Month: August 2007

Out for a walk

Programming note: Soho the Dog is on summer hiatus this week. We’re packing a picnic, unplugging the computer, and taking the phone off the hook.

Which nicely introduces a fun souvenir of 1980s downtown New York, courtesy of the endlessly diverting MP3 blog Office Naps. Scroll down this post and you can hear No Wave cult heroines Y Pants—artists Barbara Ess, Virginia Piersol, and Gail Vachon—performing their version of the Rolling Stones’ “Off the Hook,” produced by guitar symphonist Glenn Branca. Obsessively sparse, incongruously cheery, vaguely disquieting, it’s just the thing to cut through that late-summer haze.

Salvati dunque e scolpati

That academic year is just around the corner, so it’s time to sharpen those no. 2 pencils for another quiz! (If you missed it: some choice answers from the last one.) Once again, all hail Dennis Cozzalio at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, from whence I shamelessly plagiarized this idea.

As before, either leave your answers or a link to where we can find your answers in the comments. Do include the questions in your response, if only for my sake—I can’t keep two queries in my brain simultaneously, let alone ten. You may begin the test… now.

1. What’s the best quotation of a piece of music within another piece of music?

2. Name the best classical crossover album ever made.

3. Great piece with a terrible title.

4. If you had to choose: Benjamin Britten or Michael Tippett?

5. Who’s your favorite spouse of a composer/performer? (Besides your own.)

6. Terrible piece with a great title.

7. What’s the best use of a classical warhorse in a Hollywood movie?

8. Name the worst classical crossover album ever made.

9. If you had to choose: Sam Cooke or Marvin Gaye?

10. Name a creative type in a non-musical medium who would have been a great composer.


For opera nerds: If you had to choose:
a) Lawrence Tibbett or Robert Merrill?
b) Amelita Galli-Curci or Lily Pons?

For early-music nerds: Name a completely and hopelessly historically uninformed recording that you nevertheless love.

Gold stars and red pen

It’s almost time for a new quiz (update: the new quiz is here), but before that, I wanted to revisit the last assessment. In general, I thought the level of work for this particular class was very high, although—sorry, just trying to gear up for September. The big surprise for me was #3, Ives or Ruggles: apart from one late vote from Bart Collins, Carl got no love at all. I wasn’t expecting an upset, but back in my undergrad days, I would have guessed at least a 70-30 split—the pantheon is a harsh mistress. On the other hand, I think we could all move to Europe and have thriving careers as opera directors. Anyway, here’s some of the responses I liked, along with my own:

1. Name an opera you love for the libretto, even though you don’t particularly like the music.

Dennis Mangan: The Ring.

Alex Freeman: Haydn’s “Il mondo della luna”. It may be the silliest libretto ever. That’s an accomplishment. But I do like the music.

Rodney Lister: Nixon in China (love might be a little strong)

viola power: We premiered this extraordinarily bizarre version of “Nosferatu” which contained the amusing notion of Dracula being gay. Idaho audiences went wild! The libretto qualified as entertaining, if not loveable. The music was like Andrew Lloyd Webber meets John Adams, except they were both really wasted.

andy h-d: The Consul is pretty brutal, but you really start to feel those three hours.

Lisa Hirsch: The Barber of Seville. (So shoot me, but I am not a Rossini fan.)

Stirling Newberry: While I like Auden’s Libretto better than Stravinski’s music, the final four for me would be
The Queen of Spades, A Streetcar Named Desire, Gawain, Nixon in China. And in a year with no upsets? Gawain.

Jeremy Denk: General Hospital. (The Young and the Restless has much better music.)

MG: Evita.

2. Name a piece you wish Glenn Gould had played.

Alex Freeman: My Piano Sonata.

Scott: Piano Canons by Conlon Nancarrow. Oooh, or the Stravinsky “Piano Rag Music.” Or anything I’ve written.

sfmike: A piano reduction of Strauss’ Elektra.

Opera Chic: Chopsticks. That’d be fun, and gawd knows Glenn needed to unclench.

Seth Gordon: Waltz for Debby.

charles: “Maple Leaf Rag.”

Margaret: Anything by Fats Waller.

Liz: Prokofiev’s Third Concerto. (You know he’s Canadian so I’m biased. I was very sad when he died and I was eleven years old).

M. Keiser: HA, if i liked Gould this might work. Uh, i dunno, John Cage’s Sonatas and interludes. He probably could have done those fairly well.

andy h-d: Rzewski’s “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!”. Can you imagine what that cadenza would’ve ended up being?

