December 17, 2010

Their songs employ

Well, it's a week until Christmas Eve, and, as usual, I'm not even close to being ready, which means it's probably a good time for Soho the Dog to take a break, and, like Critic-at-Large Moe up there, diligently await the new year. So unless something really juicy comes along—Bernard Haitink, say, finally admitting that Vermeer's The Concert has been hanging in his rec room this whole time—this space will be fallow until January.

So here's a little present. One of the books I inherited at my church job was the venerable T. Tertius Noble's Free Organ Accompaniments to One Hundred Well-Known Hymn Tunes, a written-down compilation of the organist's oft-improvised prerogative, going harmonically haywire on the last verse of hymns. Noble never got around to "Antioch"—better known as "Joy to the World"—but I did; I came up with this harmonization a few years back, and finally got around to writing it down (click to enlarge):

And it goes—the original, then the arrangement—a little something like this:

I tend to save this for the late service, to see if anybody's still awake. Happy holidays!

December 14, 2010

"A true, lively, and experimentall description"

Today's topic: how current modes of classical-music discourse are and are not like the literary efforts of early settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Now, I am, myself, a non-native New Englander, which may be why I have 1) a more-than-passing fascination with New England history that 2) tends to come from a somewhat oblique angle. Veterans of school-grade American History have absorbed the standard view of the early New Englanders: high-minded, humorless Puritans, full of Protestant work ethic and Calvinist grimness, the traditionally-cited sources of the flinty New England intellect. But dig a little deeper, and you find an awful lot of that work ethic being expended in advertising that ethic, making sure everybody knew how high-minded and hard-working the New Englanders were. Viewed in this way, early New England more and more resembles the sort of shadowplay of moralistic façades that Hawthorne, for instance, made so trenchantly entertaining.

So I've been having a good time reading Phillip H. Round's By Nature and By Custom Cursed: Transatlantic Civil Discourse and New England Cultural Production, 1620-1660. Round's thesis is that much of the intellectual and literary groundwork of what came to be categorized as the New England Mind was shaped by the fact that those literary efforts were specifically designed for readers back in England. The traditional New England virtues of sobriety and objectivity, for instance, first appear as literary strategies to convince English readers of the colonists' fantastic stories, that the passenger pigeons really did flock in such numbers as to blot out the sun, &c. A prime example of the strategy is found in the note "To the Reader" from William Wood's popular 1634 book New Englands Prospect:
...I presume to present thee with the true, and faithfull relation of some few yeares travels and experience, wherein I would be loath to broach any thing which may puzzle thy beleefe, and so justly draw upon my selfe, that unjust aspersion commonly laid on travailers; of whom many say, They may lye by authority, because none can controule them....
"So there is many a tub-brain'd Cynicke, who because any thing stranger than ordinary, is too large for the straite hoopes of his apprehension, he peremptorily concludes it is a lye," Wood goes on. "But I decline this sort of thicke-witted readers, and dedicate the mite of my endeavours to my more credulous, ingenious, and lesse censorious Country-men". Round notes how such favorable reportage of New England's wonders—exotic flora and fauna, in seemingly endless quantities—was often couched in terms of that most gentlemanly of English pursuits, science, the observations given an extra veneer of plausibility by a restrained and matter-of-fact style (along with frequent reminders of the observer's unimpeachable moral standing).

But Round also notes that such objective reports were, not infrequently, flat-out disinformation. He traces a series of letters sent by one Emmanuel Altham, assuring investors back in London that things in the colony were going swimmingly, until the ruse proved untenable and he was forced to admit that the swimming was not, in fact, all that good. As the early years of the colony went along, the pressure from financial interests back in the home country became substantial enough—and the need to project an image of success and confidence correspondingly important enough—that John Winthrop, the governor, ordered the collection and censorship of all incoming and outgoing mail and printed material.

I don't think it is too far a stretch to find similar tension at work in the way we talk about classical music, and the fine arts in general, in the context of the modern mass media. There's the desire to advertise the wonders of this exotic realm—those inclined to this option can take odd comfort in the fact that Wood's laudatory New Englands Prospect was a hit back in England, while its critical, polemical counterpart, Thomas Morton's New English Canaan, was a flop. But there's also the caution of creating too rosy a picture, lest the suspicion arise of "lying by authority." It's the sort of thing Dave Hickey warns against in a quote that Alex Ross posted a few weeks back:
Seducing oneself into believing in art’s intrinsic 'goodness,' however, is simply bad religion, no matter what the rewards. It is bad cult religion when professing one’s belief in art’s 'goodness' becomes a condition of membership in the art community.
The "death of classical music" types (they're back for the holidays!) will often imagine such talking up to do more damage than good, painting classical-music apologists as, basically, latter-day Emmanuel Althams, papering over shortfalls with increasing desperation. Here's a recent example from Greg Sandow, a standard source. In fact, go back a few months, to that whole dust-up between Greg and Heather MacDonald, and it's kind of like reading Thomas Morton and William Wood all over again.

Except it's not, not quite. The dissonance isn't in the recasting of the classical-music tradition as a colony of a back-home popular mass-media culture. The dissonance is that there is no back home. There is no country to which we could send missives and pamphlets of the marvels of our new world. Everything in culture today, every genre, every style, is, essentially, its own colony. We separate into large categories—"popular," "classical," "art"—for convenience, but those are increasingly flimsy umbrellas. Which is why, I think, fashioning discourse about classical music as if it's a report back to the home country of popular culture, as if there even is a home country of popular culture, misses the point.

This is something that has always frustrated me about the death-of-classical polemics: they're predicated on a mass popular counterpart that is increasingly illusory. Classical music needs to become more attuned to popular culture, goes the trope—but both "classical music" and "popular culture" have fragmented into free-standing colonies, which individuals are more and more free to visit as they please. (And the trope usually ignores how much the colonies are evolving without any help.) That's not to say that there aren't monolithic forces that tend to make such visits less free than we might think they are, but those forces are economic and technological more than cultural.

John Winthrop, in his "Model of Christian Charity," warned of the need to keep up appearances:
For wee must consider that wee shall be as a citty upon a hill. The eies of all people are uppon us. So that if wee shall deale falsely with our God in this worke wee have undertaken, and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.
It's a famous passage, the source of every "city on the hill" citation of American exceptionalism. But I think the cultural landscape is no longer such that classical music, in any of its many overlapping guises, is going to rise and fall based on the perception of the "eies of all people." Better to amplify what it is than to try and make it behave like something it's not—as Wood's subtitle promised, "Laying downe that which may both enrich the knowledge of the mind-travelling Reader, or benefit the future Voyager." The wonders will always puzzle the belief of some; but they probably wouldn't be happy living here anyway.

December 13, 2010

Without them, what would little boys do?

Reviewing the Boston Modern Orchestra Project.
Boston Globe, December 13, 2010.

A review of an all-female-composer program in which I try to say something intelligent about the wherewithal, institutional and aesthetic, of an all-female-composer program. (Still, even after almost 40 years, one of the best cocktails of thinking on this sort of thing remains Linda Nochlin's.)

December 09, 2010

Troll the ancient yuletide carol

I'm a Christmas album aficionado, and my favorite entry so far this season—and I can't see anything else topping it, certainly not in a way that engenders a thousand-word blog post—is A Christmas Cornucopia, by the Scottish pop diva Annie Lennox. This is a really interesting album—but to understand why it's so interesting, we must first acknowledge that Christmas, particularly (but not exclusively) in its secular manifestations, is one of the more fake, manufactured holidays there is. I'm not talking about the commercialism (although there is that, too), but rather, that most of what we think of as Ye Olde Christmas Traditions are not, in fact, all that old. More precisely: there is a significant and distorting lag between the claim to authenticity of most Christmas traditions and the historical actuality that would back up such claims.

