Month: January 2007

The Long Goodbye

From Phil over at Dial “M”:

Here’s the Dial M thought for the day:

The aesthetic ideal of pop is the perfect realization of the expected pattern.

Because of this, he goes on to say, “pop is a classicizing aesthetic, not an innovating, modernizing one”. Which probably goes a long way towards explaining the enduring popularity of Mozart.

Hey, wait a minute—isn’t Phil talking about American Idol? Same difference, I say: the main reason Mozart still packs ’em in, relatively speaking, is the main reason people can’t seem to get enough of the not-terribly-suspenseful “suspense” dished out by Simon Cowell et al. You see, they’re both a lot like a detective novel.

In his witty essay “The Myth of Superman” (reprinted in The Role of the Reader), Umberto Eco has a fascinating digression about detective novels.

The reader of detective stories can easily make an honest self-analysis to establish the modalities that explain his ‘consuming’ them. First, from the beginning the reading of a traditional detective story presumes the enjoyment of following a scheme: from the crime to the discovery and the resolution through a chain of deductions.

Eco points out that this particular “iterative scheme” includes not just the basic outline of the story, but a “fixed schematism involving the same sentiments and the same psychological attitudes”—returning characters show little emotional development from story to story. What’s more, the habits, preferences, and recognizable tics of the characters are also part of the scheme: Sherlock Holmes’ pipe and violin, Nero Wolfe’s orchids, Lord Peter’s incunabula, etc. Such props and mannerisms let us “find an old friend in the character portrayed, and they are the principal conditions which allow us to ‘enter in’ to the event.”

The attraction of the book, the sense of repose, of psychological extension which it is capable of conferring, lies in the fact that, plopped in an easy chair or in the seat of a train compartment, the reader continuously recovers, point by point, what he already knows, what he wants to know again: that is why he has purchased the book.

Eco compares this with eighteenth-century popular fiction, in which “the event was founded upon a development and the character was required to ‘consume’ himself through to death.” This was the preferred entertainment for a time in which ideas of class, morality, and tradition were fixed, unchanging, and continually reinforced. People living in a society of such constant, redundant messages had no need of redundancy in their fiction. Goodbye to all that, though:

In a contemporary industrial society, instead, the alternation of standards, the dissolution of tradition, social mobility, the fact that models and principles are ‘consumable’—everything can be summed up under the sign of a continuous load of information which proceeds by way of massive jolts, implying a continual reassessment of sensibilities, adaptation of psychological assumptions, and requalification of intelligence. Narrative of a redundant nature would appear in this panorama as an indulgent invitation to repose, the only occasion of true relaxation offered to the consumer.

Which is as sensible an explanation for the modern popularity of Mozart as any I’ve ever heard. People whose societal expectations have been continually upended crave redundancy, and eighteenth-century classicism, it seems to me, provides more opportunity for experiencing redundancy than any other “serious” musical genre. In comparison with the Baroque, it’s more regular in its phrase length and more digestibly discrete in its form; unlike Romanticism, it’s less liable to sonic novelty and more formally well-behaved. Themes come and go on schedule, cadenzas crop up right where they’re supposed to, and that familiar 6-5 trill brings every V-I cadence satisfyingly home. And Mozart’s talent was uniquely suited to the style. Bernard Shaw once quipped, “If it hadnt been for this cursed dexterity of his, Mozart would have enlarged music more than he did; for when there is no cliché that will serve he produces something new without effort.” Not just a Shavian paradox: it was the struggle to avoid such clichés that led less fecund composers like C.P.E. Bach towards more experimental forms and harmonies, which has relegated them to curiosity status, while Mozart still reigns supreme. (Can you make this argument for other canonical composers? To a certain extent, although I think Mozart works the best—and he’s also the most popular. Coincidence?)

So the next time I’m rolling my eyes at the nth variation on the thematic scold that modern music is too cerebral, too complex, “too much head and not enough heart” (love that one—think those people would want their doctor to adopt a physiological concept that outdated?)—in their view, not Mozartian enough—I can remind myself that the complainers simply don’t want the same musical experience that I do. I want to be excited, challenged, exhilarated, and changed; they want the experience of knowing what they already know, of having an idea of an orderly universe summarized and confirmed. (In the Idol universe, that order even gets confirmed by popular vote.)

