October 31, 2007

Many Happy Returns of the Day


Singers and Stage Hands of the
Paris Gaiete-Lyrique Swear
They Behold an Apparition.
Outsiders Unable to See Anything
on Stage Where Composer's Last
Work Is Being Made Ready.
Special Cable to The New York Times.

PARIS, April 20.—What is regarded by the Paris artistic world as the chief musical event of the season, the premiere of "Panurge," the last work of Massenet, scheduled to be given Tuesday at the municipal Opera House, the Gaieté-Lyrique, has taken on additional interest because of the assertions of singers and stage hands that the stage is haunted at every rehearsal by the ghost of the composer.

The extraordinary affair has been kept secret for a fortnight, but just leaked out, with the result that the Gaieté has been beseiged by musicians, opera lovers, and friends of Massenet, eager for details of his alleged appearance.

"I first noticed the apparition at the second rehearsal," said the baritone, M. Marcoux, to The New York Times correspondent. "It appeared at the end of the second act at the right-hand corner of the stage. At first I thought it was a hallucination on my part, but, try as I might, I could not keep my eyes from the figure, which I could see distinctly, clad in the familiar gray frock coat, beat time with its hands and shake its head in approval or disapproval. I said nothing, for fear of being ridiculed, and as the ghost, or whatever it might be, did not appear again that day, I took a dose of bromide to steady my nerves.

"Next day Mlle. Lucy Arbell, who has the principal rôle, clutched my arm suddenly during the duet in the second act and whispered, in a terrified voice, 'Look! Look!' There, in the same place, stood the strange figure, going through the motions of conducting an orchestra. I must confess our voices sounded shaky as we continued singing."
Marcel Simond, General Secretary of the theatre, was another witness of the strange manifestations. He said that at first the women members of the company were tremendously impressed and hysterical and the tenors and basses were nervous as schoolgirls, while the stage hands refused to go near the haunted corner, but in the course of a few days they appeared to accustom themselves to the strange apparition and the work is now going on as usual.
The correspondent of the New York Times spent this afternoon on the stage of the theatre, but, although M. Marcoux and others pointed to an alleged spectre, the correspondent was unable to see the slightest trace of it.

New York Times, April 20, 1913

October 30, 2007

Save situation

Reviewing Itzhak Perlman.
Boston Globe, October 30, 2007.

Concert and review preceded Game 4, but with the way the World Series was going, I figured I better get in a baseball reference while I could before the long winter. My lovely rabid-Red-Sox-fan wife and I then watched the game at a bar, surrounded by loud drunk people, which is, really, the only way to see a team clinch. (Good thing, too—had the Red Sox lost, I have a feeling those guys would have gone out and keyed every car in the lot.)

October 29, 2007

The Smart Set

A management consulting firm called Synectics came out this week with a publicity-stunt "survey" of the top 100 living "geniuses." If you're keeping score, Philip Glass tops the musical world, coming in at #9. The rock contingent shows a decided baby-boomer bias. Jazz? No geniuses left, apparently. Dolly Parton squeaks in at #94, though.

Lists like this tend to be pretty silly, and this one is worse than most, with a methodology so flimsy that I question this firm's proficiency at consulting anybody on anything. But the survey does point up something interesting. The first criterion on Synectics' list of five defining traits of genius is that old favorite, paradigm shifting. And I realized that paradigm shifting might just be the one thing that unites the past century or two of music history.

The term "paradigm shift" became famous from Thomas Kuhn's 1970 study The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Notice the word choice, though: not scientific process, or discovery, but revolution. That's a post-Romantic bias revealed right in the title, but the effects of Romantic thinking (heck, let's gild the lily and call it the Romantic Revolution) are so deeply ingrained in modern society that we don't even see it. That might be why 20th and 21st-century music history seems so fragmented and variegated: we take for granted the one universal feature, the way every turn of the musical wheel—jazz, atonality, minimalism, rock, historically-informed performance, neo-Romanticism, &c.—claims (or is claimed) to have shifted some paradigm or another.

I don't think this is by definition good or bad, it's just an observation: the societies we live in are, at their core, products of the Romantic era, and I don't see that influence ebbing anytime soon. (In a lot of ways, it's bound up with the spread and solemnization of democratic processes.) But it is a big change from, say, the 1600s, when a composer like Sweelinck was widely recognized as a genius, not because he was an innovator, not because he was a revolutionary, but because he did what everyone else was doing so much better than everyone else did. That's a contrast with the current touchstone for musical genius, Beethoven. It's an open question whether Beethoven's innovations were popular, or whether Beethoven was popular because his penchant for innovation so well embodied fashionable Romantic ideas. I suspect the latter—the really inventive late stuff didn't gain very much traction at the time. But his is the kind of impact that musicians of all stripes are still, consciously or subconsciously, being judged against.

October 26, 2007

The censures of the carping world

When O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murder charges in 1995, the only people I talked to who weren’t surprised were friends in law school. O.J.’s lawyers worked a textbook defense: destroy the credibility of the arresting officer, and reasonable doubt descends on the entire case. I thought of O.J. fairly early on in this week’s must-read, Richard Taruskin’s Monty-Python-16-ton-weight of a book review in The New Republic. Taruskin is reviewing recent literature on the allegedly precarious state of classical music in current culture. His favorite?
Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music by Blair Tindall, a journalist and recovering oboist, which despite a pandering title actually contains the smartest and most constructive take on the situation.
Come on. Blair Tindall? I could see if he wanted to cite the book as symptomatic of certain attitudes that he saw in the modern music world and wanted to use in his argument. But “the smartest and most constructive take on the situation”? That book was trash—entertaining trash, yes, but about as constructive as jello shots. The jury would like to see those gloves again, your honor.

This review encapsulates everything that drives me nuts about Taruskin’s writing: at first I'm amused by by the insult comedy, then the rhythm starts to bog down, and finally I'm just exhausted—and, temporarily, reflexively sympathetic to whatever poor idea he continues to bludgeon out of apparent inertia. Taking up a trio of books that could be easily—and deservedly—dispatched on the back of a couple of napkins, Taruskin instead unleashes 12,000 words (12,000 words—let us never speak of this man as “pithy” again), so focused on his invective and his provocations that he ties his shoelaces together, stumbling over his own arguments, lurching past more interesting, subtler points. Even more frustrating, those points are eminently worth making—but they're drowned out by the irresistable lure of the lapidary put-down.

