Month: May 2009

Bend sinister

Guerrieri: Steel Flea Rag (2009) (PDF, 4 pages, 236 Kb; MIDI here)

Not surprisingly—that is, if you know me at all—the rag-a-month project (previously: 1, 2, 3) is now a month behind, for which I will not apologize, since it’s all free. Anyway, this month’s entry is a left-hand only rag, just for fun. I will admit that, one-handed, this one is pretty hard—and the difficulty is compounded by my reference point being my own grotesquely gangly paws (seriously, if Lurch and Thing had a baby, it’d be my hands)—so go ahead and use both if you want. It’s the thought that counts.

Anybody wants to start a pool as to when I actually get back on schedule, you can put down ten bucks for me on 2011.

Caveat lector

I was thinking over the weekend about the latest Internet hoax, the one where an Irish college student inserted a fake quote into Maurice Jarre‘s Wikipedia page just after Jarre’s death, and the quote was duly featured in a number of newspaper obituaries. Though I was disappointed in the student’s attempt to explain the hoax as some sort of sociological experiment—it was a prank, enjoy it and stop trying to puff yourself up—kudos nevertheless for coming up with material that would irresistibly play into the persistently Romantic impression of composing among the laity:

“When I die there will be a final waltz playing in my head, that only I can hear.”

How much traction would this particular hoax have gotten with a more realistic quote? Something like—

“When I die, I’ll be busy re-voicing the harmonies in the accompaniment so the clarinets aren’t arpeggiating across their break.”

The hoax has predictably engendered another round of hemming and hawing about Wikipedia, which I suppose is useful for dispelling any lingering impression that Wikipedia is a court of last intellectual resort. (To me, it’s rather like taking a subway map to task for not being a topographical atlas.) Then again, the alternative has its own issues. Surfing the edges of this story, I learned a nice bit of trivia: the first article to make it through the peer-review process of Nupedia, Wikipedia’s expert-only ancestor, was musicologist Christoph Hust’s entry for “Atonality.” You can still read that first entry at the Internet Archive. Here’s how it starts:

Atonality in a general sense describes music that departs from the system of tonal hierarchies that characterized the sound of classical European music from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries (please see the longer article “tonality” for further explanation). Currently, the term is used primarily to describe compositions written approximately 1900 to 1930, in which tonal centers that had been fundamental to most European music since about 1600 are abandoned.

1930? Really? What would that make the technical term for, say, Jean Barraqué’s musical vocabulary? Très piquant? Skepticism is a 24/7 job.

Non trovo pace notte né dì, ma pur mi piace languir così

DON. Don and his wife, Susan, are attending a performance of The Marriage of Figaro by the touring Metropolitan Opera company at the Masonic Temple Auditorium in Detroit. They are both very fond of the theater, and they go to a play or an opera whenever they can manage it. As usual, Don has bought seats near the back of the balcony, where he knows the radio reception is better. The two of them are following the opera attentively, but Don is also holding a small transistor radio up to his left ear. (He is left-eared all the way.) Through long training, he is able to hear both the opera and (because of the good reception) the voice of Ernie Harwell, the sports broadcaster for Station WJR, who is at this moment describing the action at Tiger Stadium, where the Brewers are leading the Tigers 1-0 in the top of the fourth. A woman sitting directly behind Don and Susan is unable to restrain her curiosity, and during a recitative she leans forward and taps Don on the shoulder.

“Excuse me,” she whispers. “I was just wondering what you’re listening to on that little radio.”

Don half turns in his seat. “Simultaneous translation,” he whispers.

—Roger Angell, “Three For the Tigers,”
The New Yorker, September 17, 1973

With fervor burning

As a boxing fan, I’ve been following the burgeoning myth of Philippine fighter Manny Pacquiao, and after last weekend’s second-round knockout of Ricky Hatton—giving Pacquiao a world title in his fifth weight class—it seems the myth may actually be justified. I mean, we knew he was good, but this good? Dang. (Of course, even though Pacquiao’s style is one of speed and precision, boxing being what it is, the sport’s essential brutality was also on view.)

Now, boxing is no stranger to scandal, but a musical scandal is something new. Philippine pop star Martin Nievera was on hand to sing “Lupang Hinirang,” the Philippine national anthem. (For comparison, Tom Jones sang “God Save the Queen.”) And now Nievera is in trouble for it.

A lawmaker on Wednesday said he intends to file criminal charges against Martin Nievera over the singer’s rendition of the Philippine national anthem during the Pacquiao-Hatton fight in Las Vegas last Sunday.

In a weekly press conference, Cavite Rep. Elpidio Barzaga Jr. said the “test case” would determine if Nievera indeed violated Republic Act 8491, or the Flag and Heraldic Code of the Philippines, which states that the national anthem should be played or sung in accordance with the musical arrangement of its composer, Julian Felipe.

At issue is Nievera’s slow introduction and sustained final note, which the National Historical Institute of the Philippines claimed was, well, below the belt:

The NHI, the government agency tasked to ensure that national symbols are given the reverence and respect they deserve, said Martin should not have slowed down the song’s opening and ending. The NHI added the singer should have sung the song in accordance with composer Julian Felipe’s “march-type” tempo.

