August 31, 2007

August 26, 2007

Out for a walk

Programming note: Soho the Dog is on summer hiatus this week. We're packing a picnic, unplugging the computer, and taking the phone off the hook.

Which nicely introduces a fun souvenir of 1980s downtown New York, courtesy of the endlessly diverting MP3 blog Office Naps. Scroll down this post and you can hear No Wave cult heroines Y Pants—artists Barbara Ess, Virginia Piersol, and Gail Vachon—performing their version of the Rolling Stones' "Off the Hook," produced by guitar symphonist Glenn Branca. Obsessively sparse, incongruously cheery, vaguely disquieting, it's just the thing to cut through that late-summer haze.

The music goes round and round

For pure sound, a clear choice. The making of a glass harmonica.
Boston Globe, August 26, 2007.

I wanted badly to include this clip with the online version of the article, but for various reasons, it was not to be. So I'll post it here:

W. A. Mozart: Adagio in C major for glass harmonica, K. 357 (617a) (MP3, 3.7 MB)
Dean Shostak, glass harmonica

Other links:

G. Finkenbeiner, Inc.
Cecilia Brauer

August 24, 2007

Salvati dunque e scolpati

That academic year is just around the corner, so it's time to sharpen those no. 2 pencils for another quiz! (If you missed it: some choice answers from the last one.) Once again, all hail Dennis Cozzalio at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, from whence I shamelessly plagiarized this idea.

As before, either leave your answers or a link to where we can find your answers in the comments. Do include the questions in your response, if only for my sake—I can't keep two queries in my brain simultaneously, let alone ten. You may begin the test... now.
1. What's the best quotation of a piece of music within another piece of music?

2. Name the best classical crossover album ever made.

3. Great piece with a terrible title.

4. If you had to choose: Benjamin Britten or Michael Tippett?

5. Who's your favorite spouse of a composer/performer? (Besides your own.)

6. Terrible piece with a great title.

7. What's the best use of a classical warhorse in a Hollywood movie?

8. Name the worst classical crossover album ever made.

9. If you had to choose: Sam Cooke or Marvin Gaye?

10. Name a creative type in a non-musical medium who would have been a great composer.


For opera nerds: If you had to choose:
a) Lawrence Tibbett or Robert Merrill?
b) Amelita Galli-Curci or Lily Pons?

For early-music nerds: Name a completely and hopelessly historically uninformed recording that you nevertheless love.

August 23, 2007

Gold stars and red pen

Doris Day in Teacher's PetIt's almost time for a new quiz (update: the new quiz is here), but before that, I wanted to revisit the last assessment. In general, I thought the level of work for this particular class was very high, although—sorry, just trying to gear up for September. The big surprise for me was #3, Ives or Ruggles: apart from one late vote from Bart Collins, Carl got no love at all. I wasn't expecting an upset, but back in my undergrad days, I would have guessed at least a 70-30 split—the pantheon is a harsh mistress. On the other hand, I think we could all move to Europe and have thriving careers as opera directors. Anyway, here's some of the responses I liked, along with my own:

1. Name an opera you love for the libretto, even though you don't particularly like the music.
Dennis Mangan: The Ring.

Alex Freeman: Haydn's "Il mondo della luna". It may be the silliest libretto ever. That's an accomplishment. But I do like the music.

Rodney Lister: Nixon in China (love might be a little strong)

viola power: We premiered this extraordinarily bizarre version of "Nosferatu" which contained the amusing notion of Dracula being gay. Idaho audiences went wild! The libretto qualified as entertaining, if not loveable. The music was like Andrew Lloyd Webber meets John Adams, except they were both really wasted.

andy h-d: The Consul is pretty brutal, but you really start to feel those three hours.

Lisa Hirsch: The Barber of Seville. (So shoot me, but I am not a Rossini fan.)

Stirling Newberry: While I like Auden's Libretto better than Stravinski's music, the final four for me would be
The Queen of Spades, A Streetcar Named Desire, Gawain, Nixon in China. And in a year with no upsets? Gawain.

Jeremy Denk: General Hospital. (The Young and the Restless has much better music.)

MG: Evita.
2. Name a piece you wish Glenn Gould had played.
Alex Freeman: My Piano Sonata.

Scott: Piano Canons by Conlon Nancarrow. Oooh, or the Stravinsky "Piano Rag Music." Or anything I've written.

sfmike: A piano reduction of Strauss' Elektra.

Opera Chic: Chopsticks. That'd be fun, and gawd knows Glenn needed to unclench.

Seth Gordon: Waltz for Debby.

charles: "Maple Leaf Rag."

Margaret: Anything by Fats Waller.

Liz: Prokofiev's Third Concerto. (You know he's Canadian so I'm biased. I was very sad when he died and I was eleven years old).