Here’s a favorite bit. In the midst of Taruskin carpet-bombing Julian Johnson’s Who Needs Classical Music?, anti-Semitism rears its ugly head (I know, I know—Taruskin playing the anti-Semitic card? Shocking) in the Halloween-mask guise of Richard Wagner. Taruskin traces Johnson’s classical-music-as-moral-uplift back to E.T.A. Hoffmann, then condemns it because Wagner took it up:
Between Hoffmann and Wagner, however, the metaphor of depth had been claimed by German writers as a national trait; and just as nationalism underwent its general transformation from a modernizing and liberalizing discourse into a belligerent and regressive one in the later nineteenth century, so the notion of spiritual depth had been turned into a weapon of national and racial aggrandizement in Wagner's hands.
So what? Ideas don’t automatically lose their validity just because unscrupulous people try and assimilate them into their own distasteful worldviews—and it's an awfully tenuous assumption that, by listening to a composer's music, we automatically perceive and accept that composer's philosophy. (I've listened to Wagner for years without succumbing to the temptations of rabid nationalism, racial superiority, or wife-stealing.) Now, Taruskin is bringing up Wagner’s anti-Semitism in the context of taking down Johnson’s advocacy of classical music as a moral tonic. Taruskin rightly points out that art should bring pleasure, first and foremost, and that pleasure takes many forms:
But pleasure does not have to be defined sensuously, and there are all kinds of pleasures: guilty pleasures, altruistic pleasures, animal pleasures, spiritual pleasures, perverse pleasures, the pleasure of a good meal, of a good cry, of worthy accomplishment, of self-improvement, of self-possession, of exclusion, of ascendancy, of dominion, of revenge.
Taruskin coruscates Johnson: “To cast aesthetic preferences as moral choices at the dawn of the twenty-first century is an obscenity.” But Taruskin, of course, is doing just that, saying that if you derive pleasure via a Hoffmann-esque aesthetic philosophy, you’re headed down the same road to perdition that Wagner took. "Belief in [classical music's] indispensability, or in its cultural superiority, is by now unrecoverable," Taruskin states, "and those who mount such arguments on its behalf morally indict themselves." First of all, a belief is not an argument, and second of all, doesn't that belief constitute an aesthetic preference? Certainly some pleasures are morally reprehensible, but that means that other pleasures (even if just the pleasure of avoiding the morally reprehensible) are, by comparison, morally advantageous. Taruskin wants it both ways.
Both the book itself and its reception (as recorded on Amazon.com) expose the sort of pleasure it promotes: that of solidarity in sanctimony. To all who have read it with enjoyment I urgently prescribe a reading of Father Sergius, Tolstoy's parable of moral exhibitionism and its comeuppance. I will pray for the salvation of their souls.
God’s eyes would probably glaze over around the 8,000-word mark.

The thing is, all three of these books (or at least the two that I read) deserve a certain amount of opprobrium, but the interesting review that might have come out of that—promulgating a theory as to why, market forces to the contrary, so many of us do still listen to classical music—is buried under spluttering, Dickensian rage and that seemingly deathless nostalgic 1970s hit, poking Adorno with a stick. (ANABlog has already pointed out a couple more of Taruskin's less watertight arguments.)

On the other hand, why make a big deal? I don't particularly care for the eat-your-vegetables rationalization of classical music in these books, either. Here's why: on the header of his blog, the film scholar Jim Emerson quotes the philosopher Daniel Dennett: "There's nothing I like less than bad arguments for a view that I hold dear." In my book, scattershot bullying counts as a bad argument; by the end of the article, I had to consciously remind myself that I actually agreed with a lot of his positions. Taruskin closes by quoting Tony Soprano—see, kids? Your professor is down with pop culture, too. (In the meantime, the kids have moved on to "The Office" and Arcade Fire songs.) "Do not expect nuance from a mob boss," he warns. I won't, Don Taruskin.

October 24, 2007

Über Sternen muß er wohnen

Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina is easily impressed, if this interview is any indication:
If you could sit down with one person from history, who would it be?

I would like to sit down and talk to Beethoven, my favorite composer. That would be amazing. I suspect what would be most fascinating is the discovery that these people are human too.
Really? That would be more fascinating than the discovery that Beethoven was a lizard-like creature from another solar system who needed twice-daily injections of growth hormones in order to survive Earth's crushing atmospheric pressure? (That would go a long way towards explaining the whole middle period.)

October 23, 2007


Daniel Barenboim was at it again last week, announcing a plan for the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, the Israeli-Palestinian youth ensemble he co-founded in 1999, to perform the first act of Wagner's Die Walküre at the Waldbühne, an open-air arena in Berlin built by the Nazis for the 1936 Olympics.
"Can you imagine that?" Barenboim was quoted as saying in the interview, released Wednesday. "The Waldbühne was built by Hitler. The music is Wagner. Played by us! Hitler and Wagner would turn in their graves."
This is Barenboim the world-class provocateur; anyone who criticizes him as naïve is badly misjudging him—the man knows exactly what he's doing. (For a sample of the consternation Barenboim tends to cause, see the comments at the end of this Ha'aretz report, or go here for a particularly heavy-handed approach.) For the record, I find Barenboim's music-making and his provocations to be sincere and thought-provoking—even when I'm not convinced, I'd rather be disagreeing with Barenboim that agreeing with a lot of other musicians, if that makes any sense. Still, I would imagine that most Germans don't immediately associate the Waldbühne with Hitler anymore—the Rolling Stones were already playing the arena in the 1960s, after all, and the Berlin Philharmonic traditionally closes its season there every June with a festive summer night. But Barenboim's reminder is entirely in keeping with a way he has of approaching the repertoire, which is fascinating.

