Month: January 2007

Where Are We Going? And What Are We Eating?

Baked Carrots

12 medium-sized or 6 large carrots, scraped
3 tablespoons sesame oil
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons chopped parsley or toasted sesame seeds (for garnish)

Soak a covered clay baking dish for 1/2 hour. Place the carrots in the bottom and sprinkle with the sesame oil. Dust with a little salt and pepper, cover, and place the dish in a cold oven. Set the thermostat at 400º and bake for about 1 hour, or until the carrots are lightly caramelized, turning occasionally. Serve immediately, sprinkled with parsley or sesame seeds.

—John Cage

From The Boston Symphony Cookbook (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983). I’ll post more as I try them. (Coming soon: Barbara Kolb’s Meat Loaf Soufflé.)

Correction (1/29): I got the title wrong. The Cage piece I was thinking of, a culinary gloss on his earlier lecture-piece, is actually called “Where Are We Eating? and What Are We Eating?” It’s reprinted in the collection Empty Words.

Peccadilles Importunes

The book of the week here at Soho the Dog HQ is Erik Satie, Pierre-Daniel Templier’s pioneering 1932 biography, translated into English by Elena L. and David S. French in 1969. (Dig the groovy pink cover at right.) Templier, working with Satie’s brother Conrad, produced a remarkably judicious account—although he did miss several of Satie’s works and one of his sisters. Still, it’s an impressive feat of putting an entire career in perspective, especially coming less than a decade after the subject’s death.

Templier, even at this early date, was already wrestling with one of the trickiest aspects of Satie criticism: is the importance of Satie due to the intrinsic quality of his music, or his role as a patron saint to one avant-garde movement after another? Templier warns us:

This book was not written to sing the praise of Satie the prophet: it is precisely this quality which has been used to mask the real musical value of his compositions.

True enough; but any assessment of Satie has to note his unusual talent for finding successive generations of enfants terrible to mentor. Ravel and the Société Musicale Indépendente, the Nouveaux Jeunes and Les Six, Cocteau and Picabia, Dada and Surrealism—Satie managed to get in on the ground floor again and again, and at twice the age of his young colleagues. Templier again:

When he had conceived and produced a work for which he adopted a new style, he would immediately perceive its drawbacks, its weak spots and deformations, as well as the processes by which his new idea would later be altered. This foresight may have prevented him from expressing himself more fully…. Never satisfied with his achievements, he was always searching for something new; at the age of 55 he said to his friends: “If anyone were to find something really new, I would start again at the beginning.”

What’s more, it was this association with each newer movement that finally brought Satie the stature he craved. You start to see the problem: if it wasn’t for Satie’s position as a proto-this and -that, Satie wouldn’t have written a lot of the music that his reputation should be resting on, rather than his position as a precursor to multiple streams of modern art. The dusty, traditional tripartite structure—life, personality, works—proves an aid to Templier in this regard. He’s able to discuss Satie’s career, speculate on his motivations, and talk about the music without having to decide exactly how they all fit together, if they ever even did.

You can sense Templier’s relief when he gets to talk about Socrate, the one major, high-profile work in which Satie seemed to be aiming for something timeless and personal. But even that is balanced by Templier’s recognition that the usual great-artist clichés crumble to dust as soon as they come in contact with Satie.

If [the ballets] “Mercure” and “Relâche” did not meet with great success, it is not because these works are inferior, but because they were overshadowed by “Socrate.” In the minds of “serious” people, Satie did not have the right to “sully his hands” with these two ballets, which appeared to them as a regression. To forgive such ups and downs, they could only have invoked the excuse of genius, which is what they did in the case of Picasso and Stravinsky. Satie, however, was considered to be not an artist of genius but simply a practical joker….

