Month: December 2010

Their songs employ

Well, it’s a week until Christmas Eve, and, as usual, I’m not even close to being ready, which means it’s probably a good time for Soho the Dog to take a break, and, like Critic-at-Large Moe up there, diligently await the new year. So unless something really juicy comes along—Bernard Haitink, say, finally admitting that Vermeer’s The Concert has been hanging in his rec room this whole time—this space will be fallow until January.

So here’s a little present. One of the books I inherited at my church job was the venerable T. Tertius Noble’s Free Organ Accompaniments to One Hundred Well-Known Hymn Tunes, a written-down compilation of the organist’s oft-improvised prerogative, going harmonically haywire on the last verse of hymns. Noble never got around to “Antioch”—better known as “Joy to the World”—but I did; I came up with this harmonization a few years back, and finally got around to writing it down (click to enlarge):

And it goes—the original, then the arrangement—a little something like this:

I tend to save this for the late service, to see if anybody’s still awake. Happy holidays!

"A true, lively, and experimentall description"

Today’s topic: how current modes of classical-music discourse are and are not like the literary efforts of early settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Now, I am, myself, a non-native New Englander, which may be why I have 1) a more-than-passing fascination with New England history that 2) tends to come from a somewhat oblique angle. Veterans of school-grade American History have absorbed the standard view of the early New Englanders: high-minded, humorless Puritans, full of Protestant work ethic and Calvinist grimness, the traditionally-cited sources of the flinty New England intellect. But dig a little deeper, and you find an awful lot of that work ethic being expended in advertising that ethic, making sure everybody knew how high-minded and hard-working the New Englanders were. Viewed in this way, early New England more and more resembles the sort of shadowplay of moralistic façades that Hawthorne, for instance, made so trenchantly entertaining.

So I’ve been having a good time reading Phillip H. Round’s By Nature and By Custom Cursed: Transatlantic Civil Discourse and New England Cultural Production, 1620-1660. Round’s thesis is that much of the intellectual and literary groundwork of what came to be categorized as the New England Mind was shaped by the fact that those literary efforts were specifically designed for readers back in England. The traditional New England virtues of sobriety and objectivity, for instance, first appear as literary strategies to convince English readers of the colonists’ fantastic stories, that the passenger pigeons really did flock in such numbers as to blot out the sun, &c. A prime example of the strategy is found in the note “To the Reader” from William Wood’s popular 1634 book New Englands Prospect:

…I presume to present thee with the true, and faithfull relation of some few yeares travels and experience, wherein I would be loath to broach any thing which may puzzle thy beleefe, and so justly draw upon my selfe, that unjust aspersion commonly laid on travailers; of whom many say, They may lye by authority, because none can controule them….

“So there is many a tub-brain’d Cynicke, who because any thing stranger than ordinary, is too large for the straite hoopes of his apprehension, he peremptorily concludes it is a lye,” Wood goes on. “But I decline this sort of thicke-witted readers, and dedicate the mite of my endeavours to my more credulous, ingenious, and lesse censorious Country-men”. Round notes how such favorable reportage of New England’s wonders—exotic flora and fauna, in seemingly endless quantities—was often couched in terms of that most gentlemanly of English pursuits, science, the observations given an extra veneer of plausibility by a restrained and matter-of-fact style (along with frequent reminders of the observer’s unimpeachable moral standing).

But Round also notes that such objective reports were, not infrequently, flat-out disinformation. He traces a series of letters sent by one Emmanuel Altham, assuring investors back in London that things in the colony were going swimmingly, until the ruse proved untenable and he was forced to admit that the swimming was not, in fact, all that good. As the early years of the colony went along, the pressure from financial interests back in the home country became substantial enough—and the need to project an image of success and confidence correspondingly important enough—that John Winthrop, the governor, ordered the collection and censorship of all incoming and outgoing mail and printed material.

