December 30, 2009

The Victorian Tongue

We may live without poetry, music, and art:
We may live without conscience, and live without heart;
We may live without friends; we may live without books;
But civilized man cannot live without cooks.
He may live without books,—what is knowledge but grieving?
He may live without hope,—what is hope but deceiving?
He may live without love,—what is passion but pining?
But where is the man that can live without dining?

—Owen Meredith, Lucile (1860)

Owen Meredith was the pen name of Edward Robert Lytton Bulwer-Lytton; as Viceroy of India, Lytton counted on his résumé the Great Indian Famine of the late 1870s as well as the Pyrrhically expensive Second Anglo-Afghan War, the latter decisively contributing to the 1880 downfall of Disraeli's second (and final) premiership. For his efforts, Lytton was created 1st Earl of Lytton. "Genius does what it must," Lytton/Meredith famously wrote, "talent does what it can."

December 19, 2009

Vertical hold

Taking a stand for Messiah.
Boston Globe, December 19, 2009.

I would probably quote George Bernard Shaw in every article I wrote if I could, but his riff on standing for the "Hallelujah" chorus was cut for space: calling Handel not just a composer, not just an institution, but “a sacred institution,” Shaw mischievously judged the tradition “the nearest sensation to the elevation of the Host known to English Protestants.”

December 18, 2009

The playing of the merry organ

My lovely wife picked up a veal kidney for me at the store, with the stipulation that I could only cook it when she wasn't in the house. So Critic-at-Large Moe and I had our own office holiday party today.

(Rognons de veau en casserole courtesy of—who else?—Julia Child.) Why, look who else is here—it's Franco Corelli!



That "stella d'argento" he's giving Callas looks like it was made out of pure radium.

December 07, 2009

I get the sense he might not like it

Hey, Robert Evett, what do you think about Charles Ives? I mean, seeing as how it's 1954 and he's just died and all.
Ives never developed a style, indigenous, American or otherwise. He spent at least half of his creative life writing in a bastardized romantic idiom which was little more than a caricature of Schumann, Franz, Brahms and the the others.... Later, he dressed this music up with a number of singularly ugly or impractical elements, but these elements were never fused into anything consistent enough to be called a style.
...
[T]here is no reason to doubt that Ives meant to give music—at least his own music—its freedom. Perhaps Ives had the imagination he would have needed for bringing this about, but he didn't have the technique.... In his effort to get free of convention, Ives was usually reduced to a kind of mindless banging around which disguised sometimes the poverty of his materials.
...
Charles Ives will surely merit a case history by some future musicologist as an example of the 20th Century composer whoring after novelty.
...
All American artists are unfortunate in that the first of us who enjoyed any particular international vogue was Mr. Whitman, and that it is his work which has become, like Betty Crocker's recipes, a touchstone for things American.... For musicians it is worse. We had nothing to offer before Ives, and he smelled like Whitman's armpits.

—Robert Evett, "Music Letter: A Post-Mortem for Mr. Ives,"
The Kenyon Review, vol. 16, no. 4 (Autumn 1954)

Whitman's armpits? But that's an aroma finer than prayer!

December 06, 2009

She's Gotta Have it

Malibran had borne along the first two acts [of The Maid of Artois] on the first night of performance in such a flood of triumph, that she was bent, by some almost superhuman effort, to continue its glory to the final fall of the curtain. I went into her dressing-room previous to the commencement of the third act, to ask how she felt, and she replied, "Very tired, but" (and here her eye of fire suddenly lighted up) "you angry devil, if you will contrive to get me a pint of porter in the desert scene, you shall have an encore to your finale." Had I been dealing with any other performer, I should perhaps have hesitated in complying with a request that might have been dangerous in its application at the moment; but to check her powers was to annihilate them. I therefore arranged that, behind the pile of drifted sand on which she falls in a state of exhaustion, towards the close of the desert scene, a small aperture should be made in the stage; and it is a fact that, from underneath the stage through that aperture, a pewter pint of porter was conveyed to the parched lips of this rare child of song, which so revived her, after the terrible exertion the scene led to, that she electrified the audience, and had strength to repeat the charm, with the finale to the Maid of Artois.

—Alfred Bunn, The Stage: Both Before and Behind the Curtain (1840)

Bunn, manager of the Drury Lane Theater and Covent Garden, also wrote the libretto of The Maid of Artois for Michael Balfe. A couple of months after her triumph, Malibran fell off her horse, triggering an illness that would claim her life shortly thereafter. The Countess de Merlin's 1841 Memoirs of Madame Malibran reports that during Malibran's final illness, her landlady ventured the opinion that the porter Malibran drank with her customary oyster breakfast might not be agreeing with her. "What can I do?" Malibran replied. "I must take something for my voice, and I find this the best thing I can take."

November 29, 2009

'Tis the season

And then a face came peering over Stella's shoulder. A face with grizzled jowls and red-rimmed eyes under spikey, dark tousled hair. Kerouac? The face said, "Yeah," and then: "You want to come in?"

Although the sun was two hours from taking its evening dip in the Gulf ten miles to the west, the house was dim inside. A television set in the corner was on, soundless. The sound you heard was Handel's Messiah blaring from speakers in the next room.

"I like to watch television like that," Kerouac said.

—Jack McClintock, "Jack Kerouac Is On the Road No More,"
St. Petersburg Times, October 12, 1969

November 23, 2009

Glam compilation

Reviewing the Boston Philharmonic's all-Wagner program.
Boston Globe, November 23, 2009.

During Benjamin Zander's leitmotif-tour, I doodled my own Ring synopsis:

November 17, 2009

Beguiled again

Reviewing Boston Opera Collaborative's The Crucible.
Boston Globe, November 17, 2009.

The Globe copy desk is apparently not the Carolyn Leigh fan that I am—the last line of the first paragraph should be, of course, "What good would common sense for it do?"

November 13, 2009

Please stop

I got a press-release e-mail this week with the subject line "Survey Reveals People Love Classical Music During Tough Economic Times". Curious? I was. (I mean, does that mean they hate classical music when the economy picks up again? Because that would be kind of weird.) Turns out, it's an online survey by the mp3-dealer Classical Archives. The question was this: "Why do you think you love classical music?" And, sure enough, 20.3% of the respondents clicked on "Relaxes me when life is stressing me out". Now, they didn't specify just what was stressing those respondents out specifically, but OK, bad economy is pretty universally stressful, fair enough.

But here's how the press release spins that: "The survey suggests that classical music, more than rock and pop, is able to calm the nerves in tough times." COMMENCE COMEDY SPIT-TAKE NOW! I sure hope somebody at Classical Archives is frantically looking under the cushions for some longitudinal data to support that conclusion, considering they forgot to even mention rock or pop—or jazz, or musical theatre, or polka, or Sacred Harp, or Pansori, or anything else—in the wording of their survey. More from the press release:
Nolan Gasser, Artistic Director, Classical Archives, notes, that “Are the results surprising? Hardly."
I wouldn't think so, given that the sample pool consisted exclusively of customers of a classical music website.

Of course, 60.2% of the respondents love classical music because "It is simply the best music there is," an statement of such impressive intellectual vacuity that I'm guessing it could liquefy nitrogen. Me? I love classical music because the majority of it doesn't characterize the relationship between life, art, performer, and listener as "simply" anything, but as an opportunity to acknowledge and explore that relationship's complexity, because there are still some of us who think that complexity is fun and rewarding. That's probably too long for a multiple-choice poll answer, isn't it? Yeah, I thought so. OK, fine—I'll take "I'm a freak for culture."

