April 29, 2009

I would've made you leave your key

On Sunday, as you might have read, pianist Krystian Zimerman announced from the stage of the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles that he would no longer perform in the United States, as a protest against American foreign policy.
Before playing the final work on his recital, Karol Szymanowski’s "Variations on a Polish Folk Theme," Zimerman sat silently at the piano for a moment, almost began to play, but then turned to the audience. In a quiet but angry voice that did not project well, he indicated that he could no longer play in a country whose military wants to control the whole world.
On the surface, it was a rather startling breach of concert decorum, although I think that's mostly a tribute to how good casual classical music lovers are at willfully ignoring the complicated overtones of an art form that, more often than not, is more politically charged than almost any other. And Zimerman has always been—well, maybe eccentric isn't the right word in this post-Gouldian age—but certainly an artist who has doggedly followed his own path. And I'll give him this: he picked a pretty good break-up song.

Most break-up songs in the classical repertoire tend to be of the fairly wistful, regretful variety. But there's another kind of break-up song that I've always liked better, one more prevalent in pop music, that, for want of a less profane term, I think of as "cheerful f***-you" songs. (Sometimes literally, like in Green Day's "F.O.D.") They tend to be bright, agreeably driving, with no small amount of bravado—reveling in that liberating, you-can't-fire-me-I-quit sort of energy. In operatic terms, it's a song for Marcello and Musetta, not Rodolfo and Mimì.

I've been racking my brains trying to come up with a really early example of this type of song—either from, say, Baroque opera (there has to be one in there somewhere) or Tin Pan Alley—but my brain is pretty fried today. Most modern entries, I think, can trace their lineage to either the stripped-down engine of Ray Charles' "Hit the Road, Jack" or the laconic indictment of Hank Williams' "Your Cheatin' Heart." (Cover versions often blur the categories—on his big-band album Soul on Top, James Brown turned "Your Cheatin' Heart" into, basically, a Ray Charles break-up song.) For a time, the easygoing style reigned—Carly Simon's "You're So Vain," or one of the genre's touchstones, Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice (It's Alright)," the sharpness of the knife the song's laid-back equanimity—but in the post-punk era, the shinier, happier catharsis has prevailed. For some musicians, it's at the core of their output—the aforementioned Green Day is a good example. A couple days ago, I had occasion to play a fine recent entry in the category, Miller and Tysen's very funny "Spring Cleaning," which has this tempo indication:
in a Ben Folds-ish bangy rocky showtune way
Indeed, Folds' "Song for the Dumped" makes explicit what seems to be percolating just beneath the surface of a lot of his other songs. In recent years, the category seems to have been increasingly usurped by screechy girl-power anthems—think Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" without the sassy sarcasm or the pipes—though I am completely aware that my own apathy to this latest evolutionary turn can be entirely attributed to the fact that I am not now, nor have I ever been, a teenaged girl.

I think part of the reason that classical repertoire has so little of this kind of thing is that those pieces that use such energy tend to be perceived as commenting on much bigger, march-of-history topics than the domestic snark of a break-up. The Toccata finale to Prokofiev's 7th Piano Sonata, for example, would make a great break-up song, except that the timing and historical wherewithal of its composition would make that either wildly inappropriate or delusionally self-aggrandizing. Beethoven finales also tend towards the mood, but tradition is that such outbursts have been interpreted optimistically—still, I could imagine that, with different lyrics, the "Ode to Joy" could be a pretty good break-up song.

Szymanowski's "Variations" don't completely fit, either, but, under the circumstances, it's notable how the end of the piece suddenly turns towards what, in pop music, is fertile defiant break-up territory. The Polish theme Szymanowski uses is a brooding, b-minor Andantino, and the variations maintain that dark cast, albeit sometimes with great force:

When Szymanowski shifts into the parallel major, the mood is Chopin-esque and bittersweet:

But the final variation, for the first time in the piece, marries virtuosic power with major-key brightness:

Then, a bit of fugue (marked "Mit Humor"):

... before a high-octane finish:

In a normal context, this is standard virtuoso stuff—flair and inventiveness. But, in light of Zimerman's pronouncement, the music shows no small number of "cheerful f***-you" attributes: blazing triumph, hurtling energy, poker-faced humor, show-off defiance. If Zimerman really does mean to hit the road, and wanted to make sure we missed him when he was gone, then, from a pop standpoint, he programmed one of the better goodbyes—or, if that's too good a bye, one of the better fare-thee-wells—in the classical playbook.