Good heavens, they probably would have dropped Marvin Gaye into a volcano or something. Anyway, there might be a less exalted political angle to this as well—Pacquiao’s political ambitions are no secret—though trying to untangle the alliances is a little dizzying. (The lawmaker planning to file charges is a member of the KAMPI party, which last year merged with President Gloria Arroyo’s Lakas-Christian Muslim Democratic Party; Pacquiao was floated as a Lakas-CMD candidate, but instead joined the Liberal Party, which nonetheless supported Arroyo in coalition; in Pacquiao’s only campaign thus far, he was soundly defeated by Darlene Antonino-Custodio, a prominent member of the one-half of the Nationalist People’s Coalition that didn’t support Arroyo, &c., &c.) For his part, Nievera claims no disrespect, and in fact just the opposite: “I will not apologize for giving my all just to sing that song in front of the world,” he said. Come on, even his in-ear monitor had a Philippine flag on it.

Just Another Rhumb Line

One of the more true truisms of music history is that the most recognizably American style of classical music, the neo-Classical tonal populism invented by Aaron Copland, was a reaction to the economic crisis of the Great Depression, that Copland wanted to write music that would be more simply perceived by a mass audience. This is not to pick at the scab of the Complexity Wars (which is simpler—Appalachian Spring or Webern’s op. 24? Conduct through the Copland before you answer) but to note that the idea of simplicity as a solution to societal problems is, I think, a particularly American thing, one no doubt ingrained in each of our psyches by a steady flow of subtle agrarian, back-to-the-land mythology in American culture. Think of it this way: in reporting about the current economic crisis, the number of stories I’ve read implicitly based around this narrative—

Due to technology, financial instruments became too complicated for investors to truly understand what they were investing in

—have far outnumbered those based on this narrative—

Due to deregulation, greedy bastards acquired the legal cover to be even greedier bastards

—a narrative that, on one level, implies that the problem was too much simplicity.

In fact, you might be able to make the case that all societies react to crisis by attempting to simplify, but that the peculiarly American quirk is that the perception of simplicity is more important that the substance. To use another musical example, the 12-tone method, historically contemporary with post-WWI European crises, can be read as a conceptual simplification of the late-Romantic dissolution of tonality that was already underway before the war.

I was thinking about this today because at the historical moment, that penchant for a movement towards simplicity in the face of crisis seems to be on a collision course with that other sure-fire historical pattern, artists tending to react against whatever style is prevalent during their formative years. In other words, the current lets-pretend-its-not-a-Depression would predict a musical shift towards more simply-perceived populist styles, but those styles have been ascendant for some years now (consider Steve Reich’s Pulitzer in light of that prize’s stylistically slow reflexes). Since the generation of composers that were in rebellion against modernist complexity are now The Establishment, one might expect their disrespectful youngers, crisis or no crisis, to swing the pendulum in a different direction.

It’s fun to try and decide if a faster musical evolution has lapped a historical cycle, or the other way around—or if artistic and societal patterns are really on parallel tracks, and we only perceive a connection between them because, well, as human beings, that’s what we like to do. Maybe we’re due for a resurgence of chance music and aleatoricism—not bringing order out of chaos, but getting used to the idea that chaos is the only order we’ve got.

Red shift

I haven’t written anything about the possible impending shuttering of my sometime employer, the Boston Globe—I doubt that anyone has been breathlessly waiting for the point of view of a non-union freelancer—but, in honor of May Day, this is just too perfect.

The Boston Globe’s largest union last night called on The New York Times Co. to extend today’s deadline for reaching agreement on millions of dollars in concessions after revealing that an accounting mistake by management has suddenly removed $4.5 million in possible givebacks from the table.

A spectre is haunting The New York Times Company—the spectre of arithmetic.

Speaking of May Day:

Alexander Feodorovitch Kerensky will not stay put. I have a feeling as I write this that whatever I say will be ancient history in the light of new, violent developments in the career of this remarkable character. Perhaps he will star in the movies, perhaps… but no… he can never be a drawing-room favourite; he is not as cultured as Lenine or Trotsky; he speaks only Russian and a few words of French, while they speak any number of languages, are well up on the classics and even chatter of music. Trotsky looks like Paderevski and Lenine like Beethoven. What chance has he against them? Still—Kerensky is playful, ministers in the Winter Palace claimed that he kept them awake all hours of the night, singing grand opera airs….

Louise Bryant, Six Red Months in Russia (1918)
(ellipses in original)

—because singing opera is so lowbrow. But Louise is always good for a slightly off-course comparison—this one probably derived from the fact that Lenin did like Beethoven. In Gorky’s famous anecdote:

One evening in Moscow, in E.P. Pyeskovskaya’s flat, Lenin was listening to a sonata by Beethoven being played by Isaiah Dobrowein, and said: “I know nothing which is greater than the Appassionata; I would like to listen to it every day. It is marvelous superhuman music. I always think with pride—perhaps it is naive of me—what marvelous things human beings can do!”

Then screwing up his eyes and smiling, he added rather sadly: “But I can’t listen to music too often. It affects your nerves, makes you want to say stupid, nice things, and stroke the heads of people who could create such beauty while living in this vile hell. And now you mustn’t stroke anyone’s head—you might get your hand bitten off. You have to hit them on the head, without any mercy, although our ideal is not to use force against anyone. H’m, h’m, our duty is infernally hard!”

Now there’s a marketing angle: “Classical music: insidiously distracting you from amoral dictatorial ruthlessness!”