Barenboim's use of repertoire and venue is, in a way, a complete reverse of how classical music has come to be promoted in modern culture. Usually, the fact that the classical canon was composed a) a long time ago and b) in a not-particularly egalitarian atmosphere goes politely unmentioned—the rationale (which I've often used myself) being that it doesn't matter where the music came from, it speaks to something universal in all of us, loosing itself from its socio-politico-historical moorings and floating free as the common property of humanity. Barenboim flips this on its head: Wagner's music is vital to us today not in spite of the politics of the composer and the music's subsequent historical associations, but because of it. For Barenboim, the way music can embody the universal human condition is a choice we make, a choice that reflects an essentially optimistic view of the contest between good and evil within the human soul. We can look Wagner in the eye, as it were, and reject his anti-Semitism by embracing his music, the nobler aspect of his human existence. When Barenboim programs Wagner in Jerusalem, or takes the podium at a Nazi venue as a Jewish artist, he's asserting that evil isn't something that needs to be quarantined, it's something that needs to be confronted and defeated by mankind's capacity for good. Rather than passively ignore the potent historical baggage, he actively puts it front and center, then invites us to consciously choose the positive experience of the music over the negative aspects of its past misuse, or even its origins. It's almost as if Barenboim is exercising the listeners' minds in the method of engaging the world that he thinks is necessary for ever improving it.

Wagner is the most obvious vehicle for this sort of thing, but here's another example that works in subtler ways. When Barenboim took the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra to Ramallah in 2005, on the program was a tribute to the late Edward Said, the Palestinian-American scholar who co-founded the ensemble with Barenboim: the "Nimrod" movement from Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations. Last summer, I participated in a discussion panel when a documentary of the concert was screened at the Boston Jewish Film Festival; at the time, I joked that Elgar was a canny choice, since the last time that Jews and Arabs in the region had been united was in their opposition to the post-WWI British Mandate. But scratch the surface, and there's multiple levels of the sort of intellectual aikido that accompanies Barenboim's Wagner: a piece that often memorializes heads of state being played for someone who spent his career trying to articulate the position of the disposessed, a composer indelibly associated with one of history's greatest colonial empires put into service celebrating an originator of post-colonial theory. The great thing is that it reflects back on the music, too—hearing Wagner's powerful beauty in Israel makes you realize the contrast between the large, deep humanity of Wagner the composer and the small, petty transience of Wagner the racial theorist; hearing Elgar in Ramallah highlights the ambivalence and poignancy forever present beneath the nobilmente Edwardian façade.

I'm more or less a moderate on the Israeli-Palestinian question: I think anyone who denies Israel's right to exist is a fool, but equally foolish is anyone who thinks that its existence can long persist in any worthwhile fashion without finding a peaceful co-existence with the Palestinians. And I have to admit that often, my view of human nature isn't sanguine enough to believe that the conflict between good and evil within the human soul is anything like a fair fight. At times like that, Barenboim's idealism can seem like naiveté or simplistic grandstanding. But Barenboim's whole point is that your reaction is a choice—even if you don't choose to believe that most people will do the right thing, at the very least, you yourself can choose to do the right thing. You can look at the awful ways in which even the most beautiful of human endeavors have been put to use, and decide that, even if it was that way in the past, it doesn't have to be that way in the future.

October 22, 2007

They Can't Take Thaat Away From Me

Reviewing the Boston Philharmonic.
Boston Globe, October 22, 2007.

The Boston Philharmonic's printed programs include this bit of wishful thinking:

Cell phones, pagers, watch alarms and similar noise-making devices wreck concerts and embarrass their owners. Please switch them off.

Wreck concerts? Yes. Embarrass their owners? Not in this country, my friend.

October 19, 2007


One of [Virgil Thomson's] peccadilloes was dozing during concerts. When I was reviewing for the Sun we quite often were at the same concert, and I could observe him in this condition and occasionally hear a snore or two. What amazed everyone was the fact that when he came out in the intermission his remarks indicated that he hadn't missed a thing. When I moved over to the Tribune Thomson and I would go out to dinner together from time to time before covering our respective assignments. Once Thomson cautioned me against having coffee (the decaf vogue had not started yet) and to be sure to have enough wine so that I would be able to sleep at the concert. There were times when I wished I could sleep but I lacked the talent—though I recall falling asleep at the Metropolitan during one ear-shattering passage in a Wagner opera, drowned in the sound and luxuriating in the red plush interior of the old opera house.

—Arthur Berger,
Reflections of an American Composer

Berger also quotes the funniest sentence I read all day, a Bernard Holland description of George Rochberg's neo-Romanticism: "Mr. Rochberg's quintet does remind us of the frontiersman who, having fought his way arduously through badlands and hostile Indians to the promised West, abruptly decides to resettle in Philadelphia."

October 18, 2007

Our Prayer

Sasha Frere-Jones has an article in the latest New Yorker that's been getting a fair amount of attention, in which he complains that indie rock has pretty much abandoned a long-standing rock tradition of more-or-less stealing from African-American musical styles. I don't know nearly enough about current indie rock to critique that, but he did say a couple of things that set my gears turning. First off, he seems to regard the African-American influence as an almost purely rhythmic one.
If there is a trace of soul, blues, reggae, or funk in Arcade Fire, it must be philosophical; it certainly isn’t audible. And what I really wanted to hear, after a stretch of raucous sing-alongs, was a bit of swing, some empty space, and palpable bass frequencies—in other words, attributes of African-American popular music.
But African-American music has its own distinct harmonic features as well. And I hear a fair amount of African-American harmonic influence, particularly from gospel, across the pop landscape. But, more interestingly, I hear even more of it in a lot of music by a guy Frere-Jones correctly points up as an inspiration to a lot of the indie crowd:
Several groups that experienced commercial success, such as the Flaming Lips and Wilco, drew on the whiter genres of the sixties—respectively, psychedelic music and country rock—and gradually Brian Wilson, of the Beach Boys, a tremendously gifted musician who had at best a tenuous link to American black music, became indie rock’s muse.
Now, I would say that the link is more than tenuous—the initial Beach Boys sound was heavily indebted to Chuck Berry. "Surfin' U.S.A.," after all, is just "Sweet Little Sixteen" with different lyrics. But the sound was soon transformed into a new genre: "Fun, Fun, Fun" lifts its opening guitar riff from "Johnny B. Goode," but after that, it's essentially a Chuck Berry song that Chuck Berry would never be able to sing. And some atypical later Beach Boys albums (such as Wild Honey or Carl and the Passions) make explicit a debt to R&B and soul that was percolating under the surface of all those bright surf anthems.

