Month: September 2007

The craziest girl on the block

Here’s the most pleasantly warped version of West Side Story‘s “Tonight” that you’ll see all day:

The 1985 short, directed by Terry Miller, was nominated for a Student Academy Award, and for a while, was an appropriate prelude to midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show at Chicago’s Music Box Theater. (Miller, who’s made lots of comedy shorts with the likes of Andy Richter and David Koechner without ever quite hitting the big time himself, never got any royalties from those showings—the Bernstein family, as he relates in this 2000 profile, denied him the rights to use the song.) As a bonus, if you look closely, you can spot some long-gone minor Chicago landmarks—the Nortown Theater, George Diamond’s Steak House, and the North Side Magikist sign.

Ramblin’ Guy

Having made my notes and outlined my scenario, all I had to do was set to work. At the time, I was in Cairo, the guest of His Highness Mohammed Ali, Pasha of Egypt, the Khedive’s brother. I was in the enjoyment of complete liberty and of a calm undisturbed by visitors. These had probably been scared away by the guard of the palace gate, huge fellows in gorgeous costumes and formidably armed.

I cannot possibly say how I found the first musical phrase to which I subsequently adapted the line:

Des astres de la nuit tes yeux ont la clarté!

I had reached this point when the director of the Khedive’s theatre conceived the idea of giving a grand concert on behalf of the sailors of Brittany and of composing it entirely from my works.

Suddenly I found myself plunged into a round of rehearsals, compelled to take my own part in this solemnity. All this was incompatible with work that was in its initial critical stage. Regretfully I gave up “Hélène,” and when, later on, I wished to take it up again, it was quite impossible. I was bewildered, out of tune so to speak. I had to quit my delightful abode in Cairo and proceed to the middle of the desert into the Thiebaid of Ismailia—a refuge of light and silence—for what one is pleased to call “inspiration.”

Ismailia, the favorite sojourn of the Prince of Arenberg, is a heavenly spot. It is a beata solitudo inhabited by a number of highly civilised people of both sexes employed by the Suez Canal administration, a small though choice colony which included poets of no mean talent! And as these kindly folk are very busy, they people the solitude without disturbing it.

In twelve days I had written my poem. Then I set sail at Port Said for Paris, where preparations were in progress for a revival of “Henry VIII” at the Opéra. Once this was over, I was quite tired out; my “composing machine” would not work any longer and I needed a week at Biarritz and another at Cannes to recover. Then I remembered that Aix-en-Savoie was close to a flower-decked mountain, surrounded by a wonderful panorama and easy of access. Soon I found myself installed on Mount Revard where I sketched out almost the whole of the music of “Hélène” to be completed subsequently in Paris.

It is thus that one should always work, in calm and silence, far from importunate visitors and distractions of various kinds, soothed by the glorious sights of nature and the odours of flowers.

—Camille Saint-Saëns, Outspoken Essays on Music
(trans. Fred Rothwell)

Nice work if you can get it.

It’s House

If you’re a really honest composer, then you know that the question isn’t so much whether or not you’d give up a body part to write an earworm as indelible as the theme from Chariots of Fire, but rather, how many, and which ones. So, if worse comes to worse, do the right thing, and offer Vangelis a place to crash. The composer of that iconic beach-jogging soundtrack (not to mention Blade Runner, Missing, and a bunch of stuff that was recycled for the Carl Sagan series Cosmos) is in danger of having his house torn down by the Greek government.

Greece’s Culture Minister signed a decree allowing the demolition of a historical landmark in central Athens to improve the view for a new museum a stone’s throw from the Parthenon, the ministry said on Wednesday.

Despite protests from conservationists, minister George Voulgarakis signed a decree allowing the demolition of an art deco building and a neo-classical property owned by the Oscar-award winning composer Vangelis.

The Bernard Tschumi-designed New Acropolis Museum is now scheduled to open early next year. You might ask why the house needs to be razed at this late date, given that it could have been easily accounted for in the museum’s design. (And, apparently, was: the second photo down on Tschumi’s page, those buildings in the model? One of those is Vangelis’s house.) Then again, keep in mind that there’s a gallery devoted specifically to the Parthenon marbles, and, um, those are all still in Britain. Anyway, the government’s claim that the houses are blocking the view from the museum seems to be hogwash—you can see photos of the actual site here, and scroll down for interior construction views that show the Acropolis in plain view.

