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.