April 27, 2009

Now in the moonlight, a man could sing it

Posting in this space has been pretty spotty as of late, due to the annual Spring Singularity of Practicing Obligations. But those of you in the Boston area can sample some of the fruits of that labor tomorrow, Tuesday, April 28, when I'll be joining soprano Rebekah Alexander and a handful of other worthies for a Marian-themed program. The action-packed evening—including music by Haydn, Mozart, Wolf, and Messiaen—will culminate with the 1923 version of Paul Hindemith's Das Marienleben, one of the truly great song cycles, and one of my favorite rebuttals to the old generalization that dissonance is only good for portraying angst and violence. The show starts at 7:30 PM at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Brookline; scrounge the cushions for a suggested $10 donation—all proceeds benefit the Hope Initiative.

Photo source. Skateboarding Mary? Awesome.

April 23, 2009

Intervallic cell

Atonality isn't exactly setting the world on fire these days, what with all these whippersnappers and their feel-good postminimalism. Maybe it needs a new marketing hook. Hmmm... how about "possible cure for cancer"?
Our genetic evidence from Drosophila and previous in vitro studies of mammalian Atonal homolog 1 (Atoh1, also called Math1 or Hath1) suggest an anti-oncogenic function for the Atonal group of proneural basic helix-loop-helix transcription factors. We asked whether mouse Atoh1 and human ATOH1 act as tumor suppressor genes in vivo. Genetic knockouts in mouse and molecular analyses in the mouse and in human cancer cell lines support a tumor suppressor function for ATOH1.
From W. Bossuyt et al., "Atonal homolog 1 Is a Tumor Suppressor Gene," published February 24 in the journal PLoS Biology. OK, they're not talking about music. What are they talking about?

The atonal gene was first isolated in fruit flies in 1993 by a team led by Andrew P. Jarman. It's a proneural gene, which means it activates some part of the embryonic development of the nervous system—in this case, chordotonal organs, cell structures designed to pick up vibrations (think eardrums and the like). The name comes from the fact that an atonal mutation will disrupt the development of chordotonal organs.

As it turns out, a very similar gene, Atonal homolog 1, controls the development secretory cells in the lining of the colon in both humans and mice—and, as Bossyut and his team discovered, inactivating Atoh1 in mice triggers the onset of colon cancer. What's more, the majority of human cases of colon cancer the team studied were found to correspond with an inactive ATOH1 gene as well.

The obvious implication of the results is that an ATOH1 screening could provide an early-warning system for colon cancers. But more interestingly, atonal genes can be chemically reactivated:
[T]reatment of [colon cancer] patients whose tumors show epigenetic silencing of ATOH1 with DNA methyltransferase inhibitors might prove a powerful avenue for therapy, because it appears to be sufficient to restore ATOH1 expression and induce cancer cell death.
That's the most dissonant good news I've heard all day.

April 21, 2009

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow

Renée Fleming, soprano; Hartmut Höll, piano
Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston
Symphony Hall, Boston, April 19, 2009

Renée Fleming is now 50 (in related news, we’re all older than we realized) but, based on her Symphony Hall recital this weekend, she’s singing as well as ever—or as poorly as ever, depending on one’s entrenched opinion of her. Fleming’s popularity (her program bio gives her the vaguely Maoist title of “the people’s diva”) has, inevitably, resulted in polarization, and Sunday’s performance probably won’t alter that calculus. The mannerisms that drive some people crazy were all there—vaults into notes from initial consonants a floor or two below; sudden shifts into near-Sprechstimme stage whisper; slide-whistle floating in high, soft phrases; a certain slipperiness of vowel (“uh” became “eh” fairly consistently). But her usual virtues abounded as well: the casually regal stage presence, the impossibly glamorous tone, the uncanny breath control.

