findings of science: for them, religious statements and scientific statements belong to the same modality of positive knowledge.... The occurrence of the term "science" in the very name of some of the fundamentalist sects (Christian Science, Scientology) is not just an obscene joke, but signals this reduction of belief to positive knowledge. The case of the Turin shroud is here symptomal: its authenticity would be awful for every true believer (the first thing to do then would be to analyze the DNA of the blood stains and thus solve empirically the question of who Jesus' father was...), while a true fundamentalist would rejoice in this opportunity.
What I think atonality and Minimalism have in common is this similar appeal to science. Atonality built up its own scientific edifice, via serialism; Minimalism rejected that edifice on the grounds that it violated laws of acoustics and neurobiology (it's just not natural to hear music in that way). Does that make the respective practitioners fundamentalists? Both schools do seem to inspire some amount of fundamentalist behavior—Rochberg's "apostasy," debates as to whether John Adams is a "true" Minimalist or not, and so forth. But that's also because (as previously mentioned) the stylistic boundary lines are bright enough to make such judgments.

So if I was looking to predict the future, I'd be keeping my eye out for any category displaying a) a sufficiently clean break with the past, b) scientific justification, and c) some form of circumscribed vocabulary. Spectralism is an interesting case in this scheme: a definite reliance on scientific analysis, but retaining connections of vocabulary and sonic effect with post-serialist atonality—not, in its current form, enough of a break. Straight-up computer-generated music might have a claim—by definition, it relies on positive knowledge, at least of software and engineering—but the vocabulary remains wide open. If I had to bet a dollar, I'd say that the new paradigm will come out of the use of the computer, but I'd only bet a dollar. That's the fun and frustration of living through cultural decadence—it's all up in the air. I don't think we have the clear outlines of that 2058 anniversary concert just yet. For now, a revival of "Anything Goes" will do nicely.

September 26, 2008

All your compliments and your cutting remarks / Are captured here in my quotation marks

Our favorite anti-academic academic Kyle Gann did his annual extolling of odd meters this week, with the added, especially fun bonus of some published transcriptions of Bulgarian folk music. And he had this to say in passing—
From my readers' previous very informative debate, I know that some will object to the very notating of these traditional tunes, claiming that they can only be learned orally, and I reiterate the most relevant comment left by someone who knew this music:
[T]he Bulgarians DO NOT count out every "8th" or "16th" note while performing their music. They express them as long and short beats. They actively discourage trying to count it out, and expressed that the only way to hope to begin to play it accurately would be to feel the long and short beats.
Doubtless true, making the whole topic an excellent entrée into teaching students that there's more than one way to scope out rhythms, and entire societies in which consecutive beats are not assumed "steady," but can be different lengths.
—which, I realized, is a nicely efficient wedge into the whole question of notation and tradition and modernity and its discontents.

Kyle characterizes the objection to notation as "doubtless true," and while the objections certainly exist, I myself have rather serious doubts whether they're valid or not, especially nowadays. I would venture to say that a good musician could learn Bulgarian folk music from a combination of notated music, written description, and recorded examples, and play it just as well as someone who learned the tradition exclusively orally. What's interesting to me is what the persistence of that distinction—between learning via oral tradition and book learning—says about the importance of folk music in modern society, a society that is a long, long way from the one in which such music was originally created.

There was a time when the only way to transmit folk culture was orally, but that time is gone; most folk cultures have been pretty well ethnographically mapped, and what few corners of the world there are still untouched by mass media and digital connectedness will be on the grid before too long. In other words, to learn a given repertoire exclusively through oral tradition and personal interaction is now a choice, not a necessity. And the criterion behind that choice is the perception of authenticity. I myself am pretty agnostic on that score—authentic, synthetic, I like them both—which probably means I just don't feel as anxious about the fundamentally alienated condition of modern existence, or something like that. But I have no objection per se to an asserted authenticity, which I think makes for an interesting and sometimes provocative frame for an artistic experience.

That said, though, I do think that "authenticity" is an illusion, that all musical activity is in some way stylized and synthetic, and to make a moral distinction between oral traditions and written traditions on the basis of perceived authenticity is invalid. And what's more—and here's where my own personal annoyance springs to the fore—it verges rather uncomfortably close to anti-intellectualism.

This sort of privileging of oral tradition, as applied to music, always seems to me to be disingenuously ignoring the fact that classical musicians are trained just as much through a similar oral tradition as through scores. That's why you study with a teacher, that's why you study recordings, that's why you go to concerts to hear various interpretations of the repertoire. There is not a musician in the world who thinks that the printed score is a complete and accurate representation of the musical experience—to notate the rubato in even the most Apollonian rendition of a Chopin nocturne would probably make one's mathematical hair curl. Of course notation is an impoverished version of music, but all musicians know that, and approach notated sources appropriately. (Notice that to critically describe a performance as "mechanical" is never, ever a good thing.) Nevertheless, I've lost count how many times I've read or heard such classical training patronizingly disparaged by those partial to an oral, vernacular tradition.

