Month: November 2006

The Wrath of Khon

If you remember, a few weeks back the military took over the government of Thailand, with the support of jazz saxophonist, composer, songwriter, and, oh, yeah, King Bhumibol Adulyadej. So, um, how’s that coup going, anyways?

Thailand’s new military-appointed government has threatened to shut down an operatic version of the Hindu epic Ramayana, ostensibly over fears one of its scenes may bring bad luck.

That’s from an AP report about Somtow Sucharitkol’s new opera “Ayodhya,” which premiered in Bangkok last week. The Thai Culture Ministry (hmmm, army generals controlling the ministry of culture, no comedy there) objected to a scene containing the on-stage death of the demon king Thotsakan (that’s him at the right), the principal antagonist in the Ramakien, the Thai version of the Ramayana. Supposedly the depiction of Thotsakan’s death is taboo, although really the restriction only applies to Khon, a highly stylized form of theater-dance in which all the characters wear masks and don’t say anything—raising the possibility that the leaders of the junta are simply unusually catty critics.

The best part of the story? The composer “said the officials told him that ‘if anything happened to anyone in power in Thailand, it would be blamed on this production.'” Applying theatrical superstition to future national misfortunes like some sort of post-dated karmic check—those Thai generals are really on the cutting edge of political spin, aren’t they? Look for Dick Cheney to pre-emptively pin the blame for the next two years of the Bush administration on the Washington National Opera’s production of “Macbeth.”

Somtow is quite a guy: he conducts the Siam Philharmonic and the Bangkok Opera in addition to composing. In the 1980’s a “severe case of musical burnout” resulted in his writing over 40 mostly science-fiction and horror novels. (His bio, which includes a pleasantly surreal testimonial calling him “the J.D. Salinger of Thailand,” also manages to name-drop Wolfgang Wagner and Takashi Miike.) Somtow himself warned that the new opera, inspired by American action movies, might “appall” some of his fellow Thais. You can listen to a bit of “Ayodhya” on Somtow’s website, and it is grand and fun in a late-Romantic Hollywood sort of way. Somtow keeps a house in Los Angeles as well—enterprising movie producers might want to look him up.

Update: ANABlog has a nicely pithy take on this. And the AP report has been updated to include reported comments from Thai Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, who regards the whole situation as silly as we do.

The Skills to Pay the Bills

A short one today: I’m actually trying to get some composing done. (What’s that you say? Most people would stop posting for a day? You have not mastered the way of procrastination, grasshopper.) Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution points to an article by economist Ed Glaeser picking apart a proposal to alter Harvard’s Core Curriculum. The money quote:

Harvard’s system of general education should emphasize methodology over topic because methods are harder to teach and learn than facts. Facts become easier to absorb by one’s self once one has a handle on methods. Harvard students can learn facts about the United Nations Security Council or the Federal Reserve Board from the New York Times or Wikipedia, but they cannot learn the tools to make sense of these institutions so readily. As students learn to think rigorously about society and how to use data to test their thoughts, they acquire a set of tools that can then be used to acquire knowledge in any setting.

Can I get an Amen? It’s one of the biggest deficiencies in higher music education as well: the emphasis on “applied” over “theoretical” knowledge. Most students regard ear training and theory as drudgery to be survived rather than the fundamental basis of everything they’re going to do. I can kind of understand why: the focus of their education is, for the most part, public performances and preparing jury repertoire. But in retrospect, my three most important teachers were: my high school choir director, Jack Olander, who also taught theory and drilled the bejeezus out of my ear; my undergrad piano professor, Dmitry Paperno, who opened my eyes to the futility of attempting to play any piece without understanding it theoretically; and my graduate composition professor, Lukas Foss, who never let me forget that the greatest idea in the world would sink like a stone without solid technical execution (and for all his legendary absentmindedness, he could pick a harmonic or contrapuntal flaw out of the most dense and dissonant texture with a frighteningly uncanny focus).

