December 24, 2007

Not a creature was stirring

Critic-at-large Moe's holiday card
(Click to enlarge.) Critic-at-large Moe is listening to Al Green: O Holy Night (MP3, 3.4 MB). He has had it up to here with all of your cat pictures. Nevertheless, he wishes everyone a peaceful holiday season. See you next year!

Update (12/25): In memoriam, one more song to the playlist:

Anita O'Day and the Oscar Peterson Quartet:
Taking a Chance on Love (MP3, 2.2 MB)

More on this after break, probably. But consider: two of the all-time great side-job accompanists—Rostropovich and Peterson—gone in the same year.

December 22, 2007

Where's your Messiah now?

Reviewing three Christmas CDs.
Boston Globe, December 23, 2007.

This article was limited to recent releases, but here's two other Boston-area holiday recommendations: A Christmas Album, by the Choir of the Church of the Advent, particularly Rodney Lister's austere, modernist-by-way-of-Schütz Kings and Shepherds; and the Boston Camerata's An American Christmas, which introduced me to one of my all-time favorite Christmas songs, the George Elderkin revival hymn "Jesus the Light of the World."

December 21, 2007

Far Out

On Karlheinz Stockhausen.
Slate magazine, December 21, 2007.

Silk purses from sow's ears


We finish up the week's holiday scribbling (previously: 1, 2, 3, 4) with a boar's head carol, one of the oldest Christmas traditions there is. When super-intelligent aliens take over the planet and interrogate humanity about our customs, I imagine that the boar's head will come up around Day 23 or so.
SUPER-INTELLIGENT ALIENS: OK, that's all we need to know about the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts. Moving on. Now, this whole boar's head thing....

HUMANITY: Oh, yeah. The boar's head—for Christmas.

SIA: That would be the infant-in-a-feeding-trough holiday.

H: That's the one.

SIA: Now, you'd cut the head off a pig...

H: Yep.

SIA: And you'd put it on a plate...

H: Yep.

SIA: And then parade it around the room and sing to it.

H: Yep, that's pretty much it.

SIA: And why would you do this?

H: Well, I mean, we had to, didn't we? That boar is vicious, with those tusks and all. And he's constantly eating all the crops, isn't he? We worked hard raising those crops. We had to kill him.

SIA: So it's revenge, basically.

H: Yeah, I suppose.

SIA: Which you then made into a Christmas thing.

H: Yeah.

SIA: Like Die Hard, but with a pig.

H: Come on, man, you put it that way, it sounds stupid.
Voice and piano, with violin and cello obbligato. Why? Because I can. (Maniacal laughter, &c.) For my brother Dan and his new bride Jenn. (And Jessie, too.) Musically, this one is pure cop show. Not the "Dial 'M'" cop show-as-slang-for-cool—I mean it sounds like the theme to a 1970s cop show. Sing it while riding on the hood of a speeding car.

Guerrieri: Nowell, Nowell (PDF, 176 KB; surprisingly appropriate MIDI here)

December 20, 2007

No Soliciting


Today's carol (previously: 1, 2, 3) provides an unusually concise summary of the wassailing philosophy—i.e., we'll stand out here giving you musical guilt until you cough up the swag! And then on to your neighbors! A present for my sister Joy, currently spending her birthday somewhere in Mexico. On purpose, I think.

Guerrieri: A Jolly Wassail-Bowl (PDF, 110 KB; demented music-box MIDI here)

December 19, 2007

Food, Glorious Food


Today's carol (previously: 1, 2) comes to us courtesy of 17th-century England, where carving a roast was apparently regarded as a descendant of jousting—an oddly Proustian trigger for chivalric nostalgia. For Karen and Mike (you can share some with the boys if they've been good). Tritones and augmented triads make everything festive!

Guerrieri: My Master and Dame (PDF, 99 KB; Cooperstown-Giant-authentic-sounding MIDI here)

December 18, 2007

Can I start you off with some drinks?


Today's carol (previously) tells the heartwarming tale of a group of pushy carousers who demand nothing but alcohol. We have no need of your "food"! It might be nutritionally unsound, but I'll bet a roast goose they gained less weight in December than I will.

For Jeana and Glenn, and critic-at-large Moe's rural Midwestern counterpart Dougal. Musically: as if 19th-century wassailers were carrying around pocket transistor AM radios.

Guerrieri: Bring Us In Good Ale (PDF, 148 KB; Casiotone-esque MIDI here)

December 17, 2007

Knock knock


New England has been whomped by two major winter storms in relatively short order. The one on Thursday resulted in the cancellation of choir practice; the one yesterday resulted in the cancellation of church services and our yearly nursing home Christmas service and our yearly community carol sing. Apparently the pagan gods of nature are gaining the upper hand in the mythical War on Christmas. Look for Bill O'Reilly to denounce the singing of "Let It Snow" as an insult to Christian America.

Anyway, I took it as an opportunity to tinker with some original carols. My personal preference is for wassails—if you're not sure what a wassail involves, the almost always suspect Wikipedia actually nails this one:
Wassailing is the practice of going door-to-door singing Christmas carols until paid to go away and leave the occupants in peace.
Nothing epitomizes the holiday spirit quite like roving bands of musical extortionists, does it? Today's offering, a stocking stuffer for my brother Tony, is pretty much all about how two-over-three rhythms sound somewhat inebriated to my ear.

Guerrieri: The Wassaile (PDF, 104 KB; curious-sounding MIDI here)

Stay tuned—a new wassail every day this week!

Update (12/21): the rest—2, 3, 4, 5.

December 14, 2007

It's up to your knees out there


That was the awfully pretty view out my window this morning, but I think spending the night shoveling it all left too much of a brain fog for proper blogging. Nevertheless, here's some topics I was thinking about delving into. Maybe I'll get to the bottom of some of them at some point in the future. For today, I think I'll eat a whole bag of potato chips. Realistic goals, you know.

  • The New York Philharmonic goes to North Korea. It sounds kind of like the highbrow version of a "Bad News Bears" sequel, doesn't it? I always find these sorts of cultural exchanges fascinating, because you can make equally good arguments that they're almost inevitably failures because, at the end of the day, they don't really mean anything politically, or that they're almost inevitably successful, because, at the end of the day, they don't really mean anything politically. I'm curious to see just how much the view of this will hearken back to the Cold War: somebody's always keeping those Soviet-era journalistic lenses well-polished.

  • The 2008 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees were announced this week. More and more, the lesson of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame seems to be that the surest path to artistic immortality is to a) get in on the ground floor of b) a medium pitched towards impressionable teenagers who grow up to be nostalgic critics. I mean, I like the Dave Clark Five, but were they really that good or that important? I'm starting to get the feeling that, fifty years from now, every single act who released a record between 1955 and 1970 will be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (And again, "Weird Al" Yankovic is passed over. For shame.)

  • Punkte and Circumstance. For future publication, I spent a good deal of this week studying Karlheinz Stockhausen; for future publication, I'm embarking on a study of Edward Elgar. Maybe it's just the accidental juxtaposition, but I think there's a particular connection between them that has a lot to do with how easily music can paper over awkward aesthetic impulses: namely, the fact that both composers rose to positions of public prominence at the same time the strong religious aspects of their music were publicly soft-pedaled. Elgar's Catholicism was politely discounted for pretty much his whole career; Stockhausen's everything-and-the-kitchen-sink didn't receive much mention until the late 1960s, when it became too front-and-center to ignore.

  • I'll close with a commercial: here in Framingham, I live within shouting distance of about a hundred shopping malls, and if the traffic I have to crawl through when I'm not even going to the mall is any indication, there's a lot of holiday-gift aggravation out there for the having. Why not just stay home and give everyone t-shirts? Not to be an insufferable shill or anything, but proceeds do go to a good cause. (Don't like mine? Darcy's are pretty stylish. And Matt has cornered the market on wearable puns—my favorite is "Fine and D'Indy," with its subversive anti-anti-Semitic vibe.)

