June 19, 2004 | Permalink
While doing research at the National Archives on the Federal Musical Project, the New Deal’s short-lived gift to American musical life, I began writing down the names of completely obscure, oddly named composers who showed up on FMP programs. I ended up with the following funky list: Vernon Leftwich, Fleetwood A. Diefenthaeler, Armand Balendonck, Bainbridge Crist, Julia Klumpkey, Edna Frida Pietsch, the Right Rev. Fan Stylian Noli, Alexander Skibinsky, Lamar Stringfield, and Uno Nyman. The procession of names somehow reminded me of the roster of senior citizens who unwittingly buy up San Fernando Valley in Chinatown — Jasper Lamar Crabb, Emma Dill, and so on. On a particularly slow writing day, I started typing these mystery names into Google to see what I could find about them. There must be a clinical term for this stage of writing a book.
Skibinsky, it turns out, was a pupil of Ysaÿe who lost the index finger of his right hand in a fireworks mishap in Rome, Georgia — at Christmastime, no less. A mechanical finger allowed him to resume playing. The picture above comes from the University of Iowa libraries. Fan Stylian Noli, this man here, is, I should have known, a major figure in Albanian history and literature, having served at one time as the prime minister of that embattled land; later, he “renounced politics to devote his life to music" and enrolled at the New England Conservatory. Lamar Stringfield, I also should have known, won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1928. His works include Carolina Charcoal, The Mummy's Foot, Mountain Blood, and Sodom, Tennessee, very daring for the time. The main thing that is known about Armand Balendonck is that in 1933 he led the Newark Sinfonietta in a performance of Bruckner’s String Quintet. Chord and Dischord, the journal of the Bruckner Society of America, cited this as evidence that “students also are taking an interest in Bruckner.” Bainbridge Crist penned “Drolleries from an Oriental Doll's House," "Queer Yarns," and "C'est Mon Ami," the last of which was recorded by none other than Claudia Muzio.
Uno Nyman was a Swedish-born Milwaukee dentist who took up composing later in life. Vernon Leftwich did some orchestrations for the Gary Cooper picture Along Came Jones. One trace of the existence of Fleetwood A. Diefenthaeler appears on the left. The story of Julia "Lulu" Klumpkey is too rich to be summarized in brief, and I urge you to read Maryalice Mohr's article about her; suffice to say that she studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, directed the Spartanburg Symphony Orchestra, met Gandhi in India while teaching on a floating university, composed the tone poem The Twin Guardians of the Golden Gate for the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition, died in 1961 at the age of 91, and is buried at the Neptune Society's Columbarium. Finally, I found an entire website devoted to Edna Frida Pietsch, who "shared a birthday with Brahms and Tchaikovsky, a fact she reported with immense pride. Perhaps this was an omen that she would go on to become an accomplished composer herself. Pietsch was quite a character and possessed an unforgettable persona. She had strong opinions about many matters. Regarding music, she likened ‘modern music’ to a garbage dump; if you were around it long enough, it stopped smelling." So true.
June 18, 2004 | Permalink
“This cat, he’s kind of cool, you know; he knows what he’s doing.” — Charlie Parker on Stravinsky
Alan Rich, the music critic of the LA Weekly, celebrates today his eightieth birthday. The original music director of Berkeley’s legendary KPFA, later a critic at the New York Times, the New York Herald Tribune, Newsweek, and New York, Alan is a listener of vast experience who has somehow retained the enthusiasm of a hungry novice. He's that rare classical critic who never sounds as though he’s intoning mumbo-jumbo from a spurious pulpit; he writes straight across, not from above. Here is a passage from one of his recent columns, on a significant premiere at the LA Philharmonic:
About Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Wing on Wing, which had its first performance in a one-time-only concert last Saturday, I will have more to say later; the Philharmonic has granted the rare indulgence of a repeat performance this weekend, the season’s final program. The work’s title comes from sailing; its hero is Frank Gehry, his idealistic and creative dreams, his passion for sailing and for designing beautiful concert halls. The setting is oceanic; the words of Gehry, straight or processed, mingle with wordless siren songs sung (wonderfully) by sopranos — Jamie Chamberlin and Hila Plitmann — who wander through the hall. This all seems to float on a billowing orchestra that laps up against Debussy now and then and even crackles with a few Sibelian icicles — without ever once sounding like anything but what it is: exhilarating new and original music by a consummate master of his orchestra and its surroundings.
