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Saturday, December 27, 2008

Open Letter

Dear Sony Pictures customer support: I purchased today a DVD of William Castle's 13 Ghosts (1960), which on the back of the box advertises:

Widescreen Version Presented in Illusion-O! Use the special 'Ghost Viewers' to see the spirits in 'ectoplasmic color'
But when I opened the box, I discovered that while the label on Side A of the DVD does in fact claim to offer the "Illusion-O" feature, I was greatly disappointed to find that there were no "Ghost Viewers" included with the DVD. Is this a manufacturing error? Is there any way for me to obtain the "Ghost Viewers" as advertised? Thank you, Dan Johnson IMPORTANT UPDATE:
Dear Dan, Thank you for your email. We will be sending 4 pairs of the ghost viewers to you. Please allow 7-10 days for these to be delivered. Thank you, [Name Redacted] SPHE Consumer Affairs

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Round Christmas

Have you ever seen Santa and Moondog in the same place at the same time? I'm just throwin' this out there. I am actually sitting in the choir room at the my parents' church, in Victorville, California, having skipped out on the Christmas Eve sermon, and why on earth is there WiFi in here? Whatever, I'm not exactly complaining, because I just got this in my email from Managarm Musikverlag: This is the best Christmas card ever! I'm going to sing this, tonight, with my family. Happy Holidays, y'all.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Blind-Item Bombshell

Oh wow, that's the first time I've ever gotten the answer to one of these! La Cieca buzzes:

Industry insiders are whispering that a certain impresario who recently upgraded his career from uptown new music maven to regional opera honcho may be about to prove that he is the Superman who will turn NYCO around.
"Superman"? You mean the Man of Steel? If true, this is GREAT news. George Steel is one of the best things to happen to the NYC classical scene in a long, long time, and as you may recall, has already given the New York premieres of a few operas—What Next by Elliott Carter; Lost Highway by Olga Neuwirth—too bold for the city's more mainstream institutions. Will he be leaving his new position in Dallas for the City Opera? If so, then so much the worse for Dallas, but if not, well, it's certainly not impossible to oversee more than one company at once—that Plácido character wears about twenty hats, but they all seem to fit. What's more, Steel has a great feel for what the city wants. At Miller Theatre, he found a niche: he looked around, saw what Manhattan was missing, and presented it very, very well. The City Opera leadership, working in the shadow of that big, big house across the plaza, requires just that same skill-set. I see this ship un-sinking.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Schoenberg Ink

Did you see! At WNYC's Evening Music blog, a picture of violist Nadia Sirota's Hauptstimme and Nebenstimme tattoos: Surprising fact about Nadia, she actually got those tattoos in prison, as part of her initiation into the feared and deadly Second Viennese Krew. Click here to learn the horrible truth.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

And While I'm on the Subject

I just now, like yesterday, linked to this silly thing I wrote for the local paper, but failed to mention: 1) that you should be sure and read all the way through, to the thing Chris Arnott wrote about Jack Vees' new piece, because Jack Vees is completely lovable, and his new David Koresh opera sounds freakin' insane. 2) that Wei-Yi's first rehearsal with de Leeuw took place the day after I interviewed him, and so I didn't get to find out till after my deadline "what's Reinbert de Leeuw REALLY like???", the answer to which is, "Awesome." The reports I heard from last night's concert were pretty glowing, so I'm looking forward to catching the show at Carnegie Hall tomorrow. 3) that writing such a short piece about Olivier Messiaen was a little frustrating, because I didn't get to go very far below the surface. I've been thinking a lot about his music lately; the essay that keeps coming to mind is this one, "On the Marionette Theatre" by Heinrich von Kleist. I know some of you have read it already, but those who haven't, please click and read the whole thing right now, because it will make you feel funny inside, it is that beautiful. Conclusion:

"Now, my excellent friend," said my companion, "you are in possession of all you need to follow my argument. We see that in the organic world, as thought grows dimmer and weaker, grace emerges more brilliantly and decisively. But just as a section drawn through two lines suddenly reappears on the other side after passing through infinity, or as the image in a concave mirror turns up again right in front of us after dwindling into the distance, so grace itself returns when knowledge has as it were gone through an infinity. Grace appears most purely in that human form which either has no consciousness or an infinite consciousness. That is, in the puppet or in the god." "Does that mean", I said in some bewilderment, "that we must eat again of the tree of knowledge in order to return to the state of innocence?" "Of course", he said, "but that's the final chapter in the history of the world."
You'll probably remember this exchange from the Japanese sci-fi anime Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, in which it is quoted almost verbatim. Right guys? Guys? Hey, where'd everybody go? Anyways, Messiaen's music takes this proposition seriously. His stated project is a struggle towards the Divine; it is dramatized as a dialogue between the human—the sentimental (an expressive vocabulary drawn from our common archive of tonal signs)—on one side, and the the mechanistic—the mathematical—the animal (not-so-tonal melodic and harmonic structures; overdetermined rhythmic processes; all that damned birdsong) on the other. Messiaen is writing out his desire to eat that second apple; he's trying to roll over that odometer of experience and return to the infinite/zero consciousness of the animal, the puppet, the god. (Or in this case, the God.) Don'tcha think? This is how I hear Messiaen, though I'm pretty sure it's not how the man himself would have articulated it. (Though when I was telling this hypothesis to somebody, he told me this Kleist is a very important essay to Martin Bresnick, which is exciting, and which I shall have to investigate.) But, so, yeah, I heard great things about last night's performance at Woolsey Hall, and I'm looking forward to hearing the program tomorrow at Carnegie, if any of you New York people are gonna be there. Holler at me! Just not during the quiet parts.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

UNLESS OF COURSE You're Near New Haven

In which case you must come hear the Yale Phil play Turangalîla-Symphonie at Woolsey Hall. Reinbert de Leeuw, cond., Wei-Yi Yang, piano, Geneviève Grenier, ondes Martenot, free, 8 pm Dec 12. More info here.

Redhooker, Twi the Humble Feather, Victrola Tomorrow

So it was no surprise to hear that Missy Mazzoli's delightful Victrola project just signed with New Amsterdam Records, as she is a fixture of the New Amsterdam "community," or should I say "commune," since those hippies all squat together in a giant condemned industrial space on the waterfront, dumpster-diving and making free love, but in other news, Missy emailed to tell me about this gig Victrola's doing tomorrow, at the new and I'm told gorgeous home of the Galapagos Art Space in DUMBO (which is a place in New York), and she said and have you heard of this band we're playing with, Twi the Humble Feather? But no I hadn't, because I live in a cave, in Connecticut. So I went to their MySpace, and would you listen to that, it's super fun! You indie kids will love it, with your Grizzly Bear and your Panda Bear and your El Güincho Bear! Srsly it's hard to listen to their music without suspecting that they're sitting poised on the verge of a big fat blog-fueled breakout. But you know who else is super fun? The other band on the bill, Redhooker, which takes its name from the Brooklyn neighborhood its members call home, namely DUMBO. Cool, bittersweet, with a tangy twist of old-school minimalism. SO: Redhooker, Twi the Humble Feather, Victrola, Galapagos Artspace, 16 Main St, Brooklyn, $10, 11 pm tomorrow night, dress sexy. Go go go!

Friday, November 28, 2008

Erection Correction

Ooh check it out, a comment from fearless soprano Melissa Fogarty, regarding her upcoming performance of David Del Tredici's My Favorite Penis Poems:

Wow, I'm very flattered by your testament to me without having heard me sing a note--thank you! But I must give credit where credit is due: I will be joined by tenor Robert Frankenberry. He will be singing "Now you know" as well as "Street Instructions at the Crotch" and "Hot to Trot." Even so, I've got some pretty "heady" texts--"Die Forelle" (not your grandmother's Schubert!), "The Importance of Gourdcrafting" (I'm sure singing about sex with a donkey is a terrific career move!) and finally, Rob and I will be duetting on "Please Master" I'm sure we will both rise to the occasion!
Hooray, thanks for stopping in! This only has me more excited about the recital—I can't stop trying to imagine a "Please Master" duet. Yowza.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Tardiest Concert Review Ever

So I never did tell you about that Eighth Blackbird concert Nov. 14. If you didn't get in, I'm sorry—the joint was packed, sold out, standing room only. If you did, go you! The crowd was young, hip, and attractive. The theme of the concert was "Two Mavericks," which (much to JoJo's understandable irritation) led to my paraphrasing the best thing Kyle Gann's said all year:

We in American music owe a great debt to John McCain and Sarah Palin. Those two have so cheapened and tainted the word "maverick" that it will be at least a generation, maybe two, before anyone will be able to use the word non-ironically again. And that means, surely, that there will be no more talk about the "American maverick composers."
Ha. His point being that, just as some of us (not Gann) might complain that labels like "post-minimalism" are reductive, or of limited use, so is he annoyed with the throwing-up-of-hands that accompanies anti-label labels like "mavericks," which deny that these composers might have been part of larger artistic communities, traditions, movements. Steve Reich may, like so many composers, resist that big-M brand of the Minimalist Ranch, but he is not satsfied to occupy the margins of musical culture; in a piece as his ostentatiously rigorous as his Cello Counterpoint, which opened the program, one almost hears him stomping his feet outside the gates of the canon, demanding to be admitted. I've probably grown too accustomed to the Maya Beiser recording—that lady can do ANYTHING—and hold Oberlin cellist Ted Rankin-Parker to too a standard, missing Beiser's ringing tone and flawless intonation. But if his cellism was less sure in the high-wire treble registers Reich wrote the solo part for, TRP nevertheless made a solid case for the piece. I have never been so confident that a piece of "new music" is guaranteed a place in the repertoire of an instrument. Actually, here's a YouTubes of Rankin-Parker sawing it off at Oberlin: Now! Think of the piece that accompanied Cello Counterpoint on that Beiser disc, You Are (Variations), where for one of the variations, Reich busts out the L'homme armé cantus firmus. (L'homme armé being, for those who don't know, an all-time Top 40 hit of the Renaissance; you can hear a pretentious arrangement of it from about 1:35-2:15 of this video.) Is Reich using the tune to make some kind of statement about war or arms proliferation or something, like Karl Jenkins in the retarded video I linked to in that parenthesis? Um, I'm guessing not. More likely he's making a statement about the seriousness of his own musical intentions, by using the tune as Dufay, Josquin, Ockeghem, Palestrina et al did in the masses they wrote, back in olden times. Reich has been catching a lot of well-earned laurels lately, like the retrospective boxset and concert series that accompanied his 70th B-day, and I think he's more conscious than anybody of his career's slow but inexorable progression from boy terror to gray eminence. The richness and complexity of his recent oeuvre demands to be recognized as the work of a master. Frederic Rzewski, on the other hand. His new piece, next on the program, was a thrilling mess. Inspired by Dürer's engraving, The Knight, Death and the Devil—projected above the stage during performance—it was a set of disconnected, inconclusive miniatures made up of disconnected, inconclusive instrumental lines. The piece asserted itself not, like Cello Counterpoint, as a composer's monolithic tour de force, but as a challenge to the audience. The foot-stomping here was literal, as the musicians were called upon to incorporate seemingly unmusical sounds, bleatings and beatings, into the instrumental texture, and implausibly, it actually worked. Eighth Blackbird's heterogeneous line-up, even supplemented (as here) by an accompanimental string quartet, could not be an easy one to write for, but the notes and noises alike were well orchestrated—a broad and nuanced palette. The piece's most arresting use of noise: at the foot of Matthew Duvall's battery of percussion, I saw a little metal pail full of bottles and dinner plates. Oh how neat! I thought. He's going to blow across the tops of those bottles or something. Maybe tap on them with little beaters, like how he's been banging on those big metal trashcans he's got hanging down. WRONG. Warning sign #1: The string quartet stepped back from Mr. Duvall. Warning sign #2: Mr. Duvall donned a pair of protective goggles. The Duv then took down one of the suspended trash barrels and proceeded to hurl all of the bottles and plates against the inside bottom, where they shattered into tiny pieces, and then he put a lid on the can, picked it up and shook the tiny pieces into dust, and then he poured the dust back into the metal bucket. Then the next movement started. The goggles came off, the string quartet came out of hiding, and with Duvall on the glockenspiel, the band struck up a dainty rendition of... you guessed it... L'Homme armé. Obviously, in the context of this Dürer pic—which was projected above the stage during the piece—and in the context of two idiotic American wars, Rzewski's decision to quote "The Armed Man" is not gonna be entirely academic. The Knight quotes a number of old tunes about arms and war, most of which I didn't recognize; significantly, both times I caught L'homme armé, it was immediately preceded by the sight of the Duv completely wrecking something: first the plates and bottles, then the trashcan itself, which he pretty well stomped into oblivion. Not a coincidence that the sound of crushing metal should be followed by a delicate waltz on a tune with the lines, "Everybody better put on some chainmail." (My rough translation.) It was actually pretty