April 25, 2011

"... the magician and the prophet on the one hand, and in the elected war lord, the gang leader and condotierre on the other hand"

The Boston Symphony Orchestra is into the last two weeks of its season, under a pair of guest conductors who might also be reminders of the group's post-James Levine conducting predicament: Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, often touted as a candidate for a caretaker BSO music director, and Charles Dutoit, currently filling a similar role at the crying-poor Philadelphia Orchestra. I am hardly an expert in classical-music criticism—as Globe readers rarely hesitate to remind me—but I do have a good trick for gauging the relationship between a professional orchestra and a guest conductor, a ridiculously simple one, but one that usually tells a great deal about the concert at hand: is the orchestra looking at the conductor? It's not necessary, after all; I could probably get up in front of the Boston Symphony, give the downbeat for Brahms 2, and then walk away, and the orchestra would probably come up with a pretty decent Brahms 2 all on their own. There have been BSO concerts I've seen where the players spent more time stealing glances at the concertmaster than at the conductor. There have been a few that started out that way, but where, over the course of the concert, the conductor won them over, so that by the end, the players were hanging on every wave of the stick. And then there's the ones where the podium is the natural focus of attention from beginning to end. It's not foolproof, but, for the most part, that's a corresponding progression in the quality of the concerts as well.

It's a criterion that measures, among other things, a conductor's charisma, which is something I was thinking about in the context of both the Boston and Philadelphia situations. Not so much charisma in the sort of vague, strong-personality everyday use of it, but in the somewhat more specific way that the great German sociologist Max Weber used it. Weber's ideas about charisma come in a long lecture, Politik als Beruf ("Politics as a Vocation"), that he delivered late in his life, in the wake of World War I. (You can read "Politics as a Vocation" here; the translation, uncredited, is by Hans Gerth and C. Wright Mills.) Weber characterized three different kinds of political leadership:
To begin with, in principle, there are three inner justifications, hence basic legitimations of domination.

First, the authority of the 'eternal yesterday,' i.e. of the mores sanctified through the unimaginably ancient recognition and habitual orientation to conform. This is 'traditional' domination exercised by the patriarch and the patrimonial prince of yore.

There is the authority of the extraordinary and personal gift of grace (charisma), the absolutely personal devotion and personal confidence in revelation, heroism, or other qualities of individual leadership. This is 'charismatic' domination, as exercised by the prophet or—in the field of politics—by the elected war lord, the plebiscitarian ruler, the great demagogue, or the political party leader.

Finally, there is domination by virtue of 'legality,' by virtue of the belief in the validity of legal statute and functional 'competence' based on rationally created rules. In this case, obedience is expected in discharging statutory obligations. This is domination as exercised by the modern 'servant of the state' and by all those bearers of power who in this respect resemble him.
Weber's definition of domination is specifically in the context of the state, the power of which Weber analyzes as derived from its claim on a monopoly on the use of violent force: "The state is considered the sole source of the 'right' to use violence". The power wielded by a symphony orchestra is awfully garden-party by comparison. But one can, I think, find hints of Weber's three legitimations in every orchestra. Certainly the orchestra's artistic power is based, in large part, on the authority of an "eternal yesterday"; and some of the organizational power struggles could be traced to a conflict between that traditional authority and the rules-based legal authority of unions and corporate regulation.

But it's Weber's gift-of-grace (the literal translation of χαρισμα) that sets orchestras apart—they're some of the very few organizations whose leaders are, necessarily, even by definition, charismatic leaders. We might think of such charisma as a de facto requirement in the political sphere as well; Weber, in 1919, was already at least hinting at its predominance:
To be sure, the pure types are rarely found in reality. But today we cannot deal with the highly complex variant, transitions, and combinations of these pure types, which problems belong to 'political science.' Here we are interested above all in the second of these types: domination by virtue of the devotion of those who obey the purely personal 'charisma' of the 'leader.' For this is the root of the idea of a calling in its highest expression.
But charisma is a democratic choice, not a requirement. Garry Wills' polemic-disguised-as-a-meditation The Kennedy Imprisonment draws heavily on Weber's categories to make that point, contrasting the low-key, legalistic, trust-the-hierarchy administration of Eisenhower with JFK's explicitly charismatic brandishing—and appropriation—of presidential power. Since Kennedy, political success has, more often than not, been judged in charismatic terms. But political office is not inherently dependent on charisma—and such offices actually can resist charismatic leveraging. (As does the electorate—witness the pleasing-nobody limbo of Barack Obama, a charismatic figure but a temperamental legalist, trying to pivot from a Kennedy-esque campaign to a very Eisenhower-like style of governing.)

