— Letter to Paul Dukas, 1901
— Letter to Paul Dukas, 1901
January 31, 2008 | Permalink
My entourage tears up Colbert's green room.
Tom Stoppard has my book in his satchel. I've been nominated for the Bloggies. And, believe it or not, I'm scheduled to appear tonight on The Colbert Report. Though I can't rival Carl Wilson, whose (brilliant) book Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste has ended up in the Hands of Obama.
For those visiting this site for the first time, no, I'm not that Alex Ross. Here's a description of the book, here is related audio, and this essay explains what I'm about. I also like popular music. For iTunes I've made a personal playlist of favorite music.
Update: I survived Colbert. I was initially terrified — it felt like being the nerd in high school all over again — but I ended up having fun. The host knew a lot more about music than his onscreen character allowed him to show. Because a Jon Stewart routine earlier in the program ran long, some of our dialogue was cut, including, alas, an exchange about Stockhausen. It went something like this:
ROSS: ... and the Beatles were listening to avant-garde works by John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen, and ended up putting Stockhausen's face on the cover of Sgt. Peppers.
COLBERT: OK, but I’ve never heard of this guy Stockhausen.
ROSS: He believed he was from the star Sirius.
COLBERT: The dog star.
ROSS: He recently died — he’s on his way back to Sirius.
COLBERT: It sounds like some kind of cult.
Needless to say, I'm very grateful to Colbert for giving attention to my book, and to classical music in general.
January 29, 2008 | Permalink
by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, Feb. 4, 2008.
There may be no scarcer commodity in modern Hollywood than a distinctive and original film score. Most soundtracks lean so heavily on a few preprocessed musical devices—those synthetic swells of strings and cymbals, urging us to swoon in tandem with the cheerleader in love—that when a composer adopts a more personal language the effect is revelatory: an entire dimension of the film experience is liberated from cliché. So it is with Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie “There Will Be Blood,” which has an unearthly, beautiful score by the young English composer Jonny Greenwood. The early scenes show, in painstaking detail, a maverick oilman assembling a network of wells at the turn of the last century. Filmgoers who find themselves falling into a claustrophobic trance during these sequences may be inclined to credit the director, who, indeed, has forged some indelible images. But, as Orson Welles once said of Bernard Herrmann’s contribution to “Citizen Kane,” the music does fifty per cent of the work.
The movie opens with a shot of dry, bare Western hills. Then we see a man prospecting for silver at the bottom of a shaft. He blasts the hole deeper with dynamite, falls and breaks his leg, and, with a titanic struggle, draws himself back up. Finally, we see him lying on the floor of an assay office, his leg in a splint, signing for the earnings that will enable him to drill for oil. The sequence is almost entirely wordless, but it is framed by music, much of it dense and dissonant. At the very beginning, you hear a chord of twelve notes played by a smoldering mass of string instruments. After seven measures, the strings begin sliding along various trajectories toward the note F-sharp. This music comes from a Greenwood piece called “Popcorn Superhet Receiver,” and, although it wasn’t composed for the film, it supplies a precise metaphor for the central character. The coalescence of a wide range of notes into a monomaniacal unison may tell us most of what we need to know about the crushed soul of the future tycoon Daniel Plainview.
As Plainview signs his name, another monster chord blossoms, in the violins and violas. This one is superimposed on C-major harmony in the bass, resulting in a less abrasive, more dreamlike atmosphere. The cellos play staggered glissandos—crying, sighing downward slides. Disembodied major triads rise through the harmonic haze, like mirages on the barren terrain outside Plainview’s shaft. The music is at once terrifying and enrapturing, alien and intimate.
As the movie goes on, Greenwood writes rugged open-interval motifs, which evoke the vastness of the land; mechanically churning Bartókian ostinatos, announcing the arrival of Plainview’s crew; primitivist drumming to propel an apocalyptic scene in which a derrick catches fire; and long-limbed, sadly ecstatic, Messiaen-like melodies to suggest the emotional isolation of Plainview’s ill-fated son. It’s hard to think of a recent Hollywood production in which music plays such an active role. (Unfortunately, Greenwood was judged ineligible for an Academy Award nomination, because the soundtrack contains too much preëxisting music.) When, in the closing scenes, Plainview evolves into an obscenely wealthy ghoul, Greenwood’s score retreats toward silence. In its stead, after a bloody final shot, the robust finale of Brahms’s Violin Concerto ironically fills the air: it sounds more like a radio blaring in an empty house than like music played for human beings.
