Month: November 2007

Holiday (I)

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day here in the U.S., which, notwithstanding its official rationale of some business involving Puritan immigrants, is pretty much our national eating holiday. All the usual holiday stress aside, a higher-than-normal proportion of that food is home-cooked, which kind of makes the day a musical occasion, once removed: cooking, when you think about it, is basically composing for the tone-deaf. It’s all there—the balance between planning and spontaneity, between creativity and craft, between repertoire and improvisation, the need for an audience, the way you can cover up less-than-ideal raw materials with copious amounts of MSG, &c., &c.

Of course, not everybody is plugged in to a network that includes that kind of food, so, just like last year (mmmm… stuffing—whoops, got distracted there for a second), I’ll remind everyone that now is as good a time as any to send a few bucks to organizations that do home-cooking for complete strangers. Here in Boston, you can take your pick from The Greater Boston Food Bank, the Boston Rescue Mission, The Pine Street Inn, the Boston Living Center—those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head. There’s Share Our Strength if you want to go national, or you can search at America’s Second Harvest for a local food bank. And there’s always The Salvation Army, who deserve a kettle full of change just for their motto: “Blood and Fire.” Blood and Fire! It’s like a three-word Black Sabbath show. Five, ten bucks—admit it, they’ll do more with it than you would.

Thus endeth the sermon. Enjoy your holiday—and if you’re hitting the mall on Friday, I’d recommend body armor. (Wow, that’s one of the craziest home-page index menus I’ve seen in a while.)

9 Symphonies*

I’ve been busier than usual as of late, and I realized that I’d been slacking off on my solemn duty as a blogger, that of promulgating crackpot theories. Without the constant nourishment of entertainingly improbable hypotheses, this whole Internet thing would beach itself like a disoriented right whale—there, I’ve met my quota for not-quite-pertinent similes at the same time! Anyway, try this one on for size:

Ludwig van Beethoven was a steroid abuser.

Wouldn’t that explain an awful lot? The notoriously difficult personality? The megalomanaical fury of the middle period? The wild mood swings of the late period? The rather remarkable growth of his head? Dude’s head went from normal to huge. Not to put too fine a point on it:

Barry Bonds in 1986; Barry Bonds in 2007.

Beethoven in 1801; Beethoven in 1818.

How’s that for circumstantial evidence? I will also point out the original words to the finale of the Ninth Symphony (NOTE: not actual original words to the finale of the Ninth Symphony):

Deine Zauber binden wieder,
Alle Sachen das Erhell’n;
Alle Menschen werden Brüder,
Mit ihren großen Muskeln.
Your magic frees all others,
The brightening of all things;
All men become brothers,
With their huge muscles.

Let’s review, shall we?



Little head

Enormous head

Awkwardly friendly

Cranky and temperamental

Symphony no. 1

Symphony no. 5

Some literalist is probably at this moment self-inflicting a herniated disc with head-shaking and complaining that anabolic steroids weren’t synthesized until around the 1930s. Well, the British novelist and critic Angus Wilson has my back (OK, OK, he’s talking about Dickens and Dostoevsky—same difference, I say!):

I think this refutation of evidence of direct influence is not all that important, for the relation… is much more exciting than a matter of provable evidence of somebody being influenced by this particular thing or that particular thing.

Next time: Liszt and crystal meth—of course, you all knew that one already.

Because manuscript paper lacks mystery

BOSTON, November 15—In a discovery sending shockwaves ineffectually in all directions at once, a “blogger” has claimed to have found musical notes encoded in the painting “The Good Life” by American artist Thomas Kinkade, Painter of LightTM.

Kinkade left clues to a musical composition in his painting, said Soho the Dog, Musicologist of MusicTM. Mr. Dog found that, by turning the painting on its side, photographing it through ultraviolet light, rearranging the positions of the rocks on the pastel-laden riverbank according to a complicated algorithm based around the number “3” (as signaled by the otherwise inexplicable need for the outdoorsman in the painting to have three fires going simultaneously), and drawing the five lines of a musical staff across the painting, the rocks could represent musical notes. The result is a 3-minute “hymn” which Mr. Dog described as “like a soundtrack that emphasizes the true soul of Kinkade’s art”.

Artassé Vasari, director of a Kinkade gallery in suburban Genoa, said the theory was “plausible,” an Italian colloquialism meaning “your cell phone reception seems to be spotty.”

Mr. Dog dimissed suggestions that he was jumping on a bandwagon, and took exception to the phrase “The Kinkade Code” appearing in media reports. “If they’re going to call it that, I must insist that they spell ‘code’ with a ‘k,'” he said. “You know, like the Keystone Kops.”

Mr. Dog said he was currently arranging a 16-part symphony secretly encoded in another series of masterpieces.

