Month: December 2007

fl. 2007

MT: You know you’re considered a strange case of prudence and foresight. And yet you don’t give up electronic production, which is a kind of gamble. Why?

KS: Because the sense of risk is actually indispensable to me. At this point, my argument is about to become metaphysical. Most people have no intention of following me to this level; but I’m convinced that the tangible results of my work, the electro-acoustical material, could even end up destroyed, and that it wouldn’t matter, because the inner impulse which compels me to bring a work to completion would remain. The idea which takes form and materializes in a substantial design of metallic molecules; the spirit which coagulates when pressed on to tape—what else are they but the exact equivalent of an abstract order? When the ear—that is, the auditory imagination—is no longer conditioned by the body, and the membrane of the loudspeaker disappears into the dust, along with the entire universe, the only thing to survive, in so far as it is ‘idea’, will be the spiritual force which emanates from my music.

—Mya Tannenbaum (trans. David Butchart),
Conversations With Stockhausen (1987)

Image from Klavierstücke VI. More from: Marc Geelhoed, Alex Ross, Tim Rutherford-Johnson, ANABlog, Associated Press.

The envelopes

This year’s Grammy nominations were announced yesterday, and my own irrelevance was staved off yet again—every year, I expect to reach the level of complete non-familiarity with the rock/pop nominees, but some passing radio encounters with Amy Winehouse and a couple of excursions to Starbucks saved me. (Though if Amy Winehouse got six nominations, that means that next year, Sharon Jones should get, I don’t know, a hundred.)

The classical nominations reveal a fair number of smaller labels, I think reflecting the way the Internet has completely changed the rules of promotion and distribution. The big story, of course, is the multiple nods for Peter Lieberson’s Grawemeyer-award-winning Neruda Songs, which deserve as many statuettes as possible. I’ve decided, though, that the rooting interest here at Soho the Dog HQ will be for the Brian Setzer Orchestra, who scored a nomination in the Best Classical Crossover category for the thoroughly goofy/awesome warhorse/surf-guitar mashup Wolfgang’s Big Night Out. (You can hear a few tracks on their MySpace page.)

High church

Tomorrow is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on the Roman Catholic calendar, which is one of the six remaining non-Sunday Holy Days of Obligation in the American Catholic church. The feast itself officially goes back to 1476, and unofficially even further, but the Immaculate Conception of Mary—the doctrine that Mary was born without original sin—was first proclaimed as dogma by Pope Pius IX in 1854. Popes like to make pronouncements like this every few generations or so just to remind everyone about that whole papal infallibility thing. Wait a minute—he can still do that? Pius XII did the same thing with Mary’s bodily assumption into heaven in 1950. Look for Benedict XVI to come up with something any day now.

Papal infallibility is one of the main Protestant objections to Catholicism—yet, oddly enough, it was one of the things that gave Catholicism an unlikely avant-garde cachet from around the time of Pius IX’s proclamation to, say, World War II. Particularly in England and France, artists and writers who had a particular bent towards modernism often were attracted to the Roman church. In England, home of Henry VIII’s schism and a long history of antagonism with Catholic France, conversion was, for a time, the upper-class anti-Establishment gesture of choice, inspired by the famous apostasies of Cardinals Manning and Newman. Oscar Wilde flirted with Catholicism as an Oxford student in the 1870s, based in large part on the elegance of Newman’s prose (one of the only things that kept him from taking the plunge was his father’s threat of disinheritance). Wilde evetually decided his subversive tendencies led in other directions, but he’s a prime example of the rebellious attraction of Catholicism for up-to-date Victorian college students, the 19th-century equivalent of a Che Guevara poster. (Note that, in England, this was mostly an aristocratic impulse—Edward Elgar, for example, felt his own outsider status had more to do with his working-class roots than his Catholic upbringing.)

The paradoxical modernity of Catholicism was even more explicitly perceived in France. The clearest statement of it is probably Guillaume Apollinaire’s long poem “Zone,” published in the collection Alcools in 1913. He name-checks Pope Pius X (who, coincidentally, had reduced the number of Holy Days of Obligation from 36 to a more manageable eight in 1911):

Religion alone has remained entirely fresh religion
Has remained simple like the hangars at the airfield

You alone in all Europe are not antique O Christian faith
The most modern European is you Pope Pius X

Apollinaire adopts the conceit that technology is only aiming for what the church has already achieved:

It is God who died on Friday and rose again on Sunday
It is Christ who soars in the sky better than any aviator
He breaks the world’s altitude record

(Translation by Roger Shattuck.) One can start to see the attraction of Catholicism, bestowing a miraculous poetry on technological advance, while anchoring the dizzying speed and confusion of the modern world in archaic ceremony. Some saw its strictness as a bulwark: Wilde (who eventually converted on his deathbed) once made the unlikely claim that Catholicism might have tempered his homosexuality, while Jean Cocteau, the most self-conscious modernist of all, briefly returned to the church in the late 1920s while unsuccessfully attempting to overcome an opium addiction.

