Month: December 2006

The song that goes like this

Colin had a good post over at NewMusicBox this week about giving pieces titles (an unusually fine comment thread, as well). He takes Penderecki to task for his opportunism* in renaming the originally abstract “Threnody” to be a remembrance of the victims of Hiroshima, but concedes that it was a canny move: “I’d wager that the ugliest, most ear-splitting piece imaginable could win over a 21st century crowd if it had the perfect title.”

Here’s the problem/opportunity with titles on pieces of music: once you move outside the most bland and academic appellation—either a shout-out to the basic form (Sonata, Suite, etc.) or a list of who’s playing (String Quartet, Symphony)—you’re essentially using the language in a surreal way, and that sometimes results in a bit of cognitive dissonance with the piece itself. Describing music is a notoriously difficult challenge for language, and to sum up even the simplest piece in less than ten words is pretty much impossible. Which means any title you apply is a) somewhat disconnected from the piece, and, more interestingly, b) somewhat disconnected from itself: you’re taking words that normally have agreed-upon meanings and putting them in a situation where either they become meaningless by virtue of their necessary inadequacy, or they’re being used in a deliberately misleading way. Both results are traditionally surreal: the language is being alienated from itself, either directly or indirectly.

If your aesthetic is a surreal one, this isn’t a problem; you can easily come up with titles that not only aren’t jarringly incongruent with the music, but actually contribute to the overall effect. (Think of Satie.) But if your artistic goals are less informed by the powers and pleasures of absurdity, titles can be a tricky business. The safe way to go is the previously mentioned bland and academic path, but of course, you’re surrounded by people telling you that you need to do more to get people interested in your music, that you need to grab their attention and get them to want to hear what you’ve written. They’ve got a point: the marketing possibilities of an effective title are not inconsiderable, and few of us have trust funds that would enable a willful ignorance of the realities of the marketplace. But if you’re not referencing an artistic tradition (like Surrealism) where a certain amount of bait-and-switch is not only expected, but welcomed, you run the risk of disappointing the guileless and annoying the skeptical: if you call your offering “Elegy to 9/11,” plenty of people will find it to be a shallow experience compared with their expectations, and plenty of others will find it to be nothing more than a cheap stunt.

What can you do? You can set texts: naming the piece after the poem that’s being sung shifts the above burdens to the poet. (This can work for non-vocal music as well: find a pre-existing literary title or quotation that has a vague connection to your piece, and it has a certain inoculating effect. Boulez does this all the time; I’ve resorted to it on occasion.) You can take refuge in a certain hip snarkiness: the Bang On a Can types do this a lot, and often quite well, coming up with titles that are just abrasive and anti-establishment enough to give the expectation of listening that frisson of sitting at the cool table in the cafeteria. You can opt for puns: titles become such obvious and deliberate jokes that they detach themselves from the piece, and become more of an intellectual amuse-bouche for the listener. (Milton Babbitt and Michael Gandolfi are the acknowledged masters of the practice.) You can reference events or relationships so private that the audience is completely locked out of determining the appropriateness of your choice. (Think of every piece you’ve ever heard with a title like “For [person known only to the composer].”) Or you could go ahead and name-drop a great event/historical figure/tragedy, and hope that you get away with it. (It worked for Penderecki, in spades.)

I guess I’m lucky in that my own music seems to lend itself to a certain amount of leeway in creative titling, but that’s probably because my musical taste has also been heavily influenced by my literary taste, which does run towards the surreal. I like linguistically alienating effects; I like focusing on the meanings of individual words out of context; I like the poetic point where one can slip back and forth between the sounds of words and the meanings of words a little too easily. So it’s only natural that I also like playing in the space between a piece of music and its title. But I’ll admit that the ground there gets a little slippery at times.

*Update (12/17): as Alex Ross rightly points out in the comments, how responsible we should hold Penderecki for the renaming is unclear given the murky moral ground of totalitarian Poland.