M. Keiser: HA, if i liked Gould this might work. Uh, i dunno, John Cage's Sonatas and interludes. He probably could have done those fairly well.

andy h-d: Rzewski's "The People United Will Never Be Defeated!". Can you imagine what that cadenza would've ended up being?

Charles T. Downey: Ives, Concord Sonata.

Lisa Hirsch: Something by Sorabji.

Jeremy Denk: The Goldberg Variations [zing!].

Stirling Newberry: Something I had a publishing interest in. Money is money. I can't stand Glenn Gould's playing any more.

MG: Rhapsody in Blue. And ragtime.
3. If you had to choose: Charles Ives or Carl Ruggles?
charles: I would choose death instead.

Seth Gordon: Anyone choosing Ruggles is a jealous hater.

Jessica Duchen: Would compromise and go to The Ivy for lunch instead.

viola power: Ives, because I need to have a serious discussion with an insurance agent!

Charles T. Downey: See above. Bite me, Ruggles, you racist bastard.

Jeremy Denk: If I’m listening to the music, Ives I think; ditto if contemplating insurance; but if I’m looking for a composer with a rugged, manly, but still somewhat snuggly name, DEFINITELY Carl Ruggles.

MG: Ives, for the songs, although I do like the Invocations a lot.
4. Name a piece you're glad Glenn Gould never played.
heinuren: What the hell, is everybody supposed to know what Gould did or didn't play?

andy h-d: I don't know, "Bananaphone"? That's not a real answer. Would "Vexations" be a more real answer? I suppose there's that new kid who writes really awful sappy music, Greenberg or something?

jason: Billy Joel's whatever...

robert f. jones: Glenn accompanies Barbra Streisand in Saint-Saens’ "Mon coeur ouvre à ta voix."

Liz: None....wish he played much more. (You know he's Canadian?)

Lisa Hirsch: Piano part in one of the Schubert song cycles.

MG: the Chopin preludes.
5. What's your favorite unlikely solo passage in the repertoire?
Rodney Lister: not a solo, but the duet for piccolo and tuba in Symphony on a Hymn Tune.

Alex Ross: Celesta in the final scene of Schreker's Der Ferne Klang.

benjamin: That gross FFF Clarinet note in the middle of the Scherzo of Mahler 5th.

andy h-d: I don't know unlikely it is, but I keep thinking of the part in Symphonie fantastique right before his head gets chopped off. Who needs absolute form when the program tells you where you are in the score?

robert f. jones: The bass trombone sfp low C#s in the death scene of Boris Godunov (Musorgsky’s orchestration).

M. Keiser: hm. these questions are getting harder. Define solo and repertoire. haha. does the flute in the begining of the orchestral version of Ravel's Barque sur l'ocean count? i think thats several flutes anyway. The opening to the Rite of Spring but i don't know how thats unlikely.

Joe Barron: Ives, "Washington's birthday," jaw harp.

Tim Mangan: The ocarinas in Ligeti's Violin Concerto.

Joshua Kosman: Haydn, Symphony No. 93, slow movement, m. 80: the original bassoon fart joke.

Jessica Duchen: The tweetybird unaccompanied violin passage in Enescu's Impressions d'enfance. The cuckoo ain't bad either.

Barnet Bound: This isn't really an answer to the question, but I just want to state that despite the fact that Schubert apparently hated the instrument, the viola lines in everything he wrote are truly beautiful.

Liz: For me it's the *tiny* viola solo in Gershwin's "American in Paris". It is *eight* notes (after the English horn solo) but I love it. Although my violin-centric husband never seems to notice.....

Peter: The Carmen intermezzo STILL bewilders me. Ladies and gentlemen, here's your emotional journey: death, betrayal, death, death, lilting pastoral flute solo, death. Wha?

Charles T. Downey: The siren in George Antheil's Ballet mécanique.

Jeremy Denk: Well I’d say I have a 12% record of playing the ending of the 2nd movement of the Schumann Fantasy with all the right notes, so … that seems pretty unlikely.

MG: The pizza delivery in Steven Mackey's Eating Greens.
6. What's a Euro-trash high-concept opera production you'd love to see? (No Mortier-haters get to duck this one, either—be creative.)
Alex Freeman: I guess it would have to be Neuenfels does Susannah. Not because I would REALLY want to see it, but I think the horrific taste would make me feel more drinking a cup of hot fat or sticking my face in a fan. Which I don't do. Much. Any thoughts on how he might do it?

Elaine Fine: Turnadot with Ping, Pang, and Pong dressed as members of the Blue Man Group.

Alex Ross: An all-male Dialogues of the Carmelites, set in the Mine Shaft in 1980.

heinuren: Salome, where they actually cut off heads.