The government might have a better case if Vangelis had used his Hollywood millions to build a new, ostentatious monstrosity. But here’s the kicker—the house is itself a designated landmark. It’s actually two houses—one dating from 1908, and one from 1930—and both were listed as works of art by the same Culture Ministry that’s now trying to get rid of them. The whole thing seems rather shady—news of the minister’s decision didn’t make it to the papers for almost two weeks, and just ahead of Greek elections, scheduled for Sunday. Culture Minister Georgios Voulgarakis, of the currently ruling center-right New Democratic party, is relatively new in the post, having been more-or-less demoted from the job of Public Order Minister in February on the heels of a phone-tapping scandal (apparently, they get more worked up about that sort of thing in Greece than over here).

Vangelis would probably land on his feet—his latest project is scoring a new biopic of El Greco—but, just in case, Evanghelos, there’s a spare bedroom for you here at Soho the Dog HQ. Framingham, Massachusetts, isn’t exactly the center of the universe, but on the other hand, you’d probably never have to pay for your drinks over at The Aegean.


I’ve long since given up on arguing with anything Greg Sandow says—classical music isn’t dying, pop music is no longer the singular cultural behemoth he thinks it is, and why does he still bother writing about classical music when it’s clear that, in spite of his frequent “some of my best friends are classical works” protestations, he doesn’t seem to like classical music that much, anyway? If what you really love is pop music, that’s great—enjoy it. But then don’t try and… oh, wait—that’s right, I gave up arguing.

Nevertheless, start picking on Don Carlos, and you have to answer to me.

Verdi might have been a great composer, but through no fault of his own he lived in the 19th century, and in Don Carlo he shows us the Spanish royal court as the 19th century might have imagined it, formal, a little stilted, and full of aristocrats who (apart from the leading characters) sing anonymously as members of a chorus. You really can’t do that any more.

Well, of course Verdi’s aristocrats are formal and stilted, because that’s the whole bloody point of the opera. It’s a tragedy because the characters who survive only do so because, seduced by power, they’ve sacrificed their humanity and replaced it with the stilted, artificial rules of the court. The characters who perish are crushed by the machinery of the state, the formality of which stifles moral conscience and sympathy. (If you think that Verdi couldn’t create an aristocrat that wasn’t formal and stilted, you have not made the acquaintance of the Duke of Mantua.) And you can’t do what any more—invite the audience to put themselves in the place of characters from a completely different time and place and let them see how the drama might resonate in the contemporary world, let them experience the universality of the human condition? If you can’t see how even the most resolutely period-costumed production of Don Carlos maybe just might have some pertinence to current political realities, then you’re just plain obtuse.

Sandow frames this with an observation that the Errol Flynn picture Captain Blood has a pretty operatic vibe, but that movies aren’t very operatic anymore, so opera is doomed.

[I]n 1935 you could go to the opera, and go to the movies, and see practically the same thing. So opera was close to everyday life, in a way that it just can’t be now.

Now, either he’s saying that Captain Blood was close to everyday life (everybody carried swords during the Great Depression?), or he’s tacitly assuming that people in 1935 somehow found costume dramas less anachronistic than people do today. On the other hand, Hollywood cranks out just as many period pieces as it ever did, and people still go see them—and most of them aren’t modern-reference mash-ups like Marie Antoinette, which Sandow holds up as pop-culture Exhibit A in his argument. Over the summer there was 300, Amazing Grace, and Becoming Jane. This week’s box office champ is a period western, 3:10 to Yuma. There was a well-received Edith Piaf biopic and a poorly-received Molière biopic.

Culture is always going to reference any point along the historical continuum it can get its hands on. Captain Blood was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar in 1935. The other nominees included film versions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Les Miserables; the Astaire-Rogers musical Top Hat, as well as Broadway Melody of 1936; the Charles Laughton Wild West comedy Ruggles of Red Gap and John Ford’s searing drama of the 1922 Irish rebellion, The Informer. In other words, old, new, and everything in between. Sandow is pointing to 1935 as some lost era of confluence, but, living in 1935, cherry-picking my cinematic experiences, I could make the exact same argument he makes today. It would have been specious then, and it’s specious now.

Full measures of devotion

I caught snippets of New York City’s 9/11 commemoration on the radio yesterday. As part of the ceremonies, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus sang the National Anthem. Interestingly, they sang it with four beats to the bar.

