December 19, 2011

Are met in thee

It's less than a week until Christmas, which means it's probably time for me to get my act together and get ready for this deluge of services. It also means it's time for that Christmas prerogative of organists everywhere, the willfully perverse reharmonization of familiar carols! This year, the changes really are changes (click to enlarge):

Happy Holidays! See you in 2012—when we'll run out this thirteenth b'ak'tun in style.

Think of it as maybe the soil of some great past civilization

Reviewing Cappella Clausura.
Boston Globe, December 19, 2011.

December 13, 2011

Ride pattern

New England's Prospect: Stolen Moments. The 2011 Boston Conservatory New Music Festival and BMOP cross paths with jazz.
NewMusicBox, December 13, 2011.

December 12, 2011

With care, in hopes

Reviewing Boston Baroque's Messiah.
Boston Globe, December 12, 2011.

To judge by the portion of the audience that stood for the "Hallelujah" chorus, Boston Baroque's audiences are far more contrarian than the Handel and Haydn Society's: whereas nearly everybody stood at H&H's performance, only about a third of the audience stood at Boston Baroque's.

December 07, 2011

Let nothing you dismay

Reviewing the Firebird Ensemble.
Boston Globe, December 7, 2011.

Also, this:

With Every Christmas Card I Write. Culture, copyright, and quantum measurement.
NewMusicBox, December 5, 2011.

November 23, 2011

The Big Broadcast

Reviewing the Boston Classical Orchestra.
Boston Globe, November 21, 2011.

New England's Prospect: Don't Mention the War. Sound Icon and the Sound in SPACE festival.
NewMusicBox, November 22, 2011.

November 19, 2011

There's, like, the Galleria

Guerrieri: Overchoice Rag (2011) (PDF, 4 pages, 153 Kb)

Ethan was giving me a deserved hard time for letting the rag-a-month project from a couple years ago drift off into a senescent fog after a mere four installments. The lesson: be careful what you wish for! This one is reasonably classically-proportioned, it just can't decide what key it wants to be in. Equal temperament, you disorientingly large-inventoried emporium, you.

No MIDI, since my usual computer is in the shop, and I've been magically transported back in time to a golden age of slower, far less powerful operating systems. Instead, here's me playing, wrong notes and all. Be careful what you wish for, &c., &c.

November 14, 2011

And if you're good, I'll search for wood

Reviewing the Bang on a Can All-Stars, Trio Mediaeval, and Mantra Percussion.
Boston Globe, November 14, 2011.

The headline is a little misleading—if I did my job, the main takeaway should be as much about how much BoaC veers from hardcore minimalism while still acknowledging it. But "Timber" really does hit the same happy place that, say, Music in Contrary Motion did when I first heard it. (And, especially in the Hub, when you see that many people walking out, a comparison to Four Organs has been duly earned.)

Hey, I've been really lax on linking to stuff, haven't I?

Reviewing the Cantata Singers.
Boston Globe, November 7, 2011.

Reviewing the Discovery Ensemble.
Boston Globe, November 8, 2011.

Reviewing Mykola Suk.
Boston Globe, November 11, 2011.

November 01, 2011

My busy mind is burning to use what learning I've got

In honor of a minor milestone, a riff on the martini that I've come to rely on:
Manuscript Submission

2 oz. dry gin
¾ oz. apricot eau-de-vie (I like Blume Marillen)
½ oz. rosé vermouth (like Martini Rosato)
A couple good dashes of grapefruit bitters

Stir all ingredients with ice until really quite cold (I swirl it in a metal shaker until my fingers stick) and strain into something appropriately graceful.

I'll sail upon the dog star

Reviewing Lang Lang.
Boston Globe, November 1, 2011.

October 30, 2011

October 27, 2011

October 25, 2011

Cabinet of wonders

Reviewing The English Concert and Andreas Scholl.
Boston Globe, October 25, 2011.

I also forgot this one, from Sunday:

Galleries and the Art of Music. On concerts in museums.
Boston Globe, October 23, 2011.

October 23, 2011

The triumph song of Heav'n

Last week, the church that has provided me with much of my gainful employment for the past decade, The Presbyterian Church in Sudbury, celebrated its 50th anniversary, so I wrote an anthem for the occasion. Score below, where also, behind some ambient Presbyterian noise, you can hear the premiere (thanks to Doug Nicholls for the recording).

We Love the Place (2011), SATB chorus and organ (PDF, 170Kb)

The words are by William Bullock, Anglican missionary to Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. Numerous versions of Bullock's poem were already floating around by the end of the 19th century; I mixed and matched stanzas I liked. Supposedly, when asked why there wasn't a stanza of "We Love the Place" devoted to the church's pulpit, Bullock replied that he would have been compelled to write:
We love thy pulpit Lord,
For there the word of man
Lulls the worshiper to sleep
As only sermons can.

October 22, 2011

The winter of our discontent

I considered making an actual bumper sticker of this, until I decided that the people I'd most often end up explaining it to would be the people I'd least often want to talk to.

October 17, 2011

Eastern Promises

Reviewing the Boston Symphony Orchestra Chamber Players.
Boston Globe, October 17, 2011.

Incidentally, by the measurements of Sabrina! this was an ill-behaved audience. The season's started, Boston—brush up on your etiquette.

Don't be that ickeroo, get rep and follow through

Hire Learning.
NewMusicBox, October 17, 2011.

In which Critic-at-Large Moe and I regard the Boston Symphony's new-music mug as half empty.

September 28, 2011

September 15, 2011

Miles to go before

Seven League Boots. The Boston new-music trail.
NewMusicBox, September 15, 2011.

September 10, 2011

Ad nos vix tenuis famae perlabitur aura

It was this year, ten years on, that I noticed that my vague skepticism regarding commemorations of the 9/11 attacks had become unusually acute. I am habitually skeptical, which is both virtue and fault; and I've always had a little bit of skepticism about all kinds of such public memorials. In America especially, large public commemorations like the annual remembrance of 9/11 are, to use a metaphor appropriate to the country's history, land grabs of a sort, a staking out of mental/emotional/political territory. For a long time, the almost instantly customary observance of 9/11 has made me think of two quotations. One (which I already had quoted on 9/11 a couple years ago) is from Willa Cather's My Ántonia:
Years afterward, when the open-grazing days were over, and the red grass had been ploughed under and under until it had almost disappeared from the prairie; when all the fields were under fence, and the roads no longer ran about like wild things, but followed the surveyed section-lines, Mr. Shimerda's grave was still there, with a sagging wire fence around it, and an unpainted wooden cross. As grandfather had predicted, Mrs. Shimerda never saw the roads going over his head. The road from the north curved a little to the east just there, and the road from the west swung out a little to the south; so that the grave, with its tall red grass that was never mowed, was like a little island; and at twilight, under a new moon or the clear evening star, the dusty roads used to look like soft gray rivers flowing past it. I never came upon the place without emotion, and in all that country it was the spot most dear to me. I loved the dim superstition, the propitiatory intent, that had put the grave there; and still more I loved the spirit that could not carry out the sentence — the error from the surveyed lines, the clemency of the soft earth roads along which the home-coming wagons rattled after sunset. Never a tired driver passed the wooden cross, I am sure, without wishing well to the sleeper.
Mr. Shimerda, a presumed suicide, had been buried—as superstition dictated—at a crossroads, but instead of the grave being lost to traffic, it is almost as if the world itself shifts its grid to allow the spot to remain claimed. I like to think that Cather, who grew up as the country was taking stock of its post-Civil-War self, was both acknowledging and gently rebuking the frenzy of memorials to the war, especially the proliferation of Civil War cemeteries. In her study This Republic of Suffering, Drew Gilpin Faust summed up the cemeteries this way:
The establishment of national and Confederate cemeteries created the Civil War Dead as a category, as a collective that represented something more and something different from the many thousands of individual deaths that it comprised. It also separated the Dead from the memories of living individuals mourning their own very particular losses. The Civil War Dead became both powerful and immortal, no longer individual men but instead a force that would shape American public life for at least a century to come.
Mr. Shimerda's grave both insists on its own very individual circumstance and rights, but also wryly comments on the 19th-century American colonization of real estate, both figurative and literal, by the dead.

