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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Sortes Proustianae

Sometimes, readers of English, you see the Latin poet Vergil's name spelled "Vergil" (as in Publius Vergilius Maro, his actual name), but more often you see the traditional "Virgil" (as in virga, or "wand"), due to the medieval belief--and I am not making this up--that he was actually a wizard. The idea was that you could use the Aeneid like a Magic 8-Ball, opening it to whatever page you wanted and reading a line out of context for the purposes of divination. You still hear about people who do this with the Bible, although I wouldn't recommend it. I do recommend trying it with Proust. I am certain he was possessed of powers far beyond the reach of mere muggles. The other day, I attempted to explain to a Spanish friend the difficulty of approaching Proust as an anglophone--at every moment, one senses that something is missing. C.K. Scott Moncrieff's translation is exquisite, but weirdly idiosyncratic. He called Proust's novel Remembrance of Things Past, which is not at all an accurate translation of Á la recherche du temps perdu, and the titles of individual volumes were also translated a bit too freely, even bowdlerized: À l'ombre de jeunes filles en fleurs (something like, "shaded by young girls in bloom") became Within a Budding Grove, and Sodome et Gomorrhe became Cities of the Plain. Some of these lovely quirks are smoothed out in the revised version by D.J. Enright, and some are not (Sodome et Gomorrhe becomes Sodom & Gomorrah, though Within a Budding Grove, inexplicably, endures--maybe because it's such a musical turn of phrase, and maybe because saying the words "young girls" in English makes you feel like a pervert). Not having the French, myself, to read the original, I try to cruise through Enright, comparing the phrases that wrinkle my nose to the same lines in Moncrieff's rendering, and then perhaps to later English translations, and finally, maybe, to the French (with a dictionary). Thanks to Enright, the novel is now known as In Search of Lost Time, even in those new translations, but I would argue that even this is unsatisfactory. Remembrance of Things Past is lovelier (it should be--it's Shakespeare), and while the phrase "lost time" has echoes banal (LOST CAT) and portentous (Lost Ark), it fails to invoke the obvious model for Proust's title--another English poem! He writes of "paradises lost" in his novel; why not say "time lost"? It's less idiomatic than putting the adjective first, but not so unidiomatic that you wouldn't say Time Regained for the title of the last voume, Le Temps retrouvé. Francophones and Miltonists reading this--and I know you're reading this--am I nuts, or is In Search of Time Lost just a better title? A few days later, when JoJo and I took a short trip to Vermont, I--inspired by that conversation--tossed a copy of (ahem) Sodom & Gomorrah into my bag, having left off halfway into it months and months ago. The afternoon of our second day on Lake Champlain, I said, "Let's take out the rowboat, and read for a while on the water," and JoJo was foolish enough to agree, not realizing that he would be doing all the rowing, and I the reading. Here's where I opened up the book. Marcel's mother has asked him if he would like to read anything while he is on vacation. He asks for the Arabian Nights:

As, long ago at Combray, when she gave me books for my birthday, so it was in secret, as a surprise for me, that my mother now sent for both Galland's version and that of Mardrus.

An endnote in my edition explains that "Of the two French versions of the Arabian Nights, Galland's Les Mille et Une Nuits (1704-1717) is elegant, scholarly but heavily bowdlerised, and Mardus's Les Mille Nuits et Une Nuit (1899-1904) coarser and unexpurgated."

Happening upon certain of the tales, she had been revolted by the immorality of the subject and the coarseness of the expression. But above all, preserving like precious relics not only her mother's brooch, her sunshade, her cloak, her volume of Mme de Sévigné, but also her habits of thought and speech, invoking on every occasion the opinion that she would have expressed, my mother could have no doubt of the unfavourable judgment which my grandmother would have passed on Mardrus's version.