Christmas as we know it here in the Anglo-American world is largely a creation of the 19th century—the Victorian era in Britain, the Gilded Age in the United States. Now, there are a lot of factors that went into the 19th-century Christmas revival: the rise of consumerist, commodity-based economies, the sacralization of childhood, the increasing importance of cheap, print-based media to the culture as a whole. But most important, I think, is nostalgia. In the wake of both the Industrial Revolution and the American Civil War, anything that asserted an unbroken connection to an unchanging tradition became appealing, and Christmas thus became a fount of nostalgia. The trees, the caroling, the pageants, the mistletoe, Santa: people started celebrating the holiday as it had been celebrated back in the day. Except that it hadn't—Christmas was never that big a deal until the Victorians made it that big a deal. Puritans in both England and New England had actually banned Christmas back in what was supposedly the good old days. In other words, the modern Christmas emerged out of a nostalgia for something that never really was in the first place.

This is hardly unique to Christmas. Nostalgia—especially this kind of illusory nostalgia—is so common in the industrial world that it's a trope of its own in more radical critiques of modern society. Guy Debord, in his Situationist classic The Society of the Spectacle, talked about the difference between ancient, "cyclical" time—"the really lived time of unchanging illusions"—and modern, "spectacular" time—"the illusorily lived time of a constantly changing reality":
The pseudo-events that vie for attention in spectacular dramatizations have not been lived by those who are informed about them; and in any case they are soon forgotten due to their increasingly frenetic replacement at every pulsation of the spectacular machinery. Conversely, what is really lived has no relation to the society's official version of irreversible time, and conflicts with the pseudocyclical rhythm of that time's consumable byproducts. This individual experience of a disconnected everyday life remains without language, without concepts, and without critical access to its own past, which has nowhere been recorded. Uncommunicated, misunderstood and forgotten, it is smothered by the spectacle's false memory of the unmemorable.
That reads like a cynic's description of the Christmas season. But what I think is so fascinating about Christmas is that the sheer amount of cultural stuff that has been produced around it has conditioned us to approach that stuff with a higher tolerance for a kind of pseudo-authenticity that's unique to the category—which is why Christmas albums are so much fun. The shotgun marriage of every style and genre imaginable with Christmas repertoire doesn't cause the cognitive dissonance it might, because, in a weird way, the incongruity echoes the incongruity of Christmas itself. Because, deep down, we know that the "traditional" Christmas we've been inculcated with so much nostalgia for is largely bunk, an R&B/doo-wop rendition of "Veni Emmanuel" or a disco version of "O Holy Night" is able to work on its own terms.

But what makes A Christmas Cornucopia better than your average Christmas album is that it charts the authenticity/inauthenticity divide of Christmas nostalgia with such precision that it ends up creating a convincing illusion of authenticity all its own. This is an album about authenticity. The songs are, for the most part, the "traditional" carols, the ones collected and codified in the Victorian era as the baseline of Christmas heritage. (Even the exceptions reference other traditions: "Universal Child" is an original entry in the long line of UK Christmas charity pop singles, and a cheerfully brash version of the French carol "Il est né" is, perhaps, at least a partial homage to Siouxsie and the Banshees.) Do you remember the last verse of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman"? Annie Lennox does:

That gives a pretty good indication of the musical style that Lennox and producer Mike Stevens use for the entire album, which turns out to be another referential layer of the nostalgia in play: it's what might be called the Gothic pastoral strain in British psychedelica. Like-this-combined-with-that descriptions are always a little shallow, but if ca. 1974 Queen and Jethro Tull had teamed up on a Christmas album, this is what it might have sounded like. The Gothic pastoral is another nostalgic style—forever conjuring images of maypole bacchanals and slightly menacing Morris dancers—but what's crucial for A Christmas Cornucopia is that it was a piggybacked nostalgia: it was as much about how the Victorians imagined that long-lost England to be as how it actually was (or wasn't). It was equally referencing Jolly Old England and the Victorian hankering after Jolly Old England.

Think about that for a minute: the album is recasting carols in a style that is nostalgic for the very nostalgia that created the carols in the first place. It's not just a compounding of nostalgia, it's a direct lineage of nostalgia. That's important because, the more precisely targeted nostalgia gets, the less sentimental it seems. It's the difference between the amorphous sappiness of "childhood" and the knife-edge focus of Proust's madeleine.

Christmas is, in general, pretty sentimental, mainly because its nostalgia is both manufactured and only vaguely defined. It's the sort of thing that inspired one of the Situationist International's more pointed scolds:
The entire socioeconomic structure tends to make the past dominate the present, to freeze living persons, to reify them as commodities. A sentimental world in which the same sorts of tastes and relations are constantly repeated is the direct product of the economic and social world in which gestures must be repeated every day in the slavery of capitalist production. The taste for false novelty reflects its unhappy nostalgia.
A Christmas Cornucopia sidesteps that by both leveraging the manufactured nature of Christmas nostalgia and doing so with such stylistic efficiency that the sentimentality falls away. It traffics in only those strains of nostalgia that created the modern conception of Christmas, and nothing else. It is exactly as authentic as Christmas is, which is to say, it is inauthentic in exactly the same way. It is, in an enchanting way, that touchstone of holiday shopping: a genuine fake.

December 07, 2010

No Future

Over at the Denver Post, Kyle MacMillan embarks on The Death of Classical Music 5: Assignment Miami Beach. Evocation of a lost Golden Age of American classical music? Check. Passing citation of NEA participation statistics? Check. List of gripes from Greg Sandow? Check. I'm just being a curmudgeon because, to be honest, I'm burned out on this whole discussion. To his credit, MacMillan spends at least as much time focusing on those subsets of the overly-general "classical music" category that are not dying as those that are. And I've pretty much said my piece on this (this post and this post hold up passably well after a few years).

Still, a list of tips from the rock and pop world by Ronen Givony, one of the music directors at Le Poisson Rouge, had this amusing counterpoint:
4. Promotion. Unlike rock bands... classical performers have traditionally relied on managers, publicists or presenters to market their appearances.

5. Entrepreneurialism. Rather than waiting for a grant or somebody else to initiate change, artists need to take things into their own hands. "What if the Beatles had said, 'We're going to wait until we get some funding and then we're going to go on the road'?" Givony said. "What if the Sex Pistols had said that? Nothing would have changed in music history."
The ghosts of Brian Epstein and Malcolm McLaren would like a word....

I may burn the toast. Oh, well

Over the weekend, Kyle Gann was complaining about the tradition of kittenish obscurantism in serialist analysis:
In European writings on the subject, and certain American academic writings as well,... it seems to be almost bad taste to state flatly how the rows are derived, what the rhythmic processes are, how the music is actually written. One is expected to know such matters but be coy in expressing them, and to talk more about the implications of the process than the process itself.
On a related note, I was at Harvard last night for the last of the public lectures given as part of the School of Engineering's "Science and Cooking" class, with guest lecturer David Chang, of Momofuku fame. There was some science content: Chang did neat stuff with methyl cellulose and eggs, and there was a wildly entertaining exposition on the microbiology of Chang's attempt to make a pork version of katsuobushi. But what was most interesting was the framework of Chang's talk—constantly coming back to the idea of the role of limitations and mistakes in creativity. A big theme was the effect of restrictions: restrictions on physical space, restrictions on the availability of ingredients, restrictions imposed by the need to make money, &c., and how the staff came to embrace and use those restrictions as spurs to innovative thinking. (Chang passed around samples of what he called Momofuku's "ingredient of the year," a dried shiitake mushroom chip that came about as a byproduct of pulverizing dried shiitakes into powder, so that they would take up less storage space.)

