January 27, 2013 | Permalink
A number of people — namely, one person — asked me to post a playlist from my recent lecture at Southbank. It may be found below. These aren't necessarily my recommended recordings for each and every work, though I used many old favorites. Afterward, I was gently upbraided by Raymond Coffer for presenting outdated information about the suicide of Richard Gerstl. Dr. Coffer has recently published online his doctoral thesis on the fatal triangle of Gerstl, Schoenberg, and Mathilde Schoenberg. A summary of his findings may be found here; anyone who writes about the Second Quartet should take note of them. Dr. Coffer has cast doubt on the story that Gerstl burned some of his work before committing suicide, and he also notes that the act took place not at night but in the late afternoon.
January 27, 2013 | Permalink
January 24, 2013 | Permalink
The forgotten Afro-Swedish contralto, whom Gounod hailed as one of the most beautiful voices he had ever heard, lies in this area of Gunnersbury Cemetery, in London. Her headstone is no longer extant; I decided to consider the tree her monument. I will speak about her at the WagnerWorldWide Conference, in Columbia, South Carolina, on Jan. 31.
January 24, 2013 | Permalink
January 22, 2013 | Permalink
Here is a new version of Generation Kill, Stefan Prins's ferocious study of joystick technology and drone warfare, which the Nadar Ensemble first performed at Donaueschingen last fall. My report on the festival is here.
January 21, 2013 | Permalink
I have several appearances coming up this month. On January 19th, The Rest Is Noise, a year-long festival inspired by the book of the same title, opens at Southbank Centre in London. I'll give four allied lectures over the course of the year; the first of these, "The Big Bang," is at noon on the 19th, in Queen Elizabeth Hall. It will survey the emergence of radical new musical languages in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Expect audio snippets of Debussy, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartók, and many others, though Salome, featured that night at the London Philharmonic, will be the center of attention. The following day I'll converse with Jude Kelly, artistic director of Southbank. Details are here. Happily, I'll also be able to hear The Minotaur at the Royal Opera. The next lecture, on collisions of music and politics, is on March 2. As I noted when the festival was first announced, I was not involved in the programming.
Meanwhile, I have been working on a new book, entitled Wagnerism: Art in the Shadow of Music. I can't say that I'm anywhere close to finishing, or even that I've created a big pile of paper, but I've unquestionably read a lot of books and taken a great many notes. On Jan. 31, I'll appear amid an intimidating lineup of scholars at the WagnerWorldWide Conference at the University of South Carolina, addressing the topic "Black Wagner: The Question of Race Revisited." The talk will focus especially on W.E.B. Du Bois, whose story "Of the Coming of John" is one of the most highly charged instances of literary Wagnerism, and on the almost completely unknown contralto Luranah Aldridge. Time will not allow for an examination of the Afro-Wagnerian dimensions of Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained — a topic for another time, perhaps.
January 02, 2013 | Permalink
by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, Jan. 17, 2013
Artists who join forces in their idealistic youth have a way of drifting apart, as the later history of almost any furiously unified avant-garde cadre or underground rock band will show. In the past quarter century, though, the composers at the heart of the New York-based Bang on a Can collective—Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon, and David Lang—have sustained what may be the most convivial vanguard in modern musical history. Essentially an extended family, with Wolfe and Gordon married to each other and Lang living nearby, they run an open-ended network of concerts, summer workshops, recording projects, and commissioning series, not to mention the annual Bang on a Can marathon, which has been exciting and exhausting audiences since 1987. Their spirit has inspired younger colleagues, notably the twenty- and thirty-something composers gathered around New Amsterdam Records, in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The cult of genius has given way to a ritual of collaboration.
Perhaps the Bang on a Can composers prosper in one another’s company because their mission has always been a little vague, allowing their paths to in- tersect or diverge at will. They made common cause in the mid-eighties, while studying at Yale. Struggling to describe what they were up to, Wolfe coined a phrase that stuck: “a bunch of composers sitting around banging on cans.” All three were drawn to minimalist technique; all three wished to fuse classical tradition and pop techniques. Their early pieces had a punky, hard-driving character, and the titles exuded anti-academic insolence: “Lick,” “Cheating, Lying, Stealing,” “Yo Shakespeare.” Later, the members of the trio formed mature, distinct personalities, with Gordon drawn to densely roiling textures, Lang inclined toward spare vocal writing, and Wolfe apt to split the difference between shadowy dissonance and folkish simplicity. Yet they can still merge identities in multi-composer projects; the most successful of these is a kind of American-insecurity oratorio titled “Shelter,” a recording of which will soon be released on Bang on a Can’s house label, Cantaloupe.
