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Thursday, December 6, 2007

Who Blogwatches the Blogwatchmen?

I don't follow Greg Sandow's blog, but I understand there are people who do, so I've always assumed there's something he does right and I'm just missing it. Gramophone cast a little doubt on that assumption this month by selecting for its Blogwatch feature an especially ill-informed and poorly thought-out piece on the music and legacy of Luciano Berio. Sandow's conclusion:

And in Berio's modernism, delightful as it now sounds to me -- and not just delightful; irreverent, too -- you run into a brick wall of limitation. Berio can twitter and burp all he likes, but the connections that he thinks he's making to the world outside classical music are all to highbrow theorizing, cultural, linguistic, and literary. You'd never catch him echoing a snatched memory of popular culture (unless you count folk songs, which I don't, because they're theorized, in Berio's world, as authentic, while pop culture, supposedly, is commercial and corrupt). So that's the boundary. He can giggle all he wants, and also cough and hum and murmur, putting sounds in free association with each other. But if I'd written a piece like this, and my free association took me to a fragment of Led Zeppelin, eyebrows would have been raised. Likewise, when Elliott Carter says that he's inspired (as, for instance, in his piano piece Night Fantasies) by the slither of unconscious thoughts in Joyce's writing, what he'll never do, as thoughts skitter in his music, is let them skitter toward popular culture (by, for instance, echoing a popular song), as Joyce does on just about every page. That's an odd, restrictive limit, typical of modernist music, but not of other modernist art. And it helps explains why modernist music has never had the appeal of modernist literature or painting.

Was somebody asleep at the wheel of the Gramophone? Within two days of this posting, Sandow had already received a reply correcting the basic error of fact underpinning this argument. Berio loved popular music, and his love was reflected in his composition. Commenter John Abbott wrote:

....yet Berio liked jazz, arranged Beatles songs (supposedly also influencing The Beatles prior to Sgt Pepper), and included all sorts of cultural references in works like Sinfonia. I always associate him with Umberto Eco, who loves mixing "highbrow" and "lowbrow" culture.

And Sandow replies:

I'd love to know more about this. I didn't know about the Beatles arrangements! But -- and maybe this is my fault -- I don't remember pop references in "Sinfonia." That Mahler movement, with the singing and speaking voices, struck me, last time I heard it, as quite notably Mandarin in its culture. I most clearly remember the Samuel Beckett text. I love Beckett -- he's one of my cultural touchstones -- but he's certainly not popular culture.

Err, Berio's Beatles arrangements are not exactly a secret; I'm pretty sure they're mentioned right in his New Grove entry. Here's Cathy Berberian singing "Ticket to Ride," three minutes into this clip.

As for pop references in the Sinfonia, yeah, it's your fault. Maybe listen a little closer to the stylings from Rod Swingle and his Swingle Singers, the gang for whom the piece was composed. Their vocal production is not quite as operatic as one might expect in an hommage à Mahler. Another pop-influenced Berio moment that comes to mind: the drumkits and brass hits of Laborintus 2. Great piece! Give it a listen.

Sandow goes on:

And the Beatles -- I've long thought that the interest in them among classical musicians back in the '60s has been misunderstood. For one thing, it didn't last very long. But mainly, people like Bernstein and Ned Rorem liked the Beatles because their songs did the same kind of things (with melodic and harmonic sophistication) that classical music does. So it wasn't that highbrows started liking rock. It was that rock musicians had started moving into classical territory. If Berio had arranged Rolling Stones songs, I'd have granted him a serious interest in rock & roll. Or if all these classical people had gone crazy for The Band, I'd agree that they had some understanding of rock. The Band's music is easily as sophisticated as the Beatles', but the sophistication derives entirely from American roots music, and isn't like to speak to classical music people who don't move easily on the rock side of the fence.

Why all this speculation about what Berio thought of rock? Let's Google "Luciano Berio" and rock; the first hit is Berio's "Comments on rock," excerpted in the anthology The Lennon Companion. A pity to see how much is omitted in this translation, but we get the idea--what does Berio like about rock? Its eclecticism, the simplicity of its materials, and of course the ease with which those materials can be reconfigured to assimilate Beatles-style avant-gardism. Artists mentioned: yes, Zappa and the Beatles, but also the Four Tops, the Grateful Dead and, guess who, the Rolling Stones.

(Non seq.: Find my new favorite Berio anecdote here.

The conversation was a kind of litany containing the great names of twentieth-century composition: Cage, Messiaen, et al. Then Rihm mentioned Sting. Boulez was shocked. Berio told him to go and listen to Sting's latest album, that he might be surprised.

Heh.)

Postscript--

So after seeing Sandow in the Gramophone, I sent another Greg, one of my Gregs, over to check out the post. His response was immediately to dig up an article in which Luciano Berio actively rails against the kind of "enforced ideology" Sandow claims was propagated by "the crowd [Berio] ran with" (nevermind who Berio actually "ran with"):

In 1968, Berio published an essay in the Christian Science Monitor titled "Meditations on a Twelve-Tone Horse." (available for purchase here.) This essay contains the following notorious passage: "Any attempt to codify musical reality into a kind of imitation grammar (I refer mainly to the efforts associated with the Twelve-Tone System) is a brand of fetishism which shares with Fascism and racism the tendency to reduce live processes to immobile, labeled objects, the tendency to deal with formalities rather than substance. Claude Levi-Strauss describes (though to illustrate a different point) a captain at sea, his ship reduced to a frail raft without sails, who, by enforcing a meticulous protocol on his crew, is able to distract them from nostalgia for a safe harbor and from the desire for a destination."

Sandow:

Serialism is taught in music schools these days -- or rather the history of serialism -- with great respect. Certainly it was when I was in music school. Nobody mentioned the derision of intellectuals like Levi-Strauss, which was as legitimate a part of the history as Boulez's excitement.