What the restrictions originally meant was that Chang and his staff were constantly forced to go off-recipe in order to get the food out of the kitchen, but now that combination of self-imposed limitations and non-stop tinkering is ingrained in the restaurants' culture, to the point where success and newly expanded resources actually seem to scare Chang a little bit. "If we're given the full color palette to work with," he joked, "we're just going to make something disgusting and nasty." Chang recounted numerous instances of setting up seemingly arbitrary challenges in order to provide, essentially, opportunities for controlled screw-ups. He described his creative process thus: "Make a mistake; make a calculated mistake; make another mistake." In other words, give yourself permission to get every step of the process wrong, in order to really know what's going on at every step of the process—and that's where the creativity starts, not where it ends.

What both Gann and Chang were talking about was the difference between information and understanding, and how you get from one to the other—and where in the transfer creativity originates. Gann wants to "take away the mystery" of compositional processes: "Mystery exalts the composer, and raises him above mere mortals, who are left to their own creative devices." But for Chang, it's the exercise of those creative devices that's empowering, coming up with a way to solve the mystery, rather than having the mystery solved for you.

There was a time when I would have sided with Gann on this one. When I was getting my education, even information that was out there was still hard to come by; I remember having to go across town to find a copy of Ligeti's Die Reihe article on Boulez's Structures, and Koblyakov's code-cracking of the pitch multiplication in Le marteau sans maître was a tantalizing rumor for a year or two before the book finally turned up in the library. There was still enough effort in acquiring the information that one felt some responsibility to understand the information rather than just acknowledge and repeat it. But now, I think, information is simply too cheap—and, as a result, the focus has shifted from understanding why you're wrong to confirming whether you're right.

This is a constant dilemma in musical training (or at least I hope it is): you have to give a student enough tools and information to get started, but you also have to, at some point, ensure that they go in and get their own hands dirty, wrestling with the material—contemplating the mysteries, as it were. (I learned a lot having a professor explain Stockhausen's Kreuzspiel to me; I learned a lot more—about Stockhausen's musical proclivities, and my own—trying to get to the bottom of his Klavierstück IX by myself.) This is particularly crucial for atonal and serialist music, music that for far too long was taught as if the row forms were the music, that calculating the row derivations was equivalent to plumbing its depths. (Gann mentions David Osmond-Smith's book on Luciano Berio's Sinfonia, which he lauds for having "charts that explain everything that happens in that wonderful piece"—a perhaps inadvertent but interesting equating of description with explanation.) What's closer to my experience is that, like all technical analysis, row analysis explains everything and nothing about a serialist piece, in a way that it's impossible to get a feel for unless you actually get into a piece and explore it yourself, trying to decide which row form is prime, trying to keep track of all the segmentation, running up blind alleys, figuring out whether an anomaly is a deliberate interpolation, a quirk of serialist technique that you hadn't considered, or an oversight—or none of the above. Reading an analysis tells you how; doing an analysis forces you to think about why.

I think Schoenberg, who was never shy about talking about his technical processes, nevertheless knew the paradoxical worth of the row—of any technical explanation. At the very beginning of his masterpiece, Moses und Aron, six solo singers—representing the voice of God—wordlessly intone a series of chords:

It's only after you sort through another couple of pages' worth of pitches that you realize that what you hear at the beginning is, in fact, only the trichord outlines of the row, the first three and last three pitches of P-0 (the women) and RI-3 (the men). They're combinatorial row forms (that is to say, P-0 and I-3 are), but Schoenberg, right at the start, partitions them such that the combinatoriality is frustrated. Instead, he gets a near-echo: the outer voice-leading, the parallel 7ths, is repeated in both groups.

It's like an inexact translation—which is fitting, since Moses und Aron is an opera about just that, about incomplete explanations, about the distance between information (Aron) and understanding (Moses). And the further you dig into analysis of the opera, the more you find Schoenberg manipulating the vocabulary in order to produce that effect, over and over again, rows layered and juxtaposed and reassembled into almost-but-not-quite repetitions, the musical equivalent of the philosophical gap between what something is and what we can say about it. Even when the information seems clear, Schoenberg undercuts it. One of my favorite of these moments is when Moses and Aron make their entrance in Act I, Scene 3. Moses preaches; Aron interprets. "He has chosen you above all peoples," Aron sings, on a straight 12-tone row (P-2, with the first trichord moved to the end):

But that's not what Moses is saying at all. While Aron sings, Moses, in sprechstimme, is offering a variation on his very first line in the opera, addressing God:
Der einzige, Ewige, Allmächtige, Allgegenwärtige, Unsichtbare, Unvorstellbare...
The only, infinite, all-powerful, omnipresent, invisible, inconceivable...
When he gets to "invisible" and "inconceivable," Schoenberg instructs: The speaker will take a ritard here in order to heighten the significance of the words. The row tells you everything; but in this case, the row is also telling you nothing. The meaning is still invisible.

And it's also somehow appropriate that this is Moses und Aron, Schoenberg's greatest mistake, great in all senses of the word—a David-Chang-style reconsideration of operatic form and serialist construction that was simultaneously Schoenberg's most magnificent failure and his most magnificent achievement. As Chang noted: "It takes discipline to write down your mistakes."

Timing is Everything

The weekend's best juxtaposition: Joseph Horowitz calls on orchestral musicians to accept part-time orchestra jobs, citing as an example the old days in Minneapolis, when players "had ample spare time to earn money in other ways," on the same day the Daniel Wakin reports on how those other ways are drying up.

It also strikes me that Horowitz's description of "service conversion"—basically, switching out orchestral players' paid rehearsals and performances for paid outreach and education—is just a privatizing shell game. Orchestral outreach is a substitute for public education, filling the gap left when schools and districts, squeezed because people don't want to pony up the necessary tax revenue and boxed in by funding agencies' ridiculous love affair with math and science and high-stakes testing, toss the arts overboard—and, with it, the ecosystem of school and private teaching that supports it. In other words, "service conversion" means that orchestral players will be, in essence, using their own part-time salaries to subsidize those jobs that would supposedly supplement their part-time salaries. Fantastic.

December 03, 2010

Wu ich kehr mich wu ich wend mich du!

This weekend marks the third, fourth, and fifth nights of Hanukkah. Spin that dreidel! And then listen to the great Chazan Johnny Gluck singing "A Dudele," originally composed by the 18th-century Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev.

This particular arrangement is by the polish-born conductor Leo Low, and was (I would guess) originally done for the Hazomir Chorus in Warsaw. Low—a veteran conductor of synagogue choirs, including the Grand Synagogue in Vilna, where he met and began a long association with the legendary cantor Gershon Sirota—had become director of the Hazomir chorus in 1908; singing Low's arrangements of Yiddish folk songs, the chorus became a model for similar groups around the world.

Low's arrangement has (as best I can tell) passed into the public domain, so here's a scan from the Yiddish wing of Soho the Dog HQ's palatial music library:

A Dudele (arr. Leo Low) (6.3 Mb PDF)

I don't remember where I picked this copy up, but, thanks to retailer stamping, I know the original owner picked it up from here—

—which, thanks to Google Street View, I know is now a Thai restaurant:

Low himself emigrated to America in 1920, directing a chorus in the immigrant-labor hotbed of Paterson, New Jersey, as well as the National Workers Farband Choir in New York, associated with the socialist-Zionist Yiddish Natzionaler Arbeiter Farband. Low spent time in (then) Palestine in the 1930s, then returned to the United States. He died in 1960.

