No cancellation announcement yet for Philharmonic in the Park, despite ominous blobs on Doppler 4000. The forty E-minor chords might be more dramatic than usual.... In the end, it was not to be.
We got hold of the Prince tickets by way of a few connections — namely, eBay and PayPal. (As a classical critic who ventures on occasion into the pop realm, I can usually obtain tickets to any show in town, but only if it features Caetano Veloso or Radiohead.) I will leave analysis to the professionals and confine myself to a few nerdy non sequiturs: 1) if you are a classical specialist who ends up being seated twenty feet behind the drums, bring earplugs; 2) the advantage of being deafened by the stage speakers is that you are unable to hear the cathedral-style three-minute reverb that makes most shows at Madison Square Garden sound like the latter half of Alvin Lucier's I Am Sitting In A Room; 3) Prince liked our section the best because he saw no “cool people” sitting down (blessedly, I had just stood up); 4) collegiate codependency — i. e., calling one’s buds ten rows back to say, “It’s Purple Rain, bro!” — is annoying; 5) can't wait to hear the American Musicological Society panel on "Musicology"; 6) Prince is pfunkatronic.
Popular counterpart Jessica Hopper relates an ugly tale on her blog, then asks: “Does Alex Ross ever get this kind of hate? Like did Esa-Pekka Salonen ever beef with him over some back stage shit from '93?” I’m a little unnerved that she should bring up the Esa-Pekka thing. Yes, as everyone knows, back in ’93 I made the mistake of writing that one of Esa-Pekka’s early chamber works exhibited “remnants of doctrinaire post-serialist chromaticism.” Some of Esa-Pekka’s people came round and gave me a whole series of chromaticisms to think about. I now walk with a slight limp and have a really bad reaction whenever I hear the sound of a pencil sharpener. But Esa-Pekka’s a great guy, a real mensch in my book, and I have nothing bad to say about him.
The preceding is a satirical anecdote. I have no beef with Esa-Pekka.
Tonight, Prince at the Garden, provided tickets come through. Tomorrow night, the New York Philharmonic playing John Adams’ Harmonielehre in Central Park. I love the idea of Adams’ mighty forty opening chords, inspired by a dream image of an oil tanker rising from San Francisco Bay, blasting their way into the New York summer night. David Robertson conducts; Leonidas Kavakos is the soloist in Samuel Barber’s dreamy Violin Concerto. You can hear the same all-American program in Prospect Park tonight (Tuesday), in Cunningham Park on Thursday night, and in Van Cortlandt Park Friday night. Then, a smattering of events at the Lincoln Center Festival — the Elvis Costello show, the premiere of Costello’s orchestral opus, and Nicholas Brooke's Tone Test, a dramatization of some hilariously peculiar promotional events that the Edison company employed to advertise its de-luxe gramophones in the early days. A trip to Bayreuth will keep me from attending the John Tavener all-night vigil, but that’s OK: I saw plenty of all-night vigils as an altar boy in the Greek Orthodox church.
ADDENDUM: Prospect Park concert cancelled. Not looking good for tomorrow night, either.
July 13, 2004 | Permalink
Not to change gears too violently, but I'm amazed to hear that the New York electro band Scissor Sisters somehow reached the top of the UK charts. I last saw them playing for about twenty people at the Lakeside Lounge on Houston Street, as part of Sweetie's fondly remembered Cheez Whiz variety hour. Now they've booked Royal Albert Hall. The Scissors were the surprise hit of the Glastonbury Festival, drawing attention for a possibly non-spontaneous "wardrobe malfunction" by lead singer Jake Shears; the other unexpected smash was the English National Opera's traveling production of Act III of Die Walküre.
July 12, 2004 | Permalink
Copyright 2004 by Indiana University Press
I’ve been puzzling over some fellow critics’ reviews of two recent books about Dmitri Shostakovich — Solomon Volkov’s Shostakovich and Stalin and Malcolm Hamrick Brown’s anthology A Shostakovich Casebook. In particular, I’m surprised at the response, or lack of response, to Laurel Fay’s essay in the Casebook, in which Testimony, the dissident memoirs of Shostakovich as allegedly dictated to Volkov, is subjected to a vigorous forensic examination. A few months back, Edward Rothstein and Jeremy Eichler, two writers I admire, wrote pieces for the New York Times in which Fay’s findings were mentioned only in passing. Tim Page, a superb critic, reviewed the two books for The Washington Post and summarized the Casebook with the phrase “nits are picked.” I had a quite different reaction. Setting aside the usual questions of Shostakovich’s political orientation within the Soviet system, I found Fay’s essay a fascinating piece of detective work, and I think it deserves more than a word or two of paraphrase and/or dismissal. I will cover Bard College’s Shostakovich Festival for the New Yorker in August, and there I’ll try to sum up the state of the Shostakovich nation. Here I’ll delve into the details of Fay’s nit-picking and see where it leads. For those who don't know the backstory, the following may be pretty dense; for an in-depth treatment, read Paul Mitchinson's Lingua Franca piece from 2000.
