Month: September 2006

The Constitutional Monarch of Swing

News out of Thailand today: an attempted coup by the military. Taking advantage of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s trip to New York for the opening of the UN General Assembly, military units, under the command of Army Chief Sondhi Boonyaratkalin (and apparently acting with the approval of the king), have taken control of Bangkok.

On a television station controlled by the military, a general in civilian clothes said that a “Council of Administrative Reform,” including the military and the police, had seized power in the name of King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

What’s that? This is supposed to be a music blog? Well, any junta that claims to be operating in support of a composer rates a mention here. That’s right, in addition to reigning as the (largely ceremonial but widely beloved) king of Thailand for the last half-century, Bhumibol Adulyadej is also a jazz saxophonist and songwriter. Here he is jamming with Benny Goodman.

King Bhumibol (who was born here in Massachusetts, by the way) has forty-some compositions to his name; his song “Blue Light” was featured in the Michael Todd-produced Broadway revue Peep Show in the 1950’s. Upon ascending to the throne, the king formed his own 14-piece band and started a state-run radio station to broadcast its performances. Lionel Hampton once complimented him as “the coolest king in all the land,” although, seeing as how he’s the only king in all the land, it’s possible that Hamp was hedging his bets a little.

I won’t pretend to have an informed opinion on the Thai political situation (the brief breakdown seems to be probably-corrupt-but-rurally-supported-populist-PM vs. disenfranchised-elite-and-business-backed-disgruntled-military, with the king giving at least token support to the generals and the Thai economy on the line, which gives you an idea of the gray areas involved), but I am an expert on musician day jobs, and I’d say Bhumibol takes the prize. (If anyone’s reading this in Thailand, please stay safe. Kor hai chok dee.)

Update (9/21): King Bhumibol’s support for the coup is now explicit. Here’s a good summary of what’s been going on.

Alone together

This morning’s driving music (I don’t usually drive into town, so when I do, I choose my music carefully) was Brahms 3, which is slowly but surely supplanting 2 as my favorite Brahms symphony. It’s among a small group of Brahms pieces that don’t feel like they’ve been planned so meticulously; if I don’t listen too closely, there are things happening that sound like they’re in there not because they develop a motive, or set up a new theme, or make some structural point, but just because Johannes damn well felt like it.

It’s an illusion, of course—it’s as tightly constructed as anything else he wrote—but it manages to nail that simulated spontaneity that composers are encouraged to strive for in their academic training. Sound fresh and surprising, but using material that’s developed organically. I suppose it’s natural for that to be a teaching aim; practice grows out of analysis, and to teach analysis, you need music where it’s easy and logical to demonstrate where the notes are coming from. (Over on his blog, Kyle Gann had a great post on this topic a couple of weeks ago.) A lot of composers react to this sort of training by going to the other extreme: music that refuses to develop, themes following themes with no transition, relying on the drama of juxtaposition to carry the piece forward. (I often like music like this—Feldman and Zorn spring to mind as varied examples—but I do think it’s much harder to pull off.)

But then I started to try and imagine a piece that’s an illusion in the opposite direction: a hodge-podge that fools you into thinking it’s tightly, organically constructed. My favorite example of this is Tosca. Think of the very beginning, those three big chords:

First three measures of Tosca
Which is immediately and suddenly followed by all this activity:

Next four measures of Tosca
So we have a bunch of harmonies with no functional relationship to each other, and a couple of diametrically opposed tempi jammed together with a fermata. With your ear thus primed, Puccini is now free to go to any harmony or tempo he wants without the need to modulate. And in this context, paradoxically, the lack of modulation makes the piece sound more like everything’s connected. There’s no long transitions, no musical gymnastics to get from place to place; he just does a sudden bump change and your brain subconsciously says, “Aha! Just like the beginning.” Then, without any preparation, he just brings back the three big chords at the act breaks, and you’re suckered into thinking that there’s a grand structure unfolding, when in fact, the only real planning he’s doing is saving a couple of tonalities for big arias.