“The Star-Spangled Banner” is more or less officially in three-quarter time. Printed sources of “The Anacreontic Song,” the drinking song that supplied the tune, are in triple meter, as are other, pre-“Banner” songs that use the tune (such as “Adams and Liberty”). Here’s the traditional version:

The Brooklyn kids sang something more like this:

Basically, each downbeat is doubled in length. What it does is make the anthem sound like a gospel song.

Spreading a dactylic rhythm over four beats like this shifts the rhythmic activity to the second half of the bar, which is common in gospel music. Here’s the opening Richard Smallwood’s contemporary gospel standard “Total Praise,” which has the same three-stretched-into-four (or even eight) pattern:

It’s prevalent enough that it’s an easy way to give a piece a gospel feel, as in Billy Taylor’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” made famous by Nina Simone:

Long-short-short and related patterns are pretty venerable, so how did the pattern become associated with gospel? One might think it’s through comparison with white gospel, which has always kept a healthy repertoire of waltz-time numbers—shifting to 4/4 doubles the backbeat quotient and makes for a more jazz-like rhythm. But I think it has more to do with the call-and-response pattern typical of African-American churches: the long downbeat opens up space in the bar for the choir/congregation to interject. Here’s a good example from John W. Work’s American Negro Songs:

I’d be willing to bet that the common-time, gospel-tinged variant of “The Star-Spangled Banner” has its origin in the African-American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, but the first such public performance I know of was José Feliciano’s soulful prelude to the fifth game of the 1968 World Series. (The famous Jimi Hendrix Woodstock anthem was in a solid slow three.) At the time, Feliciano’s version was widely regarded as disrespectful; within two decades, Marvin Gaye’s 1983 NBA All-Star Game rendition was an instant classic. Nowadays, at one of the most solemnity-fraught public observances on the calendar, a 4/4 “Star-Spangled Banner” doesn’t even raise an eyebrow.

There’s a lot of reasons why. Part of it is the prevalence of pop styles in the current American musical landscape—those hippie teenagers from ’68 are now running the place, after all. You could argue that genres, by now, have criss-crossed so many boundaries that the mere use or implication of a style doesn’t say much of anything vis-à-vis the song at hand (Gaye was singing soul, which was secularized gospel, which in turn was churchified jazz, which evolved from ragtime and blues, which grew out of spirituals, etc., etc.). I think there’s two particular things going on here, though.

The first is that our expectations for patriotic feelings have changed. In a way, the National Anthem has shifted in performance to a sort of national hymn. (Francis Scott Key’s original poem does reference the Deity, but not in the only verse that anyone knows.) Of course, there already is a national hymn: “God of Our Fathers,” composed in 1888, and as stolid a piece of white Anglo-Saxon imperial Gilded-Age triumphalism as you’d expect, just the thing for reinforcing traditional American values of rectitutde and propriety. But such dignified piety paled in comparison with the heady energies of the African-American church, an experience that was firmly installed in the mainstream by the civil rights movement. Once we saw the view from that mountaintop, it became the ideal inspirational touchstone. We didn’t just want the comfort of tradition and heritage. We wanted to be transported.

A fundamentalist straw man might argue that we’re looking for a replacement for those religious facets of governmental ceremony that have allegedly been leeched out of public discourse by civil libertarians. (I don’t think so.) A cynical straw man might say that we want the spiritual uplift of religion without the corresponding responsibility, so we’ve shifted those tropes to a non-religious context. (Maybe.) I would say that there’s a more fundamental change at work here, a change in the way we perceive what “country” means. Stephen Decatur’s infamous 1816 toast—”Our country, right or wrong!”—comes across as less jingoistic if you consider that Decatur’s idea of his country was his camaraderie with his fellow countrymen: we may disagree, he was saying, but our collective bond as citizens should never be dissolved. We don’t think of it that way today; our “country” is an ideal, a set of beliefs about government and freedom, a goal to be reached through collective conscientious citizenship.

Why do we think this way? It gets us into all kinds of trouble. If we clearly viewed our country as simply an assemblage of people living on a certain parcel of land surrounded by a border, I doubt we would be stuck in Iraq, for one thing—we wouldn’t have seen the need to go there in the first place. But since we also see the country as this dream of liberty, this beacon of democracy for the entire world, we’re less likely to notice such cognitive dissonance until it’s too late. What’s more, as time goes on, we’re more and more likely to concentrate on that idealized country. Decatur and his fellow Americans thought that the perfect society envisioned by the founding fathers was imminent, just a few constitutional and economic adjustments away. We know better, which makes that goal all the more seductive in its permanent elusiveness. The great joy and tragedy of the American experience is that perfection always seems so close that you can almost, but not quite, reach out and grasp it.

