Month: January 2009

Design for Living

A vintage demurral to the old saw that people become musicians primarily to pick up girls/guys:

The voice of man.—The same remark will apply to another peculiarly human character, the wonderful power, range, flexibility, and sweetness, of the musical sounds producible by the human larynx, especially in the female sex. The habits of savages give no indication of how this faculty could have been developed by natural selection; because it is never required or used by them. The singing of savages is more or less monotonous howling, and the females seldom sing at all. Savages certainly never choose their wives for fine voices, but for rude health, and strength, and physical beauty. Sexual selection could not therefore have developed this wonderful power, which only comes into play among civilized people. It seems as if the organ had been prepared in anticipation of the future progress of man, since it contains latent capacities which are useless to him in his earlier condition. The delicate correlations of structure that give it such marvellous powers, could not therefore have been acquired by means of natural selection.

That’s the British naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace in 1870, in an article called “The Limits of Natural Selection as Applied to Man.” Now, obviously Wallace is concerned with bigger game than an evolutionary motivation for groupies. You might not get it from this bit, but Wallace—who independently came up with the idea of natural selection, prompting Charles Darwin to finally get his own 20-year-old theory into print—in a lot of ways tried to out-Darwin Darwin, divining the hand of natural selection where even the father of the idea demurred. Darwin and Wallace were friendly colleagues, but where the former saw useful explanations, the latter saw dogma.

That’s what’s getting Wallace into trouble in this passage, which like the rest of the article, catalogs human traits and abilities that don’t seem to be necessary for survival—and then (to Darwin’s horror) attributes them to the hand of a higher power. All the talk about “savages” results from Wallace’s view, fairly liberal for the time, that “primitive” races around the world weren’t inferior to “higher” races, in terms of ability or brain size. Nonetheless, they weren’t civilized white Europeans of refined culture and manners, which meant that some of that mental potential wasn’t being used. As Stephen Jay Gould put it in The Panda’s Thumb:

Hence, Wallace’s dilemma: all “savages,” from our actual ancestors to modern survivors, had brains fully capable of developing and appreciating all the finest subtleties of European art, morality, and philosophy; yet they used, in the state of nature, only the tiniest fraction of that capacity in constructing their rudimentary cultures….

But natural selection can only fashion a feature for immediate use. The brain is vastly overdesigned for what it accomplished in primitive society; thus, [Wallace reasoned,] natural selection could not have built it.

A few minutes’ thinking is enough to recognize Wallace’s fallacy. I can fry eggs on an engine block—that neither means that a) the engine designer expected me to do so, nor b) because he didn’t, the design process is somehow flawed. Same thing with using a credit card to open a door, or, a favorite from hanging around wind players, using Zig-Zag cigarette papers to blot the spit out of oboe keys. But Wallace couldn’t see the error because he was too wedded to what Gould calls “hyper-selectionism”: the need for natural selection to somehow sign off on every possible use of a physiological feature. Gould again:

Wallace did not abandon natural selection at the human threshold. Rather, it was his peculiarly rigid view of natural selection that led him, quite consistently, to reject it for the human mind…. Wallace’s error on human intellect arose from the inadequacy of his rigid selectionism, not from a failure to apply it.

If you’re still under the assumption that this is a music blog, you might at this point be sensing a distant symmetry between Wallace’s hyper-selectionism and some more deterministic compositional and analytical methods. Certainly total serialism springs to mind—has there ever been a more thorough musical realization of the notion that every event should have its own function, and no other, within an overall structure? But hasn’t that always been the goal of analysis, too—a place for everything, and everything in its place? Even seemingly intuitive works of music fall under the analytical knife, an operation to reveal that intuition is just as organically determined as any schematic process.

But actually, total serialism—and, oddly, its uncharitable reputation among many listeners—shows that music inherently resists turning into a deterministic experience. Listeners are funny: they want the music to give enough of an impression to reassure that the composer is concerned with the way details are integrated into the overall whole, but if it’s too cut-and-dry, they pull back. Take certain kinds of minimalism, where the process behind the piece is laid out on the surface, fully audible. There is still a significant portion of the classical-music audience that hates minimalism, thinks it’s boring, or worse, authoritarian and soulless. On the other hand, there are listeners who think a piece of totally-determined serialism sounds random, arbitrary, ungrammatical. (These are extremes, of course, but I would think we recognize features of the caricatures in most negative reactions: criticisms of minimalism seize on the repetition, serialism, the dissonance.) But the fact that a completely deterministic method of organizing musical events can produce an experience of mercurial unpredictability shows how little is being controlled even by the most controlling composer. That inherent gap between conception and realization, between design and actuality—the kissing cousin of music’s maddeningly near-linguistic status—might be philosophically frustrating, but it’s also what keeps creators and listeners coming back, trying to plumb the depths. Wallace thought that ancient groupies would only be attracted to design—but what if the howling itself is the attraction?