frightening to see. I don't know if you knew this, but the Duv is HUGE. Composers, if you've just been commissioned to write something for 8th Blackbird, be sure to include a part that calls for the percussionist to COMPLETELY DESTROY SOMETHING WITH HIS BARE HANDS, because he can totally do it. Afterwards, Michael Maccaferri (a.k.a. the Mac) confided that those residual bits of broken glass were NOT supposed to go flying towards the eyes of the latecomers sitting Indian-style next to the stage—it hadn't sprayed like that in rehearsal or at the Oberlin performances. There was some improvisation written into the score, but no danger, though since everybody left with their corneas unabraded, I'm thinking there will not be any lawsuits. Was the piece a success? The last movement, a melancholy piano solo achingly realized by Lisa Kaplan, brought the work as a whole to a satisfying conclusion—a little comforting at least with its strange, sweet-bitter beauty—but I stumbled out to intermission with more questions than answers. Obviously, these dark fragments were designed to leave the audience ill at ease, but how much, and in what way? The second half of the program reduced the band back to a sextet for a performance of Rzewski's Les Moutons de Panurge, a woolly old process-piece from '69. The concept of the piece is—wait, actually, instead of describing it, why don't I just link you to the score, which Rzweski has awesomely uploaded to the internet for you perusal (.pdf, .gif) and you can try to play it with your friends! Except that it's ridiculously difficult. The piece is conceptually fascinating, because it requires virtuoso performers to be at all interesting, but is nevertheless predicated on their failure, in a sense. Not only are you allowed to "slip up," you are almost required to totally trainwreck. For this performance, the Blackbirds played a version that dropped the nonmusicians from the score, and for a bit of variety, once the requisite trainwreck had taken place, the Blackbirds carried on in different, slower tempi. Which worked, musically, since the score is written to accommodate interchangeable parts, and since the 8bb kids seriously know how to listen to each other, but it wasn't quite to my taste—when it comes to old-school minimalism, I'll usually take it without cream and sugar. Then again, I am a bit of an aural masochist (as we have established). The last piece was another example of Reich's masterful late style, the Double Sextet for two Eighth Blackbirds. Now do not be fooled: although wanton googling will tell you that the version for twelve players is the one Reich "originally envisioned," and although Reich approves of the all-live versions of his pieces with prerecorded accompaniment, I'm told his preference is generally for the versions with tape, and with good reason. When Reich talks about his favorite interpreters, he talks about Boulez's Rite of Spring, Gould's Goldberg Variations, performers who hear "inside the music, like an x-ray machine," and show us all the layers at once. In the composer-supervised recordings of Reich's music, we hear this same interpretive approach; the players lock into a rhythmic grid, and parts in counterpoint are meticulously blended and balanced—all things that come naturally when the musicians are playing against recordings of themselves—even (sometimes) at the expense of vitality, expression, drama. This might not be such a big deal in, say, Violin Phase, but as Reich's musical language continues to mature, it begins to accommodate more and more dramatic gestures right there in the harmonies. We can already hear in recordings like Alarm Will Sound's Desert Music, So Percussion's Drumming, and Ensemble Modern's City Life a new edge, a new vigor, that Reich's own interpretations lack. The Kronos recording of Triple Quartet, with Reich at the wheel, is sensitive and warm, but what their CD puts across more than anything are the composer's contrapuntal wizardry—I want to hear a second recording that loses just a little control, that really exploits those Psycho dissonances. (I <3 David Robertson, but his disc disappoints.) So you can imagine my immense satisfaction when Eighth Blackbird's live Double Sextet, with six Oberlin kids interspersed among two antiphonal bands, rocked the heck out. The score was, well, your typical Reich score (JoJo: "I kept thinking of Sextet." Me: "Well then you should've like this twice as much!"), but studded with yet more of those bittersweet harmonic nuggets that Reich seems to be kneading into his scores more and more, like chocolate chips into already-delicious cookie dough. Er, or something. The rhythm section, led impressively by the Duv and the Kap, was totally unstoppable, and the two choirs of winds & strings were seamless. Every musician knows that dissonances are the hardest thing to tune, and Reich's score was filthy with them. The presence and expressivity of twelve solid performers trading these lines live and in person was, like, sublime. But I realize that I have failed to answer the question that all of you are asking: am I as disastrously infatuated with the Mac, after having finally shaken his hand, as I was when first I blogg'd him from afar? Oh hell yes. More than ever. He bought me a Guinness! It was awesome.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