Opera Chic: I'll quote myself here.
Opera Chic herself has a weakness for 1970s p9rn star 'stache, and she hopes Juan Diego decides to one day do a 1970s style Elisir d'Amore, where Nemorino is decked out with big fat mustachioes all Starsky & Hutch-like, in bell bottoms and bushy sheep hair and nylon shirts like the Beastie Boys in the Sabotage video and Adina is all Daisy Dukes and platform shoes and dirty, frizztastic hair.
andy h-d: A tie between Poppea in the Clinton White House and Peter Jackson's Ring Cycle.

Tim Mangan: "Ariadne auf Naxos" as an episode of the original "Star Trek."

robert f. jones: Parsifal set in post-nuclear-apocalypse Australia. Parsifal as Mad Max, Klingsor as Lord Humungus, Kundry as a feral hermaphrodite, the Flower Maidens as topless biker baybz. No dead rabbit.

indiana loiterer iii: The Peter Konwitschny production of Lohengrin set in a German schoolroom...oh, you mean a Euro-trash high-concept production that doesn't yet exist? How about a Trovatore set in post-Civil War Kansas/Missouri a la The Outlaw Josey Wales?

Seth Gordon: Marie Stuarda, only make it about girl gangs and set in high school, starring PJ Harvey as Marie and Diamanda Galas as Liz, head of the Cheerleading Squad.

Joe Barron: Either a Star-Wars Ring, or Rigoletto with everybody but the title character played by dwarf.

Lisa Hirsch: The reverse of Alex's nomination: an all-woman Billy Budd, with the sailors all dressed as Catholic schoolgirls, and let's see if we can work some sex into it.

M. Keiser: again with the opera. ok, Puccini's Manon, sung and acted while suspended from bungee chords. Imagine the chorus. heheh.

MG: Two—L'elisir d'amore as a John Hughes high school comedy, or an Albert Herring that takes full advantage of the lovers' names being Sid and Nancy.
7. Name an instance of non-standard concert dress you wish you hadn't seen.
charles: Anything Josh Bell wears.

Alex Freeman: John Marcellus in a pink jumpsuit. Ok, I admit I don't really wish I hadn't seen it, but I do wish I could get the image out of my head.

Opera Chic: Anything worn by Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

Scott: Let's just say that nobody wants to see an elderly woman's cleavage over and over while trying to focus on her piano playing. Well, maybe some people do, but not me.

Elaine Fine: Actually it was kind of quaint, but ultimately a little disturbing: a string quartet of four teenage girls wearing white summer dresses and not wearing any shoes.

benjamin: The tux I currently own has been embarrassing me on stage for years.

jason: Concertmistress of my undergrad orchestra: Topknot, black tutu, white sneakers. Or, same university, new music ensemble conductor in bolo tie and hendrix tee.

Barnet Bound: When I was undergraduate, my university had a very strong world music performance program, and there was lots of great concerts by the resident gamelan ensemble. However, invariably, there would be a smattering of (always white men of a certain age) audience members who would show up wearing traditional Javanese tunics, and would sit cross-legged during the performance with beatific smiles on their faces. That was very unfortunate.

Tim Mangan: Igor Kipnis's dentist's smock.

Seth Gordon: I'm far less fond of standard dress, to tell the truth.

Joe Barron: Me, in a suit and tie.

Rebecca: Flourescent pink dress with fru-fru bow for a performance of a Haydn mass at a little Pfarrkirche in Burgenland. I might mention it was part of a Mass service. Nothing says solemnity like day-glo.

Lisa Hirsch: Either the orange paisley Anne-Sofie von Otter turned up in a couple of years back or that monstrous quilt Jane Eaglen wore at the Levine Gala in 1996.

Stirling Newberry: Sorry, the individual's wife is still alive.

MG: Barbara Bonney dressed as a Dairy Queen parfait for a Mozart Exsultate at Tanglewood. I spent the whole piece thinking about ice cream.
8. What aging rock-and-roll star do you wish had tried composing large-scale chorus and orchestra works instead of Paul McCartney?
David Svoboda: Hey, what's wrong with Paul's compositions?!? Put up your dukes!

Rodney Lister: Captain Beefheart.

heinuren: Freddie Mercury. If he wasn't dead and all.

robert f. jones: Bob Dylan, “Desolation Row: The oratorio.”

Tim Mangan: Joe Strummer.

Rebecca: Eddie Van Halen. Does he qualify as "aging?"

Opera Chic: Ringo Starr. He's sadly underrated.

Elaine Fine: Carole King.

Barnet Bound: Patti Smith!

Liz: I prefer none. However, Mick Jagger could prove interesting. For chorus works.

benjamin: After seeing "Trapped in the Closet," I must say R. Kelly.

andy h-d: Yeah, not Paul McCartney. How about Zappa? Whoops. Did you know that Roger Waters also makes mediocre neo-classical music? Also Stewart Copeland! There was actually a Times article about how when rock stars approach traditional forces they always end up sounding like Haydn (Zappa excluded). I wonder what Robert Fripp would come up with, except he's busy still being a rock star.