Please note that I don’t think this is in any way dishonest or underhanded on Puccini’s part; I actually think it’s an extremely clever way to maintain the speed and dash he wants without being tied down to musical niceties. (Charles Rosen offers a similar compliment to Mendelssohn in The Romantic Generation regarding a “fugue” with no counterpoint.) I do wonder how often one could get away with it—you get the feeling that Puccini is trying the same thing at the opening of Turandot but then realizes that it’s unsuited to the grandeur and spectacle of the story. And I can’t for the life of me imagine how to do something similar with serial music, which is (at least analytically) organic by definition: everything springs from the same sequence of intervals. Maybe Tosca really is an organically developing piece, but the generating source is just the sounds of triadic tonality, an idea so far in the background that we take it for granted.

Something I’ve been trying in my own music for a couple of years now is applying serial techniques to groups of triadic harmonies: for example, devise a tone row that divides up into triads and seventh chords, and then put those chords front and center, voicing and doubling like you normally would. I like the sound world that results—because my ears are tuned to tonal progressions, the sequences sound simultaneously familiar and surprising. The harmonies don’t go where they “should,” but they’re still moving in consistent ways (thanks to the row) and that seems to hold the piece together. I suppose you could pretty easily use something like this to set up more arbitrary progressions á la Puccini, but the effect would still be based on that tonal ground. Odd—I’m used to hearing atonal music criticized as a violation of musical grammar, but here’s an instance where it’s actually too grammatical.

"Symptomatic of the decline and fall of everything"

Odds and ends:

A-Rod’s goal was not simply to fail at the game… but to raise deep philosophical questions about the nature of human achievement. The philosophy of “Atonal Baseball.” (But let us recognize the serialist mastery of Gary Matthews, Jr.)

One of my hometown’s classical radio stations is a proud sponsor of the Newport International Polo Series. Elitist, you say? If you know of a better way to get horses interested in classical music, I’d love to hear it.

A follow up to last week’s rant about airline carry-on restrictions and musical instruments: witness the travails of the Simon Fraser University Pipe Band, who, fresh off of a second-place finish at the World Pipe Band Championships in Glasgow, was forced to check their equipment with an airline who promptly lost $27,000 worth of their stuff. The items included thirteen drums, in cases, which is pretty much like misplacing a hippopotamus. Terrorist threat, my eye—I rather suspect somebody in the British Home Office is still bitter over the Battle of Bannockburn. (Thanks to Jeana and Glenn Stewart, sister and brother-in-law/master piper, for the tip.)

Last, but not least: Henry Kissinger and Len Garment, art critics. (I love the Freedom of Information Act.)

Almost (but not quite) Persuaded

In the car last night, I was thinking about the post I put up a couple of weeks ago regarding the Great American Opera, and I realized that I had missed something. I had suggested that such a piece would never come about because the latent Puritanical streak in American culture was fundamentally at odds with the exuberant vulgarity of opera. But there’s also the possibility that religion is a factor in another way, a deeper and more subtle way.

The one common thread throughout the history of home-grown American religion is the premium placed on the transcendental experience of the divine. The First and Second Great Awakenings that swept the country starting around 1730 were all about this: feeling and emotion were more important than reason, personal “rebirth” was more important than theological understanding. Such movements would culminate in Pentecostalism.

All of which had an abiding influence on the culture. In a way, the holy grail of American culture has been an experience of secular transcendence, one which successfully mimics the transporting emotional catharsis of a revival meeting. But opera is, for the most part, about inflating human emotions to gargantuan proportions: we thrill to see ourselves writ large, but it doesn’t move us beyond the experience of this world.

Ah, you might argue, but the addition of the music makes all the difference. I don’t think it’s enough of a difference, though. The first reason is something else I missed, in last week’s post about materialism and the primacy of vision. In essence, music may be the least material of the arts, but in practice, it can be the most—with live performance, you’re constantly aware of the human presence behind the music, the physical action needed to produce it. I would guess that such a persistent reminder of human effort (and fallibility) would counteract any draw towards the divine.

