Month: December 2008

The lads in their hundreds (2)

Elliott Carter being interviewed by Charlie Rose, December 10, 2008. Rose asked Carter if there were times in his career when he felt a sense of exultation, when he felt like he had reached the top of the mountain. Carter said that he was still climbing; if he ever reached the top of the mountain, he’d be worried.

I’ve happily spilled plenty of words on Carter and his music this year (start here or here if you missed them). For his actual hundredth birthday, a bit of ephemera. A few weeks ago, I spent a day poking around the Harvard University Archives, and found this photo of the Harvard Glee Club, on stage at Boston’s Symphony Hall (click to enlarge):

Harvard Glee Club, 1927 – HUPSF Glee Club – Harvard University Archives.

The conductor is the legendary Archibald T. Davison. The organist is future director G. Wallace Woodworth. Small world department: I’m pretty sure the guy in the horn-rimmed glasses behind Woodworth’s right shoulder is future Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun. And seated in the back row, eighth from right, is Harvard undergraduate Elliott Cook Carter, Jr.

Happy birthday, Mr. Carter—and many happy returns of the day!

Update (12/11): You can now watch the Charlie Rose interview, with Carter, James Levine, and Daniel Barenboim, online.

The lads in their hundreds (1)

Just saying Olivier Messiaen’s name is exceptional. Thomas Grubb’s textbook Singing in French includes an appendix in which he cross-references every possible combination of vowels in French, in every possible situation, with the corresponding correct pronunciation in IPA. It’s pages of this sort of thing:

But every so often there’s a unique word, one that makes its own rule—including this one:

An appropriate inheritance for a creator of singular sounds.

As you probably know, Messiaen would have been 100 years old today. For a birthday card, here’s one of my favorite shorter Messiaen pieces, the comparatively obscure “Pièce pour le Tombeau de Paul Dukas,” from 1936. (Today is unseasonably warm here in Massachusetts, which not only brought out scattered celebratory choruses of birds, but also got the piano closer to being in tune than it was at this time last week.)

Drede ye nought, sayd the aungell bryght

Guerrieri: Be We Mery in This Feste (PDF, 163 Kb; not terribly subtle MIDI here)

Here’s a nice, crunchy, part-of-this-balanced-breakfast Christmas carol that I’ll toss into the season’s general musical maelstrom. Merry Christmas, every one! This will probably end up being this year’s Christmas Eve choral introit—sometimes you just want something in-your-face to shake everyone out of their cookie-induced torpor. Can I augment that harmony? Sure! Can I throw on all the mixture stops? It’s Christmas, isn’t it? Why do Tudor sources add so many extra letters to otherwise normal English words? Hey, it’s the thought that counts.

If the macaronic inclusion of ecclesiastical Latin is too sober for your holiday, you can always set the Wayback Machine to last year’s wassails. And it’s as good a time as any to remind everyone that charity-supporting t-shirts are a great way to distract your friends and loved ones from the coming financial apocalypse. (Buy eight for Hanukkah!)

Tempo e tempi

The composer in Cambridge: Carter looks back. Interviewing Elliott Carter.
Boston Globe, December 5, 2008.

I ended up with way more material than I could fit into a Globe article. Some of the more off-topic or esoteric excerpts:

It’s interesting how much of Carter’s early musical experiences revolved around folk music—not just his contact with Ives and Gilbert:

EC:I also studied Greek with Milman Parry, who invited me—Milman Parry caused a revolution in Greek, in the study of the Greek language, he decided to go to some mountains in Albania where there were still people singing like Homer, who sang big epic poems at night. And he wanted me to go with him—I didn’t go, I think I was a little foolish not to, but I’ve forgotten why I didn’t go. But he came back with a lot of recordings of all this, and decided, he had a whole new idea of how Homer had written the Odyssey and the Iliad because of that. There’s still people fighting about it.

MG: One interesting thing: you spent a summer in Tunisia?
EC: Indeed I did.
MG: How did that come about?
EC: Well, I knew a woman who sang Arabic music, Laura Williams…. And Laura Williams had been asked by the Baron d’Elanger, who had a big palace in the northern part of Tunisia, who was very interested in capturing what the original Arabic music of that place was, because radio was playing all kinds of jazz and everything, and everyone was forgetting all about it. So he wanted to make a big effort to have everything down. And I notated a lot of these—we used to set up, it was so hot, we slept all day and worked all night. And it was a lot of fun.

Carter arrived at Harvard in 1926, after Harvard president A. Lawrence Lowell had controversially resegregated student housing with regards to Jewish and African-American students. Carter didn’t remember that being a big deal among the student population, but he did recall the outcry over Lowell’s institution of the Harvard house system:

EC: [T]he other thing I remember very vividly, when we learned that they were going to put up all these dormitories—you know, a lot of students didn’t live in dormitories at Harvard. I rented a room from some old lady on a little street that doesn’t exist anymore. And then later, I rented rooms in a building on Mount Auburn Street. But when we heard that Harvard was going to build all these new dormitories, a great many of us went to President Lowell and said that this was going to destroy the campus. And Lowell said, “You can’t turn down three million dollars easily.”

Carter also got a little lesson in labor relations from BSO players:

EC: My main memory of Boston—the people in the Boston Symphony, it was largely a group of Frenchmen who were not unionized, it was not a unionized thing. So that they were all caught in this situation—if they were fired, they’d have to go back to France, they couldn’t get a job in America. So there was a kind of funny business—in any case, I was brought up to speak French as a child, and they used to run a boardinghouse, and I used to go there and have meals.