What was noteworthy about this appearance, though, was Fleming’s leveraging of her diva celebrity to present notably non-diva repertoire—even given a couple of duds, this was one of the most intelligently constructed and emotionally interesting vocal programs I’d heard in a long time. It helps that, at least for me, Fleming is at her interpretive best in a recital setting (without the perpetual sustain of an orchestra, she's less likely to stretch a phrase to the breaking point just because she can). It also may have helped that this was the final stop on the tour—Fleming and Höll left it all on the field, by turns playful, daring, and sometimes startlingly immediate. And yet the overall effect was distinctly ambiguous and bittersweet: grown-up complexity, in saturated color.

The centerpiece of the first half was four songs from Olivier Messiaen's Poèmes pour Mi, the composer amplifying the liminal boundary between the individual and the collective in marriage to halogen brightness. Höll's accompaniment was sustained, restrained intensity, breathless and quietly insistent; Fleming put the focus on Messiaen's texts. It shifted one's attention from the exotic beauty of the music to the near-manic drama of the poetry—the torrential prayers of "Action de grâces," the painterly glimpse of the beloved in "Paysage." Fleming managed a convincing attacca downshift from the "éternellement lumineux" young bodies of "La maison" to an intoxicated, drill-sergeant bark for "Les deux guerriers." I wished she had programmed the whole cycle.

Surrounding the Messiaen were two extended monologues of pointedly darker cast. André Previn's "The Giraffes Go To Hamburg" sets a rueful Isak Dinesen portrait of two giraffes, trapped on a steamer, leaving Africa forever for a German zoo. Previn's music (with alto flutist Linda Toote joining Fleming and Höll) doesn't do much more than illustrate the text's surface, but does so with consistent flexibility and resourcefulness; the performance attained the tricky balance between journalistic observation and lush sadness. After the Messiaen was John Kander's "A Letter from Sullivan Ballou," the Civil War major writing to his wife shortly before being killed at Bull Run. Kander's music is pretty light stuff—nostalgic, meandering sentimentality—but the juxtaposition with Messiaen's warriors of love was provocative, and the programmatic sequence, the bright triumph of the "Poèmes" both set up and tempered by the bookends, made an intriguing psychological arc out of the half's disparate parts.

The second half repeated the same pattern, a substantial burst of joy protectively encased in renunciation and loss. The center here was Richard Strauss, five songs exploring the various stages, and ages, of love. Fleming and Höll made a nearly convincing case for the over-the-top volubility of "Verführung," though the shaggy-dog episodic nature of both poem and music never quite coalesces. "Freundliche Vision" and "Winterweihe" both explore the deeper, less fraught emotional world of mature love, and both songs received readings of warm, placid richness. The giddy, rippling "Ständchen" was a standout, Fleming and Höll in absolute ensemble in a rendition of extreme, pinball rubato: a fulsome surrender to the emo, manic-depressive exhilaration of youthful infatuation. Höll's sensitivity came to the fore in this set; at the close of "Zueignung," he pulled the piano back from its double-forte climax to let Fleming's stentorian ring complete the final crescendo, a creative, nice-work-if-you-can-get-it touch.

The equivocal cushion to Strauss's happiness was two arias by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, the comparatively obscure "Ich soll ihn niemals, niemals mehr sehn" from Die Katharin, and the more familiar "Marietta's Lied" from Die tote Stadt. Congruent not just thematically (both characters sing of love fated to die) but musically—Fleming admitted that placing them on opposite sides of the Strauss was, in part, to ameliorate their self-plagiaristic similarity—the arias, and the performances, exemplified the Romantic happy-sad conundrum of reveling in the fullness of sorrowful emotion. ("Marietta's Lied" was breathtakingly slow, in the Fleming manner, but Korngold can take it.)