I don’t think it is too far a stretch to find similar tension at work in the way we talk about classical music, and the fine arts in general, in the context of the modern mass media. There’s the desire to advertise the wonders of this exotic realm—those inclined to this option can take odd comfort in the fact that Wood’s laudatory New Englands Prospect was a hit back in England, while its critical, polemical counterpart, Thomas Morton’s New English Canaan, was a flop. But there’s also the caution of creating too rosy a picture, lest the suspicion arise of “lying by authority.” It’s the sort of thing Dave Hickey warns against in a quote that Alex Ross posted a few weeks back:

Seducing oneself into believing in art’s intrinsic ‘goodness,’ however, is simply bad religion, no matter what the rewards. It is bad cult religion when professing one’s belief in art’s ‘goodness’ becomes a condition of membership in the art community.

The “death of classical music” types (they’re back for the holidays!) will often imagine such talking up to do more damage than good, painting classical-music apologists as, basically, latter-day Emmanuel Althams, papering over shortfalls with increasing desperation. Here’s a recent example from Greg Sandow, a standard source. In fact, go back a few months, to that whole dust-up between Greg and Heather MacDonald, and it’s kind of like reading Thomas Morton and William Wood all over again.

Except it’s not, not quite. The dissonance isn’t in the recasting of the classical-music tradition as a colony of a back-home popular mass-media culture. The dissonance is that there is no back home. There is no country to which we could send missives and pamphlets of the marvels of our new world. Everything in culture today, every genre, every style, is, essentially, its own colony. We separate into large categories—”popular,” “classical,” “art”—for convenience, but those are increasingly flimsy umbrellas. Which is why, I think, fashioning discourse about classical music as if it’s a report back to the home country of popular culture, as if there even is a home country of popular culture, misses the point.

This is something that has always frustrated me about the death-of-classical polemics: they’re predicated on a mass popular counterpart that is increasingly illusory. Classical music needs to become more attuned to popular culture, goes the trope—but both “classical music” and “popular culture” have fragmented into free-standing colonies, which individuals are more and more free to visit as they please. (And the trope usually ignores how much the colonies are evolving without any help.) That’s not to say that there aren’t monolithic forces that tend to make such visits less free than we might think they are, but those forces are economic and technological more than cultural.

John Winthrop, in his “Model of Christian Charity,” warned of the need to keep up appearances:

For wee must consider that wee shall be as a citty upon a hill. The eies of all people are uppon us. So that if wee shall deale falsely with our God in this worke wee have undertaken, and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.

It’s a famous passage, the source of every “city on the hill” citation of American exceptionalism. But I think the cultural landscape is no longer such that classical music, in any of its many overlapping guises, is going to rise and fall based on the perception of the “eies of all people.” Better to amplify what it is than to try and make it behave like something it’s not—as Wood’s subtitle promised, “Laying downe that which may both enrich the knowledge of the mind-travelling Reader, or benefit the future Voyager.” The wonders will always puzzle the belief of some; but they probably wouldn’t be happy living here anyway.

Troll the ancient yuletide carol

I’m a Christmas album aficionado, and my favorite entry so far this season—and I can’t see anything else topping it, certainly not in a way that engenders a thousand-word blog post—is A Christmas Cornucopia, by the Scottish pop diva Annie Lennox. This is a really interesting album—but to understand why it’s so interesting, we must first acknowledge that Christmas, particularly (but not exclusively) in its secular manifestations, is one of the more fake, manufactured holidays there is. I’m not talking about the commercialism (although there is that, too), but rather, that most of what we think of as Ye Olde Christmas Traditions are not, in fact, all that old. More precisely: there is a significant and distorting lag between the claim to authenticity of most Christmas traditions and the historical actuality that would back up such claims.

