It is said that when the young Belgian composer Guillaume Lekeu went to Bayreuth, in 1889, he fainted in ecstasy after the prelude to Tristan and had to be carried out. Gilles Thieblot's 2006 biography of Lekeu declares, however, that the story is probably apocryphal.
Everyone knows of the LA Phil's new-music adventures; many are becoming aware of wild Up, which will appear in the SONIC Festival in NYC in October. Mark Swed, in the LA Times, investigates lesser-known corners of the LA scene: wasteLAnd, Southland Ensemble, gnarwhallaby, the wulf. As Mark notes, wasteLAnd's summer series continues this weekend with Scott Worthington's Space Administration (Friday night) and a program of songs by Deyoe, Lachenmann, and Furrer (Saturday). I caught wasteLAnd's Tactile Sound event in May, and am still marveling at the memory of the Trio Kobayashi's all-brass version of James Tenney's Saxony.
Brigitta Muntendorf's Key of presence, for two pianos, tape, and live electronics, was developed at the SWR Experimental Studio and had its premiere earlier this year at the ECLAT Festival in Stuttgart. The GrauSchumacher piano duo performs; the text comes from Javier Salinas's poem "Something is coming, my friend." Muntendorf aims here to explore the interaction between "analog" and "digital" worlds — between transient phenomena, such as a sound resonating and disappearing in space, and the infinite data banks in which we attempt to "freeze the present," as she writes in her notes.
Robinson Meyer, in a piece for The Atlantic on the increasingly sorry state of classical music on iTunes, points out that when the metadata system for MP3s was introduced, in 1996, it allowed for only three categories: artist, song name, and album title. From the start, this brave new world of music storage failed to acknowledge that composer and performer may not be the same — indeed, that any kind of composing was happening at all. Small wonder that composers and songwriters have seen their royalties plummet in the digital universe: their existence is erased in the architecture of the technology.
The melancholy news that Scott Cantrell, a critic of wide and deep experience, has accepted a buyout from the Dallas Morning News led me to update the critics' listing here on the blog. Every time I do this, I remove a few more names. If, as seems not unlikely, the News fails to hire a staff critic to replace him, the state of Texas will have no full-time classical critic — the Houston Chronicle has had none since the departure of Charles Ward — and there will be, by my count, fewer than ten newspapers in America with dedicated classical critics on staff. In the magazine world, the picture is even sadder: I am the only full-time classical critic at a national American magazine. (My superb colleague Justin Davidson, at New York, divides his time between music and architecture.) This is not, of course, a classical-music problem. Critics in all fields have been falling by the wayside, as American journalism abandons its historic mission and flails about irrationally in search of new readers. Fortunately, free-lance and blog activity remains lively.
In preparation for the Bard Summerscape presentation of The Wreckers — very much worth seeing, despite the opera's unevenness — I revisited the work of Ethel Smyth on recording: her chamber works, piano music, the Mass in D, and, of course, The Wreckers, which Conifer Classics recorded in 1994. She was, beyond everything else, a composer of impeccable technical skill, nowhere more so than in her String Quartet in E Minor (1902-12). It has a potent, unsettled slow movement and a finale enlivened by quirky whole-tone harmonies. Like many of her pieces, it deserves to heard much more often. A recording of The Boatswain's Mate, which has been described as her most politically pointed opera, is in the offing.
More: For a close and searching analysis of this quartet, see Amy Elizabeth Zigler's thesis on the subject of Smyth's chamber music. Zigler draws attention to Smyth's own comment about that uncommonly vigorous, adventurous finale: "If it is anything, it is . . . 'Suffrage!'"