The other quote is pithier, a Garry Wills description of Richard Nixon on the campaign trail in 1968:
[T]he entire American topography is either graveyard, for him, or minefield—ground he must walk delicately, revenant amid the tombstones, whistling in histrionic unconcern.
Nixon grew up in an era when the country was becoming increasingly obsessed with its heritage, the topography becoming more and more crowded with its own past. The anniversary of 9/11 is, too, graveyard and minefield—the only difference being that the whistling must be uncontroversially solemn.

So that's my usual vague skepticism. But this year, I found myself skeptical specifically about the musical content of the plethora of 9/11 ceremonies to the point where I really started to wonder about the purpose of such music. There is an interesting disconnect that happens between music and commemoration; it comes, I think, between such events’ tendency towards ignorationes elenchi and certain merelogical assumptions about musical qualities. Aristotle included ignoratio elenchi among the rhetorical fallacies he classified in his guide De sophisticis elenchis; it has come to mean any sort of red-herring irrelevant argument, but Aristotle's use of the term was a little more precise; he used it to mean an argument which, "though it is valid, only appears to be appropriate to the thing in question." Mereology is the logical study of parts vs. wholes; the particular problem that I think applies here is whether a given quality of music—"musical integrity," say—is part of the music itself, or whether it is the music that is part of a larger idea of musical integrity.

The conflict was made patently clear in the recent kerfuffle over the originally-proposed cover to the Nonesuch release of Steve Reich's WTC 9/11. The original image—a news photograph showing United Flight 175 about to strike the south tower of the World Trade Center, the colors manipulated to a sepia-toned grime—caused fairly widespread reaction: it was in poor taste; it was unduly sensationalistic; it was, at best, irritatingly obvious. The subsequent defense of the first cover by Nonesuch president Robert Hurwitz brought Aristotle's category into play by (mostly) insisting that the music itself was an honest response, that Reich was a great artist, and that to object to the choice of cover was to put Reich's integrity into question. Again: Hurwitz was defending the cover by, instead, defending the music. (It only appears to be appropriate to the thing in question.) That’s a classic ignoratio elenchi—and, moreover, one based on the assumption that musical integrity is a larger quality than the piece of music itself, one that also encompasses its physical packaging and marketing.

9/11 is hardly unique among periodic memorial commemorations for being fertile ground for this sort of sophistry, essentially a good-intentions defense with the volume turned significantly up. Good intentions are nobler than the truly cynical would have us believe; but, in such cases, the mereology of good intentions can get pretty murky, leading to conclusions that are equal parts depressing and alarming. Here is where Hurwitz's ignoratio elenchi led him:
Whether or not a work offends people is a question that artists have had to contend with from time immemorial, and I hope that, in our quick-to-respond, politically correct world, artists will not let fear of a Twitter campaign prevent them from standing up for what they believe in. Artists with whom we have worked through the years... have made extremely strong political statements through their compositions, songs, and recordings, or for the causes to which they have dedicated themselves. Many have taken a lot of heat for doing just that. What message does this send out to younger artists who might have something to say that makes people uncomfortable? That they’d better be careful not to offend anyone?
As best I can tell, this is that paragraph's logical essence: in order to preserve artists' right to offend people, it is necessary that no one ever get offended. Such is the logical conclusion of commemoration-based ignorationes elenchi. The landscape of 9/11 remembrance is strewn with eggshells; what's amazing is how many of them have been deliberately strewn.

One might ask what, exactly, music can contribute to a commemoration, what part it contributes to the whole of an actual memorial event itself. The best I can come up with is its potency as a blank slate, as a screen onto which each listener can project their own emotional narrative. The New York Philharmonic is marking this year’s 9/11 anniversary with Mahler’s Second Symphony, which is not an uninteresting choice (for one thing, it confirms the success of Leonard Bernstein’s campaign to make Mahler the unofficial composer of American neurosis), but one surmises that Mahler got the call mainly (and oddly) because something like John Adams’s On the Transmigration of Souls (which the Philharmonic commissioned, after all) is too specific in its programmatic qualities, too likely to interfere with commemoration’s role as a benign, neutral canvas. (Likewise, one of the reasons that Music After seems like such an exception to most 9/11 musical commemorations is that, unusually, it curates strong individual voices in such quantity that it kind of erases the gap between specificity and assembly, the quiet insistence of Mr. Shimerda's grave refracted onto a variety of tiny plots.)

Besides, the very nature of music, in a way, conflicts with this kind of commemoration. Monuments are supposed to be permanent reminders; music, though, is about remembering and forgetting, permanence and impermanence, palpability and insubstantiality. Half of it fits the occasion; but the other half is constantly, gently cancelling out the first half. To mark an occasion permanently appended with the phrase “never forget” with an art form that is essentially temporal, essentially fleeting, only works if one doesn’t listen too closely.

One of the rather minor occasions that 9/11 has crowded out of its memorial territory is the birthday (well, the baptism day, the closest thing we have) of William Boyce. This Sunday also happens to be Boyce's tercentenary—he was baptized on September 11, 1711. Boyce was one of the most accomplished English composers of the 18th century, Master of the King’s Musick to Georges II and III, organist at the Chapel Royal; but he is mostly forgotten now, except for a few church anthems and some occasionally-revived symphonies. But I like to think Boyce had at least a little sense of the uneasy fit between music and monumental commemoration. He composed what was at the time a fairly well-known setting of the Rev. Dr. Thomas Lisle’s poem “The Power of Music,” which turns the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice on its Offenbach-like head: the denizens of the Underworld are astonished not only that Orpheus should brave the journey, but that he should do so in search of his wife, of all people. Deciding that hell lacks “torments sufficient” for Orpheus’s temerity, Pluto decides that the only proper punishment is to give him back his wife—that is, until Orpheus’s lyre works its spell, and Pluto changes his mind:
But pity succeeding soon vanquish’d his heart,
And pleas’d with his playing so well,
He took her again, in reward of his art;
Such power had music in hell.
Boyce does the jest the honor of an elegant melancholy—

—a wistful acknowledgement, maybe, that music is forever slipping away, dodging the well-defined roles we would have it play.

It's in that spirit that one could categorize one of the only really appropriate musical memorials I’ve ever found. It’s Frederic Rzewski’s ”A Life,” a short piano sketch written the day after John Cage died. It’s gnomic and quirky in a recognizably Cagean way, but there’s also a tribute hidden in the playing, one that only emerges at the right tempo:

It’s a conspiratorial joke—in conventional performance practice, one shared only between the composer, the performer and, somewhere (if you happen to believe in that sort of thing) the dedicatee. But it’s also built into the most essential feature of music, it’s fleeting temporality. It risks the wit of mixing the idea of a memorial with music's constant but constantly evanescent immediacy. Perhaps in contrast to a lot of commemorative music, it knows exactly what it is, what all music is: a tenuous breath, an inscription carved on the surface of a running stream.

(Boyce score via.)

August 08, 2011

Waiting for summer, his pastures to change


The 2011 Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music, part 1.
NewMusicBox, August 8, 2011.


The 2011 Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music, part 2.
Boston Globe, August 9, 2011.

Writing these round-up reviews for the Globe is always a dance between enthusiasm—it's a great platform for saying things about works that deserve to have things said about them—and frustration: given the space limitations, there's simply no way you can mention every piece. For a variety of reasons, these pieces were left on the cutting room floor:
  • Eve Belgarian's Robin Redbreast, which sets a Stanley Kunitz poem in an almost distractingly mannered recitative (here sung by tenor Martin Bakari), but backs it up with a combination of hollow, chirping piccolo (Henrik Heide) and electronically-altered birdsong that was very, very cool;
  • Richard Festinger's Peripeteia, a running-note divertimento for clarinet (Danny Goldman, who was quite good), violin (Wang Fang Wong), and cello (Marybeth-Brown Plambeck), music that, despite some mid-piece longueurs, was remarkably successful at pinning improvisatory fluidity to the notated page;
  • Jonathan Keren's Multiscala, combining a mandolin part of familiar-yet-unfamiliar extended strumming techniques (played by Avi Avital) with a string trio (Johanna Gosshans, Daniel Getz, and Jeremy Lamb), running quick-fire variations, like turning some exotic artifact over and over in one's hands; and
  • Bernard Rands' Tre Espressioni, the festival's oldest piece (1960), played by Ursula Oppens on her Sunday recital, and, indeed, expressionistic, aphoristic slabs of demonstrative old-school modernism.
Further reading: Jeremy Eichler, Allan Kozinn (1, 2), Andrew Pincus (1, 2).