December 02, 2010

After You've Gone

Harold Camping, an evangelical radio host who previously predicted the end times would happen in 1994 (well, Korn did release their debut album in 1994, so he gets half-credit), has, as you might have seen, updated his calendar. Now Camping is spreading the word—via the website—that the Rapture will come on May 21, 2011.

Wait a minute—the Rapture is happening on Fats Waller's birthday?

(The movie is 1936's King of Burlesque.)

I'm not much for this particular brand of Christian eschatology, but I must confess—Camping is my kind of conspiratorial numerologist.

No sweeter sound than this is heard

Guerrieri: Rejoice, Rejoice! (PDF, 87 Kb; plastic-imitation MIDI here)

It's Christmas carol time. This one sets a text by William Chatterton Dix, better known for writing "What Child Is This?" (Surely the most leading question in Christmas carol history, outpacing "Do You Hear What I Hear?" by a wide margin. I've always wanted to hear a version of "What Child Is This?" where the baby isn't Jesus. Twist ending!) Dix was also the manager of an insurance company, which makes him the Charles Ives of hymn-writers, I suppose. At any rate, this carol manages to be both cheerful and consistently unsettled, which is how I imagine pretty much everybody spends their holiday season.

By the way, previous years' carols can now be accessed with the handy "Carol" tag at the bottom of this post. Four years on, and I've finally come around to blog tags! To be fair, the tags put a bit of strain on my 2400 baud modem.

November 30, 2010

Who will save you now, pathetic earthlings?

In reading up on yesterday's news about Louis Andriessen and his Grawemeyer Award, I missed Norman Lebrecht's very Norman-Lebrecht-ish post on the award, especially this sentence:
Andriessen does not rank high among composers who will dominate the future.
That is awesome. I finally have a universally applicable aesthetic criterion that can bump me from a humble classical-music stringer to the critical equivalent of a melodramatic, over-the-top science-fiction villain.
"Hmmmm... it's a nice piece, clever instrumentation, elegant use of post-serialist vocabularies. But wait—will this piece..."
Time to start growing that goatee out to a menacing point.

November 29, 2010

A thousand violins fill the air

Hey, Kim Jong-Il—your isolated, repressive, and dangerously unstable regime has just precipitated yet another military standoff with your neighbors to the south. What are you going to do next?

"I'm going to a concert!"

Apparently having run out of provocations for the weekend, Kim Jong-Il, his designated heir, Kim Jong-Un, and a host of North Korean political grandees took in a little music last night (well, one assumes it was last night, though the report doesn't specify), attending a concert by the State Symphony Orchestra of the DPRK. According to the North Korean news agency:
Put on the stage were serial symphonies "Song Dedicated to the Party," piano concerto "Do Prosper, My Country," orchestras "A Bumper Harvest in the Chongsan Plain" and "A Soldier Hears Rice Ears Sway" and other colorful numbers.
(I don't think "serial" means what the translator thinks it means, but my Korean is nowhere near good enough to tell what's trying to be said. If you're curious, the orchestra has recorded Choe Jong Yun's piano concerto on "Do Prosper, My Country.") North Korean concerts inevitably come with a healthy dose of propaganda (this particular concert, for instance, comes on the heels of an annual concert dedicated to Isang Yun, whose stature in the North is equal parts musical accomplishment and his kidnapping by the South Korean security forces in 1967). Maybe that old story about Bismarck listening to Beethoven's Fifth before declaring war on France is still current in Pyongyang.

In other news:

Louis Andriessen wins this year's Grawemeyer Award.

Meanwhile, the Louisville Orchestra (like its Honolulu counterpart) mulls bankruptcy options.

Next year's royal wedding could feature Peter Maxwell Davies and Andrew Lloyd Webber on the same program—if the latter is asked.

Tomorrow, the town of Dumfries unveils a memorial cairn for Angus MacKay, first to hold the post of Queen's Piper.

In closing: the neurology of Satie's Vexations.

November 24, 2010

Holiday (II)

Here in the United States, tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day, a fine idea for a holiday that is nevertheless in perpetual danger of being swamped by the 600-pound-gorilla that is Christmas. (That's right, I just compared the birthday of the Son of God to a gorilla. Take that, creationists!) In other words, Thanksgiving might just be the most American holiday there is, a kind of calendrical Lagrange point between sentimental gratitude for the stuff we have and mania for acquiring more stuff. And thus it's always been—witness the years 1939 to 1941, when Franklin D. Roosevelt bumped Thanksgiving from the fourth Thursday in November to the third, at the presumed sales-boosting behest of Lew Hahn, president of both the Retail Dry Goods Association and the era's largest department-store holding company. (Since it wasn't yet a national holiday, states could follow FDR's lead or not, and when one celebrated Thanksgiving became a barometer of political opinion.)

Back then, it was actually considered in poor taste for stores to put up Christmas decorations and have Christmas sales prio to Thanksgiving, a bit of social pressure that seems downright quaint nowadays; I saw places this year putting out their Christmas merchandise prior to Hallowe'en. I am, myself, a purist—nothing remotely yuletide-ish goes up until after Thanksgiving, my own small Maginot Line against the day when the Christmas retail season colonizes so much of the calendar that Thanksgiving becomes a kind of cult holiday. It's kind of like ostentatiously ignoring round-number anniversaries of Mozart's death (1791) in favor of Prokofiev's birth (1891).

Every year, I do two things on Thanksgiving: eat enormous quantities of my mom's stuffing, and harangue everybody reading this space to cough up a few bucks to the anti-hunger charity of your choice. (Here at Soho the Dog HQ, it's The Greater Boston Food Bank—you can search for your local equivalent here.) Why should this year be any different? No good reason I can think of. Traditions are so heartwarming, after all.

Sweetness and light

Reviewing Pinchas Zuckerman and Yefim Bronfman.
Boston Globe, November 24, 2010.

November 22, 2010

Holiday (I)

Of this Cecilia thus it is written in the Martyrologe by Ado, that Cecilie the Virgine after she brought Valerian her husband espoused, and Tiburtius his brother to the knowledge and fayth of Christ, and with her exhortacions had made them constant vnto martyrdome: after the suffering of them she was also apprehended by Almachius the ruler, and brought to the Idoles to do sacrifice: which thing when she abhorred to do, she should be presēted before the iudge to haue the condemnation of death. In the meane time the Sergeants and officers which were about her, beholding her comelye beuty, and the prudent behauiour in her conuersation, began with many persuasions of words to sollicite her mynde, to fauour her selfe, and that so excellent beutye, and not to cast her selfe away. &c. But she agayne so replyed to them with reasons and godly exhortatiōs, that by the grace of almighty God their harts began to kindle, and at length to yeld to that religion, whych before they did persecute. Which thing she perceiuing, desired of the iudge Almachius a little respite. Whych being graunted, she sendeth for Vrbanus the bishop home to her house, to stablish and grounde them in the fayth of Christ. And so were they, with diuers other at the same tyme baptised, both men and wemen, to the number (as the story saith) of. 400. persons, among whom was one Gordianus a noble mā. This done, this blessed martyr was brought before the iudge, wher she was condēned: then after was brought to þe house of þe Iudge, wher she was inclosed in a whote bathe, but she remainyng ther a whole daie and night without any hurt, as in a colde place, was broughte out agayne, and commaundement geuen that in the bath she should be beheaded: The executour is sayde to haue iiii. strokes at her necke, as yet her heade beynge not cut of, she (as the storye geueth) liued iii. dayes after. And so dyed thys holy virgyn martyre, whose bodye in the night season Vrbanus the Byshop tooke and buryed amonge the other byshops.