November 10, 2009

The Girl Can't Help It

Today's bit of tangential Beethoven history: the reason Franz Liszt wasn't invited back for the 1870 Beethoven centennial festivities in Beethoven's birthplace of Bonn. Back in the 1840s, when the city's plans for a Beethoven monument looked as if they might falter because of insufficient funds, Liszt stepped in, pledging his talents and enough of his then-considerable concert receipts to support the statue and the 1845 festival surrounding its unveiling. At a banquet following the festival's final concert, Liszt (speaking in German, not his most comfortable language) offered a toast to the assembled representatives from throughout Europe, but failed to mention the French, and the result was an uproar, with speakers being shouted down, insults being hurled, and all manner of nationalistic and anti-Semitic bile let loose.

As if that weren't bad enough, at the height of the disturbance, Lola Montez, the Irish-born, Spanish-impersonating dancer, who had followed her one-time lover Liszt to Bonn and crashed the banquet uninvited, attempted to quell the disturbance by drunkenly jumping up onto a table and spinning around. Insulting the French might have been OK by the Bonn city fathers, but the unexpected presence of the scandalous Montez was something else. A quarter-century later, Bonn's centennial celebration went off without Liszt, who stayed in Weimar.

There might be movies with final shots as good as that of Max Ophüls' 1955 Lola Montès, but I don't think there are any that are better. Un dollar...

October 24, 2009

I sit down and write a brand-new rhyme

Beethoven's early believers. The Transcendentalists' Ludwig Van.
Boston Globe, October 25, 2009.

What you hear is not a chorus. "Rapper's Delight" and the vestige of minstrelsy.
Boston Globe, October 25, 2009.

Updates in this space have pretty much dropped off the radar, haven't they? But at least I'm keeping busy. (The first article previews Chapter 4 of the ever-impending book; if I can get "Rapper's Delight" in there as well, I'll at least have reached new levels of expressive tangentiality.)

September 30, 2009

Trade agreement

Reviewing Lynn Chang, Wu Man, and A Far Cry.
Boston Globe, September 28, 2009. (Yes, I forgot when it was going to run.)

Fun item that didn't fit #1: Lynn Chang announced that the concert was originally supposed to be called "East Meets West Meets East," to which, he admitted, Wu Man said "no way."

Fun item that didn't fit #2: While I couldn't find any confirmation of it on deadline, I'm assuming that when Lou Harrison titled the slow movement of his pipa concerto "Threnody for Richard Locke," he was referring to Richard Locke the gay activist and porn actor, who died the year before the concerto's premiere. (L.A. Tool & Die has to be one of the best porn titles ever.)

Long since disrelished

The usage of Instrumental Musick in our Public Worship of GOD, hath been long since disrelished among His Faithful People. Justin Martyr long ago exploded it. Yea, Aquinas himself, as late as less than Five hundred Years ago, decried it. Indeed it was one of the Last Things which the Man of Sin introduced, in the Worship of our SAVIOUR, which he had already fill'd with a Multitude of Superstitions. We will then for the present look on the Jewish Trumpets, and Organs too, as a part of the Abrogated Pedagogy.

—Cotton Mather, India Christiana (1621)

That's it: from now on, every prelude and postlude gets listed in the church bulletin as "Abrogated Pedagogy."

September 11, 2009

The propitiatory intent

Years afterward, when the open-grazing days were over, and the red grass had been ploughed under and under until it had almost disappeared from the prairie; when all the fields were under fence, and the roads no longer ran about like wild things, but followed the surveyed section-lines, Mr. Shimerda's grave was still there, with a sagging wire fence around it, and an unpainted wooden cross. As grandfather had predicted, Mrs. Shimerda never saw the roads going over his head. The road from the north curved a little to the east just there, and the road from the west swung out a little to the south; so that the grave, with its tall red grass that was never mowed, was like a little island; and at twilight, under a new moon or the clear evening star, the dusty roads used to look like soft gray rivers flowing past it. I never came upon the place without emotion, and in all that country it was the spot most dear to me. I loved the dim superstition, the propitiatory intent, that had put the grave there; and still more I loved the spirit that could not carry out the sentence — the error from the surveyed lines, the clemency of the soft earth roads along which the home-coming wagons rattled after sunset. Never a tired driver passed the wooden cross, I am sure, without wishing well to the sleeper.

—Willa Cather, My Ántonia

September 07, 2009

A fry cook on Venus

In honor of the American day off of Labor Day, a bit of far-out ambience gracing one of the more famous days off in the cinematic canon. In John Hughes' 1986 Ferris Bueller's Day Off, the title character memorably hijacks a parade float to lip-synch "Danke Schoen" and "Twist and Shout." You remember:


But what's that banner, over on the left, behind Berwyn's own Vlasta the Polka Queen?


Why, that's a banner marking the 20th anniversary of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians! Ferris Bueller, avant-garde jazz fan.

Here's some of the AACM's most well-known progeny, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, performing in Finland in 1987. The bassist is Malachi Favors, who I'm reasonably certain (but not at all positive) is the one on the 20th-anniversary banner.

September 01, 2009

Logical conclusions

Delving into Beethoven, I've been spending a lot of time navigating the transition from the Enlightenment to the Romantic era, since Beethoven's career straddles that boundary like an artistic Cal Neva Casino. Beethoven did well by the Romantics, who basically ensured his indelible fame: he was the greatest composer of an age that suddenly decided that composers should be considered great. But Beethoven was intellectually brought up on Enlightenment zwieback, and while his curiosity kept him current with the likes of Schiller and Schlegel and Fichte and Herder, he always kept Immanuel Kant, the defender of rationalism as a particular light. (In the Tagebuch Beethoven kept in later life, quotes from Kant show up prominently.)

So I've been parsing Kant's aesthetics. The main source of it is the Critique of Judgement, the third section of Kant's massive critical project (the first two parts being the more well-known Critiques of pure reason and practical reason, that is, ethics). To put it plainly, the half of the Critique of Judgement dealing with aesthetics is not exactly the watertight freighter you might expect from the author of the Critique of Pure Reason. Kant spends a lot of ink distinguishing between "free beauty," that is, beauty that is perceived without any intermediary concepts, and "dependent beauty," considering something beautiful (or having aesthetic merit) based on comparison with some pre-existing concept in the subject's mind. Only a perception of free beauty qualifies as a true aesthetic judgement; if there's an intervening concept, then the subject is merely judging what is agreeable or functionally good. But, of course, only the perceiving subject knows whether their judgement is concept-free and therefore aesthetically valid, and Kant admits that the perceiving subject is an unreliable witness, often unaware that a perception of beauty is based on a concept. Which, of course, makes it tricky to tell whether an aesthetic judgement can be universally valid, which is Kant's ultimate goal. How can an aesthetic judgement be universal if a) only the individual knows for sure whether it's a true aesthetic judgement in the first place, and b) not even then? Nonetheless, Kant goes on to assert that aesthetic judgements can, in fact, be universally valid, basically by engaging in a little rhetorical second-dealing and hoping his sleight-of-hand is good enough that you don't really notice.

This is, of course, a bare-bones summary. But throughout the Critique of Aesthetic Judgement, one gets a definite sense that Kant's heart really isn't in this one to the extent it was in the first two Critiques. Part of this is quite possibly due to Kant's own aesthetic preferences—he wasn't a painting/sculpture/music guy, he was a literature/poetry guy, which gets him in a bit of a pickle regarding that difference between free and dependent beauty. (Music without words, he notes on more than one occasion, is a prime example of something perceived as free beauty, meaning it's happy hunting ground for true aesthetic judgements, yet he ranks it far below poetry, in spite of poetry's necessarily dependent status, reliant on the intervening concept of language. Hmmmm.) Kant is far too good a philosopher to traffic in the usual 18th-century aesthetic concept of "rummaging among the details of individual subjectivity for the grounds of the aesthetic," as James Kirwan puts it, but he doesn't really come up with anything solid in its place, even as Enlightenment habit causes him to maintain the possibility of a universally valid judgement.