July 26, 2011

The atomic number of zirconium

Today is my birthday. This year's honored co-celebrant is Serge Koussevitzky, who would have turned 137 today, if only he had actually put his arms into the sleeves of his overcoat more often. Get past the credits of this late-1940s bit of USIS propaganda, and you can see the man in action, conducting Beethoven's Egmont Overture:

There's a story behind this film: it was a single-camera shoot, so Koussevitzky and the BSO pre-recorded the overture, then played along with the recording for several takes; Koussevitzky apparently grew increasingly angry that he couldn't deviate from his own interpretation.

My lovely wife threw a party last weekend to mark my implacable aging. You are sad that you weren't there! You can, however, simulate the occasion via drink. Here's what I concocted for unsuspecting guests:
Second Score

1 oz (30 ml) rye whiskey
⅔ oz (20 ml) pineapple juice
⅔ oz (20 ml) lime juice
⅓ oz (10 ml) apricot brandy
⅓ oz (10 ml) rosé vermouth

Shake well with ice and strain into a cocktail glass; top with

2 oz (60 ml) cold champagne
Cutting down on alcohol? Good heavens, why? Have you seen what this world is coming to? Nevertheless, here's one for kids of all ages; name courtesy of Jack Miller, who also baked the birthday cake pictured above, a cake that will be spoken of for years to come in hushed, awestruck tones.
Four For Tea

1 oz (30 ml) double-strength green tea
1 oz (30 ml) pineapple juice
⅔ oz (20 ml) lime juice
2 tsp (10 ml) pomegranate molasses

Shake with ice, strain into a glass, and top with

2 oz (60 ml) sparkling apple juice or seltzer
Pomegranate molasses can be found in the Middle Eastern aisle of your local supermarket, or at least where all the couscous and falafel mix gets shelved, I would think. I also used it as part of the brine for twelve pounds of pulled pork, and it worked really rather well. Shahia tayba!

July 25, 2011

When your dreamboat turns out to be a footnote

I was out of town and otherwise occupied last week, which meant that I missed Ethen Iverson's reading list. His list of jazz books is now added to my own to-do list, seeing as how I've only managed about half of those. His classical list is also superb—I would also, off the top of my head (and avoiding biographies, as Ethan did), add Peter Conrad's A Song of Love and Death (probably my favorite book on opera); Schoenberg's Style and Idea collection (what can I say, I find Arnold good company); Pierre Bernac's The Interpretation of French Song (dazzlingly deep, even if you disagree with it it, it's the one book you have to specifically disagree with); and Nicolas Slonimsky's Lexicon of Musical Invective (it seems like it should get old, yet it never, never does). Irwin Bazelon's film music book (which Ethan mentions) is excellent and in-depth, but I find it kind of curiously bitchy regarding genre films; Christopher Palmer's more fanboy-ish but, in its own way, equally thorough The Composer in Hollywood is, I find, a nice balance. And I was mildly surprised that the original Pitchfork list that inspired this exercise neglected Nik Cohn's Awopbopaloobop Awopbamboom, still my favorite book on rock and roll, though to list it is to, admittedly, be forced to acknowledge that rock had pretty much run its course by the late 60s.

But I'm coming pretty late to this game, so I thought I'd mix it up a little. So, instead of music books, here's a list (again, off the top of my head) of five books that aren't about music but still, nonetheless, changed my musical thinking, directly or obliquely.
  • Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb. History that not only gives proper due to the minutiae of great historical endeavors, but knows and illustrates that such details are utterly inseparable from the prevailing historical context, even when the people involved are tunnel-vision unaware of that context—a notion permanently embedded in my view of music. Also: a demonstration of the poetic capacity of explaining even the most arcane technical niceties.

  • Garry Wills, Nixon Agonistes. I enjoyed this book long before I actually understood what Wills was doing with it. It's not only about Nixon, but about the entire period of American history leading up to his presidency; Wills spends lots of time deconstructing and dismantling one book or study of that history after another. After enough time, I've realized that any book will yield contradictions if you make enough incisions in it, but that's Wills' point, I think: American history is best understood by laying its contradictions bare. It's an idea that has served me well in getting my head around a piece of music on too many occasions to count.

  • Jules Michelet, Histoire de la Révolution française. Really, anything by Michelet—any of the volumes of his Histoire de France, any of his quirky studies on various aspects of human nature and behavior. If you have the time, struggling (as I do) with a French dictionary handy is advisable—English translations of Michelet tend to be old, somewhat clunky, and incomplete. But even such second-hand Michelet is worth it—there's nobody quite like him for breadth, for structure, for pacing. The most symphonic historian of all time.

  • Henry Adams, History of the United States During the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison. Adams had issues, to be sure—he was self-pitying, he was almost comically pessimistic, he was irrationally anti-Semitic (though more in real life than in his books). But he was, I think, the greatest American prose stylist of the 19th century. All of Adams is worth reading, but the History is Adams at his best—casually magisterial, intricately witty. To read Adams is to understand the relationship between complexity and freedom—the full Victorian profusion of his sentence structure, and his mastery of it, allows him to place the key point of each idea wherever he wants. He can lead with it; he can end with it; he can use it as a fulcrum between phrases, between clauses, between qualifications and demurrals. And, as a result, when Adams does drop in an utterance of Hemingway-esque pithiness, it jabs harder than Hemingway ever did. If you've ever wondered why my own sentences tend towards the convoluted, or why I harbor what might seem to be an inexplicable fondness for music others might consider dense and difficult, a big part of it is that my education included Adams' Education.

  • Umberto Eco, Foucault's Pendulum. At first, I was going to go with The Role of the Reader, my favorite collection of Eco's semiotic texts, but I think his novel has more deeply embedded itself into my musical thinking, particularly because I'm so obsessed with Romanticism and its continuing hangover. Eco makes black comedy out of the tendency of the myth to take on a life of its own, a mechanism that has not only become prevalent in music (not just classical) since the 1800s, but has pretty much driven it. The first step of coming to terms with post-Beethoven music history is to be able to simultaneously acknowledge both myth's fictional status and its palpable, almost indelible persistence.
P.S. Yes, this is the second time I have gone to that particular Elvis Costello well for a post title. It's not just books that take up permanent residence in what might otherwise be useful parts of my brain.

July 21, 2011

Blue Light Special

Reviewing Jean-Yves Thibaudet.
Boston Globe, July 21, 2011.

Update (7/22): I reviewed the second of Thibaudet's Ravel recitals here.

July 19, 2011

Freedom of expression

One of my summer resolutions was to actually practice, which, given my seemingly hard-wired summer-vacation mental entrainment, is not an insignificant task. So Rhapsody in Blue has been sitting on the piano for a few weeks now—apt summer fare, I think. What I've been finding most interesting about the music this time around is how tricky it is, and the unusual way in which it's tricky: Not so much technically—there's certainly some finger-tangling passages, but on the whole, it's hardly as forbidding as, say, Islamey—but temporally. Rhapsody in Blue is a piece in which it can be fiercely difficult to find the right tempo.

This is not for lack of indication; Gershwin has tempo markings all over the place, amply garnished with ritardandi and accelerandi and rubati both explicit and implicit. Here's what you get on the first four pages alone:
Molto moderato (♩=80)
poco rit.
Moderato assai
poco scherzando
pochissimo rall.
a tempo
poco rall.
Poco agitato
... and so forth. Out of 30 pages (this is in my very old, beat-up edition of the solo piano version) I count 23 that carry at least one indicated alteration of tempo. But the only metronome marking you get is that very first one. (And that seems to have been a late addition—the original manuscript of Ferde Grofé's orchestration simply marks the beginning as "Slowly.") Rhapsody in Blue is a piece that asks for near-constant tempo fluctuations, but puts the parameters of those fluctuations almost entirely in the hands of the performer.

