Month: November 2007

Southpaw Grammar

Norman Mailer, the bad boy of American letters, died this morning. By sheer coincidence, this past week I had picked up Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Mailer’s guided tour of the 1968 Republican and Democratic conventions. It’s not as strong a book as its predecessor, Armies of the Night, but the beginning is sufficiently terrific that it sucked me in for about a hundred pages before the seams started to show. The opening paragraph is worth quoting in full:

They snipped the ribbon in 1915, they popped the cork, Miami Beach was born. A modest burg they called a city, nine-tenths jungle. An island. It ran along a coastal barrier the other side of Biscayne Bay from young Miami—in 1868 when Henry Lum, a California ‘forty-niner, first glimpsed the island from a schooner, you may be certain it was jungle, cocoanut palms on the sand, mangrove swamp and palmetto thicket ten feet off the beach. But by 1915 they were working the vein. John S. Collins, a New Jersey nurseyman (after which Collins Avenue is kindly named) brought in bean fields and avocado groves; a gent named Fisher, Carl G., a Hoosier—he invented Prestolite, a millionaire—bought up acres from Collins, brought in a work-load of machinery, men, even two elephants, and jungle was cleared, swamps were filled, small residential islands were made out of babybottom mud, dredged, then relocated, somewhat larger natural islands adjacent to the barrier island found themselves improved, streets were paved, sidewalks put in with other amenities—by 1968, one hundred years after Lum first glommed the beach, large areas of the original coastal strip were covered over altogether with macadam, white condominium, white luxury hotel, and white stucco flea-bag. Over hundreds, then thousands of acres, white sidewalks, streets, and white buildings covered the earth where the jungle had been. Is it so dissimilar from covering your poor pubic hair with adhesive tape for fifty years? The vegetal memories of that excised jungle haunted Miami Beach in a steam-pot of miasmas. Ghosts of expunged flora, the never-born groaning in vegetative chancery beneath the asphalt came up with a tropical curse, an equatorial leaden wet sweat of air which rose from the earth itself, rose right up through the baked asphalt and into the heated air which entered the lungs like a hand slipping into a rubber glove.

I think Mailer’s prose is a great example of how compositional style and compositional intent are two different things. It’s odd to call writing that extravagant efficient, exactly, but look how much Mailer crams into that paragraph: a little history lesson, a lapidary sense of place, a quirky theory of archaeology and atmosphere, and, lest we forget who’s writing, an outrageous simile tossed in like a drum break. His oversized personality oozes from every phrase, but, unlike a lot of similar writers, Mailer’s always telling you stuff, showing you stuff, because he never forgets that he has stuff to show you. Sometimes the style works with the intent—notice how the breezy swagger lets him compress all that history into telegraphed details. But where the two are at odds, the intent trumps the style; later in the same chapter, in place of a baroque description of Miami Beach’s slightly stale, old-movie neverland glamour, Mailer just tells you the names of all the hotels, which ends up being more evocative than any description, anyway.

Some of the things Mailer had to say throughout his career were more profound than others, but I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by him that was a mere stylistic exercise—having something to say was the driving force behind everything he wrote. I was never a particularly rabid Mailer fan, but in retrospect, his work has a lot of the attributes I like in music: ambition, risk, a sense of the absurd, but most of all, a two-way street between creator and audience. Mailer never adopted a pose of indifference; his literary persona, at least, cared very much whether you liked him or not, but at the same time, was honest enough to not pretend to be something other than he was. The best art doesn’t pander, nor does it hide its intent behind a stylistic cushion. Mailer told you what he thought, the way that he thought it, and hoped for the best. He often made me want to throw the book across the room—but I’d still pick it up and finish it.

The long grave already dug

     I know you
     Met before, seventh floor
     First world war, I know you

— The Byrds, “I See You” (1966)

This Sunday is Veterans’ Day here in the U.S. I prefer its old name, Armstice Day, not because veterans don’t deserve their own day (they do) but because detaching the day from its original context—November 11, 1918—diminishes the palpability of that crucial moment in history. Eighty-nine years on, the end of World War I is still regarded as the birth announcement of the modern world. Everything on the ancient side of that historical divide—the unchallenged governing status of authority and class, the optimism of the Enlightenment, the belief that mankind was in control of historical forces and not the other way around—seemed to perish in the conflagration. In Robert Graves’ famous formulation: good-bye to all that.