If Kant's purpose in the Critiques was to uphold Enlightenment rationality, then it's hard not to think that he might have been better off quitting after the first two. It's remarkable how much of the Critique of Judgement reads like a man walking up to the edge of Romanticism but not crossing the line—not because that's what Kant was doing, but because, like a blanket laid out for a picnic, the fuzzy portions of his argument are so inviting. Aesthetics was a primary front across which the Romantics would assault the Enlightenment. It's as if Kant built his formidable fortress of pure and practical reason, and then, with aesthetics, inadvertently told everyone where the spare key was hidden.

Mary Mothershill, writing in A Companion to Aesthetics, speculates why Kant felt the need to delve into the aesthetic wilderness:
... Kant's motive in the third Critique is not to bridge gaps and achieve unity; the distinctions insisted on in the first two Critiques are a priori and necessary, not to be overridden. His wish is, rather, to make the whole system less austere and more congenial. That, one might argue, is a retrograde step: it is not the philosopher's job, any more than it is the scientist's, to come up with results that are attractive and inspiring.
But there could be another reason—as a good Enlightenment philosopher, Kant may have been driven to come up with some account of aesthetics simply to complete his system. The rationalist in Kant was impelled to finish the house he had framed even though he didn't have much interest in interior decoration.

The thing is, Kant's basic aesthetic insight points down a really interesting path. As Kirwan explains (clearer than Kant does), in Kant's aesthetics, an aesthetic judgement is not something you do, it's something that happens to you, and the philosophical circle to be squared is in knowing that such a judgement is, in fact, happening. Aesthetics doesn't originate with the subject, but it isn't anything intrinsic in the object perceived, either—it is, instead, the mind's reaction to an influx of sense-data that's too much to think about all at once. Therein lies the difference between the Enlightenment and the Romantics: Kant pools that excess into the concept-stocked pond of dependent beauty, but the Romantics let it overflow all the way to the mind's horizon, where, if you look hard enough, you might catch a glimpse of the Divine.

August 28, 2009

Melodic sell

From 1956, Ernie Kovacs shows how to make a singing commercial.

August 27, 2009

Language Is a Virus


I swear, this was going to be the week I finally got back on a regular blogging schedule, so of course, this would have to be the week I was whacked by a norovirus, which has made me useless for the past few days. (Here's a great, gross norovirus fun fact for your inner 12-year-old boy:
Transmission is predominantly faecal-oral but may be airborne due to aerosolisation of vomitus
Ewwww. I spent a sleepless hour or two imagining ethereally audience-friendly Eric-Whitacre-esque five-part choral settings of that sentence, and the imaginary reaction of the equally imaginary bourgeois audience cheered me up.)

Anyway, one reason for the recent radio silence—though late-summer indolence has played a significant part, I'm not gonna lie—was in order to get a jump-start on a project which, now that all the glyphs have their requisite tittles, is no longer subject to my usual precipitately-announced-project jinx: a book on the cultural history of the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony for Alfred A. Knopf (their logo is a dog! Moe approves). Is there anything at all more to be said about such an ubiquitous warhorse? Well, yeah, as it turns out—and a lot of what already has been said is long-lost fun, to say the least. Here's a bit from today's efforts:
Press corps parrot abducted

NICOSIA, Cyprus—A British journalist offered a $100 reward Wednesday for the safe return of Coco, the whistling parrot of the foreign press corps who was abducted by gunmen from a west Beirut hotel in last week's fighting.

The cash reward was made in messages sent by Coco's owner to west Beirut newspapers.

Coco, who for 10 years has lived at the Commodore hotel frequented by foreign journalists, was locally famous for imitating the whistling of an incoming shell. It also whistled the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and the French national anthem.

—United Press International, February 25, 1987

As far as I can tell, Coco was never heard from again. For the near future, expect this space to be largely occupied by Beethovenian trivia.

August 23, 2009

House of Keys

Instrumental to his work and play. Peter Sykes and his keyboard arsenal. (Photos by Suzanne Kreiter.)
Boston Globe, August 23, 2009.

August 07, 2009

Today in Supercar Pantonality


From a press release announcing the new Lamborghini Gallardo LP 550-2 "Valentino Balboni":
Adjustments have also been made to the very heart of the Gallardo, the 5.2 litre ten-cylinder: the perfect synthesis of hi-revving pleasure, pulling power, a constantly exuberant temperament and a powerful symphony played in all keys.
I bet Charles Ives could've gotten you a good insurance quote on that car.

July 29, 2009

I know you can hear my thoughts, too, boy

Schonberg op. 11—performed entirely by cats. An approximation distilled from 170 YouTube videos and mapped onto Glenn Gould's recording. If that doesn't make your day, go back to bed. (Via.)

July 23, 2009

With a little Alp from my friends

Today in Intellectual Property news: copyright law invades the domain of Bavarian beer-hall yodeling.
The money-spinning power of "horlla-rü-di-ri, di-ri, di-ri", the famous chorus of the Kufsteinlied, which is capable of making even the hardiest of lederhosen-clad Germans go weak at the knees, has been keenly felt this week in a Munich courtroom battle over who owns the copyright.

The heirs of Karl Ganzer, the Austrian composer of the 63-year-old beer-hall hit which is said to be Europe's most-played folk song, were yesterday successful in their attempts to sue the music publisher Egon Frauenberger, who claimed he had written the song's refrain and therefore had a right to a twelfth of the royalties.
The most famous version of the "Kufsteinlied" was recorded in 1968 by Franzl Lang, the Jodlerkönig. Here he is singing it in 1991. Now I'm thirsty.

July 18, 2009

In the ballpark

Reading that the Boston Symphony Orchestra management and players have agreed to freeze salaries at their current minimum of $128,180, Thomas Garvey asks—more to the point, asks why my Globe colleague Geoff Edgers isn't asking, "Why is the BSO so overpaid?" The answer? Because they're not. Here are the starting salaries for either the last or the coming season for the traditional Big Five, plus San Francisco and Los Angeles:The BSO is right in the middle of that pack. Garvey unfavorably contrasts that pay with theater pay—for example, the minimum Actor's Equity salary in Boston is $529/week—but given the scarcity and status of a Big-Five-or-Seven job, the better comparison might be with SAG or AFTRA rates for speaking parts, which actually are higher than the best orchestral positions: $2,634/week vs. $2,495/week for the New York Philharmonic. (And if you think about the BSO as the major leagues of orchestral playing—the starting salary in the NFL is $310,000; the starting salary in Major League Baseball is $390,000.)

Back in 2006, BSO freelancers got the short end of the stick, which was reported with due skepticism; I'm assuming that inequity continues in this extension. But the full-time players are earning pretty much what every other comparable market is paying. Is the Boston Symphony Orchestra a sweet gig? Hell, yeah. But overpaid? Not according to the going rates.

July 14, 2009

No cowbell, either

Kyle Gann, choosing an alternate reality:
the reason Beethoven was so successful is that there are no subtleties in his music
My God, I've fallen into an alternative universe where Beethoven died immediately after his heroic period! I hope this doesn't mean food is going to start to taste funny.

The Aardvarks' Parade is a lot of fun, though.

July 13, 2009

Mixing domains

I was at my in-laws' for dinner last night, after which we watched some Korean TV, including, mostly because it happened to be on, some competitive ballroom dancing. (The show in question was "Shall We Dance," on MBC-ESPN.) The dancers—who, according to my translating parents, were all high school kids—were pretty damn good. But what was really fun (as it always is with Korean TV) was the music they were dancing to.