The last patient I gave one of those to won the Kentucky Derby

With the New York City Opera set to announce their new director tomorrow, that means there’s less than 24 hours left to place wagers on who it will be. Now, I admit, it seems futile to resist the juggernaut of Ryan Tracy’s candidacy, but nevertheless, let’s look at the current odds.

George Steel: 2-1

Good news: Knows the city, knows the business, makes the crazy modern music a hot ticket.
Bad news: Leaving Dallas Opera before he’s barely started will only feed to the undercurrent of insecurity that results in Texas constantly foisting demagogues on the rest of the country.
Quote from the future: “What? I’m just going to lunch. The fully-packed suitcase is just a trendy accessory. All the kids are doing it. Trust me.”

Rudy Giuliani: 5-1

Good News: High profile, proven fundraiser, might keep him from running for president again.
Bad News: Charles Wuorinen’s Brokeback Mountain will be axed in favor of a Frank Wildhorn-penned extavaganza about 9/11, starring Ronan Tynan as Rudy Giuliani.
Quote from the future: “Why certainly; I’d be happy to answer that question about our current budget shortfall 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11.”

Oprah Winfrey: 30-1

Good news: As it turns out, a free new car under every seat does wonders for the State Theater’s acoustics.
Bad news: Entire production budget is used up staging Margaret Garner eight times a week.
Quote from the future: “I think you owe it to me and my audience to explain why you pretended to be a seamstress with tuberculosis when, in fact, you weren’t.”

Jesus Christ: 50-1

Good news: Dominion over all creation, will work for cheap.
Bad news: Entire production budget is used up staging Parsifal eight times a week.
Quote from the future: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world but lose the chance to update Tannhäuser to hippie-era Haight-Ashbury?”

The Village People: 80-1

Good news: Costume budget for Regietheater-inspired productions drops to virtually zero.
Bad news: Inaugural season cancelled by crippling strike after Construction Guy decides to go all Joe Volpe and break the unions.
Quote from the future: “Tell the bank that you need a loan / Go sell your house and every little thing that you own / You’ll make your dream, forget that you’re an unknown / You’re gonna be a star, a big star”

Joe Volpe: 100-1

Good news: Bored; could use the challenge.
Bad news: Bored; could use the challenge.
Quote from the future: “I find your lack of faith disturbing.”

HAL 9000: 250-1

Good news: Balances budget by reorganizing operations with superhuman, optimum efficiency.
Bad news: Inability to process conflicting, illogical information leads to him killing the entire cast of I Puritani.
Quote from the future: “Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do…” (Continues singing as tinny electronic voice gradually gets slower and deeper, until finally Robert Wilson hires him to play Sarastro)

Critic-at-Large Moe: 1000-1

Good news: Infallible taste in both singers and repertoire; encyclopedic breadth of knowledge; savvy negotiator; peerlessly eloquent advocate for the arts.
Bad news: Needs to be walked twice a day; obsessed with tennis balls.
Quote from the future: “I knew our staging of the complete Licht cycle would sell out. Dogs don’t play all that poker for nothing.”

Update (1/14): Mr. Steel paid $6.60, $3.40, and $2.60.

Unlikely music critic of the day

Also this year you talked of Elgar, and the newspapers said that he was ill.

If you see him will you present my constant pleasure in his music, whether human rendered or from my box? Nobody who makes sounds gets so inside my defences as he does, with his 2nd Symphony and Violin Concerto. Say that if the 3rd Symphony has gone forward from those, it will be a thrill to ever so many of us. He was inclined to grumble that the rewards of making music were not big, in the bank-book sense; but by now he should be seeing that bank-books will not interest him much longer. I feel more and more, as I grow older, the inclination to throw everything away and live on air. We all allow ourselves to need too much.

—T.E. Lawrence to Mrs Charlotte Shaw, August 23, 1933

I read your [Beethoven’s] 9th Symphony score very often, trying to keep pace with the records. Music, alas, is very difficult. So are all the decencies of life.

—T.E. Lawrence to H.A. Ford, April 18, 1929

Lawrence carved the lintel above the door of his Clouds Hill cottage to read οὐ φροντὶς (“does not care”), referring to the story of Hippocleides as told by Herodotus. Elgar did not live to complete his 3rd Symphony, the commission of which had been partially arranged by Bernard Shaw. “We were too late for that Third Symphony after all,” Lawrence wrote Charlotte Shaw.


It seems odd that the first Cambodian rock opera should have its premiere in Lowell, Massachusetts, but that’s what happened: composer Sophy Him and librettist Catherine Filloux brought their fascinating hybrid Where Elephants Weep to the former mill town/birthplace of Jack Kerouac in the spring of 2007 for three workshop/preview performances.