    December 13, 2007

    Deck the walls

    It's dueling art collector day on Soho the Dog!


    Pablo Picasso's Head of a Woman in Profile (Jacqueline), a 1970 canvas that's part of the Lazarof collection, a major trove of modernist art that was given to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art this week.
    The "fractional and partial'' gift, in which title passes to the museum over a number of years, includes 20 paintings and drawings by Picasso, seven bronze sculptures and a painting by Alberto Giacometti, 11 drawings by Klee, two versions of "Bird in Space'' by sculptor Constantin Brancusi, and late 19th-century works by Edgar Degas and Camille Pissarro.
    Not a bad haul for a composer. Yes, a composer—that's Lazarof as in Henri Lazarof, longtime UCLA professor—though it would seem that the main wherewithal came from Lazarof's wife Janice, daughter of noted LA philanthropist Mark Taper. LACMA has been very, very good this Christmas—the collection is one masterpiece after another.

    Now, yesterday in Milan, Sotheby's was auctioning off some other artwork, as part of a sale of letters, paintings, and various other tchotchkes formerly owned by Maria Callas. And what did La Divina grace her walls with? Sad clowns!


    That's a Clown by A. Morgante, which sold for 750 Euros—which, it should be noted, was well above the 350-500 estimate: the Callas mystique still holds. To be fair, there was quite a bit of worthy stuff—this Baldassare Carrari (free registration required) is rather nice—and maybe the clowns were Meneghini's, anyway. (I see Maria walking through the house, passing the clown painting in the hallway, and, every time, giving it that dagger-sharp big-eyed Callas look.) But honestly, what is that tie made of? Lemon meringue? The eye of the beholder, indeed.

    December 07, 2007

    fl. 2007


    MT: You know you're considered a strange case of prudence and foresight. And yet you don't give up electronic production, which is a kind of gamble. Why?

    KS: Because the sense of risk is actually indispensable to me. At this point, my argument is about to become metaphysical. Most people have no intention of following me to this level; but I'm convinced that the tangible results of my work, the electro-acoustical material, could even end up destroyed, and that it wouldn't matter, because the inner impulse which compels me to bring a work to completion would remain. The idea which takes form and materializes in a substantial design of metallic molecules; the spirit which coagulates when pressed on to tape—what else are they but the exact equivalent of an abstract order? When the ear—that is, the auditory imagination—is no longer conditioned by the body, and the membrane of the loudspeaker disappears into the dust, along with the entire universe, the only thing to survive, in so far as it is 'idea', will be the spiritual force which emanates from my music.

    —Mya Tannenbaum (trans. David Butchart),
    Conversations With Stockhausen (1987)

    Image from Klavierstücke VI. More from: Marc Geelhoed, Alex Ross, Tim Rutherford-Johnson, ANABlog, Associated Press.

    The envelopes

    This year's Grammy nominations were announced yesterday, and my own irrelevance was staved off yet again—every year, I expect to reach the level of complete non-familiarity with the rock/pop nominees, but some passing radio encounters with Amy Winehouse and a couple of excursions to Starbucks saved me. (Though if Amy Winehouse got six nominations, that means that next year, Sharon Jones should get, I don't know, a hundred.)

    The classical nominations reveal a fair number of smaller labels, I think reflecting the way the Internet has completely changed the rules of promotion and distribution. The big story, of course, is the multiple nods for Peter Lieberson's Grawemeyer-award-winning Neruda Songs, which deserve as many statuettes as possible. I've decided, though, that the rooting interest here at Soho the Dog HQ will be for the Brian Setzer Orchestra, who scored a nomination in the Best Classical Crossover category for the thoroughly goofy/awesome warhorse/surf-guitar mashup Wolfgang's Big Night Out. (You can hear a few tracks on their MySpace page.)

    High church

    Tomorrow is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on the Roman Catholic calendar, which is one of the six remaining non-Sunday Holy Days of Obligation in the American Catholic church. The feast itself officially goes back to 1476, and unofficially even further, but the Immaculate Conception of Mary—the doctrine that Mary was born without original sin—was first proclaimed as dogma by Pope Pius IX in 1854. Popes like to make pronouncements like this every few generations or so just to remind everyone about that whole papal infallibility thing. Wait a minute—he can still do that? Pius XII did the same thing with Mary's bodily assumption into heaven in 1950. Look for Benedict XVI to come up with something any day now.

    Papal infallibility is one of the main Protestant objections to Catholicism—yet, oddly enough, it was one of the things that gave Catholicism an unlikely avant-garde cachet from around the time of Pius IX's proclamation to, say, World War II. Particularly in England and France, artists and writers who had a particular bent towards modernism often were attracted to the Roman church. In England, home of Henry VIII's schism and a long history of antagonism with Catholic France, conversion was, for a time, the upper-class anti-Establishment gesture of choice, inspired by the famous apostasies of Cardinals Manning and Newman. Oscar Wilde flirted with Catholicism as an Oxford student in the 1870s, based in large part on the elegance of Newman's prose (one of the only things that kept him from taking the plunge was his father's threat of disinheritance). Wilde evetually decided his subversive tendencies led in other directions, but he's a prime example of the rebellious attraction of Catholicism for up-to-date Victorian college students, the 19th-century equivalent of a Che Guevara poster. (Note that, in England, this was mostly an aristocratic impulse—Edward Elgar, for example, felt his own outsider status had more to do with his working-class roots than his Catholic upbringing.)

    The paradoxical modernity of Catholicism was even more explicitly perceived in France. The clearest statement of it is probably Guillaume Apollinaire's long poem "Zone," published in the collection Alcools in 1913. He name-checks Pope Pius X (who, coincidentally, had reduced the number of Holy Days of Obligation from 36 to a more manageable eight in 1911):
    Religion alone has remained entirely fresh religion
    Has remained simple like the hangars at the airfield

    You alone in all Europe are not antique O Christian faith
    The most modern European is you Pope Pius X
    Apollinaire adopts the conceit that technology is only aiming for what the church has already achieved:
    It is God who died on Friday and rose again on Sunday
    It is Christ who soars in the sky better than any aviator
    He breaks the world's altitude record
    (Translation by Roger Shattuck.) One can start to see the attraction of Catholicism, bestowing a miraculous poetry on technological advance, while anchoring the dizzying speed and confusion of the modern world in archaic ceremony. Some saw its strictness as a bulwark: Wilde (who eventually converted on his deathbed) once made the unlikely claim that Catholicism might have tempered his homosexuality, while Jean Cocteau, the most self-conscious modernist of all, briefly returned to the church in the late 1920s while unsuccessfully attempting to overcome an opium addiction.

    But mostly, I think that modernist artists and writers, attempting to create entirely new worlds by fiat, saw a kindred spirit in the all-powerful, deliberately ancient pontiff. The high modernism of the pre-World War II era was as much backward-looking as forward: Stravinsky's neo-Classicism, Pound's neo-Medievalism, the influence of Greek antiquity on Picasso. In a culture saturated with jazzy modernity, the sort of bracing anachronism exemplified by the Catholic church could seem the most avant-garde movement of all.

    This sort of relationship has never been far from the surface in music, which turns again and again to the past for structure, inspiration, or effect. There's a fair amount of Renaissance influence in post-minimalist music, but, then again, there was also a fair amount of Renaissance influence in serialist music, too—Webern's expertise in the music of Heinrich Isaac bore fruit in just about all of his own compositions. Punk rock was in many ways a return to the 50s; today, almost the entire pop spectrum can be read in terms of retro influences, be it AM-radio easy listening, 70s soul, 60s psychedlia, Basement-Tapes-style recycled roots music, etc. All over the map, yet, I think, traceable to the same post-Romantic impulse that made the cutting edge a fellow traveler with Catholicism for a while: not just the shock of the new, not just the reinvention of ancient innovation, but a necessarily foolhardy assertion of the infallibility of the artist's taste. The appeal of Catholicism was not just its discipline, but also the model of its hierarchical theology. The dogmas vary, even from work to work, but the ability to decide what they are remains the creator's fundamental privilege. Every piece is an encyclical: we claim our own imprimatur.