The second reason, though, is just another manifestation of the idea that everything in this country has to be more grand and fantastic than it’s ever been anywhere else. European composers historically tended to aim not for transcendence, but sublimity: an aesthetic that doesn’t try to duplicate the emotions of a revealed experience, but instead hints at them. It’s as if they realized that the most you could accomplish with musical means was a fleeting glimpse of heaven, not the real deal. But we’re Americans, by golly—we want it all.

(And, incidentally, yes, I really do tend to think up this sort of esoterica when I’m in the car. It’s Boston, after all—it’s not like I’m actually getting anywhere.)


Over at La scena musicale, Norman Lebrecht has posted a column of unusual inanity.* See, there’s been an outcry among musicians in the UK over new, stringent prohibitions on carry-on items for plane travel, since it means that musical instruments now have to be checked into the plane’s hold. So plenty of players have opted for trains, boats, or just plain staying home, rather than entrusting their axe to the airline industry. You selfish, awful, privileged people! Canon Lebrecht has words for you.

The ones who are affected are the international premier class of violin and cello soloists and a handful of jazz musicians whose instruments are insured for upwards of half a million pounds or are so personal to the players that they cannot be replaced.

This elite – we are speaking of no more than 200 or 300 artists – have found a way around the restrictions by taking Eurostar to Paris or Brussels and catching an onward connection. Inconvenient, true, and a terrible waste of time and money but surely preferable to a breach in the security firewall that protects everyone else who flies.

First of all, just how much of a “security firewall” do we need for musical instruments anyway? It seems to me that any instrument out there can be inspected and x-rayed to a point that would satisfy even Dick Cheney. Is that special treatment for musicians? Sure is, because it’s a special situation—musicians rely on their own particular instrument to an extent that’s unparalleled in any other industry. If the airlines lost my laptop, I’d raise hell—but at least I’d have my data backed up. How do you back up a viola?

Besides, Norman, we’re speaking of quite a few more than 300 people here. All performing musicians have to travel, and frequently by plane. And just because a non-famous musician’s instrument isn’t insured for a gazillion pounds doesn’t mean that its loss would be any less catastrophic. What if you’re an entry-level orchestral musician traveling to an audition? A young chamber group on tour? Are you going to entrust your instrument to an airline under the disconcertingly large probablility that it could get damaged or lost? I’d sure sweat over a $20,000 violin if I only made $30,000 a year.

I remember a few years back when an up-and-coming opera singer here in Boston had a fire at her apartment. Not only did she lose her music, she lost all her recital gowns—a staggering financial blow for someone trying to get career traction. How is that different from Cut-Rate Air redirecting her garment bag to Vladivostok? News for you, Norm: the big stars might be getting inconvenienced, but the future stars are getting screwed. Get a clue.

*Correction: this line originally referred to the column with the phrase “absolutely breathtaking stupidity.” Upon reflection, I thought that to be a bit of a cheap shot—while I did consider the column stupid, at no time was my breathing adversely affected. Hence the change.

Don’t fear if you hear a foreign sound to your ear

The latest chapter of Greg Sandow’s online book-in-progress is up, and he brings up (among other things) Brahms—specifically, how Brahms and his generation were the first composers laboring under the weight of a pre-existing canon of great music (Bach and Beethoven, mainly). Along the way, he makes an interesting comparison:

Later, when Brahms encountered Robert Schumann (a composer who embodied, though in his own poetic way, reverence for the pantheon), and both Schumann and his wife (a famous pianist) hailed him as…well, as what rock critics a dozen years ago would have called “the new Dylan,” what they meant, of course, and quite explicitly, is that he was the new Beethoven. This didn’t only bring encouragement. It brought responsibility; the pantheon was weighty, and composers who aspired to it had to write the kind of weighty music Beethoven had written, which above all meant symphonies.