Until now, Greenwood, a thirty-six-year-old native of Oxford, England, has been known as the lead guitarist of the rock band Radiohead. But he shouldn’t be mistaken for one of those rock stars, like Paul McCartney, who get by in the classical realm with a little help from their musically literate friends. Greenwood is better understood as a composer who has crossed over into rock. Trained as a violist, he worked seriously at writing music in his youth, and had just embarked on studies at Oxford Brookes University when, in 1991, Radiohead was signed by the EMI record label. He dropped out of college to join the band on tour. Within a few years, Radiohead had become a creative colossus, and Greenwood’s skill at orchestration and his mastery of unusual instruments—he is one of the few living adepts of the ondes Martenot, an early electronic-music device—have augmented the band’s maguslike aura.
Greenwood has resumed composing in the past few years, although his output is so far small: a score for the documentary “Bodysong,” with expert and soulful writing for string quartet; “smear,” an edgy, eerie piece for instruments and electronics; and “Popcorn Superhet Receiver,” whose title alludes to a type of shortwave radio and, by extension, to the white noise one hears as one twists the dial. Greenwood’s sources of inspiration are easily identified. He has worshipped Olivier Messiaen since his teens, and during his university stint he encountered the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, whose assaultive avant-garde creations of the nineteen-sixties—notably the “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima”—inspired the glissandos of “There Will Be Blood.” If Greenwood had stayed on the academic route, he would eventually have discovered that Penderecki’s early works were considered dated. Penderecki himself later turned away from them and adopted a neo-Romantic style. In the separate universe of Radiohead, Greenwood has pursued his enthusiasms without becoming distracted by musical politics, and has emerged with a fascinating synthesis of twentieth-century sounds—avant-garde Romanticism, you could call it.
“Popcorn Superhet Receiver,” an eighteen-minute work for thirty-four strings, is Greenwood’s most ambitious score to date. Although the composer has made self-effacing comments in interviews about his reluctance to tackle longer forms, he hardly comes off as a neophyte; the piece possesses a solid architectural shape, with slow-moving, darkly meditative passages framing a kinetic, rock-tinged midsection. The writing for strings is idiomatic and inventive; at one point, Greenwood devises a buzzing barrage of “Bartók pizzicato”—sharply plucked sounds from violins cradled like ukuleles. The one structurally shaky moment comes in the transition back to the opening material; the switch feels abrupt, as if a tempo-changing gesture has gone missing.
“Popcorn” recently had its American première at Wordless Music, the vital New York concert series that has brought together artists from the classical and pop worlds. Brad Lubman led an ad-hoc orchestra in a program that also included Gavin Bryars’s “The Sinking of the Titanic” and John Adams’s “Christian Zeal and Activity.” Unfortunately, amplification robbed the strings of some of their natural beauty, and a highly reverberant acoustic—the venue was the Church of St. Paul the Apostle, near Columbus Circle—rendered many details indistinct. Still, Lubman and his first-rate players made a persuasive case for Greenwood’s score, revelling in its rich sonorities.
Despite the high-tech title, “Popcorn” has an elegiac air, as if the radio’s white noise were carrying messages from a disintegrating world. That mood of loss may explain why the work has such a powerful effect in “There Will Be Blood,” which, beyond the melodrama of Daniel Plainview’s external rise and internal collapse, shows a primeval American landscape on the brink of violent transformation. English composers from Elgar and Vaughan Williams onward have lingered lovingly over musical depictions of pastoral hills and fields, implicitly resisting the march of progress. Greenwood, too, writes the music of an injured Earth; if the smeared string glissandos on the soundtrack suggest liquid welling up from underground, the accompanying dissonances communicate a kind of interior, inanimate pain. The cellos cry out most wrenchingly when Plainview scratches his name on a claim, preparing to bleed the land.
January 28, 2008 | Permalink
As readers of Kyle Gann's blog will have gathered, I am in Seattle this weekend, co-curating a festival entitled Icebreaker IV. It's presented by the Seattle Chamber Players, in collaboration with On the Boards and the Seattle Art Museum.
There have been two concerts so far: one devoted to composers aged forty and under (Alexandra Gardner, Anna Clyne, Mason Bates, Judd Greenstein, Max Giteck Duykers, Nico Muhly, and William Brittelle) and the other devoted to American postminimalist/postclassical composers of an older generation (Janice Giteck, Elodie Lauten, John Luther Adams, William Duckworth, Eve Beglarian, and the Gannster). The composers have also given short seminars, demonstrating their works and techniques. A particular thrill was hearing a live recording of Adams's mesmerizing orchestral piece Dark Waves. This afternoon brings a marathon Morton Feldman concert at the Seattle Art Museum, in the vicinity of works by the great postwar abstract painters who inspired the composer: Rothko, Kline, Pollock, and others. Before coming to Seattle, I was attending, in a strictly non-professional capacity, the Slamdance Festival in Park City, Utah. I'm happy to say that my brilliant husband, Jonathan Lisecki, won the Spirit of Slamdance Award for his first film, Woman in Burka. The prize for best narrative feature went to The New Year Parade, a first-rate family drama set against the backdrop of Philadelphia's Mummers Parade.