A worthwhile read, the book is out of print, but not terribly hard to find. (All good people spend inordinate amounts of time in libraries and used book stores anyways, right?) One more interesting thing: it often seems that either Templier or his translators are consciously aiming for a literary analogue to Satie’s musical style: aphoristic and solidly constructed sentences that put the more eccentric and poetic touches into higher relief for being stated so directly. (I once read somewhere that John Cage hated this translation, but Cage was known to be rather touchy and protective regarding all things Satie-related.) Again, Satie himself complicates this judgment: it may very well be that the author(s) were emulating Satie’s own prose style, of which there is an ample supply. But I would guess that, for such a stylistic experiment, Satie would prove a good subject. The only other similar exercise I can think of is that recent classic, Louis Andriessen and Elmer Schönberger’s The Apollonian Clockwork: On Stravinsky— although Jerrold Northrop Moore’s Elgar: A Creative Life, which intriguingly attempts to reconstruct Elgar’s compositional thought process, sometimes approaches this territory.

Finally, I can’t resist this passage, which Templier quotes. For a time, Satie contributed to a neighborhood newspaper, writing little squibs promoting local events and businesses. Here’s his ad for a dancing school:

BEING BITTEN BY A MONKEYis less fun than a visit to 60 Rue Emile-Raspail—chez l’Ami Jacob—the dancing school “La marguerite.”

I’m sold.

Allegra non troppo

In a discovery that has implications for all kinds of things that are probably best left to the imagination, it turns out that listening to Mozart can make you less allergic to latex. Need to read that again? Yeah, I thought so.

[L]istening to Mozart reduced allergen-induced skin wheal responses with a concomitant decrease of total and allergen-specific IgE production. The reduction of wheal response was allergen-specific because listening to Mozart had no effect on histamine-induced wheal responses, that were not allergen-specific.

That’s from “Listening to Mozart Reduces Allergic Skin Wheal Responses and In Vitro Allergen-specific IgE Production in Atopic Dermatitis Patients With Latex Allergy” by Hajime Kimata, published in the journal Behavioral Medicine in Spring 2003—you can read the abstract here. (IgE, by the way, is an immunoglobulin in the blood that is often responsible for allergic reactions; one of the symptoms it causes is swelling, which lets you test a reaction by pricking the skin, irritating it with a small amount of an allergen, and seeing how much the spot swells up.) Dr. Kimata performed skin prick tests on latex-allergic volunteers before and after a half-hour of Mozart recordings. Interestingly, he also tried a half-hour of Beethoven.

[T]he skin wheal responses induced by latex or histamine were not changed after listening to Beethoven. In contrast, the wheal responses induced by latex, but not by histamine, were significantly reduced after listening to Mozart. Moreover, whereas listening to Beethoven had no effect on in vitro production of total IgE and latex-specific IgE by mononuclear cells, listening to Mozart significantly reduced in vitro production of total IgE and latex-specific IgE.

…I have also studied the effect of other classical music. Listening to Haydn (Trumpet Concerto in E-flat major 1st mov: Allegro, Symphony No. 101 in D major The Clock, 1st mov: Adagio-Presto, 2nd mov: Andante, 3rd mov: Menuetto; Allegretto, and 4th mov: Finale; Vivace) or Brahms (Clarinet Quintet in B minor 1st mov., Symphony No. 2 in D major 3rd mov., Symphony No. 1 in C minor 3rd mov., and Symphony No. 3 in F major 3rd mov.) failed to reduce allergic skin wheal responses (data not shown).

Dr. Kimata, head of the allergy department at Satou Hospital in Osaka, Japan, has also determined that allergic reactions can also be lessened by funny movies, sad movies, and getting from first base all the way around to home. Who knew that, every time Don Giovanni scratched his itch, it left him with a little less itch to scratch?

We can’t all, and some of us don’t

The new year has brought a renewed spate of gloomy forecasts for the future of classical music. Just among the heavy hitters, Greg Sandow warns, Terry Teachout concurs, Alex Ross demurs, and Kyle Gann opts for Apollonian detachment. As far as I’m concerned, they’ve all got it right. Sandow et al are correct in saying that classical music is in crisis, but really, classical music has always been in some sort of crisis, artistic or economic; Ross et al are correct to say that there’s good news out there, but again, there’s always been some sort of good news out there. And Gann et al are correct to say that limiting your focus to mainstream classical music means ignoring a lot of less easily categorizable musical activity; again, nothing new there (after all, the opposing sides in the Querelle des Bouffons remained undistracted by the composition of the enduring masterpiece “Yankee Doodle” on the other side of the Channel).

