Month: July 2011

The atomic number of zirconium

Today is my birthday. This year’s honored co-celebrant is Serge Koussevitzky, who would have turned 137 today, if only he had actually put his arms into the sleeves of his overcoat more often. Get past the credits of this late-1940s bit of USIS propaganda, and you can see the man in action, conducting Beethoven’s Egmont Overture:

There’s a story behind this film: it was a single-camera shoot, so Koussevitzky and the BSO pre-recorded the overture, then played along with the recording for several takes; Koussevitzky apparently grew increasingly angry that he couldn’t deviate from his own interpretation.

My lovely wife threw a party last weekend to mark my implacable aging. You are sad that you weren’t there! You can, however, simulate the occasion via drink. Here’s what I concocted for unsuspecting guests:

Second Score

1 oz (30 ml) rye whiskey
⅔ oz (20 ml) pineapple juice
⅔ oz (20 ml) lime juice
⅓ oz (10 ml) apricot brandy
⅓ oz (10 ml) rosé vermouth

Shake well with ice and strain into a cocktail glass; top with

2 oz (60 ml) cold champagne

Cutting down on alcohol? Good heavens, why? Have you seen what this world is coming to? Nevertheless, here’s one for kids of all ages; name courtesy of Jack Miller, who also baked the birthday cake pictured above, a cake that will be spoken of for years to come in hushed, awestruck tones.

Four For Tea

1 oz (30 ml) double-strength green tea
1 oz (30 ml) pineapple juice
⅔ oz (20 ml) lime juice
2 tsp (10 ml) pomegranate molasses

Shake with ice, strain into a glass, and top with

2 oz (60 ml) sparkling apple juice or seltzer

Pomegranate molasses can be found in the Middle Eastern aisle of your local supermarket, or at least where all the couscous and falafel mix gets shelved, I would think. I also used it as part of the brine for twelve pounds of pulled pork, and it worked really rather well. Shahia tayba!

When your dreamboat turns out to be a footnote

I was out of town and otherwise occupied last week, which meant that I missed Ethen Iverson’s reading list. His list of jazz books is now added to my own to-do list, seeing as how I’ve only managed about half of those. His classical list is also superb—I would also, off the top of my head (and avoiding biographies, as Ethan did), add Peter Conrad’s A Song of Love and Death (probably my favorite book on opera); Schoenberg’s Style and Idea collection (what can I say, I find Arnold good company); Pierre Bernac’s The Interpretation of French Song (dazzlingly deep, even if you disagree with it it, it’s the one book you have to specifically disagree with); and Nicolas Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective (it seems like it should get old, yet it never, never does). Irwin Bazelon’s film music book (which Ethan mentions) is excellent and in-depth, but I find it kind of curiously bitchy regarding genre films; Christopher Palmer’s more fanboy-ish but, in its own way, equally thorough The Composer in Hollywood is, I find, a nice balance. And I was mildly surprised that the original Pitchfork list that inspired this exercise neglected Nik Cohn’s Awopbopaloobop Awopbamboom, still my favorite book on rock and roll, though to list it is to, admittedly, be forced to acknowledge that rock had pretty much run its course by the late 60s.

But I’m coming pretty late to this game, so I thought I’d mix it up a little. So, instead of music books, here’s a list (again, off the top of my head) of five books that aren’t about music but still, nonetheless, changed my musical thinking, directly or obliquely.

  • Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb. History that not only gives proper due to the minutiae of great historical endeavors, but knows and illustrates that such details are utterly inseparable from the prevailing historical context, even when the people involved are tunnel-vision unaware of that context—a notion permanently embedded in my view of music. Also: a demonstration of the poetic capacity of explaining even the most arcane technical niceties.

  • Garry Wills, Nixon Agonistes. I enjoyed this book long before I actually understood what Wills was doing with it. It’s not only about Nixon, but about the entire period of American history leading up to his presidency; Wills spends lots of time deconstructing and dismantling one book or study of that history after another. After enough time, I’ve realized that any book will yield contradictions if you make enough incisions in it, but that’s Wills’ point, I think: American history is best understood by laying its contradictions bare. It’s an idea that has served me well in getting my head around a piece of music on too many occasions to count.

  • Jules Michelet, Histoire de la Révolution française. Really, anything by Michelet—any of the volumes of his Histoire de France, any of his quirky studies on various aspects of human nature and behavior. If you have the time, struggling (as I do) with a French dictionary handy is advisable—English translations of Michelet tend to be old, somewhat clunky, and incomplete. But even such second-hand Michelet is worth it—there’s nobody quite like him for breadth, for structure, for pacing. The most symphonic historian of all time.