Reading this, and witnessing MTT’s feats in San Francisco, I once more get that wistful feeling: if you want twenty-first- century orchestra concerts, you must go west. The New York Philharmonic’s latest fit of incoherence makes that ever so painfully clear. Anyway, many happy returns, Alan.
I spent two full years of college studying Ulysses. Since graduation day, I have done nothing with my useless and pointless Joycean knowledge, so I thought I'd use the Bloomsday anni- versary — the action of Ulysses took place one hundred years ago today — as an excuse to crack open the old books and talk about some rich Wagnerian imagery that appears early in the novel. Forgive the lit-crit digression; I'm trying to keep this blog on message, and as a rule won't be giving you my thoughts on politics, the weather, kitties, David Beckham, etc.
At the end of the third chapter, “Proteus,” Stephen Dedalus is gazing out into Dublin Bay, watching a three-master sail past. He is, as always, chasing the endless swirl of his thoughts. He has a kind of premonition of an alien creature about to enter his world: “He comes, pale vampire, through storm his eyes, his bat sails bloodying the sea, mouth to her mouth’s kiss.” As Timothy Martin points out, in his book Joyce and Wagner, these lines fuse the old Irish poem “My Grief on the Sea” with the libretto of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, whose title character arrives in a ghost ship with “blood red” sails. I’d add another detail; in Wagner, the Dutchman’s crew comes ashore “silently and without further sound.” Compare the final words of the chapter: “silently moving, a silent ship.” Joyce even preserves the redundancy of Wagner’s stage direction.
Now what happens when we turn the page? “Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls.” This jump cut from a young Irishman’s metaphysical daydreaming to a middle-aged Irishman’s matter-of-fact breakfasting is one of the sublime jokes of the novel, and it becomes more sublime when you realize that Wagner is also the butt of it. Stephen Dedalus is, obviously, one of the innumerable Wagner-worshipping youths who populated the last fin du siècle—at the drunken climax of the book, he will make like Siegfried and shout "Nothung!" He also seems a bit of an anti-Semite; certainly, some of his best friends don't like the Jews. He is familiar enough with the writings of the hateful French journalist Edouard Drumont to be able to quote the phrase “old hag with the yellow teeth,” which appears, I discovered back in the day, in Drumont’s 1891 book Le Testament d’un antisémite. (Drumont was talking about Queen Victoria, who wasn’t Jewish, but never mind.) It is natural that the same train of thought would lead Stephen to Wagner’s opera, which apes the legend of the Wandering Jew. The “pale vampire” is the image of his fear of the Other. But flip the page and there is the vampire himself, a magnificently ordinary man at the outset of his magnificently ordinary day. The juxtaposition looks ahead to the great meeting of Dedalus and Bloom near the end of the novel.
Joyce owned the score of The Flying Dutchman and also had a copy of Wagner’s essay “Judaism in Music.” His own attitudes toward Jewishness were not without their ambiguities and complexities, but he would have had pure contempt for Wagner’s racism. The Wagnerian Dedalus is made to see the limits of his archly aestheticized view of the world. “Full fathom five thy father lies,” he says to himself. As the ship goes by, there is a sea-change, and his phantom father becomes the face of Bloom.