The narrator then reflects aloud on the outlandish pedantry of a classicist friend:

I told her what my grandmother had thought of the Greek names which Bloch, following Leconte de Lisle, used to give to Homer's gods, going so far, in the simplest matters, as to make it a religious duty, in which he supposed literary talent to consist, to adopt a Greek system of spelling. Having occasion, for instance, to mention in a letter that the wine which they drank at his home was true nectar, he would write "nektar," with a k, which enabled him to titter at the mention of Lamartine. Now if an Odyssey from which the names of Ulysses and Minerva were missing was no longer the Odyssey to her, what would she have said upon seeing corrupted, even on the cover, the title of her Arabian tales, upon no longer finding, exactly transcribed as she had all her life been in the habit of pronouncing them, the immortally familiar names of Scheherazade or Dinarzade, while, themselves debaptised (if one may use the expression of Muslim tales), even the charming Caliph and the powerful Genies were barely recognisable, being renamed, he the "Khalifa" and they the "Gennis." However, my mother handed over both books to me, and I told her that I would read them on the days when I felt too tired to go out.

See what I mean? Proust has the answer to every riddle, even the riddle of his own translation. Which is better: the familiar, beautiful rendition, or the "correct" rendition? Ulysses, or Odysseus? Remembrance of Things Past, or In Search of Lost Time? Virgil, or Vergil? And Proust demonstrates here that to choose one approach universally, to the exclusion of the other, is the fallacy of prudes and pedants alike. You and I, we can choose both.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Spemalot

Just noticed Monday's fun post at The Overgrown Path, on the subject of oversized choral works. Our Pliable pathster must be delighted to have been proved wrong; he called Alessandro Striggio's 40- and 60-part mass "lost," when really it was just misfiled. The way I heard this story from one of the Gregs, the composer's name had been creatively respelled somewhere along the way (not so unusual), a well-meaning librarian--apparently thinking oh, they must have meant FOUR-part mass--dropped the second digit, and bingo, the piece was totally unfindable, damned to spend a few centuries in storage next to the Ark of the Covenant. Not until just a few years ago did harpsichordist/musicologist Davitt Moroney rescue the score from oblivion, and not until Prom 6, 17 July 2007, did the incomparable Tallis Scholars deliver its first modern performance. Unfortunately, the BBC stream (expiring on the 24th of this month) is a bit strident, so I think I'll hold out for the CD before I give it a good hard listen. Striggio's mass was probably, as M. Pliable observes, a direct forbear to the forty-part Spem in Alium of Thomas Tallis, who is supposed to have been asked, isn't there an Englishman who could write as well as this guy? (Answer: Yes, apparently.) The Path leads us, rightly, towards Paul Van Nevel's excellent Spem for Sony, with his Huelgas Ensemble, on a program (Utopia Triumphans) of gonzo Renaissance polyphony also including Ockeghem's 36-part canon and a 40-part Striggio motet. Incidentally, I just picked up Van Nevel's of a 24-part Annibale Padovano mass the other day the other day (on Harmonia Mundi), and I recommend it highly as well--in addition to just about anything recorded by the Huelgas Ensemble under Paul Van Nevel, a genius for rounding up obscure masterpieces and doing them right on disc. Now that Striggio's lost mass is finally recovered, what will be the next monster of polyphony to show up on CD? Assuming that forty-part Lassus motet stays lost, I vote for the never-recorded, 36-part Moondog canon "Well, Well Dukel." Actually, anybody who reads this, tell me where I can get a score for that mother. I want more Moondog! So much is still unavailable. Did you know he made an album with Julie Andrews?? Seriously. (Totally out of print, of course. Somehody help!) That's it at the top of this post, with the radiant Ms. Andrews in her fairy-tale gown--although perhaps they should have put Moondog on the front, since he was something of a fairy-tale figure himself (that's him in this other picture, with the spear). I think Joseph Campbell was the first to observe that every culture has a story about a blind, busking Viking contrapuntalist on Sixth Ave.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The End of New Music Part III: The Curse of the Son of New Music's Ghost

Fun FSZ updates! In addition to the usual internet-style craziness, comments over on the Sequenza 21 post also include some interesting remarks from Steve Smith, author of the aforementioned Times piece, and on his own blog, Judd Greenstein offers some clarifications of his own. I'm also glad to see him back away from some of his, in his words, "absurdly hard-line" comments on musical modernism. In completely unrelated news, M. C- at The Standing Room announces here that he has finally discovered the greatest musician of all time. But to my horror, he has willfully neglected one of my very favorite Prince records. Ladies and gentlemen:

That is all.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Lives of the Great Composers: Steve Reich

One time JoJo met Steve Reich, at a concert of his (Reich's) music here in town. JoJo meekly offered him a nice pen and the booklet for the old 10-disc Reich box set.