  • Henry Adams, History of the United States During the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison. Adams had issues, to be sure—he was self-pitying, he was almost comically pessimistic, he was irrationally anti-Semitic (though more in real life than in his books). But he was, I think, the greatest American prose stylist of the 19th century. All of Adams is worth reading, but the History is Adams at his best—casually magisterial, intricately witty. To read Adams is to understand the relationship between complexity and freedom—the full Victorian profusion of his sentence structure, and his mastery of it, allows him to place the key point of each idea wherever he wants. He can lead with it; he can end with it; he can use it as a fulcrum between phrases, between clauses, between qualifications and demurrals. And, as a result, when Adams does drop in an utterance of Hemingway-esque pithiness, it jabs harder than Hemingway ever did. If you’ve ever wondered why my own sentences tend towards the convoluted, or why I harbor what might seem to be an inexplicable fondness for music others might consider dense and difficult, a big part of it is that my education included Adams’ Education.

  • Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum. At first, I was going to go with The Role of the Reader, my favorite collection of Eco’s semiotic texts, but I think his novel has more deeply embedded itself into my musical thinking, particularly because I’m so obsessed with Romanticism and its continuing hangover. Eco makes black comedy out of the tendency of the myth to take on a life of its own, a mechanism that has not only become prevalent in music (not just classical) since the 1800s, but has pretty much driven it. The first step of coming to terms with post-Beethoven music history is to be able to simultaneously acknowledge both myth’s fictional status and its palpable, almost indelible persistence.
P.S. Yes, this is the second time I have gone to that particular Elvis Costello well for a post title. It’s not just books that take up permanent residence in what might otherwise be useful parts of my brain.

Freedom of expression

One of my summer resolutions was to actually practice, which, given my seemingly hard-wired summer-vacation mental entrainment, is not an insignificant task. So Rhapsody in Blue has been sitting on the piano for a few weeks now—apt summer fare, I think. What I’ve been finding most interesting about the music this time around is how tricky it is, and the unusual way in which it’s tricky: Not so much technically—there’s certainly some finger-tangling passages, but on the whole, it’s hardly as forbidding as, say, Islamey—but temporally. Rhapsody in Blue is a piece in which it can be fiercely difficult to find the right tempo.

This is not for lack of indication; Gershwin has tempo markings all over the place, amply garnished with ritardandi and accelerandi and rubati both explicit and implicit. Here’s what you get on the first four pages alone:

Molto moderato (♩=80)
poco rit.
Moderato assai
poco scherzando
pochissimo rall.
a tempo
poco rall.
Poco agitato

… and so forth. Out of 30 pages (this is in my very old, beat-up edition of the solo piano version) I count 23 that carry at least one indicated alteration of tempo. But the only metronome marking you get is that very first one. (And that seems to have been a late addition—the original manuscript of Ferde Grofé’s orchestration simply marks the beginning as “Slowly.”) Rhapsody in Blue is a piece that asks for near-constant tempo fluctuations, but puts the parameters of those fluctuations almost entirely in the hands of the performer.

It’s also a piece for which, thanks to recording technology, the acquiring of an extra-notational performance tradition has been more or less completely documented. Probably the most obvious alteration has been in the big Andantino melody, this one:

Gershwin’s 1924 recording with the Paul Whiteman orchestra takes all of this at the same tempo (as does, a little more loosely, Gershwin’s piano-roll rendition), which is what’s indicated, and which sounds weird to our ears, because the more common practice now is to double-time the last six bars of that phrase. That’s how Oscar Levant and Eugene Ormandy do it on their 1945 recording. It’s how Bernstein did it. It’s how just about everybody does it these days.

The thing is, in order to do that passage, and that section, without the double-time distortion, you have to hit a pretty precise mark, tempo-wise: it has to be fast enough that the last six bars don’t bog down (the Gershwin/Whiteman recording does plod a bit) but not so fast that the first two bars are trivialized. If you can hit that mark (about ♩=120, I’ve come to think, maybe a shade faster, though 126 seems a little too fast), it’s kind of a structural boon: you can take the next eight pages or so, all the way up through the following Agitato section, at essentially the same tempo. But then you’re more locked in than if you slide into the Andantino with Romantic languor, and then rubato the heck out of those six-bar consequent phrases. The performance practice that’s evolved, in other words, gives the performer more room to maneuver—and more room for error.

