September 11, 2004 | Permalink
Christopher Miller's deft satirical novel Sudden Noises (see below) sent me back to the grand original, Randall Jarrell's Pictures from an Institution. Here is an immortal paragraph in which Jarrell describes the music of Gottfried Rosenbaum, a would-be lion of Vienna who ends up teaching music at an American women's college:
He loved hitherto-unthought-of, thereafter unthinkable combinations of instruments. When some extraordinary array of players filed half-proudly, half-sheepishly on to the stage, looking like the Bremen Town Musicians — if those were, as I think they were, a rooster, a cat, a dog, and a donkey — you could guess beforehand that it was to be one of Gottfried's compositions. His Joyous Celebration of the Memory of the Master Johann Sebastian Bach had a tone-row composed of the notes B, A, C, and H (in the German notation), of these inverted, and of these transposed; and there were four movements, the first played on instruments beginning with the letter b, the second on instruments beginning with the letter a, and so on. After the magnificent group that ushered in the piece (bugle, bass-viol, bassoon, basset-horn, bombardon, bass-drum, bagpipe, baritone, and a violinist with only his bow) it was sad to see an Alp horn and an accordion come in to play the second movement. Gottfried himself said about the first group: "Vot a bunch!" When I asked him how he thought of it, he said placidly: "De devil soldt me his soul."
The words "half-proudly, half-sheepishly" pop into my head at almost every contemporary music concert I attend. One day, perhaps, a composer will see fit to realize Rosenbaum's grand conception: if composers from Peter Maxwell Davies to Alfred Schnittke can take inspiration from the fictional music in Mann's Doctor Faustus (the target of that last dig) there might as well be a school of Rosenbaum. I'll always be grateful to Prof. John Plotz for introducing me to the joy of Jarrell.
September 10, 2004 | Permalink
On my vacation I finally got around to reading Christopher Miller's hilarious, razor-sharp, strangely haunting novel Sudden Noises from Inanimate Objects. It was originally published two years ago under the title Simon Silber: Works for Solo Piano. It purports to be a set of liner notes for a box set devoted to Silber, an A-1 nutjob of a pianist-composer who combines aspects of Glenn Gould (he wears earmuffs when he plays), Kaikhosru Sorabji (he bans performances of his own music), and Thomas Mann’s Adrian Leverkühn (his hatred of vulgar humanity tilts toward madness and violence). The narrator is a stuck-up literary wannabe who hates his subject and aspires to be an aphorist-philosopher: “Some people shudder to think, and some think in order to shudder.” Miller himself has a gift for writing gemlike, cutting sentences, and the first few pages alone contain a half-dozen quotable lines: “He didn’t even want to be whistled”; “Simon Silber was a complicated person, a perverse chameleon forever changing colors the better to clash with his surroundings”; “’Believe it or not, I used to be even smarter’”; “He was the most — maybe the only — musical person I have ever known”; “The news of his demise was neither unexpected, when it reached me, nor entirely unwelcome”; “Never to have hated Silber would mean never to have known him.”
Miller isn’t a trained musician, but he knows his territory far better than most writers who try to fashion novels on musical themes. Consider the following eerily plausible portrait of the composers’ collective to which Silber cantankerously belongs:
The NCA wasn’t a ‘movement’ or a ‘school’; so far as I could tell, in fact, the only thing that our composer had in common with his fellow members was a lack of interest in all music but his own, including that of fellow members. Otherwise they were a motley bunch: Altschul, who had just finished the thirty-year task of composing a different suite of miniatures for every interjection in Webster’s (twenty-four Aahs, twenty-four Ahs, twenty-four Ahas, twenty-four Ahems, twenty-four Ahoys, twenty-four Alacks, twenty-four Alases, twenty-four Amens…); Battcock, whose instrumental works incorporated laugh tracks every time the music did something ‘humorous’ (though I, for one, have always been skeptical about claims of humor in instrumental music, like claims of flavor in cigarette ads); Cowlick, who for years had confined himself to the note of middle C — not just the key but the note, varying only the volume, duration, and instrumentation; Dunsmore, each of whose eight mammoth symphonies existed, according to their composer, merely to set up a single overwhelming moment (Silber compared them to flowering trees planted for the sake of the week or two each year when they blossom); Earleywine, who kept developing new instruments with names like the trombonium, the pseudobassoon, and the acoustic synthesizer, in order to be the first composer to write music for them; … and Webb — like Silber, better known as a performer, though unlike Silber he was still performing (and, presumably, like any serious musician, practicing several hours a day, every day, on his chosen instrument, the gong).