I learned stuff from all my teachers (I’m lucky in that regard), but it’s those guys that I think of the most often, just because it’s the things they taught me that I use every single day of my working life; a working life, I might add, that’s not exactly what I thought I’d be doing when I graduated. They didn’t just teach me facts or literature or repertoire (Professor Paperno would be horrified to know that my colander of a brain has kept exactly one piece in my memory out of the four years in his studio), they taught me how to deal with a piece of music—how to read it, how to hear it, how to interpret it, how to communicate it.

Most college-level theater programs do a sophomore cut: at the end of sophomore year, the faculty decides whether you’re good enough to stick around for the next two years of the program. I’ve always thought music programs should do this too; and the more I think about it, the more I think the criteria for promotion should be based around the drudgery of theory and ear training. The people I know who have made a success in this business have varying degrees of skill, technique, and repertoire mastery—what they all have in common is steel-trap musicianship. That’s how you make a living as a musician.

(Thus endeth the sermon.)

Training the High School Choir: A New Approach

There was a special way that freshmen were obligated to deal with the mistakes and errors they inevitably committed. The slogan was “The error of one is the error of all.” It was wrong and destructive to permit a new teammate to believe that an obvious error—in conduct or in performance—was his alone. Instead, when such infractions occurred, we freshmen formed two lines face to face and were required to hit each other. By doing this, each one of us could feel that it was necessary to be both sorry and responsible. There was no slacking off either. The upperclassmen who watched would make you hit again if they felt the blow you delivered was too light. I always hit hard because I did not want to be made to strike a second time. I hit hard and in turn was hit hard myself. This happened more times than I can remember.

Sadaharu Oh and David Falkner,
Sadaharu Oh: A Zen Way of Baseball
(New York Times Books, 1984)

They’ve got a little list

Some quick videos while I wait for dinner to come out of the oven.

And what of those crazy kids across the pond? Here’s Michael Tippett (who provided the name for this blog, so we always like him) conducting the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra, circa 1969, in a bit of Charles Ives’ “Putnam’s Camp.” The students nail it—not just technically, but that goofy mash-up Ives spirit as well. Why more children’s concerts aren’t all-Ives affairs I’ll never know.

Coming distractions

Those of you in the Boston area looking for something to do this Saturday night (November 18): as part of Boston Conservatory’s New Music Festival, I will be a proud temporary member of the student-run Ludovico Ensemble, performing Morton Feldman’s “Three Pieces for Piano” (1954). Festivities start at 8 pm in Seully Hall.

It’s a cool piece that makes for an interesting problem: how much do I interpretively acknowledge Feldman’s mature style in playing this early music? The “Three Pieces” are sparse and quiet, but also much more pointillistic, dissonant, and non-repetitive than Feldman’s later, better-known music. Do I stretch the time out to make the piece sound more like you expect a Feldman piece to sound? Do I emphasize the Webern-esque nature of the writing to highlight where Feldman diverges from the prevailing mid-1950’s path? If I try to strike a balance, will that just make the piece bland? I still have the rest of the week to tinker with it—right now I’m trying for the temporal disorientation I love in so much of Feldman’s output, but the expressionistic side of me may yet win out. Suspense! Drama! All your burning questions will be answered Saturday night.

(It also strikes me that Feldman could be considered yet another exception to the increasingly suspect rule regarding composer careers I promulgated in yesterday’s post. I’m telling you, it takes me forever to wake up on Monday mornings. I still stand by the unwitting persistence of the idea of musical progress, though.)

The Festival runs Thursday through Sunday and includes perfomances by the Argento Ensemble and Harvard’s White Rabbit. (Scroll down this page for a schedule.) The emphasis is on Webern’s influence in America—serialism, pointillism, miniaturism. All the posters have this logo:

I heart Webern
Do you think a bumper sticker of that on your car would result in more traffic tickets, or fewer? (Just don’t drive near the mess hall.)

Update: Tears of a Clownsilly has analyzed the automotive ramifications of said bumper sticker with admirably typical brilliance.