I've taken enough dance lessons to expect familiar songs in goofy, step-specific cover versions. But this stuff was going a step further—almost deliberately blurring cultural boundaries, just for fun. The jive numbers, far from the retro swing common in the US, were pretty near hip-hop across the board. (Not surprising.) A tango version of the them from "The Godfather"? Why not? The waltz spun to "Memory" from Cats, shoehorned into three-quarter time; the Viennese waltz then crossed the Alps into Italy, with the Brindisi from La Traviata slowed to a Straussian lilt.

It put me in mind of those culinary categories for which the term "fusion" is a little too facile, the ones where the melting pot has been simmering so long that the stew takes on an identity of its own. (Argentinian-Italian food is a good example, actually.) This sort of thing goes on under the hood of music all the time, of course, but it's fun to occasionally see the engine on the outside, hot-rod style.

Wagner? I just met her!

Reviewing James Levine and the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra.
Boston Globe, July 13, 2009.

Concert opera is always a touch surreal—hey, all those Meistersinger are in James Bond tuxedos!—but Morris and Botha had the inspired idea to put their on-stage drinking water in old-fashioned beer steins.

Update (7/13): Lisa Hirsch noticed that I called baritone Hans-Joachim Ketelsen a tenor, which is the sort of thing that happens when I move clauses around one too many times. (For those of you keeping score at home, that's two embarrassing slips so far this year—giving me a fielding average of .926.)

Further update: now fixed.

July 09, 2009

Du Doppelgänger! Du bleicher Geselle!

As of today, you can now experience me in two places at once. Bilocation! Just like Padre Pio! (A special joke for anyone who paid attention in Catholic school during the 70s.) I'll be dividing my blogging between this space and my new gig as Classical Music Correspondent (capital letters make everything Seem More Important than it Really Is) for The Faster Times. You can read more about the enterprise here, and then kill of the rest of today's productivity via all the excellent people who I get to share a masthead with.

July 06, 2009

Themes and variations

Somewhat off-topic (and via Kottke), Fancy Fast Food is a brilliant goof.

Small wonder

OK, Molly, I did it, I went over and checked out Musoc.org, the latest is-this-really-serious pop-is-bad-classical-is-good manifesto website. Whether or not it's a joke (A.C. Douglas—O tempora! O mores!thinks it is), it's an intellectual mess. Announce a campaign against "the idiocy of cultural relativism" and you'd better duck—that's pretty much the philosophical equivalent of a hanging curve out over the plate. And sure enough, the stated criteria for music (as opposed to "Pop 'Musics' or non-music"—if scare quotes had mass, this site would collapse into a black hole) immediately run into trouble.
To count as Art Music, a work must meet ALL* the following criteria:
...
* For argument's sake, a work not satisfying one of these conditions may also be considered Art Music if a majority of other works by the same composer do.
Oh, come on—I thought you were going to draw a line in the sand, not vaguely gesture at some dunes in the distance. It's not art music, except when it is, as judged relative to the rest of the composer's repertoire? Even better:
It must stand on, or peer over, the shoulders of giants, i.e. acknowledge, build on or work from 1000 years of fundamentally accumulative history from the so-called Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic and Modern (see right) eras (or their equivalents in non-Western cultures)
Leaving aside the hilariously clueless cultural imperialism (some of my best friends are equivalents in non-Western cultures!), if you're going to allow equivalents from non-Western cultures, why not equivalents within Western culture? Slippery slope! Does this person really think that jazz, rock, hip-hop doesn't have a fundamentally accumulative history? So what if it's not 1000 years long? In 1000 years, it will be. Of course, then our arbiter would fall back on that whole must-be-notated thing. Wait, big band charts are notated. But then there's this universal safety valve:
It must aspire to provide the listener with emotional and intellectual enjoyment and satisfaction, by communicating through musical complexity, sophistication and coherence exceptional and/or transcendent reflections on the human condition
Have any two people in history ever exactly agreed as to what that might practically mean? Isn't that criterion pretty much an open invitation to fuzzy relativism?

Ah, but our arbiter no doubt knows music when he/she hears it. So I'm guessing that my love of Brian Wilson (despite that music being transcendent, complex, sophisticated, and—the funniest phrase of the day—"susceptible to detailed theoretical analysis", as if musicologists haven't repeatedly demonstrated the possibility of theoretically analyzing anything vaguely musical to within an inch of its life), my aesthetic opinion that Pet Sounds is a masterpiece of Western music, brands me as having been brainwashed by corporate media. For our arbiter, it turns out, has read Adorno.
Musoc.org agrees (broadly) with Adorno and Horkheimer's theory of mass culture (set out in their Dialectic of Enlightenment, enlarged later by Marcuse in One Dimensional Man), that the products of the entertainment and information industries — not necessarily mass-produced in the Marxist sense — promote a materialistic, superficial way of life that militates against political change.
Am I really in unconscious thrall to the values of neoliberal market society? That's OK—so is our arbiter. "Virtually all music that isn't popular is elitist by definition," we're told, "in the sense that it's a minority interest." How exactly are you figuring that minority status there? Oh, yeah—the market. "[M]usoc.org encourages exclusive support of smaller [record] companies and individuals," because "[t]he labels of the multinational media groups, on the other hand, exist to make profits for shareholders." So I'm supposed to stop listening to my recording of Maurizio Pollini playing the Boulez Second Sonata because it was recorded for DG, which is owned by Universal, which also markets recordings by Ludacris? I would categorize that as letting the corporate structure of society determine what I can and can't listen to. (Of course, our arbiter classifies Boulez's scare-quoted "total serialism" as evil "Postmodernism" while considering non-scare-quoted serialism as progressively "Modern," which is rather like considering pork chops meat but bacon a vegetable.) Our arbiter misses the point that promoting the inverse of market values still promotes market structure, since how else are you to know when you're genuinely moved or merely corporately conditioned? Our arbiter has crafted the criteria such that my love of Puccini is considered an acknowledgement of Puccini's aspirations towards transcendence, but my love of the Sex Pistols is relegated to corporate toolhood—a distinction that can be made only via an assumption that the market is a more powerful determinant than my own aesthetic judgement. Welcome to the capitalist hegemony! Enjoy your stay.

So we're left with an anti-relativism argument that traffics in relativism, an anti-corporate argument framed in corporate terms, and an Adorno/Horkheimer name-drop without enough self-realization to notice that the exclusionary schema it's propping up is a mirror-image recapitulation of what Adorno and Horkheimer were warning against. (What's that, Theodor and Max? "When the outsider is excluded from the concern, he can only too easily be accused of incompetence"? That's what I thought you said.) I've said it before: the persistence of classical music (sorry, "'Art' music") in spite of a society that repeatedly proclaims it dead is the interesting story, not the typography of the spurious proclamation. Can you please stop trying to define music as one thing or another? Trust me—it's bigger and more generous than any of us can imagine.

July 04, 2009

Its society offers infinite variety

Happy Independence Day! I love the fact that our nation commemorates the anniversary of the day we decided we were mad as hell and weren't going to take it anymore, rather than the day we actually won the war, or ratified the Constitution, or any of that practical stuff. Very American. Here's a holiday rerun: a ramble I wrote a couple summers ago for Geoff Edgers' "Exhibitionist" blog at the Boston Globe on the subject of that seemingly incongruous 4th of July favorite, Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, which holds up better than many of my rambles.

I think the 1812 Overture has to be the most underrated-because-overplayed piece in the classical canon; it is, in fact, a remarkably subversive piece in terms of musical form. Tchaikovsky fashions almost the rhetorical inverse of sonata-allegro: instead of generating drama by making us wait for the expected recapitulation, he generates drama by covering up any sense of structure at all. Themes come and go without transition, key relationships deliberately avoid the navigable points of tonic and dominant (mediants abound), and the scraps of La Marseillaise are used almost as a magician's misdirection. The lead-in to the return of the hymn goes on for so long that the hymn's actual return is a surprise in spite of itself, as is the cannon-blaring coda—on a theme that the normally prolix Tchaikovsky has only established for a fragmentary sixteen bars.