    December 06, 2007

    Antiquing

    A fact most characteristic of the Renaissance and of Italy is the specialization of the orchestra, the search for new instruments and modes of sounds, and, in close connection with this tendency, the formation of a class of 'virtuosi,' who devoted their whole attention to particular instruments or particular branches of music.
    From Jacob Burckhardt's 1860 study, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. One of the biggest criticisms of the modern symphony orchestra is that its museum-like nature has put Burckhardt's analysis seriously out of balance—the focus on virtuosic practice has atrophied the search for new instruments and modes and sounds. Interestingly, last week's Boston Symphony concerts (which the group brought to New York) had small object lessons in both the validity and the irrelevance of such a protest. Henri Dutilleux expertly and hauntingly deployed a very non-orchestral instrument, the accordion, in his song cycle "Le Temps L'Horloge"—one could certainly conjure up a reedy facsimile with some clever orchestration, but the actual presence of the instrument was both more convincing and more poetic. On the other hand, in Debussy's "La Mer," I spent most of the performance mesmerized by veteran BSO percussionist Frank Epstein, manning the cymbal parts. Cymbals can be a one-dimensional flourish, but Epstein put on a clinic, coaxing inexhaustible, surprising colors out of an instrument that's hardly changed since it made its way into the orchestra a couple of centuries ago. Never mind the new instruments, Epstein's mastery seemed to say, we've barely scratched the surface of the old ones.

    Also from Burckhardt:
    In singing, only the solo was permitted, 'for a single voice is heard, enjoyed, and judged far better.' In other words, as singing, notwithstanding all conventional modesty, is an exhibition of the individual man of society, it is better that each should be seen and heard separately. The tender feelings produced in the fair listeners are taken for granted, and elderly people are therefore recommended to abstain from such forms of art, even though they excel in them. It was held important that the effect of the song should be enhanced by the impression made on the sight.
    Peter Gelb, Renaissance man.

    December 05, 2007

    Comparative Ponerology of the Day

    "Obviously rock climbing firms the upper regions of the will. But it's quite a process. And just as dangerous as black magic. For every fear we are ready to confront is equally open, you see, to the Devil. Should we fail, the Devil is there to soothe our cowardice. 'Stick with me,' he says, 'and your cowardice is forgiven.' Whereas, rock climbing, when well done, pinches off the Devil. Of course, if you fail, his nibs returns twofold. If you are not good enough then, you spend half your days getting the Devil out. That is marking time. And so long as we stay in place, Satan is more than satisfied. He loves circular, obsessive activity. Entropy is his meat. When the world becomes a pendulum, he will inhabit the throne."

    —Norman Mailer, Harlot's Ghost

    "Who knows today, who even knew in classical times, what inspiration is, what genuine, old, primeval enthusiasm, insicklied critique, unparalysed by thought or by the mortal domination of reason—who knows the divine raptus? I believe, indeed, the devil passes for a man of destuctive criticism? Slander and again slander, my friend! Gog's sacrament! If there is anything he cannot abide, if there's one thing in the whole world he cannot stomach, it is destructive criticism. What he wants and gives is triumph over it, is shining, sparkling, vainglorious unreflectiveness!"

    —Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus

    December 04, 2007

    Smile

    Photo of the day from Reuters. That's Brian Wilson, looking pretty much as I'd look if I found myself trapped between Diana Ross and Condolezza Rice. Wilson was fêted at this year's Kennedy Center Honors with, among other things, a medley of his songs performed by Hootie and the Blowfish. Hootie and the Blowfish, huh? Can you excuse me for a moment? (sound of head banging against wall)

    Elsewhere, Lord Goldsmith is recommending that some lyrics to "God Save the Queen" be changed. I'd start with the second verse, which has long spread the pernicious idea that "cause" and "voice" somehow rhyme. (Critic-at-large Moe suggests working in something about paws.) Or just scrap the whole thing and start over.

    And film critic Jim Emerson has a good time comparing Bob Dylan to Beethoven's Ninth. (If you've never seen director Todd Haynes' infamous all-Barbie-doll Karen Carpenter biopic, you really should.)

    Hanukkah starts at sundown tonight. I should come up with a celebratory post, but honestly, am I going to top last year's? Not bloody likely. So think of it as one of those endlessly repeated holiday specials. Shalom!

    December 03, 2007

    Last Fair Deal Gone Down

    Via The Concert and Deceptively Simple, a fine meme/questionnaire/procrastination aid.

    The rules:

    1. Put your iTunes/ music player on Shuffle
    2. For each question, press the next button to get your answer
    3. YOU MUST WRITE THAT SONG NAME DOWN NO MATTER WHAT

    CAPITAL LETTERS! I MUST OBEY!

    1. If someone says ‘Is this OK?’ you say?
    "America" (Van Dyke Parks' arrangement from Tokyo Rose).
    There's a bright future for me in politics, apparently.

    2. What would best describe your personality?
    "Wonderful" (Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers).
    Thanks, Sam! I left the money in your dressing room.

    3. What do you like in a girl?
    "Pu Pu Pa Doo" (The Gaynotes).
    No way I'm touching that one.

    4. How do you feel today?
    Berg: "Im Zimmer" from Sieben frühe Lieder (Anne Sofie von Otter/Bengt Forsberg).
    "When my eye rests so in yours, as quietly the minutes pass." I love you, too, computer!

    5. What is your life’s purpose?
    Britten: "The Death of Nicholas" from Saint Nicholas (the old Decca Britten/Pears recording).
    Revenge shall be mine.

    6. What is your motto?
    "I Can't Go On (Rosalie)" (Fats Domino).
    That's me—Samuel Beckett without the follow-through.

    7. What do your friends think of you?
    Poulenc: "Toréador" (Michel Sénéchal/Dalton Baldwin).
    Scoff all you want, but bolero jackets are making a comeback.

    8. What do you think of your parents?
    Brahms: Symphony no. 2: III. Allegretto grazioso (quasi andantino)—Presto ma non assai—Tempo I (Wiener Philharmoniker/Bernstein).
    Coincidentally, the tempo marking of pretty much every report card review of my childhood.

    9. What do you think about very often?
    Schumann: "O wie Lieblich," op. 138, no. 3 (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau/Jörg Demus).
    My wife is distractingly cute, OK?

    10. What does 2+2=?
    "C'est Si Bon" (Don Byron, from Don Byron Plays the Music of Mickey Katz).
    Two plus two? It's all good! L'chaim!

    11. What do you think of your best friend?
    Adams: "Landing of the Spirit of '76" from Nixon in China.
    Well, every time I go to his house, I do have to shake the hands of all his ministers.

    12. What do you think of the person you like?
    Donizetti: "Voglio dire, lo stupendo elisir" from L'elisir d'amore (Battle/Pavarotti/Levine).
    It sure is.

    13. What is your life story?
    Wolf: "Das Köhlerweib is trunken" (Elisabeth Schwarzkopf/Gerald Moore).
    I was tricked by red wine. Is that an accepted legal defense plea?

    14. What do you want to be when you grow up?
    Tallis: The Lamentations of Jeremiah: Ghimel. Migravit Juda propter afflictionem (Pro Cantione Antiqua).
    Judah is gone into captivity because of affliction, and because of great servitude: she dwelleth among the heathen, she findeth no rest: all her persecutors overtook her between the straits. A restless, cranky old man. I'm well on my way.

    15. What do you think when you see the person you like?
    Bach: "Ich folge dir Gleichfalls" from St. John Passion (Elly Ameling).
    I likewise follow you with eager steps and will not forsake you, my Light and my Life. Let it not be said that I don't know what's good for me.

    16. What do your parents think of you?
    "I Know You Got Soul" (Eric B. and Rakim).
    Thanks, Mom and Dad! I left the money in your dressing room.