—John Foxe, Acts and Monuments
(Foxe's Book of Martyrs) (1570 edition)

From the online variorum edition (in progress) produced by the Humanities Research Institute at the University of Sheffield. (Previously: 1, 2.)

Big time

Reviewing the Boston Philharmonic's Bruckner 8.
Boston Globe, November 22, 2010.

Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail?

Reviewing the NEC Opera Theatre's The Magic Flute.
Boston Globe, November 22, 2010.

November 19, 2010

Organ donor

Somehow, I missed this, which makes me wonder what else I've been missing, but James Kibbie, organist and University of Michigan professor, recorded all of J. S. Bach's organ works on a variety of German baroque organs, and then posted all the recordings online, for free. Extra nerd nourishment: for each piece, he's also listed the organ registration. That's about a week's worth of procrastination fodder, right there. Fantastic.

I immediately went to my two favorites: the "St. Anne" prelude and fugue, and BWV 679, a sly little show-off fughetta on "Dies sind die heiligen zehen Gebot" ("These are the holy ten commandments"), in which Bach states the fugue subject, yes, ten times, and at the point where the commandments shift from "thou shalt" to "thou shalt not," inverts the subject. I always imagine Johann pouring himself an extra, self-congratulatory glass of beer after dashing off that one.

November 17, 2010

Leftover Beethoven Miscellany: BPM

From time to time until the book comes out, this space will feature bits and pieces that were too esoteric, tangential, or just plain odd to make it into the final version.

The Allegro was taken, as we thought, too fast;—the common fault of all our orchestras. Beethoven was constantly lecturing his leaders on this matter. It is true that the whole rate and standard of time has accelerated lately, in perfect keeping with the restless character of the age; we live fast. And it is true that time is rather relative than positive, and that the most rapid prestissimo seems to glide on without hurry when the tempo of our own nerves and feelings and whole system corresponds.
The pioneering American music critic (and Beethoven fiend) John Sullivan Dwight, from an article (“Musical Review: Boston Philharmonic Society”) in the Feb 27, 1847 issue of The Harbinger, the Fourierist journal produced at the short-lived Brook Farm commune on the outskirts of Boston.

November 16, 2010

Hey, sport. You connect the dots

Thanks to holiday temporal creep, the Hammacher Schlemmer Christmas catalog showed up in the mail yesterday. Back before the World Wide Web—that dark, dark age when Abe Vigoda's complete filmography was esoteric knowledge, people with extreme opinions talked mainly to themselves, and pornography was mildly difficult to procure—the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog was actually something, full of things that one really couldn't find anywhere else. Nowadays, it's lost a little of its wherewithal, but, as a loyal American—and thus unable to resist the siren song of consumerism—I dutifully flipped through this year's catalog.

On page 37, there's something called the "No Wrong Notes Strumstick."

"It uses the unique, diatonic fretting of an Appalachian dulcimer," the description says, "tuned in a drone relationship such that there are no wrong notes." Now, I was all set to exercise my inner Victorian parliamentarian on that wrong-note thing. That is quite the sweeping generalization of systems of musical hierarchy and coherence you are making, good sir! But then I kept reading:
A major scale is played by simply fretting just one string and strumming like a guitar.
Now, I try to be forgiving when non-musicians trip on musical terminology, which—let's face it—can be quirkier than a Wes Anderson movie. But it's a red-letter day when I can't even figure out what they're trying to say. My best guess is that, if you fret one string in a particular place, or maybe fret all three strings, you get a major chord. But the more I think about it, the more I like the thought of propping this thing on your lap, randomly fretting one string, and then strumming away while cascading major scales pour forth. Can you imagine what Terry Riley would pay for something like that?

They're growing mechanical trees

Over at Mind the Gap, Molly Sheridan has cranked the Book Club back to life, which means all this week you can find Alex Shapiro, Marc Weidenbaum, Marc Geelhoed, and yours truly (along with, perhaps, special guests) fulminating on Kevin Kelly's What Technology Wants. Is it cookies? I hope it's cookies. Anyways, the forecast says there's a 60% chance of me defaulting to a dystopian world-view, which is always fun. See you there!

Image via.

All of nature talks to me. If I could just figure out what it was trying to tell me.

Reviewing the Radius Ensemble.
Boston Globe, November 16, 2010.

November 13, 2010

One of us

Schumann's symphonies, up close and personal. Previewing the Boston Symphony Orchestra's Schumann cycle.
Boston Globe, November 14, 2010.

November 12, 2010

Past present

In seeming counterpoint to the curiously inconclusive G-20 summit in Seoul this week, there was a development in the curiously inconclusive posthumous political travails of the Korean violinist and composer Hong Yeong-hu, better known by his pen name, Hong Nan-p'a. Hong is popularly, if slightly inaccurately, considered the father of Western classical music in Korea; while others were working the vein before him, it was the success of Hong's song "Garden Balsam" (Bongseonhwa), first written as a violin piece in 1919, that showed the viability of combining Korean-style melody with Western harmonies and instrumentation.

Hong's career coincided with the Japanese military occupation of Korea, and, as a result, standard textbook encapsulations of his biography emphasize his patriotism, how his student years at the Tokyo Conservatory were cut short by his participation in the March 1st Movement for Korean independence, how "Garden Balsam" became an unofficial anthem of the Korean resistance, how, in 1937, he was arrested and jailed for six weeks, an ordeal usually cited as contributing to his death, in 1941, at the age of 44. So it was a little dissonant to read that, this week, Hong's descendants dropped their lawsuit to keep him off of an official government list of pro-Japanese collaborators:
Accordingly, the composer, who has been exempt from the list under a temporary court order issued last November, will likely be put back on the “disgraced” register.... The court said more extensive inquiries should be carried out to confirm whether the composer actively cooperated with Japanese authorities during the colonial rule.
Hong's alleged collaboration came in the last four years of his life, as the Japanese rather fiercely ramped up their imperial pressure across Korea; having suffered a recurrence of pleurisy during his prison stay, Hong apparently compromised with the colonial government, possibly in return for medical treatment. His accommodation included editing music publications and advising the government on cultural matters.

However, if you're wondering about a ruling that puts a dead man on a "disgraced" list at the same time that it admits to needing more extensive inquiries, welcome to the somewhat strange world of the Korean Presidential Committee for the Inspection of Collaborations for Japanese Imperialism (PCIC). Given that Korea has spent two-thirds of the past century under either foreign occupation or military dictatorship, the country certainly has more than the usual number of skeletons in its closet, but the PCIC has always been as much about contemporary South Korean politics as a reckoning with the past. The first attempt to identify collaborators, just after World War II, was stymied by the Republic's first president, Syngman Rhee. The effort was suddenly restarted under Roh Moo-hyun, who became president in 2003; while the move was, plausibly, long overdue, the Presidential Committee also allowed Roh to both stoke anti-Japanese sentiment (always a popular move in Korea) and, at the same time, tar those of his conservative opponents who came to power under a succession of Japanese-trained military leaders. As if to confirm the politicization of the investigation, the administration of Roh's successor, the conservative Lee Myung-bak, has both tried to sideline the PCIC and has pretty well scrubbed any mention of its activities from Korean government websites. And there's the danger of financial corruption as well—descendents of named collaborators can have land taken away if the government says that the land was originally illegally granted by the Japanese occupiers. The broad brush wielded by the PCIC and related bodies doesn't seem to have brought Koreans any closer to coming to terms with their history.