It's also a piece for which, thanks to recording technology, the acquiring of an extra-notational performance tradition has been more or less completely documented. Probably the most obvious alteration has been in the big Andantino melody, this one:

Gershwin's 1924 recording with the Paul Whiteman orchestra takes all of this at the same tempo (as does, a little more loosely, Gershwin's piano-roll rendition), which is what's indicated, and which sounds weird to our ears, because the more common practice now is to double-time the last six bars of that phrase. That's how Oscar Levant and Eugene Ormandy do it on their 1945 recording. It's how Bernstein did it. It's how just about everybody does it these days.

The thing is, in order to do that passage, and that section, without the double-time distortion, you have to hit a pretty precise mark, tempo-wise: it has to be fast enough that the last six bars don't bog down (the Gershwin/Whiteman recording does plod a bit) but not so fast that the first two bars are trivialized. If you can hit that mark (about ♩=120, I've come to think, maybe a shade faster, though 126 seems a little too fast), it's kind of a structural boon: you can take the next eight pages or so, all the way up through the following Agitato section, at essentially the same tempo. But then you're more locked in than if you slide into the Andantino with Romantic languor, and then rubato the heck out of those six-bar consequent phrases. The performance practice that's evolved, in other words, gives the performer more room to maneuver—and more room for error.

The question that I've been thinking about is: does such room to maneuver also make the performance more expressive? At about the same time I started wrestling with the varying speeds of Rhapsody in Blue, I read this review of a concert from this summer's Sick Puppy festivities, and was struck by this description of Karlheinz Stockhausen's Kontakte:
I tend toward agreement with one of my seatmates, who described the experience as highly engaging intellectually, but emotionally remote.
I don't wish to take the reviewer to task—I adore Stockhausen's music, but I fully understand that it's not everyone's cup of tea. Still, I was intrigued by the phrase "emotionally remote," since, to me, anyway, Kontakte is, if anything, emotionally in your face pretty much all the way through. (Here's a recording to sample.) The emotions, though, are not those usually associated with musical expressiveness.

It might be useful to reference Robert Plutchik's classification of emotions, in particular the way he divides emotions into opposite pairs. Musical expression tends to be those pairs on Plutchik's N-S-E-W axes: joy and sadness, anger and fear—perusing this summation of recent research into emotional communication in musical performance, the bulk of empirical research has surrounded those types of emotions: happiness, sadness, anger, fear, and love. My emotional experience of Kontakte, though, falls mostly onto one of Plutchik's in-between axes: the tension between anticipation and surprise.

Here's a typical section of the score to Kontakte:

There's a bit of leeway in the performers' staves, but it's always in the context of those implacable numbers at the top of the score, the music's running time, broken down to tenth-of-a-second accuracy. It's both the source of Kontakte's emotional effect and the subversion of our accustomed perception of it. To do a Rhapsody-like indulgently-slow-then-double-time move is completely foreign to this context. Any momentary freedom on the part of the performers is immediately yanked back into Kontakte's grid by the necessity of synchronization with the electronic component. And that seems to conflict with what we've come to accept as communicating musical expressivity. The notion was concisely stated back in 1925 by psychologists Carl Seashore and Milton Metfessel:
This deviation from the exact is, on the whole, the medium for the creation of the beautiful—for the conveying of emotion. That is the secret of the plasticity of art. The exact is cold, restricted, and unemotional; and, however beautiful, in itself soon palls upon us.
Obviously—given my enthusiasm for the exacting emotional world of Kontakte—I don't buy that. But for all the modernist effort to demonstrate they are, in fact, two different things, the conflation of expressivity and emotionality persists. The more expressive emotions are not false; but mere expressivity is not the end-all of emotional experience. And a sidelong glance into the worlds of politics or nationalism or fundamentalisms of various kinds offers no end of warning signs for exclusively associating emotion with expressiveness.

It's interesting that, after Rhapsody in Blue, Gershwin came around to the greater precision of metronome markings. The only one of his subsequent concert works that doesn't include them is An American in Paris, and the experience of hearing Walter Damrosch conduct it too slowly apparently converted Gershwin. The Second Rhapsody is diligent with metronome indications, as is the Cuban Overture, as is the Variations on "I Got Rhythm." And it's equally interesting that none of those works has ever attained the place in the repertoire of Rhapsody in Blue. It might just be a coincidence—or it might be a measure of the general equating of performer freedom with communicative effectiveness. My own heresy: as much as I love Rhapsody in Blue, I kind of think that the Second Rhapsody is a better piece of music. But, then again, I know that I'm at the margins of the mainstream of perceived musical emotion. I don't mind—I may not get swept off my feet quite as easily, but the payoff is a view of the world made just a little more lucid.

Cross-posted at The Faster Times.

July 11, 2011

Operas as summarized by the lyrics of "Ashes to Ashes"

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: Do you remember a guy that's been in such an early song?

Licht: I heard a rumor from Ground Control.

Moses und Aron: They got a message from the action man.

Der Freischütz:
Aennchen: I'm happy; hope you're happy, too.
Don Giovanni: I've loved all I needed to love; sordid details following.

Elektra: The shrieking of nothing is killing.

Madama Butterfly: Just pictures of Jap girls in synthesis.

La Bohème: I ain't got no money.

Samson et Dalila: I ain't got no hair.

Götterdämmerung: I'm hoping to kick, but the planet—it's glowing.

Thaïs: Strung out in heaven's high!
Athanaël: Hitting an all-time low.
Tannhäuser: Time and again I tell myself, "I'll stay clean tonight."

The Merry Widow: I'm stuck with a valuable friend.

The Midsummer Marriage: One flash of light, but no smoking pistol.

Mefistofele: I never done good things.

Albert Herring: I never done bad things.

Der fliegende Holländer: I never did anything out of the blue.

The Ice Break: Want an axe to break the ice.

Tosca: Want to come down right now.

Wozzeck: My mother said, to get things done, you better not mess with Major Tom.

June 20, 2011

Salient solution

Smoked meat (full-fat) at Schwartz's.

This summer's annual fall-off-the-blogging-bicycle was brought to you by Soho the Dog's brief all-staff jaunt to Montreal and Québec. And also this week's Boston Early Music Festival gauntlet. But mostly the trip north, during which we spoke French extremely badly but still ate extremely well. Très bien! The best restaurant music we heard was in Québec City, where, after hiking all day through St.-Roch, we wandered into the Cafe Abraham-Martin in the Complexe Méduse just as the owner put on David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust—the whole album. *pompe le poing* (The worst was also in Québec City, when an otherwise lovely lunch at Laurie Raphaël was accompanied by this—in a remix that Went. On. Forever.)

Anyway, one of the happenings I missed was the announcement that the board of directors of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra had re-signed president Anne Parsons for another three years. Parsons was the face of management during the orchestra's six-month strike—in fact, the deal was agreed to back in March, before the strike had even ended.

This sort of thing, it turns out, is something of a minor DSO tradition. Back in 1919, the pianist and conductor Ossip Gabrilowitsch gave the DSO an ultimatum: he would only sign on as music director if he got a new concert hall.
The directors of the Orchestral Association decided that they had no choice but to build a new hall. A hastily assembled building committee selected C. Howard Crane as the architect. Within two weeks the committee had purchased the site of old Wesminster Presbyterian Church and raised half a million dollars in building funds. Crane's general contractor—prepared to work day and night to rush the building to completion—promised that it would be finished on schedule.... The contractor further showed his zeal by starting demolition of the church at a corner of the roof while a final wedding ceremony was still going on inside.
(Source.) Orchestra Hall—now part of the Max M. Fisher Music Center—is today one of the orchestra's biggest financial headaches, the collateral on a $54 million balloon loan taken out in the face of what was revealed to be the financial bubble of the last decade. Decisions like that have not exactly reflected well on the prowess of the DSO board, and while the Music Center debacle predates Parsons, when that board expresses its confidence in her ("proven expertise in navigating challenging economic climates," according to the board chair, who also runs a commercial real-estate company—hmmmm), it does create a bit of a with-friends-like-these situation. Hence the head of the orchestral committee calling Parsons' contract extension "disappointing and puzzling." (Definitely puzzling timing—was a change in management on the negotiating table? Outside supporters were calling for it, at least.)