Stirling Newberry: Danny Elfman does pretty good film score work. Brian Wilson could be interesting.

Charles T. Downey: Brian May (and Queen).

Lisa Hirsch: Yes. Or maybe Al Kooper.

Steve Hicken: Ugh. Jeez. Hell, I don't know. Crap. The guy that sang for the Ides of March, I guess.

Jeremy Denk: I do not comprehend this “rock-and-roll” word; is this some sort of genre or style designation? Me dinosaur of dead music. No, really.

MG: Yeah, gotta go with Brian Wilson—but Sly Stone is a close second.
9. If you had to choose: Carl Nielsen or Jean Sibelius?
Alex Freeman: Dude. I live in Finland.

viola power: Nielsen, because my musical partner would kill me if I said otherwise.

Joshua Kosman: Per Nørgård. Don't push me, man.

Tim Mangan: Sibelius, by a nose. It might be different tomorrow.

Rebecca: How about throwing myself in the River Guden or Torne (respectively) instead?

Opera Chic: Come on, it's not even a question, Sibelius 4evar.

Charles T. Downey: Sibelius, as Opera Chic would say in that trendy slang of hers, is teh kicka$$ bomb, fer real.

MG: Sibelius, although that Nielsen snare drum narrows the lead every time I hear it.
10. If it was scientifically proven that Beethoven's 9th Symphony caused irreversible brain damage, would you still listen to it?
Alex Freeman: Wihout a doubt. In my case, that is a smaller price to pay than it might be for many.

Alex Ross: Too late — Lorin Maazel's 2002 season-opening performance of the Ninth partially lobotomized me.

robert f. jones: Probably. Could it cause worse irreversible brain damage than vodka?

Joshua Kosman: Never again, not even once. The Schubert C-Major Quintet stays on my playlist even if it brings a slow gruesome death.

Jessica Duchen: Yesdht3icbeutnaoehfgbnauedw278r&!*

Charles T. Downey: Yes, I would ignore the warning labels and then sue the recording company that sold me the CD.

Jeremy Denk: What, this hasn’t been proven already?

MG: I'm just afraid the cure would involve the Ludovico technique.

August 22, 2007

Dirty deeds, done dirt cheap

The scholar of the week here at Soho the Dog HQ is economist Dr. Robert Oxoby of the University of Calgary, for his paper "On the Efficiency of AC/DC: Bon Scott versus Brian Johnson." (Via.) Dr. Oxoby sought a measurement of whether Scott or Johnson, who took over after Scott's 1980 death, was the better lead singer of the famed heavy metal pioneers, so he played examples of each vocalist's work while student volunteers played an ultimatum game, a common test of efficient economic behavior—and Johnson won out. Oxoby's conclusions are appropriately cautious but provocative:
The question as to who was a better singer, Bon Scott or Brian Johnson, may never truly be resolved. However, our analysis suggests that in terms of affecting efficient decision making among listeners, Brian Johnson was a better singer. Our analysis has direct implications for policy and organizational design: when policymakers or employers are engaging in negotiations (or setting up environments in which other parties will negotiate) and are interested in playing the music of AC/DC, they should choose from the band’s Brian Johnson era discography.
I can see this method being used equally well to determine the relative anti-establishment credentials of punk rock groups—which album most interfered with capitalist processes?—or even to determine just how much Shostakovich's alleged bourgeois cosmopolitanism would have undermined a socialist economy.

Update (8/22): How does such research come about? Dr. Oxoby explains.

August 21, 2007

Quote of the Day

For all its diversity, the culture of an age hangs together more coherently than does the mind of a psychotic.

—Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space, 1880-1918

This is a seriously good book.

At the Grave of William Billings

William Billings marker in Boston Common
(In the tradition of Alex Ross.) I can't believe I've never done a post on Billings, one of my favorite composers. Here's excerpts from some program notes I wrote on him a few years back:
The publication of The New-England Psalm-Singer in 1770 was the making of William Billings’ reputation. Its 120 or so hymns, psalm-tunes, and anthems represent the first substantial corpus of music by an American composer, a fact that Billings provocatively used as a selling point for the book—the title trumpets its regionalism, the pieces are named primarily for local towns and landmarks, and the frontispiece (“Wake Ev’ry Breath,” illustrated with a scene of domestic singing) was engraved by colonial celebrity Paul Revere. It was the first wholly American music book in existence.

Billings was born in Boston in 1746 and lived there for his entire life. He attended Boston public schools until around 1760, when his father died; he then took up the tanner’s trade to help support the family. He had no formal music training, but sang in churches from an early age, and before long supplemented his income as a singing-master and teacher.