These composers compete among themselves in the genre of "megaworks," or works that last a very long time. Silber writes a day-long piano sonata, entitled Day. A man named Goodenough responds with a computerized symphony that goes on a year — "music by and for computers," he calls it. Silber then plans a piece called Century, which, alas, never comes to fruition.
Not always kind reviews have compared Sudden Noises to Pale Fire. Yes, there’s an obvious relationship to Nabokov's tale of a biography gone awry. But I was reminded much more often — and in my personal pantheon this is a higher compliment — of Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution, which also has a fabulously daffy composer as a central character. What’s missing, perhaps, is the tone of compassion that underpins Jarrell’s savage satire of intellectual loserdom. Miller, by contrast, is a little too remorseless in his pursuit. Still, I’ll buy his next book the day it’s published.
Excellent post by Tim Johnson, aka The Rambler, denouncing Tuesday's federal appeals court decision against musical sampling. The ruling would force hip-hop artists and other sample-happy musicians to pay for even the tiniest snippet of pre-recorded music. Johnson notes how much art of the past and present — György Kurtág's compositions, Shakespeare's Hamlet — could be judged plagiaristic by such a strict standard. I don't know the legal or economic realities of the situation, but it seems to me that this harsh judgment might have disastrous results, especially for low-paid experimenters who play with samples for a living. Ironically, the decision was made in favor of George Clinton's record label, which was trying to seek profits from a Fundakedelic sample in the 1990 NWA track "100 Miles and Runnin." As All Hip Hop notes, Clinton himself was not against sampling, though he did try to seek compensation on a graded scale: "If they sell records, they pay, if they don't they can try again." What are the chances of such a reasonable, pragmatic approach becoming the norm? Slim. Then again, I wonder whether it might not be a good thing for music to be forced away from the collage aesthetic for a while. Perhaps voices and instruments are due for a second coming.
Listening to recordings of Daphne (Erich Kleiber, Haitink, Karl Böhm) in preparation for tonight's City Opera performance of Richard Strauss' arboreal masterpiece — the first time this work has ever been staged in New York. Let's hope it creates Grand Opera Buzz and not a Trainwreck. I use terms derived from Dr. Repertoire's hilarious Opera Queen Dictionary, featured on Parterre Box. Link courtesy of The Standing Room, a San Francisco-based, opera-centered blogue.
There's something inherently improbable in the idea of a forgotten semi-great composer named Popov. The very name may give American college graduates a queasy feeling, reminding them of Popov Vodka, that stomach-scouring serum in a plastic bottle. But Gavriil Popov, a contemporary of Shostakovich (born 1904, died 1972), was the real deal — a major talent cut down by the furies of his time. I encountered Popov's music at Bard College's Shostakovich Festival, which I wrote up in the New Yorker last week. I'd had a couple of Popov recordings in my library for a while, but, as so often, hearing the music live showed me something that the CDs had not.