A change of leadership would seem to be a common-sense move in Detroit, if only to clear the air of lingering bad feelings. But, then again, there are plenty of organizations—orchestras included—that are rife with bad feelings yet still hold up just fine. It might be a little more trenchant to say that a change of leadership is necessary based on a political-scientific analysis of European fiscal policy in reaction to the OPEC oil shocks of the 1970s. No, really! Well, maybe only kind of, but still fun to think about. Consider the work of Fritz W. Scharpf, emeritus director of the Max Planck Insititute for the Study of Societies. For a long time, Scharpf's main research topic has been European integration and the difficulties and contradictions therein, but along the way, he's come up with a nicely trenchant way of thinking about the relationship between varying approaches to economic policy and political legitimacy.

Back in the 1970s, the decision by OPEC to pump up oil prices put a severe strain on the then-prevalent Keynesian model of macroeconomic management—government spending and tax cuts to stimulate demand, spending cuts and tax increases to keep demand (and inflation) from overheating. As Scharpf explains:
Under these conditions, governments committed to Keynesian demand management were confronted with a dilemma: If they chose to fight unemployment with monetary and fiscal demand reflation, they would generate escalating rates of inflation; but if they would instead fight inflation with restrictive fiscal and monetary policies, the result would be mass unemployment.
What's more—
In Germany and Switzerland, by contrast, governments were unable to reflate the economy because monetary policy was determined by an independent central bank that was unconditionally committed to the defense of price stability—in which case the bank's tight-money policy would neutralize expansionary fiscal impulses.... Under these conditions, major job losses were unavoidable. They could only be softened if real wages were quickly adjusted downwards, which was true in Germany and Switzerland but not in the other hard-currency countries practicing an imported (and perhaps less clearly understood) version of the Bundesbank's monetarism.
The Bundesbank—Germany's central bank—was long marked (pun—ha) by its devotion to monetarist policies: basically, focusing on maintaining price stability via control of the money supply rather than aiming for full employment by stimulating demand. It's supply-side, rather than demand-side policy, the kind of thing that can lead to massive deficits (e.g., Reagan-era US) or massive unemployment (e.g., Thatcher-era UK). In Germany, though, it worked pretty well for a lot of the 1970s and 80s. How come? In a talk he gave at the London School of Economics last month, Scharpf sums up:
[The Bundesbank] took great pains to explain, to the government, the unions and the public, how coordination by monetary policy would not only ensure price stability but also produce economically superior and politically justifiable macroeconomic outcomes. Once rampant inflation was brought under control, it would precisely monitor the state of the German economy and pre-announce annual monetary targets by reference to the current “output gap”. Maximum non-inflationary growth would then be achieved if fiscal policy would merely allow the “automatic stabilizers” to rise and fall over the business cycle, and if wages would rise with labor productivity.... In other words, responsibility for the management of the economy would be assumed by the “non-political” monetary policy of the independent Bank, whereas non-inflationary fiscal and wage policies could be conducted with a low political profile.
In Scharpf's analysis, Keynesian policies have high political salience—because they directly involve taxes and government services, they tend to produce strong and immediate political reactions. Monetarist policies have low political salience—they're pretty technical and behind-the-scenes, so there's some insulation from the churn of the political surface. But monetarist policies require that such low salience be maintained—which is why the Bundesbank did so much legwork getting everybody on board, ensuring low salience down the line. (Compare with the period of German reunification, when the Bundesbank was pulled into more highly politically salient waters against Chancellor Helmut Kohl, with resulting damage to the Bundesbank's reputation.)

And now for the question that explicitly or implicitly comes along in at least 75% of posts in this space: So where exactly is this going? Well, it's hardly an exact analogue, but orchestras respond to fiscal crises with policies that are more or less monetarist. While it might be fun to see what would happen if an orchestra tried to spend its way out of a crisis in the Keynesian manner, it can't really happen because orchestras can't issue debt. Instead, they cut—they cut costs, they cut wages, they cut performances, &c. But, as in Germany, that only works in an atmosphere of low political salience—the exact opposite of what the DSO has managed to achieve. Even if you happen to think that managerial brinkmanship was the DSO's best plan, if we borrow Scharpf's ideas, it fairly guarantees that there's no way to get back to a low-salience situation without either a change of management or a change of orchestra—severely curtailing the possibility of any further monetarist solutions to any subsequent crises. (Again, perhaps not an exact analytical fit, but pointing in an interesting direction.)

High political salience really brings out a lot of the more curious organizational aspects of orchestras—for instance, the way the players are not just employees, but also the product, and a crucial political constituency. It also points up that boards and, by extension, management, are not always terribly accountable—high political salience demands such accountability in governmental situations, but boards are largely self-governing. This is not to say that all boards are untenable; some boards, at least, appreciate the value of low salience. This is, again, a pretty fancy justification for what would seem to be common sense. But it does hint at how, if this kind of non-profit doesn't happen to have either an institutional history or a managerial interest in maintaining deep, representative, competent governance, it can be pretty hard to get that to change, even when the need is obvious.

Detroit's Orchestra Hall and the bit of land it sits on—the corner of Woodward Avenue and Parsons Street—has some interesting accountability karma. Woodward Avenue runs along the original Saginaw Trail. The plot was originally one of the so-called Park Lots, created in 1806 when the U.S. Congress authorized the "Governor and Judges' Plan," an appropriation of land that was previously a common. The lots were supposed to be distributed to settlers who had been displaced by the massive fire of 1805, with the remainder to be sold to raise money for a courthouse and jail. Instead, officials repeatedly dragged the process out, in order to squeeze out the original inhabitants, buy up lots for themselves, and fuel a speculative real-estate boom. Silas Farmer, Detroit's 19th-century city historiographer, was rather elegantly sarcastic about it in his History of Detroit and Wayne County:
The Governor and Judges, first in charge, undoubtedly assumed unlawful power in giving away lots to various churches and societies, and exceeded their authority in many particulars. None of these powers were included in the Act creating the Land Board. The ease with which their sessions changed from land-board to legislative, and from legislative to judicial, as the exigencies of the case seemed to them to demand, was something marvellous even for that time of transition.
Only twenty years after its 1919 construction, the DSO vacated Orchestra Hall, the financial pressures of the Depression being too much to handle. The city seized the hall in 1941 for non-payment of taxes, then sold it to Ben and Lou Cohen, who already owned a chain of theatres; the Cohen brothers re-opened the Hall as the Paradise, which played host to some of the biggest jazz acts of the time. When, in 1970, the structure faced demolition at the hands of the fast-food hamburger chain Gino's, a concerned-citizens committee was able to buy it and begin restorations.

The Orchestra moved back in 1989—which means that Orchestra Hall has only housed an orchestra for well less than half of its existence. On the one hand, the Hall is a tribute to the DSO's perseverance; on the other hand, it is a fount of cautionary tales. But the board seems disinterested in learning from the past, once again throwing a wedding while knocking down the church.

Equal opportunity

Reviewing Kristian Bezuidenhout.
Boston Globe, June 20, 2011.

Additive synthesis

Reviewing Marc-André Hamelin.
Boston Globe, June 20, 2011.

May 24, 2011

Musicians wrestle everywhere

Reviewing Ashmont Hill Chamber Music.
Boston Globe, May 24, 2011.

The final paragraph was whittled for length—the original:
But the rest of the program engagingly wrestled with dualities. Snow’s energetic rendition of two “Figments” by Elliott Carter seemed to collect the the concert’s threads of pugnacious, eloquent self-assertion. The second, “Remembering Mr. Ives,” paid shadowboxing tribute with a series of punchy double-stops, answered by slippery, icy harmonics: the American eagerness to get in the ring with ghosts.

May 17, 2011

I love to tell the story

Reviewing Coro Allegro and the United Parish Chancel Choir in Kareem Roustom's The Son of Man.
Boston Globe, May 17, 2011.