Orchestras, though, are predicated on charismatic leadership—you need somebody the players are going to look at. Wills' analysis, interestingly, suggests that such leadership is actually a chronic source of organizational instability. In the political sphere, charismatic leadership best flourishes in crisis situations—Wills points to the Kennedy administrations penchant for marathon, high-stakes convocations of decision-makers centered in the White House: "Since the charismatic leader's special powers grow from special dangers, the two feed on each other," Wills notes. "For some crises to be overcome, they must first be created." For orchestras, such crises tend to be centered around changes in leadership—music directors rarely depart except under circumstances of crisis, which, cyclically, gives the succeeding music director the fuel to exert a new round of charismatic authority. But such lacunae are perilous, especially now that the peripatetic, scheduled-years-in-advance conductor is the norm. The charismatic basis of music directorships means that the organizations are comparatively impoverished in the vacuum left by their departures. Wills again: "Charisma, the uniquely personal power, delegitimates institutions. Rule by dazzlement cannot be succeeded by mere constitutional procedure." He quotes Weber's biographer, Reinhard Bendix:
Such a transformation from charismatic leadership to traditional domination occurs most frequently when the problem of succession must be solved. In a strict sense that problem is insoluble, for charisma is an inimitable quality that some higher power is believed to have bestowed upon one person. Consequently a successor cannot be chosen at all. Instead, the followers wait in hope that another leader will appear who will manifest his own charismatic qualification. [emphasis added]
In that sense, the timing of the Philadelphia Orchestra board's decision to file for Chapter 11 is hardly coincidental, the weakness of the institution expressing itself in the absence of a permanent charismatic head. (Interim conductor Charles Dutoit, indeed, seemed surprised by the move.) As far as I know, the BSO is not in comparable financial distress (although, if Philadelphia gets away with their petition, I cynically would not be surprised to see every orchestra in the country try a similar maneuver the next time a contract re-negotiation is on the horizon). But they're most likely looking at a couple seasons, at least, without an official music director. Given Levine's history, one might chide them for not being more proactive in arranging for a successor, for letting the situation reach such a crisis point. Under Weber's analysis, though, the crisis is the point, the crisis is necessary before the institution can make a move, because the crisis is what lends authority to the next leader.

It's hard to imagine what a conductor who relied on Weber's "legality" would look like—even those who philosophically defer to "the authority of the score" tend to make such deference part of their charismatic aura (and can be among the most charismatic of all—Riccardo Muti, for example). Maybe such statute-based power can only be found in those ensembles that abstemiously avoid permanent conductorial authority—St. Luke's, Orpheus, A Far Cry, &c. For most traditionally-structured orchestras, though, charismatic leadership is par for the course—which means that, structurally speaking, so are regular doses of drama.

Update (4/25): Joshua Kosman thoughtfully looks on the bright side.

April 21, 2011

The Rachmaninoff Covenant

As of this morning, the International Music Score Library Project, the online repository of public domain music, is offline, due to a rather iffy (to say the least) DMCA takedown demand from the UK-based Music Publishers Association. The full tale is on the IMSLP forum; Tim Rutherford-Johnson has commentary and links.

The trigger for this latest skirmish is the IMSLP's posting of the score to Rachmaninoff's The Bells, a work that is not under copyright in the US, no matter what the MPA might claim. But is the use of that particular piece and that particular composer coincidental? Hmmmm.

To wit: off the top of my head, I can think of three rationales for the MPA's attempted shutdown:
  • The MPA is a somewhat clueless organization, hoping to protect some royalties via corporate bullying.
  • The sheer questionability of the takedown notice is aimed at sparking a legal challenge that can then be appealed, a UK version of Golan v. Holder.
  • The copyright maneuverings behind the Rachmaninoff legacy are more cloak-and-dagger than I thought.
History inclines my opinion towards the first option; the devil-making-work-for-idle-hands aspect of certain corners of the legal profession might incline me towards the second. But my inner conspiracy theorist loves the fact that Rachmaninoff is at the center of this, because Rachmaninoff plus copyright equals fertile ground for at least mild conspiracy.