Popov studied alongside Shostakovich at the Leningrad Conservatory. His breakout work was the Chamber Symphony of 1927, heard at Bard in a fine performance under the direction of Fernando Raucci. The instrumentation, for flute, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, violin, cello, and double bass, recalls Histoire du Soldat, and you also hear echoes of the Hindemith of the Kammermusik series. There are trace elements of jazz, but only in the distant Soviet understanding of the word — fox-trots and other café styles. Popov had a real gift for melody, even as he constantly undercut his lyric flights with murmurs of disaster. There is an open-hearted sweetness that you seldom find in Shostakovich's music. The Trio theme in the second movement is almost like Copland — a plainspoken song in the flute over static accompaniment. The Largo is absolutely magical: midway through comes a high, sad, slow, bewitching violin theme over a funky bass vamp. The fast passages are full of rhythmic surprises, unusual tonal combinations, nasty little dances that start and stop. Overall, the work has more personality and invention than anything by Shostakovich from the same period, even the First Symphony. What it lacks is Shostakovich's rock-solid sense of form, his Beethovenian aura of inevitability.
In the late twenties, Popov moved away from brittle, satirical neoclassicism. As David Fanning recounts in an American Symphony program note, he wrote in his diary of a new kind of "theatrical-musical (symphonic) form," based on a study of Mahler. He seems to have sincerely believed that this monumental, dramatic approach to symphonic writing would match up with Soviet cultural policy. (The critic Ivan Sollertinsky, one of Shostakovich's closest friends and advisers, was writing along similar lines.) His manifesto work was the First Symphony, a work of astounding expressive power and emotional complexity. Very much like Shostakovich's later Fourth Symphony, it stumbles for long periods across an unearthly landscape that resembles partially bombed-out Mahler. The final movement is particularly remarkable: it begins with a Soviet industrial ostinato along the lines of Mossolov's Iron Foundry and Prokofiev's Pas d'acier, but then a human form seems to rise up from the innards of the machine, singing in alternately ecstatic and demonic tones. The symphony closes with an awesome sequence of ringing figures and trilling chords, based on the magic bells of Wagner's Monsalvat and Rimsky's Kitezh — except that some terrible shadow hangs over this shining city on a hill. I thought of Poe: "While from a proud tower in the town / Death looks gigantically down."
Shostakovich plainly paid attention to Popov's idea of theatricalized symphonic form: his own death-drunk Fourth not only resembles Popov's First in design but seems at times to quote its music. There might also be a citation of Popov in the Fifth Symphony, whose great opening utterance resembles a figure that surfaces in Popov's opening movement. Whether Shostakovich was sending a clandestine message with these near-quotations is anyone's guess, but he might have wanted to show solidarity with Popov, who had been briefly purged from the Conservatory back in the twenties and suffered censure again after the First's premiere in March of 1935. (The work was said to show "the ideology of classes hostile to us.") The denunciation of Shostakovich in 1936 was more public and ferocious, but it was accompanied, we now know, by private assurances that the composer would thrive again if he followed a correct path. Popov apparently received no such encouragement. His masterpiece was never heard again during his lifetime.
The two composers together make an interesting case study in the difference between raw talent and genius. Shostakovich showed the world a helpless, vulnerable facade, but he had an inner tenacity that carried him through the Stalinist crisis. He also had a certain canniness, a knack for plotting the twists and turns of his career, which we never like to acknowledge as an ingredient of genius. Popov, exploding with talent but lacking that eerie detachment from his creative self, collapsed under the outward pressure. He felt obligated to produce programmatic Socialist-Realistic pieces on a regular basis (Komsomol Is The Chief of Electrification). He became a raging alcoholic. (Per Skans in an Olympia liner note: "The Soviet Composers Union was never a teetotal organization, but Popov was certainly thirstier than average.") For extended periods after the war he produced little of consequence. His last major statement, the Sixth Symphony, subtitled Holiday, makes for an upsettingly strange experience: you're never sure whether you're listening to some craven attempt at Communist bombast, some fabulously ironic satire on same, or drunken babbling. At its best, it matches the First Symphony's attitude of regal delirium: this Soviet holiday party culminates in obvious echoes of Mussorgsky's Coronation Scene, the crowning of the murderer Tsar, and ends with a noise that you could hear either as a whoop of joy or an onrush of vomit.