REICH [accepting pen and booklet]: "Heh, I guess if you shelled out for this, I better sign it. What's your name?" JOJO [having actually gotten a great deal on the box at the Berkshire Record Outlet, dot com]: "Uh, Joseph." REICH: "Joseph." [He signs.] "Nice biblical name."

Saturday, July 14, 2007

The End of New Music Part II: Son of New Music

Okay, as promised, here's my thing on the Free Speech Zone tour. First, let me admit my biases: I really like the dudes from the NOW Ensemble. Composer Judd Greenstein went to college with one of my Gregs (also with, by a happy coincidence, one of the Books!), then went to grad school here in town, and I still see him around and everybody loves him. Same story with NOW bassist/sex symbol Peter Rosenfeld! But while I've always been embarrassed that this review never (apparently) made it into print, I hesitated to send it directly to Greenstein and fellow FSZ composer Missy Mazzoli just on account of it's sorta ambivalent. This has caused me to act really awkward whenever I see them, as in the following exchange from a merch table at this year's 26-hour Bang on a Can Marathon:

MM: "Hey!" DSJ: "Uh, hey!" [Thinking, Is that Missy Mazzoli?] MM: "Remember me?" DSJ [unconvincingly]: "Of course!" [That is Missy, right? But the lighting's kind of off in here, and I haven't seen her in a while, and isn't her hair different, and what if it's not Missy and I say "Missy!"?] MM: "It's me, Missy!" DSJ: "Of course!" [Oh dammit, I have that breakfast date scheduled for the exact same time as her piece is getting played.] MM: "How are you?" DSJ: "I'm going to miss your piece!" MM [slightly baffled]: "Oh!" DSJ: "People do have to sleep and eat, you know! Ha ha!"

So yeah, I thought I came off well. Anyway, here is that Free Speech Zone review, which I still pretty much stand behind, newspaper-y prose notwithstanding, although... one more disclosure: Firehouse 12 is an intimate, acoustically flawless venue (the Mates of State record there!) with a bar that, if you ask for a martini, hands you something that looks like a fishbowl with a stem on it. Long story short, by the time this concert was over I was feelin' some martini, so hopefully my aesthetic judgment was not as clouded as the judgment that would have stopped me from saying omg I'm so TIPSY with NOW Ensemble's Mark Dancigers sitting right next to me. Anyhow--

