Month: May 2007

The bustle in a house

I’ll be the first to admit that a lot of what gets posted here is only tangentially related to classical music. But, then again, there’s a lot of things going on in the world that only seem tangential. Here’s an example: subprime mortgages.

Subprime lenders offer mortgages to borrowers with poor credit, typically financing the risk with higher interest rates, penalties for early repayment, and such practices as balloon payments (at the end of a fixed period, the balance of the loan has to be repaid or refinanced). The subprime market has been in trouble lately, with a host of companies going bankrupt in the wake of a rash of foreclosures on adjustable-rate mortgages too freely given out during the housing boom a few years back.

Yesterday, Toll Brothers, the country’s largest builder of luxury homes, announced that it would not meet earnings expectations this year. You might wonder why a luxury home builder, whose clients presumably have good credit, would be affected by the subprime implosion. It turns out that the crisis has rippled throughout the entire mortgage industry, with lenders tightening up credit and income restrictions across the board, making it harder for anybody to buy. There’s also a domino effect: most people buying luxury homes are upgrading, which means there has to be a middle-class buyer for their previous home, which means that home needs a buyer, and so on down to the base of the pyramid. If first-time home buyers can’t get into the market, the owners already in the market can’t move up.

Now, if you’re wondering where you’ve seen the Toll Brothers name (and their ubiquitously trademarked America’s Luxury Home Builder™ slogan) before, they’re the company that took over as lead corporate sponsor of the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts in 2005. The initial agreement only guaranteed support through 2009, however; think the mortgage market will recover by then? Or will Peter Gelb have to start passing the hat like Joe Volpe did after Texaco bailed?

In the grand scheme of things, this is just a blip, and you could certainly make the case that the future of the Met broadcasts is on satellite radio and the Web anyway. But it’s a reminder that, no matter how far away an issue may seem from the everyday work of music-making, there’s often a more direct connection than there first seems.

Smiles of a Summer Night

Probably as a result of seeing one too many late night broadcasts of The Train as an impressionable pre-teen, my attention is always diverted by the intersection of Nazi-looted art and famous composers (as you may have noticed). Well, the gilt Art Nouveau rotary hotline here at Soho the Dog HQ lit up this morning with the news that the Austrian government had returned Edvard Munch’s “Summer Night at the Beach” (seen above) to Marina Fistoulari-Mahler, Alma and Gustav Mahler’s granddaughter, and Alma’s sole heir (that must be a fun attic full of birthday cards and old party invitations). The decision was made by the government last November, but the actual transfer took place this week.

Another composer connection: the painting was a gift to Alma from her second husband, Walter Gropius, upon the birth of their daughter Manon—the “angel” whose death inspired Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto. In her autobiography, Alma wrote: “No painting has ever touched me in the way this one has.”

I Put a Spell on You

Reviewing the Radius Ensemble.
Boston Globe, May 9, 2007.

Cut for space was mention of my favorite movement of Silenzio, the fourth one: whispery notes hammered directly on the strings’ fingerboards with muted accordion clusters. Accordion with strings is such a great combination. (The players for that one were Biliana Voutchkova on violin, sympathetically joined by cellist Agnieszka Dziubak and Cory Pesaturo, playing the bayan part on a Western piano accordion with a deft hand, particularly with the instrument’s finicky delicate registers.)

The lifeblood of democracy

Did you know that ASCAP has a political action committee? (If you’re unfamiliar with American politics, PACs are any private group organized to spend money in order to influence elections—most are affiliated with an interest group, corporation, or union.) The ASCAP Legislative Fund for the Arts, to call it by its official title, isn’t nearly on par with the big PACs, but they still dished out $157,950 to assorted candidates in the last election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The winners in the House of Representatives:

$5,000 (maximum permitted under law)

  • Howard Berman (D-CA)
  • $4,500
  • John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI)
  • $4,000

  • Steve Chabot (R-OH)
  • Howard Coble (R-NC)
  • Edward Markey, Jr. (D-MA)

  • In the Senate:


  • Dianne Feinstein (D-CA)
  • Edward Kennedy (D-MA)
  • $3,500

  • Kent Conrad (D-ND)
  • $3,000

  • Jon Kyl (R-AZ)
  • $2,500

  • Orrin Hatch (R-UT)
  • Claire McCaskill (D-MO)
  • Jon Tester (D-MT)

  • (See the whole list here.) It’s about 2-1 in favor of Democrats, although ASCAP hedges its bets by favoring Republicans on the soft money side, if the last few available cycles are any indication. (Interestingly, BMI, which has a smaller PAC of its own, favors the GOP for both candidates and soft money.)