Think about the contrast between Brahms and Dylan for a moment. Brahms held off writing a symphony for years because of the anxiety of Beethoven’s influence and the awareness that others regarded him as having inherited the master’s mantle. Can you imagine Dylan, on the other hand, putting off Blonde on Blonde because he was worried about what, say, Pete Seeger would think? (Anxiety of expectation isn’t a classical-vs.-popular issue, either—consider Brian Wilson post-Pet Sounds or, in another medium, William Friedkin’s post-Exorcist filmography.)

In an important way, though, Dylan represents an attitude and a temperament that’s almost completely absent in the classical world. I can’t think of a classical composer who ever adopted the sort of persona Dylan did in order to deflect and neutralize the “responsibility” that comes with a public anointing as a “great artist.” It’s that character—the trickster, the charlatan, answering questions with aphoristic absurdities, and going out of his way to subvert the expectations of loyal disciples—that classical music could use more of. John Cage is the closest example I can think of, although maybe you could make a case for Michael Tippett. Lukas Foss has done a fair amount in this vein, but (unjustly) has never had the public reputation of a canonical composer; Stravinsky never really risked his public reputation, for all his stylistic peregrinations. (I need to hear more of R. Murray Schafer—he seems like a possible candidate.)

With all the big premieres I’ve heard, in every case, good or bad, the piece pretty much confirmed what I already thought about the composer. It’s been an awfully long time since a classical event unleashed a ruckus like Dylan going electric, or even, dare we say it, Self-Portrait. What’s missing? More premieres, for one thing; most composers are lucky if they get even one major commission, and it takes a special kind of recklessness to risk a train wreck, even a spectacular one. But the dominant ethos of the classical music industry these days is to play it safe, even with regards to innovation. (It’s one of the reasons there’s more early music than new music—early music is unusual and novel without being threatening.) And when the big organizations do program contemporary music, they bend over backwards to make sure it goes down easy (well-known composers, advance publicity, pre-concert talks, reassuring program notes, etc.). Why not just pull the rug out from under people every so often? It’s worked for Bob.

The tension of such hope is sharp and hard

A! Nay! Lat be; the philosophres stoon,
Elixer clept, we sechen faste echoon;
For hadde we hym, thanne were we siker ynow.
But unto God of hevene I make avow,
For al oure craft, whan we han al ydo,
And al oure sleighte, he wol nat come us to.
He hath ymaad us spenden muchel good,
For sorwe of which almoost we wexen wood,
But that good hope crepeth in oure herte,
Supposynge evere, though we sore smerte,
To be releeved by hym afterward.
Swich supposyng and hope is sharp and hard;
I warne yow wel, it is to seken evere.
That futur temps hath maad men to dissevere,
In trust therof, from al that evere they hadde.

—Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales
The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale, 862-876

(The same in modern English.)

What you see is what you get?

A long one today.

One of the perennial questions in the culture industry is why avant-garde music has never been embraced by the public to the extent that similarly experimental works in literature and the visual arts have. Museums of modern art thrive, Joyce is still in print, but conceptual post-Romantic music still remains a tough sell. The conventional wisdom on this is that modern music is too modern, in comparison with painting, film, etc.; it’s gone so far beyond the traditional models it evolved from that it’s well-nigh incomprehensible even to otherwise sophisticated listeners. But here’s another possibility: have listeners become too modern for modern music?

The British philosopher Jonathan Rée, in his book I See a Voice, points out that, with the onset of 20th-century ideas of “modernity,” hearing began to be considered an old-fashioned sense; the contemporary world was one in which people saw. Both friends and enemies of the modern bought into this idea. Oswald Spengler, not surprisingly, hated it. As Rée puts it:

The optical mind was the master of mechanical invention, but too fascinated by “static, optical details” to have any sense of the tragedy and mystery of “life”. Vision had cut us off from the ancient wisdom of ordinary pre-theoretical mutuality, annihilating vocality and, with it, the “inward kinship of I and Thou”. Now that modern civilization was confronting its ultimate crisis—a crisis of its own making, a crisis of technology—it was stumbling uncomprehendingly towards catastrophe: twentieth-century humanity, Spengler thought, having lost its voice and its sense of hearing, was destined to “go downhill seeing.”