Dreidel Attraction

Hanukkah begins at sundown tomorrow. As I’ve been out and about this holiday season, I’ve been pleased to see that the amount of cheap, impulse-buy Hanukkah tchotchkes has been on the rise—still nowhere near Christmas swag, but a noticeable uptick nonetheless. So the other day, I picked up one of these:

It’s hollow plastic; inside is a battery, a sound chip, a couple of LEDs, and a spring-loaded switch. When you spin it, the centrifugal force closes the switch, and the thing lights up and plays a tinny electronic version of “The Dreidel Song.” Clever.

The sound chip itself is somewhat primitive, though—by comparison, for my birthday last year, my inlaws got me a card (at right) that, when you open it, plays an excerpt from an actual orchestral recording of “Ride of the Valkyries.” Pretty cool.

Now, like most people, I’m ambivalent about Wagner—I mean, nice music and all, but oy vey, Richard, always with the anti-Semitism—and I’m not above giving the man a bit of a karmic wedgie when the opportunity presents itself.

So—hack apart the dreidel:

Recycle the chip from the birthday card:

Solder the new chip into the dreidel circuit:

And put the whole thing back together:

Here it is in action:

I love the smell of suganiyot in the morning!

Only twelve notes that a man can play

Courtesy of Kyle Gann, four minutes of Oscar Peterson playing an eight-bar blues of Lisztian transcendence. Jesus mercy.

Two of my heroes when I was a kid were Peterson, for reasons obvious to anyone who remembers what it’s like to be a beginning pianist, and my dad, for (among other things) looking the other way when I essentially appropriated all of his Oscar Peterson records and played the hell out of them. He and my mom saw the man himself a few times when he would make periodic appearances at the London House in Chicago. I’m jealous.

"Si tu veux je te donnerai"

It’s that time of year again—the shopping, the malls, the conspicuous consumption—you know, gift time. And you’re completely stymied as to what to get the composer in your life. CDs? Pens? A paying job? Here’s a few suggestions to help cross those remaining names off your list.

Is it baby’s first Christmas / Hanukkah / Kwanzaa / Dies Natalis Solis Invicti? Soothe the little prodigy to sleep in the new year with a brand-new music box—a Stockhausen music box, that is! Yes, the tinkling sounds of one of the foremost avant-garde composers of our fractured modern world can inspire your infant to dream of being an angel made completely of light accompanying the vibrations of space and time themselves on a cosmic trumpet. Once they get to Kindergarten, imagine how quotidian the other children will seem! (Actually, when I was a toddler, I had a beloved music box that played the theme from “Camelot,” and look how I turned out. Imagine if I had been winding up one of these.)

If all you want for Christmas is to escape your humdrum existence, you’re in luck—now you can be Pulitzer-prize-winning composer Michael Colgrass for a day! Heck, you can be Michael Colgrass for the rest of your life once you find his entire archive of manuscripts and correspondence in your stocking. For a mere $135,000, you can fill your files with actual honored works commissioned by major ensembles, and leave a stack of mail from the likes of Sessions, Stravinsky, Cage, Copland, Persichetti, and Harold Pinter on your kitchen counter. Identity theft has never been so classy. Extra fun: go to town with a pencil and an eraser and hopelessly confuse generations of future musicologists!

Know somebody who turns every backyard cookout into an immolation scene? Someone who sends every steak and chop to a charred, kerosene-scented Valhalla? Let them tend that magic fire in style with this Richard Wagner BBQ apron. Now your Saturday-afternoon Siegfried can grill those burgers until they’re tougher than Nothung itself, and remain unmolested by the Fafner and Fasolt of spills and splatters—so that once your meal is plunged into a river of inedibility, he’ll still be clean enough to take you out. (OK, OK, I’ll stop now.)

The female (or cross-dressing) scribbler on your list will love these “Composer” pumps by designer Richard Tyler. The shoe “features corset-style lacing” over a leopard-print insert—nothing says “music of the future” like faux-leopard bondage gear! Besides, it’s “flirty”—and we all know how composers need to attract new audiences. (What? You want them to like you for your music? Good luck with that.)

And finally, for the person who has everything, and thus is in desperate need of sabotage from jealous colleagues, head over to eBay for this copy of Pietro Deiro and Alfred d’Auberge’s Atonal Studies for Accordion. After your successful composer tastes the forbidden fruit of the 12-tone squeezebox, everything else will seem bland and pointless—and the resulting string of Schoenbergian polkas will send that once-promising career further south than Roald Amundsen. (Honestly? I want this one bad. And the music box, too. I love that music box. And I’ve been pretty good this year! I mean, for me.)