    I was looking into this in the wake of the whole Internet radio royalty mess, wondering if ASCAP had taken a stand one way or another—although, given that a federal court just shot down an ASCAP assertion that a download of a song is a “performance” for royalty purposes, I would guess that they’re not on the side of the little guys. Still, not a word on the subject is to be found on ASCAP’s website. (Interestingly, no mention of their PAC, either—the one result via a search seems to have been removed from the actual page.) Here’s an indication, though: Reps. Jay Inslee (who got $1,000 from the RIAA last year—you bite that hand that feeds you!) and Don Manzullo have introduced H.R. 2060, which, if enacted, would overturn the Copyright Royalty Board’s decision; As of this morning, the bill had attracted 51 co-sponsors—of which only four received ASCAP money (and none of whom got anything from BMI). I don’t think ASCAP and BMI are actively working against the bill—I don’t think they have to. They’ve been supporting candidates who already are inclined to back up SoundExchange. I’ll predict that they’ll remain eerily quiet about this whole thing.

    I know that composers of what ASCAP somewhat euphemistically calls “Concert Music” make up a comparatively small part of their membership, but if they and BMI were really serious about supporting all their composers, artists, and publishers, they’d be using some of their clout to make sure that the Internet, the best distribution channel to happen to new and avant-garde music in a hundred years, isn’t scorched into an arid wasteland of major-label pap by industry organizations who will go after anyone broadcasting your music whether you want them to or not. It’s probably asking too much, but when ASCAP president Marilyn Bergman (full disclosure: I rather like “The Way We Were”) tells us:

    [W]e have to be wary of the well-spoken hucksters out there trying to trick us out of the most fundamental right we have, the right to control the uses of our own work, and the right to be fairly paid for those uses

    I hope she’s making room in her organization for those of us who count the RIAA as one of those hucksters.

    By the way, the most reliable classical supporter of ASCAP’s PAC? Philip Glass.

    Hang It Up

    Peter Gelb ran another idea up the flagpole last night, with the first “Art for Opera” auction, which raised nearly two million dollars for the Metropolitan Opera. After “cocktails and dinner amidst Allen Moyer’s set for the new staging of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice,” which might be the most amusing sentence you’ll see today—what, every time you turn around, somebody takes your plate away?—guests (who already paid between $750 and $1250 to get in and eat) bid on operatically-themed works by various contemporary artists, including an eight-by-six-foot photorealistic Chuck Close tapestry portrait of Renée Fleming that would probably scare the hell out of me if I was walking around the house at night. (Take a look at some items here.) Critic-at-large Moe’s favorite—this William Wegman homage to Hansel and Gretel—went for $50,000. That’s a lot of liver treats.

    Three-Chord Monte

    The other day I came across this excellent, concise history of the Chicago-area punk band Screeching Weasel on the terrifically-named blog Can You See the Sunset From the Southside? This was a straight nostalgia trip for me: the suburb where Weasel and Jughead got their start was where I grew up. I met them a couple of times in the early days, the most memorable being when my friend Nick talked them into visiting the Maine East High School cable access TV studio for an interview. (I think I was technical director for that one.) I had a copy of their self-titled first album; “Murder In the Brady House” was a particular favorite. Nick also turned me on to the Dead Kennedys, and then Jack Miller (who’s put in occasional cameos on this blog) dubbed off some Sex Pistols rarities for me, and I was hooked.

    I still go through occasional punk phases, and about every eighth piece I start writing, I find myself thinking “now, this one should be just like a punk rock song” (after which it usually comes out nothing like a punk rock song). I did some summer teaching last year, and the overwhelming majority of my students (music ed majors) were horrified to find out that I enjoyed this stuff; on the one hand, I was puzzled, since I’ve always thought of punk as a late revival of early 1950s rock-and-roll (Eddie Cochran? Punk rocker), and who doesn’t like that stuff? On the other hand, I was sardonically pleased that it still had the power to charm, as it were.

    Unlike our classmate and one-time Screeching Weasel bassist Johnny Personality, I was always a closet fan—I never had the requisite courage for a mohawk or multiple piercings—but regardless of genre, I’m still attracted to music that gives off a whiff of the style: tight, utilitarian bursts of energy that make no effort to soften any rough edges. More importantly, it’s the attitude of being exactly what it is and making no apologies for it. Maybe that’s why I go from Arthur Fiedler to Ben Weasel without any cognitive dissonance. I think that’s a big difference between the way musicians and non-musicians listen to music: if you’re able to empathize with the creator, you start to see that all this stuff, no matter how disparate, is coming from the same place. Ives? Mahler? Beethoven? Josquin? Punks.