Christmas as we know it here in the Anglo-American world is largely a creation of the 19th century—the Victorian era in Britain, the Gilded Age in the United States. Now, there are a lot of factors that went into the 19th-century Christmas revival: the rise of consumerist, commodity-based economies, the sacralization of childhood, the increasing importance of cheap, print-based media to the culture as a whole. But most important, I think, is nostalgia. In the wake of both the Industrial Revolution and the American Civil War, anything that asserted an unbroken connection to an unchanging tradition became appealing, and Christmas thus became a fount of nostalgia. The trees, the caroling, the pageants, the mistletoe, Santa: people started celebrating the holiday as it had been celebrated back in the day. Except that it hadn’t—Christmas was never that big a deal until the Victorians made it that big a deal. Puritans in both England and New England had actually banned Christmas back in what was supposedly the good old days. In other words, the modern Christmas emerged out of a nostalgia for something that never really was in the first place.

This is hardly unique to Christmas. Nostalgia—especially this kind of illusory nostalgia—is so common in the industrial world that it’s a trope of its own in more radical critiques of modern society. Guy Debord, in his Situationist classic The Society of the Spectacle, talked about the difference between ancient, “cyclical” time—”the really lived time of unchanging illusions”—and modern, “spectacular” time—”the illusorily lived time of a constantly changing reality”:

The pseudo-events that vie for attention in spectacular dramatizations have not been lived by those who are informed about them; and in any case they are soon forgotten due to their increasingly frenetic replacement at every pulsation of the spectacular machinery. Conversely, what is really lived has no relation to the society’s official version of irreversible time, and conflicts with the pseudocyclical rhythm of that time’s consumable byproducts. This individual experience of a disconnected everyday life remains without language, without concepts, and without critical access to its own past, which has nowhere been recorded. Uncommunicated, misunderstood and forgotten, it is smothered by the spectacle’s false memory of the unmemorable.

That reads like a cynic’s description of the Christmas season. But what I think is so fascinating about Christmas is that the sheer amount of cultural stuff that has been produced around it has conditioned us to approach that stuff with a higher tolerance for a kind of pseudo-authenticity that’s unique to the category—which is why Christmas albums are so much fun. The shotgun marriage of every style and genre imaginable with Christmas repertoire doesn’t cause the cognitive dissonance it might, because, in a weird way, the incongruity echoes the incongruity of Christmas itself. Because, deep down, we know that the “traditional” Christmas we’ve been inculcated with so much nostalgia for is largely bunk, an R&B/doo-wop rendition of “Veni Emmanuel” or a disco version of “O Holy Night” is able to work on its own terms.

But what makes A Christmas Cornucopia better than your average Christmas album is that it charts the authenticity/inauthenticity divide of Christmas nostalgia with such precision that it ends up creating a convincing illusion of authenticity all its own. This is an album about authenticity. The songs are, for the most part, the “traditional” carols, the ones collected and codified in the Victorian era as the baseline of Christmas heritage. (Even the exceptions reference other traditions: “Universal Child” is an original entry in the long line of UK Christmas charity pop singles, and a cheerfully brash version of the French carol “Il est né” is, perhaps, at least a partial homage to Siouxsie and the Banshees.) Do you remember the last verse of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman”? Annie Lennox does:

That gives a pretty good indication of the musical style that Lennox and producer Mike Stevens use for the entire album, which turns out to be another referential layer of the nostalgia in play: it’s what might be called the Gothic pastoral strain in British psychedelica. Like-this-combined-with-that descriptions are always a little shallow, but if ca. 1974 Queen and Jethro Tull had teamed up on a Christmas album, this is what it might have sounded like. The Gothic pastoral is another nostalgic style—forever conjuring images of maypole bacchanals and slightly menacing Morris dancers—but what’s crucial for A Christmas Cornucopia is that it was a piggybacked nostalgia: it was as much about how the Victorians imagined that long-lost England to be as how it actually was (or wasn’t). It was equally referencing Jolly Old England and the Victorian hankering after Jolly Old England.