I Really Cannot Comment on This

Miss Piggy meets Mr. Nureyev.Thanks to loyal reader Josh Platt.

Monday, November 17, 2008

¡MATA!

Look okay at some point I promise that I'm going to stop making every single post I write about these New Amsterdam people, but for right now you're just going to have to deal, because you really have to go see the show that Judd Greenstein, the Suge Knight-style mogul behind the NewAm record label, is putting on Wednesday night for the MATA Interval Festival. Featuring, natch, a pair of blazing virtuosi from his roster. 8 p.m., ISSUE Project Room (232 3rd St, Brooklyn), $10 (cheap!). Nadia Sirota, the violist on everybody's shortlist for World's Greatest Human, will be playing pieces she commissioned from Marcos Balter, the aforementioned Greenstein, and Nico Muhly. I'm listening to the Balter right now off of his webpage, and it is tight (a moto perpetuo for Walter Fähndrich fans?), as is the Greenstein. The Muhly etudes on the program fit in very well with Judd's stated theme of "The NEW New Virtuosity," since they collectively sound like a brightly colored bag of aural jellybeans until you realize that they actually make quite extreme and, yes, NEW demands of the poor brave fiddler. This Andrew McKenna Lee person costarring, click on that link for a heaping paella of free mp3s composed and performed by Lee on acoustic & electric guitars. He does the classical guitar virtuoso thing you know and secretly love, but he does the art-rock guitar hero thing too, and I'm guessing this should be pretty hot live. There's a lot of flash here, the sort of thing that usually gets pooh-pooh'd in new music circles. It's nice that brain is favored over brawn in this little world, but let's not forget that the greatest virtuosi have always had, as the T-shirt says, ALL THIS AND BRAINS TOO. So yeah! Go to the MATA thing. You can read what the performers have to say about it, here (Sirota) and here (Lee)—definitely worth a read—and Judd's statement, again, is here.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

CORRECTION

From the latest issue of the New Haven Advocate:

A story about the CT Roller-Girls ("Crush Them Bones," Nov. 6) misstated some details. Correct player names are: Ramona Rotten, Eve Coli, Paula G. Imnaughty and Liberty Violence. C. Mya Rage is on Elm City Bone Crushers, not WidowMakers. The WidowMakers have the highest number of skaters returning. Virginia Wolverine got engaged but did not have a baby. The bout on Nov. 8 was a full production event, not a scrimmage. Black Cherry will return to skate against Maine. And the lower ticket prices are not a result of the Pabst Blue Ribbon sponsorship. We regret the errors.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Important Notice for Fans of Reich, Rzewski, Bearinetists

Day after tomorrow AND day after that, sexy young Grammy winners Eighth Blackbird are going to play the famous Kitchen in NYC (512 West 19th Street, betw 10th & 11th), and it is going to be hot. Cello Counterpoint by Steve Reich and Les Moutons de Panurge by Frederic Rzewski will be performed along with two world premieres by each composer: the first performance ever of Reich's new Double Sextet in its live version for twelve players (guest-starring the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble), plus Rzewski's Knight, Death and the Devil, inspired by songs of war. Tickets somehow seem to be available for both the Nov. 13 show and the Nov. 14 show—$15 ($12 students), which is damn cheap. Show's at 8. Just to whet your appetite, here's a small fraction of the band, pounding out just a little bit of Reich's fonky rhythm section at their first rehearsal: Pretty dope, right? I like my Reich to have some teeth on it. I'm gonna catch the Friday concert, I'll see you kids there.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Members Only