But in a crucial sense, the brave and/or craven new world that suddenly confronted humanity in 1918 had been around for quite some time—it just hadn’t been popularized. The writers and intellectuals who defined the modern world in the wake of the Great War were, in their own way, crossover artists, taking something that had been the purview of a marginalized minority and repackagaing it for the population as a whole. They were, in other words, like early rock-and-roll musicians.

The founding myth of rock-and-roll is unusual in that it simultaneously tells a creation story and acknowledges the historical circumstances such stories normally gloss over. The accepted gospel is that the early stars—Elvis Presley, Bill Haley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and so on—took a style of music that was already prevalent among African-Americans and, by virtue of their skin color, made it palatable to the majority white population. Like most creation myths, it’s an oversimplification, ignoring both the formidable influence of country-western music on 50s rock and the concurrent popularity of Little Richard, Fats Domino, and other black artists.

But the notion at its core, that rock-and-roll already existed, but needed white performers to inoculate its potential audience from the perceived social stigma of its origins, is a powerful enough narrative to have been refashioned in watered-down form ever since, whether in the form of blue-eyed soul or (most notoriously) in the case of Vanilla Ice, greeted as the purported Elvis of hip-hop. (As it turned out, hip-hop was able to make its own way in the world, thank you very much.)

What was it that swept across societies in the 1920s and 30s with the cultural force of early rock? Disillusionment. The feeling that all organized human endeavors almost inevitably, somehow, are frustrated in their noble goals is so common today that it’s hard to imagine a time when such emotions didn’t exist. But disillusionment is a recent innovation, first making its appearance in the violent, messy wake of the French Revolution of the late 18th century. The ideals of that epoch had themselves been percolating for some time, but it was the failure of the Terror that first showed how such ideals could lead to a disappointment of previously unknown profundity. Throughout the following century, revolutionaries of all stripes would be buffeted against the twin shoals of optimism and disillusionment. As the poet Ferdinand Freiligrath put it after the failure of the revolutions of 1848: “We stood on the threshold of paradise, but the gates were slammed in our faces.”

Revolutionaries, though, were the pariahs of the Victorian age, an affront to the stability that respectable society clung to like a life preserver. And their disillusionment was regarded as a symptom of a cast of mind that was, at best, an indulgence of youth, at worst, an assault on the verities that held civilization together. That civilization would be revealed as impotent in the stalemate of the trenches and the pettiness of the peace. The centuries-old structure of the West seemed to collapse like a revolutionary plot.
It might risk trivialization to compare the violence and destruction of World War I with the ephemeral joys of Elvis. But both phenomena are manifestations of a great historical antagonism within their respective eras. Rock-and-roll put the the enduring racial tension at the core of American history on stage, front and center. Post-World War I anomie reflected the long-standing friction between the power of the state and the freedom of the individual, a conflict that even the only enduring revolution, our own, still hasn’t resolved.

One could, in fact, argue that the rising hegemony of specifically American culture after World War I was similarly lying in wait, that the Civil War had set in motion a distinctly American psychic engine running on equal parts idealism and anxiety; American participation in the Great War simply kicked that motor into gear. Ann Douglas, in Terrible Honesty, her study of postwar Manhattan, points out how a writer like Ernest Hemingway was far better prepared to make sense—and art—out of his wartime experience than his European counterparts. “The Great War as a military, industrial, and psychological force was already in America’s history, one could say, before it broke out in Europe in 1914,” Douglas writes. “Hemingway had been to boot camp without knowing it.”

Perhaps this is why both the First World War and the advent of rock-and-roll seemed to come about so inevitably, in the face of widespread disbelief. The reverberations of the revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries have continually buffeted civilization for so long now, that upheavals aren’t really what catch us off guard, but merely their sometimes unexpected source and size. The raw materials of revolutionary emotions have become commodities. The Mexican writer Octavio Paz put it best: the modern world waits for revolutions like “the early Christians expecting the Apocalypse,” he once said. “And revolution comes; not the expected one, but another, always another.” Each time, we’re reintroduced to what we already know. Hello to all that.

Boston Latin

Something’s coming, and it’s about to be played by 20 violas.
(Poor-quality cell phone photo by your faithful correspondent.)

Here’s all you really need to know about the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra. At Symphony Hall last night, their final encore was the “Danza final” from Alberto Ginastera’s Estancia suite, and they pretty much screwed around the entire time: swaying, jumping up, stamping their feet, dancing out of their seats—towards the end, Gustavo Dudamel left the podium and began sawing away on a cello, while the cellist joined the mêlée on the podium, raising his arms in mock conducting. And even in this free-for-all, they still had better ensemble and rhythmic drive than many professional orchestras on any given day.