It's almost as if Tchaikovsky has managed with a bit of a temporal warp, the near-ametrical hymn and tentative tattoo at the beginning literally showing up too soon; the satisfaction of the ending comes less from the thematic recapitulation than from a sense that time is no longer out of joint. I guess that sort of clean-slate ingenuity is something else America has claimed for itself as time goes on; no wonder Pyotr Ilyich is a perennial honored guest. Give that Russian another burger!

July 02, 2009

The In Crowd

Mr. Glass agrees that there is a growing willingness to fund new music. "...The real thing about commissions is to be in a cycle of demand and supply."

Mr. Asia advises young composers to get in the habit of talking to people outside the music world -- to lawyers, doctors and hedge-fund managers -- to foster a culture of patronage.

The Wall Street Journal, July 2, 2009

Do you think Frederic Jameson would be a good ice-breaker with the hedge-fund managers?

July 01, 2009

Up and Down

Too much Grau und Drang for proper blogging today. Here's a story instead:
Jean Martinon, spare, white-haired conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, last week tried to explain his two favorite sports—skiing and mountain climbing—to his ancient counterpart, Conductor Charles Munch. "In both," he said, "You are in the mountains, where you become a freer man. But, psychologically, skiing is a sport in which you must go downhill. Mountain climbing is a sport of ascent. In skiing there is much more competition, which spoils something of it for me. In mountain climbing nobody praises you for what you do well. You do it well for the beauty of the thing."

Sports Illustrated, March 22, 1965

June 29, 2009

Rockin' pneumonia

Harvard economist Greg Mankiw had an op-ed in The New York Times over the weekend busting the chops of the proposed "public option" for health care reform in the US, that idea of creating a government-run, (probably) tax-subsidized competitor to private health insurance companies, with the goal of universal coverage. Mankiw objects because he can't see how the system would be "fair," an argument that I confess always seems a little odd to me coming from a market economist, but that's because I tend to regard markets as entities that, on a fundamental level, leverage unfairness. But his characterization of a government-run insurance plan as a monopsony caught my eye.
This lesson applies directly to the market for health care. If the government has a dominant role in buying the services of doctors and other health care providers, it can force prices down. Once the government is virtually the only game in town, health care providers will have little choice but to take whatever they can get. It is no wonder that the American Medical Association opposes the public option.
Monopsonies—markets dominated by a single buyer—never seem to get the PR that their single-suppler monopolist cousins do, but both of them have similar potential to screw the workers, in revolutionary-slogan terms: if monopolies can price goods out of proportion to the wage market, monopsonies can squeeze wages out of proportion to the marketplace. (You owe your soul to the company store.)

Faithful readers of this space (with unusually good memories) might recall that I once analyzed orchestras as monopsonist entities, so one might be tempted to compare notes, as it were, to try and predict how a health-care monopsony would resemble the orchestral world.On the basis of that, professional wages would, probably, go down. Sure, a few conductors and soloists are really raking it in, but the majority of orchestral musicians are probably sneaking into the middle-class through the back door (and via multiple jobs). For comparison, Mankiw links to some data that puts the average US physician income at $199,000 a year. $199,000! For an orchestral musician, that's Big Five money—and it's probably not coincidental that the Big Five are all in cities that support enough musical activity to dilute those orchestras' monopsony power.

Does this mean, as critics of the public option propose, that the overall talent of health professionals—and the quality of health care—will decrease? The orchestral evidence actually says no. Small-market orchestras tackling Mahler? The Rite of Spring? Other repertoire that, a lifetime ago, would have been out of reach for all but the best groups? Happens all the time. There are enough musicians who love their jobs—in economic terms, who sufficiently value the positive externalities—to put up with the reduced income. The flipside is the number of talented people who leave music for better-paying pastures—or who never embark on a music career in the first place. So, if the model holds, what you'd likely end up with is a health-care system full of doctors who really love their job, and a nagging, probably unquantifiable sense of a lot of talent opting out of the sector. (Not that it doesn't already—how many potentially brilliant physicians have disappointed their mothers by sticking with the violin?) Other parallels, both incumbent—the movement of musicians from market to market as compared to the current patchwork of local health-care monopsonies resulting from state-by-state regulation—and potential—the pitfalls of a board-led philanthropic model vis-à-vis prospective models for maintaining government-subsidy accountability—could also be interesting.

But the problem with this overall comparison is that there's an 800-pound gorilla in the room that hasn't been mentioned much in either context: political will and perceived political worth has an enormous effect on how monopsony power plays out in the marketplace. Look at the Department of Defense, possibly the biggest monopsony in the world—that market rarely gets squeezed, either in price or quality, because of its political impregnability. So comparing doctors and section woodwinds, while fun, probably only yields small-potatoes results in comparison with the real question, whether universal coverage would meet with enough approval for the resulting political fairy dust to inoculate any resulting monopsony from negative externalities. And that, in turn, is a lesson for orchestras. Hearts and minds, people.

June 26, 2009

Gotta let that fool loose, deep inside your soul

I'm not going to pretend to be neutral about Michael Jackson. Not even close. I still have a cassette tape of Thriller—it was the first album I considered worthy of spending my hard-earned (paper route) money on. (It beat out an LP of Martha Argerich playing the Chopin preludes by a few weeks.) If you're a pre-teen white kid, like I was in early 1983, and you walk into a record store (OK, CD store; OK, iTunes) and buy an album by a black artist and it doesn't seem at all weird in the least, you can thank Michael Jackson. And you should thank him. Profusely.

As Tabloid Michael slowly overtook Superstar Michael, the magnitude of that achievement faded more and more, and people began to take it for granted. But the crossover of Off the Wall and Thriller was a palpable shift to me—and even if Michael was lucky enough to simply be in the right place at the right time, he filled the role with a generously unnecessary brilliance and savvy. Maybe it was my classical acclimatization—respectful of Wagner, enamored of Richard Strauss—that made it easier for me to compartmentalize the personal scandal and the musical achievement. And the achievement—the glottal suspense of "Beat It," the aspirated frenzy of "Dont Stop 'til You Get Enough," the roiling, implacable funk of "Billie Jean," the impregnable position of "Thriller" as the greatest novelty single of all time—was, even as my taste in pop became more jaded and skeptical, persistently superb.

I was running around all this afternoon and missed the news—and when my lovely wife told me, over a late-night beer, that Michael Jackson had died, I was, honestly, surprised at just how shocked and saddened I was. And I realized: the unapologetic nature of my musical omnivorousness owes a great deal to Michael Jackson, to the ubiquitous success of Thriller, to the fait accompli integration of MTV, to the demonstration that, even in the hyper-capitalist (and subtly discriminatory) wonderland of the Reagan 80s, sheer audacious talent could refuse to be marginalized. A few years ago, I spotted a "Special Edition" CD of Thriller at some store or another, and bought it, mostly out of curiosity as to how well it had held up, whether it was as good as my awkward, cusp-of-puberty self thought it was. The answer? Oh, my, yes.

That late-night beer was at an Irish-themed pub, full of frat boys, townies, and suburbanites—it was trivia night, and the MC dropped "Billie Jean" in between a couple of questions. "Rest in peace, Michael," he said; no one snickered, more than a few raised a glass. An odd tribute, but nonetheless appropriate for an entertainer who, with equal parts cunning and confidence, preached the joyous gospel of R&B across as many racial and cultural boundaries as he could.

June 24, 2009

Für kommende Zeiten

Last night [conductor Frederik Prausnitz] brought his ensemble to Philharmonic Hall in a 20th-century program, ending with a work by Karlheinz Stockhausen that sent a fair share of the audience scurrying out of the auditorium.