I don't pretend to be the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but I do rather proudly aspire to being an intellectual, in the sense that I take great joy in the possibility that some sense of the complexity and depth of the interaction between an active mind and the world it perceives can be generously communicated to complete strangers. I was tickled pink to see Kyle's notated examples, because they represent a portal into a tradition that, for reasons of geography and time management, I otherwise wouldn't have. To dismiss such communicative efforts strikes me as not only parsimonious, but distressingly unambitious—especially given the way the combination of notated and oral musical traditions catalyzes the process of learning. The true core of the intellectual tradition is not obscurity, not a discriminatory use of jargon, not any of the unfortunate abuses that are demagogically expanded into anti-intellectual bludgeons—it is, rather, the faith, the intellectual security that a persevering mind at any stage of learning can master any idea, any practice, any subject, and can then transmit a roadmap to such mastery to anyone else inclined to take the journey.

I don't really have a personal motto as such—I'd hate to settle on any one—but definitely on my list of candidates would be a line Emily Dickinson once included in a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson: "My Business," she wrote, "is Circumference." (Another poem of hers was addressed to "Circumference thou Bride of Awe".) That process, and possibility, of expanding the mind to encompass any topic is half of the beneficial heritage of intellect. The other half? It's the reason I can commune with Dickinson's ideas, with the thoughts of a virtual homebody over a century removed from me. She wrote them down.

Update (9/30): Ethan's smart comments goad me into summarizing the musical point in a different way: to the assertion that you can't learn such music from a book because a book can't capture the groove, I say that, if you know how to groove, of course you can learn it from a book.

September 22, 2008

Wide-mouth glass

So if you came up with a nice, light, effervescent sweet wine and wanted to name it after a musical instrument, which one would you pick? Yeah, probably not this one.

That's a half-bottle of Bava Wineries' Bass Tuba Moscato d'Asti (DOCG) I found at the store over the weekend. According to the Bava website:
We are still convinced we have chosen the right instrument for the label, suggesting celebrations and rich band sounds, as distinctive as the aroma of Bava Moscato.
Obligatory joke: Bava has apparently been hanging around unusually good-smelling brass sections.

In the interest of alcoholic comprehensiveness, "tuba" is also the Philippine name for fermented palm tree sap, which can either be made into a wine-like beverage or soured into vinegar. (The drink also made its way to Mexico.)

September 20, 2008

Eamus catuli



Song of the Bear Society

Sung and told by Letakots-Lesa (Eagle Chief)

The men of the Bear Society [of the Pawnee] are called Bear Warriors. The Bear, the great Spirit-Bear, receives his power from the sun, and so it was through the sun that the Bear Warriors had been victorious. In this song they are returning from war just as the sun rises. The women go forth with song to meet the victors, who are coming all splendidly decked and painted....

The rays of the rising sun now touch the earth and speed swiftly over the ground until they shine upon the victors. The hidden meaning of the song is the victorious power of the sun.

In the first stanza, the "many coming" are the warriors: in the second, the sunbeams. This is a very old song, and is sung in ceremonies of the Bear Society just as the sun is about to rise.


Rerawha-a rera e

    Para riku ratutah
Rerawha-a rera e

Hi tzapat rakuwaka kuatutah

Rerawha-a rera e

    Para riku ratutah
Rerawha-a rera e

Rasakura rukuksa rerawha-a

Rerawha-a rera e

Rasakura rura whia
Rerawha-a rera e
         (Literal transition)

      Yonder coming,
      Yonder coming,
   Lo, the many yonder, he—

Mine, too, might have been a triumph
   Like the many yonder, he—

Cried the woman,
   Would that I were like to these
      The many coming,
      Yonder coming,
      Yonder coming,
   Lo, the many yonder, he—

Mine, too, might have been a triumph
   Like the many yonder, he—

Now the rising sun hath sent his rays
   to earth,
      A many coming,
      Yonder coming,
      Yonder coming,
   Lo, the many yonder, he—

Sunbeams o'er the ground are speeding,
   Lo, the many yonder, he—

—Natalie Curtis Burlin, The Indians' Book
(Harper and Brothers, 1907)

PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: The fact that I get to do a post like this two years running is a sure sign that phantasms with scythes will start riding out of the clouds on skeletal horses before too long, so if you haven't gotten around to, say, trying Häagen-Dazs Fleur de Sel Caramel ice cream, better sooner than later, if you know what I mean.

1941 program image lifted, again, from this awesome use of the Internet.

September 19, 2008

Frederic's out of his indentures

Happy International Talk Like a Pirate Day!
An enormous, taxpayer-financed program to buy up bad mortgages and other distressed debt is necessary to protect the savings and aspirations of millions of Americans, President Bush and Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. said on Friday.

“We’re talking hundreds of billions” of dollars, Mr. Paulson said at a briefing in which he underscored the depth of the problem, pledged to work with Congress to address it quickly and voiced optimism that, in the end, the country would emerge from the financial chaos.

Seeking to dispel any impression that the bailout would amount to a rescue of greedy Wall Street executives by Main Street Americans, Mr. Paulson said the program would “cost Americans far less than the alternative.”

The New York Times, September 19, 2008

I hereby propose that, from now on, any banker who disparages government arts funding as unfairly rewarding organizations that can't make it in the free market gets the business end of a broken beer bottle.

Have I been talking a lot more economics in this space lately? Yes, actually—out of curiosity, I pulled up some of the more dismal-science-heavy posts on this blog, and sure enough, most of them are from this past year. When in Rome (circa 476 A.D.), &c. Here's a list, in case your Friday procrastination needs a lift. I haven't re-read through all of them in detail. I wonder how many of them I've changed my mind on.