Charles T. Downey: Ives, Concord Sonata.

Lisa Hirsch: Something by Sorabji.

Jeremy Denk: The Goldberg Variations [zing!].

Stirling Newberry: Something I had a publishing interest in. Money is money. I can’t stand Glenn Gould’s playing any more.

MG: Rhapsody in Blue. And ragtime.

3. If you had to choose: Charles Ives or Carl Ruggles?

charles: I would choose death instead.

Seth Gordon: Anyone choosing Ruggles is a jealous hater.

Jessica Duchen: Would compromise and go to The Ivy for lunch instead.

viola power: Ives, because I need to have a serious discussion with an insurance agent!

Charles T. Downey: See above. Bite me, Ruggles, you racist bastard.

Jeremy Denk: If I’m listening to the music, Ives I think; ditto if contemplating insurance; but if I’m looking for a composer with a rugged, manly, but still somewhat snuggly name, DEFINITELY Carl Ruggles.

MG: Ives, for the songs, although I do like the Invocations a lot.

4. Name a piece you’re glad Glenn Gould never played.

heinuren: What the hell, is everybody supposed to know what Gould did or didn’t play?

andy h-d: I don’t know, “Bananaphone”? That’s not a real answer. Would “Vexations” be a more real answer? I suppose there’s that new kid who writes really awful sappy music, Greenberg or something?

jason: Billy Joel’s whatever…

robert f. jones: Glenn accompanies Barbra Streisand in Saint-Saens’ “Mon coeur ouvre à ta voix.”

Liz: None….wish he played much more. (You know he’s Canadian?)

Lisa Hirsch: Piano part in one of the Schubert song cycles.

MG: the Chopin preludes.

5. What’s your favorite unlikely solo passage in the repertoire?

Rodney Lister: not a solo, but the duet for piccolo and tuba in Symphony on a Hymn Tune.

Alex Ross: Celesta in the final scene of Schreker’s Der Ferne Klang.

benjamin: That gross FFF Clarinet note in the middle of the Scherzo of Mahler 5th.

andy h-d: I don’t know unlikely it is, but I keep thinking of the part in Symphonie fantastique right before his head gets chopped off. Who needs absolute form when the program tells you where you are in the score?

robert f. jones: The bass trombone sfp low C#s in the death scene of Boris Godunov (Musorgsky’s orchestration).

M. Keiser: hm. these questions are getting harder. Define solo and repertoire. haha. does the flute in the begining of the orchestral version of Ravel’s Barque sur l’ocean count? i think thats several flutes anyway. The opening to the Rite of Spring but i don’t know how thats unlikely.

Joe Barron: Ives, “Washington’s birthday,” jaw harp.

Tim Mangan: The ocarinas in Ligeti’s Violin Concerto.

Joshua Kosman: Haydn, Symphony No. 93, slow movement, m. 80: the original bassoon fart joke.

Jessica Duchen: The tweetybird unaccompanied violin passage in Enescu’s Impressions d’enfance. The cuckoo ain’t bad either.

Barnet Bound: This isn’t really an answer to the question, but I just want to state that despite the fact that Schubert apparently hated the instrument, the viola lines in everything he wrote are truly beautiful.

Liz: For me it’s the *tiny* viola solo in Gershwin’s “American in Paris”. It is *eight* notes (after the English horn solo) but I love it. Although my violin-centric husband never seems to notice…..

Peter: The Carmen intermezzo STILL bewilders me. Ladies and gentlemen, here’s your emotional journey: death, betrayal, death, death, lilting pastoral flute solo, death. Wha?

Charles T. Downey: The siren in George Antheil’s Ballet mécanique.

Jeremy Denk: Well I’d say I have a 12% record of playing the ending of the 2nd movement of the Schumann Fantasy with all the right notes, so … that seems pretty unlikely.

MG: The pizza delivery in Steven Mackey’s Eating Greens.

6. What’s a Euro-trash high-concept opera production you’d love to see? (No Mortier-haters get to duck this one, either—be creative.)

Alex Freeman: I guess it would have to be Neuenfels does Susannah. Not because I would REALLY want to see it, but I think the horrific taste would make me feel more alive…like drinking a cup of hot fat or sticking my face in a fan. Which I don’t do. Much. Any thoughts on how he might do it?

Elaine Fine: Turnadot with Ping, Pang, and Pong dressed as members of the Blue Man Group.

Alex Ross: An all-male Dialogues of the Carmelites, set in the Mine Shaft in 1980.

heinuren: Salome, where they actually cut off heads.

Opera Chic: I’ll quote myself here.