But the harmonic influence is a far trickier matter, and points up the difficulty of tracing musical influence in general. The sound I'm thinking of is gospel's subdominant-dominant mash-up. The subdominant, which we all know and love from plagal "Amen" cadences, colors much of gospel harmony. It's a common ornament to the tonic chord:

At some point, that neighborly rocking was combined with a stronger V-I bass movement:

That subdominant-over-dominant IV-over-V sound (in chord symbols, either G11(add9) or F/G) is one of the touchstones of gospel. The presence of the first and fourth scale degrees push it past the basic V-I found in hymns, but its resolute diatonicism keeps it from sounding like straight-up jazz. Here's the conundrum: I hear a lot of that sound in Brian Wilson's later, more critically-revered output, but did he really get it from gospel? Or did he come up with it on his own, as a natural evolution of his musical voice? Part of the problem is that he uses such sounds in a fairly idiosyncratic way.

The quasi-gospel harmonies stay pretty much in the background in those early Beach Boys songs; everything is arranged for the standard rock instruments of guitar and bass, which doesn't highlight the vertical thinking as much, and while something like that first progression forms the basis of much of the rhythm guitar, it sounds more like rockabilly than gospel. The gospel sounds only come to the fore around the time of Pet Sounds, when Brian's focus turns from the bass to the piano (and, by extension, other keyboard instruments) as he eschews live performance for the studio. The textural model is the repeated right-hand quarter-note chord, something Brian probably picked up from listening to Phil Spector records. You can hear it clearly in the organ part that opens "Good Vibrations":

This is still very much in the Phil Spector mode, solidly triadic. But by the time of "Surf's Up," written for the ill-fated Smile album, things have gotten a little more complicated:

The third and fourth bars are close to the typical IV-over-V gospel dominant. But the first two bars are something else entirely. In essence, he's flipped the V-I movement in the bass, making the second chord of the pair the dominant. And he obscures the movement towards resolution by harmonizing the first bass note as a chord in second inversion, a particularly unstable sonority. The unexpected inversions are something Brian turns to again and again in this period, layering on a question where the bass line would seem to give an answer.

Are the fact that these sorts of chords are also found in gospel a sign of influence or coincidence? On the one hand, Brian has said in interviews that it was actually Burt Bacharach songs that opened up his ears to extra-triadic harmonies, major and minor seventh chords and the like. On the other hand, in the America of the 1950s and 60s, it would have been hard for Brian not to be influenced by gospel—I've written before about how the Civil Rights movement infused American vernacular music with a healthy dose of the African-American church.

But the most fascinating possibility is that Brian's gospel chords evolved separately, but from a common source. If you consider the music he grew up with—Protestant hymns, Four Freshman pop, early blues-based rock-and-roll—it's not that different from the stew out of which Thomas Dorsey first synthesized gospel in the 20s and 30s. Maybe it's a musical version of the Miller-Urey experiment: if the right elements are present, the necessary combinations form no matter what. It's like trying to trace the cross-pollination between the Beach Boys and the Beatles: "Surf's Up," for example, wasn't commercially released until 1971, but had been famously featured in the 1967 Leonard Bernstein-hosted CBS documentary Inside Pop. And put side by side, the Beatles' "Let It Be" and "The Long and Winding Road" sure do seem to be in debt to it. But maybe they were just all drawing on the same zeitgeist.

For comparison, here's one more Brian Wilson similarity, one that most certainly represents a parallel development, and not a direct influence. "God Only Knows" is, on one level, a celebration of the subdominant. It starts on IV (A major); the tonic E-major harmony never appears in root position. Here's the main progression of the song:

The tonic-related harmonies, in the center of the phrase, are second- and third-inversion instabilities that need to be resolved. That point of tension is surrounded by chords all related to either subdominant IV (including the F-sharp minor triads, which are, after all, the relative minor of IV) or the subdominant substitution ii. The tinta of the song is perennially stuck in the middle of an "Amen" cadence.

You know who else used to stack his harmonies heavily towards the plagal, the flat side of the circle of fifths? Edward Elgar. And for precisely the same reason that Brian Wilson does—to give the music a sense of melancholy grandeur, a sense that bright, sturdy perfect cadences would flood with too much sonic light. Now I know that Brian Wilson wasn't consciously trying to imitate Sir Edward. But they both heard the bittersweet longing within the plagal cadence, and chose their vocabularies accordingly. Tracing influences is fascinating, but for me, just as fulfilling is the realization that even total musical strangers are sometimes, in the same way, chasing the same star.

October 16, 2007

Buying The Rest Is Noise

(Click to enlarge.)

Comic: Buying The Rest Is Noise
Update (10/22): Robert F. Jones casts the movie in the comments.

October 15, 2007

America Drinks and Goes Home

More composer beer: Frank Zappa ale, celebrating the 40th anniversary of the release of Absolutely Free.

(The same brewery has also released an ale in honor of Freak Out!) I keep waiting for this to be a trend. Composer/beer puns abound: Quincy Porter, Alan Stout, C.P.E. Bock—but for my money, nothing would beat a Virgil Thomson Unfiltered Wheat.

October 12, 2007

Good? Bad? Ugly?