Think about that for a minute: the album is recasting carols in a style that is nostalgic for the very nostalgia that created the carols in the first place. It’s not just a compounding of nostalgia, it’s a direct lineage of nostalgia. That’s important because, the more precisely targeted nostalgia gets, the less sentimental it seems. It’s the difference between the amorphous sappiness of “childhood” and the knife-edge focus of Proust’s madeleine.

Christmas is, in general, pretty sentimental, mainly because its nostalgia is both manufactured and only vaguely defined. It’s the sort of thing that inspired one of the Situationist International’s more pointed scolds:

The entire socioeconomic structure tends to make the past dominate the present, to freeze living persons, to reify them as commodities. A sentimental world in which the same sorts of tastes and relations are constantly repeated is the direct product of the economic and social world in which gestures must be repeated every day in the slavery of capitalist production. The taste for false novelty reflects its unhappy nostalgia.

A Christmas Cornucopia sidesteps that by both leveraging the manufactured nature of Christmas nostalgia and doing so with such stylistic efficiency that the sentimentality falls away. It traffics in only those strains of nostalgia that created the modern conception of Christmas, and nothing else. It is exactly as authentic as Christmas is, which is to say, it is inauthentic in exactly the same way. It is, in an enchanting way, that touchstone of holiday shopping: a genuine fake.

No Future

Over at the Denver Post, Kyle MacMillan embarks on The Death of Classical Music 5: Assignment Miami Beach. Evocation of a lost Golden Age of American classical music? Check. Passing citation of NEA participation statistics? Check. List of gripes from Greg Sandow? Check. I’m just being a curmudgeon because, to be honest, I’m burned out on this whole discussion. To his credit, MacMillan spends at least as much time focusing on those subsets of the overly-general “classical music” category that are not dying as those that are. And I’ve pretty much said my piece on this (this post and this post hold up passably well after a few years).

Still, a list of tips from the rock and pop world by Ronen Givony, one of the music directors at Le Poisson Rouge, had this amusing counterpoint:

4. Promotion. Unlike rock bands… classical performers have traditionally relied on managers, publicists or presenters to market their appearances.

5. Entrepreneurialism. Rather than waiting for a grant or somebody else to initiate change, artists need to take things into their own hands. “What if the Beatles had said, ‘We’re going to wait until we get some funding and then we’re going to go on the road’?” Givony said. “What if the Sex Pistols had said that? Nothing would have changed in music history.”

The ghosts of Brian Epstein and Malcolm McLaren would like a word….

I may burn the toast. Oh, well

Over the weekend, Kyle Gann was complaining about the tradition of kittenish obscurantism in serialist analysis:

In European writings on the subject, and certain American academic writings as well,… it seems to be almost bad taste to state flatly how the rows are derived, what the rhythmic processes are, how the music is actually written. One is expected to know such matters but be coy in expressing them, and to talk more about the implications of the process than the process itself.

On a related note, I was at Harvard last night for the last of the public lectures given as part of the School of Engineering’s “Science and Cooking” class, with guest lecturer David Chang, of Momofuku fame. There was some science content: Chang did neat stuff with methyl cellulose and eggs, and there was a wildly entertaining exposition on the microbiology of Chang’s attempt to make a pork version of katsuobushi. But what was most interesting was the framework of Chang’s talk—constantly coming back to the idea of the role of limitations and mistakes in creativity. A big theme was the effect of restrictions: restrictions on physical space, restrictions on the availability of ingredients, restrictions imposed by the need to make money, &c., and how the staff came to embrace and use those restrictions as spurs to innovative thinking. (Chang passed around samples of what he called Momofuku’s “ingredient of the year,” a dried shiitake mushroom chip that came about as a byproduct of pulverizing dried shiitakes into powder, so that they would take up less storage space.)