In December, BAM presented two arresting new creations from l’atelier Bang. First came Lang’s “love fail,” a meditative theatre piece composed for the early-music vocal ensemble Anonymous 4. Lang, a Los Angeles native, discovered what might be called his neo-medieval style around the turn of this century, and in 2007 it yielded an intimate religious masterwork, “The Little Match Girl Passion.” (Anyone who clings to the prejudice that contemporary classical music is incapable of the most direct beauty should put down this magazine and go listen to the Theatre of Voices’ recording. If you never come back, I won’t blame you.) Lang’s vocal writing owes something to Steve Reich’s “Tehillim” and also to the latter-day devotions of Arvo Pärt, but it is more sensuous than either. The repetition of chantlike lines is not so much insistent as questing, questioning. It’s the mantra of a vulnerable believer.
Having invoked Bach in “The Little Match Girl Passion,” Lang takes an even bigger risk in “love fail,” going head to head with Richard Wagner. The text, which Lang assembled, intersplices various tellings of the story of Tristan and Isolde—by Thomas of Britain, Gottfried von Strassburg, Marie de France, Thomas Malory, and the wizard of Bayreuth himself—with the flinty stories and poems of Lydia Davis. Proper nouns are removed, so that old and new blend in a timeless stream of “you,” “I,” “he,” and “she.” There are some jolting shifts, as the libretto jumps from chivalric plights (“It is not wine / It is our lasting sorrow”) to suburban problems (“They can’t talk about certain members of her family, his working hours, her working hours, rabbits, mice, dogs . . .”). Yet the continuities are just as striking. One Davis passage crystallizes the narrative: “Heart weeps. / Head tries to help heart. / Head tells heart how it is, again: / You will lose the ones you love. / They will all go.”
The opening movement, “He Was and She Was,” sets the mood: four singers rotate through the seven notes of the D-major scale, periodically colliding in bittersweet dissonances. The lowest voice stutters rapidly on “He was,” forming a dronelike, almost electronic-sounding undertow. As in “The Little Match Girl Passion,” the singers accompany themselves on percussion; those noises open a sort of forest space around the voices. Although Lang’s pristine manner verges at times on mannerism, the atmosphere keeps getting deeper and darker: you realize that the grand medieval epic is serving as an allegory for the heightened emotions of more ordinary lives. At BAM, that point was underscored, somewhat cryptically, by slow-moving video sequences of bohemian-looking characters in glam costumes and heavy makeup.
At the end, amid ominous bass-drum thuds, a voice haltingly intones the phrase “Mild, light / See him smile.” Suddenly, we’re listening to an abbreviated version of Isolde’s ecstatic farewell in Wagner’s “Tristan.” Wagner’s words alone come into play; the music is all Lang’s, transcendently plain and stark. Twentieth-century music is full of ironic commentaries on the “Tristan” juggernaut, from Debussy’s “Golliwog’s Cakewalk” to Shostakovich’s Fifteenth Symphony. Lang, who is Jewish and whose mother fled Nazi Germany, might have been expected to join the carping chorus, but, as if bestowing forgiveness, he treats Wagner as one more solitary, searching soul, waylaid by loss. It is as potent as quiet music can be.
Wolfe, the most stylistically mercurial member of Bang on a Can, had nothing new on offer in New York this fall, although in the spring Cantaloupe will release a recording of her biggest work to date: the 2009 cantata “Steel Hammer,” a ninety-minute exploration of the legend of John Henry. Rather than try to resolve competing accounts of the story, Wolfe essentially includes them all: John Henry is variously described as tall, short, white, black, young, and middle-aged, and the music runs the gamut from medieval chant to dissonant rock. Like “love fail,” it is a musical archeology of a familiar tale, one that preserves, even enlarges, its central mystery.