From the lips of La Cieca, we receive word that David Del Tredici's long, hard Penis Poems wait is over at last. The Pulitzer-prizewinning queer radical's most outrageous song cycle yet, My Favorite Penis Poems, has finally come into the concert repertoire after years of teasing. Soprano Melissa Fogarty will be offering her golden throat to Del Tredici's infamous piece on the stage of Symphony Space on December 4. BAD PUN BREAK. Kudos to Fogarty, who will have to endure more than my obnoxious teasing to bring this piece to life. I've talked about the strange SM overtones of the composer/performer/audience relationship before, but a work like this really—okay one more bad double-entendre—lays them bare. Sheet music is, after all, a set of instructions; instructing somebody to look out over a room of strange men and women and intone the words (THIS IS ALLEN GINSBERG SAYING THIS, NOT ME) "please master touch your cock head to my wrinkled self-hole" is almost a sexual act in itself. True, singers are called upon to portray a great variety of characters onstage, but just reciting some of these poems in public could probably get you arrested as a sex offender in Oklahoma. My first reaction when I heard Del Tredici couldn't find anybody to sing these was, "Man, singers are a buncha prudes," but as one reviews the text it becomes apparent why a lady might think that singing the poem "Now You Know" by Antler might not be the savviest career move. Between what I know of Del Tredici's virtuoso vocal writing and his poets' eagerness to shock, I think it's already safe to say that Melissa Fogarty is the most daring classical singer in the United States. Brava. MORE BAD PUNS. All right, everybody, prick up your ears: you can buy tickets for Del Tredici's Orgelbüchlein at the Symphony Space website and discover, for yourself, the penis mightier than the sword. CORRECTION: Melissa Fogarty reports that she will be joined by tenor Robert Frankenberry at the premiere. Frankenberry will sing "Now You Know," "Street Instructions at the Crotch," and "Hot to Trot," and will duet with Ms. Fogarty on "Please Master."

Monday, November 3, 2008

Important Notice to All Pop Reviewers

That's not what "atonal" means. Please refrain from using words you ain't know what they mean. Thank you.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Adams Addendum

As if it weren't enough that my previous posts on Doctor Atomic contradicted each other and themselves, I've just come back from seeing the piece a second time, and this experience was radically different from the first. Worth discussing? Myih. I also noticed that I was sitting just behind everybody's favorite CT/NY power-couple, omnipresent librettist J.D. McClatchy (who will, don't you worry, get his very own episode of Libretto Problems) and amazing fanastic brilliant graphic design genius Chip Kidd (who came up with the dust jacket of every single book you've ever bought just because of the dust jacket). Managed to restrain myself from running up and saying HEY J.D. MCCLATCHY WHAT DID YOU THINK OF THAT at the intermission, but I am dying to know what he was thinking. Also! Let me point out that you can download the whole libretto here, from the Met website, for study or meditation. Okay to bed.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