Opera Chic herself has a weakness for 1970s p9rn star ‘stache, and she hopes Juan Diego decides to one day do a 1970s style Elisir d’Amore, where Nemorino is decked out with big fat mustachioes all Starsky & Hutch-like, in bell bottoms and bushy sheep hair and nylon shirts like the Beastie Boys in the Sabotage video and Adina is all Daisy Dukes and platform shoes and dirty, frizztastic hair.

andy h-d: A tie between Poppea in the Clinton White House and Peter Jackson’s Ring Cycle.

Tim Mangan: “Ariadne auf Naxos” as an episode of the original “Star Trek.”

robert f. jones: Parsifal set in post-nuclear-apocalypse Australia. Parsifal as Mad Max, Klingsor as Lord Humungus, Kundry as a feral hermaphrodite, the Flower Maidens as topless biker baybz. No dead rabbit.

indiana loiterer iii: The Peter Konwitschny production of Lohengrin set in a German schoolroom…oh, you mean a Euro-trash high-concept production that doesn’t yet exist? How about a Trovatore set in post-Civil War Kansas/Missouri a la The Outlaw Josey Wales?

Seth Gordon: Marie Stuarda, only make it about girl gangs and set in high school, starring PJ Harvey as Marie and Diamanda Galas as Liz, head of the Cheerleading Squad.

Joe Barron: Either a Star-Wars Ring, or Rigoletto with everybody but the title character played by dwarf.

Lisa Hirsch: The reverse of Alex’s nomination: an all-woman Billy Budd, with the sailors all dressed as Catholic schoolgirls, and let’s see if we can work some sex into it.

M. Keiser: again with the opera. ok, Puccini’s Manon, sung and acted while suspended from bungee chords. Imagine the chorus. heheh.

MG: Two—L’elisir d’amore as a John Hughes high school comedy, or an Albert Herring that takes full advantage of the lovers’ names being Sid and Nancy.

7. Name an instance of non-standard concert dress you wish you hadn’t seen.

charles: Anything Josh Bell wears.

Alex Freeman: John Marcellus in a pink jumpsuit. Ok, I admit I don’t really wish I hadn’t seen it, but I do wish I could get the image out of my head.

Opera Chic: Anything worn by Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

Scott: Let’s just say that nobody wants to see an elderly woman’s cleavage over and over while trying to focus on her piano playing. Well, maybe some people do, but not me.

Elaine Fine: Actually it was kind of quaint, but ultimately a little disturbing: a string quartet of four teenage girls wearing white summer dresses and not wearing any shoes.

benjamin: The tux I currently own has been embarrassing me on stage for years.

jason: Concertmistress of my undergrad orchestra: Topknot, black tutu, white sneakers. Or, same university, new music ensemble conductor in bolo tie and hendrix tee.

Barnet Bound: When I was undergraduate, my university had a very strong world music performance program, and there was lots of great concerts by the resident gamelan ensemble. However, invariably, there would be a smattering of (always white men of a certain age) audience members who would show up wearing traditional Javanese tunics, and would sit cross-legged during the performance with beatific smiles on their faces. That was very unfortunate.

Tim Mangan: Igor Kipnis’s dentist’s smock.

Seth Gordon: I’m far less fond of standard dress, to tell the truth.

Joe Barron: Me, in a suit and tie.

Rebecca: Flourescent pink dress with fru-fru bow for a performance of a Haydn mass at a little Pfarrkirche in Burgenland. I might mention it was part of a Mass service. Nothing says solemnity like day-glo.

Lisa Hirsch: Either the orange paisley Anne-Sofie von Otter turned up in a couple of years back or that monstrous quilt Jane Eaglen wore at the Levine Gala in 1996.

Stirling Newberry: Sorry, the individual’s wife is still alive.

MG: Barbara Bonney dressed as a Dairy Queen parfait for a Mozart Exsultate at Tanglewood. I spent the whole piece thinking about ice cream.

8. What aging rock-and-roll star do you wish had tried composing large-scale chorus and orchestra works instead of Paul McCartney?

David Svoboda: Hey, what’s wrong with Paul’s compositions?!? Put up your dukes!

Rodney Lister: Captain Beefheart.

heinuren: Freddie Mercury. If he wasn’t dead and all.

robert f. jones: Bob Dylan, “Desolation Row: The oratorio.”

Tim Mangan: Joe Strummer.

Rebecca: Eddie Van Halen. Does he qualify as “aging?”

Opera Chic: Ringo Starr. He’s sadly underrated.

Elaine Fine: Carole King.