Side note: having read The Prophet at an age when one is presumably most susceptible to it and not been seduced, I confess that I've never been much of a Kahlil Gibran fan, but Jesus the Son of Man, which I had never read, is quite good.

May 16, 2011

Diplomatic recognition

My original copy went missing in a move sometime during the Clinton administration, but I am happy to report that the single greatest photograph of the Cold War is once again in the library at Soho the Dog HQ:

In honor of such an auspicious reacquisition, some random, politically-angled links.

Curtis Hughes' Say It Ain't So, Joe, an opera starring Sarah Palin and Joe Biden, is looking for Kickstarter money for a planned recording. Selling point for disillusioned cynics: none of the money will actually go to any candidates!

After 22 years on the 4th floor of City Hall (just longer than his father), Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley spent his last day in office taking in a concert.

A primer on Russia's emerging political pop underground.

Ah, Jersey.

The 2nd District Court of Appeals ruled that week that a Florida state law making it illegal to play your car stereo too loud was unconstitutional. (In possibly related news: Luther Campbell, mayoral candidate.)

A Newt Gingrich scholarship for music students? A Newt Gingrich scholarship for music students.

May 10, 2011

He went through wild ecstatics when I showed him my lymphatics

I was so busy last week that I missed the cost-disease Internetically rearing its head yet again. Greg Sandow brought it up as Exhibit no. 74-D (or so) in the ongoing hand-wringing over orchestral finances (see Louisville, Honolulu, Detroit, Syracuse, Philadelphia). Alex over at Wellsung took exception, on the eminently reasonable grounds that reports of the impending death of orchestras have been around for an awfully long time, and have invariably proved to be exaggerated.

I love the cost-disease—I love thinking about it, I love doing thought-experiments to test it, I love reading the academic respiration of confirmation and refutation it has inspired for the past 50 years. It's catnip for ruminators: a simple idea that gets less and less simple the more you poke at it. The idea is this: you can divide industries into those in which technology enables a lowering of labor costs over time, and those in which it doesn't. The performing arts tend to fall into the latter category, the standard illustration being that you can't use technology to get the required performers for a string quartet below four. Over time, the argument goes, industries afflicted with the cost-disease are increasingly disadvantaged in comparison with those that aren't.

I wrote a thing about the cost-disease back in 2007—good Lord, that's four years ago now. There are probably orchestras who have formed, had their Golden Age, and run aground on the shoals of a dithering board in that time! I was kind of afraid to read it again, but I think it holds up reasonably well; for all my customary dystopian glee, I did approach both the severity of the cost-disease and its rebuttals with some degree of skepticism.

For example, I still think I was right to draw a line between the performance industry and the recording industry—as much as people like to point to recordings as a technological innovation that increases per-worker productivity for musicians, it struck me then as a fundamentally different business, as it strikes me now. Which is not to say that an organization can't aid its own bottom line by selling recordings on the side, which has been an increasing trend—Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, London, BMOP: all those orchestras have started their own labels. Having spent two days at that Rethink Music conference hearing everybody say that recordings are the promotional giveaways of the future, I'll be curious to see how long it lasts, but, like ticket prices, if you can get people to pay, good on ya. But it's a parallel business, a complementary business, not the performance business itself. Now, streaming concerts, that's more interesting—although, so far, most organizations who are streaming concerts online are doing so for free; whether that can be successfully monetized, to use everyone's favorite vulgar term, is still something of an open question. I, for one, am skeptical that the success of the Met Opera high-def simulcasts is something that can be widely imitated, for instance. But if there's a market there, I think, in a way, that does change the calculus of the cost-disease. (It doesn't cure it, but it resets its progression to a more manageable level.)

But there's some things I wish I had highlighted more—I just didn't see them clearly enough at the time. And they all revolve around how easily the idea can slip into a pejorative, market-centric mindset. I mean, we're calling it a disease, for gosh sakes. We could just as accurately say: there are prominent labor efficiencies in the performing arts that are non-scalable. That it makes it sound like what it is: a value-neutral structural trait of such organizations. The cost-disease is not a crisis—not "the killer part of the long-term rise in expenses," as Sandow puts it—but a given feature of running an orchestra or similar institution. The fact that some orchestras have done a notably poor job at managing that feature should not disguise the fact that many other orchestras have managed it fairly well.

I think that pro-market bent is revealed in the persistent insinuation that the cost-disease has only really been an issue since orchestras went to full-year schedules in the 1960s—a time period apparently chosen to conveniently provide a union scapegoat. Here's Tony Woodcock, the president of NEC, hmm-hmming that one on his blog:
Subsequent contract negotiations transformed the musicians’ jobs into positions governed by Collective Bargaining Agreements that converted compensation packages from a variable to a fixed cost. (The financial model of any orchestra in the country today will show the musicians as the biggest single cost.)
I am having a hard time imagining any orchestra anywhere at any time in history where the musicians weren't the single biggest cost. (Then again, Woodcock was relying on the pro-management bias of the Flanagan report.) Sandow, too, got into this, relating that he "first heard about structural deficits years ago, at a private meeting, from people who ran major orchestras that weren't Philadelphia." Really? Because I could have first heard about structural deficits in, say, 1881, when the Boston Symphony Orchestra ran a structural deficit in its first season of existence, ran a deficit every season after that, and nevertheless still is around. Here's Henry Lee Higginson's original prospectus for the orchestra:
Such was the idea, and the cost presented itself thus: Sixty men at $1500 = $90,000 + $3,000 for conductor and + $7,000 for other men (solo players of orchestra, concert-master, i.e., first violin, etc., etc.) = $100,000. Of this sum, it seemed possible that one half should be earned, leaving a deficit of $50,000, for which $1,000,000 is needed as principal. (M. A. DeWolfe Howe, The Boston Symphony Orchestra 1881-1931, p. 16)
That's still the model: pay the musicians, take in what you can from ticket sales, build up an endowment to cover the deficit. The BSO was lucky enough to have Higginson to make up those deficits himself, but just because the BSO, in its early days, had a development pool that made up for in robustness what it lacked in diversification should not take away from the realization that, even in that good old Gilded Age, the orchestra was relying on a development pool. This has been part of management's job from the get-go: shake the trees to make up the difference. That's not a challenge to the business model, it is the business model.

It's the intuitive resistance to viewing that model as "viable" that's at the heart of what I've learned about the cost-disease since that 2007 primer. Alex rightly notes that "the cost disease idea and its predictions of inescapable economic annihilation for the performing arts seem just a bit too convenient for those who indulge in classical music pessimism." I would also add that, in my experience and reading, an eagerness to rebut and dismiss the cost-disease is awfully prevalent among those who indulge in a libertarian or free-market-based worldview. I have a fondness for any idea that bothers triumphalists and pessimists alike, which gets at what I now think about the cost-disease: that it is, in a way, the boundary at which the postulates of capitalist society—all those free-market assumptions that, no matter how reasonable or widely held, are still assumptions—derail. The cost-disease is hardly fatal, not necessarily a source of crisis, but just a fact of life for certain types of endeavors; that we view it as something to be diagnosed and possibly cured just shows how big the disconnect is between the value of performance and the price the market puts on it. The two other industries cited as textbook examples of the cost-disease—education and health care—show the same disconnect, in terms of both underpricing and overpricing. Behind the cost-disease is a set of assumptions about efficiency and progress; but the cost-disease shows up right where those assumptions begin to fray.