The crown jewel of El Sistema rode into Boston this week on more classical music hype than the town’s seen in years. The place was packed; Tony Woodcock, the new president of the New England Conservatory (a concert co-sponsor, with the BSO and the Celebrity Series), gave an effusive introduction with a record-high incidence of the adjectivally-modifying “absolutely”. And then the enormous (quadruple winds, eight horns, eleven basses) orchestra started to play, and it all managed to justify the buzz.

The main attraction of the opening, Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, was hearing the unwieldy hydra on stage move with such precision. Apart from the frisson of programming this Koussevitzky specialty in Koussevitzky’s house, the interpretation didn’t reveal anything about the piece most listeners didn’t know, but the flexibility of the ensemble, given its size, was wondrous. Dudamel not only has some of the most fluent stick technique I’ve ever seen—every cue arrives in flawless time as part of a completely natural-seeming choreography, and his repertoire of gestures is huge and judiciously deployed—but is also a terrific conduit for the enormous amount of energy that flows through the group. The playing, uniformly joyous, is almost unbelievably exuberant and intense; in lesser hands that could result in unfocused chaos. Dudamel channels it into exact paths. The calibration of the rustling crescendo at the beginning of the finale was quite possibly the best I’ve ever heard.

Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony opened the second half in grand style—reduced personnel in this case still meant four horns and four trumpets. Dudamel didn’t keep the group on a classically-proportioned leash: the dynamic contrasts were wide and powerful, the sort of thing Mahler was aiming for when he would re-orchestrate Beethoven. But they made it convincing—even the loudest portions (which were quite loud indeed) still had a clarity and balance that let you pick out any voice or line. The pacing, particularly in a somewhat faster-than-normal true Allegretto second movement and a somewhat leisurely Presto third, seemed designed to build the structure around great, cresting waves of sound, something Dudamel excels at. Also breakneck finales: the final Allegro con brio, like the fifth movement of the Bartok, was a turbocharged sprint.

James Levine himself slipped into the first balcony to catch the orchestra’s showpiece, the “Symphonic Dances” from Bernstein’s West Side Story. The flashy rhythmic stuff didn’t disappoint—glorious, swinging, with the economy-sized full band (two tubas? Sure, why not) displaying a tightness that a four-piece punk outfit would kill for, all the while the players seeming to have an amount of fun that could make you jealous. But the delicate portions were equally assured—the cha-cha had a perfect halting lushness, and the wash of strings that signals the tragic denouement was magical. Dudamel kept the focus on the drama, telescoped as it is, which effectively raised the stakes for the less-extroverted parts of the score, keeping each note alive.

Encores brought out the Venezuelan flag jackets, which seem to attract uncomfortable comment wherever they appear, on account of the current Venezuelan administration. Pre-Beethoven civic ceremony—honoring, for the most part, José Antonio Abreu, El Sistema‘s founder, who was in attendance—glossed over the political situation in Venezuela while reminding you that it was there, but one got the impression that the orchestra and the program are regarded as a national treasure regardless of political persuasion; even the presumably anti-Chavez ex-pats seated near us, who heartily booed the Venezuelan ambassador to the United States, readily and enthusiatically joined in the standing ovations Abreu received seemingly each time his name was mentioned. El Sistema, it’s worth remembering, pre-dates Chavez’s “Bolivarian Republic” by many years, and if the level of support at Wednesday’s concert—audience and institutional—is any indication, it should survive whatever twists and turns are in Venezuela’s political future. Levine was waiting backstage to greet Dudamel, and could be seen putting his own scarf around Dudamel’s neck as a gift. In the car ride home, my lovely wife felt similarly protective. “I just want to put a halo around all of them,” she said, “so they can stay that happy forever.” The orchestra doesn’t just perform; they make you feel like part of a movement. This group is something.

Nickel in the Slot

I was out of town last week, so I’m a little late to Steve Hicken’s quiz.

1) What five operas would you most like to see performed?