What the restrictions originally meant was that Chang and his staff were constantly forced to go off-recipe in order to get the food out of the kitchen, but now that combination of self-imposed limitations and non-stop tinkering is ingrained in the restaurants’ culture, to the point where success and newly expanded resources actually seem to scare Chang a little bit. “If we’re given the full color palette to work with,” he joked, “we’re just going to make something disgusting and nasty.” Chang recounted numerous instances of setting up seemingly arbitrary challenges in order to provide, essentially, opportunities for controlled screw-ups. He described his creative process thus: “Make a mistake; make a calculated mistake; make another mistake.” In other words, give yourself permission to get every step of the process wrong, in order to really know what’s going on at every step of the process—and that’s where the creativity starts, not where it ends.

What both Gann and Chang were talking about was the difference between information and understanding, and how you get from one to the other—and where in the transfer creativity originates. Gann wants to “take away the mystery” of compositional processes: “Mystery exalts the composer, and raises him above mere mortals, who are left to their own creative devices.” But for Chang, it’s the exercise of those creative devices that’s empowering, coming up with a way to solve the mystery, rather than having the mystery solved for you.

There was a time when I would have sided with Gann on this one. When I was getting my education, even information that was out there was still hard to come by; I remember having to go across town to find a copy of Ligeti’s Die Reihe article on Boulez’s Structures, and Koblyakov’s code-cracking of the pitch multiplication in Le marteau sans maître was a tantalizing rumor for a year or two before the book finally turned up in the library. There was still enough effort in acquiring the information that one felt some responsibility to understand the information rather than just acknowledge and repeat it. But now, I think, information is simply too cheap—and, as a result, the focus has shifted from understanding why you’re wrong to confirming whether you’re right.

This is a constant dilemma in musical training (or at least I hope it is): you have to give a student enough tools and information to get started, but you also have to, at some point, ensure that they go in and get their own hands dirty, wrestling with the material—contemplating the mysteries, as it were. (I learned a lot having a professor explain Stockhausen’s Kreuzspiel to me; I learned a lot more—about Stockhausen’s musical proclivities, and my own—trying to get to the bottom of his Klavierstück IX by myself.) This is particularly crucial for atonal and serialist music, music that for far too long was taught as if the row forms were the music, that calculating the row derivations was equivalent to plumbing its depths. (Gann mentions David Osmond-Smith’s book on Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia, which he lauds for having “charts that explain everything that happens in that wonderful piece”—a perhaps inadvertent but interesting equating of description with explanation.) What’s closer to my experience is that, like all technical analysis, row analysis explains everything and nothing about a serialist piece, in a way that it’s impossible to get a feel for unless you actually get into a piece and explore it yourself, trying to decide which row form is prime, trying to keep track of all the segmentation, running up blind alleys, figuring out whether an anomaly is a deliberate interpolation, a quirk of serialist technique that you hadn’t considered, or an oversight—or none of the above. Reading an analysis tells you how; doing an analysis forces you to think about why.

I think Schoenberg, who was never shy about talking about his technical processes, nevertheless knew the paradoxical worth of the row—of any technical explanation. At the very beginning of his masterpiece, Moses und Aron, six solo singers—representing the voice of God—wordlessly intone a series of chords:

It’s only after you sort through another couple of pages’ worth of pitches that you realize that what you hear at the beginning is, in fact, only the trichord outlines of the row, the first three and last three pitches of P-0 (the women) and RI-3 (the men). They’re combinatorial row forms (that is to say, P-0 and I-3 are), but Schoenberg, right at the start, partitions them such that the combinatoriality is frustrated. Instead, he gets a near-echo: the outer voice-leading, the parallel 7ths, is repeated in both groups.