Gordon is Bang’s resident experimentalist. His most celebrated composition, the 2001 movie score “Decasia,” created for the conceptual filmmaker Bill Morrison, detunes the instruments of the orchestra and lets them loose in an apocalyptic howl. Having produced several other works in a similarly corrosive vein, Gordon felt an urge to “clear my mind of pitches and orchestration,” as he said in a program note. So he set about writing an hour-long piece for percussion, a study in pure rhythm. Unsure of what instruments to use, he brought his sketches to the Dutch ensemble Slagwerk Den Haag. After a failed attempt with tomtoms, a member of the group fetched a simantra—a long, thin slab of wood that, in Eastern Orthodoxy, is used to summon worshippers. (Iannis Xenakis imported the instrument to contemporary music in his 1969 score “Persephassa.”) Gordon decided that six percussionists would hammer on simantras of varying lengths and timbres. His punning title was “Timber.” When BAM presented the New York première of the work, in its sleek new black-box theatre, the Fishman Space, the Times critic Steve Smith dubbed it “pound on a plank.”
Not any plank will do: Gordon and his co-conspirators found that a two-by-four cut of Douglas fir, available at any home-improvement store, produced the richest, haziest resonances, like the ringing of sullen bells. As repetitive patterns multiply and accelerate, swelling and fading in rapid succession, six-note melodies flicker out of nowhere. Early on, there’s an electrifying passage in which Gordon takes an already complex polyrhythmic scheme— twenty-four pulses in a bar against twenty-one against eighteen against sixteen against fifteen against twelve—and doubles the quantities, so that a blizzard of beats ensues. The piece resembles “Drumming,” Reich’s percussion tour de force of the early seventies, yet it’s more jagged and eruptive.
Cantaloupe has released a trance-inducing recording of Slagwerk Den Haag’s version of “Timber”; in their hands, the music has a surprisingly airy feel. (The CD comes in a neat wooden box.) But other groups are eager to make their mark. The performers at BAM were members of Mantra Percussion—young dudes in dark T-shirts who favored a heavier, more bass-oriented sound. The really uncanny thing about this piece is that neither the composer nor the performers have full control over the pitches in play. Although the structure never varies, what you hear on any given night depends on what materials the players choose, how the sounds reverberate in the room, how the wood changes under pressure, and other factors that only a physicist could explain. In what may be the most remarkable display to date of Bang on a Can’s collaborative spirit, the can now has ideas of its own.
In this week's issue of The New Yorker, I have a review of David Lang's love fail and Michael Gordon's Timber, both at BAM. The video above, filmed at a hardware store in Alexandria VA, comes from the folks at NPR. Helpful souls at Cantaloupe Music allowed me to preview upcoming recordings of Julia Wolfe's Steel Hammer, Gordon's Rushes (for bassoon septet), and the collective Bang on a Can work Shelter. I also worked in a mention of New Amsterdam Records, which, as most readers will know, was hit hard by Hurricane Sandy; see Steve Smith's important account of a recent benefit concert in Chicago.
Image from the Library of Congress; audio of Sousa's International Congress Fantasy from the United States Marine Band's recording The Heritage of John Philip Sousa, Vol. 2.
Yes, it's John Philip Sousa's arrangement of "The Star-Spangled Banner" in the manner of the Tannhäuser Overture, written for the Chicago World's Fair. Sousa was adapting older material here; his International Congress Fantasy, an elaborate fantasia on national airs composed for Jacques Offenbach's concerts at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, ends with much the same music. Sousa was young and little known at that time, and his slyly Wagnerian take on the future national anthem was eclipsed by the famously mediocre and expensive Centennial March that Wagner himself penned for the occasion. There are many more Wagnerian oddities from the early days of recording in the Library of Congress Jukebox, as I've pointed out before; perhaps the oddest is Sousa's attempt at perking up the apocalyptic transformation music from Act III of Parsifal. "My two most popular pieces are the ‘Tannhäuser Overture’ and the ‘Stars and Stripes,'" Sousa said in 1899. "Wagner was a brass band man, anyway.”
A gift from the Guardian: streaming video of Nikolaus Lehnhoff's 2007 production of Tristan at Glyndebourne, with Nina Stemme, Robert Gambill, Katarina Karnéus, René Pape, and Bo Skovhus. Jiří Bĕlohlávek conducts.
