Month: October 2010

It is possible!

It’s Halloween this weekend. I did a quick Google search for “karlheinz stockhausen mask” and nothing came up, so I made one. (Click to enlarge.)

While enjoying your resultant candy haul (which, if you want to be clever, you can separate into seven different categories and then eat by following the score to Plus-Minus), fire up the video-on-demand and take in The Mephisto Waltz, a 1971 bit of devilish goofiness (from the director of Gidget!) featuring Curt Jürgens as a dying concert pianist who becomes very interested in Alan Alda’s hands.

(The score is by Jerry Goldsmith, getting a nice avant-garde warm-up for his music for The Omen series.)

Sing a song of old Detroit, for she’s the flashing, dashing pioneer of motor glory

Here’s something interesting: the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s Chief Operating Officer, Patricia Walker, talking (back in July, I’m guessing) about the importance of getting everybody on board when implementing organizational change.

Now, 20/20 hindsight and all that, certainly. Still, mentally replace every instance of the word “change” with “a salary cut of a third and a pension freeze” and it turns into a masterpiece of deadpan comedy.

The Detroit Symphony owes much of its prestige to half of the auto-building Dodge brothers, John and Horace. It was Horace, the more mechanically-inclined of the two—and a decent enough amateur musician, by all accounts—that elevated the DSO into a first-class ensemble by making a hefty contribution to the group when Ossip Gabrilowitsch was hired as music director, and leading the fund-raising for Orchestra Hall, which Gabrilowitsch had stipulated as a condition of his accepting the job.

The Symphony was what finally smoothed the way into Detroit high society for Horace. Prior to that, the brothers were repeatedly blackballed—they were hard-drinking brawlers who didn’t much care what other people thought of them. (Their first major success was in manufacturing parts for Henry Ford’s assembly line. John Dodge was asked why the brothers abandoned that lucrative work to make their own cars. “Think of all those Ford owners who will someday want an automobile,” he snarked.) By the time the brothers suddenly died in 1920—both from complications of the influenza then raging world-wide, although Horace’s condition was precipitously undermined by John’s death—such was their renown that none other than Victor Herbert paid tribute with “The Dodge Brothers March.” The Dodge Brothers company distributed both the sheet music and, according to one source, 100,000 recordings of the piece.

It’s a lot of fun, actually. Here’s the first couple of strains:

The brothers may have maintained their salt-of-the-earth ways, but they still spent money like water. Horace Dodge had a particular penchant for yachts; his final commissioned vessel, the Delphine, was big enough to be appropriated as a flagship during World War II. The Delphine was restored a few years back and is currently for sale. The asking price? 38 million Euros.

Leftover Beethoven Miscellany: Roll Call

From time to time until the book comes out, this space will feature bits and pieces that were too esoteric, tangential, or just plain odd to make it into the final version.

An article in a 1918 issue of Sunset magazine reported the opinion of one Professor Arthur Conradi that the World War I anthem “Over There” owed its popularity to the same factors that made Beethoven’s Fifth a hit:

The great German—the Germans were great in his day—heard a rapping on the door. It suggested the tap of the hand of Fate, and he wrote his deathless symphony. George M. Cohan took a bugle call, a three-note idea, like the rat-a-tat-tat on the door, and in the cold analytical view of a serious musician has written a war song that will live forever.1

That the comparison necessitates the elimination of one-fourth of Beethoven’s actual motive went unmentioned.

1. Robin Baily, “Songs Our Soldiers Sing.” Sunset, vol. 40, no. 5 (May, 1918), p. 23.

Another Saturday night, and I ain’t got nobody

There’s a new gang on the block, and they’re called the Boston Composer’s Coalition, and their inaugural concerts are this weekend—and you can watch them online for free. Shows are tonight at 7:00 EST (hey, that’s just about now, isn’t it) and tomorrow at 1:30 EST. If you’re reading this right now, let’s face it, your Saturday night is not turning out as exciting as it could be, so click on over. These concerts feature works composed especially for the ensemble The Fourth Wall, made up of—wait for it—flute, trombone, and percussion. Awesome.