Casino Royale
One way or another
Stimulus package
Greetings from Hooverville
Down a Country Lane
Bread and Roses
E pur si muove
Who Cares If You Save?
You'll Never Get Rich
Searching for Love
Get on Board
The bustle in a house
There's a hole in the bucket
"Oh, take your next vacation in a brand-new Frigidaire"
A chicken in every pot
I couldn't p now if I tried

September 18, 2008

Fragende Ode

Mauricio Kagel has died at the age of 76. (Via.) I had the great and entertaining fortune of studying with Kagel as a Tanglewood fellow in 1998. He was endlessly good-natured, and as intellectually mischievous as you might expect from his music, but I also remember his uncompromising sense that there was a right way and a wrong way to go about putting music together; his attention to detail was an indication of how seriously he took even the most playful music. (He reprimanded me for using neologistic Italian-language performance directions but not conjugating the verbs correctly.) For that summer's Festival of Contemporary Music, I performed Kagel's General Bass (for "unspecified bass instrument"—I used an accordion), a little piece of typical, mysterious wit consisting of sparse, disconnected phrases that hint at some absent, traditionally tonal grandeur. Kagel a) was mildly disappointed at the fact that my piano accordion was not a bandoneon, but took it in stride, and b) was very particular about staging—seated, not standing; very still, as if one player within a giant ensemble; and making sure to underemphasize any espressivo possibility in the fragments. It was a bit of master-class in how to play off of performance expectations, and in how magically you can up the stakes of humor the less you give away the joke.

Kagel could be intellectually unforgiving, but even his criticism was cloaked in the graceful good manners of an old-school radical; if he thought I was young and stupid (which he probably did) he never let on, instead giving the generous illusion that the time he spent with me was time well spent. If I'm any less stupid now, at least some small portion of that is due to my briefly crossing his path.

Casino Royale

As Wall Street has been busy laying its latest eggs this week, the reaction from the arts community—at least the reported reaction—has focused on the philanthropic side: how the downturns and bankruptcies will affect corporate donations. But there's another aspect to the crisis that affects the arts, and it's more interesting in the way it spotlights an evolution in funding that doesn't get a whole lot of attention. It's the spillover effect into the bond market.

Bonds are basically private loans gone public. A municipality or organization sells bonds to investors in order to raise cash; the investors collect interest on the bonds, and can trade them like stocks, or hold on to them until they mature. The value and maturity payout of the bonds are secured against some form of collateral (usually the future revenue stream of the project in question). Arts organizations have been issuing bonds for a little while now, usually in anticipation of a major contruction project. Lincoln Center, for instance, began issuing bonds in 2006 to fund its current renovation. It's more efficient than old-fashioned fundraising because an organization isn't stuck waiting to begin construction until sufficient funds have been raised; they can pay the contractors right away, and then devote their development to raising money to pay the interest on the bonds, and eventually pay them off.

Bonds, like any other investment, are risky, and you can measure that risk by looking at the interest rate—the higher the rate, the more chance there is the market thinks that you might not be able to recover the full value of the bond. This is also why rating agencies like Standard & Poor's or Moody's exist: they rate the credit of bond-issuing organizations. The highest rating (AAA, in S&P's grading system) means that the organization can charge a lower interest rate. A lower rating (usually B or lower in S&P's system) results in "junk bonds," more a target for short-term speculation than long-term investment (since no one thinks such bonds will actually pay out at maturity, investors make money by gambling on fluctuations in trading value).

So now you know about the bond market. But here's a question: how do you rate a bond secured against the collateral of possible future philathropic donations? Tricky. Or how does one determine the credit-worthiness of bonds from an organization, like Lincoln Center, that's never issued them before? Equally tricky. Even rating bonds from cities and states is a little too much guesswork for the market, which is why, back in the 1970s, bond insurance was invented. You buy insurance from a bond insurance company (for example, Lincoln Center originally had its bonds insured by a corporation called ACA Financial Guaranty), and that company will guarantee that the bond will continue to pay its interest and will maintain its value. In rating insured bonds, the rating agencies assign the bonds the same credit grade they give the bond insurer, which is why bond insurers work very hard to maintain good credit.

Hmmm, you might be saying, would that be the same "credit" that figures in this "credit crunch" I keep hearing people on the news mention? Damn straight it is. Bond insurers, who succumbed to the usual temptations of derivatives and collateralized bond obligations, have been gasping for air for some time now. (The crisis that insurer AIG found itself in this week? Bond insurers have been in smaller but similar crisis mode for months.) If your bond insurer goes under, or restructures, or the rating agencies finally get up off the couch long enough to recognize the obvious and downgrade its credit, your cost to issue bonds—in the form of the necessary interest you'd need to offer to get investors to buy—goes up. What's worse, the interest you're already paying out can go up, too, if you've sold what are called auction-rate bonds. Auction-rate bonds, first offered in the late 1980s by Goldman Sachs, are vaguely like adjustable-rate mortgages: every few weeks, the interest rate on such a bond is determined by a dutch auction among the bondholders. In the current credit-starved market, interest rates on auction-rate bonds have been skyrocketing.