January 27, 2008 | Permalink
Rysanek, Nilsson, and Varnay in Paris, 1975.
The late, great Astrid Varnay remembers a prank she played on Birgit Nilsson at a time when she was singing Klytemnestra to Nilsson's Elektra: "On one of our many phone calls I feigned one of those very formal secretarial voices and inquired if I might speak to Madame Nilsson – when she took the bait and said: 'This is she speaking,' I switched to my own voice and said 'It’s your mother!'".... Kyle Gann has linked to David Carter's MIDI mockup of Sorabji's Jami Symphony, all four and a half hours of it. Also, Jonathan Powell is performing Sorabji's transcription of the final scene of Salome, something I'd love to hear.... Fingertips writes an excellent commentary on the In Rainbows phenomenon.... Most thinking people agree that Tashi's recording of the Quartet for the End of Time is a modern classic. The good news from the Pacific Northwest is that the foursome has reawakened after thirty years of hibernation. The reunion will take place Jan. 25-27 as part of a Messiaen/Carter festival at Chamber Music Northwest in Portland — the two composers having been born one day apart in December 1908. The organization is offering free tickets to college students in the Portland area, provided the series doesn't sell out.
January 16, 2008 | Permalink
From Romain Rolland's novel cycle Jean-Christophe:
For the moment the idol was Beethoven. Beethoven — save the mark! — was in the fashion: at least, among literary and polite persons: for musicians had dropped him at once, in accordance with the see-saw system which is one of the laws of artistic taste in France. A Frenchman needs to know what his neighbor thinks before he knows what he thinks himself, so that he can think the same thing or the opposite.... If Beethoven had come to Paris just then, he would have been the lion of the hour: it was such a pity that he had been dead for more than a century. His vogue grew not so much out of his music as out of the more or less romantic circumstances of his life which had been popularized by sentimental and virtuous biographies. His rugged face and lion's mane had become a romantic figure. Ladies wept for him: they hinted that if they had known him he should not have been so unhappy: and in their greatness of heart they were the more ready to sacrifice all for him, in that there was no danger of Beethoven taking them at their word: the old fellow was beyond all need of anything. That was why the virtuosi, the conductors, and the impresarii bowed down in pious worship before him: and, as the representatives of Beethoven, they gathered the homage destined for him. There were sumptuous festivals at exorbitant prices, which afforded society people an opportunity of showing their generosity — and incidentally also of discovering Beethoven's symphonies. There were committees of actors, men of the world, Bohemians, and politicians, appointed by the Republic to preside over the destinies of art, and they informed the world of their intention to erect a monument to Beethoven: and on these committees, together with a few honest men whose names guaranteed the rest, were all the riffraff who would have stoned Beethoven if he had been alive, if Beethoven had not crushed the life out of them.
January 14, 2008 | Permalink
I'm honored to be nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award in criticism, and especially pleased to be in the company of two books I loved — Joan Acocella's Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints and Ben Ratliff's Coltrane. Also, in the past week or two, The Rest Is Noise has nudged its way onto some bestseller lists — the New York Times (#28 nonfiction), the LA Times (#14), the Boston Globe (#3), and the Calgary Herald (#1!). I remain hugely grateful to all those who have taken an interest in the book, particularly readers who haven't followed classical music closely in the past. Activity will continue to be sparse here as I catch up on New Yorker work and (off the classical topic) head to Utah for the premiere of Woman in Burka at the Slamdance Film Festival — whose main site features a Wotan Spear remix.
Update: I am scheduled to appear on tomorrow's edition of the Charlie Rose show (Jan. 15). Marin Alsop will be interviewed separately on the same program.
January 14, 2008 | Permalink
Rysanek as Elektra.
Report of an opera in progress:
"Oh, it will need some small changes here and there as we work," the Doctor said. "But it is a fine schema; coherent and simple for people who can't follow a difficult plot, but with plenty of meaning underneath. An opera has to have a foundation; something big, like unhappy love, or vengeance, or some point of honor. Because people are like that, you know. There they sit, all those stockbrokers and rich surgeons and insurance men, and they look so solemn and quiet as if nothing would rouse them. But underneath they are raging with unhappy love, or vengeance, or some point of honor or ambition — all connected with their professional lives They go to La Bohème or La Traviata and they remember some early affair that might have been squalid if you weren't living it yourself; or they see Rigoletto and think how the chairman humiliated them at the last board meeting; or they see Macbeth and think how they would like to murder the chairman and get his job. Only they don't think it; very deep down they feel it, and boil it, and suffer it in the primitive underworld of their souls. You wouldn't get them to admit anything, not if you begged. Opera speaks to the heart as no other art does, because it is essentially simple."