The controversy started back in 1980, when Fay published an essay questioning the authenticity of Testimony. At the time, she hadn’t seen a copy of the original typescript; now she has. The signatures of Dmitri Shostakovich — “Read. D Shostakovich” — are to be found at head of all chapters but the very first. As Fay showed in 1980, each of those chapters begins with material previously published under the composer’s name. The possibility arose that Shostakovich had authenticated nothing more than a collection of mundane essays, and that Volkov later performed some sort of switcheroo. The Volkov camp, who marshaled forces in a 1998 book entitled Shostakovich Reconsidered, suggested in response that the composer had relied on his photographic memory to recite those passages for Volkov’s benefit, somehow conveying punctuation and layout down to the tiniest detail. OK, but how did those quotations end up at the beginning of each chapter? Volkov’s defenders asserted that Shostakovich started each interview session reciting, then free-associated. Perhaps — except that the introduction to Testimony describes the writing process otherwise. There, Volkov says that he fashioned a narrative from piles of scattered notes. Still, we don’t have any smoking gun here. A few years back, when I wrote a long piece about Shostakovich for the New Yorker, I was impressed by one Volkovian argument: that the composer’s signature could be found at the head of the first chapter, which begins not with previously published material but with grim anti-Soviet images of “mountains of corpses.” I repeated that claim in my New Yorker piece.
I felt a flush of embarrassment upon reading Fay’s essay, because I had been led to repeat something that was not true. Reproduced at the beginning of this entry, with the permission of Indiana University Press, are pages 2 and 3 of the typescript (click on the image to make it bigger). There is no signature on page 1; as you can see, it is found at the top of page 3. What appears precisely at the top of page 3? Another excerpt from previously published material — a memoir of childhood dating back to 1927. For those of you who have a copy of the book, this quotation begins at the bottom of the published page 4, with the words “I had not expressed a desire to study music…” The excerpt goes on for exactly one full typescript page. At the top of typescript page 4 (which was originally numbered “2,” suggesting that the first two pages were added later), the narrative returns to the familiar Testimony style — right in the middle of the sentence. Here is the 1927 essay: “Nevertheless, I continued composing and wrote a lot then. By February 1917 I became bored with studying with Gliasser. Then my Mother decided to present me and my sister to A. A. Rozanova….” Here is Testimony: “Nevertheless, I continued composing and wrote a lot then. By February 1917 I [here starts page 4] lost all interest in studying with Gliasser. He was a very self-confident but dull man. And his lectures already seemed ridiculous to me.” Notice how an innocuous recollection suddenly acquires that ad hominen, nasty tone which distinguishes Testimony throughout — and which so many of the composer’s close colleagues found unbelievable. How elegantly the signed page 3 is woven into the rest of the narrative: you don’t feel a jolt of transition.
Fay has found that all the pages with Shostakovich’s signature contain nothing but old material. What’s more, she describes how sentences here and there have been dropped from the quoted essays, particularly those that would have given away the original date of composition. For example, a mention of the hundred anniversary of Chekhov’s birth disappears under correction tape; this would have dated the passage to the year 1960. The question rises once again: What manner of thing did Volkov ask Shostakovich to sign? As far as I can tell, there is only one hypothesis for the defenders to fall back on: Shostakovich knew what Volkov was doing, knew that the old material was contained in the new, and signed those pages in order to give himself an out in case the typescript was discovered prematurely. “I signed a different document!” he could say. “Just a collection of essays!” We’re getting pretty far out on the grassy knoll. And it would be hard to advance such a hypothesis at this late hour because it would contradict everything Volkov has previously said about the provenance of Testimony. He insisted that Shostakovich read and signed the “true” typescript. He insisted that he had never read the previously published essays. In fact, as Fay points out, when one of them appeared in a 1974 issue of Sovetskaia muzyka, it carried an introduction by… S. Volkov.
Whether the main body of Testimony contains scattered genuine utterances of the composer is a topic I no longer care much about, because there is no way of telling what’s real and what’s not. Plenty of reliable documentation exists elsewhere. In my history of twentieth-century music, I will not be using Testimony as either a primary or a secondary source, and I hope other writers will finally see it for what it is. The author has abused our patience long enough.
