Month: May 2008

All the Things You Are

Ethan Iverson’s massive, multi-angled exploration of the music and mind of jazz pianist Lennie Tristano is the best couple hours you’ll spend this week. A lot of the promise of the Internet circles around hyperlinked and non-linear texts, but this illustrates what is, to me, an even greater virtue—a platform to stretch out and explore a subject without having to worry about restrictions on length or scope or focus.

The history of race in America is, in so many ways, the history of America, period. Ethan’s ultimate subject—the complicated role of racial identity in jazz—fascinates me to no end, especially since my own taste in jazz has always gravitated towards cultural mongrels, the sort of music that Stanley Crouch is casting a sideways glance in this quote from Ethan’s post:

As you know, I do not accept the idea that jazz advances itself by following new directions, harmonies or rhythms from European classical music.

I listened to a lot of Dave Brubeck, partially because of his connection, through Milhaud, with Les Six; I listened to a lot of Oscar Peterson because of his Lisztian overtones; I delved heavily into that great American repertoire, jazz’s precursor, ragtime, addicted to both the polyrhythmic modernity and the Chopinesque pianistic and harmonic cast. To me, one of the glories of American music is its seemingly ineradicable ability to take all manner of influence, from Protestant psalmody to hardcore serialism, and turn it into something recognizably American. And yet, such practice does walk a fine line between confidence and arrogance, between enthusiasm and entitlement. Tristano’s effort to form his own sound and school is equal parts visionary and abrasive, and Ethan gets at both without descending into easy psycho-caricature or judgmental simplification. (Plus, he links to the gloriously crazy, overtracked, free-jazz rumpus that is Tristano’s “Descent Into the Maelstrom.” Far out.)

Siehe, ein Ackermann wartet auf die köstliche Frucht der Erde

As long as we’re on a science kick this week: scrounge up some dipole magnets and build your own BRAHMS detector! Point it at any piece of music, and the resulting electro-magnetic field will measure the harmonic gravity, classicist formality, and preponderance of shifting triple subdivisions to determine if it is, in fact, a piece by Brahms.

No, of course that’s not what it is. The Broad Range Hadron Magnetic Spectrometer is part of the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in upstate New York. RHIC is currently the most powerful heavy-ion collider in the world, and while that title will be taken over by CERN’s Large Hadron Collider later this year, RHIC will still maintain the lead in accelerating spin-polarized protons.

If you’re not a rabid particle accelerator fan, know that this is a big deal because RHIC is able to produce conditions not seen in the universe since 10 millionths of a second after the Big Bang, when the whole place was filled with a quark-gluon pudding unlike any form of matter that currently prevails. (RHIC also seems to produce imitation black holes.) BRAHMS was designed to measure the momentum of scattered hadrons, part of the study of quantum chromodynamics (QCD), investigating the strong force that holds atomic nuclei together.

There were initial fears that the possibility of creating actual black holes meant that RHIC would be some sort of doomsday device; there’s even a sci-fi novel set around the BRAHMS detector—Gregory Benford’s Cosm, in which physicist Alicia Butterworth wants to spectrometrically measure collisions of uranium ions, but ends up creating a couple of new universes and a lot of havoc in the process. All that sounds more like Wagner than Brahms, so I guess there’s not a lot of subversive connections to be found. Still, lest you think the name is just a coincidence, the team does devote a page of their website to all things Johannes.

Somewhere Out There

NASA has called a press conference tomorrow to announce something big. Big, people.


NASA to Announce Success of Long Galactic Hunt

WASHINGTON — NASA has scheduled a media teleconference Wednesday, May 14, at 1 p.m. EDT, to announce the discovery of an object in our Galaxy astronomers have been hunting for more than 50 years.

Whaddya think? Pierre Boulez’s softer side? Joan Sutherland’s consonants? Herbert von Karajan’s humility? Leonard Bernstein’s sense of restraint?

(Smart money seems to be on a direct observation of a black hole, which would be pretty cool. And, honestly, I love Joan Sutherland. Just don’t model your diction on hers, OK, kids?)

Update (5/14): It’s the remnants of a supernova—one about the age of
Orphée aux Enfers.

Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it

Washington, D.C., has always seemed to me a place suffused with intellectual insecurity (especially this millenium) but it seems to have spread into its musical life this past week. First, Greg “We Must Kill Classical Music In Order To Save It” Sandow—who’s jumping the shark on pretty much a weekly basis these days—finds that Felicity Lott just isn’t pandering to him as much as he would like. (He plays coy with specifically identifying the performance, but come on, your wife covered the thing.)