1. Schoenberg: Von Heute auf Morgen. Believe it or not, Schoenberg was actually offered an awful lot of money by a publisher for this piece, but his wife Gertrude thought the publisher was being annoyingly pushy, so Schoenberg turned it down. He credited the refusal with saving his life—had he taken the money, he said, he might have ended up too comfortable to flee the Nazis in time. So how come no publishers are offering to save my life in this way?
2. Britten: Owen Wingrave. His second-to-last opera, a brilliant anti-war ghost story, originally written for television. Just don’t let premium cable near it, or Owen will face his family’s demons buck-naked. And the demons will be played by B-list starlets. I spoke too soon: that’s a travesty I’d actually watch.
3. Tippett: The Ice Break. Some people are vaguely embarrassed by Tippett’s self-written libretti, but is there anybody else, in any genre, who goes where he goes? I mean, besides Pink Floyd?
4. Babbitt: Fabulous Voyage. Uncle Milton’s 1946 Broadway musical, based on Homer’s Odyssey. If Babbitt had gone on to have Jerry-Herman-esque success on the Great White Way, would the alleged serialist hegemony in 1950s and 60s America still have come about? If not, would all those people continually complaining about said alleged hegemony find something else to complain about? Yeah, probably.
5. Stockhausen: Licht: Die sieben Tage der Woche. Bonus points if the production is financed via a series of high-tech international jewel heists.

2) What five pieces would you most like to hear performed?

1. Busoni: Piano Concerto. Anybody who looks at a draft of a massive, late-Romantic concerto and thinks, “You know what this thing needs? A men’s chorus!” is my kind of guy.
2. Barraque: Piano Sonata. I’ve never heard it live.
3. Ives: Symphony no. 4. See above. Might as well throw in Gruppen while we’re at it. Think of how many freelancers you could feed with a program like that.
4. R. Murray Schafer: No Longer Than Ten (10) Minutes. For reasons previously noted.
5. Nam June Paik: Danger Music #5. You’re going into that whale’s vagina a nobody, but you’re coming back a star!

3) What five living performers would you most like to meet?

1. Riccardo Muti. I’ll invite him over, put on a Pavarotti record, and hide behind the furniture.
2. Jean-Yves Thibaudet. I could use a makeover.
3. Placido Domingo. Mr. Domingo, I have this album you recorded with John Denver that I’d love for you to sign… Mr. Domingo? Where are you going?
4. Jessye Norman. I’d just keep giving her money until she agreed to record the outgoing message on my voicemail.
5. Oscar Peterson.
OP: Hi, I’m Oscar Peterson.

4) What five living composers would you most like to meet?

After ten minutes of thinking, “Oh, yeah, I’d like to meet him/her; oh, wait a minute, I already did,” I gave up. Hanging around Tanglewood for the better part of seven summers will do that. Not that any of them would remember me, anyway. (Five that are fun to meet, if you haven’t already: Steven Mackey, Marjorie Merryman, Tan Dun, Andre Previn, Osvaldo Golijov.)

5) What five living musicians (composers, performers, writers, scholars, etc) would you most like to play three-on-three basketball with/against?

My team:
Michael Daugherty
Tommy Tune
Other team:
Alicia de Larrocha
Jimmy Scott

I like those odds.

Unlikely music critic of the day (literally)

Bernstein has taught me, too, what Hegelianism is. I knew I was a Hegelian, but never knew what it was. Now I see that a Hegelian is one who agrees that everybody is right, and who acts as if everybody but himself were wrong. What a delightful idea—so German—that Karl Marx thought himself a Hegelian! It is equal to Wagner’s philosophy…

—Henry Adams to Brooks Adams,
Paris, November 5, 1899

Bonus quote!

The nieces took me to Philadelphia to hear Ternina as Ysolde [sic], and Looly taught me what to say about it. To you, the formula doesn’t matter. To me, the singular part of it was that the music of Ysolde should be interpreted to me by two young and perfectly pure girls. Another Americanism! I could not even hint to them what it meant, and they couldn’t have hinted it to me if they had known. The twelfth century had the audacity of its passions, and Wagner at times talks almost plain twelfth century language.

—Henry Adams to Elizabeth Cameron,
March 12, 1900

Previously: 1, 2.

Off-Topic Thursday: Eat Your Words

Obscure twenty-five-cent words, wasting valuable work time, and feeding the hungry? Free Rice is three of our favorite things, in one convenient website! Idly test your vocabulary, and for every one you get right, ten grains of rice are donated to the United Nations World Food Program. Waste a couple hours on the job, and you can help someone else’s economy while undermining your own! Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to work larboard and clapperclaw into my everyday conversation.

(Thanks to Lisa at Exploding Aardvark for finding this one.)