June 16, 2004 | Permalink
OK, so here is something unambiguously fine. Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony are inaugurating a long-range multimedia project called Keeping Score with an hour-long show on PBS tomorrow (Wednesday, 6/16). The show itself isn’t the most striking aspect of the project, but it’s first-rate—as decent a piece of music television as there's been since Lenny went away. The subject at hand is Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, and the San Franciscans not only give a strong account of that raging, glittering masterpiece but also let us know the labor and passion that go into a so-called “routine” subscription performance. You see MTT humming along to the score in his study, the librarian marking up parts in the archive, oboists making reeds, a bass-player balancing practice with his children’s playtime, the conductor rehearsing a solo with a picture of Little Richard on his piano, and so on — the orchestra integrated into modern life, American life, San Francisco life. Working his cool-professor mode, MTT dispenses basic facts about Tchaikovsky’s life, basic facts about how the score works. I like how he starts this series with a composer who was long dismissed as, ahem, “over the top”; the emphasis in this precinct is on music as an emotional rather than intellectual art, and no one pretends to be embarrassed by Tchaikovsky's muscular pathos.
It’s all good, and God knows there should be more of it on public TV. But what most excited me was the shockingly well-designed Keeping Score website. Here you can listen to the entire symphony while following along in the score, the pages turned for you. You can click on a mysterious Italianate term to read a quick, unfussy explanation, or stop the performance to hear MTT’s interpretive ideas. Even people who know the music will enjoy the high-tech tour, but the true audience is that vast population of otherwise well-informed people for whom the rituals and codes of classical music are a closed book. This site, more than anything I've seen, opens it all up.
June 14, 2004 | Permalink
Other musical blogs I'm reading: Mwanji Ezana's be.jazz, which ranges outside its assigned category with no hierarchy in mind; Jessica Duchen, who writes sharply and with a smile (I disagree with her recent takedown of Benjamin Britten, but I like the sincerity of her diatribe—it’s a disease of current classical criticism to pretend to like people we secretly can’t stand); Franklin Bruno's anti-rockist, anti-popist blog konvolut m (he has a brilliant post about analyses of Tin Pan Alley, which I’ll respond to once sufficient time has passed since my last Adorno name-drop); and Isaac Watras' What I Like About..., which offers mesmerizing brief descriptions of works from across the centuries. On Lully's Armide: "This is not music that came from silence."
Aside from my pile of book-related Weimar Republic CDs, I'm listening this weekend to 1) Shostakovich's Hamlet film score, new from Naxos, sounding like the great man's 21st or 22nd symphony; 2) the collected works of Blatz, which former frontman Jesse Luscious graciously mailed to me after I plugged Blatz in The New Yorker; 3) eighth blackbird's Beginnings, a bewitching disc of pieces by youngster Daniel Kellogg and veteran George Crumb; 4) Dylan's "Most of the Time" (Christopher Ricks' book sent me back to this; the key version is not on Oh Mercy, but on the unofficial Genuine Bootleg Series vol. 2); 5) Björk's newish Live Box. The books of the moment are Michael Chanan's Musica Practica, which I should have read years ago, and Halldór Laxness' Independent People, which I should have finished months ago. No concerts on the immediate horizon, though I hope to catch the Henry Cowell concert at American Composers Alliance on Friday. Tonight I will be sampling Theatre in the form of Sex*But at the Fez; this should be funny, but I'm not an objective onlooker.
Scary old Bruckner symphonies courtesy of William Berger.
This postcard was signed by Richard Strauss on June 23, 1945. I recently acquired it from a veteran of the 31st Engineer Combat Battalion of the US Army. In his conversation with Strauss, the soldier mentioned that he was from Poughkeepsie, New York, whereupon the composer said that he was familiar with Poughkeepsie from his trip down the Hudson River in 1904. I love the idea of Strauss saying "Poughkeepsie."
Another quotation from Michael Broyles’ book Mavericks, mentioned below. The problem for conservative orchestra audiences, again, isn't the style of a new work, but the mere fact that it is new. Same as it ever was, at least since 1850.
William Schuman often told the story of a concert in Macon, Georgia, after which he was approached by a member of the audience who told him she liked his piece even though she did not generally like atonal music. Schuman tried to explain that the work indeed was not atonal, but tonal, even though the harmony may be complex. Finally she interrupted his explanation with the comment, "That's very well, Mr. Schuman, but in Macon, Georgia, your piece is atonal."