Barnet Bound: Patti Smith!

Liz: I prefer none. However, Mick Jagger could prove interesting. For chorus works.

benjamin: After seeing “Trapped in the Closet,” I must say R. Kelly.

andy h-d: Yeah, not Paul McCartney. How about Zappa? Whoops. Did you know that Roger Waters also makes mediocre neo-classical music? Also Stewart Copeland! There was actually a Times article about how when rock stars approach traditional forces they always end up sounding like Haydn (Zappa excluded). I wonder what Robert Fripp would come up with, except he’s busy still being a rock star.

Stirling Newberry: Danny Elfman does pretty good film score work. Brian Wilson could be interesting.

Charles T. Downey: Brian May (and Queen).

Lisa Hirsch: Yes. Or maybe Al Kooper.

Steve Hicken: Ugh. Jeez. Hell, I don’t know. Crap. The guy that sang for the Ides of March, I guess.

Jeremy Denk: I do not comprehend this “rock-and-roll” word; is this some sort of genre or style designation? Me dinosaur of dead music. No, really.

MG: Yeah, gotta go with Brian Wilson—but Sly Stone is a close second.

9. If you had to choose: Carl Nielsen or Jean Sibelius?

Alex Freeman: Dude. I live in Finland.

viola power: Nielsen, because my musical partner would kill me if I said otherwise.

Joshua Kosman: Per Nørgård. Don’t push me, man.

Tim Mangan: Sibelius, by a nose. It might be different tomorrow.

Rebecca: How about throwing myself in the River Guden or Torne (respectively) instead?

Opera Chic: Come on, it’s not even a question, Sibelius 4evar.

Charles T. Downey: Sibelius, as Opera Chic would say in that trendy slang of hers, is teh kicka$$ bomb, fer real.

MG: Sibelius, although that Nielsen snare drum narrows the lead every time I hear it.

10. If it was scientifically proven that Beethoven’s 9th Symphony caused irreversible brain damage, would you still listen to it?

Alex Freeman: Wihout a doubt. In my case, that is a smaller price to pay than it might be for many.

Alex Ross: Too late — Lorin Maazel’s 2002 season-opening performance of the Ninth partially lobotomized me.

robert f. jones: Probably. Could it cause worse irreversible brain damage than vodka?

Joshua Kosman: Never again, not even once. The Schubert C-Major Quintet stays on my playlist even if it brings a slow gruesome death.

Jessica Duchen: Yesdht3icbeutnaoehfgbnauedw278r&!*

Charles T. Downey: Yes, I would ignore the warning labels and then sue the recording company that sold me the CD.

Jeremy Denk: What, this hasn’t been proven already?

MG: I’m just afraid the cure would involve the Ludovico technique.

Dirty deeds, done dirt cheap

The scholar of the week here at Soho the Dog HQ is economist Dr. Robert Oxoby of the University of Calgary, for his paper “On the Efficiency of AC/DC: Bon Scott versus Brian Johnson.” (Via.) Dr. Oxoby sought a measurement of whether Scott or Johnson, who took over after Scott’s 1980 death, was the better lead singer of the famed heavy metal pioneers, so he played examples of each vocalist’s work while student volunteers played an ultimatum game, a common test of efficient economic behavior—and Johnson won out. Oxoby’s conclusions are appropriately cautious but provocative:

The question as to who was a better singer, Bon Scott or Brian Johnson, may never truly be resolved. However, our analysis suggests that in terms of affecting efficient decision making among listeners, Brian Johnson was a better singer. Our analysis has direct implications for policy and organizational design: when policymakers or employers are engaging in negotiations (or setting up environments in which other parties will negotiate) and are interested in playing the music of AC/DC, they should choose from the band’s Brian Johnson era discography.

I can see this method being used equally well to determine the relative anti-establishment credentials of punk rock groups—which album most interfered with capitalist processes?—or even to determine just how much Shostakovich’s alleged bourgeois cosmopolitanism would have undermined a socialist economy.

Update (8/22): How does such research come about? Dr. Oxoby explains.

At the Grave of William Billings

(In the tradition of Alex Ross.) I can’t believe I’ve never done a post on Billings, one of my favorite composers. Here’s excerpts from some program notes I wrote on him a few years back:

The publication of The New-England Psalm-Singer in 1770 was the making of William Billings’ reputation. Its 120 or so hymns, psalm-tunes, and anthems represent the first substantial corpus of music by an American composer, a fact that Billings provocatively used as a selling point for the book—the title trumpets its regionalism, the pieces are named primarily for local towns and landmarks, and the frontispiece (“Wake Ev’ry Breath,” illustrated with a scene of domestic singing) was engraved by colonial celebrity Paul Revere. It was the first wholly American music book in existence.