Now, maybe you’re like me, and you like to make your entertainment decisions based on the cleverness of the logos involved:

Well played, my friends, well played.

Full disclosure: some of them actually are my friends.

Believe half of what you see, run and hide from what you hear

News from there and here:

There’s a Facebook campaign going to make John Cage’s 4’33” this year’s Christmas #1 single in the UK. Question of the day: on how many different axes would this have made Theodor Adorno’s head spin?

This looks like fun: music-cognition popularizer Daniel Levitin is joining the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony for an evening called “Beethoven and Your Brain,” which will use a live performance of Beethoven’s Fifth to illustrate concepts in the neuroscience of music.

You will find out what is going on in the mind of the conductor, the musicians, and the audience (you!) in this interactive presentation. With live audience surveys using the latest technology, this will be a Beethoven experience that you will never forget!

Am I the only one thinking of this?

More specifically: am I the only one thinking of that as a possible selling point?

Coming to Australia later this month: music to put budgies to sleep by!

Finally, R.I.P., Ari Up, leader of The Slits, creators of what just might be my favorite cover version ever:

De Havenvinding (1599)

If you have some interest in the history of science and technology, you might have heard of the Dutch scientist and engineer Simon Stevin, who died in 1620. He was one of those old-fashioned Renaissance polymaths—James Burke, that expert web-weaver of technological history, has often found occasion to mention Stevin, since his range of activity connects him to so many different streams of innovation. He popularized decimal notation in Europe; he updated Archimedes’ theories on hydrostatics; he wrote the earliest textbook on milling, a guide to navigation (De Havenvinding, “finding harbors”), and a treatise on artistic perspective; he designed fortresses and military camps for his patron and student, Maurice of Nassau, Prince of Orange, with whom Stevin used to ride up and down the beach on large, wind-powered land yachts he constructed. He demonstrated the law of the equilibrium on an inclined place—and, at the same time, the law of the conservation of energy—with a brilliantly simple diagram that came to be called the Epitaph of Stevinus:

As Richard Feynman once said, “If you get an epitaph like that on your gravestone, you are doing fine.” As if that weren’t enough, Stevin also worked out something that you hear every day: he calculated the ratios for equal temperament about a century before it came into wide use. The modern 12-note chromatic scale, for better or for worse: that was Stevin’s doing.

So now you know who Simon Stevin was. Why bring him up? Because of an aphorism Stevin saw fit to jot down once, with his signature, a memento reproduced in the introduction to the 1955 edition of his Principal Works:

The translation:

A man in anger is no clever dissembler.

This month, four centuries later, Stevin’s observation has been twice borne out in relation to the arts, including in his home country. Right-wing governments in the Netherlands and Great Britain have proposed gutting arts funding. The Dutch Rutte-Verhagen cabinet (which owes its coalition power to the far-right, anti-Islam Geert Wilders) plans to pretty much shut down the Dutch public broadcasting music division, including three Dutch orchestras; and even if they try to survive on their own, they’d be looking at an increase in the value-added tax on concert and theater tickets from 6 to 19 percent. Meanwhile, across the channel, David Cameron’s coalition—which might as well be a Tory government, the way the Lib Dems are rolling over at every opportunity—wants to cut arts programs by 30 percent.

In other words, both sets of conservatives, angry men all around (and, indeed, mostly men), are no longer dissembling with any sort of cleverness. And anyone who thinks that this was a matter of the arts not “making their case”—like Norman Lebrecht, trying to spin Tory cuts as a failure of Labour hard enough to sprain something, or Bob Shingleton, saying that “classical music must put its house in order”—is either being disingenuous or, I think, missing the point. Because those governments aren’t going after the arts simply as a soft target—they’re going after the arts because art is naturally in opposition to any government relying on spin, isolation, and fear.