Are we there yet?

Quick: name a composer whose “late period” music is less complex and adventurous than their “early period” music. Not many. It’s easy to imagine why—the more music you write, the more fluent you get with music’s constituent elements, and the more comfortable you are experimenting with them. Often there’s a trade-off: the surface level becomes less active and dense, but the relationships between elements and the formal structures become more intricate and subtle (Brahms, Carter). In other instances, the style remains relatively constant, but the vocabulary becomes more challenging (Ravel, Copland). Sometimes the musical ideas are concentrated into utterances of great brevity and density (Webern, Stravinsky). And sometimes everything just gets really complicated (Beethoven).

This is such a common career arc for composers that I think it’s affected the way we look at the entire history of music. I’m talking about the idea of historical progress, the notion that an historical style of music supersedes another by virtue of its later chronology. There’s been no shortage of conscious debunking of this notion (Kyle Gann summed it up nicely a couple months back), but it still hangs around the subconscious, influencing musical value judgments all the time.

There’s an old trope (it made some guest appearances in a lot of the articles surrounding the recent Steve Reich birthday celebrations) that atonality was a “wrong turn” in the history of music and that, say, Reich et al. had returned music to its proper path. (Here’s a few examples.) What this implies is that there was a “right turn” that somehow everybody missed. That’s nonsense. In the first place, we only have one datum point for the evolution of Western music—for all we know, it happens this way, in this order, every time. (Compare a creationist’s anti-evolution argument based on the “improbability” of human existence.) But more importantly, the history we do have bears a lot more resemblance to a random walk than an goal-oriented path. Baroque to Classical, Romanticism to Impressionism, Serialism to Minimalism, music history is filled with sharp tacks and weird digressions. If there’s an ultimate goal to all this, we’ve certainly taken the roundabout way there.

Why is the chimera of musical progress so hard to let go of? I know why someone like Schoenberg would espouse it—the Fichte-Hegel idea of the Mind-as-Being inevitably progressing towards the Absolute must have been hard to escape in 19th-century Germany. But I also think it has to do with the similar artistic evolution of individual composers. We subconsciously assume that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny: the development of the individual somehow mirrors the development of the entire species. If a particular composer’s music gradually becomes more advanced (and you can even see this happening today among the old-school minimalists) then, somehow, it must imply that music as a whole must somehow advance and progress. Haeckel’s recapitulation theory is largely discredited in biology, but its elegance and simplicity have made it a hard intellectual habit to break. Especially in this goal-oriented society: we can’t just be driving around aimlessly; we must be headed somewhere. At least as far as music is concerned, though, it’s better to sit back and enjoy the ride.

"When I tell him I think he’s the end, he giggles a lot with his friend"

Not so tall, not so tan, but still lovely—it’s “The Girl From Ipanema,” as processed through a simulated neural map and projected onto an unfolded torus representing the gamut of Western tonal centers. I think. You should proabably ask Petr Janata, whose lab did this research. (Here’s a partial explanation.) I know it has to do with trying to localize the sensation of tonal harmony in the prefrontal cortex, but Science will only let me look at the abstract without paying. Nevertheless, Dr. Janata has posted a movie (very big file, but worth it) of the whole song that, well, moves so cool and sways so gently. Perfect for a Friday.

And now that the song is stuck in your head, here’s 54 covers of it to tide you over.

The title comes from Mary Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim’s lethal parody “The Boy From…” (which has been hilariously translated into American Sign Language—fingerspelling the name of the town every time must bring down the house).

One-hit wonder

I returned home from my usual Thursday hike in the woods with critic-at-large Moe (who has new reviews coming, he swears) to find it’s now more-or-less official that the Democrats have retaken both houses of Congress, which, in historical terms, is a fairly significant pasting. Tough luck, Republicans! But, like the song says, it’s all in the game.