July 12, 2004 | Permalink
Delightful story on Andante about the very slow John Cage piece that has been playing in a German church since 2001. Two new notes, octave E's, have been added to the G#'s and B that began sounding in February of last year, making for pure lush E major. (The Associated Press is mistaken in hearing an E#.) On August 5, the B and one of the G#'s will stop sounding, and in March of 2006 everything goes half-diminished. If funding is available and the Lord God sees fit, the performance will end in the year 2639. For 1000 euros, you can sponsor a particular Klangjahr (soundyear), but you'd better act fast: such choice soundyears as 2050, 2104, 2222, 2433, and 2639 are already taken.
July 07, 2004 | Permalink
Some interesting debate on the New Elitist question at Reflections in D Minor, Jessica Duchen, Superfluities, and Byzantium's Shores. Reflections writes: "Have you ever heard of any other product that is successfully sold with the slogan, 'We're no better than the other guys'? .... You don't sell a Lexus by telling the potential buyer that it's no better than a Chevy. Instead, you tell the customer that he should step up to a Lexus, he deserves a Lexus." This sounds reasonable, but, as marketing specialists who've studied the problem of the audience will tell you, it ain't gonna work. We're not selling a product here; we're trying to build a community. A great many bright, serious, cultured people shun classical music because it seems to them a closed-off, antisocial world — the kind of club they wouldn't want to join whether it wanted them or not. Since my teen-age years, I have been trying to win people over to the music I love, and the arrogant, high-handed approach never seems to do the trick. We have a horrendous image problem — ever wonder why serial killers in movies listen to Bach? — and we need to counteract it in every aspect of our behavior. If you doubt the marketing power of unpretentiousness and generosity, examine, please, the career of Yo-Yo Ma.
I took Terry Teachout's test and, alas, I don't think I passed. I preferred the more irresponsible, flamboyant, Germanic alternative at least a third of the time: Duke Ellington, Dickens, Tolstoy, hamburgers, Wagner, Johnny Cash, Brando, Olivier, Lucinda Williams, Double Indemnity, Don Giovanni, tragedy, Monet, the Gershwins, Henry James, Cole Porter, Oscar Wilde, the Twenties, Turner, Motown, magazines, Election, Vertigo, opera, electric, Oklahoma, William Shawn, The Wings of the Dove, Winston Churchill, Moby-Dick, Whitman, and bebop. Sounds like a hell of a party. I passed on the dance questions, being a dance dunce, and I can't honestly decide between Mann and Joyce. Overall score: 55%. Nobody's perfect.
This is an archive of my magazine pieces going back to 1992, together with posts on musical topics both classical (Dylan) and popular (Verdi). Back in February I wrote a long article entitled Listen To This, which more or less sums up my view of things. I've also assembled a rough top 10 of classical recordings.
July 05, 2004 | Permalink
Mandarin culture-blogger AC Douglas is back on the warpath with a new site. He takes issue with quasi-populist ideas that I’ve lately purveyed in the New Yorker, and which have animated Greg Sandow’s writing for years. Classical music, ACD says, is by nature an elitist art; it can’t pass itself off as something for the masses, any more than an aristocrat can pass as a redneck. (His metaphor, not mine.) This neo-con position is enjoying a late surge in classical circles. A while back I was talking to a brilliant young composer who told me flatly , “If we don’t say our music is better than other music, then it is doomed to die.” Kyle Gann, on his blog, quotes a 22-year-old composer who promotes a “New Elitism” — “somewhat more broad-minded than the past one, but not as all-inclusive and allegedly populist as post- modernism claims to be.” Snobbery with a knowing smirk.
I won’t address this mindset head on, having already done so at length. Suffice to say I don't recognize its mode of listening, which seems to require a feeling of superiority as part of the aesthetic experience. If you’re worrying about how your music ranks with other people’s, I wonder if you’re actually listening at all. We’ve been trying the holier-than-thou gambit in American classical music for more than a century, and while it has sucked up big donations it has backfired time and again with the general public. I’ll use a very crude metaphor. You go to a party where you know no one. Do you go up to someone and say, “I am the finest individual in this room, and everyone else is fundamentally uninteresting”? It might work if you say it with the right crazed conviction — if you are Gustav Mahler or Arturo Toscanini, say — but chances are that you will leave as friendless as you came, with people whispering “Who’s that creep?” behind your back. Better, perhaps, to say something smart but lively, leading others to conclude on their own that hey, this guy is more interesting than Bill who is talking about spackling. You embody quality, you don’t announce it.