Back in March, the Los Angeles Times reported on how the mortgage crisis was impacting bond-issuing Southern California cultural institutions:
LACMA is the biggest local cultural borrower affected as it plows ahead with new construction and renovations. Its losses are approaching $2 million since Feb. 1, according to Rowland. Interest rates have averaged 8% on LACMA’s debt; it is shelling out about $2.4 million a month to pay its bondholders, double what it had expected. The Natural History Museum, which issued bonds for renovations, has sustained losses of more than $500,000, according to Vice President James Gilson.
What's an organization to do? Refinance those bonds at a loss—a loss that's only gotten more significant as the market has continues to falter. The Orange County Performing Arts Center went through similar belt-tightening over the summer, writing off $8.8 million in bond insurance after its insurer was downgraded, and paying out some $4 million more in interest than expected. They've refinanced their debt, but it leaves them out a significant chunk of money, and with a less flexible cash flow. Now organizations are getting gun-shy: Lincoln Center was scheduled to issue another $100 million in bonds this week, but like many others (including the cities of Chicago and Boston—and municipal bonds are usually the most credit-worthy), they've elected to postpone that offering rather than pay out the higher interest rates that would be needed to move the bonds in this market.

It's worth watching to see how this crisis affects the use of bonds in the arts. So far, bonds have mostly been used to fund construction, but it's not hard to imagine an orchestra, say, opting to collect the financial benefit of a major capital campaign up front by issuing bonds. (On the pop music side, the issuance of bonds secured against the rights to an artist's catalog of songs—pioneered by David Bowie—has been a mixed success.) The current recession will probably put a temporary kibosh on arts bonds, but I wouldn't be surprised if, in a decade's time, most major fundraising initiatives are accompanied by a corresponding venture into the bond market. But it puts you at the mercy of people who, fundamentally, don't really care what it is you do. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing depends, I suppose, on how cold your blood runs.

September 16, 2008

The Turn of the Screw (II)

(The first part of this article is here.)

In order to get to the point of this comparison—cultural history as screwball comedy—we need to take a short side trip into political science, and the long-argued idea of "civil society." Civil society is the halfway house between the individual and the state: organizations and associations formed around shared interests, joined voluntarily. In a democracy, though, civil society can go in one of two directions: it can either expand shared public intellectual space, facilitating participation in—and accountability of—government, or it can contract shared public intellectual space, focusing on individual rights and property (freedom from government) to the point that the government ends up largely unchecked. Dana Villa in his upcoming (and very good) book Public Freedom, argues that America, and much of the rest of the world, has fallen into the latter pattern, giving up the public freedom of a responsive and responsible state in favor of the private freedom of financial security and individual gratification. Here's Villa, defining a healthy "public sphere":
Plurality, not sovereignity, is the precondition of the political world. To uproot it or make it superfluous—as all manner of authoritarian, totalitarian, and class-dominated politics have tried to do—is to create a world without the possibility of authentic politics. For authentic politics... is possible only where diverse perspectives on a common world have a durable and institutionalized space for their free play. We know that our political sphere is healthy when, first, everyone who wants to be a "participant in government" can in fact have access to it; and second, when the talk that takes place there is viewed not as mere bavardage or spin, but as one of the chief and most valuable expressions of public liberty.
The ideal "civil society" is the one that nourishes rather than impoverishes this public sphere. But Villa's analysis suggests that the last century or so of American history—a period corresponding with the rise of consumer culture, coincidentally or not—has privileged the privately beneficial civil society over the public.

Now, it's possible to consider art as an apolitical, experiential civil society, mediating between individual experience and the universal condition of human existence. But here's the question: if we're living in a society in which the universal aspects of political civil society are in disrepair, are we likely to have a clear idea of how to create or find art that provides access to a similar universal space? (Or, for the politically prescriptive subset of artistic activity, how to create art that rebuilds such a space?) Probably not—hence the chaotic, screwball evolution of American culture. Maybe we have a vague sense of what we want, but we don't know what it would look or feel like unless we stumble upon it. Or maybe the influence of consumer culture has resulted in artistic searches based on what we only think we want.

Last week, Dana Gioia announced that he would be stepping down as head of the National Endowment for the Arts, prompting a spate of articles characterizing his tenure as a success: funding up (though still less than at its height, nearly twenty years ago now), controversy down. But has it been an artistic success? I think that one of Gioia's first and most widely praised initiatives, the Shakespeare in American Communities project, which sponsored performances of the bard in all 50 states, represents a signal moment in American cultural history. Because, when you think about it, justifying the existence of 21st-century American arts funding by promoting a 17th-century British playwright—to quote another cultural touchstone, that's pretty f****d up right there. But, then again, in part that's the hand Gioia and the NEA were dealt, going back a century or more: art as personal gratification, as the fulfillment more of a consumer impulse than an aesthetic one.

This is not to say that those categories are mutually exclusive. Gioia's choice of Shakespeare can't be faulted on artistic grounds, but it's why no one would find fault that's interesting. It's catering not so much to middlebrow culture as to a middlebrow view of high culture. That's actually a fairly good barometer: Shakespeare is a truly great playwright, just as Beethoven is a truly great composer, just as Rembrandt is a truly great painter. But such status, from a consumer standpoint, is based in large part on the accumulated, repeated historical vouching for such art, reducing the need to judge it anew. It's a sure thing, from the point of getting quality for your money, because it's a mirror of artistic judgments held over from previous eras, when civil society still focused on public freedom, and thus opinion on what made for correspondingly universally great art was more directed and coherent. Looking for art that would mediate between the individual and the universal, the NEA reached back to art that had already been sanctioned as such in the past. Finding similar new art in the present would be, inevitably, a risky, screwball endeavor. Gioia is an award-winning poet, but also, famously, a corporate guy—he used to be an executive at General Foods—and ran the NEA with a corporate eye to avoiding risk. This buttoned-down NEA wouldn't be following any dizzy females to strange places—it's like a screwball comedy where the timid, nervous hero remains determinedly timid and nervous. In all fairness, I think the NEA's artistic choices are reacting to the condition of society, not driving it, and maybe Gioia was working with a more adventurous long-term vision, but at this point in time, the NEA is hardly the equivalent of the institutionalized space for free play that Villa recommends, an indication that the course of cultural history will still continue in its screwball ways.