The New-England Psalm-Singer establishes, from the beginning, the Billings style: rhythmically vigorous, harmonically sturdy yet often texturally florid, and exhibiting a seemingly artless declamatory style. “Sudbury” is a good example—Billings emphasizes the eight-plus-six syllable asymmetry of the text, an imbalance that other composers might seek to smooth over. At the same time, the almost constant decoration of the otherwise stately harmonic rhythm produces a continually dancing surface that upholsters a solid frame.

Billings continued to advance in these directions, as shown in two selections from his fifth book, The Suffolk Harmony. “Baptism” sets a text by the Relly brothers, noted Christian poets of the time, of almost forbidding metrical complexity. Billings utilizes a host of methods in negotiating this thicket. He contrasts the location within the rhythm of accented syllables, he changes meter and tempo to point up the structure of the poem, and he slowly increases both the range and the activity of each voice part to bring about the dramatic climax. Similar techniques abound in “The Dying Christian To His Soul,” which also includes an almost operatic section in which the individual voice parts, unaccompanied, query each other as to the possible mortal nature of their symptoms.

1786, the year Billings published The Suffolk Harmony, was a depression year, and its effects caught Billings at a bad time; an accomplished man of letters as well, Billings had nevertheless been fired as editor of a new “Boston Magazine” after only one issue. The Suffolk Harmony sold poorly and Billings was forced to turn back to his previous trades to support his own and growing family. He became the Sealer of Leather for the City of Boston (judging and approving the quality of leather) as well as the city’s hogreeve, responsible for enforcing that hogs were “yoked and ringed” according to law, and assessing the damage caused by stray pigs. A concert for his benefit and the publication of his last book, The Continental Harmony, failed to revive his fortunes, and he died a pauper in 1800, a few months after completing his last piece (an elegy for George Washington, now lost). He was buried in an unmarked grave in Boston Common.

Billings was, in his time, a well-known figure, something of an American Beethoven in projecting an appearance of unkempt genius. Upon hearing of his death, the Reverend William Bentley, a Salem minister and casual acquaintance of Billings, remarked to his diary:
He was a singular man, of moderate size, short of one leg, with one eye, without any address, & with an uncommon negligence of person. Still he spake & sung & thought as a man above the common abilities.
You can find a fair number of his works at the slowly recovering Choral Public Domain Library. He was born on October 7, which gives any choral directors out there six weeks to get a birthday concert together.

August 20, 2007

Wet your roller, then you roll it

I haven't done a post today because I've been painting, and my bloodstream has no doubt been enriched with plenty of nutritious latex. (I should probably put on some Mozart.) If only that paint had been lead-based, I might have been inspired to Beethovenian flights of fancy.

Here's a fun fact: Handel most likely also suffered from lead poisoning—but not because of paint, but rather port and madiera wines: at the time, the brandy they were fortified with was distilled through lead-lined pipes. Which means that, had I lived in the 18th-century, I, too, would have been afflicted with one of the best-named illnesses ever, saturnine gout.

August 17, 2007

She's ported and relieved and she's stroked and bored

The current official transport here at Soho the Dog HQ is a 1999 Honda Civic, dented on all four fenders, scraped and scratched on all four hubcaps, and the repository of countless CDs, empty coffee cups, and muddy pawprints. I love this car.

But if it ever gives up the ghost, the leading candidate for its replacement has got to be Herbert von Karajan's 1988 Porsche 959, currently being offered by the Swiss classic-car dealer Kidston. The conductor was a notorious fast-car addict, and he had a long-standing predilection for Porsches, to the point where, in 1975, he could have the company custom-make a unique 911 RS Turbo for his personal use. When the 959s were about to go into long-delayed production, Porsche sent one over to the 80-year-old Karajan for a test-drive, which was filmed for television. (Karajan's wife can be heard on the reports telling her husband, "You'd better sell more records.") Fewer than 300 of the 959s were made, all largely hand-built.

ex-Karajan Porsche 959
Zero-to-sixty in 3.6 seconds, a top speed of 198 MPH—yeah, that would be fun on the Pike. Kidston is coy on price, but this site pegs it at £153,000, or just over $300K. That Met commission can come in anytime.

August 16, 2007

Deeds, Not Words

Drummer Max Roach has passed away. Jazz fans don't need an introduction, but even if your jazz record collection is limited to a few choice highlights, chances are that Roach is playing on some of them—the number and variety of landmark sessions he was a part of boggles the mind. Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton—Roach played with them all. It's probably not an exaggeration to say that Roach changed drumming the way Liszt changed piano playing.

Darcy James Argue has many more links.

Thirty years on

August 15, 2007

Flattery, the sincerest form of

Columbia 35940 labelAnother transfer from 78 RPM: Raymond Scott and his New Orchestra, circa 1941, with "When Cootie Left the Duke."