The question that I’ve been thinking about is: does such room to maneuver also make the performance more expressive? At about the same time I started wrestling with the varying speeds of Rhapsody in Blue, I read this review of a concert from this summer’s Sick Puppy festivities, and was struck by this description of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Kontakte:

I tend toward agreement with one of my seatmates, who described the experience as highly engaging intellectually, but emotionally remote.

I don’t wish to take the reviewer to task—I adore Stockhausen’s music, but I fully understand that it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Still, I was intrigued by the phrase “emotionally remote,” since, to me, anyway, Kontakte is, if anything, emotionally in your face pretty much all the way through. (Here’s a recording to sample.) The emotions, though, are not those usually associated with musical expressiveness.

It might be useful to reference Robert Plutchik’s classification of emotions, in particular the way he divides emotions into opposite pairs. Musical expression tends to be those pairs on Plutchik’s N-S-E-W axes: joy and sadness, anger and fear—perusing this summation of recent research into emotional communication in musical performance, the bulk of empirical research has surrounded those types of emotions: happiness, sadness, anger, fear, and love. My emotional experience of Kontakte, though, falls mostly onto one of Plutchik’s in-between axes: the tension between anticipation and surprise.

Here’s a typical section of the score to Kontakte:

There’s a bit of leeway in the performers’ staves, but it’s always in the context of those implacable numbers at the top of the score, the music’s running time, broken down to tenth-of-a-second accuracy. It’s both the source of Kontakte‘s emotional effect and the subversion of our accustomed perception of it. To do a Rhapsody-like indulgently-slow-then-double-time move is completely foreign to this context. Any momentary freedom on the part of the performers is immediately yanked back into Kontakte‘s grid by the necessity of synchronization with the electronic component. And that seems to conflict with what we’ve come to accept as communicating musical expressivity. The notion was concisely stated back in 1925 by psychologists Carl Seashore and Milton Metfessel:

This deviation from the exact is, on the whole, the medium for the creation of the beautiful—for the conveying of emotion. That is the secret of the plasticity of art. The exact is cold, restricted, and unemotional; and, however beautiful, in itself soon palls upon us.

Obviously—given my enthusiasm for the exacting emotional world of Kontakte—I don’t buy that. But for all the modernist effort to demonstrate they are, in fact, two different things, the conflation of expressivity and emotionality persists. The more expressive emotions are not false; but mere expressivity is not the end-all of emotional experience. And a sidelong glance into the worlds of politics or nationalism or fundamentalisms of various kinds offers no end of warning signs for exclusively associating emotion with expressiveness.

It’s interesting that, after Rhapsody in Blue, Gershwin came around to the greater precision of metronome markings. The only one of his subsequent concert works that doesn’t include them is An American in Paris, and the experience of hearing Walter Damrosch conduct it too slowly apparently converted Gershwin. The Second Rhapsody is diligent with metronome indications, as is the Cuban Overture, as is the Variations on “I Got Rhythm.” And it’s equally interesting that none of those works has ever attained the place in the repertoire of Rhapsody in Blue. It might just be a coincidence—or it might be a measure of the general equating of performer freedom with communicative effectiveness. My own heresy: as much as I love Rhapsody in Blue, I kind of think that the Second Rhapsody is a better piece of music. But, then again, I know that I’m at the margins of the mainstream of perceived musical emotion. I don’t mind—I may not get swept off my feet quite as easily, but the payoff is a view of the world made just a little more lucid.

Cross-posted at The Faster Times.

Operas as summarized by the lyrics of "Ashes to Ashes"

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: Do you remember a guy that’s been in such an early song?

Licht: I heard a rumor from Ground Control.

Moses und Aron: They got a message from the action man.

Der Freischütz:

Aennchen: I’m happy; hope you’re happy, too.

Don Giovanni: I’ve loved all I needed to love; sordid details following.

Elektra: The shrieking of nothing is killing.

Madama Butterfly: Just pictures of Jap girls in synthesis.

La Bohème: I ain’t got no money.

Samson et Dalila: I ain’t got no hair.

Götterdämmerung: I’m hoping to kick, but the planet—it’s glowing.


Thaïs: Strung out in heaven’s high!
Athanaël: Hitting an all-time low.

Tannhäuser: Time and again I tell myself, “I’ll stay clean tonight.”

The Merry Widow: I’m stuck with a valuable friend.

The Midsummer Marriage: One flash of light, but no smoking pistol.

Mefistofele: I never done good things.

Albert Herring: I never done bad things.

Der fliegende Holländer: I never did anything out of the blue.

The Ice Break: Want an axe to break the ice.

Tosca: Want to come down right now.

Wozzeck: My mother said, to get things done, you better not mess with Major Tom.