For the moment, there's no way of hearing the works I describe here except on used LPs and CDs. The Olympia label, which released recordings of the Popov symphonies some years ago, has ceased to exist. How's that for frustration? Fortunately, Leon Bostein, who presided over the Shostakovich Festival at Bard, has made a very persuasive recording of the First Symphony with the London Symphony, which Telarc will release in the fall. I've listened to my preview copy at least twenty times in the last few weeks: it has the ever-changing, life-enhancing personality of a masterpiece. Popov was a man destroyed by history, and he deserves some restitution after death.
AC Douglas, in an Open Letter addressed to me, has announced that he is purchasing the Björk record, and that if he does not like it he is sending over a guy named Guido to give me some things to think about. I would advise him that if anyone tries to deliver sleeping fishes to my door a regular Luca Brasi of a feline named Maulina will be waiting, and she is not to be messed with. I am confident that ACD will view the Björk record as a pseudo-musical travesty of the first order, a rickety rope bridge spanning the chasm between popular piffle and classical cognition, which would collapse unceremoniously into shrieking abysses of postmodern kitsch if so much as a hummingbird were to land upon it. So confident am I that ACD will hate the record, in fact, that I am prepared to refund him his $25 if he likes it.
September 06, 2004 | Permalink
September 03, 2004 | Permalink
Pride goeth before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.
— Proverbs 16:18
September 02, 2004 | Permalink
So what is it that has got lost? Something imponderable. A prognostic. An illusion. Like what happens when a magnet lets the iron fillings go and they tumble together again ... Or when a ball of string comes undone ... Or when a tension has slackened ... Or when an orchestra begins to play out of tune ... All the relations between things had shifted slightly. Ideas that had once been of lean account grew fat. Persons had previously had not been taken altogether seriously now acquired fame ... Sharp borderlines everywhere became blurred... There positively seemed to be certain proportions in which these elements had to be blended for maximum success in the world ... It is as though the blood or the air had changed; a mysterious disease had consumed the earlier period's little seedling of what was going to be genius, but everything sparkles with novelty, and in the end one can no longer tell whether the world has really grown worse or where it is merely that one has grown older oneself. When that point is reached, a new time has definitely arrived.
— Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities
September 01, 2004 | Permalink
Happiness came the other day in the form of a fat envelope from Mode Records, the august New York new-music label. For years I've been treasuring Mode's releases of John Cage and Morton Feldman. The new batch contains vol. 8 of the Feldman Edition, Triadic Memories, available either as a single DVD or as 2 CD's, with Marilyn Nonken tickling the ivories; a 2-CD of the music of Cage-Feldman henchman Christian Wolff; the slow, static, largely tonal music of Somei Satoh, with Petr Kotik conducting the Janacek Philharmonic; and nervously expressive works of Jason Eckardt. So far the one I've really fallen for is a disc devoted to Swiss composer-trombonist Roland Dahinden, born 1962, who roams around in the rich landscape between the classical avant-garde and post-free jazz. The big work on the program, silberen, for piano quintet, strongly recalls Feldman in its hushed dynamics and glacial tempo, but something about the mood and sound is quite un-Feldmanlike. The language is not as chromatic as Feldman's, and sometimes hovers on the border of modal tonality, especially at the beginning. While Feldman often has secret narratives and dramas at work in his music, Dahinden avoids even a ghost of tension or conflict; he proceeds serenely from one collection of tones to another, as if puttering around a lunar garden. The Arditti Quartet and pianist Hildegard Kleeb play with magical purity of tone. I'm eager to hear more from this composer.
August 31, 2004 | Permalink
Intersection of 30th St. and Kent Ave., Nowhere, CA.
With the Reupholstery Convention happening just a few blocks from our apartment, Jonathan and I thought it wise to get out of town. I'll be gone all of next week, and the computer's staying home with the kitties. However, thanks to Typepad’s wizardly Publish in the Future feature, the blog will continue bloviating into oblivion without me.