    17. What will you dance to at your wedding?
    Bernstein: "A Boy Like That," from West Side Story (original Broadway cast).
    Not actually what I danced to at my wedding, and truth be told, I'm kind of kicking myself.

    18. What will they play at your funeral?
    "Que Sera, Sera" (Sly and the Family Stone).
    How do you sum up a man's life? Meh.

    19. What is your hobby/interest?
    "Keep Your Hand on the Plow" (Mahalia Jackson).
    Wait, I have to get something to pull the plow, too? No wonder nothing's growing.

    20. What is your biggest secret?
    "I Don't Like Mondays" (The Boomtown Rats).
    That's no secret! Well, the shooting part, maybe.

    21. What do you think of your friends?
    "Heard It Through the Grapevine" (The Slits).
    As soon as they read this post, they'll find out on the sly.

    22. What should you post this as?
    "Last Fair Deal Gone Down" (Robert Johnson).

    Witches can be right, giants can be good

    In my ADD way, I rarely revisit topics once I've posted on them—I say what I have to say, and them I'm done. (Of course, some topics always pique my interest, usually for strange reasons: the gilt Art Nouveau rotary hotline has been silent as of late—hello?) So I wasn't planning on further deconstruction of the whole Gustavo Dudamel-Hugo Chávez-Venezuela thing, but it's been flaring up again (Although, as Darcy points out, we've probably been focusing on the wrong demagogue).

    The opposition to El Sistema is basically this: Chávez is awful, El Sistema has connections with Chávez, therefore it's tainted, no matter how much good it does. Patrick at The Penitent Wagnerite (linked above) put it this way:
    You cannot assert that Chávez is bad, but part of his regime (no matter when it was founded) is good, without contradicting yourself and implying that Chávez is good. It's just that simple.
    Here's my question (which goes well beyond the ostensible topic at hand): why is this whole evil-tainting-good idea invariably a one-way street? Patrick paints himself into a corner because his definitions of "evil" and "good" are so acid-and-base exclusive. (A professor I know would have diagnosed this as "hardening of the categories.") But even those of us who take a more pragmatic (or, from a pejorative standpoint, "morally relative") standpoint still have a tendency to default to the same direction of moral flow. Evil taints good, but good doesn't, as it were, taint evil.

    I wonder how far back in human history that lopsided equation goes. Pandora's Box, maybe? Adam's fall? Unusually for this infidel, I thought of a biblical passage, from Mark's Gospel:
    And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.

    And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.

    And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.
    My suspicion is that the modern iteration of the unwashable stain is a hangover from the rise of Nazi Germany. Many decent people chose to take a charitable view of Hitler for too long, with disastrous results—as a result, our reflex is to believe the worst of any even mildly evil figure, and morally quarantine ourselves.

    But take a look at that passage from Mark again: the point isn't that evil needs to be violently amputated from our souls, the point is that even flawed souls can, on balance, be saved. The morally maimed can still enter into eternal life. Your hand is evil? Your foot? Your eye? That's OK—it's not like you're all evil.

    Jesus, in other words, was optimistic about the human soul. If you're afraid of being infected by the evil you see in Chávez and his ilk, you're too late: it's been there all along. That's the pessimistic reality of the human condition that we're all-too-familiar with after the last couple of centuries—the darkness that resides in all of us, periodically, sometimes catastrophically erupting into the world. But we miss the optimism: sure, there's evil in everyone's soul, but most of us don't let it erupt. It manifests itself as petty selfishness or occasional intolerance, but not authoritarian megalomania. We try our best to be good people, and that good taints our evil. Is it enough? Not always—sometimes not even often. So what do we do? We keep trying. It's foolishly optimistic. And foolishness is the most universal human trait there is.

    Chávez, by the way, lost his bid to alter the constitution and make himself permanently re-electable. Did he call in the army? Declare the election invalid? Throw it into the courts? Nope—he sucked it up and gave a concession speech. At least in this instance, he did the right thing. Did some of El Sistema's good taint his soul? Probably not—but considering the possibility is a nice workout for an intellectual muscle that, it seems, we may have forgotten how to use.

    November 30, 2007

    It's beginning to look a lot


    Guerrieri: O Bethlehem (2003), SATB chorus (PDF, 175 KB)

    Advent starts this Sunday, which, for the non-Christians out there, is when even the devout start counting the shopping days left until Christmas (NOTE: good-hearted joke which eight years of Catholic grade school qualifies me to make). In celebration, here's a Christmas anthem I wrote a few years back (tinny-sounding piano MIDI here) which has yet to get a public hearing—every year, I pencil it in, and every year, we run out of rehearsal time and I substitute something easy out of the Oxford Carols for Choirs book. This year, we're doing it whether it's properly rehearsed or not.

    The impetus for this piece was Guerrieri's Rule of Sacred Text Exigesis: always look up passages in context, since they're usually weirder than you'd think. (This rule only applies to traditional mainstream religions; Dianetics, for example, is pretty much exactly as weird as you'd think.) Given all the slots to fill up in a lessons and carols service, I make it my mission to include at least one that isn't all cheese-curd-smooth John Rutter-esque warm fuzzies. (If you'd rather not encourage me, Benjamin Britten's "The Oxen" also fits this bill nicely.)

    By the way, for the month, that brings the current score to Daniel Wolf, 29, me, 1. There's still fourteen hours left, though.

    November 29, 2007

    Come, wishes be horses

    Stravinsky, horse and IgorThis year has been a pretty good one for Stravinsky—Stravinsky the horse, that is. The 11-year-old stallion, son of the legendary Nureyev (take a second to properly categorize that nugget of information) now spends his days shuttling between stud farms in New Zealand and Australia, and the track success of his progeny has him currently ranked as the season's 11th-most-valuable sire in Australo-Asian thoroughbred racing.

    His European ranking—51st—reflects more quality than quantity, being based in large part on one horse, the aptly named Soldier's Tale (other Stravinsky offspring include Korsakoff, Balmont, and Pulcinella). Back in June, Soldier's Tale won the Golden Jubilee Stakes at Royal Ascot with a furious close in the final furlongs—which made for quite the storybook ending:
    When [Soldier's Tale] was 2, he was unable to race because he had bad knees. He managed to run two races as a 3-year-old and win one of them, but then broke a leg, requiring surgery and six screws. A year later, the horse came back to win two more races, but then had another fracture. Then there was the colic.

    "We were within five minutes of putting him down, but he just showed such a will to live," [trainer Jeremy] Noseda said. "I know it sounds sappy and all that, but he's like a personal friend now. I come out and see him every night - I stick my head out of the door and call 'Spam' and he answers back."
    Yes, the horse's nickname is "Spam," which is so simultaneously inappropriate and endearing that it pretty much made my day.

    November 28, 2007

    A Boy Like That

    News from here and there while I wait for Gruppen to finish downloading....

    The British seem to be in a mood for marathons: first Vexations, then Scarlatti: the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester organized a performance of all 555 of Domenico Scarlatti's keyboard sonatas last Sunday, in six overlapping recitals, packing a day-and-a-half's worth of music into a comparatively breezy twelve hours. Here's my favorite detail:
    Punters will be able to hear 449 of the sonatas for nothing (the other six will be played by Aleksandar Madzar in the final pay-to-get-in recital) and can make their selections with the help of a giant screen listing which piece is being played where and when.
    I had an image of a Departure/Arrival screen in an airport. L. 263 is now boarding... L. 397 is delayed....

    From around the blogosphere: Jeremy Denk revolutionizes music theory (and manages to avoid a "snap, crackle, pop" reference—you're a stronger man than I am); ANABlog looks into the future (Utopia? Dystopia? Depends on how well she plays it, I guess); Brian Sacawa (via Darcy) unearths the subliminal seed for an entire generation of avant-garde composers (I heard that soundtrack on a regular basis from age 5 on up, now I'm listening to Gruppen—coincidence?). And I'm a little late on this one, but Andy at The Black Torrent Guard is taking nominations in possible anticipation of this year's Most Annoying Song contest.