May 06, 2011


The Boston Symphony Orchestra announced their 2011-12 season today. My colleague Jeremy Eichler gives the rundown over at the Boston Globe, along with some reading of the tea leaves as well as more leaves to read. If, like me, your default category is composers, here's a handy list:
9 works: Beethoven

7 works: Mozart (this includes all five violin concerti, performed by Anne-Sophie Mutter over two concerts to start the season)

4 works: Ravel, Strauss (Richard), Stravinsky

3 works: Berlioz, Brahms, Debussy, Haydn, Harbison (finishing a two-season survey of his symphonies, including the Sixth, the BSO's only world premiere this season), Mendelssohn (including Lobgesang, which the symphony is letting Riccardo Chailly take a crack at)

2 works: Bartók, Dvořák, Prokofiev, Weber (Weber? Weber)

1 work: Bach (J. S.), Barber, Britten, Carter (the Flute Concerto, also headed to San Francisco for a December tour), Dutilleux, Kodály, Lutosławski, Mahler, Rachmaninoff, Salonen (the Violin Concerto, with the composer conducting), Schumann, Shostakovich, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Turnage (From the Wreckage, a US premiere), Wagner
So, yeah, Beethoven is taking up nearly 13 percent of the schedule. And those first four groups: 35 percent of the composers control 66 percent of the programming wealth! Just for fun, I ran the BSO's seasonal composer distribution through a calculator to come up with its Gini coefficient, the standard shorthand for income inequality—the higher the number, the more concentrated the wealth. The BSO's coefficient—37.9—isn't quite as bad as the United States' (45, as of 2007), but nowhere near Sweden's coefficient of 23. One can, with questionable statistical validity, find the closest match on this list and thus declare the BSO the East Timor of orchestras.

Ah, you might say, but not all of those works occupy equal space on each program—Lobgesang, for instance, takes up the whole evening. Well, I ran those numbers, too—if a piece was one of three on a program that received four performances, for instance, it was credited with four-thirds of a performance. By that measure, Beethoven is now taking up over 16 percent of the schedule—and the Gini coefficient balloons to 43.4, on par with, say, Guyana.

The BSO's press release, incidentally, included this spin:
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4, arguably the least-known and least-performed of the composer’s nine symphonies
That's kind of like calling Ringo the least-known Beatle, but I give the BSO marketing department props for putting forth the effort.

Update (5/6): I ran one more set: the Cleveland Orchestra's 2011-12 season. Coefficient for works-by-composer alone: 38.2. Weighted by number of performances: 41.8.

Update (5/6): OK, one more, to compare with a new-music-focused group. The Boston Modern Orchestra Project's 2010-11 orchestral season shows a by-composer coefficient of 9.7, and a weighted-by-performance coefficient of 11.2. Much lower, not surprisingly; all but two composers are represented by a single piece of music. Expand the data to include their chamber concerts, and the by-composer coefficient becomes 11.4—but the weighted-by-performance coefficient jumps all the way to 37.9. Why? BMOP does multiple performances of a small number of programs, but the majority of the programs only get one performance, so the weighting becomes seriously skewed. (Eliminate those repetitions of programs, and the coefficient falls back to 18.4.)

May 02, 2011

It's like 1993, and it's weird as hell to me

I spent a good portion of last week at the Rethink Music conference in Boston, and my oft-oblique impressions are now up at NewMusicBox:
Courts and Conquerors: Thinking and Rethinking the Rethink Music Conference.

One important presentation that didn't make it into the article was Jean Cook and Kristin Thomson's overview of the Future of Music Coalition's Artist Revenue Streams research project, an ambitious survey- and interview-based test of all those hypotheses about the positive effects of the Internet on musicians' careers that everybody assumes but, it turns out, no one has ever actually looked into. They're on the prowl for data; if you're a musician of any genre interested in telling them something about your household income, they'd be very interested in you.

It gets bigger, baby, and heaven knows

Reviewing Christian Tetzlaff and Antje Weithaas.
Boston Globe, May 2, 2011.

I am the DJ, I am what I play

Reviewing Dawn Upshaw and Stephen Prutsman.
Boston Globe, May 2, 2011.

April 25, 2011

"... the magician and the prophet on the one hand, and in the elected war lord, the gang leader and condotierre on the other hand"

The Boston Symphony Orchestra is into the last two weeks of its season, under a pair of guest conductors who might also be reminders of the group's post-James Levine conducting predicament: Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, often touted as a candidate for a caretaker BSO music director, and Charles Dutoit, currently filling a similar role at the crying-poor Philadelphia Orchestra. I am hardly an expert in classical-music criticism—as Globe readers rarely hesitate to remind me—but I do have a good trick for gauging the relationship between a professional orchestra and a guest conductor, a ridiculously simple one, but one that usually tells a great deal about the concert at hand: is the orchestra looking at the conductor? It's not necessary, after all; I could probably get up in front of the Boston Symphony, give the downbeat for Brahms 2, and then walk away, and the orchestra would probably come up with a pretty decent Brahms 2 all on their own. There have been BSO concerts I've seen where the players spent more time stealing glances at the concertmaster than at the conductor. There have been a few that started out that way, but where, over the course of the concert, the conductor won them over, so that by the end, the players were hanging on every wave of the stick. And then there's the ones where the podium is the natural focus of attention from beginning to end. It's not foolproof, but, for the most part, that's a corresponding progression in the quality of the concerts as well.

It's a criterion that measures, among other things, a conductor's charisma, which is something I was thinking about in the context of both the Boston and Philadelphia situations. Not so much charisma in the sort of vague, strong-personality everyday use of it, but in the somewhat more specific way that the great German sociologist Max Weber used it. Weber's ideas about charisma come in a long lecture, Politik als Beruf ("Politics as a Vocation"), that he delivered late in his life, in the wake of World War I. (You can read "Politics as a Vocation" here; the translation, uncredited, is by Hans Gerth and C. Wright Mills.) Weber characterized three different kinds of political leadership:
To begin with, in principle, there are three inner justifications, hence basic legitimations of domination.

First, the authority of the 'eternal yesterday,' i.e. of the mores sanctified through the unimaginably ancient recognition and habitual orientation to conform. This is 'traditional' domination exercised by the patriarch and the patrimonial prince of yore.

There is the authority of the extraordinary and personal gift of grace (charisma), the absolutely personal devotion and personal confidence in revelation, heroism, or other qualities of individual leadership. This is 'charismatic' domination, as exercised by the prophet or—in the field of politics—by the elected war lord, the plebiscitarian ruler, the great demagogue, or the political party leader.

Finally, there is domination by virtue of 'legality,' by virtue of the belief in the validity of legal statute and functional 'competence' based on rationally created rules. In this case, obedience is expected in discharging statutory obligations. This is domination as exercised by the modern 'servant of the state' and by all those bearers of power who in this respect resemble him.
Weber's definition of domination is specifically in the context of the state, the power of which Weber analyzes as derived from its claim on a monopoly on the use of violent force: "The state is considered the sole source of the 'right' to use violence". The power wielded by a symphony orchestra is awfully garden-party by comparison. But one can, I think, find hints of Weber's three legitimations in every orchestra. Certainly the orchestra's artistic power is based, in large part, on the authority of an "eternal yesterday"; and some of the organizational power struggles could be traced to a conflict between that traditional authority and the rules-based legal authority of unions and corporate regulation.

But it's Weber's gift-of-grace (the literal translation of χαρισμα) that sets orchestras apart—they're some of the very few organizations whose leaders are, necessarily, even by definition, charismatic leaders. We might think of such charisma as a de facto requirement in the political sphere as well; Weber, in 1919, was already at least hinting at its predominance:
To be sure, the pure types are rarely found in reality. But today we cannot deal with the highly complex variant, transitions, and combinations of these pure types, which problems belong to 'political science.' Here we are interested above all in the second of these types: domination by virtue of the devotion of those who obey the purely personal 'charisma' of the 'leader.' For this is the root of the idea of a calling in its highest expression.
But charisma is a democratic choice, not a requirement. Garry Wills' polemic-disguised-as-a-meditation The Kennedy Imprisonment draws heavily on Weber's categories to make that point, contrasting the low-key, legalistic, trust-the-hierarchy administration of Eisenhower with JFK's explicitly charismatic brandishing—and appropriation—of presidential power. Since Kennedy, political success has, more often than not, been judged in charismatic terms. But political office is not inherently dependent on charisma—and such offices actually can resist charismatic leveraging. (As does the electorate—witness the pleasing-nobody limbo of Barack Obama, a charismatic figure but a temperamental legalist, trying to pivot from a Kennedy-esque campaign to a very Eisenhower-like style of governing.)