Billings was born in Boston in 1746 and lived there for his entire life. He attended Boston public schools until around 1760, when his father died; he then took up the tanner’s trade to help support the family. He had no formal music training, but sang in churches from an early age, and before long supplemented his income as a singing-master and teacher.

The New-England Psalm-Singer establishes, from the beginning, the Billings style: rhythmically vigorous, harmonically sturdy yet often texturally florid, and exhibiting a seemingly artless declamatory style. “Sudbury” is a good example—Billings emphasizes the eight-plus-six syllable asymmetry of the text, an imbalance that other composers might seek to smooth over. At the same time, the almost constant decoration of the otherwise stately harmonic rhythm produces a continually dancing surface that upholsters a solid frame.

Billings continued to advance in these directions, as shown in two selections from his fifth book, The Suffolk Harmony. “Baptism” sets a text by the Relly brothers, noted Christian poets of the time, of almost forbidding metrical complexity. Billings utilizes a host of methods in negotiating this thicket. He contrasts the location within the rhythm of accented syllables, he changes meter and tempo to point up the structure of the poem, and he slowly increases both the range and the activity of each voice part to bring about the dramatic climax. Similar techniques abound in “The Dying Christian To His Soul,” which also includes an almost operatic section in which the individual voice parts, unaccompanied, query each other as to the possible mortal nature of their symptoms.

1786, the year Billings published The Suffolk Harmony, was a depression year, and its effects caught Billings at a bad time; an accomplished man of letters as well, Billings had nevertheless been fired as editor of a new “Boston Magazine” after only one issue. The Suffolk Harmony sold poorly and Billings was forced to turn back to his previous trades to support his own and growing family. He became the Sealer of Leather for the City of Boston (judging and approving the quality of leather) as well as the city’s hogreeve, responsible for enforcing that hogs were “yoked and ringed” according to law, and assessing the damage caused by stray pigs. A concert for his benefit and the publication of his last book, The Continental Harmony, failed to revive his fortunes, and he died a pauper in 1800, a few months after completing his last piece (an elegy for George Washington, now lost). He was buried in an unmarked grave in Boston Common.

Billings was, in his time, a well-known figure, something of an American Beethoven in projecting an appearance of unkempt genius. Upon hearing of his death, the Reverend William Bentley, a Salem minister and casual acquaintance of Billings, remarked to his diary:

He was a singular man, of moderate size, short of one leg, with one eye, without any address, & with an uncommon negligence of person. Still he spake & sung & thought as a man above the common abilities.

You can find a fair number of his works at the slowly recovering Choral Public Domain Library. He was born on October 7, which gives any choral directors out there six weeks to get a birthday concert together.

Wet your roller, then you roll it

I haven’t done a post today because I’ve been painting, and my bloodstream has no doubt been enriched with plenty of nutritious latex. (I should probably put on some Mozart.) If only that paint had been lead-based, I might have been inspired to Beethovenian flights of fancy.

Here’s a fun fact: Handel most likely also suffered from lead poisoning—but not because of paint, but rather port and madiera wines: at the time, the brandy they were fortified with was distilled through lead-lined pipes. Which means that, had I lived in the 18th-century, I, too, would have been afflicted with one of the best-named illnesses ever, saturnine gout.

She’s ported and relieved and she’s stroked and bored

The current official transport here at Soho the Dog HQ is a 1999 Honda Civic, dented on all four fenders, scraped and scratched on all four hubcaps, and the repository of countless CDs, empty coffee cups, and muddy pawprints. I love this car.

But if it ever gives up the ghost, the leading candidate for its replacement has got to be Herbert von Karajan’s 1988 Porsche 959, currently being offered by the Swiss classic-car dealer Kidston. The conductor was a notorious fast-car addict, and he had a long-standing predilection for Porsches, to the point where, in 1975, he could have the company custom-make a unique 911 RS Turbo for his personal use. When the 959s were about to go into long-delayed production, Porsche sent one over to the 80-year-old Karajan for a test-drive, which was filmed for television. (Karajan’s wife can be heard on the reports telling her husband, “You’d better sell more records.”) Fewer than 300 of the 959s were made, all largely hand-built.

Zero-to-sixty in 3.6 seconds, a top speed of 198 MPH—yeah, that would be fun on the Pike. Kidston is coy on price, but this site pegs it at £153,000, or just over $300K. That Met commission can come in anytime.