So did legendary Italian film composer Ennio Morricone get dissed in Korea or not? Morricone was in the country last week to be honored at the Pusan International Film Festival this week, but left early—depending on who you read, this was either all according to plan, due to an unprecedented mid-festival typhoon, or because of an unforgivable breach of etiquette. From the Seoul Times:
As part of opening night, Ennio Morricone was supposed have been honored with a ceremonial hand printing, but the inclement weather kept the legendary composer indoors and the presenting ceremony private.
But the Korea Times first reported this:
Afterward, the private opening party at the garden of Paradise Hotel greeted the stars and celebrities. Morricone, who was planning on topping the late-night event with the festival's first hand-printing ceremony, was unable to do so due to fatigue.
(The "hand-printing" ceremony is a festival honoree tradition, kind of like the way stars have left their imprint in the sidewalk outside Grauman's Chinese Theater.) The same paper later expanded on that report:
Ennio Morricone, the 79-year-old legendary Italian composer and conductor, was one of the important guests at Thursday's opening ceremony. But the maestro of film music and his wife were left unattended and unescorted at Thursday's opening ceremony.
Rumors went even further:
The most contested talk of the town was the alleged mistreatment and early departure of Ennio Morricone, the world-renowned maker of timeless scores from "Cinema Paradiso.'' With the sudden arrival of three contending presidential candidates, Morricone's red carpet entrance was pushed back during the opening ceremony. The 79-year-old composer had to remain standing for a very long time, and local media reports suggest that the festival staff did not treat him with respect.

Morricone did not show up for the hand-printing ceremony later on that evening. PIFF organizers, on the other hand, maintain that he left the country according to plan.
But the Hollywood Reporter says it's tabloid exaggeration:
However, the Korean press, especially the mercurial online variety, turned on PIFF this year, showering the festival with a barrage of complaints: Guest Ennio Morricone left the festival in an angry huff (false), a press conference for Lee Myung-se's "M" was far too crowded (true), a beachfront pavilion leaked (true, but there was a typhoon at the time).
The Reporter's reporter, Mark Russell, went into more detail on his blog:
Okay, the truth about Morricone, as far as I know. Morricone led a concert in Seoul on Wednesday (Oct. 3) night. He flew down to Busan on Thursday and, despite feeling ill (the dude is 80), he agreed to show up to the opening ceremonies, at least briefly. Morricone was picked up at the airport by one of PIFF's programmers (sadly, without a translator) and driven to his hotel.

Then he was taken to the opening ceremonies. There was a little disorganization backstage for a few minutes because of the politicians who wanted to attend (particularly Lee Myung-bak, who was quite late). PIFF organizers said it was about 5 minutes, while another person I talked to estimated it was longer. Morricone and his wife were then introduced and led to their seats.

After a few minutes, because he was feeling ill, Morricone went back to his hotel and skipped the opening party. He left early the next day, as scheduled.

No idea where the rumor started that he felt mistreated by PIFF. After all, he did the hand printing. If he was so angry, why would he have done that? There is absolutely no proof that anything bad happened (besides the delay at the opening ceremonies). Just a lot of silly gossip.
My guess is that Morricone would be too classy a guy to confirm whether he was disrespected or not. PIFF is one of the biggest film festivals in Asia, by the way, and swarming with journalists. Backlash? Spin? Or did the organizers really abandon their guest of honor?

October 11, 2007

80 Blocks From Symphonies

Gustav Mahler, who we all thought died in 1911, is apparently alive and well and a graffiti artist, leaving tags all over Toronto. Ah, this stuff is really frisch!

October 10, 2007

Key indicators

Today's starting point is this Bloomberg News report on the efforts of the French piano manufacturer Pleyel to reposition themselves as a maker of high-end concert instruments in response to Japanese and Chinese competition. The article doesn't really get into the most interesting aspect of that move, namely, keeping the traditional Pleyel sound (which, based on the last paragraph, it seems they're trying to do). The ubiquitously standard piano action and timbre of the modern world, what everything gets compared to, is that of a Steinway—a fluid, precise touch combined with a bright, penetrating sound. Pleyels historically have had a lighter touch and a much more limpid, transparent sound. The frequent combination of thick, busy textures with seemingly impossibly low dynamic levels in some pieces of Chopin or Debussy, for example, make much more sense when you know that both composers favored Pleyels.

Keeping that traditional sound is a bold move because it's the reason Pleyels have become comparatively scarce. Steinways are standard because they're engineered specifically for a consistent sound that can both fill up a big hall and cut through an orchestra. Pleyels were made primarily for smaller halls and, especially, salons, where its intimate shading could be best appreciated. The company is apparently betting that by highlighting their instruments' idiosyncratically individual timbre, they can generate enough interest to support only their highest-quality models—the article reports that they're discontinuing manufacture of uprights, presumably a higher-volume but also less marked-up product. That's a direct response to competition—the cheapest Pleyel upright has been retailing for around 7,500 Euros; a Chinese-made piano costs only one-fifth as much. But whether there's a long-tail-type niche for 100,000-Euro grand pianos is, putting it mildly, a bit of a risk.

A scaled-up Pleyel would probably put out enough sound to fill up a large space—after all, even the mighty Bösendorfer 290 Imperial, which does fine in multiple-thousand-seat houses, actually has a somewhat more delicate sound than a Steinway "D": all that bulk and those extra strings make for a deeper, more sustained tone, not a louder one. But given the premium put on rehearsal time, especially in the United States, there's the danger that getting used to a non-Steinway sound might be considered one too many adjustments for soloists and orchestras.

I hope Pleyel can make a go of it—I love the sound, myself. If I ever have piles of money, my instrument of choice will be an antique Pleyel. (Although getting such instruments into the US can be a problem: in the past, the ivory keys have run afoul of anti-poaching import restrictions. New Pleyels get around this by using, no kidding, fossilized woolly mammoth tusks.) But you can look at pianos as an object lesson in how globalization, for all its benefits, homogenizes manufacturing. The cheap instruments coming out of China and Japan tend to emulate the Steinway sound; other styles are endangered. Bechsteins, for example, are still made in Germany, for the time being, but the company is now owned by the Korean conglomerate Samick, which makes most of its instruments in Asia (they've also taken over the Knabe and Sohmer names, among others); the Bloomberg article mentions in passing that Bösendorfer is for sale, which I wasn't aware of, but would mark the third change of hands for that company in the past decade.