That’s a deeply dissatisfying answer, isn’t it? We want somebody to be right, and everybody else to be wrong. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, my own opinion probably falls somewhere in between Ross and Gann—Sandow’s analysis of an aging audience, which is based mostly on orchestral concert attendance, is balanced by what I see as entrepreneurial energy in chamber and new music groups (some of them pretty far removed from what we would consider as traditional classical music), and I think that digital technology is changing the rules of recording and distribution in a way that alters that economic landscape in favor of performers. And yes, symphony orchestras are going to feel an economic pinch, but, given their institutionalized fundraising, that doesn’t mean they’re going to disappear, particularly the big ones—consider the Boston Symphony’s $300 million endowment.

The thing about predictions, though, is they’re equal parts expression of faith and factual extrapolation; in other words, I don’t consider myself to be right, just (uncharacteristically for me) optimistic based on what I can see. The point is, one’s opinion as to the future course of the arts depends as much on aesthetic personality as it does on analysis. I’m not saying that arguing one way or another is necessarily a sign of sophistry or cynical calculation—far from it. But our aesthetic personalities aren’t imposed from without by force of logic, they’re something that all of us who care about artistic values construct for ourselves. That personality affects not just how we perceive art, but the state of the art as well. You’d be correct to say that music as we know it is not long for this world, but that’s always going to be the case: music (like the rest of the arts) is continually in flux, constantly innovating, constantly reacting, constantly adapting to the twists and turns of history and technology—it’s a creative endeavor, after all. Whether you view that perennial change as good or bad is up to you, but not to worry: both views can be artistically fruitful.

Example: British composer, conductor, critic and wit Constant Lambert. Over the past few years, Lambert has become one of my favorite composers, and I think he’s one of the most fascinating musical figures of the 20th century. He’s a bundle of contradictions: a musical classicist who gave serious recognition to jazz (particularly Duke Ellington) long before anyone else did, a contibutor to progressive journals whose comments could reveal casual racism and anti-Semitism, a prodigy who managed to survive into productive adulthood and then destroyed himself with drink and iatrophobia. (If anyone out there ever asks me to write a musical biography, be prepared for a Lambert pitch.)

Back on topic: one of the main features of the artistic persona that Lambert adopted was to present himself as the last of a dying breed, a poignantly witty witness to the decay of the Western musical tradition. And you have to admit, the artistic results were well worth it. Compositionally, Lambert projects an infectious, dynamic melancholy that’s a rich combination of elegiac Romanticism and brittle, jazzy modernism; as a critic, he wrote one of the all-time great musical jeremiads, Music Ho! (Haven’t read it? Head to the library—best I can tell, it’s shamefully out-of-print.) The subtitle is revealing: A Study of Music in Decline. But the book is hardly sad; the musical analyses are lapidary and incisive, and the writing itself is unfailingly lively. Obviously, Western art music hasn’t died out in the years since 1931, but Lambert’s pessimism on that count crucially fueled his artistic activity, which remains engaging and vital a half-century after his death.

It’s a touchy chicken-and-egg problem: does pessimism (or optimism) fuel a person’s particular artistic values, or are those values shaped by the person’s predisposed outlook on life? (And what about avoiding conflict by putting tough questions in a large enough perspective that one can instead muse on the complex process of developing a personal aesthetic? Hmmm….) I think there’s also an interesting study to be made comparing decline-and-fall narratives across topics and media; a lot of the ones I can think of off the top of my head, from Jeremiah to Gibbon to Waugh to Auden, are far more vigorous than you’d expect from the subject matter. (Check out Nik Cohn’s Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom, for example, a late ‘60s eulogy for rock-and-roll that has more energy and point than almost anything else ever written on popular music.) Nietzsche once tried to pin this idea down, in the final version of The Birth of Tragedy:

Is there a pessimism of strength? An intellectual predilection for the hard, gruesome, evil, problematic aspect of existence, prompted by well-being, by overflowing health, by the fullness of existence?