COMMON GROUND You say "preaching to the choir" like it's a bad thing. I'm suspicious of political art, as a rule. What's the point of a piece of classical music on political themes? Did a string quartet ever inspire someone to vote Democratic? Or is the act of composing political music merely therapeutic? I asked these questions Saturday night--before the Free Speech Zone Tour played to a packed house at Firehouse 12--and I left with a few more answers than I'd expected to. Named after tour co-organizer Judd Greenstein's piece on the program (named, in turn, after the corrals to which our President exiles all dissent at public appearances), Free Speech Zone paired young, left-wing new music groups NOW Ensemble (formerly of New Haven) and Newspeak in an evening of amplified protest. The concert opened with the setting of an unfortunate text: excerpts from Sam Smith's "Apology to Younger Americans," an essay listing Smith's regrets "on behalf of all my fellow members of America's crummiest generation." I wasn't impressed when I encountered the "Apology" as an email forward, and I was all the more dismayed to hear it sung aloud. Former Green alderman and Yale assistant professor of music John Halle's introductory remarks, dedicating his piece to the young NOW Ensemble, were genuinely touching, and his seamless writing made the most of the material. But when the words "Bill O'Reilly" are sung by an operatic soprano (the excellent Bo Chang--expressive and articulate, though seemingly unused to a microphone), something has gone wrong. Patrick Burke's contribution, External Forces, started promisingly--with the weird, unpolished sound of vocal humming from the instrumentalists. The piece attempted to describe the corruption of stable conditions by outside agents, but the chipper melody that emerged, as well as its interruption by crashing dissonances, were disappointingly obvious. The "breakdown" rang false, and when we finally retreated back to that eerie humming, it too had become a gimmick. Part of the difficulty of writing for the NOW Ensemble must have to do with its eccentric, Bang on a Can-inspired lineup: guitar, standup bass, piano, flute, clarinet. When the sonorities of the piece were pure and light, these instruments sang together like a choir, but when the rhythm section decided to rock out, the flute and clarinet were unable to join them. Greenstein's Free Speech Zone was the most affecting piece on the program, though accompanied by an undistinguished video presentation. The composer introduced his work wearing a t-shirt reading COMMON (as in the rapper); according to his bio, "Judd's music blends Romanticism and post-minimalist harmonic and textural elements with a strong grounding in hip hop, rock, and electronic dance music"--but that's got it backwards. While the textures of the piece occasionally turned jazzy, a pulsing/strumming figure embedded between polyrhythmic strata, the foundation was unmistakably classical. The instrumentation of the piece was convincing not because Greenstein had found some place for the woodwinds within a popular idiom, but because the winds' Stravinskian outbursts and sinuous lyricism were already at home in a music saturated with early 20th-cenury influences. *** After an intermission, Newspeak launched directly into director David T. Little's ferocious Electric Proletariat, a showcase for their unique virtuosity. This band's lineup was more inherently versatile than NOW Ensemble's, replacing the flute and bass with brutal violin and cello fiddling (amplified for most of their set) and adding a drummer and a percussionist for even more edge. Daisy Press, the group's vocalist, came on for Keeril Makan's song cycle Target, based on overwrought verses by Jena Osman ("It seems to be moving," went one line, "like a body made of parts." What?). The setting did not impress, but the performers made the most of the score's best trick: pairing sounds from the vocal line with close imitations from the ensemble. Press's near-oracular performance was half rock star (she definitely knew how to use a microphone), half new-music diva, and the instrumentalists' ability to take their cues from the back of her wild hairdo was miraculous. The last two pieces on the program cemented the overall tone. The closer, a cover of "War Pigs" by Black Sabbath, was tight, loud, and exhilarating (though Press's intonation wavered); the penultimate piece, Missy Mazzoli's lovely and hopeful In Spite of All This--the strings "unplugged" for a little while--underlined the evening's essential purpose. Yes, it was a "merely" therapeutic performance. But it was consoling for the audience as well--a sorely needed moment of community in dark political times.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Towards the Limits of Kyle Gann

My friends know I have a conflicted relationship with Kyle Gann's criticism--I think his larger music-historical conclusions can be kooky, and sometimes he'll come out with statements that are just out-and-out wrong, but I maintain that he continues to do some great services to new music, and to say the least, the Village Voice was pretty stupid to drop him. (The fantastic Robert Christgau, dropped from its pages not long thereafter, was of course the Other Shoe.) This week's postings are a case in point. First, Kyle Gann talks about a computer font someone sent him that will let him print out scores using Ben Johnston's microtonal notation (cool!); he goes on to demonstrate the possibilities of this font by using a rather soggy piece of his own composition (not cool!), and then uses the comments section to snap at readers who prefer to use another notational system (kinda weird!). Yes, it had all the unintentional self-aggrandizement and ideological infighting we've come to expect from Gann--but now he's posted again, and suddenly I can't hate on him because he's doing one of the things he does best, which is championing composers you've never heard of. E.g., helping to keep the torch lit for unsung genius Julius Eastman, and this time around, boosting Gloria Coates, likewise awesome and underrated. If you haven't heard Eastman, you need to get on that--the set of his stuff on New World is priced through the roof, but it's essential, plus Gann's accompanying essay is terrifically useful--and it's the same with Coates. I picked up one of her string-quartet discs secondhand and, well, they're exactly what Gann describes in the liner note, ear-grabbing new sonorities organized with an engaging lucidity. I'm officially addicted. Still, even here, we see the limits of Kyle Gann's resources as a critic. Quartet No. 7 ("Angels") "is a Christmas piece," says his essay, "rare within the instrumental repertoire; Schoenberg's lovely Weihnachtsmusik and John LaMontaine's fantasy on Twelve Days of Christmas are the only other examples I can think of...." Really? Is it the repertoire of Xmas pieces that is so limited, or Gann's knowledge of the literature? Just off the top of my head, I count Barber's Die Natali, Crumb's Little Suite for Christmas, A.D. 1979, Messiaen's La Nativité du Seigneur, Penderecki's Symphony No. 2 ("Christmas"), and Schnittke's Stille Nacht, and those were all written in this last, atheistic century--I'm not even getting into Christmas concerti and chorale preludes. What was Gann thinking? One can only guess that--as deep as his expertise may run within his chosen specialty--outside of it, he has just a few mile-wide blind spots. Then something like this happens, and I'm reminded all over again of just how much we need him: I've just discovered a composer I'm dying to hear Gann comment on, a Lithuanian named Rytis Mažulis. Mažulis uses all those tricks Gann knows by heart--not only microtones, but also a Nancarrow-like exploitation of musical machines both figurative (audible canonic processes) and literal (clattering masses of MIDI piano). If you haven't already bought Paul Hillier's wonderful Baltic Voices 3 CD for the amazing pieces by Kaija Saariaho and Erkki-Sven Tüür, it's also got a short and lovely work by Mažulis on it, but to my knowledge, that's about the only exposure he's gotten from the classical mainstream. (One of the Gregs reminds me that he reviewed the disc here!) The fantastic Belgian label Megadisc is about to put out their third disc of Mažulis' work, and from what I've heard of the other two it should be a thrill. But who's going to give this stuff the serious attention it deserves? Who can write articulately and knowledgeably about Mažulis' techniques and influences? I'll give you a hint, it's not the P.R. people at Megadisc. Actual quote from their website:

Final Chapter of THE Rytis Mazulis Trilogy. As usual the final chapter show who is Master and who is not. This one is ... Master Mazulis !

Um, thank you, Megadisc. The liner notes themselves are only a little less ridiculous, written in a rich, purple dialect of Translationese ("The composer intuitively seeks to defeat the fatality of narrative (linear) time, explore the depths of a sound, and discover new projections of musical time and space"). But when I listen to the samples of his music at RussianDVD.com (stream the whole album before you buy--love it) I hear a composer who demands our attention. Help us, Kyle Gann!

And help me, friends & readers. Have I lost it? Am I obsessed? Am I the only person who lies awake worrying about Kyle Gann? Should I just shut up? Tell me what you think.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

The End of New Music: The Movie

I'm totally going to write something about the whole Free Speech Zone deal (as seen in the New York Times) and post it up here, since I wrote a thing about the tour when it came to my town and then it mysteriously failed to show up in the paper. But it'll be long, so hang on for a minute. EIGHT DAYS LATER Okay here it is.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Good-Bye, Indy

We went to the same college!  (Not at the same time.)Our town hosted the filming of the new Indiana Jones picture last week. They just finished yesterday. I guess all they shot were a few stunt scenes in and around the Yale campus, but it was horribly tantalizing for me, who used to dress up in Grandpa's old fedora and call myself Dakota Johnson. Also, John Williams was my favorite composer for a good five years, chiefly on the basis of the Indiana Jones theme. And most tellingly, my own dad still calls me "the Kid," because I once told him I envied Short Round's relationship with father-figure Dr. Jones in Temple of Doom. I decided I should steer clear of shooting when, on the way to the bank one afternoon, I spotted a lady carrying a binder reading CONTINUITY and felt my heart beat faster. Star-struck by the script girl: not a good sign. Any glimpses of Mr. Ford himself and I'd melt faster than those Ark-jacking Nazis. Or maybe I just didn't want to admit to myself or my friends how very much I wanted to join those crowds on the other side of the police tape, craning their necks for a glimpse of Han Solo in the flesh. Boyfriend JoJo, who manages the local bookshop, did have his own brush with fame when a production assistant came into the shop looking for a tome to use as a prop in the movie. No, literally, like, "Hi, do you have any tomes?" Unfortunately, they were fresh out of tomes. There will be no thank-you to Labyrinth Books in the end credits of Indiana Jones and BTW Your Boyhood Heroes Are All Old. But rather than dwell on missed opportunities, I'll look on the bright side of sharing my town with a major Hollywood production--through some of my fabulous new connections in the entertainment industry, I can share with my loyal readers just a sneak peek at some of the thrilling stunt sequences filmed here in New Haven. I must emphasize that this footage is very rough and does not represent what the final, edited film will look like after production and post-production are completed, but I think you'll agree it's still pretty exciting.