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Friday, November 30, 2007

All Your Favorite Nazi Artists, Now DRM-Free!

So, please allow me to join the chorus of heavy breathing over Deutsche Grammophon's new mp3 store. I've been terribly curious about DG's recent recordings of the Sandström High Mass and the Berio Sinfonia, but not $18-per-disc-curious, since I've already got a top-notch recording of each (and not 128kbps-curious, either). Not much I can add to AC Douglas, Steve Smith and Alex Ross's enthusiasm over the return to catalog of various out-of-print recordings, except to note that (a) Henze's complete symphonies are available, they're just (like a lot of stuff on the site--searching for "Taneyev" reveals a lot more than picking him out of the dropdown menu) well-hidden, and (b) the webshop seems to offer the added bonus of eliminating the Atlantic divide in release/reissue schedules. Want a CD of Karajan conducting Bruckner's Third? Tough luck. Here's the only available issue, a $144 German import. Want it on mp3? That'll be $12.36, please. Or even better, want to hear Pierre Boulez's "forthcoming" Mahler recording? $23, and you'll get to hear it before it shows up at your local record shop. If I had $23 to spend on Mahler right now, I'd be listening to that bad mother even as I type this. You just know it's gonna be mad lucid. My only disappointment is that I am unable to download much evidence that the ill-conceived "DG ReComposed" project ever existed. Those friends of mine who have never heard the dancehall remix of Karajan conducting Dvořák will have to persist in their blissful, blissful ignorance.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Why on Earth Are Old People So Afraid of iPods

Seriously. If you haven't read this Anthony Tommasini piece on the subject, I'll give you the gist: he's convinced that the audiophile is a dying breed, basically for no reason other than that this meme is frickin' unkillable. He speaks to a number of people who actually work in home audio equipment and therefore might know better, and indeed they assure him that this is not the case, but he decides they're wrong because he likes his scratchy Schnabel records and because the Gramophone doesn't dedicate as many pages to vacuum-tube receivers as it used to. Okay. First of all, I question how many iPod naysayers could really tell the difference between a variable-bitrate mp3 and a CD of the same music. A high-quality mp3, in fact, sounds really, really good. A clean, flawless record sounds better, yes, but doesn't a Super-Audio CD sound better still? Every high-profile classical release comes out on SACD nowadays, and more and more homes are equipped with SACD-compatible 5.1-surround setups that take a big ol' crap on the quadrophonic sound spectaculars of the audiophile heyday. Know somebody with one of those new PlayStations? Guess what: according to a report in a recent (yup) Gramophone, the PS3 happens to include an extremely competitive SACD player. So that means, the turntable your creepy rich uncle wouldn't let you touch? Probably doesn't sound as good as your friend's new toy. Maybe the reason advertising for the audiophile market has gone down is simply because not many people can shell out for truly state-of-the-art audio. Have you ever talked to one of these people? Ask how much they spend on speaker wire alone. Mp3 players, on the other hand, are not only convenient, but affordable--the market is much larger. And, look, iPods and audiophilia are not mutually exclusive. Nobody puts a gun to your head and says, "Compress." The newest iPod holds 160 GB, which is enough to contain the complete works of Bach and the complete works of Beethoven, without compression, in CD-quality sound, for under $400, and it's the size of a pack of cards. Still not fancy enough? Here! Accessorize with vacuum tubes.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Nightstand! Of! STEEL!!!