Raymond Scott and his New Orchestra: "When Cootie Left the Duke" (MP3, 3.1 MB)

The title refers to trumpeter Cootie Williams, who left Duke Ellington's band (amicably) in 1940 to join Benny Goodman, and then to form his own band. (Williams rejoined the Ellington orchestra in 1962.) The music is a bluesy lament that riffs on both Williams' plunger-mute style and Ellington's lush instrumentation. This is a perfect example of a piece of music that owes its existence to the advent of recording. In referring to a specific performer, Scott is not only utilizing that perfromer's recorded repertoire to nail down his particular style, he's counting on the listener being familiar enough with Williams and Ellington to appreciate the tribute.

These types of pieces predate recording, of course—think of those Ravel "...á la maniére de" miniatures—but the older versions mostly reference compositional, not interpretive styles. The only pre-20th-century example I can think of off the top of my head (there must be a few others) that specifically riffs on an individual's performance style is in the "Chopin" movement from Robert Schumann's op. 9 Carnaval.

Schumann: Carnaval, Chopin, mm. 9-10

That "4-5-5-4-5" fingering on the ornament is a typical, recognizable Chopinism. (As Charles Rosen has pointed out, it's by far the most Chopinesque thing in the piece.) But that's a rare example of a personal, idiosyncratic performance habit that's easily translated into notation.

In the post-recording era, composers have sought to portray particular performers' styles—Christopher Rouse's Bonham (channeling the Led Zeppelin drummer), for example, or William Bolcom's Violin Concerto (which contains a tribute to jazz violinist Joe Venuti)—but the need for absolute precision in translating the style into notation is obviated by the availability of recordings of the original performers; the notation only needs to meet the players' knowledge halfway.

(I'm trying to think of an instance of a classical performer making the choice to refer to another classical performer without specific prompting from the composer, and again, I've only come up with one, but it's a favorite—the 1960 world premiere of Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream, when Peter Pears, playing Flute playing Thisbe in the final act's opera-within-an-opera, seized on Britten's bel canto-parody music and brought the house down with an over-the-top Joan Sutherland impression.)

August 14, 2007

Unlikely music critic of the day

We arrived in Rome at night to a reception ceremony held for security reasons in the courtyard of the Quirinale Palace. Colorful lancers on horseback were lined up in neat rows as the national anthems were played. The charming Italian anthem is probably the least martial-sounding one in the world; it is not easy to go forth to battle to the strains of what sounds almost like a waltz.

—Henry Kissinger, White House Years (1979), p. 921

Dr. Kissinger apparently doesn't appreciate the considerably rousing power of the traditional cantilena-cabaletta sequence of Italian opera. The Inno de Mameli ("Fratelli d'Italia")—tune by Goffredo Mameli's friend Michele Novaro—dates from 1847. Sing along with the MP3! (1.3 MB)
Fratelli d'Italia,
L'Italia s'è desta
Dell'elmo di Scipio
S'è cinta la testa.
Dove'è la Vittoria?
Le porga la chioma;
Chè schiava di Roma
Iddio la creò.
Stringiamoci a coorte,
Siam pronti alla morte;
Siam pronti alla morte:
Italia chiamò!
Italian brothers,
Italy has risen
With Scipio's helmet
Upon her head.
Where is Victory?
Let her bow down;
The slave of Rome
God has made her.
Let us gather into corps,
We are ready to die;
We are ready to die:
Italy is calling!
And here's Gli Azzurri, the Italian national football team, approaching the task with enthusiasm at their 2006 World Cup victory celebration.

Previously: 1, 2.

August 13, 2007

Surfin' Sephardi

I'm working in a coffee shop this morning, and they're piping in some odd smooth-jazz/Muzak version of "Good Vibrations," and a clarinet has the melody, and darned if it doesn't make the song into a convincing klezmer hora/freilach pairing. Brian Wilson is G—d!

Get on board

It seems like a good time to check in on that alleged Death of Classical Music. But first, let’s talk a little bit about non-functional demand curves.

The what now? Hey, you’re smarter than you think—even if you’ve never cracked an economics textbook, you probably have an intuitive sense for the traditional, functional demand curve: all other things remaining equal, as the price of a good goes down, demand goes up, and vice versa. But there are also non-functional demand curves, when the relationship between price and demand isn’t so well-behaved.

The classic paper on non-functional demand is economist Harvey Liebenstein’s “Bandwagon, Snob, and Veblen Effects in the Theory of Consumer Demand” (JSTOR link), published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics in May, 1950. As Liebenstein puts it:
[T]he proposed analysis is designed to take account the desire of people to wear, buy, do, consume, and behave like their fellows; the desire to join the crowd, be “one of the boys,” etc.—phenomena of mob motivations and mass psychology either in their grosser or more delicate aspects. This is the type of behaviour involved in what we shall call the “bandwagon effect.” On the other hand, we shall also attempt to take account of the search for exclusiveness by individuals through the purchase of distinctive clothing, foods, automobiles, houses, or anything else that individuals may believe will in some way set them off from the mass of mankind—or add to their prestige, dignity, and social status.
The bandwagon effect is the most familiar: makers of trendy goods can charge more for them, even if there’s no danger of a supply shortage—demand goes up even though the price doesn’t go down. Liebenstein, as he hints in the above passage, divides the second category in two: a “snob effect,” where a good becomes desirable simply because most people don’t have it; and a “Veblen effect” (named for the originator of the concept of conspicuous consumption), where a decrease in the price of a high-status good decreases its perceived status, and thus its demand.