Even a long string of encores ("it's the end of the tour," Fleming announced, "we're going to do everything we know") offset glee with wistfulness. A sassy aria from Zandonai's Carmen-esque Conchita led into Fleming's oft-encored "Summertime" from Porgy and Bess, more restrained than I've heard her do in the past, with Höll giving limpid account of Gershwin's shifting counterpoint. Strauss' "Cäcilie" played off a clever-melancholic mash-up of "My Funny Valentine" with Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata. An audience-karaoke "I Could Have Danced All Night" would have sent everyone off with cheesy cheer, but Fleming and Höll returned for a bracingly beautiful performance of Strauss's "Morgen." Both poem and song lend themselves to interpretations of simple loveliness, but there's a curious indefiniteness to the proceedings—why the focus on tomorrow and not today? Why the need for hopeful reassurance? What exactly is at the end of that walk on the beach? Happiness? Death? Both? It was as if the whole program had been designed to tease out the ambiguity of the song—and both Fleming's serene ardor and Höll's impeccable control, hushed to the edge of eerieness, left quiet, luminous space for that uncertainty. At the end of an afternoon notedly light on greatest hits, in "Morgen," one of the soprano repertoire's greatest hits of all, both singer and song were transported well beyond mere celebrity.

April 20, 2009

International harvesters

Reviewing the Orion String Quartet and David Krakauer.
Boston Globe, April 20, 2009.

This one really had to get trimmed for space. So here's the deal: click on the link to boost the Globe's traffic—they're nice enough to keep employing me, after all—then come back and compare with this slightly more garrulous version:
Nationalism once removed was on the docket for the Orion String Quartet for their Celebrity Series concert on Sunday: composers annexing exogenous traditions to their own musical dominions. Joined by the superb, pan-stylistic clarinetist David Krakauer, the group similarly captured each disparate piece within their own dramatic orbit.

The quartet opened with Hugo Wolf’s brisk, sunny “Italian Serenade.” The players—brothers Todd and Daniel Phillips on violin, violist Steven Tenenbom, and cellist Timothy Eddy—converged on the same dark, focused tone and firm-edged bowing. The resulting energetic reading seemed to overlay the music’s good time with a deliberate determination to have it.

Excess succeeds in David Del Tredici’s 2006 “Maygar Madness,” commissioned for Krakauer and the Orion Quartet by a consortium of presenters (including Celebrity Series). Del Tredici’s trademark neo-Romanticism nearly forgoes the prefix—four-fifths of the piece would fit the Brahmsian aesthetic of Boston a century ago—and the music’s titular Hungarian color has the authenticity of a Gypsy-themed Hollywood production number.

But that is the unashamed point of the work’s thronged expanse, in which any notion good enough for two bars is good enough for eight. As in much of Del Tredici’s music, the extra innings run longer than the original game; one’s pleasure shifts from formal apprehension to a compounding disport in the parade of ideas coming to the plate. The ensemble maintained conviction throughout: Krakauer’s valiant navigation of a frequently high-flying part, the quartet’s unflagging ardor. The composer was on dapper hand for a number of curtain calls.

Osvaldo Golijov’s 1994 “K’vakarat,” by contrast, generates power through concentration. Originally for cantor and strings, the transcription of Ashkenazic chant for clarinet lends the somber prayer a poignant, klezmer-infused vernacular overlay; the quartet’s full-throttle intensity, scintillation rising to eloquent fury, was equal to the music’s explosive emotions.

Beethoven closed the program: the second of the opus 59 “Razumovsky” quartets, the ruminative and voluble E-minor, complete with its own mischievously obsessive quotation of a Russian tune. The group adopted a vigorous precision (more vigorous than precise in the finale) that gave due heft to the music’s symphonic ambitions.

Gordon Pasha

Not Michael Gordon.

I can't go but maybe you can: Signal Ensemble is performing Michael Gordon's 1995 blowout Trance this Wednesday at Le Poisson Rouge in New York. Trance is one of those pieces, I imagine, for which experiencing a live hearing is almost like a résumé item.

Here's Part 4 of Trance:

Download (MP3, 8.4 Mb)

—which is part of a promotion for the concert, which we'll go along with because we like Michael Gordon's music, and you all should listen to it. Anyway, there's a pair of tickets up for grabs—all you have to do is find the other six blogs currently hosting downloads of Trance sections and be the first to e-mail the list to promotion (at) firstchairpromo (dot) com. Here's some clues for adjacent sections:

Previous section—Note: initial contact often makes unfamiliar helpers like you.
Next section—The senile communists are muddled.