Jo Davidson bust of Charles DawesYou don’t know that song? You should—it’s composition is but one unlikely highlight of one of the more spectacularly adventurous résumés to ever come out of the Republican party. I refer to the career of Vice-President, bureaucrat, banker, Nobel laureate, and, yes, unexpected hitmaker Charles Gates “Hell and Maria” Dawes. (His vice-presidential bust, by sculptor Jo Davidson, is at right.)

Born in Ohio into an illustrious family (look up “William Dawes” in a history of the Revolutionary War sometime), Dawes picked up a law degree before being sent to Nebraska to watch over the real estate holdings of Ohio’s ex-governor. There, he became friends with his political opposite, William Jennings Bryan; Dawes wrote his first book to argue against Bryan’s free-silver monetary policies. (Bryan wanted to move off the gold standard to boost prices for farmers; Dawes, as we’ll see, tried to do right by farmers in his own way later on.) Dawes had the misfortune to invest in a local bank just before the Panic of 1893, but had enough money to land on his feet, buying some utility companies and moving to Illinois.

In Chicago, Dawes caught the political bug, becoming an influential behind-the-scenes man in Mark Hanna’s political machine, which would soon elect William McKinley president. His patronage reward was an appointment as Comptroller of the Currency, in charge of regulating national banks. In Washington, Dawes was a favorite guest of the President; a self-taught pianist, he often entertained McKinley and his wife at the White House. Dawes ran for the Senate, having been promised a McKinley endorsement, but after McKinley’s assassination, new president Theodore Roosevelt threw his support behind his friend Albert Hopkins, and Dawes was defeated.

Dawes returned home and founded the Central Trust Company of Illinois. He retired from public service and concentrated on his family and the banking business. His son Rufus accidentally drowned in 1912; in his memory, Dawes founded the Rufus Dawes Hotel for Destitute Men in Chicago and Boston (the Boston branch still exists as the Pine Street Inn). He also worked at his music: a “Melodie in A” written in 1911 so impressed a violinist friend that he secretly had the piece published. Dawes was soon surprised to see his photo peering out from the window of a Chicago music store. “I know that I will be the target of my punster friends,” Dawes quipped. “They will say that if all the notes in my bank are as bad as my musical ones, they are not worth the paper they were written on.” The “Melodie” became a favorite of violinist Fritz Kreisler.

World War I made Dawes a national figure. At 52, he was seemingly too old to serve in uniform, but he had an old Nebraska acquaintance in the army: “Black Jack” Pershing, soon to be commander of the Allied forces in Europe. Dawes became the chief of supply procurement for the Americans, and later, the American representative on the Military Board of Allied Supply. Such was the origin of his nickname: after the war, a Republican House committee called Dawes to testify in an investigation into war spending, attempting to tarnish the policies of former Democratic president Woodrow Wilson. Asked how much he paid for French horses, Dawes, as was his habit, snapped. “Hell’n Maria!” he said. “I will tell you this, that we would have paid horse prices for sheep, if they could have hauled artillery!” “Hell and Maria” Dawes became a celebrity. (Dawes would insist that the expression was actually “Helen Maria,” but nobody really believed him.)

In 1921, Dawes became the first head of what is now the Office of Management and Budget, and when Germany defaulted on payment of war reparations in 1923, Dawes was called in as the head of a committee to try and fix the mess. The Dawes Plan got Allied troops out of the coal-rich Ruhr valley, adjusted Germany’s payment schedule, and financed it with an arrangement of foreign loans and various taxes. For his efforts, Dawes was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1925. While the plan temporarily curbed German hyperinflation, its reliance on foreign money proved excessive as the bloom wore off the economy of the 1920’s, and it was superseded by the Young Plan in the 1930’s. Given the eventual disintegration of German society and the rise of the National Socialists, Dawes’ Nobel seems, in retrospect, more an expression of hope in the effort than success in the implementation (though, as Peace prizes go, it’s nowhere near as absurd as Henry Kissinger’s).