Anyway, here's Bongseonhwa (along with another Korean resistance song, Jun Su-rin's "Imperial Ruins"), sung by the great Korean pop singer Cho Yong Pil, from his 2005 concert in Pyongyang:

Fun fact: Hong Nan-p'a lived in the United States from 1931 to 1933, studying at Chicago's Sherwood Music School (now part of Columbia College). Had he stuck around until 1934, he could have been classmates with Phyllis Diller—demonstrating, once again, that the only force strong enough to reliably bring humanity together is coincidence.

November 11, 2010

Qui habitat in Jerusalem montes in circuitu eius

In the modern, compulsory-service era, there are plenty of examples of composers and musicians who also had military careers, but, in honor of Veterans' Day, a composer-veteran from a time when the combination was fairly rare: Kryštof Harant. Born in 1564, Harant (full name: Kryštof Harant z Polžic a Bezdružic) was a minor Bohemian nobleman and actual Renaissance man whose military service came in the 1590s, soldiering for the Hapsburgs during their Long War against the Ottoman empire. The experience seems to have given Harant a taste for adventure, as he and his brother-in-law promptly embarked on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, a fairly dicey proposition for a pair of veterans of a religious war that was still going on. (The pair disguised themselves as monks from non-combatant lands.) Harant recorded the journey in a book, Cesta z Království Českého do Benátek, odtud do země Svaté ("Journey from Bohemia, by Way of Venice, to the Holy Land"), for which he himself provided some 50 woodcuts; the book also included a six-voice motet, Qui confidunt in Domino, which Harant composed in Jerusalem.

Harant became an advisor in the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, who had moved the seat of the empire to Prague; but, as the power of the tolerant, art-loving (and somewhat libertinistic) Rudolf declined, the court moved back to Vienna, and Harant retired to his castle to write music. Throughout the early 1600s, the rest of the Hapsburgs were driven by increasing Catholic, anti-Protestant zeal, a tendency that bode ill for the Reformation in Bohemia. By the time matters came to a head, Harant himself had converted—to a sect called neo-Utraquism, whose nominal sticking point with Rome was whether the laity could partake of communion wine or not, although the underlying power struggle was essentially that of Lutheranism.

When, following a series of political twists and turns, the Elector Palatine, Frederick V, was elected King of Bohemia, Harant became his Privy Councillor. An unfortunate promotion, as it turned out—Frederick's ragtag forces were decisively defeated at the 1620 Battle of White Mountain by mercenaries sent by the new Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand II, a ruler who took his duty to defend the faith awfully seriously. Harant was one of 27 nobles subsequently beheaded in Prague's Old Town Square on what Bohemian Protestants came to call the "Day of Blood," June 21, 1621.

Harant was the most important Bohemian composer of his time, which means he was the most important Bohemian composer for a long time, as Bohemia essentially ceased to exist, completely subsumed into the Hapsburg empire. Harant's music was old-fashioned for its day, contrapuntal and firmly within the old Franco-Flemish school; one of his few surviving works is a cantus firmus mass on a Marenzio madrigal that was already a century old when Harant used it. Only a few months before the Battle of White Mountain, one of Harant's masses had been performed with great pomp and ceremony in Prague's Catholic church of St. Jakub, not far from the square where Harant would be executed. Inter arma enim silent Musae.

Harant's music has been recorded by the Prague Madrigalists, the Capella Rudolphina, and the Italian vocal ensemble Triaca Musicale; the latter has audio samples on their site.

November 10, 2010

Well, there's your problem

Part of this week's to-do list is some clearing of the briar-patch that is chapters 2 and 3 of the book, which gets into the heavyweights of German philosophy—Kant and Hegel. One of the habits I developed while poking around Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment European thought on this trek was that of looking at the course of 19th-century Western philosophy as successive claims on intellectual real estate, a kind of dance between incomplete zoning and squatting. The Romantics set up shop where Kant's aesthetics ran out of steam, Marx colonized the materialistic no-man's-land that Hegel tried to jump over with a leap of faith, &c. Nietzsche pretty much made an entire career out of going back and opening up all the boxes that previous philosophies had left discreetly closed. It explains his brio—the process is, in itself, kind of exhilarating.

Now, almost all of these revisionist vacuum-fillings had a musical parallel—the Romaniticization of Beethoven, the Schopenhauerization of Wagner, and so forth. In fact, I think there's an interesting case to be made for music as the canary in the philosophical coal mine. Music—and the way we talk about music—has a kind of tendency, in this interpretation, to coalesce around the weak point(s) of whatever philosophical movement is currently taken for granted. At the very least, it's a provocative source of leverage, kind of like Feuerbach's old trick of reversing the subject and the object in Hegel—it doesn't reveal the truth, but it gives you a hint where to look. Probably the last thinker to really effectively work the lever was Adorno, using the increasing commodification of music to unpack the ways in which the free market is a lot less free than we might like to think.

I got to thinking about this again because, just for fun, I was reading some of Adorno's student, Jürgen Habermas. (It is recognized that I have a funny sense of fun.) The fun of Habermas, for me, is that he embodies certain traits of the Frankfurt School in a kind of amplified, straight-to-the gut pop-music-ish way. The first is analysis; where the first generation of the Frankfurt School took aim at contemporary society, Habermas takes apart the whole of philosophical history. The book I picked up this week, Knowledge and Human Interests, bounces through Idealism, Positivism, Pragmatism, even a bit of psychoanalysis with the confidence of a chef walking through a market—that won't work, that's tasty, but then we'll need this, but make sure it's not that, and, oh yes, that can be lovely if you know what to do with it.

And then Habermas takes all his ingredients and comes up with something way more optimistic than I, at least, would be able to justify. This too is an amplification: the Frankfurt School was always more optimistic than their dour reputation might have indicated—they were Marxists, after all, so there was at least a lingering whiff of Utopia. But Adorno's optimism, for example, was tempered by his suspicion of human nature, especially collectively; he believed that a better society was possible once one clearly saw the current society's structure and mechanisms, but that was balanced by his pessimistic assessment of the political and corporate forces standing in the way of that vision. Habermas, though, with his program of "communicative rationality," puts an awful lot of faith in the desire of human beings to interact with the common goal of logical understanding. Instead of searching for truth through self-reflection of phenomenological perception, Habermas thinks that it is in the very nature of communicative action that truth can be found, that our ways of communicating with each other will reveal universals. The mechanisms of civil society—for that is where we interact and communicate—at some level reach a consensus. Here's how he puts it in his book Communication and the Evolution of Society:
In action oriented to reaching understanding, validity claims are 'always already' implicitly raised. These universal claims (to the comprehensibility of the symbolic expression, the truth of the propositional content, the truthfulness of the intentional expression, and the rightness of the speech act with respect to existing norms and values) are set in the general structures of possible communication. In these validity claims communication theory can locate a gentle, but obstinate, a never silent although seldom redeemed claim to reason, a claim that must be recognised de facto whenever and wherever there is to be consensual action.
Habermas is judiciously qualified in his description, but the key here is that first assumption—that civil society consists of "action oriented to reaching understanding". If you find that a little too optimistic, then you've recapitulated the main criticism of communicative rationality—that, if history is any guide, the mechanisms of civil society are pretty easily turned towards creating and reinforcing power irregardless of justice or rationality.