Let me be clear: I’m not making a value judgment. People want what they want. Sure, I believe that listeners who go to a concert hoping not for surprise and wonder, but for its absence, are shutting themselves off from an awful lot, but what do I know? The popularity of a host of cultural artifacts mystifies me. But at least you can’t accuse American Idol of false advertising: the very season-to-season premise of the show, in fact, trumpets its own redundancy and predictability loud and clear. Whereas composers and musicians are working overtime to conjure up wonder and mystery for an audience of which a significant portion is just sitting around, waiting for that great “Elvira Madigan” theme to pull into the station again. Is there another medium that has this much disconnect between the intent of the producer and the expectation of the consumer? It’s like we’re selling them Henry James and they think they’re buying Tom Clancy.

What does this mean for the music of our own time? Well, if Mozart’s popularity is really due to his comfortable redundancy, then there’s no hope in convincing those Mozart listeners to embrace new music, be it tonal or atonal, minimalist or maximalist; its very newness, its inherent unpredictability, is what is objectionable. “Modern music” is now more deliberately audience-friendly than it’s been at any time since Mozart’s, and that hasn’t translated into a bumper crop of converts. (And don’t start arguing that atonality somehow scared everybody off for good sometime between the Kennedy and Nixon administrations. Was there ever a time when “difficult” contemporary music even came close to making up a majority of any mainstream classical ensemble’s repertoire? Besides, this is America—we don’t make decisions based on anything that happened more than five minutes ago.)

On the other hand, the forces that cause people to scamper back to the sonic safety of eighteenth-century Vienna may be waning. My generation is one of the last to have to make the transition from the pre-computer industrial age to the present information age, with all the insecurity that accompanies such disruptions. The present generation is growing up surrounded by a sea of information, and doesn’t seem to regard it with any great apprehension. The sheer number of new musical genres and sub-genres that have sprouted across the digital landscape would seem to confirm that redundancy is becoming less and less important as an entertainment value, or, at the very least, that there is room in the culture for a near-endless variety of different redundant schemes. Combined with lowered barriers to production and distribution, it’s a good time to be writing just about any kind of music.

Will Wolfgang be cast aside in this brave new world? Nonsense. I rather think that people will learn how to listen to him the way he meant: not focusing on the redundant aspects of his music, not taking temporary comfort in his similarities, but becoming alive to the invention he brings to each new piece, the subtle ways in which he toys with form and harmony and expectation. And once he’s hot again? I can’t wait for Zauberflöte night on Idol.

Bang a gong

Nothing to say today—I’m trying to get some writing done—but here’s a bit of fun: George Antheil’s Ballet méchanique performed by 16 computer-controlled pianos and a host of robotic percussion courtesy of LEMUR, the League of Electronic Musical Robots. (I would bet that L. Douglas Henderson wouldn’t be too pleased with this realization, but for my money, the xylophone alone makes it all worthwhile.)

The inevitable question: did Antheil and Hedy Lamarr really get some secret patent for remote-controlled torpedoes or something? Yes, they did. Putting Antheil’s experience with pianolas to good use, he and Lamarr proposed using piano rolls to rapidly switch between 88 different transmission frequencies, making frequency-jamming nearly impossible. It was the prototype of the “spread spectrum” idea that’s crucial to modern wireless communication.

I dreamed kind Jesus fouled the big-gun gears

We will not build a peaceful world by following a negative path. It is not enough to say “we must not wage war.” It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it. We must concentrate not merely on the negative expulsion of war, but on the positive affirmation of peace. There is a fascinating little story that is preserved for us in Greek literature about Ulysses and the Sirens. The Sirens had the ability to sing so sweetly that sailors could not resist steering toward their island. Many ships were lured upon the rocks and the men forgot home, duty and honor as they flung themselves into the sea to be embraced by arms that drew them down to death. Ulysses, determined not to be lured by the Sirens, first decided to tie himself tightly to the mast of his boat and his crew stuffed their ears with wax. But finally he and his crew learned a better way to save themselves: they took on board the beautiful singer Orpheus whose melodies were sweeter than the music of the Sirens. When Orpheus sang, who bothered to listen to the Sirens? So we must fix our visions not merely on the negative expulsion of war. But upon the positive affirmation of peace. We must see that peace represents a sweeter music, a cosmic melody that is far superior to the discords of war.

It is still not too late to make the proper choice. If we decide to become a moral power we will be able to transform the jangling discords of this world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. If we make the wise decision we will be able to transform our pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of peace. This will be a glorious day. In reaching it we can fulfill the noblest of American dreams.

—Martin Luther King, Jr.,
“The Casualties of the War in Vietnam,”
Los Angeles, February 25, 1967

There you see the young and old, twisting the night away

Non-classical links for the week.