December 30, 2012 | Permalink
WQXR has a slide show of the great retinue of classical musicians who died in 2012. I would add, among others, Jonathan Harvey and Lisa Della Casa. Richard Rodney Bennett died in this city on Christmas Eve; browsing through his many and varied achievements on YouTube, I happened upon a scene from Murder on the Orient Express, which swept me away when I was a kid and still gives delight.
December 30, 2012 | Permalink
For the past five years, the New York Times Magazine has offered an end-of-year feature called The Music They Made — an audio collage of musicians who died that year. Lisa Hirsch was, I think, the first to notice that the magazine has a thing against classical music; with the exception of David Mason, the trumpeter who played on "Penny Lane," no Western classical musician has appeared in these compilations. The omission is particularly maddening this year, since we lost two gigantic figures: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Elliott Carter. Almost every other genre has been represented at one time or another, including avant-garde jazz (in the person of Rashied Ali). If the feature were labeled "non-classical music," that would at least be honest. But the editors seem reluctant to admit their bias, which extends also to print: you won't find Fischer-Dieskau or Carter — born in this city in 1908, astoundingly active until the very end — in the 2012 "The Lives They Lived" issue. This annual insult to people who love classical music deserves a protest. Here is contact information for the Times; those who are active on Twitter can mention @NYTmag.
Update: Hugo Lindgren, the editor of the Times Magazine, cordially replied to me on Twitter, explaining that classical music "lends itself less well to the montage approach" but adding that the feature "wouldn't suffer for being broader."
Further update: NPR shows that it can be done.
One more update: Wm. Ferguson, the editor of the collage, has replied on the Times Magazine blog. I'm grateful for his kind words about my work, but his answer is weak. He chooses to concentrate on Carter, although you'll notice that I put Fischer-Dieskau's name first. The criterion for inclusion, he says, is that "these are artists who have affected popular culture," who are "mainstream." I'll accept that argument in the case of Carter, although Phil Lesh may not. And what about Rashied Ali? Was he "mainstream"? I will not accept that argument in the case of Fischer-Dieskau. The man has sold more than ten million records. The songs he sang are indeed "part of the popular soundscape," and will stay there long after we're all gone.
December 29, 2012 | Permalink
Here are a few pictures from Christopher Dylan Herbert's performance of Winterreise in various locations in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden earlier today— a remarkably refined account, given the unusual circumstances. I also made a video of "Rast," but wind noise renders much of it hard to hear. The audience itself provided the accompaniment, by way of hand-held radios broadcasting Timothy Long's rendition of the piano part. (Long, a conductor and pianist, is the singer's husband.) Students from the Parsons School of Design prepared and displayed the translations; Jonathan Zalben handled the sound design; JJ Hudson directed the show. Herbert and company go out to Staten Island this evening to repeat the feat, as Make Music Winter unfolds throughout the city. Note also Amy Garapic and Matt Evans's Village in Volume project; they were the core of the heroic Vexations last summer.
December 21, 2012 | Permalink
Pope Benedict's latest attack on gay marriage unwittingly contains an eloquent argument for it:
...The question of the family is not just about a particular social construct, but about man himself—about what he is and what it takes to be authentically human. The challenges involved are manifold. First of all there is the question of the human capacity to make a commitment or to avoid commitment. Can one bind oneself for a lifetime? Does this correspond to man’s nature? Does it not contradict his freedom and the scope of his self-realization? Does man become himself by living for himself alone and only entering into relationships with others when he can break them off again at any time? Is lifelong commitment antithetical to freedom? Is commitment also worth suffering for? Man’s refusal to make any commitment—which is becoming increasingly widespread as a result of a false understanding of freedom and self-realization as well as the desire to escape suffering—means that man remains closed in on himself and keeps his “I” ultimately for himself, without really rising above it. Yet only in self-giving does man find himself, and only by opening himself to the other, to others, to children, to the family, only by letting himself be changed through suffering, does he discover the breadth of his humanity.
Why, then, the condemnation of lifelong commitments between men and between women? What would the Pope say to John Ziegler, the hundred-year-old South Carolina poet who published a book about his partner of forty-nine years? (Ziegler sent me a copy, which I will always treasure.) The intellectual and moral incoherence of this position cannot be sustained.
Previously: Love on the March.
December 21, 2012 | Permalink