    Finally, Chevy Chase reveals just how crazy "Saturday Night Live" nearly got:
    But meantime, did you know that "West Side Story" composer Leonard Bernstein almost guest-hosted "SNL" in its first season? "The idea of John [Belushi] and Danny [Aykroyd] coming out doing a number from that show cracked us up," Chevy recalls.

    He and writer Tom Schiller were invited by Bernstein to the New York Philharmonic to discuss the idea. After the show they went to see the famous virtuoso with a penchant for young men backstage.

    "He put his hand on my knee. When we were leaving, he kissed me full-on, on the lips. I wagged my finger at him and said, ‘No, no, no.’ And that was the last we ever heard from him."
    A hell of a town.

    November 27, 2007

    Les anges musiciens

    Practicing has been less of a chore lately due to a larger-than-usual concentration of songs by Francis Poulenc in the to-do pile. Poulenc has an unshakeable spot in the top bracket of my all-time favorite composers, but it's hard to explain exactly why. I usually fall back on turning the most common Poulenc criticism inside-out: yes, I say, he just wrote the same song over and over again, but it's a song I happen to like. A joke, but in a way, it starts to get at just what it is about his music I find so endlessly bewitching.

    Two of the songs I'm practicing this week—the "Air champêtre" from the 1931 Airs chantés, and "Il vole" from the 1939 cycle Fiançailles pour rire—both end with nearly identical passages. The "Air champêtre":

    Air champêtre, last two barsAnd "Il vole":

    Il vole, last two barsThat figure—the repeated open-voiced roulade outlining V7-I—sounds an awful lot like a stock gesture, but I've only ever run across it in Poulenc. And I think that's one of the keys to what makes Poulenc's music tick: his ability to come up with patterns and phrases that sound like clichés, but are completely idiosyncratic and original.

    More than that, though—it's not just his facility for melodic invention, but the fact that he uses such passages as if they were pre-existing clichés. Neither the "Air champêtre" nor "Il vole" foreshadow or set up the closing figure in any way; it's just dropped in, tacked on, like a trill over V-I in Mozart or a 4-3 suspension in a Lutheran chorale. Poulenc is, I think, having some fun with the semiotics of musical endings. We're used to pieces ending with a predictable plugged-in cadential module; Poulenc plugs in a module, but it's not the predicted one, and our musical expectations are yanked in two directions at once.

    Poulenc's fondness for these kinds of endings—a sudden, brief introduction of new material—owes something to Schumann lieder, and both composers exploit an ability to make such endings feel like the product of unconscious intuition rather than deliberate calculation. But where Schumann's often extensive postludes serve to bring to the fore the emotions that have been simmering under the surface, Poulenc's have the effect of hinting at an unfamiliar vernacular just out of earshot. To compare with another composer: if Webern's music sounds like it comes from a planet where nobody composes like earthlings do, Poulenc's music sounds like it comes from a planet where everybody composes like Poulenc. It has both the satisfaction of tradition and the frisson of originality. It feels like common practice music, but the practice itself is completely individual.

    Poulenc's illusion of an established rhetoric creates a similar combination of intimacy and disorientation as literary experiments with invented languages—compare the fictional Russlish of Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, for example. For Poulenc, though, it's also crucial to his sense of musical structure, which is surprisingly disjunct. Perhaps some of this is due to his fondness for setting Surrealist and proto-Surrealist poetry, but I think that, even more, it reflects the influence of cinema, which, after all, was the most avant-garde medium of the young composer's day. (That "Il vole" cadence, implacably winding around itself, sounds like nothing so much as the last few frames of film lapping against the take-up reel.) Poulenc almost completely eschews a Romantic sense of development in favor of cinematic montage—but it doesn't seem random or scattershot, because his musical materials always feel like they're serving some pre-existing symbolic or rhetorical purpose, even if it's a completely invented one.

    In other words, I think Poulenc knew exactly what he was doing: taking the raw materials of tonal music and finding a way to make them behave in a radical way. He figured out how to take his ear for sensuous tonal beauty and his avant-garde aesthetic and, not just cleverly patch them together, but actually have the two reinforce each other. It's a long way from the insouciance of Les Biches or "Toréador" to the devastating power of Dialogues des Carmélites, even though the basic musical language, amazingly, has hardly changed.

    Darcy James Argue had this to say this week about one of his favorite composers: "I can't help but feel that there is something fundamentally wrong with people who would dismiss music of such astounding vitality and artistry because it happens also to be very pretty." I would say the same thing about Poulenc—in fact, the more years I spend with his music, the more I realize that its sheer prettiness is, in fact, one of the least interesting things about it, and, given how damned pretty it is, that's saying something. The real beauty of Poulenc's music goes very deep indeed.

    November 26, 2007

    Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen


    Just in time for the annual holiday orgy of rampant consumerism, Strauss and Mahler (previously: 1, 2, 3) have gone into business selling t-shirts. Click on this link, and you'll find the pair in all their countercultural glory on a variety of apparel, suitable for kids from 2 to however many years one can expect to pile up with an uncompromising artistic vision and a difficult wife. Makes a great albeit potentially nonplussing gift! (Any and all profits, by the way, will benefit this place, which, as causes go, is one of the good ones.)

    All of Me

    Reviewing Les Voix Baroques and Les Voix Humaines.
    Boston Globe, November 26, 2007.

    One thought from this concert: I appreciate the rationale behind using only period and period-replica equipment, but maybe it's time for a miniature early-music Manhattan project to integrate a little bit of modern technology into the instruments so they don't have to be re-tuned every ten minutes. Especially in a long work like the Membra Jesu Nostri, it's tough to maintain a suspended mental involvement with everyone stopping between movements for peg-turning.

    November 23, 2007

    Glissade en arrière

    The great French choreographer Maurice Béjart died yesterday. I blogged about Béjart a few months back; his work has a combination of rigor, joy, and charm that any medium could claim as its holy grail.

    Look For the Silver Lining

    More copyright hilarity: a decade-old squabble over the rights to the songs of Jerome Kern has a new lease on life:
    The granddaughter of the late composer Jerome Kern won the latest round in a long-standing legal dispute with the manager of a trust that oversees royalties from hits like Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and The Way You Look Tonight.

    The nearly 10-year-old conflict made its way to the Kentucky Supreme Court, which on Wednesday reversed a lower court ruling that could have put the case to rest.
    The wheels of justice grind exceeedingly fine: this decision only sets forth whether the Kentucky courts are the proper venue to hear the case or not. You can read the overturned Court of Appeals verdict here: basically, Linda Kern Cummings claims that R. Andrew Boose, the attorney who manages the trust that controls Kern's copyrights, improperly took advantage of the "diminished capacity" of Betty Kern-Miller, Jerome's daughter, to alter the terms of her will back in the 90s. I haven't found a whole lot of background on the case, but it bears some hallmarks of a family feud—one of the defendants is Steven Kern Shaw, Cummings' half-brother, and also the son of clarinetist and bandleader Artie Shaw: as of this 2005 New York Times story, the younger Shaw was nowhere to be found, and when one finds his own notoriously blunt father calling him "a very weird kid" in public (scroll down), you start to get an inkling why.

    Nevertheless, I will remind everyone that Jerome Kern died in 1945; the fact that people are still hiring attorneys to tangle over his royalties 60-plus years later tells you something about the strange state of our current intellectual property regime. And some of those royalties are apparently earmarked as charitable bequests, as Cummings is also suing the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind. After hearing that, critic-at-large Moe, not surprisingly, showed teeth.

    November 22, 2007

    Holiday (II)

    Julia Margaret Cameron: Saint Cecilia after the manner of Raphael, c.1865
    Albumen print from a collodion-on-glass negative
    Victoria & Albert Museum, London


    The Royals: "Shrine of St. Cecilia," 1953 (MP3, 1.6 MB)

    A cover of a minor Andrews Sisters hit, coming shortly after Hank Ballard joined the group, and shortly before they recorded their breakout hit, "Work With Me Annie," and changed their name to the Midnighters.