I’m not trying to argue that classical music falls into one or the other of these categories—one of the great misguided assumptions in most reports of classical music’s “death” is that classical music itself is a single product, rather than an umbrella categorization of a host of varying (and sometimes competing) goods. But I do propose that where one’s opinion falls on the health of classical music has a lot to do with how one imagines its demand curve, and what kind of a curve one would like it to be.

Basically: people who say classical music is dying are doing so, in large part, because they don’t think that classical music generates enough of a bandwagon effect. (Some will often go further, charging classical-music organizations with actively promoting a snob effect in their marketing.) A lot of this arises from a comparison with pop, and is usually follwed by a prescription to present and market classical music more like pop culture. Pop culture dominates the market because it generates lots of bandwagon effect—it’s designed to. (Think of the way Hollywood blockbusters are marketed, and the way they open in thousands of theaters to maximize the return on their short-lived bandwagons.) Unless it can follow suit, it’s claimed, classical music will be left hopelessly in the dust. Not that classical music doesn’t have its own bandwagon effects—Peter Gelb, for example, has shown a fair talent for generating buzz at the Met—but it’s never enough in this kind of analysis.

There’s almost always an accompanying argument that classical music must be dying because it’s lost the competition for mindshare/media attention/cultural relevance. The concept is similar to another economic idea, a close relative of bandwagons. It’s called a network effect. The best example of this is a telephone: the value of a telephone to a potential buyer has a lot to do with how many other people are within the same telephone network. The fanciest phone in the world doesn’t do you a whole lot of good if it’ll only connect you to two or three other numbers. In the same vein, critics will say that classical music doesn’t really matter anymore, because only a small portion of the potential audience listens to it.

So when people ask if classical music is dying, in economic language, what they’re really asking is some combination of these two questions:
1. Are current benefits from non-functional demand sufficient for classical music organizations to remain economically viable?

2. Is the ultimate value of an artistic pursuit necessarily dependent on its ability to generate network effects?
I would answer those questions “yes” and “no”; thus, I do not think that classical music is dying.

I admit that my answer to the first question is based on anecdotal evidence; enough organizations, ensembles, and recording companies seem to be making enough money to be hanging in there, still doing what they’re doing. And enough musicians seem to come along, generation after generation, finding a way to make a living. It might actually be possible to collect enough relevant data to settle this question one way or another. I think that both the non-utilitarian and fragmented natures of the product would make such data pretty slippery; still, at least in theory, it’s a testable hypothesis.

But the second question, in reality, isn’t economic at all. It’s philosophical. And this is why this argument has gone on, and will go on, for so, so long. There’s no way to prove that question one way or another—either you believe that art has an intrinsic value regardless of the size of its audience, or you don’t.

Rudolf Serkin, infamously, once played the entirety of Bach’s Goldberg Variations as an encore. “When I finished,” he remembered, “there were only four people left in the hall—Adolph Busch, Artur Schnabel, Alfred Einstein and myself.” Did the value of Serkin’s recital dwindle along with the number listening? Hardly. My sanguine view of the survival of classical music is reflected in that illustrious trio staying in their seats. There will always be an audience whose demand for the music will remain purely functional, immune to fads, buzz, trends, what have you. Will it be smaller than the audience for this month’s pop sensation? Probably. Does that matter? Nope.

August 10, 2007

Canis major

In honor of Leo Fender's birthday, Buddy Guy and his Stratocaster accompanying Big Mama Thornton in a 1965 rendition of her biggest hit, "Hound Dog"—a 180 from Elvis's cover.

August 09, 2007

Ni les peintres ni Maupassant ne se promènent

I'm guessing this is the week when it hit everybody that summer is almost over. Here's a little creation to soothe your melancholy. I realized that I had never named a drink in honor of Francis Poulenc, so I'll borrow the title of one of my favorite of his songs, a bittersweet Apollinaire recollection of the perfect summer hang-out, now closed, never again to be graced by frivolity, abandon, or pretty girls dumb as cabbages.

La Grenouillère

Equal parts:
Dry gin
Apple eau de vie
Rose's Sweetened Lime Juice

Shake with cracked ice and strain into a martini glass.

While you imbibe: here's Poulenc himself, along with Jacques Février, performing the second movement of his 1932 Concerto for two pianos.