    Post title stolen from another Chicago punk band, Pegboy.

    The Dangling Conversation

    Yesterday, Geoff Edgers and Scooter at Unpleasant! were grokking on Arthur Fiedler’s “Saturday Night Fiedler” disco album with the Boston Pops, which sent me to the turntable with my own favorite, “Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Play the Music of Paul Simon.”

    Boston Pops/Fiedler—”Feelin’ Groovy” (MP3, 2.2 Mb)

    Yes, it’s one of the world’s leading orchestras playing “Feelin’ Groovy.” How can you resist? Their version of “Mrs. Robinson” is not bad, either. (All the arrangements on the album are by the legendary Richard Hayman, who would be a hero around these parts just for being a member of Borah Minevitch’s Harmonica Rascals. But I digress.)

    As a kid, these sorts of arrangements were actually my favorite portions of “Evening at Pops,” which perhaps demonstrates both how old and uncool I am. But the willful cognitive dissonance between the source material and the end result always tickled my fancy. Taking a modest little pop song and pumping it up with the grandeur of an orchestra was a great way to get seduced by that sound: the full impact of symphonic glory laced with just enough good-natured absurdity to dissolve any encrusted sanctity.

    Whatever happened to those sorts of arrangements? Well, pop music itself gradually expanded to symphonic proportions. In a way, a song like “Born to Run,” with its melodramatic orchestration and ambition, is already its own Pops arrangement; the fun of hearing three-chord progressions inflated to Wagnerian scale became redundant.

    To me, most symphonic pop music just sounds artificially big. (The only guy I ever thought got it right was Brian Wilson, who used the orchestra as an expanded palette—the exotic instrumental colors function as extensions or reimaginations of the sorts of sounds you’d find in a typical pop combo.) But Pops arrangements, because of the context and the presentation, always existed in a kind of playful limbo, free to pick and choose from both sides of the ledger. Sometimes the results were incongruously grandiose. Sometimes they were just goofy. But often, they were grand and goofy, a terrific combination that’s all too rare in any genre. It’s the sort of charge you get from an over-the-top yet sincerely skillful Hollywood production number, or a particularly elaborate run of physical comedy, or the highbrow/lowbrow alternating current of the best visual pop art.

    If I ever was put in charge of the Pops, the first thing I’d do is commission a whole bunch of those young-gun postminimalist pop-influenced composers out there to do arrangements of their favorite songs—not for the orchestra to back up said acts, but as the sort of stand-alone pieces that Fiedler used to do. (The Pops have commissioned an original piece from Nico Muhly—go on, hit him up for another!) Think of it as cleaning up a fun little playground in a corner of the cultural landscape that’s fallen into disuse. Is it for everybody? Nah—lots of people outgrow jungle gyms. But, then again, aren’t the ones who don’t more fun to hang out with?

    Beethoven needs curtains


    All would go well now if we had only a curtain, without it the Aria will be a failure. I only heard this to-day from S., and it vexes me much: a curtain of any kind will do, even a bed-curtain, or merely a kind of gauze screen, which could be instantly removed. There must be something; for the Aria is in the dramatic style, and better adapted for the stage than for effect in a concert-room. Without a curtain, or something of the sort, the Aria will be devoid of all meaning, and ruined! ruined! ruined!! Devil take it all! The Court will probably be present. Baron Schweitzer requested me earnestly to make the application myself. Archduke Carl granted me an audience and promised to come. The Empress neither promised nor refused.

    A hanging curtain!!!! or the Aria and I will both be hanged to-morrow. Farewell! I embrace you as cordially on this new year as in the old one. With or without a curtain! Your


    A letter to Beethoven’s longtime Viennese acquaintance Nikolaus Zmeskall von Domanovecz, on the eve of the mammoth December 22, 1808 benefit concert at the Theater an der Wien which saw the premieres of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Fourth Piano Concerto, and the Choral Fantasy. (The piece in question here is the concert aria Ah! perfido.)

    They Can’t Take That Away From Me

    Happy Loyalty Day! No kidding. According to the government:

    All citizens can express their loyalty to the United States by flying the flag, participating in our democracy, and learning more about our country’s grand story of courage and simple dream of dignity.

    You want to learn more about simple dreams of dignity? Start here. (I suppose some people might consider it disloyal to point out the cynical coincidence of May Day and “Loyalty Day.” Oh, well. Besides, they didn’t say which flag.)

    I should probably include something musical, right? Go here and listen to the “Eight-Hour Song.” (Part of another excellent survey.)