So true! Errr, except for the parts you misread, misremembered, or just plain made up.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Good call. His blog is full of errors. Consider his assertion that only one member of the Bang on a Can Allstars has university connections. He didn't name names but it's obvious that he means Evan Ziporyn. Which one of us should break the news to him that Lisa Moore teaches at Wesleyan. Her official bio also mentions a stint at Eastman. Oh and how can anyone forget that Robert Black at one time held posts at both the University of Hartford and Uconn? He now chairs the the string department at Hartt. One could point out more errors on his blog this would take up far too much precious space to note.

Judd said...

I know how you dislike sloppiness, Daniel, and if that's your thing, then Sandow is certainly not for you. He's the kind of blogger that makes bloggers look bad to mainstream media - he seems to do absolutely no research, and also seems to post about the most controversial topics that he can think of. That's an absurd combination, but if you read it all in its proper context, I think it's worthwhile and achieves its purpose of stimulating debate and discussion.

Despite all that sloppiness, though, there's a real point there. It's not really about Berio, who I think is a pretty cool composer, but about the way in which "the popular" is projected in the realm of "the classical". Berio, here, winds up being the fall guy for an entire way of thinking about music that excludes a wide array of approaches to music-making. Sandow goes too far in naming The Band as equivalents to the Beatles, but that's one way of getting to the distinction. How would you include the musical/gestural language of The Band in the context of 1960s modernism? Sandow's point is that there's no way in for that kind of music, and for many of the attributes that define music outside of that period's particular tastes.

The point is that it's not about Berio, in particular - he was an incredibly creative person who wrote some really great music - but about the culture of which he was a part. He and Ligeti were passed along - yes, even in my own educational history - as "maverick" figures who incorporated this or that into the Modernist milieu, much to the shock of those around them. But casting the history in those terms only serves to solidify the problematic Modernist bedrock that provides the what may be the only context in which, say, the use of triadic harmonies would be considered outlandish or surprising. I think we can both agree that we look forward to the day, and perhaps it's already arrived, when we can listen to Berio without the burden of his historical epoch making its presence felt. Sandow's point seems, to me, to be more about how those burdens affect certain listners who lived through those days.

Of course, now I'm really just rambling, probably sloppily, but this is a point that I think about all the time. Probably more than I should, or need to.

Dan Johnson said...

You give me too much credit! I'm not sure there's a sloppier blog than my own. It's just that other people's sloppiness is so much fun to gripe about.

Still, I don't think Sandow has a strong point here. Of course, his composer friends have every right to find Berio not to their taste—there are composers, performers, even whole styles of music I don't enjoy, for no good reason other than my own prejudices. But I try to overcome those prejudices, and I am happy to outgrow them one by one.

And just as Corigliano noted, laudably, that the pose of the misunderstood artist has grown tiresome, I have come to find the pose of the oppressed populist nearly as tiresome. I don't see how reciting this cliché could inspire a fruitful discussion. It may be true that Britten has never received the critical recognition he deserves; neither has Rachmaninov, or Tchaikovsky for that matter. When was the last time you heard a music professor sing the praises of Rossini?

But I cannot survey the history and discography of the 1960s and imagine that Babbitt, Berio, Boulez, Carter and Stockhausen were ruling the concert halls and opera houses. If they ruled the Academy, it's because they were academic composers, bred in the Academy with academics as their intended audience. If they sucked down grant money like an SUV guzzles gas, it's because their music would have starved without that cash.

I honestly doubt that their music was getting more performances or sexier commissions, even in those crazy 60s and 70s, than the music of Benjamin Britten or Leonard Bernstein. Were more symphony orchestras playing Berio than Shostakovich? Were they really?

I don't remotely buy this guilt-by-association trip—and I'm thinking you don't either—that if Berio's music was enjoyed by belligerent dogmatics, then his own tastes should fall under suspicion. And while there may be something interesting to be said about the limited regard of classical composers for rock music, Sandow isn't saying it! The truth is much more complicated than anything he hints at.

For instance: it's true that Bernstein and Rorem big-upped the Beatles, back in the day. And so did Berio. But what else, if anything, do these three composers have in common, either in their understanding and appreciation of rock or in their own body of work? Like, doesn't throwing Bernstein in with the other two ignore his own terrific success as a pop composer? Sandow has it wrong that Berio didn't dig the Stones, and yes, Rorem hated them—how can we reconcile that distinction with the old claims for the position of each within the dominant musical culture of the 60s and 70s (whatever that might have been)? Meanwhile, "1960s Modernist" Hans Werner Henze—yet a completely different sort of composer from any of those—famously claimed the Stones as an influence. There's hardly a correlation between championing a certain type of rock band and writing a certain type of concert music.

Sandow is wrong in the big picture, and he is mistaken in the particulars.

Anonymous said...

Which one of us should break the news to him that Lisa Moore teaches at Wesleyan.

Perhaps the same person who breaks the news to you that Lisa left the All-Stars several months ago?

Håvard said...
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Håvard said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dan Johnson said...

Very odd! The Beatles Songs are also listed at the website of the Centro Studi Luciano Berio and in his work list (pdf) at Universal Edition.

My suspicion is that your surmise is correct—that Andriessen created the piano versions and Berio the arrangements for larger ensemble.

Håvard said...

I'm sorry, looks like my research was a bit sloppy there... I have deleted the previous posts which question the existence of Berio's Beatles songs. But I am still curious about teh relation between Andriessen's and Berio's songs. I just discovered that Kate Meehan at wustl university has a forthcoming article on the topic, I look forward to seeing it: http://music.wustl.edu/meehan

Also, I will start reading your very interesting blog.