    Im chambre séparée

    Reviewing the Boston Chamber Music Society.
    Boston Globe, November 22, 2007.

    (The harmonic progression in the Bernstein is subdominant to mediant, IV-iii: one of his favorites, particularly in his music for Broadway.)

    November 21, 2007

    Holiday (I)

    Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day here in the U.S., which, notwithstanding its official rationale of some business involving Puritan immigrants, is pretty much our national eating holiday. All the usual holiday stress aside, a higher-than-normal proportion of that food is home-cooked, which kind of makes the day a musical occasion, once removed: cooking, when you think about it, is basically composing for the tone-deaf. It's all there—the balance between planning and spontaneity, between creativity and craft, between repertoire and improvisation, the need for an audience, the way you can cover up less-than-ideal raw materials with copious amounts of MSG, &c., &c.

    Of course, not everybody is plugged in to a network that includes that kind of food, so, just like last year (mmmm... stuffing—whoops, got distracted there for a second), I'll remind everyone that now is as good a time as any to send a few bucks to organizations that do home-cooking for complete strangers. Here in Boston, you can take your pick from The Greater Boston Food Bank, the Boston Rescue Mission, The Pine Street Inn, the Boston Living Center—those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head. There's Share Our Strength if you want to go national, or you can search at America's Second Harvest for a local food bank. And there's always The Salvation Army, who deserve a kettle full of change just for their motto: "Blood and Fire." Blood and Fire! It's like a three-word Black Sabbath show. Five, ten bucks—admit it, they'll do more with it than you would.

    Thus endeth the sermon. Enjoy your holiday—and if you're hitting the mall on Friday, I'd recommend body armor. (Wow, that's one of the craziest home-page index menus I've seen in a while.)

    November 20, 2007

    9 Symphonies*

    I've been busier than usual as of late, and I realized that I'd been slacking off on my solemn duty as a blogger, that of promulgating crackpot theories. Without the constant nourishment of entertainingly improbable hypotheses, this whole Internet thing would beach itself like a disoriented right whale—there, I've met my quota for not-quite-pertinent similes at the same time! Anyway, try this one on for size:

    Ludwig van Beethoven was a steroid abuser.

    Wouldn't that explain an awful lot? The notoriously difficult personality? The megalomanaical fury of the middle period? The wild mood swings of the late period? The rather remarkable growth of his head? Dude's head went from normal to huge. Not to put too fine a point on it:

    Barry Bonds in 1986; Barry Bonds in 2007.

    Beethoven in 1801; Beethoven in 1818.

    How's that for circumstantial evidence? I will also point out the original words to the finale of the Ninth Symphony (NOTE: not actual original words to the finale of the Ninth Symphony):
    Deine Zauber binden wieder,
    Alle Sachen das Erhell'n;
    Alle Menschen werden Brüder,
    Mit ihren großen Muskeln.
    Your magic frees all others,
    The brightening of all things;
    All men become brothers,
    With their huge muscles.
    Let's review, shall we?

    BEFORE

    AFTER

    young Beethovedn

    Little head

    old Beethoven

    Enormous head

    young Beethovedn

    Awkwardly friendly

    old Beethoven

    Cranky and temperamental

    Symphony no. 1

    Symphony no. 5

    Some literalist is probably at this moment self-inflicting a herniated disc with head-shaking and complaining that anabolic steroids weren't synthesized until around the 1930s. Well, the British novelist and critic Angus Wilson has my back (OK, OK, he's talking about Dickens and Dostoevsky—same difference, I say!):
    I think this refutation of evidence of direct influence is not all that important, for the relation... is much more exciting than a matter of provable evidence of somebody being influenced by this particular thing or that particular thing.
    Next time: Liszt and crystal meth—of course, you all knew that one already.

    November 16, 2007

    Because manuscript paper lacks mystery

    Thomas Kinkade: THe Good Life, with highlighted, 'hidden' musical notes!
    BOSTON, November 15—In a discovery sending shockwaves ineffectually in all directions at once, a "blogger" has claimed to have found musical notes encoded in the painting "The Good Life" by American artist Thomas Kinkade, Painter of LightTM.

    Kinkade left clues to a musical composition in his painting, said Soho the Dog, Musicologist of MusicTM. Mr. Dog found that, by turning the painting on its side, photographing it through ultraviolet light, rearranging the positions of the rocks on the pastel-laden riverbank according to a complicated algorithm based around the number "3" (as signaled by the otherwise inexplicable need for the outdoorsman in the painting to have three fires going simultaneously), and drawing the five lines of a musical staff across the painting, the rocks could represent musical notes. The result is a 3-minute "hymn" which Mr. Dog described as "like a soundtrack that emphasizes the true soul of Kinkade's art".

    Artassé Vasari, director of a Kinkade gallery in suburban Genoa, said the theory was "plausible," an Italian colloquialism meaning "your cell phone reception seems to be spotty."

    Mr. Dog dimissed suggestions that he was jumping on a bandwagon, and took exception to the phrase "The Kinkade Code" appearing in media reports. "If they're going to call it that, I must insist that they spell 'code' with a 'k,'" he said. "You know, like the Keystone Kops."

    Mr. Dog said he was currently arranging a 16-part symphony secretly encoded in another series of masterpieces.

    November 15, 2007

    Gloria sei dir gesungen

    Word came simultaneously from Emmanuel Music and Richard at Ear Trumpet that Craig Smith died yesterday. Smith became music director at Boston's Emmanuel Church in 1970, and promptly founded Emmanuel Music, with a mission to perform the complete cycle of church cantatas by J.S. Bach—within their original weekly-service context—a mission completed in 1977. After that, he embarked on a series of similar explorations, the bigger, the better—the Mozart-Da Ponte operas with director Peter Sellars, the complete vocal and chamber music of Franz Schubert, a similar Schumann cycle—all the while still mounting a Bach cantata every Sunday.

    I only met Smith a couple of times, and I can hardly say I knew him, but in a sense, living in Boston, you ended up absorbing his musical personality anyway—Emmanuel Music and the musicians who have passed through it are such a potent constituency in the city that the fabled six degrees of separation shrink down to one or two. Smith fostered his share of big stars throughout the years, but also engendered an enviable amount of loyalty and stability, especially given the amount of local college-town transience. The last time I saw him, back in April, it felt, as Emmanuel productions often felt, like a bit of a family reunion, with a couple new cousins to be introduced around by their genial bear of an uncle. At the time, one heard whispers that Smith's heart troubles had been getting worse, but you wouldn't have known it to see him on the podium; he simply wasn't going to let health or age get in the way of making the music that needed to be made. Smith conducted his last cantata on November 4th: BWV 72, Alles nur nach Gottes Willen—"everything solely according to God's will." One suspects that God, in this case, was glad to have the help.

    De Paso

    I'm running out the door to catch a dress rehearsal of Elliott Carter's new horn concerto.
    DE PASO


    El tiempo no pasó:
    Aquí esta.
    Pasamos nosotros.

    Sólo nosotros somos el pasado.

    Aves de paso que pasaron
    y ahora,
    poco a poco,
    se mueren.


    IN PASSING


    Time did not pass by:
    Here it is.
    We passed by.

    Only we are the past.

    Migrating birds that passed overhead
    and now,
    little by little,
    are passing away.

    —José Emilio Pacheco,
    trans. Cynthia Steele

    And another:
    LA MAGIA DE LA CRÍTICA


    Para mí para muchos es lo mejor del mundo.
    No cesaremos nunca de alabarlo.
    Jamás terminará la gratitud
    por su música incomparable.

    En cambio para Strindberg todo Mozart
    es una cacofonía de gorjeos cursis.

    La variedad del gusto,
    la magia de la crítica.


    THE MAGIC OF CRITICISM


    For me and many others he is the best in the world.
    We will never tire of singing his praises.
    Our gratitude
    for his incomparable music is infinite.

    For Strindberg, on the other hand, all of Mozart
    is a cacophany of pretentious warbling.

    The variety of taste,
    the magic of criticism.