This was the "Gruppen" ("Groups") for three orchestra, composed in 1957 but not previously played in New York.... The work is an elaborate 25-minute assemblage of sounds, produced by the three ensembles as distinct entities yet carefully meshed by the composer. The performance, which seemed to go smoothly and was played by brilliantly gifted instrumentalists, did not work out too well.

Crowded together on the stage, the ensembles, totaling more than 100 players, could not assert their individuality. Except for an occasional tossing back and forth of a particular sonority and for the wide spread of the percussion instruments, the performance might have come from a single group as far as the acoustics were concerned.

—R.E., "Prausnitz Returns," The New York Times, March 15, 1965

ALBANY — New York did not have one State Senate on Tuesday. It had two.
...
Side by side, the parties, each asserting that it rightfully controls the Senate, talked and sometimes shouted over one another, gaveling through votes that are certain to be disputed. There were two Senate presidents, two gavels, two sets of bills being voted on.
...
Despite the condemnation from the governor, newspaper editorialists and civic groups, senators of both parties seemed strikingly unworried about, or perhaps insulated from, public anger over the events. Several said that they have noticed only a slightly more-than-average volume of calls coming into their district offices lately, and that only a small percentage of the calls were negative.

And some members seemed to almost enjoy the chaos, calling it memorable and recording it for posterity.
...
Turning to a reporter, [Republican Senator George H. Winner Jr.] said, “We’re never going to see this one again.”

—Danny Hakim, "Come to Order! Not a Chance, if It’s Albany," The New York Times, June 24, 2009

Sen. Winner unwittingly knows from whence he speaks: Prausnitz's effort with the New England Conservatory Symphony Orchestra remains, to this day, the one and only New York performance of Gruppen.

June 23, 2009

A juke box hero, got stars in his eyes

This summer's project involves Beethoven (more on that later), so I've been hitting the journals. And I've found something interesting—not enough examples to make a trend, but something I've been quickly conditioned to notice. It has to do with what you might call the musicological counter-reformation—the reaction against the New Musicology and various other revisionist strains. As you might imagine, Beethoven is a composer of particular interest for such revisionism, given both the encrusted consensus on interpreting his music and the highly-charged political atmospheres both in which he worked and in which his music has been used (and misused) ever since. There's a particular tone in a lot of the reaction that aims to re-establish Beethoven as a capital-G, capital-C Great Composer, a paragon of high-art virtue, outside of any possibly qualifying context. And here's one way to spot that tone in the wild: the author, usually in passing, cites Robert Haven Schauffler unironically.

The book in question in Schauffler's 1929 biography Beethoven: The Man Who Freed Music. It is what you might call an old-fashioned celebrity biography. It was pretty popular in its time—since my own project involves a fair amount of reception study, I've been getting reacquainted with it. When I read it, I feel like I should put on a smoking jacket and pour myself a cognac. Here's an example:
The infant [this is Ludwig], who was to be worshipped as "the saviour of music" by wise men yet unborn, first made himself heard in a room assuredly more lowly and probably more picturesque than the manger of Bethlehem. A man of average height must stoop under the beams of the little mansard chamber in No. 20 Bonngasse. On the wall outside an old crane still hangs, and a splendid vine with a stem now thick as a man's leg. In the garden there is a portentous pendulum pump four yards tall.

For Ludwig himself it was unlucky to have been born under such conditions. Poverty and family misery bore harder on him as a child than they ever have on any other great composer, not excepting Haydn. But for the world it was a huge piece of luck that he descended from a cook, a valet's widow, and a poor drunken singer and had ancestors with liberty-loving Flemish blood in their veins. If he had been born into the German "society" of the day he might never have emancipated music from the bonds of fashion. (pp. 8-9)
And so on, for nearly 600 pages. And yes, he maintains that style for pretty much the whole way. Every time I pick it up, I'm reminded of Umberto Eco's deconstruction of James Bond novels:
The minute descriptions constitute, not encyclopaedic information, but literary evocation. Indubitably, if an underwater swimmer swims towards his death and I glimpse above him a milky and calm sea and vague shapes of phosphorescent fish which skim by him, his act is inscribed within the framework of an ambiguous and eternal indifferent Nature which evokes a kind of profound and moral conflict. Usually Journalism, when a diver is devoured by a shark, says that, and it is enough. If someone embellishes this death with three pages of description of coral, is not that Literature?
As scholarship, Schauffler's biography has been surpassed many times over (and keep in mind that this is the same author who produced the juicy but unreliable The Unknown Brahms), but as a stylistic affirmation of the heroic Beethoven in excelsis it's hard to beat. No wonder he keeps coming back.

June 19, 2009

The glorious cause gives sanction to thy claim

From an address by Martin Luther King, Jr., to a public meeting of the Southern Christian Ministers Conference of Mississippi in Jackson, Mississippi on September 29, 1959:
History has proven that inner determination can often break through the outer shackles of circumstance. Take the Jews for example. For years they have been forced to walk through the dark night of oppression. They have been carried through the fires of affliction, and put to the cruel sword of persecution. But this did not keep them from rising up with creative genius to plunge against cloud-filled nights of affliction, new and blazing stars of inspiration. Being a Jew did not keep Spinoza from rising from a poverty stricken ghetto to a place of eminence in philosophy. Being a Jew did not keep Handel from lifting his vision to high heaven and emerging with creative and melodious music that still shakes the very fiber of men's souls. Being a Jew did not keep Einstein from using his profound and genius-packed mind to challenge an axiom and add to the lofty insights of science a theory of relativity...
Whoa, whoa, back up. Handel was Jewish? Somebody tell Michael Marissen!

As far as I can tell, that "plunge against cloud-filled nights of affliction" phrase was King's own, but it sure sounds like a quote. King liked it enough to use it in other speeches throughout his career, including his 1961 "The American Dream" commencement address at Lincoln University.

June 17, 2009

Textual response

A Cessna T-37 Tweet, just to liven up the place.

I don't have a Twitter account, and I probably never will, for two reasons:
  1. 140 characters is a sound bite, and I don't like sound bites; and
  2. even such brevity for comic effect, for me, is only really funny in a forum (like, say, this one) where comparative logorrhea is the norm.
My own idiosyncrasies notwithstanding, Twittering has been turning up more and more in concert situations, with a particularly expansive example being the play-by-play of their marathon concert that Bang on a Can sponsored on their Twitter account.

Amanda Ameer later reflected on her own Tweeting/texting experience during the marathon:
Reading the reviews of the marathon later, I had a few moments of "wait— when was that piece?". It seems I had missed a few things whilst clicking. I did stop texting during Julia Wolfe's Thirst because that was the new work I was most looking forward to—wait, looking through my phone now it seems I did send one text to Greg to say it was fantastic—but the rest of that hour was kind of hazy. Whoops.
This is why I, personally, would never Tweet during a performance, and why I've trained myself to take reviewing notes between pieces rather than during them. Writing and listening are two different things for me, and they don't overlap well. (This is why I record interviews, too, instead of keeping notes on the fly. I stop listening to the other person, even if I'm writing down their words verbatim.) You might be able to make the argument that there is now a generation of concertgoers who have grown up with texting, &c., and can so multitask with ease. Honestly, though, I doubt it.

Still, if Tweeting a concert makes the Tweeter feel more fulfilled, it's certainly an unobtrusive add-on. But then the question is this: why is a non-Tweeted concert experience less fulfilling? Amanda asked David Lang about the practice, and he said this:
It could be that the ability to stay in constant touch may make listeners come to feel that they themselves are not having a valid experience unless they are letting someone know about it. And if the action of music is some kind of mystic direct communication between the person making it and the person receiving it that is a big loss.
That's a pretty sharp observation right there. It's close to something I've ranted about before, the idea that suggestions to alter classical-music performance formats almost always are in the direction of increased audience validation, in assuring a particular range of audience reactions while simultaneously sending signals that confirm that a reaction within that range is, indeed, a "correct" one. I hate performances like that—not because they adopt a certain viewpoint about the repertoire (all performances do that on some level), but because they're so intent on congratulating an audience member for ascribing to that viewpoint.