Navigating by Procyon

It's Take a Friend to Orchestra Month! It's actually been Take a Friend to Orchestra Month for almost three weeks now. Have you taken a friend to see an orchestra? No? You've still got ten days. (I'm pretty sure that ELO on YouTube doesn't count.) In the meantime, you can spend the rest of the month perusing related readings by classical music luminaries from online, offline, and everywhere in between, curated, as always, by Drew McManus.

According to the snazzy graphic there, I was supposed to write an article for Drew's annual symphonic enablement, but Critic-at-Large Moe hijacked my spot to give the orchestra a pep talk. Head on over to see a dog talk to a cello for the first and possibly only time today.

April 17, 2009

That's funny—I've been feeling buried in a special place all week

FRANK GANNON: In the ' 46 and ' 50 campaigns, you played the piano. You played fairly often, I think, as a—sort of as a technique of campaigning. In those days people were used to gathering around the piano and singing. Did you—did you want your daughters to learn?


FG: Did they take lessons?

RN: Well, we—oh, yes. We went through that. The musical heritage, though, didn't go beyond me. Both Julie and Tricia like music. Pat naturally wanted to give them an opportunity to learn. We bought an accordion for one and gave piano lessons to the other, to Tricia particularly. I remember—remember an incident on that. This is about, I would say, 1956, and at that time she would have been ten years old, and she was taking piano lessons for the first time, and I was trying to help her one night. And I was telling her, "You know, honey, the most important thing in learning to play the piano is to practice." I said, "It's tiring and boring, but if you practice, you can be as good as you want to be." She thought a moment and she looked at me and said, "You know, Daddy, you should have practiced more when you were a little boy. If you had, you might have become famous and have gone to Hollywood, and they would have buried you in a special place."

Nixon/Gannon Interviews, February 9, 1983

OK, OK, I'll practice this afternoon. Three hours, I promise.

I should add that the fact that Julie Nixon Eisenhower once played the accordion passes through so many conflicting layers of ironic and non-ironic cool that it must separate out into radioactive isotopes at the other end.

April 15, 2009

Help us dream beautiful dreams

Take for instance the representative work Symphony in B Minor (the Unfinished Symphony) by Schubert (1797-1828), an Austrian bourgeois composer of the romantic school. The class feelings and social content it expresses are quite clear, although it has no descriptive title. This symphony was composed in 1822 when Austria was a reactionary feudal bastion within the German Confederation and the reactionary Austrian authorities not only ruthlessly exploited and oppressed the workers and peasants, but also persecuted and put under surveillance intellectuals with any bourgeois democratic ideas. Petty-bourgeois intellectuals like Schubert saw no way out of the political and economic impasse, and lacking the courage to resist they gave way to melancholy, vacillation, pessimism and despair, evading reality and dreaming of freedom. This work of Schubert’s expressed these class feelings and social content. The opening phrase is sombre and gloomy. The whole symphony continues and expands on this emotion, filling it with petty-bourgeois despair, pessimism and solitary distress. At times the dreaming of freedom does come through but this, too, is escapist and negative.

Absolute music composed in Europe in the 18th and l9th centuries are products of the European capitalist society, upholding the interests of the bourgeoisie and serving the capitalist system. The content and the ideas and feelings with which they are saturated have an unmistakably bourgeois class nature. Marx pointed out: “Capital comes [into the world] dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.” And it is this blood and dirt that bourgeois music extols. Although certain compositions were to some extent progressive in the sense of being anti-feudal, they failed to mirror proletarian thoughts and feelings of their time; and they are, of course, still more incompatible with our socialist system today under the dictatorship of the proletariat. Then why dismiss their class content and extol them? Yet even today there are some who would feed our young people on these musical works uncritically and intact. Where would this lead our young people?

—Chao Hua, "Has Absolute Music No Class Character?"
(Peking Review, #9, March 1, 1974)

[Akira] Kurosawa wrote One Wonderful Sunday with his childhood friend Keinosuke Uekasa.... Kurosawa said of him, "As weak as he is, he puts on a show of strength; as romantic as he is, he puts on a show of being a realist." Perhaps it was Uekasa's contradictory nature that led to One Wonderful Sunday's audacious—if not successful—climax. As Masako tries to cheer Yuzo in the bandshell after being denied tickets to hear Schubert's Unfinished Symphony, she suggests they pretend. At first her bit of inspiration works, but the sadness of the long day begins to wear on Yuzo and the imaginary music stops. Then, suddenly, Masako addresses the movie's audience, looking striaght into the camera. With tears running down her cheeks, she pleads with the audience to clap its hands, à la Peter Pan. "Please, everyone," she says, "if you feel sorry for us, please clap your hands. If you clap for us, I'm sure we'll be able to hear the music." After an excruciatingly long silence, Schubert is heard at last.