The question is whether it's homogenizing music as well. Has the reduction of the idea of what a piano sounds like to, for the most part, one particular timbre similarly impoverished the way composers write for the instrument? Would Chopin and Debussy have come up with the textures and harmonies they did if they were working with a modern Steinway? I can't think of another instrument that's become as one-size-fits-all as the modern concert grand.

The history of an instrument is usually presented as an evolutionary chain: viol consorts turning into the modern string section, recorders becoming transverse wooden flutes becoming their contemporary metal counterparts, and so on. It's like that classic illustration from grade-school biology textbooks showing the step-by-step genealogy of the horse. But that particular pattern—a chain of improvements leading up to a single, modern epitome—is actually something of an evolutionary failure. Truly successful biological lineages are the ones that branch out into endless variety. There's an argument to be made that the real descendant of the piano is the keyboard synthesizer, with its limitless timbral possibilities, and that the mechanical piano is just an atavism anyways. Still, I'd feel better about the family dynamic if all the siblings but one weren't hanging on by a thread.

October 09, 2007

Let's play our wedding march

From the dusty files of the Soho the Dog music library: Mendelssohn's "Wedding March" from A Midsummer Night's Dream. With added lyrics. And arranged for Hawaiian guitar. (Click to enlarge.)

Posted in honor of my lovely wife, in celebration of another year, and with the happy expectation of many more.

October 05, 2007


By now, everyone in the opera world has absorbed the news that Charles Wuorinen is working on an opera based on Brokeback Mountain. I was less skeptical about this idea than some—I thought some of the best, most startling parts of the last Wuorinen piece I heard, his 8th Symphony ("Theologoumena"), were the most delicate moments—and I just make it a rule to try and reserve judgment on any piece until I actually hear it. (I've been surprised, pleasantly and unpleasantly, far too many times.)

But then I read that David Carlson (whose Anna Karenina was premiered in St. Louis last season) was working on an adaptation of On the Waterfront (scroll down to the bottom) and I started to think about Wuorninen's efforts as part of a mini-trend of film-based operas: William Bolcom already saw the premiere of A Wedding, based on the Robert Altman film; Poul Ruders is composing a version of Lars von Trier's Dancer In the Dark; Howard Shore is mutating David Cronenberg's The Fly.

On the face of it, this might not seem like news: opera has always plundered other art forms for subjects and plots, far more often, in fact, that it's generated them itself. But cribbing from film changes the dynamic in a fundamental way. The previous motherlodes of operatic adaptation—theater and literature—are both re-creative media. Plays require live interpretation by actors and directors, with the varying personnel producing equally varied versions of the source material, while literature is dependent on the creative complicity of the reader—everyone who cracks the cover is his or her own producer/director, on the stage of imagination. But film, with its complete Gesamkunstwerk of word, image, sound, and editing, crowds out the possibility of dramatic (though not necessarily semiotic) re-interpretation.

More crucially, I think, duplication and distribution of film universalizes the public image of a particular movie in a way that doesn't happen with plays or novels, no matter how popular. Take On the Waterfront, a movie that's burned its way into our collective artistic memory in a remarkably specific way: even people who haven't seen the movie already have Brando in their head ruminating how he coulda been a contender. Same with Brokeback Mountain: the notoriety (and countless parodies) have created a particular mental image and memory of that story for almost everybody.

It's not that operagoers will be coming into the show with a pre-existing, personal interpretation of the story they're about to see—that happens with any adaptation—but that the pre-existing interpretation will be the same one across the board. Everyone will be comparing it to the same experience: a formidable challenge for anyone wanting to translate the material. I could see how Bolcom sould get away with it: The Wedding is something of a cult film—how many people have actually seen it? Or even had heard of it before the opera came out? Far fewer than Brokeback Mountain or The Fly, I'd bet. But with a popular movie, something that immediately latches onto the zeitgeist, I would think that the universality of the filmgoing experience puts the opera at a disadvantage. My sense is that the bar will either be set too high—anything less than an utterly convincing and completely contrasting illumination of the story will be a failure—or too low—simply not alienating the audience's existent relationship to the material will be sufficient success (you're terrific if you're even good, in other words). Either way, there's a danger of shrinking the artistic space for opera to work its own, idiosyncratic magic.

October 04, 2007

Shadow play

A trope we've cantillated more than once in this space is the notion that a piece of music takes on a life of its own and makes its own way in the world as soon as the composer puts the finishing touches on it. Here's a rather extreme instance of that.

The song in question is called "Genjer-Genjer," and it was widely popular in Indonesia in the 1950s and 60s. It was written in 1943 by Muhammad Arif, supposedly inspired by, and describing, his wife's soup-making; genjer is a leafy green vegetable, regarded by many cultures as a weed, but cultivated for animal and human consumption in Java. The song became something of a standard in Indonesia—go here to listen to one of the best-known versions, by the Indonesian pop star Bing Slamet (1927-1974).

To understand what happened to this song requires descending into one of the murkiest swamps of 20th-century history, the failed Indonesian coup of 1965. In Indonesia, "1965" and, more specifically, "30 September" carry much the same kind of resonance and overtones that "9/11" does in the United States, but even after forty years, historians are still trying to untangle the various stories, accusations, and justifications surrounding the event. On September 30, 1965, a number of Indonesian army officers kidnapped and assassinated six army generals. Calling themselves the "Group of September 30" (usually abbreviated to G-30-S, or Gestapu, in its Indonesian acronym), the officers claimed that they had taken their action pre-emptively, against a right-wing "Council of Generals" that were themselves plotting to overthrow Sukarno, Indonesia's first president.

Sukarno had been in power since the country won its independence from the Netherlands in 1945. In the late 50s and early 60s, he had effectively used his widespread popularity and his fiery, frequently anti-American rhetoric to position himself as a triangulation between the formidable, deeply right-wing army leadership and the increasingly powerful PKI, the Indonesian Communist Party.