No doubt, for some artists, there’s a bigger charge in channeling Cassandra than Pangloss. Do I take their gloom-and-doom with a grain of salt? Sure, and I’d bet they’d do likewise if I tried to let the sunshine in. But it’s the salt that brings out the flavor.

Update (1/29): Alex Ross has a post on upward trends in the classical recording business that’s filled with good links.

Your tax dollars at work

OIS support was finally limited to obtaining recordings for radio broadcasting purposes, selected experimentally as to type and quantity. LINCOLN’s requirement of recordings (without indication of quantity) of “typical Guatemalan marimba music” could not be supplied through normal commercial channels. OIS therefore ultimately arranged through a cleared agent in New York to hire professional musicians and have recordings made at a professional studio, OIS supervising the selection of musical numbers recorded. The cost of obtaining these recordings, which totalled three hours of playing time, was approximately $800, apart from the cost of liaison and supervision and time and travel expenditures for our search for records from commercial sources.

The recordings were brought to headquarters immediately on completion and were reproduced on tapes by TSS as a precaution against loss or damage and for better technical results in radio broadcasting. TSS gave a priority to this work and the records and a set of tapes were turned over to the Barton Hall office to be sent by air freight to LINCOLN. Through misunderstanding of shipping instructions or negligence in picking up the shipment at LINCOLN, there was a delay of at least two weeks in the receipt of this material by persons cognizant of the requirement. OIS was informed in the course of ope[r]ation that a library of recordings was being acquired directly at LINCOLN. The extent of duplication of effort or cost that may have occurred is unknown. After termination of the operation OIS was informed that typical regional music had been picked up from a Honduran night club and used for rebroadcasting. Whether this rendered superfluous the special procurement of recordings in New York is unknown.

From a report entitled “RQM/OIS Support of PBSUCCESS”, dated July 21, 1954 (via the CIA Freedom of Information Act Electronic Reading Room). PBSUCCESS was the code name for the CIA-led overthrow of Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz that year. OIS is the CIA’s Office of Intelligence Support; TSS stands for Technical Services Staff. LINCOLN was the temporary CIA station set up in Florida to plan for the coup, which included broadcating propaganda into Guatemala via the radio station La Voz de la Liberacion (The voice of liberation).

Cakewalking Towards Gomorrah

Guerrieri: Three Utopian Rags (PDF, 620 Kb)
1. The Model Factory
2. The Old Phalanstery
3. The Fellow Traveler

One of my New Year’s resolutions (for 2006, that is—never let it be said that I don’t procrastinate vigorously and enthusiastically) was to have my composer website up and running. No website yet, but at least I have a domain, so here’s a bit of ragtime to get things started. (Thanks to Mark Meyer for forcing the issue and providing technical help.)

Giusto mezzo

A profile of Susan Graham.
Boston Globe, January 21, 2007.

Somthing that didn’t make it into the article that’s worth mentioning is a piece I wasn’t familiar with, Ernest Chausson’s Poeme de l’amour et de la mer for mezzo-soprano and orchestra. (There’s a couple of free mp3s of questionable legality on the Web; I won’t link to them, but they’re not hard to find. Graham has recorded the piece as well.) Graham sang it on a European tour last year with conductor Phillipe Jordan, who learned the piece from his father, Armin Jordan, who used to perform the work with Felicity Lott. It’s a gorgeous slice of French Romanticism, kind of a Gallic counterpart to Elgar’s Sea Pictures.

Chausson is often dismissed mainly because he wasn’t Debussy, much the same way that 19th-century French academic painting is unfavorably compared with Impressionism. Chausson has something in common with those older painters—they take a dramatic situation or mood, then put a certain distance between the audience and the drama via careful composition and a polished surface. In Chausson, the result is a kind of reticent grandeur that I’ve always found intriguing.

Update (1/22): My taste is validated: it turns out that the Poèmes already have a formidable fan club led by Opera Chic.