June 11, 2004 | Permalink
What do Procol Harum, Anton Webern, the Eagles, Steve Reich, and Otis Redding have in common? The answer, the Pulaski Skyway informs you, is that they've all appeared on The Sopranos. I’m a fan of the show, like any upstanding American citizen, and I love its wildly imaginative use of music. I realized something quasi-epochal was going on musically back in the second season, in the now legendary Webern episode. A man who has witnessed a mob hit doesn't understand at first what he's getting mixed up with. He is sitting in his living room with his wife when he sees Tony Soprano’s name in a newspaper article about the murder. He starts freaking out — “Where’s that detective’s number? Where on the fridge? Where on the fucking fridge?” — and ends up recanting his testimony. Playing in the background, presumably on the living-room stereo, is Webern’s exquisitely dissonant Variations for Piano. I'd have been no less gobsmacked if Galina Ustvolskaya had shown up as a guest on The Jimmy Kimmel Show. (OK, a little more.) What a divinely cracked tableau, a New Jersey couple unwinding to Austrian atonality after dinner. Then again, why not? These suburbanites are allowed to be eccentrics rather than stereotypes. Plus, the music puts icy menace in the air: Webern’s twelve-tone row unfurls like the web in which this man is trapped.
Kathryn Dayak, the show’s brilliant music editor, has singled out this moment as her personal favorite. “If I do nothing else for the rest of my life,” Dayak told the Kansas City Star, “I'll always have that: getting a solo piano piece by Webern into the show.” Is this the same Kathryn Dayak who is the timpanist of the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra? Let's hope she gets to run amok in the final season — perhaps Tony will graduate from Rommel documentaries on the History Channel to Richard Strauss' Metamorphosen. There’s much else to be said about music on The Sopranos— the way obscure or mediocre songs carry an emotional weight that more famous ones could not — but I’ll leave it to whoever’s researching the inevitable musicology dissertation on the topic. And I hope someone's writing a suitable Requiem for Adriana, bless her soul.
These wasted tears
of love I thought was true
is chained to me
I can't escape from you
— Hank Williams
From the excellent ionarts site I learn that Lars von Trier has bowed out of Bayreuth's 2006 production of the Ring. Having recently squirmed through Dancer in the Dark, I'm not sure I'm devastated by this news. Let's hope Wolfgang Wagner finds someone more entertainingly scandalous.
My feel-good summer hit is shaping up to be Hanns Eisler's 1930 anti-fascist anthem Der heimliche Aufmarsch, or The Secret Deployment. For some reason, I can't get the following out of my head:
Listen, workers, they're on the march
Screaming for nation and race
This is the war of the lords of the world
Into the workingman's face
The attack on the Soviet Union
Stabs at revolution's heart
This war that goes through all the lands
Is a war upon you, Prolet’!
Today I had the song on permanent repeat while jogging from Chelsea to Battery Park, wearing the entire time a thin Brechtian sneer, which possibly disconcerted several mothers with baby carriages and muscleboys doing Tai Chi. The main charm of the recording resides less in Eisler’s music, bitterly brilliant as it is, than in the scalding delivery of Ernst Busch, star singer-shouter of the German Communist movement. (I’m working on the Berlin-in-the-twenties chapter of my book, which is why items from that time and place keep cropping up in the blog. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a German person.) The anger in Busch’s voice is immense: by the time he made the recording, he knew how much horror had ensued from Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union. At the same time, the coldly hammering accompaniment gives off its own scary totalitarian vibe. It makes you think that if the Communists had come to power in place of the Nazis in 1933 (or in 1919) things might not have turned out much better, either for Germany or the world. On the way back, to regain some sanity, I listened to Sade.
"Don't be afraid of banality."
— Ferruccio Busoni, to his student Kurt Weill
Attempt at a catalogue of life-altering musical moments.