The bulk of the Negro spiritual repertoire is focused in some way on the transition from this world to the next. Flipping through Work’s collection, there’s “After ‘While”:

After ‘while, after ‘while
Some sweet day after ‘while
I’m goin’ up to see my Jesus,
O some sweet day after ‘while.

“You May Bury Me in the East”:

You may bury me in the East,
You may bury me in the West,
But I’ll hear that trumpet sound
In-a that morning.

“Lead Me to the Rock”:

As I go down the stream of time
(Lead me to the Rock that is higher than I)
I leave this sinful world behind
(Lead me to the Rock that is higher than I.)

“Steal Away”:

My Lord calls me,
He calls me by the thunder;
The trumpet sounds within-a my soul,
I ain’t got long to stay here.

…and so on. Heaven, in other words, is within sight, just over Jordan, which makes the consummation even more devoutly wished. No wonder our paens to our just-out-of-reach ideal country seem to evolve towards millenial religious utterance.

Perhaps that’s reading too much into things, but I think that the transformation of “The Star-Spangled Banner” into a gospel song, at the very least, signals another wish: the wish for a country worth singing a hymn to, the wish that the nation will finally cross over into the promised land that each of us carries in our mind. The longer the trip takes, the more we try and bolster our spirits. We sing to encourage ourselves, and our country, that we and she will get there someday. In the words of another spiritual: we cheer the weary traveler.

The Great Round

The enemy was at the gates, guns thundered all around, and grenades sizzled through the air amid showers of sparks. The townsfolk, their faces white with fear, ran into their houses; the deserted streets rang with the sound of horses’ hooves, as mounted patrols galloped past and with curses drove the remaining soldiers into their redoubts. But Ludwig sat in his little back room, completely absorbed and lost in the wonderful, brightly coloured world of fantasy that unfolded before him at the piano. He had just completed a symphony, in which he had striven to capture in written notation all the resonances of his innermost soul; the work sought, like Beethoven’s compositions of that type, to speak in heavenly language of the glorious wonders of that far, romantic realm in which we swoon away in inexpressible yearning; indeed it sought, like one of those wonders, itself to penetrate our narrow, paltry lives, and with sublime siren voices tempt forth its willing victims. Then his landlady came into the room, upbraiding him and asking how he could simply play the piano through all that anguish and distress, and whether he wanted to get himself shot dead in his garrett. Ludwig did not quite follow the woman’s drift, until with a sudden crash a shell carried away part of the roof and shattered the window panes. Screaming and wailing the landlady ran down the stairs, while Ludwig seized the dearest thing he now possessed, the score of his symphony, and hurried after her down to the cellar.

Here the entire household was gathered. In a quite untypical fit of largesse the wine-seller who lived downstairs had made available a few dozen bottles of his best wine, and the women, fretting and fussing but as always anxiously concerned with physical sustenance and comfort, filled their sewing-baskets with tasty morsels from the pantry. They ate, they drank, and their agitation and distress were soon transformed into that agreeable state in which we seek and fancy we find security in neighbourly companionship; that state in which all the petty airs and graces which propriety teaches are subsumed, as it were, into the great round danced to the irresistable beat of fate’s iron fist.

—E.T.A. Hoffmann, The Poet and the Composer (1813),
trans. Martyn Clarke, ed. David Charlton

Class struggle—the musical

Over the weekend, my lovely wife and I, always ready to extend a welcome to new arrivals in the neighborhood, dropped by a big addition just added to the Natick Mall—sorry, The Natick Collection—apparently, the word “mall” now carries too much of a whiff of the lumpenproletariat for luxe-minded shoppers. Anyway, as Veblenesque theme parks go, it’s not bad: bright and airy, shiny continental techno music emanating from the high-end designer boutiques and hovering just at the threshhold of audibility, etc., etc. Can I afford anything in the new places? Nope. But if you’re the type who’s been worried that a dearth of opportunities to spend four figures on a handbag has somehow made Metrowest Boston incurably provincial, worry no more.