Here's the really fun thing. Given the question of which era or aspect of music might be, as is its wont, hanging around the weak points of communicative rationality, a plausible answer is: all of it. Music is, essentially, communicative irrationality, an art form that goes through all the public motions of civil discourse without saying anything. Or, rather, saying whatever each individual listener needs it to say—which is the equilibrium civil society always reverts to in the absence of exceptional coercion, positive or negative. In philosophical terms, you can almost imagine music hovering behind any utopian speculation, aping its movements, making goofy faces.

The Boston Globe has, in the past year, taken to running e-mail addresses for its reviewers, which means that there's rarely a notice of mine that passes without a dissenting note, and rarely a dissenting note that doesn't rehearse some variation on the phrase "I wonder if you went to the same concert that I did." A venerable sarcasm; but, then again, there are numerous levels—epistemological, phenomenological, communicative—on which we actually didn't go to the same concert. It's why, like so many previous philosophies, music structurally demurs on communicative rationality. Utopias only work in music because we can each pick the utopia that best matches our nature. When it comes to civil society, you're lucky if you can just get everyone to tune up.

November 07, 2010

Frelon Brun

Today in limited-quantity musically-themed beer: Dogfish Head Brewery's Bitches Brew, honoring the 40th anniversary of the release of Miles Davis's fusion-jazz classic.

It's a beery interpretation of tej, Ethiopian mead; like that drink, it's brewed with honey and gesho, an African shrub that lends a hop-like bitterness. The result? Wow, this is a toasty beer—a stout on steroids, all dark chocolate and roasted coffee overtones.

"Frelon Brun" was the opening track off of Davis's Filles de Kilimanjaro, which came out the year before Bitches Brew. The album title was another drink reference, a nod to the Kilimanjaro African Coffee Company, in which Davis was an investor. (The company's founder, Arthur "Buddy" Gist, later donated the trumpet Davis used to record Kind of Blue to the University of North Carolina-Greensboro.)

(Previously in musical beer: Monk, Zappa.)

November 04, 2010

The Honored Dead

So we had an election this week here in the United States which pundits are eagerly shaping into Larger Significances, but I don't buy it. This is the third election cycle in a row driven by one emotion—throw the bums out—which rather implies to me an electorate driving around, hopelessly lost, but too stubborn to stop and ask for directions. And if you know that taxonomy of that cliché, you know that the choices basically boil down to comedy movie (e.g., the end of the British Empire), horror movie (e.g., the end of the Inca Empire), or comedy-horror movie (e.g., the end of the Roman Empire).

It's appropriate that, in popular culture right now, the monsters du jour are those favorite allegories of hegemonic dissolution and concomitant alienation, zombies. The lively deceased turn up every time an empire collapses—all those seances and spirit mediums in Edwardian Britain, all those skeletal dances of death and mementi mori in the waning Dutch golden age. It's so prevalent that I find myself wondering where, exactly, the late Romans hid their cache of zombie stories. (It's fun to imagine that one of the literary casualties of the dark ages was a Catullan Nox Vivum Cadaverum.)

So that's where we are—driving blind towards a possible dystopian rendezvous with brain-eaters. Now, based on all the zombie movies I've seen, the the one essential accessory you're going to need is a shotgun. So might I suggest this beauty?

That's an Ithaca Sousa Grade shotgun, the style based on a prototype made for John Philip Sousa himself in 1917. Sousa Grade guns—the highest-end model the Ithaca Gun Company offered—were available to the public at prices running from 500 to 700 pre-WWII dollars. The hand-engraved scrollwork was incredibly intricate and extensive. The inlays were all gold; in addition to the usual dogs-and-ducks hunting motifs, there was this fanciful addition on the underside of the trigger guard—

—a buxom mermaid, courtesy of Bill McGraw, Ithaca's master engraver. Custom-ordered and hand-built, only a couple dozen Sousa Grade guns were ever made. As such, they're expensive—not the most expensive antique shotguns out there, but expensive enough. This particularly lovely single-barreled example—

—was sold by the Maine-based James D. Julia auction house for $22,425 last spring.

Sousa wasn't just a celebrity endorser, but was an avid trapshooter, the first president of the American Amateur Trapshooting Association (later absorbed into the current ATA), and an inductee into the Trapshooting Hall of Fame. In other words, the March King would have himself been a crack shot against a zombie horde. So if you come face-to-face with his rotting, reanimated corpse, I think he would appreciate the tribute of being dispatched with his own gun. It's only fair.

October 29, 2010

It is possible!

It's Halloween this weekend. I did a quick Google search for "karlheinz stockhausen mask" and nothing came up, so I made one. (Click to enlarge.)

While enjoying your resultant candy haul (which, if you want to be clever, you can separate into seven different categories and then eat by following the score to Plus-Minus), fire up the video-on-demand and take in The Mephisto Waltz, a 1971 bit of devilish goofiness (from the director of Gidget!) featuring Curt Jürgens as a dying concert pianist who becomes very interested in Alan Alda's hands.

(The score is by Jerry Goldsmith, getting a nice avant-garde warm-up for his music for The Omen series.)

October 27, 2010

Sing a song of old Detroit, for she's the flashing, dashing pioneer of motor glory

Here's something interesting: the Detroit Symphony Orchestra's Chief Operating Officer, Patricia Walker, talking (back in July, I'm guessing) about the importance of getting everybody on board when implementing organizational change.

Now, 20/20 hindsight and all that, certainly. Still, mentally replace every instance of the word "change" with "a salary cut of a third and a pension freeze" and it turns into a masterpiece of deadpan comedy.

The Detroit Symphony owes much of its prestige to half of the auto-building Dodge brothers, John and Horace. It was Horace, the more mechanically-inclined of the two—and a decent enough amateur musician, by all accounts—that elevated the DSO into a first-class ensemble by making a hefty contribution to the group when Ossip Gabrilowitsch was hired as music director, and leading the fund-raising for Orchestra Hall, which Gabrilowitsch had stipulated as a condition of his accepting the job.

The Symphony was what finally smoothed the way into Detroit high society for Horace. Prior to that, the brothers were repeatedly blackballed—they were hard-drinking brawlers who didn't much care what other people thought of them. (Their first major success was in manufacturing parts for Henry Ford's assembly line. John Dodge was asked why the brothers abandoned that lucrative work to make their own cars. "Think of all those Ford owners who will someday want an automobile," he snarked.) By the time the brothers suddenly died in 1920—both from complications of the influenza then raging world-wide, although Horace's condition was precipitously undermined by John's death—such was their renown that none other than Victor Herbert paid tribute with "The Dodge Brothers March." The Dodge Brothers company distributed both the sheet music and, according to one source, 100,000 recordings of the piece.

It's a lot of fun, actually. Here's the first couple of strains:

The brothers may have maintained their salt-of-the-earth ways, but they still spent money like water. Horace Dodge had a particular penchant for yachts; his final commissioned vessel, the Delphine, was big enough to be appropriated as a flagship during World War II. The Delphine was restored a few years back and is currently for sale. The asking price? 38 million Euros.

October 26, 2010

Leftover Beethoven Miscellany: Roll Call

From time to time until the book comes out, this space will feature bits and pieces that were too esoteric, tangential, or just plain odd to make it into the final version.

An article in a 1918 issue of Sunset magazine reported the opinion of one Professor Arthur Conradi that the World War I anthem “Over There” owed its popularity to the same factors that made Beethoven’s Fifth a hit:
The great German—the Germans were great in his day—heard a rapping on the door. It suggested the tap of the hand of Fate, and he wrote his deathless symphony. George M. Cohan took a bugle call, a three-note idea, like the rat-a-tat-tat on the door, and in the cold analytical view of a serious musician has written a war song that will live forever.1
That the comparison necessitates the elimination of one-fourth of Beethoven’s actual motive went unmentioned.