Funfair for the Common Man

Here’s my prescription for a successful symphony orchestra: cheap tickets and a ton of new music. Pipe dream, nothing—I’m merely picking up where the Federal Music Project left off. Part of the New Deal-era Works Progress Administration, the FMP was tasked with finding work for thousands of unemployed musicians around the country and promoting American culture while they were at it. In the end, if they never achieved the notoriety of the art, writing, or (especially) theatre projects, the FMP didn’t do too bad, and in some cases, the results were truly impressive in terms of both artistic value and attendance (in fact, on the latter score, they had the theatre program beat).

The FMP eventually organized 34 full symphony orchestras around the country—two in New York City alone—as well as chamber orchestras, concert bands, dance bands, and quartets, quintets, and sextets of all varieties. (Conlon Nancarrow, fresh back from the Spanish Civil War, conducted a group here in Boston.) You can see the ticket prices for the Illinois Symphony on their poster up there (via the Library of Congress): anywhere from 15 cents (for the rabble) up to 55 cents (if you were feeling particularly luxe). That’s pretty much in line with other FMP-sponsored ensembles—that is, when they weren’t giving it away for free at outdoor venues or school outreach concerts. As for the programming, orchestras adopted an unprecedentedly American slant: for example, over the course of the FMP’s seven-season lifetime (1935-1943), Philadelphia’s WPA Civic Symphony programmed American composers on forty-three percent of their concerts (nearly double the rate of the Phildelphia Orchestra), including a host of premieres from local composers: Samuel Lacier, Arthur Cohn, Harl MacDonald, Otto Mueller, James Francis Cooke—and the fact that none of those names graduated to the household variety is what’s so great about it. These were local musicians playing music by local composers for local audiences, and by all accounts, the audiences ate it up. The Civic Symphony alone averaged over 1,000 people per concert over their brief lifetime. (Facts and figures from this fascinating article by Arthur J. Jarvis; Alex Ross tried to track down some of the FMP composers a while back.)

And, yes, they were doing it while going up against the established Philadelphia Orchestra. The situation was common: the Illinois Symphony, for example, was sharing a town with Frederick Stock’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra, but carved out its own niche with adventurous programming and newsworthy premieres.

When great Finnish Composer Sibelius’ Fifth and Sixth Symphonies got their first Chicago hearings, it was not the venerable Chicago Symphony but the sprouting Illinois Symphony that played them. The Illini played few symphonic chestnuts, never repeated a composition. By the end of last season they were giving even more “first performances” than Serge Koussevitzky’s pioneering Boston Symphony. Some of their firsts were imported, some domestic. [In March of 1939] they played their hundredth composition by a U. S. composer.

That’s from a Time magazine profile of the Illinois Symphony’s conductor, Izler Solomon. The Illinoisians focused on modern novelties and cleaned up at the box office, actually turning a profit off of those 55-cent tickets. As Time put it, the Symphony “was rated as Chicago’s spiciest highbrow musical institution, and Chicago’s wide-awake concertgoers were afraid to stay away for fear of missing something good.”

Could a program like this exist today? There’s almost certainly enough musicians out there—maybe not as many as in the 1930’s, when even movie theaters continued to have live bands, but most major metropolitan areas already field at least one freelance orchestra in addition to the local civic insitution. (There are two that I can think of that even emulate the Illinois Symphony’s programming philosophy—the American Composers’ Orchestra in New York and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project—but the freelance aspect limits their season to only a few concerts a year.) Brand-new music is a built-in “unique selling proposition,” to use the appropriate jargon, and the focus on local composers could probably expand from a point of local interest to one of local pride if the ensemble built a high enough profile. The ticket price? There’s the rub—live performance has become so cost-intensive that there’s no chance of the equivalent of a 15-cent admission without some serious outside funding, be that private or governmental. Right now, the modus operandi of the NEA and similar state and local funding bodies is to support specific projects undertaken by existing groups, but the FMP experience hints that a better approach might just be to start your own band—it’s a jobs program, an economy-booster, and a community-builder rolled into one. Of thee I sing, baby!