Right in the middle of the place, M. Steinert & Sons, who, as they never fail to remind you, are New England’s exclusive representative for Steinway & Sons pianos, had plunked down a big new nine-foot Steinway “D.”

Apparently, there was a professional serenading the patrons at the grand opening, but when we were there, the only players heard were passing children, availing themselves of the opportunity to tickle the polymer-based fake ivories until their parents became sufficiently incensed at their dilatoriness. Some of them weren’t bad, actually, sending forth the burnished tones of their beginning repertoire with anti-establishment glee. A closer look at the instrument revealed that the kids were in good company:

That frame’s been autographed by Peter Serkin! Which probably means that, at some point, he played this instrument—or else one of his stage door fans is Mr. Universe. As a tribute, I added a few half-remembered bars of Schoenberg to the fray before once again leaving the proceedings in the hands of the younger generation. Now, if this open-keyboard thing is a permanent fixture, and the ambience is always going to be graced by kids randomly plinking away, that would actually be a big draw for me. If that’s the case, though, maybe they should find an instrument signed by David Tudor.

The Boys in the Band

From a recent interview with William Friedkin:

With forty years in filmmaking—and thirty since the powerhouse duo of The French Connection and The Exorcist—how does Friedkin, whose prolific career has been characterized by huge ups and downs, classic hits and costly flops, keep his passion? “I just love doing it,” he says flatly. “It’s like [composer Gustav] Mahler, who wrote ten symphonies and none of them were successful, but he just kept writing them. Now there’s not an orchestra in the world that doesn’t have to program Mahler.”

I confess that I’ve always liked Friedkin for doing his best to actually be the rampaging egomaniac that people imagine all Hollywood directors are. The comparison does raise an interesting question, though: is there a correspondence between Mahler’s symphonic output and Friedkin’s cinematic oeuvre? Does the First Symphony reveal new facets placed side-by-side with Sonny & Cher in Good Times? Are the hammer blows in the Sixth the nitro-laden truck in Sorcerer or the reviews of Cruising? And what of the long-lost link between the Eighth Symphony and The Exorcist? Susan McClary could have a field day with this.

Friedkin’s career has alternated between brilliant and awful (sometimes in the same movie), but he’s never dull, and really, anyone whose CV includes The French Connection—one of the all-time great, brainy thrill rides in any medium—is entitled to a certain amount of cockiness. Friedkin’s recent forays into opera direction have gotten mixed reviews, but you know there’s a doozy of a production in that brain somewhere. If I were in Peter Gelb’s chair, I’d be lining up Friedkin, Coppola, Scorsese, and Ken Russell for a mini-season at the Met.

Una furtiva lagrima

In memoriam.

Pavarotti was (is, thanks to the recorded legacy) my favorite tenor, and I’ve been trying to remember how and why that came about. I only saw him live once, in a Chicago Symphony concert performance of Otello of which all I remember is he was rather under the weather—by the time I started going to the opera, Ardis Krainik had issued her famous ukase in Chicago, so I missed out on any stage performances. (My parents did get to see his Duca di Montova on one of the occasions he didn’t cancel.) In my undergrad days, I was a big Jon Vickers fan, as his style was a better fit for undergrad intellectual iconoclasm. But at some point in the past ten years, Pavarotti took the crown. I think it was because he had some God-given immunity to my opera-fan nitpicking—even a mediocre performance still had that glorious sound and that generous presence, which, for some reason, made me just not care so much about the other stuff, and reminded me just what it is about opera that I love, anyway.

The clip above, from 1988, has it all—the full-out sound, the dictation-worthy diction (see, guys? When I talk about fast, crisp consonants and pure vowels, that’s what I’m talking about), the rhythmic swagger. Opera Chic has more great clips, and La Cieca posts a marvelous 1969 Nemorino that gives you a sense of what had everybody buzzing when he first appeared. (And I can’t resist linking to his final performance, opening the 2006 Torino Olympics with—what else?—”Nessun dorma.” Still damn impressive for a septugenarian, and I just love that the crowd knows to fill in the chorus part.)

Just the other night, my lovely wife and I were talking about Pavarotti (the Rigoletto with Sutherland was on the stereo) and we were saying that a voice like that only comes along every fifty years, and trying to figure out who would have been the Pavarotti of the previous generation, and who was around today who might step into that role. But really, has there ever been another voice like Pavarotti’s? I wonder.