Later, in the 1930s, Carter would start his own union:

EC: [T]he thing that we all had going on, was the fact that there were not many American composers, and that the American composer was not paid for his performances—in fact, he was supposed to pay for his performances. And so, in the old-fashioned way, we made a union, and wouldn’t allow any music to be played until we were paid. Well, we finally got it, and the American Composers Alliance worked quite well, and Virgil Thomson, and Aaron Copland, and the rest of us, we were very active in establishing that….
And now: 20,000 composers in this country.
MG: Too many.
EC: It’s all a mistake, we shouldn’t have done it. [laughs]

I asked Carter about this photo, which shows the Harvard Glee Club visiting Herbert Hoover at the White House in the spring of 1929.

EC: I certainly do not remember anything like this.
MG: There’s one person who kind of looks like you, but I don’t know.
EC: [laughs] Where was this? At Harvard?
MG: No, it was actually at the White House.
EC: Oh, then no.
I was only at the White House twice. There was once with Kennedy, with some other composers. And the second time, Ronald Reagan, he invited me, and he gave me a medal [the National Medal of Arts, in 1985].
God, he was stupid. I had lunch with him, and—well, maybe he wasn’t stupid, but he certainly acted stupidly that day. There were very funny things about it. That famous black opera singer, a beautiful woman, [Leontyne Price]—she sat between me and the president, it was a round table. And she looked at me very angrily and she said, [clenches teeth] “We’re here to have a good time.” [laughs] It was all sort of in that mood. And I sat next to Carter Brown, who I knew, who was head of the big museum down there, the Mellon Museum [the National Gallery of Art], and we talked. And Mr. Reagan tried to get in on some conversation, because we were all talking about things he didn’t know much about. Finally, he said, “I just love the sculpture of [Frederic] Remington,” you know, the cowboy guy.
Finally, he had to take the lead, and he decided to tell his stories, and the stories were unbelievable. I don’t know if you want to hear them.
MG: Sure.
EC: OK. Well, there was one story—he said, there were two psychoanalysts, they had offices in the same building, and they’d go up together in the elevator in the morning. And in the evening, one of them was all disheveled, and the other one looked perfect. And the disheveled one said to the other, “How can you go through all that, hear all those terrible things, and still look like that?” And he says, “Who listens?”
Now, this is the president saying that.
MG: We do know how to pick our presidents.
EC: Well, yes, we finally did! I didn’t think [Obama would] ever get in.

Bonjour, l’etoiles!

I’m beginning to sense a pattern at the Metropolitan Opera. Literally.

The photo wall they’ve put up in the lobby for the 125th Anniversary Season:

From this season’s production of Doctor Atomic:

From this season’s production of La Damnation de Faust:

It’s a real Hollywood Squares vibe, isn’t it? Faust for the block: true or false—a jockey can have up to twelve mounts a day!

Conducting oneself

I can’t go, but you can: tonight at 7:30, head over to Smith Hall at Harvard Hillel and you can hear Daniel Barenboim chatting with Michael Steinberg. (Barenboim is in town for the world premiere of Elliott Carter’s Interventions.) The conductor/pianist/Olympic-class troublemaker is also promoting his new memoir, Music Quickens Time (at least that’s the American title, anyway). I’ve heard Barenboim in such conversations a couple of times, and you always end up with your head expanded. The event is free—no tickets required.

On the small screen

A netting of scuttlebutt:

Announcing the YouTube Symphony Orchestra. Upload a video of yourself playing a newly-commissioned piece by Tan Dun, and you can be part of some sort of grand mash-up; if other viewers vote you worthy, you can go to New York for a three-day Carnegie Hall workshop in 2009—conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas:

Thomas cheerfully conceded that much of the actual planning for the April concert is still up in the air. It depends, he says, on who emerges from the audition project.

For that matter, the entire program still has plenty of serendipity built into its genetic makeup. Asked what might constitute a success for the YouTube Symphony Orchestra, [YouTube product marketing manager Ed] Sanders sounded open to just about anything.

“There are lots of ways it could go. If we were to have this conversation again in six months’ time, I think the most successful tangents this might go on would be ones that were impossible to predict today.”

Wait a minute—technology people using the phrase “impossible to predict” in reference to their creation? Isn’t that the linchpin of every movie James Cameron’s ever made? Yes, I see no way this can end badly. (I can still watch pirated opera excerpts, though, right?)

Congratulations to composer Brett Dean, now brainstorming just how he can leverage his Grawemeyer award into keeping the bald guy from Midnight Oil from shutting down the Australian National Academy of Music.

Condoleezza Rice plays piano for the Queen of England. Always Brahms with this woman! Well, some people do respond to stress by eating.

Isaac Stern’s son, new director of the Israeli Opera, will maintain the Wagner ban.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra, having started their own record label, is now offering downloads on their website. Choose your format: 320 Kbs mp3 or, for newer stuff, Windows Media HD Surround Sound. I don’t have a surround-sound set-up, so I can’t comment on that, and the Java-based download manager kept telling me that a couple of movements of Bartok weren’t on the server. (No access to the “Intermezzo interotto”—maybe it’s supposed to be ironic.) On the other hand, the prices aren’t bad, and seeing how I’m currently listening to the world premiere of Bernstein’s Symphony no. 2, with the composer at the piano and Koussevitzky conducting (“The Masque” is nearly flying apart at the seams in exciting fashion), I can definitely see the upside. (Update (12/2): Geoff Edgers gets the details.)

Commodore 64

A thank-you to Michael Prager for, in today’s Boston Globe, considering this to be one of the “sixty-four websites on Boston life that you should know.” I know, I know—I write for the Globe, I get mentioned in the Globe—but honest, there’s no conspiracy. (Being from Chicago, I prefer my nepotism to involve cash.)

Anyway, lots of fun stuff there. (Bradley’s Almanac was already on our radar, but Under 21 was new to me. Maybe I can finally upgrade my current pop-niche classification skills from disastrous to merely mildly incompetent.)