August 28, 2004 | Permalink
Thomas Bartlett critiques my use of the phrase "Nordic idea" in the non-online Björk profile. Point well taken, though it was actually Björk who introduced the phrase. (A last-minute cut hid this fact.) I kept trying to work out what she meant by it, and I may have assigned it too much importance because it happened to be the first thing she said when we met. "Icelandic music" would have served better than "Nordic idea" in the case of the song "Vökuró." Some of the repetitions were meant to be tentative/ironic. Still, there is some kind of there there, even if I never effectively mapped it out. As a way of making peace with Glenn Gould, whom I just semi-dissed, I'll quote from his radio essay "The Idea of North": "Something really does happen to most people who go into the north — they become at least aware of the creative opportunity which the physical fact of the country represents and — quite often, I think — come to measure their own work and life against that rather staggering creative possibility: they become, in effect, philosophers." Philosophers of what, Gould wisely does not say.
ADDENDUM: Bartlett responds, gently circumambulating my soporific discussion of the "Nordic idea" on his way to a nice discussion of modern Bach playing. With you on Schiff, got me on Evelyn Crochet and Robert Siemers. I'd love it if some of the rock / pop critics out there dabbled in classical writing, just as I've dabbled in pop, and did it without any change of style. Basically, in the end, when the long black cloud comes down, no one really knows how to talk about this stuff.
ADDENDUM 2: This link from Jason Kottke is much appreciated.
There’s a crazily vast array of new music being heard around New York in the fall, and I’m not going to try to impose some feeble narrative on it ("Speaking of oboes..."). Click on the date for more info. I've included some non-New York events, too. God bless America.
Sept. 8: The gagaku orchestra Reigakushka gives a concert of ancient and modern Japanese music, including premieres by Keiko Fujiie and Kazuo Kikkawa, at Zankel Hall. They also play at the Terrace Theater and the Freer Gallery in DC (Sept. 9 and 10) and at UC Berkeley on Sept. 12.
Sept. 9-12: US premiere of Bill Morrison and Michael Gordon’s Decasia, in which a film narrative composed of decaying stock footage is paired with an eerie orchestra of retuned and detuned instruments. At St Ann’s Warehouse in DUMBO.
Sept. 13: Kent Nagano conducts Unsuk Chin's new Violin Concerto at the Berkeley Symphony, UC Berkeley.
Sept. 22: The Wet Ink new-music series, whose house ensemble the Zs espouses an aesthetic of “bombastic precision” (yeah!), opens with music of three elders (Christian Wolff, Earle Brown, and Fredric Rzewski) and two youngsters (Alex Mincek and Matt Hough). At the Bowery Poetry Club, $10 a seat.
Sept. 28: John Schaefer's New Sounds Live series at Merkin presents excerpts from Scott Johnson's How It Happens together with Phil Kline's searing anti-war Zippo Songs and his already legendary settings of the poetry of Donald Rumsfeld.
Oct. 6-9: Terry Riley's Sun Rings, which Mark Swed of the LA Times hailed as the In C maestro's late-period masterpiece, comes to BAM.
Oct. 8: John Ashbery settings by Elliott Carter, Lee Hyla, Charles Wuorinen, Milton Babbitt, and John Zorn, together again for the first and last time. At Cooper Union (website out of date).
Oct. 14: Steve Reich’s 1971 Drumming, also at Cooper Union.
Oct. 14-17: Sounds Like Now festival at La MaMa, a major convocation of alternative / downtown / how-you-call-it composers presented by the Interpretations series. The roster includes Robert Ashley, Phill Niblock, Joan La Barbara, David First, William Duckworth, Pauline Oliveros, and the blogosphere’s own Kyle Gann.
Oct. 18: Music from Copland House concert at Merkin, including a Chen Yi premiere.
Oct. 20-23: Alan Gilbert conducts John Adams’ masterly Naïve and Sentimental Music at the San Francisco Symphony. Take a moment to check out MTT's stunning Keeping Score site if you haven't seen it.