In the summer of 1995, I traveled around Europe, covering music festivals for the New York Times. It was my first trip to the classical homeland, and I had some sort of epiphany every other hour. One major experience was Gidon Kremer's chamber-music festival in the tiny Austrian village of Lockenhaus. I stayed in a castle that had been converted into an inn; next to my room were a vintage torture chamber and an equally disturbing hall of antlers. Kremer, violinist of genius, followed his usual practice of deciding the programs only at the last minute. One day, a “Mystery Konzert” was announced for midnight. I didn’t think many people would show up, but the village church was full. At the witching hour, Kremer emerged with a pianist, a cellist, and three percussionists to play a chamber arrangement of Shostakovich’s Fifteenth Symphony. Even in its usual guise, the Fifteenth is a monumentally eerie work — Shostakovich’s farewell to symphonic form, his serenade to all musical history. But in that ghostly, stripped-down version, at that hour of the night, in that remote place, it became a borderline religious experience of the kind described by William James (“giving your little private convulsive self a rest”). I remember not just the performance itself but the silence that surrounded it: a rich, resonant silence, which only deepened when I began walking in the moonlight back to the castle. Kremer and his Kremerata Baltica will play this same work at Zankel Hall next season, on May 3; if it is one-quarter as intense as the Lockenhaus performance, it will be one of the best concerts of the year.
Questions have arisen at Reflections in D Minor concerning the statuette pictured with the Pulitzer Prize item below. It is, indeed, a Mrs. Butterworth's bottle spray-painted gold. I won it at an Oscar party this year, after an extraordinary run of luck with the documentaries and shorts. My partner has won in past years, so we are now the proud owners of three statuettes. You now know.
June 04, 2004 | Permalink
The hoo-ha this week over the Pulitzer Prize for Music — should it remain a composition award? should it embrace other genres? does anyone care? — dramatizes the major issue hanging over the entire "classical" world: Where do we belong in the culture at large? Will we build bridges to the outside, or will we remain in proud isolation? I’ve been reading a new book by Michael Broyles, Mavericks and Other Traditions in American Music (Yale UP), which, in its final chapter, takes on the big question with a hard-hitting forthrightness that I haven’t seen elsewhere in print. One significant passage addresses the question of style. Debates over style in American composition have long been premised on the idea that one group of composers wished to reach the public while another group stood aloof. Broyles says this debate long ago became absurd, because each side was blaming the other for problems that were endemic:
They [the style wars] were fought on specious premises from the first, for in the end style made little difference. Whether a piece was serial, freely atonal, or tonal, was moot. No matter how complex a composer’s music was, or conversely how hard he tried to make it accessible, he was fighting a losing battle. The neo-romantics garnered a much larger audience than the serialists ever did, and so-called postmodernists punched up their music with an eclectic blend of past and present, classical and popular, but in the past fifty years no composer of essentially abstract art music has had a major impact on American culture. The reasons: Americans were just not listening. The very premise on which such a composer worked, the creation of a purely aural artwork, a “unified, closed totality,” has fundamentally eroded.
Cue the trombones of doom. It’s all over, right? Not so, Broyles says. Composer-performers such as Harry Partch, John Cage, and Meredith Monk show the way to a musical future in which the composer acquires an unforeseen cultural power. At the end of the book, he says this:
The work of Monk, Partch, Cage, and other artists points to a revolution in music as profound as any that has happened in the past four hundred years, one that goes beyond style to the very purpose and nature of music. No longer is music seen as a thing-in-itself, an abstract entity to be considered purely in terms of its own internal relations. No longer is it a spur to visual conjuring of a magical world whose populating is left to the listener’s imagination. Music is now perceived as part of a broader art, one that fuses the aural and the visual and sometimes the verbal so completely that we can no longer speak of each in isolation. Music: the term itself needs to be revisited. The internal actions and workings of the aural remain relevant, but to speak of art, high and low, to consider the significance and meaning of a piece — that is, to ask artistic and aesthetic questions — a new perspective is needed, one that goes beyond the aural, and I suspect that with it must come a new vocabulary.
Many people will reject Broyles' conclusions. To my ears, he is speaking the unvarnished truth. Composers, musicians, administrators, and critics have the choice either of fighting reality or of living in it.
June 04, 2004 | Permalink