I don’t have cable, and now I know what I’m missing out on: the invaluable hometown compendium This Is Framingham reports that one of the programs on local cable access is music—specifically, big band and pre-WWII popular music—and the accompanying visual is simply each 78 rpm record spinning around and around. Take that, minimalists! (This probably relates in an interesting way to the bias in modern society against music and towards the visual arts, but I haven’t had enough coffee to parse it out yet. Maybe next week.)

Weren’t able to make the International Association of Jazz Educators confab in New York this year? You can enjoy it vicariously through Darcy James Argue, who’s blogging the experience in his usual concise and stylish fashion—Day 1, Day 2, and more to come. (By the way, if you’re not familiar with the estimable Mr. Argue’s own music, you should know that he makes a habit of posting live recordings of his own band’s performances, which is surely the classiest way around to fill up your iPod for free.)

If you’re a Bostonian, and you’ve never been to a Pan9 show, you’ve been missing out—imagine a bunch of experimental music, experimental rock music, not-so-experimental rock music, and just plain goofiness all thrown onto the same program, being performed in a big old loft with an atmosphere that’s half exotic-bohemian and half good-vibe house party, and you’ll start to get the idea. One of the more popular acts here at Soho the Dog HQ, Fluttr Effect, got their start via Pan9, and lived next door. I say “lived” because, just before New Year’s, a fire caused significant damage to both the Pan9 space and the apartment of half the band, and they’re currently homeless, out an awful lot of equipment and stuff, and dependent on the kindness of strangers. There’s a website up with info on upcoming benefits for the space and the band, including a a few shows, and possibly an art auction—and now would be a good time to finally pick up those Fluttr Effect t-shirts and CDs you’ve been meaning to get anyways, right? (I can testify that the acoustic trio EP is some of the best driving music out there.) Besides, I think we should all make it our mission to get any place that the Boston Herald considers a “hippie community” back up and running as soon as possible.

"First you’re another sloe-eyed vamp…"

Yvonne DeCarlo died this week. The general public might have known her best as Lily Munster, but did you know that she was the muse behind some of the greatest masterpieces of Russian music, if only fictionally? She played Cara, the Moroccan cabaret dancer who inspires “Nicky” Rimsky-Korsakov to compositional stardom, in the so-ridiculous-it’s-marvelous Hollywood concoction Song of Scheherazade, a 1947 contribution to the brief but entertainingly wrong wave of composer biopics that swept through studios after the invention of long-playing records, apparently. It may not be up to the level of The Great Waltz (and if you’ve seen that treatment of Johann Strauss, you know exactly which scene I keep hoping will turn up on YouTube—anybody for a ride through the woods?), but as our fledgling naval-cadet-with-a-song-in-his-heart smuggles DeCarlo back to St. Petersburg to sing at the opera, you’re at least in the presence of a certain kind of minor greatness.

DeCarlo went on to introduce the song “I’m Still Here” in the original Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, by the way. Not a bad follow-up.

Langsam und schmachtend, baby

It has come to my attention (via oboeinsight, I think) that Muso magazine (“The Music Magazine That Rewrites the Score”—but still keeps it within the point spread) is conducting an online survey in advance of St. Valentine’s Day. And since they’re “the magazine for the younger, more open-minded generation of classical music fans,” the survey is naturally about sex: which instruments are the sexiest, which instruments get the most action, which instruments have sharp metal bits that you might want to look out for. Personally, I’m impressed that they got through the entire thing without a pun on the term “combinatorial.” (Though remember, kids, thanks to ballot initiatives in the 2004 election, retrograde inversion is now illegal in 35 states.)

Do you think playing a certain instrument can make a person more or less attractive?

Does signing a commission check count as “playing an instrument”?

It’s mostly multiple-choice questions, though really, asking which instrument is the sexiest and not including “accordion” is like asking which Prime Minister is the greatest and not including “Churchill.” And maybe I’m old-fashioned, but under “How many sexual partners have you had?” I would have included “1,003” just for sentimental reasons.

What is the most romantic thing you have ever done?

Once, I was overcome by madness and threw myself into the Rhine—oh, wait! Sorry! Lower-case r. My bad.

The questions do get pretty personal, and although they “can assure you this is completely confidential”, you just know that if you show an unusual predilection for the oboe, your picture is going to end up on the cover of Blair Tindall‘s next book. Still, I suppose it’s an optimistic sign that some group of marketers out there thinks that the classical-music demographic somehow overlaps with the readers of Cosmopolitan. In next month’s issue: 16 alternate fingerings that will leave him begging for more!

Pin-up by the legendary Pearl Frush, courtesy of The Pin-Up Files (parts of which are definitely NSFW, as if you needed to ask).