Kyle Gann had a post this past week on the idea of "eventfulness," riffing on interviews he's been doing with Robert Ashley. Here's Ashley's words:
"The only thing that's interesting to me right now is that, up to me and a couple of other guys, music had always been about the eventfulness: like, when things happened, and if they happened, whether they would be a surprise, or an enjoyment, or something like that... It's about eventfulness. And I was never interested in eventfulness. I was only interested in sound. I mean, just literally, sound in the Morton Feldman sense....
"For some of us, eventfulness is boring, contrast is unnecessary, and we're interested in the aspects of music that don't relate to time," Gann comments. I found this fascinating, because my own experience of a lot of minimalist music (especially Feldman, who's addictively good at it) is almost the opposite: I sense things happening more acutely because the events' relationship to a steady passage of time gets dissolved. I'm aware of what's happening in the piece, but not how long it's taking to happen. That interplay between eventfulness and time is what I love about it. (It's why Feldman and Carter are related composers to me: Carter does the same thing via density, making the clock tick with such torrential energy that I stop trying to keep track and just hold on for the ride.)

Is that the "right" way to listen to Feldman? Who cares? Not me, anyway—and I'm not much concerned if I'm the only person in the audience listening in that way. But, to circle around, it seems to me that a big part of Tweeting a concert is hedging against that very possibility—feeling some sort of confirmation that how one is experiencing the music is congruent with the way others are experiencing the music. In other words, a reassurance that one is experiencing the proper level of eventfulness.

I've been to concerts where it was pretty clear that everyone was experiencing more or less the same thing, and that sense can be quite thrilling, but I've also been to concerts where my own, solitary experience was plenty thrilling enough. And for me, the former would be a lot less thrilling if I had someone figuratively nudging me every few minutes, making sure I was noticing what everybody else was noticing. I hope I've included enough variations on "for me" in this ramble to ensure that I'm not advocating my own tastes as a universal prescription; tastes vary, and change over time, and all that. But if the design and efficacy of live performance becomes inextricably bound up with the need to confirm one's conformity, to echo David Lang, that would be a big loss indeed.

June 13, 2009

Periodic groups


Reviewing the BEMF Chamber Ensemble and Les Esprits Inséparables.
Boston Globe, June 13, 2009.

I also spent Thursday afternoon at a BEMF Fringe Concert by Newport Baroque, directed by Paul Cienniwa, who was in the same Cub Scout troop as me. No kidding! An elegant visit with sonatas by Handel, Leclair, and Marcello, with recorder player Héloïse Degrugillier and Paul's wife Audrey on cello. (Go buy their new CD.)

June 12, 2009

Infirmary Blues

Massachusetts residents like to think they're smarter than residents of other states, but I have to say, there might be something to that—how else would the Commonwealth continue to function, given the frequent you-cannot-be-serious antics of our elected officials? Here's a new one, as reported by the Boston Globe:
[S]tate lawmakers... last week debated a bill that would require all schools to sterilize musical wind instruments, like clarinets, flutes, and piccolos, before they are passed from one student to another.
...
The bill's sponsor, state Representative Paul J. Donato, who represents Medford and parts of Malden, said he believes the same sterilization standards should apply to band instruments as those applied to medical instruments.
You never know when you might have to perform an emergency tracheotomy with that trombone mouthpiece, I guess. Now, given that high-school band instruments have been around since roughly the time of the ancient Sumerians ("I don't care who your father is, Ur-Nungal, I will bump you to fifth clarinet if you don't sit up") without any evidence of major bocal-induced pandemics, one might ask why Rep. Donato is suddenly concerned about this now. Well, the invaluable Universal Hub asked, too, and found the obvious answer: one of Donato's campaign contributors is a dentist who just happens to have invented an expensive system for sterilizing band instruments. (Seventy-six trombones would run you between nine and fifteen grand.) I know, I know—what are the chances? In fact, I'm sure the good doctor took it upon himself to give Donato money not to further his own interests, but because he recognized Donato's already-present-but-inchoate concern over the same insidious sousaphones.

Is there a chance that the average band nerd could be infected with grave germs from a mouthpiece? Sure, and I'd guess it's around the same probability as developing a fatal embolism after dropping a baritone sax on your toe. (In my own time, I could have said that it was roughly the same chance as this band nerd catching an STD.) In other words, doesn't the legislature have better and less transparently mendacious things to worry about these days? I say if Rep. Donato keeps it up, just lock him in a beginning band rehearsal for six hours or so. Between the germs and the intonation, he'll crack.

June 11, 2009

Authentication keys

Last night’s 8pm Boston Early Music Festival offering, a harpsichord recital by French virtuoso Pierre Hantaï, brought a surprisingly sparse crowd to Jordan Hall—next time, just TiVo the Red Sox, people—which perhaps added an extra modicum of wryness to Hantaï's already-wry demeanor. But the program—Bach and Scarlatti—was solidly within Hantaï's comfort zone, which resulted in the sort of casually risky, expansive performance that's best among a more intimate mob anyway.

The most notable thing about Hantaï's playing was his expert use of rhythmic variance in service of musical illusion. Playing an instrument with no actual legato and only manual-to-manual dynamic variance, Hantaï offered a world-class demonstration of how to fool the listener into thinking that legato and dynamic variance were everywhere. Much of this involved hairline gradations of delay: lagging one contrapuntal strand just behind the others to draw the ear to it, shaping a lyrical line with slightly sticky rubato to encourage the brain to fill in the decay. They're familiar expressive techniques to any keyboard player—even the comparatively fat sound of the modern piano requires a certain amount of similar sleight-of-hand—but coupled with Hantaï's overall improvisatory rhythmic cast, the manipulations become so organic to the music's flow that they almost vanished in plain sight. I kept thinking of Penn & Teller's cups and balls routine—somehow, knowing how the trick is done only enhances the effect.

Hantaï's programming reinforced the ruminative vibe. Two of Bach's English Suites—F major and A minor—and a quartet of Scarlatti sonatas were interspersed with a host of the little preludes and fugues Bach wrote for his students and children. Brief character pieces, they both allowed Hantaï to excercise his rhythmic fantasy and persuasively contrasted his sweeping interpretations of the larger works. In the suites and sonatas, Hantaï thought and played big; this wasn't an intricate, polished clockwork, but near-Romantic landscapes, profusely detailed with crisp ornamentation, the long-breathed rhythmic waywardness outlining grand conceptions. The piano is usually thought of as the more orchestral keyboard instrument, but Hantaï's prestidigitation just about put the harpsichord on equal footing.

This morning saw the inauguration of a new BEMF attraction, a day-long keyboard mini-festival to match the organ mini-festival that's now in its fourth go-round. Ensconced at First Lutheran Church in Back Bay, the venue provided some questionable Boston hospitality via the city's skinflint approach to parking—a meter maid was already lurking as I fed my quarters; the concert featured multiple announcements of which cars were in the process of being towed. But the new series started off strong, with fortepiano contributions from Andrew Willis and BEMF favorite Kristian Bezuidenhout.