Drafted (as a third choice) as Calvin Coolidge’s running mate, Dawes was vice-presidential trouble from the get-go. Addressing the Senate at his inaugural, Dawes blasted the senators for their secrecy and over-reliance on filibustering. The surprisingly harsh speech overshadowed Coolidge’s own inaugural address later the same day. The relationship had already been strained when Dawes informed Coolidge that he didn’t think his vice-presidential duties included cabinet meetings; it further deteriorated when an ill-timed Dawes nap resulted in the Senate voting not to confirm Coolidge’s nominee for Attorney General. Dawes didn’t back off, continuing to press his case against the filibuster and working behind the scenes to advance his own agenda. He employed considerable diplomacy to get a major farm relief bill through the Senate; Coolidge vetoed it twice. (Dawes had some history of mildly bucking his own party—he supported the League of Nations, and had convinced McKinley to keep Theodore Roosevelt as his running mate when the rest of the Republican machinery was against him.)

Dawes was unceremoniously dropped from the ticket when Coolidge opted not to seek re-election; a short and unsatisfactory stint as Ambassador to Great Britain ended when President Hoover convinced Dawes to run the newly-formed Reconstruction Finance Corporation, a bank bailout program. Dawes soon had to resign the position, when his own bank, now the Central Republic Bank & Trust, itself needed a loan from the RFC. The Central Republic Bank was soon liquidated; Dawes reorganized under another name and paid back the loan. (The bank was eventually bought by the Chicago giant Continental.)

Dawes died in 1951. That year, lyricist Carl Sigman, previously responsible for “Arrivederci Roma” and “Pennsylvania 6-5000,” wrote words to Dawes’ old “Melodie in A.”

Many a tear has to fall
But it’s all in the game
All in the wonderful game
That we know as love

The song became a #1 hit for Tommy Edwards, and has subsequently been covered by the Four Tops, Van Morrison, Barry Manilow, Elton John, and others. Ironically, Dawes himself had grown to loathe the tune—as vice-president, brass bands and restaurant violinists had serenaded him with it everywhere he went. As he put it, “General Sherman, with justifiable profanity once expressed his detestation of the tune ‘Marching Through Georgia,’ to which he was compelled to listen whenever he appeared anywhere. I sympathize with his feeling when I listen to this piece of mine over and over.”

Acknowledgments to Senate historian Mark Hatfield’s biography of Dawes, and Bill Kauffman’s article “The Melodious Veep,” which provided much of this information.

Le travail du peintre

A few weeks ago, I mentioned a bunch of Klimt paintings that had been looted by the Nazis during World War II and then, recently, had been returned to the descendants of their original owners. This week, some of those Klimts are being auctioned off. Which ended up being the second biggest art story of the week, after another painting came under similar suspicion.

Picasso Portrait of Angel Fernandez de Soto
You’re looking at Picasso’s “Portrait of Angel Fernandez de Soto,” a masterpiece from the artist’s Blue Period. A federal judge temporarily blocked (and then allowed) the painting’s sale this week, responding to a lawsuit by Julius Schoeps, who claimed that the Nazis had improperly pressured his great-uncle to sell the work below market value back in the 1930’s. That is, his great-uncle Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, as in Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (Paul was his nephew). In addition to heading the Moses Mendelssohn Center at the University of Potsdam, Schoeps has been pursuing the divested remnants of the Mendelssohn family’s rather impressive art collection; he similarly challenged the 2004 sale of Picasso’s “Boy With a Pipe.”

Oh, and the current owner of the Fernandez de Soto portrait? That would be Andrew Lloyd Webber’s charitable foundation. Mendelssohn suing Andrew Lloyd Webber! Schoeps’ attorneys say they will refile their suit in state court. Can we somehow get Randol Schoenberg involved with this? Because that would be awesome.

Update: the catalog for the auction is online. (There’s a couple of Mondrians. I’m a big fan. Christmas is coming up….)

Update, the sequel: Christie’s and Lloyd Webber pulled the painting off the block themselves, citing the pending state suit. Christie’s president Marc Porter warns: “We reserve the right to seek damages.” Imagine a British accent for the proper menace.