I get the sense that we're in an epoch of artistic activity exhibiting a kind of paradox: one the one hand, seemingly closer to what the audience seems to want, but on the other hand, resulting in a less deeply satisfying experience. For all its blind alleyways, the old, anything-goes avant-garde modernism stood a better chance of stumbling upon sublimity, given the screwball-comedy mechanisms of post-consumer culture. The hero of many a screwball comedy finds what he really wants only after being pushed seriously outside his comfort zone. Screwball comedies, in the end, are in fact glorious celebrations of change for the sake of change, of controversy and disruption. The screwball choice is ingeniously direct: you can stay on the path, you can do what you're supposed to do, or you can be happy. If you find yourself in a screwball world, the most despairing thing to do is to play it safe.

The hope of screwball culture is that, for all their zaniness, screwball plots are goal-oriented, at least from the point of view of the better halves of screwball couples. If you can envision a desired outcome—romantically or artistically—you can get there eventually, given a sufficient combination of persistent and crazy. But can the culture as a whole get there, a culture that dissolves barriers of class, one that successfully marries high and low, one that either reinstates or reinforces an expansively public civil society? There's an art out there that's exactly what we want, even if we don't know what it is, or even that we want it. We can end up there, happy and liberated—but the journey, inevitably, is going to take us to some awfully screwy places.

September 15, 2008

The Turn of the Screw (I)

Hypothesis: the most appropriate narrative format to describe the history of American culture is that of the screwball comedy. The archetypal screwball comedy, a Hollywood creation, flourished for only a short time—the early 30s until the early 40s, roughly—although aspects of it still persist. But it originated out of a time and circumstance marked by, I think, a relatively rich confluence of the sorts of ideas that American culture is consistently obsessed with: the importance of money, the permeability (and fragility) of status.

The screwball comedy has been described by film critic Andrew Sarris as “sex comedy without the sex,” and while I think the format has other, deeper consistent features, Sarris’s epithet does effectively describe the surface of typical representatives of the genre: a romantic comedy that (for the most part) substitutes a certain manic absurdity for sensual eroticism. Here’s some examples, all standards of the style:

  • It Happened One Night (dir. Frank Capra, 1934)
  • Twentieth Century (dir. Howard Hawks, 1934)
  • My Man Godfrey (dir. Gregory La Cava, 1936)
  • Nothing Sacred (dir. William Wellman, 1937)
  • The Awful Truth (dir. Leo McCarey, 1937)
  • Bringing Up Baby (dir. Howard Hawks, 1938)
  • His Girl Friday (dir. Howard Hawks, 1940)
  • The Philadelphia Story (dir. George Cukor, 1940)
  • The Lady Eve (dir. Preston Sturges, 1941)

If this gives some idea of screwball comedy’s rather wide umbrella—it’s a long way from the backstage farce of Twentieth Century to the breezy con of Nothing Sacred to the upper class/lower class anthropology of The Philadelphia Story—there are still common elements that apply equally well to the outlines of American cultural history.

Money is the root of all plot. Though money itself may not figure prominently in many of the stories, almost every screwball comedy is set in motion, directly or indirectly, by money. It’s often overt: Cary Grant meets Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby while in the process of trying to secure a million-dollar donation for the museum he works at; worldly Barbara Stanwyck is after timid ophiologist Henry Fonda’s inheritance in The Lady Eve. In other movies, the financial impetus is in the form of a paycheck: It Happened One Night, His Girl Friday, The Philadelphia Story, and Nothing Sacred, for example, all hinge on reporters trying to land a big story, but getting romantically entangled in the process. Sometimes, it’s the search for a free lunch: the counterpart of Fredric March’s cheerfully cynical reporter in Nothing Sacred is Carole Lombard as a small-town girl feigning a terminal illness to win a free trip to New York.

Likewise, even though not all of American culture is aimed at market or box-office success, the cash nexus (I love that phrase) is at the core of American cultural history; even if a cultural development seems far away from checkbook concerns, it’s a good bet that at least some point of that development’s lineage hinges, crucially, on economics.

What God has put asunder, let men (and women) join again. More than one critic, most importantly the Harvard philosopher Stanley Cavell, has pointed out how many screwball comedies hinge on the idea of re-marriage, a separated or divorced couple realizing that they belong together after all. The Awful Truth, featuring a battling Cary Grant and Irene Dunne in the throes of divorce, is the most obvious example; The Philadelphia Story and His Girl Friday also hew to the pattern. Perhaps the psychological attraction to this sort of plot is related to the alienation that’s often analyzed to result from the emergence of a consumer-oriented society, in which attempts to construct individual identity are based on what one acquires, instead of what one produces.