All was happy-go-lucky joy; and, at two o’clock, as Branton Hills’ Municipal Band, (a part of Gadsby’s Organization of Youth’s work, you know) struck up a bright march, not a glum physiognomy was found in all that big park.

Gadsby and Lucy had much curiosity in watching what such crashing music would do to various animals. At first a spirit akin to worry had baboons, gorillas, and such, staring about, as still as so many posts; until, finding that no harm was coming from such sounds, soon took to climbing and swinging again. Stags, yaks and llamas did a bit of high-kicking at first; Gadsby figuring that drums, and not actual music, did it. But a lilting waltzing aria did not worry any part of this big zoo family; in fact, a fox, wolf and jackal, in a quandary at first actually lay down, as though music truly “hath charms to calm a wild bosom.”

—Ernest Vincent Wright,
Gadsby, 1939

IGOR STRAVINSKY was such a firebird that he loved going to the zoo “to watch the wild animals at feeding time, when they devoured the raw meat.”

“Shadows From a Lunarium,”
Time Magazine, February 24, 1958
(review of First Person Plural by Dagmar Godowsky)

Some say that music hath charms
To soothe the savage beast
I’ve also heard some people say
That enough is as good as a feast
Now I once paid court to a maid
I’d have stuck to her too, like gum
But she went music mad, alas
Thro’ her violent taste for the drum

G.W. Hunt, “Music Hath Charms”

To Serve Man

It’s the time of year when people show up at your house and you have to feed them, so I’ve been using my brief snatches of spare time to browse through cookbooks. One of my favorites (partially because it tends toward the impractical) is the venerable Larousse Gastronomique. One of the fun things about it, at least the old edition: it’s got a fair amount of food named after composers.

Most chef wannabes know about dishes named for Rossini: take just about any foodstuff, cover it with a Madiera sauce, and garnish it with truffles and sautéed foie gras, and voila! you’ve got [foodstuff] Rossini. But there’s more where that came from, and, oddly, most of them seem to be egg dishes. Here’s a few:

Oeufs Auber: Stuffed halved tomatoes with a chicken forcemeat mixed with chopped truffles. Top each tomato with a soft-boiled or poached egg. Make a velouté sauce (white sauce) flavored with tomato paste; at the last minute, add a julienne of truffles that have been cooked in sherry. Cover the eggs with the sauce.

Oeufs Berlioz: Make some oval croustades from Duchesse potato mixture, and brown them in the oven. Fill the croustades with a salpiçon of truffles and mushrooms blended with a thick Madiera sauce. Top each croustade with a soft-boiled or poached egg. Lightly cover the eggs with a sauce Suprême (velouté enriched with cream). Fill the middle of the dish with fried cock’s combs à la Villeroi (poached in court-boullion and dredged in breadcrumbs).

Oeufs Bizet: Butter individual molds and line them with finely chopped pickled tongue and truffles. Break an egg into each mold and poach them in a bain-marie. Cook some artichoke hearts in butter. Unmold the eggs and place one on each artichoke heart. Cover with a Périgueux sauce (demi-glace with chopped truffles). Garnish each egg with a slice of truffle.

Oeufs Meyerbeer: Garnish shirred eggs with grilled lamb kidney. Surround the eggs with a ring of Périgueux sauce.

I love offal, so that last one actually sounds pretty good to me. And the eggs Berlioz might make a fun weekend project the next time I’m in an Asian grocery that carries cock’s combs. But notice: every one of these composers has been dead for a century or more. All the composers who came after—what are they? Chopped liver? Literally? No, we have to fix this.

Eggs Carter: Break an egg into a pan with a multitude of other ingredients, and place on the stove. Continually and simultaneously vary both the temperature and the cooking time. The dish is done when the aggregate intervals of the other ingredients allegorically crush the individuality of the egg.