    —José Emilio Pacheco,
    trans. Cynthia Steele

    (Both poems found in this highly recommended volume.)

    November 14, 2007

    Where my time goes

    So the other day, I was digging through a box of old choral music, and I found this ad on the back of one of the octavos:

    Ad: Now is the time to order the Banana Boat Song!
    This amused me no end, partially because the guy hauling the bananas looks a little like Muammar al-Gaddafi, and partially because I was imagining my church choir—HEY, WAIT A MINUTE, ALAN ARKIN WROTE THE BANANA BOAT SONG?!

    Well, yes and no. As it turns out, prior to his acting career, Arkin (who's a hero around Soho the Dog HQ on the basis of The In-Laws alone—serpentine!) was part of a folk trio called The Tarriers, who released a version of "Day-O" in 1956. Harry Belafonte's better-known version, already recorded but still sitting on the shelf, was rushed into release after The Tarriers' rendition became a hit. Some poking around the Web turned up a guy who's gathered more than you'll ever need to know on the topic.

    But it was while I was chasing down that topic that I found Mento Music. "Mento" is the Jamaican name for the pre-reggae style of music that made it to these shores in somewhat gussied-up form as Calypso, and Mento Music's webmaster, Michael Garnice, is a fan—an obsessive, exhaustive fan. And after seeing several hours disappear down the rabbit hole exploring the site and perusing the dozens of sound clips (RealPlayer only, but it's worth it) I'm a fan, too. So now there's a couple hours of vintage mento crowding up my hard drive, and, at least until this enthusiasm burns out, I'll be hanging out with the likes of Lord Flea, Lord Messam, and Harold Richardson & the Ticklers.

    Aaaaannd that was time that really needed to be spent practicing. I swear, someday somebody's going to load my house on a truck and drive off with it by distracting me with shiny objects.

    November 13, 2007

    Amo, lloro, canto, sueño

    While the Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra (who we caught last week) continue their brief but triumphant roll across the United States, a certain amount of carping has been on the rise, particularly from Pliable at On an Overgrown Path. Yesterday, he ran photos of "protests against Chavez’s decision to shut down opposition-aligned television station RCTV in May 2007.... Perhaps DG will use them on the next Dudamel CD sleeve?" This was in the context of quoting an approving link (N.B.: calling flattering compliments "wise words" has a tendency to sound a little arrogant) from The Penitent Wagnerite:
    Supporting Dudamel, his youth orchestra, and other Venezuelan cultural products is akin to saying that we love the produce of a nascent dictatorship, even if we don't so much care for the dictator. While Mr. Dudamel should not be made to suffer for being the product and superstar of the music-education program of Venezuela, we should not get in the business of supporting Chavez or the end-results of his projects until it becomes clear that Chavez is committed to democracy and human rights.
    For the record, particularly since the 2004 recall vote, Hugo Chávez has moved steadily into this lefty's "bad arguments for a position I hold dear" category, although, for a little perspective, he's hardly the first or, so far at least, the worst demagogue to hold power in the Americas. (Amending the constitution to run for a third term? Old joke.) But all the innuendo about Dudamel et al. vis-à-vis Chávez (Penitent, for example, mentioned Furtwängler) needs to be parsed in light of two salient points:
    1. El Sistema has been around for over thirty years, founded by José Antonio Abreu in 1975, pre-dating even Chávez's failed coup attempt by nearly a generation; and
    2. El Sistema is currently providing an education for a quarter of a million children and teenagers that the majority of them wouldn't get otherwise.
    So what exactly should Dudamel and Abreu do differently? The orchestra isn't a self-contained touring ensemble, they're the representatives of the entire system, a system that still gets the vast bulk of its funding from the Venezuelan government. When Chávez comes calling, and asks you to record the national anthem for state TV, what do you do? Jeopardize the entire program in order to express your displeasure? It's worth noting, by the way, that the station that state-run network replaced, the above-mentioned RCTV, wasn't "shut down." It came up for license renewal, which the government denied. Playing semantics? Not exactly: as the media watchdog group FAIR pointed out back in the spring, RCTV has hardly been a beacon of enlightened discourse itself, and had clearly violated the "public trust" that most countries require in return for access to the broadcasting spectrum. (RCTV, incidentally, is still viewable throughout most of the country via cable.) Should they still have kept their license? Maybe, maybe not—the point is, the situation in Venezuela is far more complicated than the simplified stories that make it back to the American and European mass media.

    Should El Sistema, then, just keep a lower PR profile until Chávez behaves? I rather think that the orchestra is doing exactly what they need to do in order to insulate El Sistema from any current or future Venezuelan administration. In his New York Times profile of Dudamel a couple of weeks ago, Arthur Lubow called the simultaneous celebrity of conductor and orchestra "a stroke of auspicious timing." I don't think it's coincidental: Abreu is consciously using the orchestra's tour as an El Sistema roadshow—sow goodwill and money will follow. (And already has: the system's latest expansion is being financed mostly by the Inter-American Development Bank, signaling the group's evolution from a national symbol to a regional one.) Recordings, tours, PR—if Chávez makes you uneasy, isn't it an improvement to replace his financial support with Deutsche Grammophon's?

    In fact, it's that pose of vague uneasiness that bugs me. For all the delicacy of the political situation in Venezuela, and El Sistema's place in it, the calculus here is not really all that complicated. Do you think the mission and accomplishments of El Sistema are worthwhile? Worthwhile enough to justify Abreu and Dudamel playing nice with Chávez while they cast their net for less fraught, more diversified institutional and financial support? Or is Chávez so awful that reliance on his government is a taint that renders El Sistema's educational achievements worthless? The association benefits Chávez, to a certain extent—but it also benefits 250,000 other Venezuelans, and I would say those benefits are far more real and long-lasting. That's my opinion; yours may be the opposite. But as various constituencies begin to try and replicate the System's model in the U.S. and Europe, I think it's time to actually have an opinion, rather than furrowing one's brow and murmuring inconclusively.

    And, of course—the flag jackets. Maybe I'm inured from years of baseball games and seeing the red, white, and blue unfurl from the Symphony Hall ceiling every time the Pops plays "The Stars and Stripes Forever," but any flag that every side can convincingly wrap itself in doesn't bug me that much, Eddie Izzard's warnings notwithstanding. Pliable pointed out that those protesters were flying the Venezuelan flag as well—how do we know that some of the orchestra weren't wearing their jackets in that spirit, and not a pro-Chávez one? We don't. I mentioned last week my sense that El Sistema's popularity cut across party lines; writing in the Observer last summer, Ed Vuillamy made the same point:
    El Sistema sank roots in Venezuelan society deep enough to survive the winds—hurricanes, indeed—of tumultuous political change, military coups and now the Chavez revolution. El Sistema is probably, and remarkably, the only organism immune to politics in one of the world's most highly politicised societies.
    Maybe both Ed and I have simply been effectively snowed, but I rather doubt it—Abreu has woven El Sistema into the fabric of Venezuelan life on a level deeper than politics. If you look at the upside of El Sistema and the downsides of the Bolivarian Revolution, it's not cognitively dissonant for the former to win out over the latter. It's awfully comforting when pragmatism and moral absolutism coincide, but most of the time, you throw as much as you know on the scale, and see which side tips the balance. For me, it was the kids on the Symphony Hall stage.

    Update (11/15): Pliable responds with yet more hints, innuendo, and oblique comparisons. The penultimate paragraph still stands.

    Update (11/16): I cheerfully declare the penultimate paragraph moot: Pliable takes a stand in the comments on his post (as I expected, it's the opposite of mine).