American culture is marked by one desired re-marriage after another, usually of genres or styles situated about a perceived highbrow-lowbrow/elitist-populist axis. The elusive “Great American” novel, symphony, opera, what have you, is usually imagined as a work that reconciles a populist sensibility with the intricacy, scale, and allegedly more lofty intent of high art. It might be possible to argue that the propositions of a past confluence of high and low are rendered more plausible by the persistence of the screwball re-marriage trope.

Class conflict goes both ways. Related to the last point is the way screwball comedy seems to be, in part, dedicated to bringing the upper class down a peg. I say seems because, while some examples are explicitly dedicated to diminishing the upper class (the seminal It Happened One Night is perhaps the most populist of the bunch, with reporter Clark Gable de-sheltering by degrees Claudette Colbert’s sheltered heiress), others portray a more complex dance between rich, middle-class, and poor. Jimmy Stewart’s self-consciously down-to-earth writer in The Philadelphia Story thinks he has rich Katherine Hepburn pegged from the beginning, but by the end, he’s not so sure; Hepburn’s high-toned brittleness is something of a façade, her ex-husband Cary Grant shows the sort of cunning that other screwball comedies might have assigned to an average Joe, while her up-by-his-bootstraps fiancé, played by John Howard, proves a rather dull fellow indeed.

Many screwball comedies posit class as a kind of costume. In The Lady Eve, Barbara Stanwyck’s impersonation of a British noblewoman is so transparent as to beggar belief, but she successfully calls the bluff of Henry Fonda and his rich brewer father, whose choice to believe her ruse is as much a reflection of their own class insecurity. The most dazzling aikido of status might be in My Man Godfrey: rich, flighty Carole Lombard brings home hobo William Powell as part of a scavenger hunt, and Powell stays on to become the family butler. But the rich family is secretly broke, while Powell, who is hiding his own upper-class background, draws on that experience to become the perfect servant, romantically pursued by both Lombard and maid Jean Dixon. As Stewart stammers at the climax of The Philadelphia Story, “You’ve got me all confused now.” No kidding. Scratch the surface of the supposed highbrow/lowbrow division of American culture, and the lines begin to blur just as much, and just as fast.

Evolution is chaotic but not random. This is the aspect that I think most ties cultural history to the screwball comedy. As crazy as screwball events may get—Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant, in Bringing Up Baby, in the middle of the country, singing to a leopard on a farmhouse roof in an effort to retrieve a dinosaur bone—there is always a clear chain of causality, however unlikely.

The thing is, each link in that chain is, more often than not, forged out of short-term, local concerns that have an at best coincidental relationship to the plot's overall goal. Culture is the same way: a wayward walk in which each change of direction is determined not by the usually stated end results of artistic activity—say, for instance, emotional resonance or technical mastery—but by chance meetings, vagaries of overhead, practicalities of production, &c. Even the artistic personality is subject to such chaos: at any given time, there are artists who have more of a talent for making a career than making art, or artists who, lacking the knack for public relations and networking, do their exquisite work in inevitable obscurity. Of course, there are those who are equally adept at their craft and their careers, but such and intersection, the discovery (or self-discovery) and cultivation of such a confluence of talents, is—if not quite random—at least the result of a sufficiently idiosyncratic chain of events as to make its exact repetition highly unlikely.

The German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger, in his book Zig-Zag: The Politics of Culture and Vice Versa, compared history, and cultural history in particular, to a mathematical concept called the Baker's tranformation or the Baker's map. It's a topological representation of folding dough: you fold a square over, roll it out, fold it over again, and so on. Given a sufficient number of folds, if you trace the path of a specific point on the square, the result is mathematically indistinguishable from a random path. Enzensberger uses the idea to account for the seemingly similarly random appearance of cultural fads, particularly nostalgic ones—retro fashions, neo-this or -that, remakes and reissues; it's like a raisin embedded in the dough that you lose track of, until it suddenly reappears at the top of the square. I've always liked Enzensberger's analogy because it;s a reminder that a) culture is a never-ending process, and b) cultural history is a construct largely determined by where, when, and why one chooses a given point of culmination. (The fold that brings your chosen point—Romanticism, tonality, atonality, neo-tonality—to the historical surface also brings infinitely many other points to the surface at the same time, each with their own unlikely itinerary.)

Screwball comedies choose rather obvious culminations for their random walks—usually marriage—but the genre acknowledges an Enzensberger-esque view of history and existence more than most histories do. Screwball duets are almost invariably between partners with incomplete information: one knows what they want, but not necessarily how to get it, the other knows where they're going, but not necessarily what they want. (In Bringing Up Baby, Katherine Hepburn explains the physics of the screwball universe: "I know I want to marry him. He doesn't know it but I am.") It's the sheer implausibility of screwball plots that reveals their unlikely insight. What are the chances of reporter Rosalind Russell, as editor Cary Grant's ex, dropping by the newsroom to say goodbye on the very day the biggest news story of either of their lives happens to break? About the same chances as any of the events in any of our lives—individual or collective—turning out the way they did. The difference between screwball comedy and life is where you run the credits.

To be continued.

September 11, 2008

A bit of rag-time



From you, Beethoven, Bach, Mozart,
      The substance of my dreams took fire.
You built cathedrals in my heart,
      And lit my pinnacled desire.
You were the ardour and the bright
      Procession of my thoughts toward prayer.
You were the wrath of storm, the light
      On distant citadels aflare.