One of the enduring arguments about the G-30-S coup is whether the PKI had any hand in it, and if so, how much. By 1965, the PKI claimed some 27 million members—the largest such party in any non-communist nation—but had been effectively stifled from increasing their legislative power by parliamentary maneuvers, including Sukarno's appointment as president-for-life. On the other hand, Sukarno, attentive to the political winds, had been increasingly adopting a populist, anti-imperialist stance in tune with the PKI. While evidence does point to knowledge and abetment of the coup by certain high-ranking PKI leaders, there's little to support the idea of a conscious party instigation.

The coup collapsed within a day or so, partially due to poor planning on the part of the plotters, and partially because another general, Suharto, moved swiftly to crush the rebellion. Suharto's role in the coup has been the subject of much debate. Almost certainly he knew of it beforehand, and he was not on the list of of generals to be captured, leading many to suggest that he feigned sympathy with the G-30-S, only to ruthlessly turn on them, and the PKI, as an opportunity to seize power himself. It worked—Suharto had pushed aside Sukarno completely by 1967, and remained in authoritarian power until he was forced to step down in 1998.

The theories behind the 1965 coup fall roughly into four groups:

1. The G-30-S were the driving force. These theories take the plotters at their word: the coup was an attempt to prevent a right-wing overthrow of Sukarno. The PKI's involvement was either non-existent or, at best, limited to the tacit support of a few PKI officials, without explicit party approval—given the growth of the PKI, the argument goes, the party would have had little reason to disturb the status quo. This analysis was earliest and most famously proposed by scholars Benedict Anderson and Ruth McVey in their informal 1966 paper.

2. Suharto was the driving force, as part of a conspiracy to discredit the PKI. In this scenario, Suharto is an Iago-like figure, slyly goading the plotters into carrying out a coup that he knows will fail, leaving him well-placed to take power himself and blame the coup on the PKI. Proponents of this theory point to how comparatively well-organized Suharto's supposedly spontaneous response was, and how conveniently the events fomented later anti-PKI propaganda (see below). More conspiratorial-minded variants include CIA support and involvement. A good summary of this version of the theory can be found in Peter Dale Scott's 1985 paper.

3. Certain elements of the PKI recruited and supported the G-30-S, only to be caught off-guard by Suharto's ruthless response. This theory has arisen from attempts to sort through much of the testimony of alleged G-30-S and PKI plotters, with their varying states of reliability. It argues that the "Council of Generals" was, at the very least, actively positioning themselves to crush the PKI upon the death of Sukarno, who had in 1965 been in ill-health for some time. Rather than take their chances on the defensive in such a situation, a few PKI higher-ups formulated the plan to kidnap the generals, and actively recruited army officers to carry out the operation. John Roosa explains this theory best in his book Pretext for Mass Murder.

4. The PKI, as a party, was behind the coup, in an effort to seize power against the democratic will of the Indonesian people. This has been more or less the official government line since Suharto took power.

It's important to have a sense of the complex uncertainty surrounding the actual events of 1965 in order to appreciate the brazen nature of Suharto's subsequent exploitation of them. It would appear that the intent was to kidnap the generals and then present them to Sukarno for prosecution, but the plotters botched the job—three of them were killed in their homes, and when the rest were brought to Jakarta's Halim Air Force base, it was decided to abandon the kidnap plan, and the other three generals were executed. (A seventh general escaped when his aide was mistakenly captured and killed in his place.) All seven corpses were thrown down a well.

The retrieval of the bodies and their subsequent reburial was a public relations triumph for Suharto, who personally supervised the recovery at the well under the eyes of photographers and television cameras. But government-fomented rumors sprung up almost immediately that put a far more grisly spin on the generals' fate—and, in the process, "Genjer-Genjer."

The rumors concerned the Gerakan Wanita Indonesia (Indonesian Women's Movement), better-known by its acronym Gerwani. The organization, under the umbrella of the PKI, advocated for female rights and empowerment, aiming for women to have a full share in Indonesia's revolution. According to reports that began to surface soon after the coup was put down, the generals, prior to their execution, had been tortured by Gerwani members who had been specifically trained and brought to the base for that very purpose. The women allegedly slashed the generals' genitals with razor blades, gouged out their eyes, and then watched them bleed to death as they danced naked around them (the reports specified a traditional Indonesian dance, the "Dance of the Fragrant Flowers") in a sexual, sadistic orgy.

The stories were complete fiction, as Benedict Anderson demonstrated from unpublished autopsy reports. And it seems almost unfathomable that such a ludicrously lurid tale could actually be taken seriously. But the Dutch scholar Saskia Wieringa has pointed out how threatening female empowerment would have seemed to highly patriarchal Indonesian society—a lethal, unleashed feminine sexuality would have been regarded as an all-too-potent threat. The perceived size of that threat can be seen in the astonishingly bloody reprisals that followed.

In the months following the coup, it's estimated that between 500,000 and one million Indonesians were killed in a cataclysm of violence. The merest hint of PKI sympathy was enough to warrant summary execution by roving bands of vigilantes. The country's anti-Communist Muslims proclained a jihad; Suharto, for all practical purposes running the government, did nothing to restrain the bloodshed. (Nor did the United States; the CIA even supplied death lists to the army, as journalist Kathy Kadane has reported.)

One of those hints of PKI involvement, as it turns out, was "Genjer-Genjer." The song had become associated with Gerwani members in less violent times; the composer, Arif, had hailed from the PKI-friendly Banyuwangi region, and had been a member of LEKRA, the PKI's cultural committee. That hadn't prevented the song from becoming an apolitical hit—now, though, it became a stigma. A typical story:
Sumilah, then aged fourteen, was arrested on 19 November 1965, and was to spend fourteen years in detention, much of the time at the Plantungan prison camp in Kendal, Central Java. She had no idea why she has been picked up along with 47 others but thinks it was because she was fond of singing "Genjer-Genjer." Later it turned out that it was a case of mistaken identity; she had been mistaken for her mother who was active in a teachers' organisation. When her mother was captured, this didn't lead to Sumilah's release. As fate would have it, she spent fourteen years in detention while her mother spent "only" four years. Sumilah describes how during her incarceration in a women's prison, she was lacerated with a knife, whipped and burnt with cigarettes on her naked body.
Not long after the bogus Gerwani stories appeared, a parody of "Genjer-Genjer" began to circulate, with the lyrics altered (Jendral-Jendral, "general-general") to incorporate details of the supposed torture. The source of the parody is unclear, but the government used it as a pretext to ban the song outright. Nevertheless, it would make one more notorious appearance.