The majority of Rachmaninoff's works are public domain in the US for the simple fact that the nascent Soviet Union couldn't get their act together on copyright. Tsarist Russia had never signed on to the Berne Convention; Soviet attempts throughout the 1920s to create bilateral copyright treaties with various other countries were abortive. From 1917 until 1967 (when the USSR finally signed its first bilateral copyright treaty, with Hungary), the Soviets were not part of the international copyright system; works copyrighted in Europe or America, say, had no protection in the USSR, while works copyrighted in the USSR had no protection anywhere else. As soon as Rachmaninoff's music was published in Soviet Russia—The Bells, for instance, came off the press in 1920—it was PD everywhere else.

Stravinsky was in the same boat, which is why there are multiple versions of many of his pre-Soviet-era greatest hits—The Rite of Spring, The Firebird, &c.: Stravinsky revised the scores in order to copyright at least some version of them in the US and Europe. It's also a contributing factor, probably, to Stravinsky's demonic productivity. Rachmaninoff, though, neither revised his earlier works nor composed all that much after leaving Russia (though the selection was choice: the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and the Third Symphony both post-date his emigration and, thus, remain snugly under copyright).

That hasn't stopped Rachmaninoff's descendents from trying to reassert some copyright control over the PD works. Some efforts have been relatively above board—the Rachmaninoff Critical Edition, for instance, done with the full cooperation and input of Alexander Rachmaninoff, the composer's grandson, and duly copyrighted 2005—and some more curious: you might recall Alexander Rachmaninoff Wanamaker, Serge's great-great-grandson, who wanted to do new arrangements of the Rachmaninoff catalog, just different enough to warrant fresh copyright. Wanamaker died in a fire in 2009, and the status of his efforts isn't clear, although this refashioning of the Third Symphony into a "Fifth" Piano Concerto might be some indication of the trend.

Now, do I really think that shady Rachmaninoff-connected minions are somehow blackmailing MPA executives into pursuing this legal action? That'd be a great story, but, no, of course not. But the Rachmaninoff situation is exactly the sort of thing that's being contested in the above-mentioned Golan v. Holder. A little background: the Berne Convention, which originally dates from 1886, has been the general international framework for intellectual property ever since. Which doesn't mean that it's been hewed to ever since: the US and Russia only got around to joining the Convention in 1988 and 1995, respectively, and when they did, they did so while specifically exempting themselves from the Convention's stipulations for retroactivity—in other words, neither country wanted to try and sort out royalties on works that, in each country, had been public domain for the better part of the 20th century. However, subsequent treaties have muddied the water, both WIPO, from 1996 (and the basis for the DMCA law that provided cover for MPA's cease-and-desist), and the so-called Uruguay Round, the 1994 trade agreements that also brought you the World Trade Organization. It's the latter that is the basis for Golan v. Holder—the Uruguay Round Agreements Act, under which Congress ratified the agreement, amended the US Copyright Code, providing for "the automatic restoration of copyright in certain foreign works that are in the public domain in the United States but protected by copyright or neighboring rights in an eligible source country." (According to the US Copyright Office.) That would be one heck of a precedent right there. But note that, even if the URAA were to stand up under judicial scrutiny, The Bells should have remained unaffected—its theoretical 75-year copyright term expired the day the URAA took effect, and, according to the Berne Convention, such natural-causes temporal expiration of copyright is immune to retroactivity.

Hence the prima facie ridiculousness of the MPA's claim. But, given the US Supreme Court's conservative majority's combination of pro-corporate cheerleading and (except for Anthony Kennedy) anti-international skepticism, I, for one, am not quite sure what to expect from Golan v. Holder; as a legal stalking horse for a similar case in the EU (not to mention a mixed metaphor), The Bells might adequately toll. Or, again, maybe the MPA is just yet another hidebound entity, deciding to run down the Internet, but tying their legal shoelaces together. Either one is plausible, really. Far less plausible, but far more satisfying to my dark, mischievous soul, would be a cabal of Rachmaninoff intimates, making a solemn vow in 1943, fanning out across the Western world, insinuating themselves into the corridors of copyright power, biding their time until the trap was ready to be sprung. The Bells would actually be a pretty good soundtrack for that movie.

Update (4/21): The MPA backpedals, kind of.

Further update (4/21): IMSLP is back up.

April 20, 2011

April 15, 2011

Nun hab' ich ewig Leid und Grämen!