Great names, I cannot find you now
      In these loud years of youth that strives
Through doom toward peace: upon my brow
      I wear a wreath of banished lives.
You have no part with lads who fought
      And laughed and suffered at my side.
Your fugues and symphonies have brought
      No memory of my friends who died.


For when my brain is on their track,
In slangy speech I call them back.
With fox-trot tunes their ghosts I charm.
      "Another little drink won't do us any harm."
      I think of rag-time; a bit of rag-time;
      And see their faces crowding round
      To the sound of the syncopated beat.
      They've got such jolly things to tell,
      Home from hell with a Blighty wound so neat...

      *          *          *          *           *

And so the song breaks off; and I'm alone.
They're dead... For God's sake stop that gramophone.

—Siegfried Sassoon, Counter-Attack and Other Poems, 1918

September 10, 2008

Hot Hot Hot

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has announced a voluntary recall of the Casio CTK-710 keyboard. Why? Well, if you burn through that Chopin etude, you might just, um, burn through that Chopin etude:
Hazard: The recalled keyboards can overheat when in use, posing a fire hazard to consumers.

Incidents/Injuries: Casio® has received five reports of keyboards overheating, including two incidents that resulted in fire. There have been two reports of property damage, in addition to the unit itself. No injuries have been reported.
Come on, I'm sure there are bands out there that would consider this a marketing opportunity.

Conducting Wires

Gerard Schwarz plans an exit; Sue Perkins wins that TV conductor contest in Britain (which may eventually cross the pond); Jed Gaylin plays ringmaster; JoAnn Falletta plays Dr. Doolittle; Yannick Nézet-Séguin has a drink; R.I.P., Patrick Flynn and Vernon Handley.

September 09, 2008

One way or another

Official proclamations of the competitive ways of small entrepreneurs now labor under an enormous burden of fact which demonstrates in detail the accuracy of Thorstein Veblen's analysis. Competition, he held, is by no means dead, but it is chiefly 'competition between the business concerns that control production, on the one side, and the consuming public on the other side; the chief expedients in this businesslike competition being salesmanship and sabotage.' Competition has been curtailed by larger corporations; it has also been sabotaged by groups of smaller entrepreneurs acting collectively. Both groups have made clear the locus of the big competition and have revealed the mask-like character of liberalism's rhetoric of small business and family farm.

—C. Wright Mills, White Collar (1951)

One of the interesting things about the music industry is how the sins and virtues of production in other industries often accrue to distribution when it comes to music. Take the Veblen passage Mills quotes (which is from the book Absentee Ownership) and switch out the terms—
competition between the business concerns that control distribution, on the one side, and the consuming public on the other side
—and you have a pretty succinct description of the recording industry over the past 10-15 years.

Mills, writing just after World War II, is bringing this up as part of his analysis of the alienated position of middle-class white-collar employees. Such employees are disenfranchised on the corporate level—working for somebody else, they make wages, not profits—but also, as Mills is demonstrating, on the political level: political power is still attained by appealing to the ideals of free competition and individual entrepreneurship, both of which have become nostalgic illusions.

It's tempting to regard the rise of the Internet as somehow rendering Mills' concerns moot, that the global reach and (in theory) universal access of the Web have resurrected the truly competitive and truly independent entrepreneur. This is an especially appealing idea for musicians, who have come to regard the Internet as direct access to a flexible distribution channel—which would explain the seemingly self-destructive response of the RIAA and its ilk: the whole system is in jeopardy if, to do another terminological switcheroo, the workers control the means of distribution. But then again, we're all paying for Internet access, either directly (the cable to the house) or indirectly (via higher-ed tuition, taxpayer-financed public Wi-Fi, or a jacked-up price at the coffee shop). We're, in effect, renting the distribution channel, which, in the long run, is a more stable form of revenue for the collective corporate world than if they had to pay themselves to distribute product that may or may not make back the overhead. Record companies may be losing revenue, but eventually, the capital flows away from physical distribution and towards telecommunicative access.

So I sometimes wonder if descriptions of the revolutionary nature of the Internet, as reasonable as they seem, aren't just rhetorical cover for another generation of corporate consolidation into a government-enabled collusive cartel (*cough*Net neutrality*cough*). And while arts organizations have traditionally enjoyed a much smaller version of the sorts of government subsidies that have kept small businesses and family farms afloat for decades, it's entirely plausible that such brave-new-world Internet descriptions could create the perception that the playing field has leveled in favor of musicians, even as increasingly monopolistic gatekeeping makes access to that playing field more and more expensive. Small businesses and family farms have the advantage of conforming to a Jeffersonian image of the American ideal; if musicians are the next ones to get caught in a rhetorical squeeze between corporation and competition, how sentimental do you think government is likely to get?

September 05, 2008

What Good Would the Moon Be?

In 1940 [record executive Edward] Wallerstein, who was now at Columbia Records, signed me up again. The first recording I made there was "Clair de Lune," and it had a special role I never knew about until many years after World War II. Wallerstein, who was with the wartime Office of Strategic Services, told me that "Clair de Lune" disks had been used to send messages to American prisoners of war. The device was simple and played on the fact that the quality of recordings in those days was not all it should have been: a Morse code message would be scratched onto a disk, which would then be sent to a Red Cross station, where it was played on the air. The prisoners would know it contained a coded message and listen for it, but to anyone else it seemed like just another record with bad surface noise.