August 07, 2007

Soothe Me

Here's a pending patent application with the World Intellectual Property Organization. The inventor is Michinobu Suzuki, working for a company called the Faith 21 Corporation. What, exactly, is this new product?
A musical instrument having a substance, which obtained by blending microparticles of a natural mineral such as graphite-silica emitting far-infrared radiation or minus ions with various coatings, applied and/or deposited in a definite part of the instrument body. Since this instrument can emit the far-infrared radiation or minus ions by itself or in the tone range thereof during musical performance, it can soothe the heart of the musician or listeners around her/him. At the same time, attempts are made to improve the physiological effects of the far-infrared radiation or minus ions on the human body to thereby enhance natural healing ability and preventive effects against diseases.
I should find a Japanese speaker to translate the full description, although I doubt it would make a whole lot more sense. In the meantime, somewhere out there, Scriabin is updating his Christmas list.

August 06, 2007

Letter Aria

When I was in grade school, there was a brief period of time when one of the nuns decided that I and another girl should learn how to read and transcribe braille. Why? I can only think of two reasons, both valid: 1) it would use up time I would have otherwise spent disrupting the classroom, or 2) they figured it was likelier than not that I would foolishly blind myself someday, and I might as well get a head start. Anyway, I was never very good at it—both my stylus work and my reading were painfully slow—but just for fun, I looked it up today, and it turns out that I still remembered most of the alphabet. (Puzzle for the day: figure out which English letter breaks the otherwise consistent pattern.)

Now here's a little diversion. Braille can also be used in a rather intricate way to notate music—and most of the symbols overlap. Using the letter names of notes to translate words and names into music is an old trick, the most famous being the BACH motive (Bb-A-C-B-natural). But using braille as an intermediary, you get a whole new set of text-to-music translations. Here's one:

soho the dog: roman text, Braille, Braille interpreted as music
(Notice that "the" gets its own symbol, one of the many contractions that make braille a challenge to learn—and a breeze to use once you get good at it.) You can already see a lot of the characteristics that would be common using text-to-braille-to-music. Accidentals don't overlap with any letters, so everything's diatonic. And since each symbol is both a pitch and a duration, you end up with these odd-meter, non-symmetric rhythms.

Not everything works. BACH actually fails because both B and A are fingering indications, which make no sense without a note to attach them to. The C symbol translates into a slur, though, so as long as it's between two notes, it fits. Shostakovich's DSCH adaptation is ironically hopeful:

DSCH: Roman text, Braille, Braille reinterpreted as music
Arnold Schoenberg becomes a jaunty little alphorn tune (complete with a suggested fingering, brought to you by the letter B):

schoenberg: Roman text, Braille, Braille reinterpreted as music
This is just an idle game, but one that would have been appreciated by the inventor. Louis Braille, son of a saddlemaker, accidentally stabbed himself in the eye with one of his father's awls at the age of three; the resulting infection spread to both eyes and he was permanently blind within the year. As a teenager, expanding on the work of Charles Barbier, who intended his raised dots as a military code, Braille codified the six-dot system for embossing wet paper with, yes, an awl—the tool that cost him his sight would also, in a symmetry too unlikely for fiction, land him in the Pantheon (literally: he was reinterred there in 1952). But Braille was also well-known as an organist and cellist, gaining compliments from the likes of Felix Mendelssohn. The transcription of music evolved side-by-side with that for text—Braille's 1829 handbook, which introduced the new method, covered both. In a way, braille music is a lovely closed circle: touch to mind to ear and back to touch.

Transcribing music into braille by hand is a time-consuming process, but the computer can make it easier, for a price: programs such as GoodFeel and Toccata can translate from MIDI files, or piggyback on the music scanning software SharpEye—GoodFeel also works with Finale and Sibelius. Frustratingly, my attempts to render the graphics for this post in a useful way for visually-impaired computer users came to naught—apologies.

August 02, 2007

Hey, Chicago, whaddya say

Off-topic: two months is still plenty of time for the Sophoclean inevitability to play out, but in the meantime, my brother Danny gets a worthy birthday present—by a single percentage point.

Sail On Sailor

Reviewing the Boston Landmarks Orchestra. Boston Globe, August 2, 2007.

August 01, 2007

Personal space

It is notoriously easier to write about things and people one does not really know very well. One has fewer doubts. But to write about one's own country was a tortured enterprise. I knew too much. I saw too many trees. I sometimes could prove one thing or its contrary, with equal ease. I was embarrassed by the exceptions. I questioned every idea and watched every word. In my younger days sentimental patriotism was the fashion. In my anxiety to correct such prejudices, was I too eager to demolish sound and durable notions? I was afraid to be too conservative and, at almost the same time, too ready to follow new intellectual fashions, the rage among contemporary intelligentsia, to embrace seductive new theories which might be obsolete before the book appeared in print.

—Luigi Barzini, The Italians, 1964