But let’s look at the Baudelaire group. We weren’t reading the poems, or hearing a lecture on them. We were reliving them, or at least reliving them as they were set to music by French composers. Which meant that the singer and pianist were reliving them, too, and that rather than think about them, or experience them distantly, they should have hit us right in the gut.

Did that happen? Of course not. Which isn’t to say the performance was bad. By normal standards, it was quite good, thoughtful, nuanced, expressive. But that’s not enough. Baudelaire is far more than that. He’s uneasy, troubled, sick, sensual, seduced by evil, drenched with regret. Is that what we felt, hearing those songs? Of course not. The concert was far too genteel. If the spirit of Baudelaire had emerged — if all of us wondered what secret we hid, what secret was making us suffer — the unspoken rules of the concert would have been violated. It wouldn’t have been artistic, thoughtful, genteel. It would have made us uneasy. We would have been troubled. We would have had fantasies, of nudity, jewelry, decay. Is that what we’d come for?

My initial reaction—which I still think is true—is that if your idea of listening is to sit back in your chair and wait for something to hit you in the gut, then, yeah, the glories of Duparc and Debussy and Baudelaire are probably going to slip past you. The power of Baudelaire isn’t just in his transgression, it’s in the combination of that transgression with his formal discipline and poetic restraint. Decadence is supposed to be elegant, after all—that’s part of the whole point. It’s why Duparc’s Baudelaire settings, or, to give a more extensive example, Faure’s Verlaine settings, are so successful—the polished surface in quiet tension with the implications of the poetry. That demands an active engagement on the part of the listener/reader, and active engagement is what those composers would have expected; the unease is more profound if you find it on your own. Duparc and Debussy knew what Baudelaire was up to. Sandow doesn’t.

Sandow blames standard recital presentation—”The form of the concert at war with its content,” he writes. As usual, he implicitly proscribes something closer to popular culture—a presentation that underlines whatever the content “is.” (Felicity Lott in torn nylons and safety pins, maybe.) But the form isn’t at war with the content—even given the way that term has been cheapened through overuse along the banks of the Potomac—the form is content-neutral. The conventions of recital performance are designed to stay out of the way of as wide a variety of content as possible.

It’s that aspect of concert performance—be it vocal, chamber, or orchestral repertoire—that Sandow objects to. I don’t think it’s because the performance isn’t telling him what to think about the music, but I do think it’s because the performance isn’t reassuring him that what he might think about the music is OK. There’s nothing stopping him from approaching the songs and finding those aspects that would reveal Baudelaire to be an eloquent degenerate, but since the recital doesn’t seem to be giving him explicit permission to go there, he doesn’t. I suppose his gut would be adequately hit by a concert that goes out of its way to highlight an interpretative attitude that’s congruent with his own—but then, of course, those of us who think Baudelaire comes off as more uneasy the less you wallow in the uneasiness would be left cold. I think that’s a pretty high price to pay just to have Sandow’s own opinion validated. I have a particular bent towards vocal repertoire, and I can say that men in tails and women in organza very frequently move me to laughter, desperation, shock, and enlightenment; if you’re sitting around pouting that your gut remains unstruck, I rather think that’s more your problem. To have a performance that highlights an aspect of the music that the performers want to highlight is fine, but to call that necessary to a meaningful audience experience? That’s abdicating most of the joy of being in the audience.

What Sandow wants, I think, is closer to kitsch than art, if one uses those terms in the Greenberg/Adorno/Benjamin sense. My favorite explanation of this sort of kitsch comes from Milan Kundera, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being:

Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass!
The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!
It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.

A desire for the experience of kitsch is a symptom of insecurity. Sandow wants the focus not just on how the music moves him, but accompanied by a reassurance that everyone else in the audience is being moved the same way. Safety in numbers.

So it was interesting that D.C. was also graced last week by a masterpiece of kitsch in the somewhat different postmodern sense, the neo-romantic sprawl of David Del Tredici’s 1976 Final Alice. I mean that sincerely, Final Alice being an early and persistent favorite of mine—Del Tredici is one of that small group of composers (like Richard Strauss) whose music gets more compelling as it gets more self-indulgent. That said, Stephen Brookes’ preview of the piece for the Washington Post is a revisionist mess.

But in one bold stroke, Del Tredici jettisoned the strict composing system known as serialism (which dominated new American music, to the despair of most audiences) and embraced a neo-romantic style — scandalizing his colleagues and setting off an earthquake in American music whose aftershocks are still being felt.