Culture doesn’t work that way, the Elitists might protest. CM must advertise its greatness. It is a Great Tradition that needs to be Maintained. I’m willing to admit that populism has its limits: if you go in front of a roomful of kids saying, “Hey, this dude Beethoven was one wild and crazy homey,” they’ll see through you. But you can celebrate Beethoven’s genius without necessarily suggesting that he’s better than Beyoncé. He's in a different world: so paint that world as vividly as you can and show how it invades your own. I’m imagining another objection: Isn’t pop music boastful beyond belief? Didn’t Chuck Berry advance his agenda by singing, “Roll over Beethoven”? Shouldn't we fight back? Well, as Susan McClary points out, the full line is “Roll over Beethoven and tell Tchaikovsky the news,” which is a somewhat more suggestive and inclusive message. In any case, Chuck Berry is boasting that he’s more fun, and he has the riffs to prove it. The crux of the classical boast is: Can we back it up? Just how goddamn civilized are we? The experience I described in "Listen To This," of meeting a bunch of punk-rock DJs who were more cultured than I was, destroyed that assurance in my mind, and I’ve never felt the need to get it back.
Maybe ACD and I can agree on this formula: If classical music is absent from your life, then you are missing out on something huge and grand. What unifies us, I hope, is the urge to tell the news about this music, which, for all its elitist trappings, occupies an underground position in contemporary culture. I sometimes don’t mind seeing pop music take a little pounding, because, for all its regular-folks veneer, it is the Establishment, and it has major smugness issues of its own. (The only people who seemed really incensed by my piece were pop snobs who didn't want me venturing outside my culture ghetto. Within CM it was much less controversial than I'd expected.) I like reading ACD because I sense the passion behind the words — and people respond to passionate messages, even if they leave a bitter taste. The ultimate enemy is the sort of passive, neutral, vaguely fatalistic thinking that has driven major classical insitutions for too long. I expect we can also agree on that.
July 05, 2004 | Permalink
For those of you who enjoy the rocking-roll music, Douglas Wolk has posted, with the band's permission, an MP3 of the brilliant Dog Faced Hermans song "Time Bomb" on his site. The trumpet solo reminds me of "Das Lied des Steinklopfers," a razor-sharp Kurt Tucholsky setting that the Hermans did with The Ex. Another candidate for the Lacunae library?
Clearing out my CD rack I came across Pulp's Different Class album. I loved this album like most people when I was about 17 but hadn't heard it for ages. So it's having a well-deserved Renaissance chez Radice. To make stuff "accessible", the classical music industry soft-soaps everything into relaxing, uplifting, smooth classics (Classic F Off). But pop music doesn't do this: they're allowed to release dark, fin de siecle songs. 'Common People', obviously, from Different Class ("And we dance, and drink, and screw, / Because there's nothing else to do"); 'Spy' is even angrier ("My favourite parks are car parks, grass is something you smoke, birds are something you shag. Take your "Year in Provence" and shove it up your ass"), and that's before the later work on This Is Hardcore. And this is popular music - that is, with wide appeal. In the quest for accessibility classical industry moguls are missing something. Pop musicians do face enormous constraints from the industry but at least they don't all have to release "flute moods." It's the songs with sadder or darker elements that are often most loved because they connect with multifacets of our experience, not just the gin and tonic at seven.
July 01, 2004 | Permalink
When life gets me down, I open up Nicolas Slonimsky’s Music Since 1900, a day-by-day chronology of what Leonard Bernstein once called the “century of death.” What I like most about this book are the brief descriptive entries for hugely obscure operas that somehow caught the compiler’s eye. For example, “25 September 1929: The Woman Who Laughed at Faery, fantastic opera in one act by the 55-year-old English composer Fritz HART, is produced in Melbourne, Australia.” I'm scared to know what happened to that woman.
I once had the honor of interviewing Slonimsky for my college radio show, which was called, not coincidentally, "Music Since 1900." He talked about giving piano lessons to the Tsar's nieces and walking around Petrograd on the day of the Revolution. Some years later, he did a solo at a Zappa show.