Rée also quotes Heidegger: “The fact that the world becomes picture is what distinguishes the essence of the modern age.” Heidegger disapproved, but the younger generation, particularly those concerned with various theories of the novel and the new “textual” criticism, thought hearing impossibly quaint. Rée again, summarizing the Bulgarian feminist Julia Kristeva:

Literature, or written language in general, was not the companion of speech, but its opponent, because it belonged to the open world of light, space and the eye, not the closed world of sound, time and the ear. We needed to break out of the ancient prison-house of speech and one-dimensional temporality, and disport ourselves in the multi-dimensional spaces of writing or “textual productivity” instead.

And there it is: time, temporality, the one aspect of music that’s changed the most since the heyday of classicism. Between the time of Beethoven and the time of Schoenberg comes the Industrial Revolution, and with it the mechanization of time: assembly lines, efficiency experts, and mass transit meant that temporal experience became less determined by the rhythms of nature, and more related to the orderly grid we imposed on top of it. At the same time, the classical regularity of phrase and rhythm was abandoned in favor of an organic approach that shaped time more idiosyncratically.

Why should this be a problem? Two reasons, I think. The first has to do with materialism. We’re fairly addicted to the physicality of objects and space, which we primarily experience with the eye. But with the advent of industrialism, our experience of time became almost equally material. Hearing is, in many ways, the least material of the senses, so in the absence of an orderly rhythmic structure, the resultant disorientation would be an affront to our materialist habits. Think of two fairly contrasting composers—Elliott Carter uses metric modulation to continually frustrate your perception of a regular pulse, trying to get you to only feel “downbeats” at structurally important moments; Morton Feldman slows down the pulse and expands the size of the phrase to such an extent that your perception of the music’s temporality becomes detached from the everyday experience of time. In both cases, your ability to estimate how much “real time” has passed becomes tenuous, weakening your grasp on time in a materialistic sense.

Which leads us to the other issue here: power and control. Roland Barthes, one of the structuralist pioneers, is particularly revealing here. Rée quotes him taking the modern world to task for thinking that it is “ushering in a civilization of the image,” when in fact he believes it to be still stuck in “a civilization of speech.” Barthes also talks about music:

There are two musics (or so I’ve always thought): one you listen to, one you play. They are two entirely different arts, each with its own history, sociology, aesthetics, erotics: the same composer can be minor when listened to, enormous when played (even poorly)—take Schumann…. It is because Schumann’s music goes much farther than the ear; it goes into the body, into the muscles by the beats of the rhythm, and somehow into the viscera by the voluptuous pleasure of its melos….
(Quoted by Richard Leppert in The Sight of Sound.)

But all music is a physical sensation—it travels on the air and enters the body through the ears (and more subtly, through the sense of touch, for that matter). For Barthes, listening is inferior to performing because it entails giving up the performer’s control over the experience, particularly the temporal experience. If the modern condition is dependent upon this need to maintain control over the way we feel the passage of time, then all rhythmically asymmetrical music is hopelessly behind the times, no matter how avant-garde.

If we accept these ideas, then the crucial feature of popular music isn’t triadic tonality, but rhythmic regularity and, in particular, predictability—and I think it is about rhythm; listeners seem to enjoy having their harmonic expectations violated more than their rhythmic expectations. (Which, interestingly, would mean that the reaction against atonality is less about the intrinsic properties of tonal harmonies and more about it’s ability to create the illusion of rhythmic symmetry.) I don’t think this analysis is a complete picture, but I think it points the way to a different approach to talking about experimental music, particularly as it relates to a society in which power and control—and especially fears of losing power and control—maintain such sway over people’s everyday decisions. Personally, I adore music that plays with perceptions of time the way Carter, Feldman, etc. do, because I get a charge out of that sort of disorientation, that freedom from the need for an absolute position in the material world. The big question: is it possible to sell that as a strength in a society that currently seems to regard it as a weakness?