” ‘Final Alice’ changed the face of music in this country overnight,” recalls Leonard Slatkin, the National Symphony Orchestra’s music director, who was in the Chicago audience that night. “It destroyed all conceptions of what ‘new music’ was supposed to be, and many composers will tell you that they were now liberated to write how they felt. It was the start of a revolution.”

Serialism dominated new American music? It changed the face of music overnight? Um, Samuel Barber and Leonard Bernstein and Duke Ellington and George Rochberg and Terry Riley and Steve Reich and Philip Glass might have something to say about that. Brookes is, of course, reiterating the simplistic serialist-hegemony-tonal-rebellion narrative which is turning into as hoary a “fact” as Abner Doubleday’s invention of baseball. It’s all here: Forbidden tonality! Outraged avant-gardists! Brookes even joins the too-long list of lazy critics who reference Milton Babbitt’s “Who Cares If You Listen?” in such a way that reveals he never bothered to read past the title.

But reorienting that narrative around Final Alice—a variant on this past weekend’s ruminations—is interesting. Unlike that above list of composers who either kept on with their longstanding tonal preference or reworked tonality into minimalist radicalism, Del Tredici’s opus is such a conscious throwback, a deliberate re-creation of 19th-century Romantic rhetoric, that it would have been impossible to miss. The novelty of Final Alice was its time-machine aspect, not its return not to tonality—that was already in full swing—but its return to an era prior to atonality’s existence. (And even here, Rochberg got there first, just not on Del Tredici’s scale.) A reproduction of the past for an age saturated with reproduction: kitsch layered on kitsch, to exuberantly entrancing effect.

But it’s important to note that the “revolution” that Slatkin and Brookes—and, to an extent, Del Tredici—keep insisting the work ushered in is kitsch as well, an ersatz revolution, a bid to conjure the emotional high of a revolutionary act without the uncertain prospect of revolutionary consequences. It was a novel expression of a style that everyone already knew how to interpret, that everybody already knew what to think of. To celebrate the work for what it is—a grand, emotionally promiscuous entertainment—is deserved. (I would be a little suspicious of anyone who couldn’t enjoy at least part of the piece.) But to celebrate it as a revolution is a sigh of relief that it wasn’t a real revolution, something that would have required the risk of uncharted critical engagement—and to fear that is to be insecure of one’s own critical judgment. One could say that part of the genius of Final Alice is that is does make the form of an orchestra concert and the work’s content, to a certain extent, congruent; Del Tredici even acknowledges the conventions by having the piece grow out of the sounds of the orchestra tuning. But in the process, the music’s atmosphere and intent is at least partially fixed—some path of individual resonance and reinterpretation has been closed off. If you’re constantly worried whether your own reinterpretations are right or wrong, that might be a good thing. But if you’re like me, at a certain point, you’re going to chafe at any presentation that insists that music can only be one particular thing. Because it never, ever is.

They put you down, they say I’m wrong

Over at Dial “M,” Phil picks up the coveted “Getting Dissed by Robert Christgau” Webelos pin. I’m hot and cold on “I was there, man” testimony—a valuable source of emotional evidence, but usually insufferable as an argument-killer. As an adolescent of the 80s, I find it especially eye-rolling coming from representatives of the 60s: you’re patronizing me on behalf of a cohort that ended up contributing to a landslide victory for Ronald Reagan? I’ll let you know when I start to envy that intellectual journey.

The thing is, I’m fascinated by the upheavals of the 60s, but more as a window into the human capacity for optimistic folly rather than a narrative of youthful triumph. (One could argue that the revolutionaries of the 60s might have made more of a lasting impact if they had considered the history of their 19th-century predecessors as the rueful comedy it was rather than the heroic tragedy they wanted it to be.) And one particular aspect of the 60s has really jazzed me ever since I first read one of my favorite “popular” histories, David Halberstam’s deceptively breezy survey The Fifties. Halberstam’s argument was that much, if not all, of the intellectual cast of the 60s actually began percolating in that previous decade. The caricature of the 60s is that the revolutionary movement was forged in the crucible of the Vietnam War, but what if the war was merely the peg around which all of those already existing currents coalesced? The intellectual tail wagging the historical dog, as it were? Unwittingly, perhaps—although anyone who knew their Lenin would have seen the parallel with his seizure of the Great War’s opportunity.

I was thinking about this yesterday, after the following question popped into my head: when did the idea of composing tonal music as an act of rebellion first originate? I’ve had a vague sense of this trope resurfacing in the past few weeks, the attitude that writing triadic “classical” music is somehow sticking it to the atonal/academic man. I’ve never subscribed to that motivation, although I have sympathy for it—an awful lot of my favorite composers wrote great music because they had something to prove. But what’s interesting to me is that such a stance almost certainly developed in the 1960s; it was only then that atonality would have acquired anywhere near the institutional and establishment credentials to make it worth rebelling against.