Oct. 21, Nov. 11, Dec. 3: Conlon Nancarrow festival at Miller Theatre. Not new music as such, but Nancarrow is so wired that he always sounds new.
Oct. 22: Young composers from Juilliard and the Royal Academy in London, including the brilliant Nico Muhly, write "responses to Webern." My own response to Webern is as follows: Yeah, whatever. Paul Hall, Juilliard, absolutely free.
Oct. 24: Big new piece by Steve Reich, You Are (Variations), for chorus, instruments, and electronics, lights up at Disney Hall in LA, with the Los Angeles Master Chorale.
Oct 24-25: Four excellent young composers — Mason Bates, Kenji Bunch, Daniel Kellogg, and Kevin Puts — appear at the Guggenheim as part of the "Works and Process" series. All have been part of the Young Concert Artists composer program.
Oct. 28: Wildly inventive avant-garde vocalist-composer Pamela Z at the Kitchen.
Oct. 28: English composer-arranger Joby Talbot, formerly of the stylish pop group Divine Comedy, gives a chamber concert at Merkin Hall. On Oct. 30 Merkin presents Talbot's score for Hitchcock’s The Lodger.
Oct. 29: Daniel Catán's Salsipuedes bows at the Houston Grand Opera. One of two premieres to celebrate the house's 50th anniversary: the second is a new Mark Adamo opera in March.
Oct. 31: Charles Wuorinen's Haroun & the Sea of Stories is given birth at New York City Opera.
Nov. 1: A Green Umbrella concert at Walt Disney Hall in LA, including premiere of Omnivorous Furniture, for “sinfonietta and electronica,” by aforementioned Mason Bates, and Henry Brant's almost-new Tremors: Spatial Declamations for 4 Singers and 16 Instrumentalists.
Nov. 4: First Eos Orchestra concert of the season, on a music-and-image theme. Program includes director Jonathan Sheffer's Filmusic #2, John Corigliano's Three Hallucinations From Altered States, and Schubert's Ninth Symphony with computer-generated video.
Nov. 6: Tania León portrait at Miller Theatre.
Nov. 11: Elliott Carter's Symphonia at the Boston Symphony. I'm no Carter fan in general, but I was deeply impressed by this churning slab of a work when I heard it on disc.
Nov. 12-14: John Adams returns to Zankel Hall to direct another pan-genre festival, this year including gamelan works by Evan Ziporyn, the Paul Dresher Ensemble, a Joshua Redman set, and the fantastic Iranian composer/kamancheh-player Kayhan Kalhor.
Nov. 17: American Composers Orchestra season opens with a typically all-over-the-place program of Randall Woolf (music for video by American Psycho director Mary Herron), Michael Daugherty, Morton Feldman, Tan Dun, and Sondheim.
Dec. 5: Joshua Penman's Songs The Plants Taught Us at the New York Youth Symphony. Penman classes himself as "ambient" and "spiritual," but some of the music on his website packs a considerable punch.
Dec. 11: Premiere of William Bolcom's A Wedding at the Chicago Lyric Opera, with a libretto by Arnold Weinstein and Robert Altman. Based on Altman's 1978 comedy of old money and nouveau riche.
Jan. 13-15: Babbitt's brand-new Concerti for Orchestra, Boston, sandwiched between the Fourth and Fifth symphonies of Sibelius. Part of James Levine's season-long series "You vill now like ze Tvelf Ton Musik!"
Jan. 20: The Phil Glass Seventh, National Symphony, DC.
Heartfelt plea to symphony orchestras: Have an easy-to-find place on your sites where the people can find a complete, chronological season listing. Sometimes this basic information is devilishly difficult to find amid all the subscription series profiles. What's more, listings often go out of their way to conceal any new music lurking in their midst: a composer may have labored for a year on a new concerto, but the headline is "André Watts Plays Tchaikovsky!" Having spent the better part of three days straight staring at websites, I am handing out the Rest Is Noise Fall Preview Webtastic Award to Ethel, the sleek new-music quartet, whose site is to die for.