Eggs Ives: Cook the egg in water, clear water from a mountain lake that a dilettante might try to write a song about. Boil it—hard-boil it—until the yolk is a firm yellow globe—a sun shining on manly hearts with cleaned-out ears. Sissies like a runny yolk, but real beauty—natural beauty—is not to be found in liquidy prettiness—the pale imitations of the passing spectacle must give way to the hard truths of the soul. Emerson once said, “Yonder masterful cuckoo / Crowds every egg out of the nest.”

Eggs Feldman: Extremely soft-boiled. Durations are free.

Eggs Nancarrow: That’s huevos Nancarrow, you stupid gringo!

Eggs Partch: Build your own oven. Calibrate both the thermostat and the timer to non-Western scales of your own invention. Then bake the eggs at 943 degrees for 17,000 minutes, or until the yolks are set. Top each egg with a slice of peyote.

Eggs Rorem: January 23—Dinner at Lenny and Felicia’s with Judy Collins, Edward Albee, the Carters, Virgil, Gore, and Mayor Lindsay, who seemed to have wandered into the wrong apartment. Every course made from eggs, a typical Bernstein obsession that will burn bright and then fade by next week. At the end of dessert, Lenny pulls out a chafing dish and, with Hollywood flair, announces that he will make eggs in the true Parisian style, which he then attempts with American ingredients. When the Vicomtesse showed me how to make eggs, she only used Parisian ingredients. I know these ingredients exist, because I saw them when I was in Paris. I leave early, fleeing into the gray city snow. I must send an apologetic card to Felicia tomorrow. The snow makes one sad; the whole world looks fragile, like an eggshell.

Eggs Schwantner: Crack an egg into a crystal goblet. Run a moistened finger around the rim of the goblet until the egg is vibrating at the same frequency as background radiation from the Big Bang. Serve on a bed of maj7(#11) chords.

Eggs Strauss: Give an egg to a singer. Cover with the orchestra.

Eggs Zorn: Cook as many eggs as you like in as many different ways as you can think of. Serve them all on the same plate. Garnish with matzo.

Eggs Soho the Dog: Do a Google search for “egg recipes.” Pick the funniest one. Link to it. Repeat five times a week.

Who have I forgotten? Leave ’em in the comments, and I’ll post the most appetizing ones.

Sing, Sing, Sing

I told you not to mess with the Freemasons! Booing drives Alagna out of the La Scala Aida in a fit of petulance: Opera Chic has the marvelous details here, here, here, here, and here. (My, that is silly of me: just go here and scroll down.) I like applause as much as anyone, but I have to say my two favorite audience reactions are booing and dead silence: with the latter, you know you’ve got them, and with the former, well, better sincere booing than polite applause anyday.

Now, if you’re going to cause an operatic scandal with offensive props, it might help to actually hang onto them. The Deutsche Oper Berlin has somehow lost the fake severed heads of Jesus, Buddha, Poseidon, and, most crucially, the prophet Mohammed from that off-again, on-again production of Idomeneo that got everyone into a frenzy. If those heads aren’t up on eBay within the fortnight, the terrorists have won.

And in a break from silliness, Jeremy Eichler previews the upcoming CD release of the Lieberson Neruda Songs, and includes a sound clip, so you can see if it’s really as special (Yes. Yes, it is) as everyone keeps telling you. (One of the borrowed studios I accompany in at Boston Conservatory still has a poster for a student recital by Victoria Livengood and Lorraine Hunt, which I always find an unusually touching artifact.)


Geoff Edgers passes along news and photos of Mother Nature having her revenge on Tanglewood, no doubt for all the global warming caused by those post-concert backups of BMWs and Lexuses extending from West Street all the way to the Pike. The bulk of the damage seems to be to Seranak, the old Koussevitsky estate (named for Serge and Natalie Koussevitsky—it strikes me that if the missus and I were to do the same thing, our house would be called “Chummagoo”).

Full disclosure: I was a Tanglewood fellow the first year that they decided to house the composers at Miss Hall’s School, rather than the comparatively swankier confines of Seranak, so I can’t help feeling a little sense of karmic realignment. Ha! No, seriously, I have great memories of a couple of dinners up there—and the balcony is a breathtaking place to watch a storm roll in.