Simon Stevin was himself a fundamentalist about the Dutch language, claiming that it was inherently superior for scientific discourse than the Latin then in vogue, and imagining that there once was a golden age of science and knowledge in which wisdom was available to all, because it was in Dutch. The editor of Stevin’s above-mentioned Principal Works was compelled to demur:

The whole theory forms a typical example of how the most rational and scientific of minds may at the same time foster the most irrational and phantastical ideas on topics lying outside the sphere of his specific competence.

I think this is how we like to think of opponents of arts funding: they just don’t understand it. I rather think that what we’re seeing in Europe is a result of politicians understanding the power of art all too well. And, as Samuel Vriezen points out, ignoring the political aspect of attacks on the arts only bolsters the attackers. Mark Rutte, the new Dutch prime minister, is apparently an accomplished pianist who once considered the conservatory-then-performance career track—he certainly has an inkling. Geert Wilders, whom the Dutch cuts are no doubt meant to partially appease, is an expert propagandist—he knows. The British cuts fall more on provincial performing arts companies than London museums, venerable visual arts being far less likely to undermine the Tory narrative than unpredictable actors and musicians in the back of beyond. The 2010 UK Spending Review whacks the arts, the public sector, and the poor disproportionately hard. That’s not political convenience—that’s political calculation.

And, more likely than not, it’s a calculation that might well be crossing the Atlantic sometime soon. Look at the appropriation for the National Endowment for the Arts—a useful enough benchmark of how important the arts and artistic livelihoods are to those in power. Arts advocates have been playing nice for decades now, emphasizing consensus and economic impact statements. Those are important, but it’s ultimately been a holding strategy: the NEA’s 2010 appropriation just about gets it back to its funding levels in 1988—and that’s in real dollars, not inflation-adjusted ones. And the demagogues are starting to get just angry enough to stop dissembling. So artists might want to get ready to channel some anger of their own—not into anger, but into clarity. Like I’ve said: get in their face. Playing nice, after all, is just clever dissembling, too.

Update (10/22): Bob Shingleton takes exception. For the record, I thought Norman Lebrecht was the one being disingenuous, and that Shingleton was just taking his eye off the ball. But, as much as I like his writing, I just think he’s dead wrong about both the cause and the response. The cuts in both the Netherlands and the UK have nothing to do with how transparent/efficient/above-board the classical music industry or other performing arts organizations are or are not. (I mean, the Tate Gallery has at least as many management skeletons in the closet over the past decade as any orchestra, and they got off far easier.) And I confess that I have a reflexive horror of the idea that, if you’re attacked on unfair grounds, the best response is to self-examine and wonder what it is that you did wrong. American progressives did this for years and were outflanked every time. The classical music business is always in need of housecleaning—any business is. (The root of all evil, &c.) And Bob is right, unfortunately, when he notes that “Everyone is going to have to share the pain.” The problem is, everyone is not sharing the pain, and that fact is a reflection of political agendas, not the state of arts management, however dire. In both these particular situations, the onus is on the governments to own up to the fact that the brunt of their hazardous austerity schemes are being borne by organizations and individuals that neither caused the crisis nor exacerbated it, not on those in the arts to put on sackcloth and hope for future absolution.

He’ll be filled with diff’rent mixtures

The blog’s gone purple today for Spirit Day, in support of LGBT teens and against anti-LGBT bullying. If you’re an LGBT teenager, be proud! On the other hand, if you’re one of those who needs your consciousness expanded on this particular point, then the golden age of the Hollywood musical would like a word with you—specifically, Ethel Merman and Mitzi Gaynor in 1954’s There’s No Business Like Show Business, throwing “don’t ask, don’t tell” and traditional gender roles to the wind:

As those better qualified than me to say it have said, it gets better—and if your definition of “better” includes Ethel Merman in sideburns, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.