There hasn't been much in this space lately—that's what an impending 11-service Holy Week gauntlet will do to one's productivity, I guess. But, in the interests of catching up: a couple weeks ago, the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra had an in-house "Composer Madness" competition, in which players got to vote on matchups in an NCAA-style bracket of the League of American Orchestra's list of most-performed composers. The final round pitted Beethoven against Mahler, at which point Kathryn Bacasmot flattered Soho the Dog HQ with a request for a commemorative cartoon, to run on the group's Facebook page.

No big upset here; Beethoven took the crown, so this is what ran (click to enlarge):

Had Mahler won, this is what would have run:

I love how, in that last panel, Ludwig came out looking like a pre-1960 Peanuts character.

April 11, 2011

To the Victor belongs the spoils

Reviewing the Orchestra Sinfonica dell'Europa Unita's "Notte Tricolore."
Boston Globe, April 11, 2011.

Copyright claims mean Gramsci's writings tend to be search-only on the Web, but the writings of Benedetto Croce remain readily available.

April 09, 2011

Weekend Insomnia Playlist

Alex Ross posted a playlist last week that made me feel lazy for not blogging more; I mean, come on, just write down what you're listening to, how hard is that? Now, I think I've said it here before, but I am a pretty obsessive listener; items are listened to constantly and repetitively for a few days/weeks, only to then drop completely off my radar. So it might be fun to see what's in heavy rotation right now:

  • "All Cried Out" (Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam) (see above). You know how some pop songs have isolated moments that you listen to the song over and over again just to sample? (For example, I once spent a month playing Blur's "Country House" to death solely for the transition into the second chorus.) "All Cried Out" is like two dozen of those moments strung together—and yet feels weirdly ephemeral when considered as an actual song. As if you can only measure it in parallax or something.

  • Strauss/Godowsky: Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes from "Die Fledermaus" (Katherine Chi, piano). An excellent live performance I downloaded from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum's website. Is there any composer who ever brought more technique, polish, and sheer elbow grease to self-indulgence than Godowsky? The wildly-overpriced-yet-insanely-good gourmet burger of Romantic pianism.

  • Andy Williams' Greatest Hits (Andy Williams). Andy Williams: a man whose cool is predicated on how much he simply doesn't care whether you think he's cool or not. An inspiration for us all. (Seriously, I had totally forgotten just how smooth Andy Williams is; if there's even a dull edge on this record, I haven't found it.)

  • George Antheil: Sonatas for Violin and Piano (Mark Fewer, violin; John Novacek, piano). This has been the go-to driving music for about five weeks now. Antheil's Second Sonata might be the most sardonically literate cartoon music ever; the First manages to both cheerfully plunder Stravinsky and Bartók while sassing them at the same time. The performance is some of the most committedly stylish 1920s provocation you're likely to hear. High-minded snotty punk music. I love it.

  • 9 (Public Image Ltd). Speaking of high-minded snotty punk music—or post-punk, anyway.... I was cleaning the den a couple months ago when I found a cassette of this that poet and cultured, sophisticated man about town Jack Miller had dubbed off for me back in high school. Upon said finding, played it straight through and then played it straight through again, and have been going back to that well every couple of days ever since. 9 has the reputation of being too clean and polished for a PiL album, but something about John Lydon sneering over all those shiny, happy grooves at least partially redeems the late 80s for me.

  • Charles Wuorinen: The Haroun Songbook. Here's what happened: I was throwing together a CD mix for a longish car ride, wanted a nice blast of atonal cheer to shift gears after Billy Joel's "Summer, Highland Falls," and somewhat impulsively settled on "It's a Princess Rescue Story," and then started to remember just how oddly catchy a lot of these songs are, and now they're all stuck in my craw. Especially "It's a Princess Rescue Story."

  • "Summer, Highland Falls" (Billy Joel). Haters gonna hate, but, deep down, they wish they could come up with a melody this good.

  • Bach: BWV 911, 826, 807 (Martha Argerich, piano). This one has been drifting in and out of the obsessive playlist for a few months. It's a great clear-out-the-muck aural reset album: it's like one of those really good understated 1970s thrillers where everything's in sharp focus and it's smart enough to assume you'll think for yourself and it's tricky enough to keep you on your toes, and when it's over, everything around you seems to have just a touch more clarity. I actually bought this album for a dollar at a library sale; I would have shed a tear for the declining cultural standards of civic institutions, but, on the other hand, that's a dollar well-spent.

April 01, 2011


Reviewing Sound Icon.
Boston Globe, April 3, 2011.

Concert last weekend, online now, in print on Sunday. Better late than never.