It’s like an inexact translation—which is fitting, since Moses und Aron is an opera about just that, about incomplete explanations, about the distance between information (Aron) and understanding (Moses). And the further you dig into analysis of the opera, the more you find Schoenberg manipulating the vocabulary in order to produce that effect, over and over again, rows layered and juxtaposed and reassembled into almost-but-not-quite repetitions, the musical equivalent of the philosophical gap between what something is and what we can say about it. Even when the information seems clear, Schoenberg undercuts it. One of my favorite of these moments is when Moses and Aron make their entrance in Act I, Scene 3. Moses preaches; Aron interprets. “He has chosen you above all peoples,” Aron sings, on a straight 12-tone row (P-2, with the first trichord moved to the end):

But that’s not what Moses is saying at all. While Aron sings, Moses, in sprechstimme, is offering a variation on his very first line in the opera, addressing God:

Der einzige, Ewige, Allmächtige, Allgegenwärtige, Unsichtbare, Unvorstellbare…
The only, infinite, all-powerful, omnipresent, invisible, inconceivable…

When he gets to “invisible” and “inconceivable,” Schoenberg instructs: The speaker will take a ritard here in order to heighten the significance of the words. The row tells you everything; but in this case, the row is also telling you nothing. The meaning is still invisible.

And it’s also somehow appropriate that this is Moses und Aron, Schoenberg’s greatest mistake, great in all senses of the word—a David-Chang-style reconsideration of operatic form and serialist construction that was simultaneously Schoenberg’s most magnificent failure and his most magnificent achievement. As Chang noted: “It takes discipline to write down your mistakes.”

Timing is Everything

The weekend’s best juxtaposition: Joseph Horowitz calls on orchestral musicians to accept part-time orchestra jobs, citing as an example the old days in Minneapolis, when players “had ample spare time to earn money in other ways,” on the same day the Daniel Wakin reports on how those other ways are drying up.

It also strikes me that Horowitz’s description of “service conversion”—basically, switching out orchestral players’ paid rehearsals and performances for paid outreach and education—is just a privatizing shell game. Orchestral outreach is a substitute for public education, filling the gap left when schools and districts, squeezed because people don’t want to pony up the necessary tax revenue and boxed in by funding agencies’ ridiculous love affair with math and science and high-stakes testing, toss the arts overboard—and, with it, the ecosystem of school and private teaching that supports it. In other words, “service conversion” means that orchestral players will be, in essence, using their own part-time salaries to subsidize those jobs that would supposedly supplement their part-time salaries. Fantastic.

Wu ich kehr mich wu ich wend mich du!

This weekend marks the third, fourth, and fifth nights of Hanukkah. Spin that dreidel! And then listen to the great Chazan Johnny Gluck singing “A Dudele,” originally composed by the 18th-century Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev.

This particular arrangement is by the polish-born conductor Leo Low, and was (I would guess) originally done for the Hazomir Chorus in Warsaw. Low—a veteran conductor of synagogue choirs, including the Grand Synagogue in Vilna, where he met and began a long association with the legendary cantor Gershon Sirota—had become director of the Hazomir chorus in 1908; singing Low’s arrangements of Yiddish folk songs, the chorus became a model for similar groups around the world.

Low’s arrangement has (as best I can tell) passed into the public domain, so here’s a scan from the Yiddish wing of Soho the Dog HQ’s palatial music library:

A Dudele (arr. Leo Low) (6.3 Mb PDF)

I don’t remember where I picked this copy up, but, thanks to retailer stamping, I know the original owner picked it up from here—

—which, thanks to Google Street View, I know is now a Thai restaurant:

Low himself emigrated to America in 1920, directing a chorus in the immigrant-labor hotbed of Paterson, New Jersey, as well as the National Workers Farband Choir in New York, associated with the socialist-Zionist Yiddish Natzionaler Arbeiter Farband. Low spent time in (then) Palestine in the 1930s, then returned to the United States. He died in 1960.

After You’ve Gone

Harold Camping, an evangelical radio host who previously predicted the end times would happen in 1994 (well, Korn did release their debut album in 1994, so he gets half-credit), has, as you might have seen, updated his calendar. Now Camping is spreading the word—via the website—that the Rapture will come on May 21, 2011.

Wait a minute—the Rapture is happening on Fats Waller’s birthday?

(The movie is 1936’s King of Burlesque.)

I’m not much for this particular brand of Christian eschatology, but I must confess—Camping is my kind of conspiratorial numerologist.