—Stuart Galbraith IV, The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune

April 13, 2009

This and/or that

What's the difference between a note composed and a note improvised? Pretty much nothing, at least according to Søren Kierkegaard. Not that Kierkegaard ever explicitly addressed the issue; in his most sustained exploration of music, the section of Either/Or entitled “The Immediate Erotic Stages or the Musical Erotic,” Kierkegaard is primarily intent on demonstrating a) that the true value of a musical work is how well it seamlessly matches form with content, and b) the significance of music "as a Christian art or, more correctly, as the art Christianity posits in excluding it from itself, as the medium for that which Christianity excludes from itself and thereby posits."

But Kierkegaard's philosophical spelunking of the process of decision makes an interesting frame for a consideration of both compositional and improvisational choice. Here's the turn-of-the-last-century Danish philosopher Harald Høffding writing about Kierkegaard:
The "qualitative dialectic" appears in Kierkegaard's theory of knowledge in the sharp antithesis he draws between thought and reality. Even if thought should attain coherency it does not therefore follow that this coherency can be preserved in the practice of life. So long as we live we are imprisoned in becoming; hence we stand ever before the unknown, for there is no guarantee that the future will resemble the past.
In a lot of ways, this problem—the actual philosophical and psychological process of collapsing passive possibility into decisive actuality—is at the core of Kierkegaard's work, the fixed point he aimed at from multiple pseudonymous angles. From Either/Or:
In making a choice it is not so much a question of choosing the right as of the energy, the earnestness, the pathos with which one chooses. Thereby the personality announces its inner infinity, and thereby, in turn, the personality is consolidated. Therefore, even if a man were to choose the wrong, he will nevertheless discover, precisely by reason of the energy with which he chose, that he has chosen the wrong. For the choice being made with the whole inwardness of his personality, his nature is purified.
Høffding explains:
No gradual development takes place within the spiritual sphere, such as might explain the transition from deliberation to decision.... Continuity would be broken in every such transition. As regards the choice, psychology is only able to point out possibilities and approximations, motives and preparations. The choice itself comes with a jerk, with a leap, in which something quite new (a new quality) is posited. Only in the world of possibilities is there continuity; in the world of reality decision always comes through a breach of continuity.
For Kierkegaard, theologically, that breach of continuity at the point of decision is a leap of faith, and marks the boundary between what he characterized as the aesthetic and the ethical modes of living. This contrast is easily seen in Either/Or; the famous/infamous "Diary of a Seducer" section, a wry ventriloquism of the aesthete's disconnected, indecisive sensual limbo, shifts into the sober prose of "Judge William," delineating ethical choices.