Gloria sei dir gesungen

Word came simultaneously from Emmanuel Music and Richard at Ear Trumpet that Craig Smith died yesterday. Smith became music director at Boston’s Emmanuel Church in 1970, and promptly founded Emmanuel Music, with a mission to perform the complete cycle of church cantatas by J.S. Bach—within their original weekly-service context—a mission completed in 1977. After that, he embarked on a series of similar explorations, the bigger, the better—the Mozart-Da Ponte operas with director Peter Sellars, the complete vocal and chamber music of Franz Schubert, a similar Schumann cycle—all the while still mounting a Bach cantata every Sunday.

I only met Smith a couple of times, and I can hardly say I knew him, but in a sense, living in Boston, you ended up absorbing his musical personality anyway—Emmanuel Music and the musicians who have passed through it are such a potent constituency in the city that the fabled six degrees of separation shrink down to one or two. Smith fostered his share of big stars throughout the years, but also engendered an enviable amount of loyalty and stability, especially given the amount of local college-town transience. The last time I saw him, back in April, it felt, as Emmanuel productions often felt, like a bit of a family reunion, with a couple new cousins to be introduced around by their genial bear of an uncle. At the time, one heard whispers that Smith’s heart troubles had been getting worse, but you wouldn’t have known it to see him on the podium; he simply wasn’t going to let health or age get in the way of making the music that needed to be made. Smith conducted his last cantata on November 4th: BWV 72, Alles nur nach Gottes Willen—”everything solely according to God’s will.” One suspects that God, in this case, was glad to have the help.

De Paso

I’m running out the door to catch a dress rehearsal of Elliott Carter’s new horn concerto.


El tiempo no pasó:
Aquí esta.
Pasamos nosotros.

Sólo nosotros somos el pasado.

Aves de paso que pasaron
y ahora,
poco a poco,
se mueren.


Time did not pass by:
Here it is.
We passed by.

Only we are the past.

Migrating birds that passed overhead
and now,
little by little,
are passing away.

—José Emilio Pacheco,
trans. Cynthia Steele

And another:


Para mí para muchos es lo mejor del mundo.
No cesaremos nunca de alabarlo.
Jamás terminará la gratitud
por su música incomparable.

En cambio para Strindberg todo Mozart
es una cacofonía de gorjeos cursis.

La variedad del gusto,
la magia de la crítica.


For me and many others he is the best in the world.
We will never tire of singing his praises.
Our gratitude
for his incomparable music is infinite.

For Strindberg, on the other hand, all of Mozart
is a cacophany of pretentious warbling.

The variety of taste,
the magic of criticism.

—José Emilio Pacheco,
trans. Cynthia Steele

(Both poems found in this highly recommended volume.)

Where my time goes

So the other day, I was digging through a box of old choral music, and I found this ad on the back of one of the octavos:

This amused me no end, partially because the guy hauling the bananas looks a little like Muammar al-Gaddafi, and partially because I was imagining my church choir—HEY, WAIT A MINUTE, ALAN ARKIN WROTE THE BANANA BOAT SONG?!

Well, yes and no. As it turns out, prior to his acting career, Arkin (who’s a hero around Soho the Dog HQ on the basis of The In-Laws alone—serpentine!) was part of a folk trio called The Tarriers, who released a version of “Day-O” in 1956. Harry Belafonte’s better-known version, already recorded but still sitting on the shelf, was rushed into release after The Tarriers’ rendition became a hit. Some poking around the Web turned up a guy who’s gathered more than you’ll ever need to know on the topic.

But it was while I was chasing down that topic that I found Mento Music. “Mento” is the Jamaican name for the pre-reggae style of music that made it to these shores in somewhat gussied-up form as Calypso, and Mento Music’s webmaster, Michael Garnice, is a fan—an obsessive, exhaustive fan. And after seeing several hours disappear down the rabbit hole exploring the site and perusing the dozens of sound clips (RealPlayer only, but it’s worth it) I’m a fan, too. So now there’s a couple hours of vintage mento crowding up my hard drive, and, at least until this enthusiasm burns out, I’ll be hanging out with the likes of Lord Flea, Lord Messam, and Harold Richardson & the Ticklers.

Aaaaannd that was time that really needed to be spent practicing. I swear, someday somebody’s going to load my house on a truck and drive off with it by distracting me with shiny objects.

Amo, lloro, canto, sueño

While the Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra (who we caught last week) continue their brief but triumphant roll across the United States, a certain amount of carping has been on the rise, particularly from Pliable at On an Overgrown Path. Yesterday, he ran photos of “protests against Chavez’s decision to shut down opposition-aligned television station RCTV in May 2007…. Perhaps DG will use them on the next Dudamel CD sleeve?” This was in the context of quoting an approving link (N.B.: calling flattering compliments “wise words” has a tendency to sound a little arrogant) from The Penitent Wagnerite:

Supporting Dudamel, his youth orchestra, and other Venezuelan cultural products is akin to saying that we love the produce of a nascent dictatorship, even if we don’t so much care for the dictator. While Mr. Dudamel should not be made to suffer for being the product and superstar of the music-education program of Venezuela, we should not get in the business of supporting Chavez or the end-results of his projects until it becomes clear that Chavez is committed to democracy and human rights.