Amid much publicity, Where Elephants Weep finally had its Cambodian premiere last November, and was subsequently shown on Cambodian TV on Christmas. However, a second planned broadcast was postponed after the country’s Buddhist monks complained.

“Some scenes in the story insult Buddhism,” said a letter sent to the Ministry of Cults and Religion by the Supreme Sangha Council of Buddhist Monks. The letter—also sent to the media— went on to ask that the ministry “ban the performance and airing of the opera”, and demanded an apology from the show’s director, writer and actors.

When did Buddhist monks get so touchy? I thought the source of suffering was birth, not rock and roll. Still, as a connoisseur, I think irritating an entire nation’s Buddhist monks has to be the kickflip McTwist of shocking the bourgeoisie. Sophy Him and Catherine Filloux, we salute you.

Fun fact, courtesy of my lovely wife: did you know that the Catholic Church once unwittingly canonized the Buddha? If you want to join the Sangha, just say so.

Star Search

Christmas just finally ended yesterday, at least according to the ecclesiastical calendar; today is Epiphany, officially marking the arrival of the Three Wise Men to deliver history’s first Christmas loot. Our choir’s pre-Epiphany anthem last Sunday was, appropriately, “Epiphany,” an 1864 hymn-tune by the great Victorian composer/organist Samuel Sebastian Wesley, setting a venerable old Reginald Heber text. Here’s a score:

“Epiphany” is pretty extravagantly lovely for a hymn; check out those strong-beat double non-harmonic tones in the third bar, like cheese melting onto the sirloin burger of subdominant substitutions. (Do you think Wesley knew his Mendelssohn? Yeah, me too.) Nevertheless, “Epiphany” appears in none of the hymnals I have, mainly because people don’t know how to sing anymore.

Here’s what I mean: in spite of being well within reasonable range for a decent SATB choir, “Epiphany” is simultaneously too high and too low to get into hymnals. The problem is that the soprano line, with its frequent ascension to high F, is too high for unison singing—the altos and basses in the congregation can’t comfortably get up that high, which would be OK if congregations read parts, but they don’t. You could take the whole thing down, but then the written alto and bass lines get too low. So if you want to get it in the hymnal, you’d have to rearrange it—or you could just use James Harding’s comparatively bland “Morning Star,” which is what most hymnals do.

Hymnals have, in fact, been getting progressively lower. In the 1955 Presbyterian Hymnbook, most soprano lines top out around E-flat or E, with a few occasionally getting up to F. In its 1990 replacement, The Presbyterian Hymnal, the tunes top out around D, with about one in five getting up to E. Only one goes to F: James Ellor’s seemingly endless “Diadem,” which probably needs a Mormon Tabernacle-sized choir to really work anyway. Several tunes that appear in both editions have been transposed down for 1990, “Sicilian Mariners” and “Lasst uns erfreuen” being two particularly familiar examples.

Leaving aside the whole lack of part-reading-sufficient musical literacy, it’s interesting to note that the upper range of the newer hymnal coincidentally corresponds to the ceiling of pop-style belting rather than higher classical/choral-style singing. If you’re not doing a whole lot of unamplified choral singing as a matter of childhood educational course, it’s that much harder, later on, to get your breath and muscle memory working in such a way to really get a substantial head voice. Those high F’s would probably cause a flip-and-crack transition in more young female voices than, say, forty years ago—even fairly accomplished teenaged singers I’ve worked with have often, under the influence of pop and contemporary R&B, only ever spent time in their middle and belt ranges. (Even musical theatre songs, traditionally lower than classical repertoire, have probably, on average, dropped at least a step or two since the days of Rodgers and Hammerstein.)

So, thanks in part to the steady deterioration of arts education to its currently lousy state, Wesley’s little gem, which, in a universe with better breath control, would be a standard, is now a rarity. A few more generations of this, and your Sunday morning singing might well be a chanted drone. I can’t help thinking of all those great soul singers who started out as kids in church choirs—is it too late to ask the Wise Men to throw in Aretha’s gospel album?

"In Paris they call it American Music"

Guerrieri: New Year Rag (1995/2009) (PDF, 5 pages, 267 Kb; MIDI here)

That’s right—the original version of this one was written at the beginning of 1995. But now the notation is cleaner and it has a better ending.

Writing ragtime is one of those things that, for me at least, the more you do it, the longer it takes. As a result, I have a folder bulging with unfinished bits and pieces. One of this year’s resolutions is to finish them all up, so I think a new rag every month ought to go a long way towards that. (Seriously—there’s one that’s been stuck in the same harmonic cul-de-sac between the C and D strains since 2000.)

Anyway, this is probably the closest to “classical” rag style that I’ve ever gotten, the D strain feint towards the Neapolitan notwithstanding. Yes, we’re ringing in the new year with an old piece in an older style—along with the promise of future installments. The present is so elusive, isn’t it?

Post title via James Weldon Johnson.