June 30, 2004 | Permalink
Felix Salmon on MemeFirst responds to my post below with his own strong ideas on the psychoacoustics of “musical chill.” I think we’re talking about musical moments that dramatize themselves as physical events in physical space — foreground, background, figures in a field. A little ways into a piece, our ears have mapped the landscape in which the music is unfolding, defined it as a given. When something happens to change those parameters, there’s a heightened chance of chill. The Shostakovich Fifth example — solo winds in front of a tremolando curtain — can be explained not just as a replay of a primitive scene, as per Prof. Panskepp, but as a simple break in spatial logic: we have to reconfigure our ears when a solo instrument steps from the crowd. Steve Reich mentioned a different sort of “chill” as the epiphany that led to minimalism — the feeling that went through his body when the two tracks of “It’s Gonna Rain” began to go out of sync.
Felix cites the Commendatore’s entrance in Don Giovanni, which is certainly one of the chillingest moments in history. What’s going on here? What provides an extra tinge of drama, aside from the vehemence of the orchestration? The Commendatore sings constantly over a plunging octave (the same notes as the “Notung” motif in Wagner and the commercial jingle “By Mennin”). The octave plunge is then repeated in the dominant, pushing ever lower. Down, down, down, down: we know what floor this elevator is going to. Another example: I remember distinctly the day during my sophomore year in college when I listened to Simon Rattle’s recording of the Mahler Second Symphony. I felt a thoroughgoing shiver at the end of the first movement, when the orchestra plays a cataclysmic downward chromatic scale. Rattle played it super-slowly and super-loudly, which increased the drama, but it wasn’t the volume but the sheerness of the drop that did the trick. (A lot of octave descent here, too.) Other random examples come to mind: Salome singing into the bass-drum cistern, the slight but shattering fall from D to C# in Reich’s Music for 18. And this “floor dropping out” effect is only one of a million spatial illusions.
Felix suggests that these chills happen more often in live performance. Yes: you buy into the illusion of space when you’re in a real space. Music of extended duration, such as composers tend to write, also helps, though I can think of plenty of moments in both popular and unpopular music where chills well up inside four minutes. Forgive the inevitable Radiohead example, but one moment comes in their song “Just,” when the guitars ascend four octaves. This smacked me upside the head the first time I heard the band live: I had the physical sense that the sound was about a mile high (and no, I wasn't). Whatever genre you’re in, the challenge is to lay out a familiar space and then climb up the walls. Minor Threat’s “In Your Eyes” just came up on iPod: Ian suddenly screaming “Do you fookin get it?!?” halfway through the song is an excellent violation of the rules. Or the curt ending with its missing chord: your ears go pinwheeling for a second in the blankness.
June 30, 2004 | Permalink
I enjoy reading science stories about music, but I sometimes wish they’d pay more attention to music history. Last summer, researchers at Duke announced they had discovered inter- relationships between the pitches of human speech and the pitches of musical scales. The coverage generally overlooked the fact that Leoš Janáček, composer of several of the greatest operas of the twentieth century, based his mature musical style on a painstaking study of this same relationship. Wagner, before him, made the speech-ness of music a cornerstone of his theory of opera. Since the mid-nineteen sixties, Steve Reich has been writing a series of works in which the musical material is derived note for note from speech samples. No doubt the Duke team have added new insights in their research, but "discovery" isn't the word.
Likewise, Nature recently reported on studies comparing the structure of tonal music with the structure of language (link via Arts & Letters Daily). An Argentinian physicist has found that Schoenberg’s atonal works do not repeat “key words” the way tonal works do. This, in fact, was the composer’s well-advertised intention. Writing on Mozart and Beethoven, he bemoaned the fact that those composers felt obliged to recycle their material for the benefit of the inattentive listener. The twelve-tone method of composition is designed to keep tones in rapid circulation and to prevent any one tone or set of tones from achieving primacy. (And yet, twelve-tone composers, starting with Schoenberg himself, have subverted the rules.) Schoenberg wanted his music to be more difficult than tonal music. He refused to provide familiar landmarks for the listener. It’s not as if he didn’t know what he was doing.
What’s really novel in the science/music field are researches into psychoacoustics — how the brain processes music, sound, and noise. Steven Johnson mentions some of these studies in his new book Mind Wide Open, a riveting survey of modern neuroscience that has the eerie effect of seeming to be reading you. His notes led me to an article by Jaak Panskepp, who has investigated the phenomenon of the “musical chill,” in which listeners are suddenly overcome by a physical tremor that runs down the body and raises the hairs on the skin. Panskepp says that music in which a solo instrument steps in front of a softer background is especially prone to cause this effect. He compares such moments to “the separation call of young animals, the primal cry of despair to signal caretakers to exhibit social care and attention.” I immediately thought of the Largo of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, in which solo winds sing out plaintive motifs over a backdrop of tremolando strings. An entire nation is crying for its mother in the night.
June 29, 2004 | Permalink