But the point here is that no amount of preparation for the decision, no amount of reflection or consideration, eliminates the decision's essential discontinuity. To restrict the number of choices doesn't smooth over the break. ("Anyone who seeks the aid of probability is lost in imagination," Kierkegaard writes, "whatever else he may try to do.") All choices—be they measured compositional considerations or spur-of-the-moment improvisations—are equally intuitive, equally risky, equally discontinuous. Composition and improvisation become like the two actresses director Luis Buñuel cast as a single character in his 1977 film That Obscure Object of Desire. A while back, filmmaker Errol Morris discussed the movie, and the two-actress stunt, on his New York Times blog:
ERROL MORRIS: Yeah. Perhaps Buñuel sees love as a series of continuity errors? People assume there are no continuity errors in reality.
—which is, in fact, a quintessentially Kierkegaardian idea. Kierkegaard's writings about love and sensuality always mirrored his own experience; though sincerely in love with Regine Olsen, Kierkegaard nevertheless broke off their engagement. Nominally, the reason was concern over his own melancholic personality, but throughout his works, echoes of the relationship are constantly heard whenever Kierkegaard discusses a refusal to decide, a preference to remain lost in possibility. To declare a love for someone is to choose who to love, which, somewhat paradoxically, shifts the action from the sensual plane to the ethical. From Kierkegaard's Either/Or discussion of Don Giovanni:
Don Juan... is a downright seducer. His love is sensuous, not psychical, and, according to its concept, sensuous love is not faithful but totally faithless; it loves not one but all—that is, seduces all.... But its faithlessness manifests itself in another way also: it continually becomes only a repetition.
A cursory extension of that analysis might extol improvisation as intuitive creation and devalue written composition as rule-bound repetition, but that misses Kierkegaard's point—that Don Juan's repetitive patterns are not a choice at all, but a symptom of his inability to make the leap—aesthetic to ethical—that a decision entails. (Even this is an either/or, as the French philosopher Jean Wahl explains: "But let us observe that for Kierkegaard inside freedom itself there is an action of the grace, of a divine necessity which guides us; that in the second place, the act of repetition is an act by which we say yes to our necessity and reality; and this leads us toward the understanding of what Kierkegaard means when he says that in the utmost freedom there is no more question of choice.")

Maybe it's an American thing. From a late lecture by the 20th-century theologian Paul Tillich:
When I came to this country and first used the word aestheticism in a lecture, a colleague of mine at Columbia University told me not to use that word in describing Americans. That is a typical European phenomenon. Americans are activists and not aestheticists. Now I do not believe this is true. I think there is quite a lot of this aesthetic detachment even in popular culture. It is present in the buying and selling of cultural goods... in which you often see a non-participating, nonexistential attitude. Here Kierkegaard's criticism would be valid. Perhaps on the whole this is not a very great danger among the American intelligentsia. My observation has been that they jump very quickly out of the detached aesthetic attitude—in all lectures and discussions, in philosophy and the arts—to the question, "What shall we do?" This attitude was described by Kierkegaard as the attitude of the ethical stage.
Make a note of it. Doesn't matter how.

April 11, 2009

Beat pattern

Stepping to the podium. Interviewing Shi-Yeon Sung.
Boston Globe, April 12, 2009.

Some cut-for-space quotes:

On charisma:
I don’t think charisma is always [imitates an angry tantrum] "AUAAAHH"; there is also soft charisma. It’s a different way of charisma. And that you can’t learn. The thing is, you have it, or you don’t have it. Also, if you just have this kind of thought in your mind—I want to put the humanity of the music, and the humanity of life in the music—if you have this kind of charismatic thought behind you, it comes out. Those things you can’t explain to the orchestra. If you have this, it comes out.
On still feeling like an outsider:
Actually, if I go to Germany, and I do Beethoven, I think I don’t always feel comfortable with this; because the German people are so proud of their hero, and some Asian girl comes there and conducts Beethoven? This kind of thing, maybe I’m not comfortable with this. [MG: Does it give you something to prove?] I don’t think so. I prepare just what I can, the best I can, and just go.... I don’t do overreaction, you know? (laughs) I think I’m [the type of] person, I accept every situation.
On competitions:
I remember, my first competition was a female competition in Germany [the Solingen Competition for women conductors], and I won first prize; and my professor was so proud of me, and he said, you have to go to the press office and announce your first prize. I just told him, no, no, someday I want to go to [an] international competition, with women and men at the same time! If we win there, then, I’ll go to the press office. I remember that. And then it came true!

April 10, 2009

Le jazz frais

Jean Wiéner, Blues (1929) (me, piano)

Almost back to a reasonably normal schedule. In the meantime, some vintage French through-composed jazz for your weekend.

April 08, 2009

The cure that is their prize

OK, so Stravinsky wasn't sufficiently distracting me from debilitating back pain today, so I've moved on to the Flaming Lips. A crisp new five-dollar bill for the first convincing mash-up of "The Spiderbite Song" with Berg's Violin Concerto!


Reviewing the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra.
Boston Globe, April 8, 2009.