Bezuidenhout was up first, tracing Franz Josef Haydn's gradual accommodation with the instrument from the 1770s (the Sonata in C minor, Hob. XVI:20) to the 1780s (an announced addition to the program, the C-major Sonata, Hob. XVI:48) into the 1790s (the F-minor Variations, Hob. XVII:6). With Bezuidenhout playing a copy of a mid-1790s Anton Walter instrument, one could immediately hear the astonishing variety of colors that must have won over 18th-century composers: from a muted hollowness to a buzzing, harpsichord-like edge, almost like taking a guitar amplifier from clean-toned jazz all the way to rock distortion. It's a larger palette than the modern grand, though, of course, the trade-off is in power—latecomers taking a seat in my row fairly drowned out a portion of the C-minor's Andante movement. Bezuidenhout's playing was a compelling mix of old and new, his ornamentation having the harpsichord's jewel-cut clarity, but the comparative ease of dynamic highlights allowing a more groove-like rhythm. He also seized on the music's dramatic touches, many seemingly inspired by the instrument's possibilities—the opening movement of the C-major Sonata casts the piano's varying registers as operatic characters, in a fluid series of recitative-like textures. The most magical moments revealed the possibilities for crescendo and diminuendo as a gee-whiz technological advance: Bezuidenhout let the close of the Variations toll ever softer, until it simply dissolved into the white noise of passing traffic.

Willis, playing a David Sutherland copy of a 1730s Florentine fortepiano, brought a string quartet to the stage with him for three of Bach's keyboard concertos. A damp and cold New England morning seemed to be wreaking havoc on everyone's tuning—you know you're at an early-music concert when the pianist is pulling out a wrench to tune between movements. But Willis's easygoing, dancing phrasing warmed up the chamber-sized dimensions of the playing, and once the intonation settled, in time for the bewitching Siciliano of the E-major concerto (BWV 1053), the group began to exude more confidence, and the closing Allegro had a happy brio. The fortepiano timbre didn't reveal any new secrets in the solo portions—Bach's writing is still very much modeled on harpsichord/clavichord virtuosity—but when providing a rippling accompaniment to the whole ensemble, the softer, subtler touch made for an invitingly plush sound.

Alas, the aforesaid parking situation (ars longa; meter brevis) meant I had to leave before one of my favorites, the BWV 1052 D-minor concerto. Next time, I'll make like Bach and walk. I imagine it's faster than rush-hour driving some mornings, anyway.

June 09, 2009

Amadeus Beaux-Arts

At last night's Boston Early Music Festival concert, the harpsichord on stage was a French-style double-manual built in 1984 by the late David Jacques Way, currently owned by Boston organist and keyboard addict Peter Sykes.


That is one seriously pretty instrument. (It's better in person—the palette actually tends towards an uncanny glowing verdancy.) Looking at it made me curse the one-size-fits-all 2001-monolith grand piano design that is now pretty much ubiquitous.

It's interesting, given our human propensity towards all things blingy, that piano design has become so staid in comparison with its plucked ancestors. It's probably the result of a combination of form-following-function and the music-appreciation ideal of keeping one's attention soberly focused on the music. I would suspect the advance of the Steinway brand played no small part, as well. (And given some of Steinway's recent forays into more elaborate cases, basic black certainly starts to look better in comparison.) But really, instruments all around have become pretty sedate, design-wise. Guitars still get a little adventurous (though less so than in the heyday of 70s metal); accordions still break out a bonanza of mother-of-pearl now and then, as does the occasional drum set. But you have to hang around the period-instrument crowd to see string instruments with heads, for example.

Someday—as soon as I am deemed worthy of attention by those fickle mistresses, time and money—I'm going to build my own harpsichord, paint it black, and then decorate it with old-school tattoo flash: skulls, hula girls, hearts that say "MOM," &c. (At the rate I get through projects, tattoos will no longer be cool by that point—even better.)

June 04, 2009

Till the stock of the Puritans die

My lovely wife picked up a degree from Harvard today—good Lord, I can't possibly deserve a woman this smart—so we took in the entirety of Harvard commencement, which is kind of like the academic version of a live Ring cycle: long, sometimes fascinating, sometimes boring, but worth experiencing at least once in your life. (I mean, one of the comic highlights—no kidding—was an oration in Latin.) Wynton was awarded an honorary doctorate—


—and played a little (you can hear a bit of his "America the Beautiful" here).

The big advantage of attending Harvard commencement as a family member instead of an actual graduate is that you spend hours on end sitting around instead of hours on end standing around. I used my downtime filling the margins of my program with a reharmonization of John Knowles Paine's "Harvard Hymn" that would probably have gotten me kicked out of Harvard by A.T. Davison back in the day:

(Click to enlarge; MIDI here.) I love doing four-part writing this way: just sort of let the voice-leading wander like a curious dog on a long leash. (This is why it took me multiple tries to pass the chorale section of my doctoral comps. "Resist the temptation to be interesting," the department chair finally told me.)

I'm a big fan of varied academic regalia, and Harvard's faculty provides some prime robe-spotting opportunities. The best regalia we saw featured round hats covered in fringe, kind of like this:


According to the Internet, this—the birrete—is a Spanish thing. I think it might be worth my while to get a degree from the Complutense just so I could wear one.

June 02, 2009

They built you a temple, and locked you away

Best academic overreach of the day:
[Billy] Joel's treatment of the same Beethoven material [the slow movement of the "Pathétique" sonata, in the song "This Night"] is even more literal than that of [Kiss's] "Great Expectations," although he withholds the melodic quotation until the refrain. But the song is shot through with wordplay linking Beethoven's nineteenth-century practice to that of the self-described "piano man" Joel and to the expressive registers of historical doo-wop ballads that the song references. Indeed, the love lyrics at times seem to suggest the solo pianist's relationship with the keyboard; distortions of musical time and imaginitive space are effected through the utterance of words that possess meaningful implications outside the conventional subject matter of the song. These include "ready for romance" (code word for nineteenth-century repertoire), "only a slow dance" (the slow movement, outside the context of the full sonata), and the notion of an expressive historical musical continuum delivered at the end of the Beethovenian refrain music ("this night can last forever"). Joel sets up the first citation of the theme when his doo-wop rocker persona admits at the end of the verse that he can no longer "remember the rules," launching the song into a different registral collection from which the melody and harmony of the refrain are borrowed to create an effectively expressive hybrid.

—Michael Long, Beautiful Monsters
(University of California Press, 2008)

Given that he's just name-dropped Barthes, I was disappointed Long didn't hit for the textual-analysis cycle with a "Piano/Man" reference.

We can probably thank producer Bob Ezrin for the Beethoven quote in "Great Expectations," by the way—the demo has no quotation, and in fact reveals that the melody of the chorus was tweaked to more closely echo Beethoven.

June 01, 2009

Down and Out in Paris and Dublin


We're back from Paris, where I ate bread, offal, and macarons; indulged in hero worship (above); walked until it hurt every day; and improved my French accent to the point where people would at least reply to me in French out of politeness, if not out of ignorance of my obviously American state. (As the headline notes, there was also a brief sojourn in the source of my giant head and pasty complexion.)

We even took in a couple of concerts, which I'll write up in due course, but the big cultural news in Paris was the opening of Vengeance, directed by the impossibly prolific Hong Kong filmmaker Johnnie To, and starring the ageless French rock-and-roll legend Johnny Hallyday. Celebrity images in Paris tend to be the usual international crowd—George Clooney had an advertising banner hanging in the Opéra Bastille, and Vengeance was swamped in its opening weekend by the Ben Stiller vehicle A Night at the Museum 2—but Johnny's fame trumped all, his weathered visage gracing seemingly every press kiosk, tabac, and Métro station in town.

It's slightly amazing how big a contrast there is between Hallyday's fame in France and his obscurity everywhere else. My lovely wife had never even heard of him, so we indulged in a crash course via YouTube. Given my own preference for proto-punk 1950s rock—if I were the pope, I would canonize Eddie Cochran—it's not surprising that I liked the early stuff best. Here he is in a mellow mood in 1962, singing to Catherine Deneuve. Bon travail, si vous pouvez l'obtenir.