But mostly, I think that modernist artists and writers, attempting to create entirely new worlds by fiat, saw a kindred spirit in the all-powerful, deliberately ancient pontiff. The high modernism of the pre-World War II era was as much backward-looking as forward: Stravinsky’s neo-Classicism, Pound’s neo-Medievalism, the influence of Greek antiquity on Picasso. In a culture saturated with jazzy modernity, the sort of bracing anachronism exemplified by the Catholic church could seem the most avant-garde movement of all.

This sort of relationship has never been far from the surface in music, which turns again and again to the past for structure, inspiration, or effect. There’s a fair amount of Renaissance influence in post-minimalist music, but, then again, there was also a fair amount of Renaissance influence in serialist music, too—Webern’s expertise in the music of Heinrich Isaac bore fruit in just about all of his own compositions. Punk rock was in many ways a return to the 50s; today, almost the entire pop spectrum can be read in terms of retro influences, be it AM-radio easy listening, 70s soul, 60s psychedlia, Basement-Tapes-style recycled roots music, etc. All over the map, yet, I think, traceable to the same post-Romantic impulse that made the cutting edge a fellow traveler with Catholicism for a while: not just the shock of the new, not just the reinvention of ancient innovation, but a necessarily foolhardy assertion of the infallibility of the artist’s taste. The appeal of Catholicism was not just its discipline, but also the model of its hierarchical theology. The dogmas vary, even from work to work, but the ability to decide what they are remains the creator’s fundamental privilege. Every piece is an encyclical: we claim our own imprimatur.


A fact most characteristic of the Renaissance and of Italy is the specialization of the orchestra, the search for new instruments and modes of sounds, and, in close connection with this tendency, the formation of a class of ‘virtuosi,’ who devoted their whole attention to particular instruments or particular branches of music.

From Jacob Burckhardt’s 1860 study, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. One of the biggest criticisms of the modern symphony orchestra is that its museum-like nature has put Burckhardt’s analysis seriously out of balance—the focus on virtuosic practice has atrophied the search for new instruments and modes and sounds. Interestingly, last week’s Boston Symphony concerts (which the group brought to New York) had small object lessons in both the validity and the irrelevance of such a protest. Henri Dutilleux expertly and hauntingly deployed a very non-orchestral instrument, the accordion, in his song cycle “Le Temps L’Horloge”—one could certainly conjure up a reedy facsimile with some clever orchestration, but the actual presence of the instrument was both more convincing and more poetic. On the other hand, in Debussy’s “La Mer,” I spent most of the performance mesmerized by veteran BSO percussionist Frank Epstein, manning the cymbal parts. Cymbals can be a one-dimensional flourish, but Epstein put on a clinic, coaxing inexhaustible, surprising colors out of an instrument that’s hardly changed since it made its way into the orchestra a couple of centuries ago. Never mind the new instruments, Epstein’s mastery seemed to say, we’ve barely scratched the surface of the old ones.

Also from Burckhardt:

In singing, only the solo was permitted, ‘for a single voice is heard, enjoyed, and judged far better.’ In other words, as singing, notwithstanding all conventional modesty, is an exhibition of the individual man of society, it is better that each should be seen and heard separately. The tender feelings produced in the fair listeners are taken for granted, and elderly people are therefore recommended to abstain from such forms of art, even though they excel in them. It was held important that the effect of the song should be enhanced by the impression made on the sight.

Peter Gelb, Renaissance man.

Comparative Ponerology of the Day

“Obviously rock climbing firms the upper regions of the will. But it’s quite a process. And just as dangerous as black magic. For every fear we are ready to confront is equally open, you see, to the Devil. Should we fail, the Devil is there to soothe our cowardice. ‘Stick with me,’ he says, ‘and your cowardice is forgiven.’ Whereas, rock climbing, when well done, pinches off the Devil. Of course, if you fail, his nibs returns twofold. If you are not good enough then, you spend half your days getting the Devil out. That is marking time. And so long as we stay in place, Satan is more than satisfied. He loves circular, obsessive activity. Entropy is his meat. When the world becomes a pendulum, he will inhabit the throne.”

—Norman Mailer, Harlot’s Ghost

“Who knows today, who even knew in classical times, what inspiration is, what genuine, old, primeval enthusiasm, insicklied critique, unparalysed by thought or by the mortal domination of reason—who knows the divine raptus? I believe, indeed, the devil passes for a man of destuctive criticism? Slander and again slander, my friend! Gog’s sacrament! If there is anything he cannot abide, if there’s one thing in the whole world he cannot stomach, it is destructive criticism. What he wants and gives is triumph over it, is shining, sparkling, vainglorious unreflectiveness!”

—Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus


Photo of the day from Reuters. That’s Brian Wilson, looking pretty much as I’d look if I found myself trapped between Diana Ross and Condolezza Rice. Wilson was fêted at this year’s Kennedy Center Honors with, among other things, a medley of his songs performed by Hootie and the Blowfish. Hootie and the Blowfish, huh? Can you excuse me for a moment? (sound of head banging against wall)

Elsewhere, Lord Goldsmith is recommending that some lyrics to “God Save the Queen” be changed. I’d start with the second verse, which has long spread the pernicious idea that “cause” and “voice” somehow rhyme. (Critic-at-large Moe suggests working in something about paws.) Or just scrap the whole thing and start over.

And film critic Jim Emerson has a good time comparing Bob Dylan to Beethoven’s Ninth. (If you’ve never seen director Todd Haynes’ infamous all-Barbie-doll Karen Carpenter biopic, you really should.)

Hanukkah starts at sundown tonight. I should come up with a celebratory post, but honestly, am I going to top last year’s? Not bloody likely. So think of it as one of those endlessly repeated holiday specials. Shalom!

Last Fair Deal Gone Down

Via The Concert and Deceptively Simple, a fine meme/questionnaire/procrastination aid.

The rules:

1. Put your iTunes/ music player on Shuffle
2. For each question, press the next button to get your answer


1. If someone says ‘Is this OK?’ you say?
“America” (Van Dyke Parks’ arrangement from Tokyo Rose).
There’s a bright future for me in politics, apparently.

2. What would best describe your personality?
“Wonderful” (Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers).
Thanks, Sam! I left the money in your dressing room.

3. What do you like in a girl?
“Pu Pu Pa Doo” (The Gaynotes).
No way I’m touching that one.

4. How do you feel today?
Berg: “Im Zimmer” from Sieben frühe Lieder (Anne Sofie von Otter/Bengt Forsberg).
“When my eye rests so in yours, as quietly the minutes pass.” I love you, too, computer!

5. What is your life’s purpose?
Britten: “The Death of Nicholas” from Saint Nicholas (the old Decca Britten/Pears recording).
Revenge shall be mine.

6. What is your motto?
“I Can’t Go On (Rosalie)” (Fats Domino).
That’s me—Samuel Beckett without the follow-through.

7. What do your friends think of you?
Poulenc: “Toréador” (Michel Sénéchal/Dalton Baldwin).
Scoff all you want, but bolero jackets are making a comeback.

8. What do you think of your parents?
Brahms: Symphony no. 2: III. Allegretto grazioso (quasi andantino)—Presto ma non assai—Tempo I (Wiener Philharmoniker/Bernstein).
Coincidentally, the tempo marking of pretty much every report card review of my childhood.

9. What do you think about very often?
Schumann: “O wie Lieblich,” op. 138, no. 3 (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau/Jörg Demus).
My wife is distractingly cute, OK?

10. What does 2+2=?
“C’est Si Bon” (Don Byron, from Don Byron Plays the Music of Mickey Katz).
Two plus two? It’s all good! L’chaim!

11. What do you think of your best friend?
Adams: “Landing of the Spirit of ’76” from Nixon in China.
Well, every time I go to his house, I do have to shake the hands of all his ministers.

12. What do you think of the person you like?
Donizetti: “Voglio dire, lo stupendo elisir” from L’elisir d’amore (Battle/Pavarotti/Levine).
It sure is.

13. What is your life story?
Wolf: “Das Köhlerweib is trunken” (Elisabeth Schwarzkopf/Gerald Moore).
I was tricked by red wine. Is that an accepted legal defense plea?

14. What do you want to be when you grow up?
Tallis: The Lamentations of Jeremiah: Ghimel. Migravit Juda propter afflictionem (Pro Cantione Antiqua).
Judah is gone into captivity because of affliction, and because of great servitude: she dwelleth among the heathen, she findeth no rest: all her persecutors overtook her between the straits. A restless, cranky old man. I’m well on my way.

15. What do you think when you see the person you like?
Bach: “Ich folge dir Gleichfalls” from St. John Passion (Elly Ameling).
I likewise follow you with eager steps and will not forsake you, my Light and my Life. Let it not be said that I don’t know what’s good for me.

16. What do your parents think of you?
“I Know You Got Soul” (Eric B. and Rakim).
Thanks, Mom and Dad! I left the money in your dressing room.

17. What will you dance to at your wedding?
Bernstein: “A Boy Like That,” from West Side Story (original Broadway cast).
Not actually what I danced to at my wedding, and truth be told, I’m kind of kicking myself.

18. What will they play at your funeral?
“Que Sera, Sera” (Sly and the Family Stone).
How do you sum up a man’s life? Meh.

19. What is your hobby/interest?
“Keep Your Hand on the Plow” (Mahalia Jackson).
Wait, I have to get something to pull the plow, too? No wonder nothing’s growing.

20. What is your biggest secret?
“I Don’t Like Mondays” (The Boomtown Rats).
That’s no secret! Well, the shooting part, maybe.

21. What do you think of your friends?
“Heard It Through the Grapevine” (The Slits).
As soon as they read this post, they’ll find out on the sly.

22. What should you post this as?
“Last Fair Deal Gone Down” (Robert Johnson).