Orchestras, though, are predicated on charismatic leadership—you need somebody the players are going to look at. Wills' analysis, interestingly, suggests that such leadership is actually a chronic source of organizational instability. In the political sphere, charismatic leadership best flourishes in crisis situations—Wills points to the Kennedy administrations penchant for marathon, high-stakes convocations of decision-makers centered in the White House: "Since the charismatic leader's special powers grow from special dangers, the two feed on each other," Wills notes. "For some crises to be overcome, they must first be created." For orchestras, such crises tend to be centered around changes in leadership—music directors rarely depart except under circumstances of crisis, which, cyclically, gives the succeeding music director the fuel to exert a new round of charismatic authority. But such lacunae are perilous, especially now that the peripatetic, scheduled-years-in-advance conductor is the norm. The charismatic basis of music directorships means that the organizations are comparatively impoverished in the vacuum left by their departures. Wills again: "Charisma, the uniquely personal power, delegitimates institutions. Rule by dazzlement cannot be succeeded by mere constitutional procedure." He quotes Weber's biographer, Reinhard Bendix:
Such a transformation from charismatic leadership to traditional domination occurs most frequently when the problem of succession must be solved. In a strict sense that problem is insoluble, for charisma is an inimitable quality that some higher power is believed to have bestowed upon one person. Consequently a successor cannot be chosen at all. Instead, the followers wait in hope that another leader will appear who will manifest his own charismatic qualification. [emphasis added]
In that sense, the timing of the Philadelphia Orchestra board's decision to file for Chapter 11 is hardly coincidental, the weakness of the institution expressing itself in the absence of a permanent charismatic head. (Interim conductor Charles Dutoit, indeed, seemed surprised by the move.) As far as I know, the BSO is not in comparable financial distress (although, if Philadelphia gets away with their petition, I cynically would not be surprised to see every orchestra in the country try a similar maneuver the next time a contract re-negotiation is on the horizon). But they're most likely looking at a couple seasons, at least, without an official music director. Given Levine's history, one might chide them for not being more proactive in arranging for a successor, for letting the situation reach such a crisis point. Under Weber's analysis, though, the crisis is the point, the crisis is necessary before the institution can make a move, because the crisis is what lends authority to the next leader.

It's hard to imagine what a conductor who relied on Weber's "legality" would look like—even those who philosophically defer to "the authority of the score" tend to make such deference part of their charismatic aura (and can be among the most charismatic of all—Riccardo Muti, for example). Maybe such statute-based power can only be found in those ensembles that abstemiously avoid permanent conductorial authority—St. Luke's, Orpheus, A Far Cry, &c. For most traditionally-structured orchestras, though, charismatic leadership is par for the course—which means that, structurally speaking, so are regular doses of drama.

Update (4/25): Joshua Kosman thoughtfully looks on the bright side.

April 21, 2011

The Rachmaninoff Covenant

As of this morning, the International Music Score Library Project, the online repository of public domain music, is offline, due to a rather iffy (to say the least) DMCA takedown demand from the UK-based Music Publishers Association. The full tale is on the IMSLP forum; Tim Rutherford-Johnson has commentary and links.

The trigger for this latest skirmish is the IMSLP's posting of the score to Rachmaninoff's The Bells, a work that is not under copyright in the US, no matter what the MPA might claim. But is the use of that particular piece and that particular composer coincidental? Hmmmm.

To wit: off the top of my head, I can think of three rationales for the MPA's attempted shutdown:
  • The MPA is a somewhat clueless organization, hoping to protect some royalties via corporate bullying.
  • The sheer questionability of the takedown notice is aimed at sparking a legal challenge that can then be appealed, a UK version of Golan v. Holder.
  • The copyright maneuverings behind the Rachmaninoff legacy are more cloak-and-dagger than I thought.
History inclines my opinion towards the first option; the devil-making-work-for-idle-hands aspect of certain corners of the legal profession might incline me towards the second. But my inner conspiracy theorist loves the fact that Rachmaninoff is at the center of this, because Rachmaninoff plus copyright equals fertile ground for at least mild conspiracy.

The majority of Rachmaninoff's works are public domain in the US for the simple fact that the nascent Soviet Union couldn't get their act together on copyright. Tsarist Russia had never signed on to the Berne Convention; Soviet attempts throughout the 1920s to create bilateral copyright treaties with various other countries were abortive. From 1917 until 1967 (when the USSR finally signed its first bilateral copyright treaty, with Hungary), the Soviets were not part of the international copyright system; works copyrighted in Europe or America, say, had no protection in the USSR, while works copyrighted in the USSR had no protection anywhere else. As soon as Rachmaninoff's music was published in Soviet Russia—The Bells, for instance, came off the press in 1920—it was PD everywhere else.

Stravinsky was in the same boat, which is why there are multiple versions of many of his pre-Soviet-era greatest hits—The Rite of Spring, The Firebird, &c.: Stravinsky revised the scores in order to copyright at least some version of them in the US and Europe. It's also a contributing factor, probably, to Stravinsky's demonic productivity. Rachmaninoff, though, neither revised his earlier works nor composed all that much after leaving Russia (though the selection was choice: the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and the Third Symphony both post-date his emigration and, thus, remain snugly under copyright).

That hasn't stopped Rachmaninoff's descendents from trying to reassert some copyright control over the PD works. Some efforts have been relatively above board—the Rachmaninoff Critical Edition, for instance, done with the full cooperation and input of Alexander Rachmaninoff, the composer's grandson, and duly copyrighted 2005—and some more curious: you might recall Alexander Rachmaninoff Wanamaker, Serge's great-great-grandson, who wanted to do new arrangements of the Rachmaninoff catalog, just different enough to warrant fresh copyright. Wanamaker died in a fire in 2009, and the status of his efforts isn't clear, although this refashioning of the Third Symphony into a "Fifth" Piano Concerto might be some indication of the trend.

Now, do I really think that shady Rachmaninoff-connected minions are somehow blackmailing MPA executives into pursuing this legal action? That'd be a great story, but, no, of course not. But the Rachmaninoff situation is exactly the sort of thing that's being contested in the above-mentioned Golan v. Holder. A little background: the Berne Convention, which originally dates from 1886, has been the general international framework for intellectual property ever since. Which doesn't mean that it's been hewed to ever since: the US and Russia only got around to joining the Convention in 1988 and 1995, respectively, and when they did, they did so while specifically exempting themselves from the Convention's stipulations for retroactivity—in other words, neither country wanted to try and sort out royalties on works that, in each country, had been public domain for the better part of the 20th century. However, subsequent treaties have muddied the water, both WIPO, from 1996 (and the basis for the DMCA law that provided cover for MPA's cease-and-desist), and the so-called Uruguay Round, the 1994 trade agreements that also brought you the World Trade Organization. It's the latter that is the basis for Golan v. Holder—the Uruguay Round Agreements Act, under which Congress ratified the agreement, amended the US Copyright Code, providing for "the automatic restoration of copyright in certain foreign works that are in the public domain in the United States but protected by copyright or neighboring rights in an eligible source country." (According to the US Copyright Office.) That would be one heck of a precedent right there. But note that, even if the URAA were to stand up under judicial scrutiny, The Bells should have remained unaffected—its theoretical 75-year copyright term expired the day the URAA took effect, and, according to the Berne Convention, such natural-causes temporal expiration of copyright is immune to retroactivity.

Hence the prima facie ridiculousness of the MPA's claim. But, given the US Supreme Court's conservative majority's combination of pro-corporate cheerleading and (except for Anthony Kennedy) anti-international skepticism, I, for one, am not quite sure what to expect from Golan v. Holder; as a legal stalking horse for a similar case in the EU (not to mention a mixed metaphor), The Bells might adequately toll. Or, again, maybe the MPA is just yet another hidebound entity, deciding to run down the Internet, but tying their legal shoelaces together. Either one is plausible, really. Far less plausible, but far more satisfying to my dark, mischievous soul, would be a cabal of Rachmaninoff intimates, making a solemn vow in 1943, fanning out across the Western world, insinuating themselves into the corridors of copyright power, biding their time until the trap was ready to be sprung. The Bells would actually be a pretty good soundtrack for that movie.

Update (4/21): The MPA backpedals, kind of.

Further update (4/21): IMSLP is back up.