1. Robin Baily, “Songs Our Soldiers Sing.” Sunset, vol. 40, no. 5 (May, 1918), p. 23.

October 23, 2010

Another Saturday night, and I ain't got nobody

There's a new gang on the block, and they're called the Boston Composer's Coalition, and their inaugural concerts are this weekend—and you can watch them online for free. Shows are tonight at 7:00 EST (hey, that's just about now, isn't it) and tomorrow at 1:30 EST. If you're reading this right now, let's face it, your Saturday night is not turning out as exciting as it could be, so click on over. These concerts feature works composed especially for the ensemble The Fourth Wall, made up of—wait for it—flute, trombone, and percussion. Awesome.

Now, maybe you're like me, and you like to make your entertainment decisions based on the cleverness of the logos involved:

Well played, my friends, well played.

Full disclosure: some of them actually are my friends.

October 22, 2010

Believe half of what you see, run and hide from what you hear

News from there and here:

There's a Facebook campaign going to make John Cage's 4'33" this year's Christmas #1 single in the UK. Question of the day: on how many different axes would this have made Theodor Adorno's head spin?

This looks like fun: music-cognition popularizer Daniel Levitin is joining the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony for an evening called "Beethoven and Your Brain," which will use a live performance of Beethoven's Fifth to illustrate concepts in the neuroscience of music.
You will find out what is going on in the mind of the conductor, the musicians, and the audience (you!) in this interactive presentation. With live audience surveys using the latest technology, this will be a Beethoven experience that you will never forget!
Am I the only one thinking of this?

More specifically: am I the only one thinking of that as a possible selling point?

Coming to Australia later this month: music to put budgies to sleep by!

Finally, R.I.P., Ari Up, leader of The Slits, creators of what just might be my favorite cover version ever:

October 21, 2010

De Havenvinding (1599)

If you have some interest in the history of science and technology, you might have heard of the Dutch scientist and engineer Simon Stevin, who died in 1620. He was one of those old-fashioned Renaissance polymaths—James Burke, that expert web-weaver of technological history, has often found occasion to mention Stevin, since his range of activity connects him to so many different streams of innovation. He popularized decimal notation in Europe; he updated Archimedes' theories on hydrostatics; he wrote the earliest textbook on milling, a guide to navigation (De Havenvinding, "finding harbors"), and a treatise on artistic perspective; he designed fortresses and military camps for his patron and student, Maurice of Nassau, Prince of Orange, with whom Stevin used to ride up and down the beach on large, wind-powered land yachts he constructed. He demonstrated the law of the equilibrium on an inclined place—and, at the same time, the law of the conservation of energy—with a brilliantly simple diagram that came to be called the Epitaph of Stevinus:

As Richard Feynman once said, "If you get an epitaph like that on your gravestone, you are doing fine." As if that weren't enough, Stevin also worked out something that you hear every day: he calculated the ratios for equal temperament about a century before it came into wide use. The modern 12-note chromatic scale, for better or for worse: that was Stevin's doing.

So now you know who Simon Stevin was. Why bring him up? Because of an aphorism Stevin saw fit to jot down once, with his signature, a memento reproduced in the introduction to the 1955 edition of his Principal Works:

The translation:
A man in anger is no clever dissembler.
This month, four centuries later, Stevin's observation has been twice borne out in relation to the arts, including in his home country. Right-wing governments in the Netherlands and Great Britain have proposed gutting arts funding. The Dutch Rutte-Verhagen cabinet (which owes its coalition power to the far-right, anti-Islam Geert Wilders) plans to pretty much shut down the Dutch public broadcasting music division, including three Dutch orchestras; and even if they try to survive on their own, they'd be looking at an increase in the value-added tax on concert and theater tickets from 6 to 19 percent. Meanwhile, across the channel, David Cameron's coalition—which might as well be a Tory government, the way the Lib Dems are rolling over at every opportunity—wants to cut arts programs by 30 percent.

In other words, both sets of conservatives, angry men all around (and, indeed, mostly men), are no longer dissembling with any sort of cleverness. And anyone who thinks that this was a matter of the arts not "making their case"—like Norman Lebrecht, trying to spin Tory cuts as a failure of Labour hard enough to sprain something, or Bob Shingleton, saying that "classical music must put its house in order"—is either being disingenuous or, I think, missing the point. Because those governments aren't going after the arts simply as a soft target—they're going after the arts because art is naturally in opposition to any government relying on spin, isolation, and fear.

Simon Stevin was himself a fundamentalist about the Dutch language, claiming that it was inherently superior for scientific discourse than the Latin then in vogue, and imagining that there once was a golden age of science and knowledge in which wisdom was available to all, because it was in Dutch. The editor of Stevin's above-mentioned Principal Works was compelled to demur:
The whole theory forms a typical example of how the most rational and scientific of minds may at the same time foster the most irrational and phantastical ideas on topics lying outside the sphere of his specific competence.
I think this is how we like to think of opponents of arts funding: they just don't understand it. I rather think that what we're seeing in Europe is a result of politicians understanding the power of art all too well. And, as Samuel Vriezen points out, ignoring the political aspect of attacks on the arts only bolsters the attackers. Mark Rutte, the new Dutch prime minister, is apparently an accomplished pianist who once considered the conservatory-then-performance career track—he certainly has an inkling. Geert Wilders, whom the Dutch cuts are no doubt meant to partially appease, is an expert propagandist—he knows. The British cuts fall more on provincial performing arts companies than London museums, venerable visual arts being far less likely to undermine the Tory narrative than unpredictable actors and musicians in the back of beyond. The 2010 UK Spending Review whacks the arts, the public sector, and the poor disproportionately hard. That's not political convenience—that's political calculation.

And, more likely than not, it's a calculation that might well be crossing the Atlantic sometime soon. Look at the appropriation for the National Endowment for the Arts—a useful enough benchmark of how important the arts and artistic livelihoods are to those in power. Arts advocates have been playing nice for decades now, emphasizing consensus and economic impact statements. Those are important, but it's ultimately been a holding strategy: the NEA's 2010 appropriation just about gets it back to its funding levels in 1988—and that's in real dollars, not inflation-adjusted ones. And the demagogues are starting to get just angry enough to stop dissembling. So artists might want to get ready to channel some anger of their own—not into anger, but into clarity. Like I've said: get in their face. Playing nice, after all, is just clever dissembling, too.

Update (10/22): Bob Shingleton takes exception. For the record, I thought Norman Lebrecht was the one being disingenuous, and that Shingleton was just taking his eye off the ball. But, as much as I like his writing, I just think he's dead wrong about both the cause and the response. The cuts in both the Netherlands and the UK have nothing to do with how transparent/efficient/above-board the classical music industry or other performing arts organizations are or are not. (I mean, the Tate Gallery has at least as many management skeletons in the closet over the past decade as any orchestra, and they got off far easier.) And I confess that I have a reflexive horror of the idea that, if you're attacked on unfair grounds, the best response is to self-examine and wonder what it is that you did wrong. American progressives did this for years and were outflanked every time. The classical music business is always in need of housecleaning—any business is. (The root of all evil, &c.) And Bob is right, unfortunately, when he notes that "Everyone is going to have to share the pain." The problem is, everyone is not sharing the pain, and that fact is a reflection of political agendas, not the state of arts management, however dire. In both these particular situations, the onus is on the governments to own up to the fact that the brunt of their hazardous austerity schemes are being borne by organizations and individuals that neither caused the crisis nor exacerbated it, not on those in the arts to put on sackcloth and hope for future absolution.