For the record, particularly since the 2004 recall vote, Hugo Chávez has moved steadily into this lefty’s “bad arguments for a position I hold dear” category, although, for a little perspective, he’s hardly the first or, so far at least, the worst demagogue to hold power in the Americas. (Amending the constitution to run for a third term? Old joke.) But all the innuendo about Dudamel et al. vis-à-vis Chávez (Penitent, for example, mentioned Furtwängler) needs to be parsed in light of two salient points:

  1. El Sistema has been around for over thirty years, founded by José Antonio Abreu in 1975, pre-dating even Chávez’s failed coup attempt by nearly a generation; and
  2. El Sistema is currently providing an education for a quarter of a million children and teenagers that the majority of them wouldn’t get otherwise.

So what exactly should Dudamel and Abreu do differently? The orchestra isn’t a self-contained touring ensemble, they’re the representatives of the entire system, a system that still gets the vast bulk of its funding from the Venezuelan government. When Chávez comes calling, and asks you to record the national anthem for state TV, what do you do? Jeopardize the entire program in order to express your displeasure? It’s worth noting, by the way, that the station that state-run network replaced, the above-mentioned RCTV, wasn’t “shut down.” It came up for license renewal, which the government denied. Playing semantics? Not exactly: as the media watchdog group FAIR pointed out back in the spring, RCTV has hardly been a beacon of enlightened discourse itself, and had clearly violated the “public trust” that most countries require in return for access to the broadcasting spectrum. (RCTV, incidentally, is still viewable throughout most of the country via cable.) Should they still have kept their license? Maybe, maybe not—the point is, the situation in Venezuela is far more complicated than the simplified stories that make it back to the American and European mass media.

Should El Sistema, then, just keep a lower PR profile until Chávez behaves? I rather think that the orchestra is doing exactly what they need to do in order to insulate El Sistema from any current or future Venezuelan administration. In his New York Times profile of Dudamel a couple of weeks ago, Arthur Lubow called the simultaneous celebrity of conductor and orchestra “a stroke of auspicious timing.” I don’t think it’s coincidental: Abreu is consciously using the orchestra’s tour as an El Sistema roadshow—sow goodwill and money will follow. (And already has: the system’s latest expansion is being financed mostly by the Inter-American Development Bank, signaling the group’s evolution from a national symbol to a regional one.) Recordings, tours, PR—if Chávez makes you uneasy, isn’t it an improvement to replace his financial support with Deutsche Grammophon’s?

In fact, it’s that pose of vague uneasiness that bugs me. For all the delicacy of the political situation in Venezuela, and El Sistema‘s place in it, the calculus here is not really all that complicated. Do you think the mission and accomplishments of El Sistema are worthwhile? Worthwhile enough to justify Abreu and Dudamel playing nice with Chávez while they cast their net for less fraught, more diversified institutional and financial support? Or is Chávez so awful that reliance on his government is a taint that renders El Sistema‘s educational achievements worthless? The association benefits Chávez, to a certain extent—but it also benefits 250,000 other Venezuelans, and I would say those benefits are far more real and long-lasting. That’s my opinion; yours may be the opposite. But as various constituencies begin to try and replicate the System’s model in the U.S. and Europe, I think it’s time to actually have an opinion, rather than furrowing one’s brow and murmuring inconclusively.

And, of course—the flag jackets. Maybe I’m inured from years of baseball games and seeing the red, white, and blue unfurl from the Symphony Hall ceiling every time the Pops plays “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” but any flag that every side can convincingly wrap itself in doesn’t bug me that much, Eddie Izzard’s warnings notwithstanding. Pliable pointed out that those protesters were flying the Venezuelan flag as well—how do we know that some of the orchestra weren’t wearing their jackets in that spirit, and not a pro-Chávez one? We don’t. I mentioned last week my sense that El Sistema‘s popularity cut across party lines; writing in the Observer last summer, Ed Vuillamy made the same point:

El Sistema sank roots in Venezuelan society deep enough to survive the winds—hurricanes, indeed—of tumultuous political change, military coups and now the Chavez revolution. El Sistema is probably, and remarkably, the only organism immune to politics in one of the world’s most highly politicised societies.

Maybe both Ed and I have simply been effectively snowed, but I rather doubt it—Abreu has woven El Sistema into the fabric of Venezuelan life on a level deeper than politics. If you look at the upside of El Sistema and the downsides of the Bolivarian Revolution, it’s not cognitively dissonant for the former to win out over the latter. It’s awfully comforting when pragmatism and moral absolutism coincide, but most of the time, you throw as much as you know on the scale, and see which side tips the balance. For me, it was the kids on the Symphony Hall stage.

Update (11/15): Pliable responds with yet more hints, innuendo, and oblique comparisons. The penultimate paragraph still stands.

Update (11/16): I cheerfully declare the penultimate paragraph moot: Pliable takes a stand in the comments on his post (as I expected, it’s the opposite of mine).