In 1984, the government-produced propaganda film Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI ("The Treason of the G-30-S/PKI") was released. Directed by Arifin C. Noor, the four-and-a-half-hour epic recreation of the government's mythical version of the coup became required viewing for Indonesians. Schoolchildren were bused to periodic screenings; the film was shown on television every September 30th. The tale of the generals' torture was re-enacted in prolonged, graphic detail, while the celluloid Gerwani, of course, did the "Dance of the Fragrant Flowers." The music chosen to accompany their frenzy? "Genjer-Genjer." A song about soup had thus come to symbolize the country's greatest and most enduring trauma.

Suharto has been gone for nearly a decade, but the old myths die hard. Attempts to set up South-Africa-style Truth and Reconciliation commissions surrounding the 1965 genocide have so far come to naught, and long after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the majority of its satellites, "PKI" still remains a powerful slander in Indonesian politics. This past week, the Jakarta Post, on the anniversary of the coup, tracked down Muhammad Arif's son.
"People attacked our home in Tumenggungan area in Banyuwangi city. They set fire to the house and everything there," said Sinar, who was 11-years-old when the incident took place.

Muhammad fled with other PKI and Lekra members but was captured.
"From that point on, my father's fate is unknown," Sinar said.

But Sinar reveres his father as the family's hero. He said the original song lyrics, which are considered taboo even today, have been safeguarded.

"For me, these books are [a part of] my family's history, which should be safeguarded so my grandchildren will know what really happened," he said.
One hopes with him: "what really happened" has been far too elusive a target in this story.

It's a coincidence, but on reflection, this makes an appropriate post for Blogging for Burma Day.

October 03, 2007

Around the World in Eighty Shopping Days Until

You know, the Christmas/Hanukkah pas de deux is just around the corner, at least in geological time, and our librarian friend (we've said it before—really, everyone should have a librarian friend) Rebecca Hunt has spotted the perfect stocking-stuffer in this year's Neiman Marcus holiday catalog: Valery Gergiev conducting the Kirov Orchestra.
Classical music lovers, hold on to your batons. The world-famous Kirov Orchestra. Uber-maestro Valery Gergiev working his Russian magic. Firebrand virtuoso Lola Astanova beating the daylights out of a Steinway® Concert Grand. Performing The Nutcracker Suite, the Tchaikovsky "Piano Concerto," and another Tchaikovsky masterpiece of your choice. In your hometown, at a private holiday concert for you and 499 of your closest friends. Hosted by Regis Philbin!

The concert will be filmed as an after-party favor for each of your guests. You even get to keep the tour piano after all the artists autograph it. BRAVO!, if we do say so ourselves. (And we do.)
The price? $1,590,000. (Are cannons extra?) That's an awful lot of money. On the other hand: it's hosted by Regis Philbin! Time to make some billionaire friends.

Let me just savor that again: hosted by Regis Philbin. God, I love this country.

Provocation of the Day

[T]he piano [in the "Quartet for the End of Time"] in particular often has "tangles" of notes thick with dissonance. Not one, but crowds of notes compete for attention under the hand of the pianist. Yet Messiaen makes of this cluster of discord something lustrous: "Tangles of rainbows." There is something spiritual in these dissonances which makes me wonder whether the most beautiful sound might not be the most various, the most discordant. Dissonance here is not experienced as rivalry or irresolution but as an infinite and all-inclusive unity. The "harmony of heaven" might not be silence but on the contrary the capacity—and the willingness—to hear every note, to the fullness of its truth, at once. Again, there is a strong sense in which reading Schoenberg only as the creator of an authoritarian order, a musical fascist, does an injustice to his role in developing this new aesthetic. For Schoenberg, long before Messiaen, claimed to be involved in the "emancipation of dissonance" and the destruction of the old order of human certainty. In its place he founded a vast new palette of expressive possibilities on which composers such as Messiaen have been able to build with imagination and freedom. As Schoenberg wrote, "here, liberated dissonance became anew harmony, psychological chaos, a meta-sensuous order." Releasing the potential of dissonance from the shackles of Romantic harmony is emblematic of what amounts to an ultimate pluralism.

—Desmond Manderson, Songs Without Music:
Aesthetic Dimensions of Law and Justice

(University of California Press, 2000)

October 02, 2007

Ask La Divina

(Soho the Dog is pleased to welcome to these virtual pages the operatic luminary and advice columnist La Divina, to answer readers' questions on life, love, career, and fioratura.)

Dear La Divina,

I am a guileless diva who was recently fired from a production of
La Bohéme simply for missing one or two unimportant rehearsals in order to see my tenor husband open a production at, let's face it, a far more internationally renowned house. How dare they deny me permission to be by his side at this important time! And now my replacement is garnering the glowing reviews that should rightly be mine. Shouldn't my public be rallying to my defense for placing romantic fidelity before a mere run-through of an opera that I could, and frequently do, sing in my sleep?

Tanto freddo in Chicago
Dear Tanto,

Tired repertoire is not the issue here. And the only place you should be by your husband's side is on stage. Otherwise, you can only share in his applause vicariously. A diva is never vicarious. I don't care how prone to a meltdown this man is.

But your real problem is this guilelessness you mention. There is simply no excuse for finding yourself released from a contract on any terms but your own. You should have walked out long before any simple administrator had the chance to fire you. Now, if certain legal issues meant you had to push this bean-counter into dissolving the contract, the proper response on your part is to blame them for overworking you, for treating you like a farm animal, for deliberately endangering your voice through all these pointless run-throughs. Whining that they failed to give you permission to leave? Unacceptable. The prima donna neither asks for nor, indeed, requires permission. As for your replacement, let this be a lesson to you: always demand that your understudy be incompetent and, if possible, physically unattractive. If you cannot, through threats or histrionics, obtain this guarantee, you hardly deserve to call yourself a diva.

La Divina