    November 10, 2007

    Southpaw Grammar

    Norman Mailer, the bad boy of American letters, died this morning. By sheer coincidence, this past week I had picked up Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Mailer's guided tour of the 1968 Republican and Democratic conventions. It's not as strong a book as its predecessor, Armies of the Night, but the beginning is sufficiently terrific that it sucked me in for about a hundred pages before the seams started to show. The opening paragraph is worth quoting in full:
    They snipped the ribbon in 1915, they popped the cork, Miami Beach was born. A modest burg they called a city, nine-tenths jungle. An island. It ran along a coastal barrier the other side of Biscayne Bay from young Miami—in 1868 when Henry Lum, a California 'forty-niner, first glimpsed the island from a schooner, you may be certain it was jungle, cocoanut palms on the sand, mangrove swamp and palmetto thicket ten feet off the beach. But by 1915 they were working the vein. John S. Collins, a New Jersey nurseyman (after which Collins Avenue is kindly named) brought in bean fields and avocado groves; a gent named Fisher, Carl G., a Hoosier—he invented Prestolite, a millionaire—bought up acres from Collins, brought in a work-load of machinery, men, even two elephants, and jungle was cleared, swamps were filled, small residential islands were made out of babybottom mud, dredged, then relocated, somewhat larger natural islands adjacent to the barrier island found themselves improved, streets were paved, sidewalks put in with other amenities—by 1968, one hundred years after Lum first glommed the beach, large areas of the original coastal strip were covered over altogether with macadam, white condominium, white luxury hotel, and white stucco flea-bag. Over hundreds, then thousands of acres, white sidewalks, streets, and white buildings covered the earth where the jungle had been. Is it so dissimilar from covering your poor pubic hair with adhesive tape for fifty years? The vegetal memories of that excised jungle haunted Miami Beach in a steam-pot of miasmas. Ghosts of expunged flora, the never-born groaning in vegetative chancery beneath the asphalt came up with a tropical curse, an equatorial leaden wet sweat of air which rose from the earth itself, rose right up through the baked asphalt and into the heated air which entered the lungs like a hand slipping into a rubber glove.
    I think Mailer's prose is a great example of how compositional style and compositional intent are two different things. It's odd to call writing that extravagant efficient, exactly, but look how much Mailer crams into that paragraph: a little history lesson, a lapidary sense of place, a quirky theory of archaeology and atmosphere, and, lest we forget who's writing, an outrageous simile tossed in like a drum break. His oversized personality oozes from every phrase, but, unlike a lot of similar writers, Mailer's always telling you stuff, showing you stuff, because he never forgets that he has stuff to show you. Sometimes the style works with the intent—notice how the breezy swagger lets him compress all that history into telegraphed details. But where the two are at odds, the intent trumps the style; later in the same chapter, in place of a baroque description of Miami Beach's slightly stale, old-movie neverland glamour, Mailer just tells you the names of all the hotels, which ends up being more evocative than any description, anyway.

    Some of the things Mailer had to say throughout his career were more profound than others, but I don't think I've ever read anything by him that was a mere stylistic exercise—having something to say was the driving force behind everything he wrote. I was never a particularly rabid Mailer fan, but in retrospect, his work has a lot of the attributes I like in music: ambition, risk, a sense of the absurd, but most of all, a two-way street between creator and audience. Mailer never adopted a pose of indifference; his literary persona, at least, cared very much whether you liked him or not, but at the same time, was honest enough to not pretend to be something other than he was. The best art doesn't pander, nor does it hide its intent behind a stylistic cushion. Mailer told you what he thought, the way that he thought it, and hoped for the best. He often made me want to throw the book across the room—but I'd still pick it up and finish it.

    November 09, 2007

    The long grave already dug

         I know you
         Met before, seventh floor
         First world war, I know you

    — The Byrds, “I See You” (1966)


    This Sunday is Veterans' Day here in the U.S. I prefer its old name, Armstice Day, not because veterans don't deserve their own day (they do) but because detaching the day from its original context—November 11, 1918—diminishes the palpability of that crucial moment in history. Eighty-nine years on, the end of World War I is still regarded as the birth announcement of the modern world. Everything on the ancient side of that historical divide—the unchallenged governing status of authority and class, the optimism of the Enlightenment, the belief that mankind was in control of historical forces and not the other way around—seemed to perish in the conflagration. In Robert Graves’ famous formulation: good-bye to all that.

    But in a crucial sense, the brave and/or craven new world that suddenly confronted humanity in 1918 had been around for quite some time—it just hadn’t been popularized. The writers and intellectuals who defined the modern world in the wake of the Great War were, in their own way, crossover artists, taking something that had been the purview of a marginalized minority and repackagaing it for the population as a whole. They were, in other words, like early rock-and-roll musicians.

    The founding myth of rock-and-roll is unusual in that it simultaneously tells a creation story and acknowledges the historical circumstances such stories normally gloss over. The accepted gospel is that the early stars—Elvis Presley, Bill Haley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and so on—took a style of music that was already prevalent among African-Americans and, by virtue of their skin color, made it palatable to the majority white population. Like most creation myths, it’s an oversimplification, ignoring both the formidable influence of country-western music on 50s rock and the concurrent popularity of Little Richard, Fats Domino, and other black artists.

    But the notion at its core, that rock-and-roll already existed, but needed white performers to inoculate its potential audience from the perceived social stigma of its origins, is a powerful enough narrative to have been refashioned in watered-down form ever since, whether in the form of blue-eyed soul or (most notoriously) in the case of Vanilla Ice, greeted as the purported Elvis of hip-hop. (As it turned out, hip-hop was able to make its own way in the world, thank you very much.)

    What was it that swept across societies in the 1920s and 30s with the cultural force of early rock? Disillusionment. The feeling that all organized human endeavors almost inevitably, somehow, are frustrated in their noble goals is so common today that it’s hard to imagine a time when such emotions didn’t exist. But disillusionment is a recent innovation, first making its appearance in the violent, messy wake of the French Revolution of the late 18th century. The ideals of that epoch had themselves been percolating for some time, but it was the failure of the Terror that first showed how such ideals could lead to a disappointment of previously unknown profundity. Throughout the following century, revolutionaries of all stripes would be buffeted against the twin shoals of optimism and disillusionment. As the poet Ferdinand Freiligrath put it after the failure of the revolutions of 1848: "We stood on the threshold of paradise, but the gates were slammed in our faces."

    Revolutionaries, though, were the pariahs of the Victorian age, an affront to the stability that respectable society clung to like a life preserver. And their disillusionment was regarded as a symptom of a cast of mind that was, at best, an indulgence of youth, at worst, an assault on the verities that held civilization together. That civilization would be revealed as impotent in the stalemate of the trenches and the pettiness of the peace. The centuries-old structure of the West seemed to collapse like a revolutionary plot.
    It might risk trivialization to compare the violence and destruction of World War I with the ephemeral joys of Elvis. But both phenomena are manifestations of a great historical antagonism within their respective eras. Rock-and-roll put the the enduring racial tension at the core of American history on stage, front and center. Post-World War I anomie reflected the long-standing friction between the power of the state and the freedom of the individual, a conflict that even the only enduring revolution, our own, still hasn’t resolved.

    One could, in fact, argue that the rising hegemony of specifically American culture after World War I was similarly lying in wait, that the Civil War had set in motion a distinctly American psychic engine running on equal parts idealism and anxiety; American participation in the Great War simply kicked that motor into gear. Ann Douglas, in Terrible Honesty, her study of postwar Manhattan, points out how a writer like Ernest Hemingway was far better prepared to make sense—and art—out of his wartime experience than his European counterparts. “The Great War as a military, industrial, and psychological force was already in America’s history, one could say, before it broke out in Europe in 1914,” Douglas writes. “Hemingway had been to boot camp without knowing it.”

    Perhaps this is why both the First World War and the advent of rock-and-roll seemed to come about so inevitably, in the face of widespread disbelief. The reverberations of the revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries have continually buffeted civilization for so long now, that upheavals aren’t really what catch us off guard, but merely their sometimes unexpected source and size. The raw materials of revolutionary emotions have become commodities. The Mexican writer Octavio Paz put it best: the modern world waits for revolutions like “the early Christians expecting the Apocalypse,” he once said. “And revolution comes; not the expected one, but another, always another.” Each time, we’re reintroduced to what we already know. Hello to all that.