— Robertson Davies, The Lyre of Orpheus (thanks to Felsenmusick for the recommendation)
January 10, 2008 | Permalink
Marcel Proust on the politics of style in twentieth-century music, the limits of a teleological interpretation of music history, and the uncertain relationship between technological advances and the attention span of the concert audience:
Because [Mme de Cambremer] considered herself "advanced," because (in matters of art only) "one could never be far enough to the Left," she maintained not merely that music progressed, but that it progressed along a single straight line, and that Debussy was in a sense a super-Wagner, slightly more advanced again than Wagner. She did not realize that if Debussy was not as independent of Wagner as she herself was to suppose in a few years' time, because an artist will after all make use of the weapons he has captured to free himself finally from one whom he has momentarily defeated, he nevertheless sought, when people were beginning to feel surfeited with works that were too complete, in which everything was expressed, to satisfy an opposite need. There were theories, of course, to bolster this reaction temporarily, like those theories which, in politics, come to the support of the laws against the religious orders, or of wars in the East (unnatural teaching, the Yellow Peril, etc., etc.). People said that an age of speed required rapidity in art, precisely as they might have said that the next war could not last longer than a fortnight, or that the coming of railways would kill the little places beloved of the coaches, which the motor-car was none the less to restore to favor. Composers were warned not to strain the attention of their audience, as though we had not at our disposal different degrees of attention, among which it rests precisely with the artist himself to arouse the highest. For those who yawn with boredom after ten lines of a mediocre article have journeyed year after year to Bayreuth to listen to the Ring. In any case, the day was to come when, for a time, Debussy would be pronounced as flimsy as Massenet, and the agitations of Mélisande degraded to the level of Manon's. For theories and schools, like microbes and corpuscles, devour one another and by their strife ensure the continuity of life. But that time was still to come.
— Sodom and Gomorrah, pp. 290-91 of the Modern Library edition.
January 06, 2008 | Permalink
by Alex Ross
New York Times, Oct. 16, 1996
Milton Babbitt's Clarinet Quintet, which the Juilliard Quartet introduced at its 50th anniversary concert on Friday night at the Juilliard Theater, is a delight to the senses, a fast flow of lovely chords and spry rhythms, a thing of sweetness and light. It would be wrong to say that the grand seigneur of Serialism has given in to nostalgia or neo-Romantic regression; this new piece makes no obvious break with the mathematical procedures Mr. Babbitt has used since the late 1940's. But he has become generous, toward tradition and toward his listeners.
Beginning with Schoenberg himself, composers have manipulated the ostensibly atonal 12-tone system to produce common chords and other tonal elements. Mr. Babbitt never actively pursued that agenda, but neither did he maximize dissonance for its own sake. The hallmark of his writing has always been contrapuntal grace: no matter how complex his underlying processes, he has avoided cluttering any one page with too much information.
Perhaps the remarkable euphony of the new quintet is a sublime accident, but it's hard to escape the sense that the composer has stacked his Serialist deck in favor of triads and open intervals. The clarinet's first notes are a shuffling of the first five notes of the D major scale. Although that tonality is too scattered to take hold, the cello soon finds itself somewhere near E or B, with the other instruments adding friendly sharps. There are also rising fourths everywhere; various lines seem to jog up and down the circle of fifths (the sequence of intervals that touches all 12 notes in turn).
Over one extended movement, the teasing tonal dance goes on. A triad hovers, then vanishes into a lovely haze of ambiguous notes. It's as if Mr. Babbitt has looked back to the period just before the atonal revolution, to the slippery harmony employed by the young Schoenberg, by Reger, even by Strauss. All those open intervals, meanwhile, produced a vaguely American sound, oddly Coplandesque; one four-note motive could be a nod to Ned Rorem.
These are intriguing details. The main emphasis, as always, is on the delicate interplay of parts, rhythmic actions and reactions. An easy, rambling gait predominates. Slower sections function as lyric interludes: rich sustained chords are pushed along by scattered pulses or intensifying tremolos. Big upward leaps at the end give a sense of closure. An amazing piece, beautiful and formidable at once.
Charles Neidich played the clarinet part with effortless fluency. The remainder of the program, Mozart's Quartet in G (K. 387) and Schoenberg's First Quartet, brought strong, intellectually engaged interpretations whose patches of rough intonation were distracting only in passing. That's short shrift, but the current season will offer other occasions to appreciate this great ensemble. Ever devoted to contemporary music, the Juilliard upstaged its own anniversary by adding a fresh masterwork to the repertory.
January 01, 2008 | Permalink