Look, I've already said this to two people tonight, so I'm going to post it here, and I won't have to repeat it again: No, I have not read the Alex Ross book. I'm sure it's great. I know everyone's read it but me. I can't wait to pick it up. But I have not even bought a copy, and I will not buy a copy until I have finished reading Now, Voyagers by James McCourt (of Queer Street fame). If you haven't heard, Now, Voyagers is the sequel to Mawrdew Czgowchwz, the opera-queen novel as unpronounceable as it is indispensible. (Actually, it's pronounced "Mardu Gorgeous," so maybe just call it "the opera-queen novel" and we'll leave it at that.) If you are a faggot, like myself, and care enough about classical music to be reading this blog, you should probably be reading Mawrdew Czgowchwz right now instead of anything I have to say. And even if you are just a homo and do not care about classical music in the slightest, and have stumbled across this website through one of those crazy internet accidents, you should definitely be reading Queer Street instead of anything I have to say, because that book is the user's manual that they should have handed out with your homosexuality. Anyhow, I've only read the first few, insane pages of Now, Voyagers, because I've decided I'm not going to start reading it in earnest until I finish War and Peace. Yeah, you heard me. See, I've never read it, and here it is in this new translation from Pevear and Volokhonsky, our two most faithful guides to Russian literature, and check out how beautiful, just to look at! Now take off the dust jacket--still beautiful! Gorgeous. I smile to see it on my shelf. And there it sits. Because of course, before I even start in on War and Peace, I'd better finish reading Sodom and Gomorrah, because otherwise that would be one enormous novel too many--Sodom and Peace, War and Gomorrah, I'd get it all mixed up. But I've taken a short break from Sodom and Gomorrah to read La Colmena (The Hive), an astonishingly vicious novel of life after the Spanish Civil War by Nobel-laureate Camilo José Cela. Cela was an interesting character: a nobleman, an officer and, later, spy for Franco (betraying his fellow writers to the Fascist government), he was also famous for having claimed, in a televised interview, to be able to take a liter of water into his body through his asshole. (He offered to demonstrate for the cameras.) This translation is terrible, though, and so I've stopped reading it except as a crib to the original Spanish, which I'm reading in a beautiful scholarly edition, except that I've paused to read the most charming little thing: You're an Animal, Viskovitz! by Alessandro Boffa. A novel, kind of, it tells the story of Viskovitz, everyschlemiel, as his soul wanders from beast to beast--snail, dung beetle, chameleon, elk, parrot--looking for love. I hate to say, "Think blank meets blank," but maybe it'll help if I tell you to think, What if Woody Allen wrote Invisible Cities? Not as deep as Calvino maybe, not as funny as Allen at his best, but still a terrifically funny, insightful, remarkably sustained performance. Each chapter is a self-contained fable on the animal in man (and woman). And look, Roz Chast did the cover! It's great! You love her! Yeah, you'd better read this book, too. Anyhow, I'm delighted to add Alex Ross to the list. I'm just sayin', it might take a while. Bear with me, people.

Friday, November 16, 2007

A. is for Anonymous

A.C Douglas, blogger and mystery writer of note, also has some issues with that Bernard Holland piece on how to prepare (or not) for a premiere performance. Of course, it's not Holland's method of preparation that Douglas has trouble with:

A perfectly sensible way to go about the thing, actually (remember, as a professional critic Mr. Holland has to write not only about the new work, but about the work within its total context which might very well have to take note of “what the composer eats for breakfast”), and certainly no cause for setting anyone’s teeth on edge. Unless, of course, one disregards the context of what Mr. Holland wrote, and, as absurd as the conclusion is, concludes from his words, as it seems did at least one blogger, that Mr. Holland makes his judgment on the new work without listening to it or to any other work the new work’s composer has written previously when it was perfectly clear that what Mr. Holland meant was simply that he doesn’t listen to the new work via any source before hearing it at its premiere.

Emphasis mine. (Syntax his.) The burning question: who is this "one blogger"? Who could possibly read the words "I don't listen to anything" as meaning anything other than "I don't listen to anything [with the possible exception of other recorded pieces, if any, by the same composer]"? No names are named; no links are linked... If anyone can fill us in, feel free to leave a comment (anonymous or otherwise) below.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

"Surprise Me."

Bernard Holland, New York Times, 11/4/07:

How do I prepare for premieres? I read about the people and the circumstances, where the piece came from and what the composer eats for breakfast. If I have a score, I look at the orchestration. It’s nice to know how many crayons are in the composer’s coloring box. I don’t listen to anything. Surprise me.
Dan Johnson, blog, 11/4/07:
Jesus, and I thought I was lazy! Is this where the bar is set for classical criticism? I can't imagine the world's laziest pop critic actually bragging that he doesn't bother listening to a band's records before he goes to hear them play. It's nice that he wants to maintain the magic and specialness of a New York Premiere or whatever, but that's a small price to pay for journalistic rigor. For one thing, a listen on your home stereo or at the will tell you whether the flubbed moment you hear onstage is a slip of the composer's pen or of the fiddler's fingers, and you can assign blame/credit where it's due. That's just good sense. For another--as glad as I am that the critical pendulum has swung away from the attitude High Fidelity magazine called "Who Cares If You Listen?"--audiences should be, and in fact are, more charitable and more engaged with the composer's project than Holland seems to expect. People who shell out for Carnegie Hall tickets really do have some idea what they're getting themselves into. Most of them don't walk into Zorn hoping it'll sound like Glass, or vice versa. While reading about a composer or the origin of a piece can be a useful strategy too, it's far less useful than just using your ears. Paying too much attention to the intentions and techniques that go towards the construction of a piece can lead a listener straight into what Richard Taruskin calls the "poietic fallacy," or as Dr. David Thorpe put it (both re: critical reception of Arnold Schönberg), "This guy probably thinks his $100 Mishka shirt is pulling off some awesome look, but to most of us he is indistinguishable from a guy who just spent $7 at the worst thrift store in the world." Furthermore, reading too much about "where the piece came from"-- Hey, wait a minute. I just remembered something.
Bernard Holland, New York Times, 3/19/07:
Explaining why Elizabethan church music and pieces by the young American Nico Muhly were found together onstage at Zankel Hall on Friday requires intellectual gymnastics beyond my competence.
Dan Johnson, program note, 3/16/07:
Nico Muhly's Clear Music literally begins where Taverner's Mater Christi Sanctissima leaves off. An unaccompanied cello quotes a passage, near the end of Taverner's antiphon, in which the trebles soar to a pitch two octaves higher than the next part down.
Dan Johnson, blog, 11/4/07:
Hmm. So, maybe he doesn't always read about the people, or the circumstances, or where the piece came from. And he never listens. What, exactly, does he get paid to do? Show up to free concerts and then write about his feelings? Please, let's do our homework! Mr. Holland, we all care. Please listen.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Spread the Word

I hope you have all run out and bought your copies of David Crystal's new anthology of 4000 entries from Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language. It seems odd to call an abridged dictionary an "anthology," but that is what we have here--Johnson's definition of the word (omitted, alas, in the present edition) definites it as "a collection of flowers, verses, or devotions," and Crystal has brought us a bouquet of the sweetest, most perfectly formed wildflowers that ever bloomed in a reference work. JoJo and I were practically fighting over it. "Did you get to 'dab' yet?" he said. "Read 'dab'!" Ahem.

To DAB. v.a. [dauber, Fr.] To strike gently with something soft or moist. A sore should never be wiped by drawing a piece of tow or rag over it, but only by dabbing it with fine lint. SHARP. A DAB. n.s. [from the verb.] 1. A small lump of any thing. 2. A blow with something moist or soft. 3. Something moist or slimy thrown upon one. 4. [In low language.] An artist; a man expert at something. This is not used in writing. 5. A kind of small flat fish. Of flat fish there are rays, flowks, dabs, plaice. CAREW.

See how good? What serious dictionary ever had so strong a voice? Wry, muscular. I love "strike gently," I love the evocatively dabbing quality of the vague and lumpy diction in the noun definition, I love the stern usage tip, and I even love that the second sample-sentence is at once so musical and so bafflingly useless. There have been other editions of Dr. Johnson's dictionary in recent years, maybe none so thoughtfully compiled (Crystal's introduction is a worthwhile read in its own right) as this one. Buy a spare; keep one copy beside the bathtub at all times and reintroduce yourself to the English language.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

It Was Bound to Happen Sooner or Later

My mother came home from her morning walk to find a pair of agents from the Department of Homeland Security standing on her front porch. Having found nobody at home, they were talking to my dad (away on business) on his cellphone, trying to find out why they had no record that my parents' Kurdish exchange student ever returned to Iraq. Well, he did, my mother said. He went home to Kurdistan, and then he came back to live with his brother in the States, and now he works at a 7/11 in Canada. My family saw him off at the airport personally, so if the Department of Homeland Security didn't have a record of his leaving California, it was probably because of a fuckup at the Department of Homeland Security. (She didn't say "fuckup.") They asked if she was still in touch with him, and she said yes, they email regularly. What was his email address? Well, she didn't feel comfortable giving that out, but if they'd like to leave their contact information, she could send it to him. "That will probably put me on a no-fly list," she joked to my aunt. Sure, Mom, it's all a big joke until you wake up naked in Guantanamo, chained to a concrete floor. So we can all breathe a sigh of relief, I guess--our nation is now protected from terrorists by an agency of men and women who can't keep track of a damn high school honors student. Thanks, Dubya!