Terry beat me to the punch: I was going to excerpt the exact same paragraph from Angela Hewitt's piece on Glenn Gould in the TLS. It's a knowing, sympathetic, non-hagiographic look at a pianist whose posthumous reputation is somewhat overwrought. It's not that I don't love Gould's playing; it's just that I'm more comfortable seeing him as one of many great postwar pianists, rather than the one and only. Hewitt is herself a major Bach player whose recordings of the keyboard works on Hyperion hold their own with Gould's.
August 25, 2004 | Permalink
Stopped by Academy Records on 18th Street yesterday. The moment I walked in, David Raksin's "Laura" began playing on the P. A., in the wacked-out Spike Jones version. This seemed a perfect accidental memorial to Raksin, who, I'll wager, loved Jones' maltreatment of his hit tune. I dropped $32 on a big stack of records that included Scott Johnson's John Somebody, Sviridov's Poem in Memory of Sergei Esenin, the Vainberg Seventh Symphony (I'm on a Soviet kick), a Thomas Weelkes disc with Peter Pears' Wilbye Consort, Kirsten Flagstad singing excerpts from the Ring with Furtwängler conducting, Peter Maxwell Davies' Vesalii Icones, the entire 1954 Furtwängler Die Walküre, and, best of all, Raymond Lewenthal's classic recording of Charles-Valentin Alkan's Funeral March for a Papagallo, which, in a visionary anticipation of Monty Python, enacts the funeral of a parrot. Alkan's text is as follows: "Have you had lunch, Jaco? And what? Oh." The cover art is, as you can see, possibly the greatest in the history of recording.
As I browsed, I kept seeing less fortunate, wannabe-hip record jackets — Bauhausy sans-serif fonts and abstract forms for 50s-era discs, trippy psychedelic collages for Mahler in the 60s ("Mahler is Heavy" was the Utah Symphony's slogan), ghastly soft-porn scenes for the 70s. The Vesalii Icones LP comes with cover art by Ken "Lisztomania" Russell — a picture of a black guy in partial whiteface and thong underwear. The Johnson disc, issued in 1986, carries a note by Greg Sandow, sounding a familiar theme: "Classical music is hard to place these days. Once it was part of a continuum that included folk and popular music at one end and complex works of art at the other.... Since Mozart's time there's been a divorce ... Johnson wants to heal the divorce. He's not alone: he's joined by other composers, by critics like myself, and, thank God, by a growing audience." It made me melancholy to read these words. Greg and others have been trying for a long time to heal the breach between classical music and popular culture. Kurt Weill was trying to do it back in the twenties. The road is littered with failures and false starts: Mahler, in the end, isn't heavy. But it's still worth pressing on. Better this than the dead-parrot procession of music as usual.
Carnegie Hall informs me that, alas, Michael Tilson Thomas' Stravinsky concerts in December have been canceled. I've removed those events from the Concert Preview below.
Scott Spiegelberg pointed me toward a new academic journal from Cambridge University Press, Twentieth-Century Music. I haven’t had time to digest all the articles, but it looks like a strong debut. The range of topics is vast, everything from Boulez’s Pli selon pli to Chumbawumba’s “Tubthumping.” Some of the titles seem ripe for journalistic mockery — Ian Biddle’s “Vox Electronica: Nostalgia, Irony and Cyborgian Vocalities in Kraftwerk’s Radioaktivität and Autobahn,” for example — but I got a lot out of the scholarship even when the jargon made me fidget. I liked Mark Spicer’s definition of “accumulative form”: “A random sampling from the albums on Billboard’s Top 200 will likely confirm that many current pop-rock songs feature at some point on their musical surface a cumulative process of textural growth: various interlocking riffs – such as drum rhythm, bass line, and guitar vamp – are introduced one by one until the groove is complete, a technique most often employed at the beginning of songs.” I also enjoyed Charles Wilson’s critique of György Ligeti’s recent music, or, more accurately, of the promotion of Ligeti as maverick individualist: “Being valued for your individuality may be gratifying; but being valued only for your individuality ultimately implies that any individual will do just as well as you.” Good point — yet the overall picture of some vast corporate machinery promoting Ligeti is a touch absurd.