April 07, 2009

"We must now have the courage to continue this exhilarating and frightening adventure without procrastination"

News of the day:

The Fairbanks Symphony is once again throwing down their yearly challenge: Run a 5K in less time than it takes to play Beethoven's 5th Symphony.
A striking replica of Beethoven, Steve Bainbridge, runs to the beat of the music, so anyone who finishes the event ahead of the great composer will receive a voucher good for one of the Fairbanks Symphony’s season concerts for the 2009-10 season that starts in September.
Classical radio for animals. Critic-at-Large Moe approves. (The pun made him growl, though.)

Ravel becomes the latest composer to inspire speculation of secret musical codes. I blame Dan Brown!

R.I.P., Robert Delford Brown, artist, provocateur, founder of The First National Church of Exquisite Panic, Inc., and a performer in the legendary 1964 New York production of Stockhausen's Originale. (Do him the honor of kissing a pig.)

April 06, 2009

I care not for Caruso

L.C. Davis and Charles Kunkel, "Baseball vs. Opera" (1912)

A little ditty for Opening Day (Zambrano vs. Oswalt, 7:05 PM), with lyrics by sportswriter L. C. Davis, from the days when sportswriters rhymed more than they do now. (Yeah, that's me singing. Sorry.) "Shine," by the way, is not a racial slur against Italians as well—it's used in the turn-of-the-century sense of "show-off." (Too bad—I thought I could mock two of my ancestries at once.)

I'm practicing Appalachian Spring right now, trying to get my hands to stop thinking about how they already know "Simple Gifts" and instead actually pay attention to what's on the page. (I'm pretending to be an orchestra for a conducting class later today.) I'm also still bleary from the weekend: worked all day yesterday, stayed up too late on Saturday helping my UConn-fan wife obliterate the immediate past with mojitos and Classical Barbra, and was out too late on Friday witnessing The Bad Plus in the flesh and then finally meeting Ethan Iverson. I bought Ethan a drink, after which somebody else came up and wanted to buy Ethan a drink. That's right—his fans were fighting over who got to pay for his alcohol. Ethan swore that this had never happened to him before. I'm not sure I believe him.

April 03, 2009

Foliage of the Heart

Guerrieri: Now Once More (2009) (PDF, 2 pages, 122 Kb; MIDI here)

I've never ended up hiring trumpets for Easter, since I'm always miffed at how much they want to gouge me. But a very nice person at my church had the wherewithal to recruit a couple players from the local high school this year, so I wrote an introit for them. I'm not sure I like it as much as our usual Easter introit, but when life gives you trumpets, make trumpetade. (Plus, the first line makes a good Beckett-like title.)

In other news:
  • Geoff Edgers profiles one of the best musicians I know.
  • President Obama's gift to the Queen of England—an iPod loaded with showtunes—was actually rather spot-on.
  • Andrew Lloyd Webber, anti-piracy crusader! The original Phantom of the Opera is public domain, right? Puccini as well? Just sayin'.
  • Although I would certainly not turn down some of that filthy lucre in order to bid on an original edition of the Kandinsky/Marc Der Blaue Reiter almanac, including facsimiles of song manuscripts by Schoenberg ("Herzgewächse"), Berg ("Warm die Lüfte"), and Webern ("Ihr tratet zu dem Herde"). Christie's gives an estimate of $40,000-70,000. (Compare that with the number quoted in the first item in this list.)

April 02, 2009

And you still wouldn't want to see how it's made

Thanks to technological acceleration, John Cage jokes are rapidly approaching their sell-by date (remember when 4'33" was this wild, crazy cult thing that nobody knew about?), but this riff is a worthy entry in the pantheon. Though I would still need to chase it with more canonic fare. (Hot Doug's, by the way, is famous for their weekend-only duck-fat fries. Dieting is for the insecure!)

(Thanks to our librarian friend—really, all of you &c.Rebecca Hunt for the link.)

April 01, 2009

Canonic Suite

Reviewing the Boston Chamber Music Society.
Boston Globe, April 1, 2009.

Update (4/1): Reader Laurence Glavin pointed out that the Beethoven Cello Sonata is opus 69, not 67. I guess those post-concert margaritas were stronger than I thought. (And it's not like Mozart, where you can always cover your tracks by claiming to be working from a particularly obscure revision of the Köchel catalog.)

Update (4/3): Fixed, at least online.