—Andre Kostelanetz (in collaboration with Gloria Hammond),
Echoes: Memoirs of Andre Kostelanetz, 1981

September 03, 2008

Soho, the Bringer of Randomness

Random picture:

Random news:

Emily Smith, of The Sun (UK), gets the Non Sequitur of the Day award.
Hurricane Gustav ground to a halt yesterday — as THREE more mega-storms barrelled towards the US.

The hurricane—possibly named after Gustav Holst, the British composer of The Planets—weakened to a depression over Louisiana. (emphasis added)
What basis is there for such a claim? None whatsoever, as far as I know—which doesn't stop The Sun from including sound clips of The Planets to accompany the article.

Elsewhere in the water, Richard Tognetti, leader of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, is also a surfer, which forms the basis of the documentary Musica Surfica, screening at the end of the month as part of the New York Surf Film Festival. (Tognetti is also fresh off helping to save the Wollongong Town Hall.)

Wolpe! The Musical! No kidding.

The state of Oklahoma has announced the ten finalists for the official State Rock Song.

And New Jersey tenor Philip Alongi, who sang the National Anthem to open yesterday's session of the Republican National Convention, actually isn't all that keen on a McCain/Palin ticket, but a gig's a gig.

September 02, 2008

In the Lap of the Gods

If you're any sort of classical musician, I'll bet that somewhere, even if you never actually use it, you have at least a small, finely honed sense of disenfranchisement. So if you've ever looked at the human penchant for naming geographical features—mountains, rivers, &c.—after other humans, and wondered why they always seem to opt for explorers and politicians and military types rather than, you know, musicians, I have good news and bad news. The good news is, there actually is such a place where creative artists get their eponymous due. The airless, waterless, 400-degrees-Celsius-surface-temperature bad news is that it's the planet Mercury.

Mercury Beethoven quadrangle section
Most things in the solar system borrow their names from Greek and Roman mythology—think of the names of the planets besides Earth. Mercurian geography initially followed suit; the planet's albedo features—the patterns of light and dark visible through a telescope—were mapped and thus named by the French astronomer Eugène Michel Antoniadi in the 1920s. But in the 1970s, the double whammy of radio telescopy and a Mariner 10 flyby revealed a wealth of details needing names.

Craters on the moon had been primarily named for astronomers and scientists, for example, the prominent southern hemisphere crater Tycho, with its bright ray system, named for the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, or the crater Clavius, named for the German astronomer Christopher Clavius, and made famous as the site of the moon base in 2001. But for Mercury, on grounds of both avoiding repetition and general novelty, the International Astronomical Union decided to go in a different direction.
Mercury is a heavily cratered planet, with perhaps the greatest number of craters of any body in the solar system. After much discussion and no little controversy, the Mercury Task Group decided to name these craters for great human contributors to the arts and humanities, including writers, Composers, painters, sculptors, and architects. This system is consistent with previous decisions made for the Moon, Mars, and Venus, on all of which the craters have human names. In terms of commemoration of human achievement, Mercury will be the complement of the Moon, with the latter honoring scientists and scholars and the former honoring the creative and artistic heroes of mankind. Initially, all craters photographed by Mariner 10 and having diameters of 100km or more will be named, as well as selected prominent or geologically significant craters in the 40 to 100km size range.
A number of scholars are assisting the Task Group in selecting these names. The distribution by fields will be approximately 50% for authors, 30% for artists, and 20% for composers. (David Morrison, "IAU Nomenclature for Topographic Features on Mercury," Icarus 28, 605-606 (1976))
Still bringing up the rear, but better than nothing. The composers selected thus far (you can browse through this list) tend towards the standard European canon, although Charles Ives gets a crater of his own, as do the Indian composers Tansen and Tyāgarāja and the Chinese composer Chiang Ku'i (Jiang Kui) and his legendary countrywoman Ts'ai Wen-Chi (Cai Wenji). Beethoven gets an entire area (the Beethoven Quadrangle, which contains Schoenberg's crater, as seen above), as does J.S. Bach—the Bach region, near the planet's south pole, is dominated by large craters named for Johann Sebastian and Richard Wagner. (Mercury's planetary neighbor Venus, whose craters are named for notable women, actually probably has even more musicians on the list, from Francesca Caccini and Thekla Badarzewska to Kirstin Flagstad, Maria Callas, and Kathleen Ferrier to Patsy Cline and Josephine Baker.)

The most contemporary composer representative on Mercury is Stravinsky. The IAU specifies that geographic features can't be named for anyone who hasn't been dead for at least three years, and the last round of Mercurian naming came in 1985, when a lot of possible honorees—Cage, Copland, Bernstein, Feldman, Xenakis, Tippett, not to mention a whole host of jazz and rock composers—were still alive. Their time may be coming, however: amazingly, only half the planet has ever been mapped (Mercury's revolutions about its axis correspond with its orbital revolutions around the sun, so the same face is always towards the Earth), but that is about to change, now that NASA's Messenger spacecraft has arrived at Mercury. The craft made its first flyby in January; another will follow in October, and then, in 2011, Messenger will go into orbit around the planet, allowing the first complete map of its surface. Make friends with an astronomer now, and your favorite composer might have his or her own permanent place in the sun.