Most relevant to my current task — writing up the Shostakovich Festival at Bard — is Marina Frolova-Walker’s “Stalin and the Art of Boredom,” a deft overview of Socialist Realism in music. Prof. Frolova-Walker delivered a truncated version of this article at a Bard panel. Like many recent writers on Soviet culture, she draws on the files of the NKVD, Stalin’s secret police. Here is her arrangement of quotations from the First Congress of the Union of Soviet Writers in 1934, as reported by informants:
M. M. Prishvin: All the time I’m thinking I should leave as soon as possible – the boredom is unbearable . . .
Valeryan Pravdukhin: All we have in the literary world at the moment is unabashed demagogy and publishers’ terror. . . . As for the Congress, even to talk about it seriously is shameful: something more lively was expected of Radek’s and Bukharin’s papers, but even these wilted before they could bloom, since they had, after all, been subjected to drastic cuts by Central Committee officials.
A. Novikov-Priboy: The period of the final bureaucratization of literature has begun.
Panteleymon Romanov: Intense boredom and stifling bureaucracy, which cannot be enlivened by the beat of any drum. Gorky’s paper might be of interest to those who read it in the newspapers, framed by all sorts of enthusiastic comments, but for those of us who heard the speech, it was quite pathetic: there wasn’t an ounce of enthusiasm in it. The head of the Department spoke according to the orders of his superiors, with no inner passion.
P. Rozhkov: A kingdom in slumber.
Ukrainian delegates: Talk of ‘the futility of this whole comedy’ . . .
Babel: The Congress is running in a deadly fashion, like a Tsarist parade.
Semenko: Everything is running so smoothly that I’m consumed by a maniacal desire to take a piece of shit or rotten fish and hurl it at the Presidium of the Congress. Perhaps this would inject a little life into the proceedings. . . . [I]t is a fraudulent ceremony. . . . A good half of the audience, especially the delegates from the national republics, would really like to cry out passionately about gross injustice, to protest, to demand, to speak as human beings, not as lackeys. But instead, they are forced to listen dutifully to our leaders reading their papers, which are nothing but lies – they are assured that everything is just fine. And we sit and clap like clockwork soldiers . . . while the true artists, those who fight for their national culture, are rotting away somewhere in a Karelian swamp or a GPU prison.
Here is her impressive windup:
All too often, Socialist Realism is viewed as something unique and hermetic, incomprehensible to those who have never experienced it. But perhaps this is prompted not so much by humility, but by a complacency that allows us to imagine nothing remotely comparable can be found in the West. This was certainly not the perception of Russians as they were tossed from the Soviet frying pan into the free-market fire. Where the roadside hoardings and television screens had formerly presented the iconography of the old regime, they now presented the iconography of the new: out with Lenin, in with Marlboro Man. They soon became weary of the repetitive gabble of advertising, just as they were once weary of the dull monotony of Politburo speeches. Even before perestroika, the similarities were noticed by those capable of distancing themselves from the over-familiar. Andy Warhol remarked on the affinity between Soviet propaganda art and the Western commercial art he parodied in his pop-art works (compare his multiple images of Marilyn Monroe to the sixty or so faces of Lenin on the walls of the Lenin Museum). Or from the other side, the Russian artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid had become famous for their satirical broadsides at the pompous pretensions of Soviet Realism; they were not long in the West before they transferred their satire to Western banality and kitsch. Where Socialist Realist art once was used to cocoon the Soviet citizen from reality, in the West we have the shopping mall, those temples to the free-market, with their archways, fountains, and mood music. No, if we remove the blinkers, Socialist Realism no longer seems an alien phenomenon.