"Short Songs, Tall Tales and O. J. in E Flat"
New York Times, July 14, 1996.
The slow summer months offer a chance to recall a few shorter, odder news items that may have been overlooked during the recent season. Notes and jottings, as it were, from a reporter's notebook. Not all of them are necessarily true.
Music professionals up and down 57th Street are once again excitedly touting a new child prodigy who has landed engagements with major orchestras and a big-label recording contract. But the 13-year-old Sarah Qin, recently signed by EMG Classical, stands out from the crowd of young stars. Ms. Qin is a virtuoso not of the violin, nor of the piano or cello, but of the oboe.
Historically, the oboe has produced relatively few international virtuosos, not to mention prodigies. But the marketing department at EMG anticipates a bright future for its teenage oboe sensation. Ms. Qin has already recorded the most obvious repertory for her instrument, the Strauss Concerto. She has also interpreted the Mendelssohn and Sibelius violin concertos, in startling new transcriptions by Luciano Berio.
In the fall, Ms. Qin is to record a crossover album of favorite Beatles tunes, "Oboe-Di, Oboe-Da," as well as an unusual collaboration with the band Foo Fighters, entitled "Alternative Grunge Oboe." Ads will blanket music magazines with the legend, "OBOE: The Journey Begins, December 5." Asked if the label has cheapened itself with these marketing strategies, a spokesperson for EMG replied, "Huh?"
The Society for Progressive Musicology recently held its annual meeting in Chicago, once again inciting controversy on several fronts. Among the 20 academic papers presented at the conference, especially heated discussions flared up around "Homoerotic Elements in the Motets of Ockeghem," "Haydn and Hitler," "Webern's Use of Boogie-Woogie," and "Mahler's Eleventh Symphony: Suggestions for a Performing Edition Based on Hotel Majestic Dinner Napkins." None equaled the ruckus caused by Prof. Axl Roth, whose monograph "Was Mozart Eight Feet Tall?" enraged Mozart scholars at a tumultuous panel discussion, until someone pointed out that Prof. Roth's answer actually seemed to be "no."
Although some complain that the avant-garde has ossified, connoisseurs found evidence to the contrary at the recent Kaisersaschern New Music Weeks in Germany. The guest of honor was Heinz-Heinrich Dunkel, an emerging leader of the European vanguard. The 38-year-old Mr. Dunkel, who is of medium height, has for some years been a leader of the Baden-Baden avant-garde collective Musik Nein.
In a major new work unveiled at Kaisersaschern — 19 Very Short Songs on Texts of Theodor W. Adorno, for high voice, two bass clarinets, celesta, and snare drum — Mr. Dunkel unexpectedly takes leave of the Spectralist-Minimalist style (otherwise known as the New Monotony) that marked his work from the previous decade. The composer now employs a unique variation on combinatorial Serialism based on interlocking unachords (pitch-class sets containing one note). In an explosive climax, the soprano sings the phrase "absolute detemporalization of temporality" in sensuous coloratura figures.
In stark contrast, "Gefährdung!" seems to reflect Mr. Dunkel's recent residency at the University of California at Santa Rosa. Samplings of the voice of Alex Trebek, the host of the "Jeopardy!" game show, are combined with extensively recomposed quotations from the work of Anton Bruckner and a chance-controlled melange of sounds from an ensemble of seven heckelphones, producing a remorseless soundscape of contemporary terror. Yet the Kaisersaschern audience couldn't help tapping its feet to the bouncy mambo finale.
American opera composers are racing to find trendy, up-to-the-minute libretto subjects. This past season brought premieres of "Jackie O" at the Detroit Lyric Opera and "Mrs. Doubtfire" at the Opera Theater of El Paso. It was only a matter of time before someone decided to address the largest pop-culture story of the past decade, the trial of O. J. Simpson. Dylan McKay, a short, brown-eyed composer from Los Angeles, has taken the plunge. His working title is "Orenthal."
The libretto is to be an unprecedented collaboration between Thomas Pynchon, the reclusive author of "Gravity's Rainbow," and Salman Rushdie, the reclusive author of "The Satanic Verses." Work has progressed slowly, since neither writer has any idea how to reach the other. Nonetheless, Mr. McKay has begun sketching themes for the work's orchestral interludes. "The idiom will be eclectic," he said in a not very recent interview. "Sort of Strauss meets Britten, Philip Glass meets Duke Ellington, John Cage meets John Lennon meets Palestrina, Nine Inch Nails, Orlando Gibbons, Snoop Doggy Dogg and Spohr."
Does the opera take a position on Mr. Simpson's guilt? "Well, you'd have to ask Tom and Salman," Mr. McKay said. "As I understand it, the audience will vote guilty or not guilty at each performance, and the orchestra will play music appropriate to either outcome. It doesn't matter anyway: O. J. is a figure of tragic, heroic dimensions, like Otello, Iago, Romeo, whoever. He's definitely going to be E-flat major, with some C minor in there as well. This is what Wagner would write if he were alive today and if he wasn't fascist, racist, etcetera."
Mr. McKay has already written a concert overture based on his O. J. opera, suitable for performance on American orchestral programs. It is two minutes long.