My gut reaction would be that it originated with the minimalists, but that seems too easy, especially in light of the genre’s 1950s precursors (Young, Nancarrow, Partch, Cage, &c., and yes, to use Phil’s term, I’m lumping and not splitting, but my sense is that the minimalist movement drew energy and inspiration from all those exemplars)—those composers were far more interested in forging independent paths than confronting the status quo head-on. It’s also important to remember that plenty of establishment composers continued on writing tonal music as atonality took root in America—Barber, Shapero, Ward, to name a few—perhaps the more radically experimental aspects of minimalism lent the accompanying tonality revolutionary credentials. Or again, maybe it was just a historical opportunity, that anything novel in the late 60s could easily claim the countercultural mantle, that it wasn’t a motivation at all, but just a post hoc political-historical framework for music that was going to be created anyway.

Just to be clear, I don’t know which, if any, of those scenarios might be more or less likely—this is something that’s taken up residence on my research-to-do list, and for now, I’m just spouting impressions off the top of my head, because, well, I’m a blogger, and we do have a certain irresponsible reputation to maintain, don’t we? But I’m going to start that research not with the minimalists, but with another, early signpost of bad-boy tonality—Leonard Bernstein’s October 24, 1965 rhymed New York Times justification for the composition of Chichester Psalms, as he put it, “Certain to sicken a stout John Cager/With its tonics and triads in E-flat major.” Sicken? Probably not. But, of course, that was an integral part of Bernstein’s artistic personality: considering everything he did to be some sort of radical break with something. In the process, Bernstein pushed the origin of “the 60s” back even further; it was 1967 when he pronounced that Mahler’s time had, indeed, come. The 60s did have their origin in the 50s—the 1850s. (Give or take a couple of decades.) Nobody left to make an “I was there” objection to that theory.

There you go

At long last, I am finally getting around to updating the blogroll. Be it unforgiveable lacunae (Musical Perceptions wasn’t on the list? Sounds Like Now? NewMusicBox? Yipes) or correspondents from hometown old and hometown new, there’s enough shiny new bloggy goodness that the whole unwieldy list has been moved off the sidebar and onto its own page. More additions in weeks to come.

Go on—the revolution’s not going to come as long as you continue to be focused and productive.

Chiavi in mano

After a multi-year courtship, Riccardo Muti finally made an honest woman out of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra,agreeing to become their music director as of 2010. The announcement wasn’t, in the end, much of a surprise (though the conspiratorial-minded might notice that the contract was signed only after Simon Rattle re-upped in Berlin), but now that it’s official, pondering may commence as to what it all means for the future of the CSO, &c., &c. But really, the hire is a re-assertion of long-standing CSO tradition. And if the experience of this native is any indication, that might just be more forward-looking than it seems.

Muti is the latest in a line of CSO music directors who came in with a considerable European track record. (He is, in fact, the oldest hire in the position’s history.) You could consider this sort of off-the-shelf approach a holdover from Gilded Age days, when big American cities took a look at their increasing commercial prowess and decided to import some culture to match. The standard line on this has always been fashioned around American insecurity towards native art, relying on more venerable and proven European traditions to class up the joint. But growing up just outside of Chicago, hearing Solti conduct, hanging out at the Art Institute, I always thought that the driving force was a sense of entitlement, not insecurity; we took the standard boilerplate—”a world-class city deserves world-class art”—at face value.

There’s a downside to that, of course—the CSO never cultivated much of a relationship with local composers, the vibrant experimental and improvisation scene in Chicago mostly making their own way—but then again, that was never really the point of having the institution. The orchestra was always a civic crown jewel, an assertion that the city and its people were worthy of the best that classical music had to offer. (When Daniel Barenboim took over from Solti in the early 90s, the biggest question wasn’t whether he would or wouldn’t make the orchestra more local or more American, but simply whether he was really good enough.) Muti, an A-list hire if there ever was one, is fully in keeping with that pattern.

I grew up with the sense that the CSO brought classical music to Chicago not because Chicago needed it, but because Chicago deserved it. For me, that deserving was an important part of my musical development—my relationship to the classical-music canon was that I had as much right to it as anybody, that it wasn’t a perk of class or status, but common civic property, the spoils of industry and curiosity. In the best possible way, I took the world-class orchestra in town for granted.

Civic pride is an odd thing. I’ve always been proud of Chicago’s labor history, the fact that the city produced the types of workers fearless enough to stand up to rich bastards like Marshall Field and his ilk. But then again, I’m also proud to claim a connection with a city that produced such rich bastards to begin with. So I fully admit that I’m biased, that I’m liable to look with favor on a status quo at the CSO, just because it played such a strong part in making my musical outlook what it is. But regardless of how Muti addresses a lot of the usual concerns—more new music, more community involvement, more outreach to new audiences—there’s a part of me that’s happy that the CSO is continuing the pattern of old-school, high-reputation excellence, happy that another generation of Chicagoans will be able to brashly claim that music, and that music-making, as a right and not just a privilege.

Troy to Remember

In years to come, Sunday’s big, blazing, two-concert, five-hours-plus-a-dinner-break, season-ending account of Berlioz’s Les Troyens by the Boston Symphony Orchestra will probably not acquire quite the “I was there, man” stature of, say, James Brown’s 1968 show at the Garden, but it certainly felt like an event, certainly the biggest event yet of James Levine’s tenure as music director, and certainly one of the biggest events in Boston classical music in quite a while. It was, in fact, enough of an occasion that I think the BSO could have raked in some extra cash selling commemorative, rock-tour-style t-shirts.

I totally would have bought one of those.

Whenever Levine conducts music he really loves, he gets more energetic, as if the performance is a generator that he’s plugging into. So it’s worth noting that he was as kinetic as I’ve ever seen him in Boston. Levine did right by the opera in casting: the only qualm was Marcello Giordani, who ran out of steam in the fifth act—more shouting than singing—but even he was impressive for four-fifths of the day, giving Aeneas a ringing charisma. Anne Sofie von Otter’s mezzo-soprano is perhaps a touch ethereal for Dido, but she didn’t try and compete with the orchestra, instead confidently drawing the drama to her, with a stage presence and an unfailingly intelligent musicality that anchored the human dimension of Part II. (This was a fun-loving queen, too, if her exuberant toe-tapping during Act IV’s dances of Egyptian girls and slaves was any indication.) Her two duets, with Giordani and with (I predict) future star Christin Marie-Hill, as Dido’s sister Anna, were ideal demonstrations of Berlioz’s penchant for grand-scale intimacy.

Eric Cutler was a crowd favorite, negotiating Iopas’s song with ease. I also liked Philippe Castagner’s ardent memories of Troy at the opening of Act V, after which David Kravitz and James Courtney held their own in the opera’s only bit of comic relief, wishing to stay in Carthage for reasons far less exalted than Aeneas. The comparatively terse spectacle of Part I doesn’t offer as much opportunity for vocal treasure—Yvonne Naëf, as Cassandra, sang through a head cold—but as Chorebus, Dwayne Croft’s trombone-like baritone ideally suited his ardent, persistent rationalization of Cassandra’s warnings. (It struck me that Part I is, in a way, an enormous proof of the rule that one’s fiancée is always right.)

In the midst of some ravishingly meticulous sounds from the orchestra, the surprise was how much power they were able to unleash: from the second balcony, parts of Part I were possibly the loudest things I’ve ever heard in Symphony Hall. The playing not only demonstrated the depth of the BSO, but the depth of Boston’s freelance community, as the stage doors kept drawing open to reveal yet another offstage ensemble. The orchestra has an institutional affinity for Berlioz that somehow gets passed down in Lamarckian fashion, but Les Troyens is a horse of a different color, as it were; the performance seemed to mark the transition from Levine’s honeymoon period into a new era at the BSO.

A century-and-a-half on, Berlioz’s stubborn ambition still causes polarized reactions. I’ve been on a real music-and-cinema tear lately, which explains my latest hypothesis: being a fan of Berlioz is strongly correlated with being a fan of David Lean movies. If you’re the type that responds to the luxurious pace and painterly compositions of Doctor Zhivago or The Bridge on the River Kwai by wishing that David would just get on with the story already, you’re probably best off sticking with Rossini. But if your idea of a good time is rearranging your work schedule to make room for a two-hour drive to catch a screening of a 70mm print of Lawrence of Arabia, then Hector’s your man. Les Troyens is the Lawrence of Arabia of operas; there might be grander or even longer operas in the repertoire, but none of them can quite match Berlioz’s magnum opus in the way it uses its epic pace and canvas to draw you in, to give you the room to absorb atmosphere and notice detail, to shape the human drama with such richly-apportioned care.

One last thought, for any and all prospective divas out there: do you think you can pull off a regal presence while wearing what is essentially a purple silk bathrobe? Because Anne Sofie von Otter can. Let that be the standard to which you aspire.