I Speak According to the Book, CONTINUED: Libretto Problems, Part III

(See our last episode of Libretto Problems, here.) Hooray, so I spent the night in the city after the excellent NOW/Dargel show at Le Poisson Rouge (more on this soon), and in a few hours I'm going to see the new production of Doctor Atomic at the Met—to my many fans in attendance I'll be the guy wearing a brown cap with no friends, who vaguely resembles the picture to the right only in need of a shave. Okay where were we? Right right right! Mark Adamo. We might have guessed that Adamo knew an awful lot about libretti when we read this insightful interview from NewMusicBox, regarding his Lysistrata. For instance, Adamo talks about how in prewriting his operas, he draws up (1) a synopsis of nothing but sounds, just a description of what you'd hear if you were listening to the opera being broadcast on the radio, in Hungarian or something. Then he draws up (2) a synopsis of nothing but physical action and stage business—the opera as silent movie, nothing but dumbshow. Brilliant! He goes straight to the things that make opera unique. As opposed to Tommasini's eunuch-in-a-whorehouse type advice, this is the sort of trick an opera librettist or composer could actually learn something from. Opera is about the sounds of women's voices mingling offstage, and wordless cries from anguished baritones, but also about people clutching letters to their breasts and hesitating on staircases. On the one hand, music can be exploited as a tool for storytelling—but on the other hand, the music also abstracts the drama to the point where one cannot ask the dialogue to do as much work as it might in a piece of spoken theatre. A certain amount of physical melodrama, a few bold dramatic gestures, are key to the success of a big chunk of the operatic rep. This strategy is a bit old-school, however. What works within a Verdian aesthetic might not work for John Adams. True, if we were to imagine a silent movie production of Doctor Atomic, we would probably imagine a bunch of dudes in suits talking to each other for a couple hours. But I'm going to cut a few yards of slack for this piece, just because the conventional music-drama is so obviously not the model Sellars and Adams are after, or have ever been after. A third of Nixon in China is dudes in suits talking to each other; the libretto of The Death of Klinghoffer, about a hijacking and murder, is structured like an oratorio, not like a conventional opera—the actual death of Leon Klinghoffer takes place offstage, for instance, instead of being dramatized. What sort of opera composer would leave out the death scene by accident? Clearly something else is going on there. Happily, Adamo's critical approach, unlike that of certain music writers I could name, while registering how the dramatic goals of the piece depart from his own tastes, is also capable of addressing the piece on its own terms. He identifies what is missing here that was present in Adams & Sellars' earlier history-operas: Alice Goodman, their visionary librettist. Yes, this libretto is a collage, and draws on a certain poetic energy that only collage can provide. And so I think Adamo is wrong to single out Oppenheimer's John Donne aria for criticism—not only did the Trinity project borrow is title from the poem, but each line, in the context of the opera, takes on multiple meanings relevant to the situation. When Oppenheimer confesses that he is "betroth'd unto Your enemy," we wonder if he has, like the Doctor Faust alluded to in the title of of the opera, sold his soul for the enormous power he is about to wield; but when he sings, "ravish me," is he begging to be mastered instead by Good, or is he simply willing himself to surrender his own moral judgment to a higher political authority? Is he praying to God, or to the Bomb? I'd go so far as to defend what somebody (who? remind me!) has called the "carbs aria" of General Groves, a musical recitation of his calorie intake. This is an opera about hubris, after all; Groves is trying to win the war in the Pacific, he's trying to split the atom, we even see him try to control the weather—but he can't even master his own body. It's a good and revealing joke. (And while I'm being critical of Adamo's critique, I can't let him get away with this silliness: "Not since Szymanowski have we heard such opulent ninths and elevenths; not since Saarijaho, such shimmering harps and gongs." "Not since" Saariaho?? Saariaho is now. She is not dead yet. You cannot say "not since Saariaho," as that would mean, like, "not since last summer," which is to say, it would not mean anything. Nit picked, carry on.) The shift between these two modes, between what is known about a given political situation (what was said in the presence of reporters, what happened in front of the TV cameras) and what will be forever unknowable (what they were thinking it happened) gets at the essence of the Sellars/Adams opera project in general. Nixon especially focused on the divide between public and private life, between the yin and yang of historical/heroic/male vs. personal/domestic/female. In Act One, we get to see Nixon shake hands with Chou En-Lai; we see him and Kissinger sit down with Chou and Mao, and the libretto sticks largely to realistic, political/philosophical dialogues. In Act Two, we meet the missus; Pat Nixon takes a tour of Beijing, Madame Mao puts on her terrifying ballet, The Detachment of Red Women, and the libretto veers off into fantasy. Act Three finds the whole gang in a liminal, half-dreamed space of strange rhapsodies. And that's the thing—bringing a bona fide librettist on board allows you then to negotiate between those two spheres. Like, Pat Nixon did not really say, "Let Gypsy Rose kick off her high-heeled party shoes!" while taking her big stroll—that's a lyrical flight of Alice Goodman's fancy—but she actually did say, "That's prophetic!" to her Chinese handlers (and the assembled press corps), and Goodman then transmuted those two words into the aria, "This is prophetic." (See how a poet can massage a clunky turn of phrase into something musical—"that's" to "this is"?) In Klinghoffer too, actual quotations and historical facts are woven into arias of rhymed couplets; real and fictional characters share the stage. But when Doctor Atomic shifts registers between documentary and lyrical, the thread is lost. We back off of the action just when we should be zooming in. Whole characters turn into a blur. Says Adamo:

Pasqualita’s rainsong is authentic Tewa lullaby, Rukeyser may have been acquainted with the Oppenheimers, and Groves’s diet worries are amply documented. But a libretto is not a program note. Pasqualita’s lullaby boasts impeccable historical pedigree. But what does it tell us dramatically? If this is characterization, what on earth is stereotype?
Bingo. I'll insist that there is nothing wrong with going all high-toned and dreamy once in a while, but the Native American characters never get a chance be human. They never get to count their calories. They just have to stand around and symbolize unspoiled Mother Nature or something. I mean c'mon, Pasqualita? More like Pasquahontas! LOL! Hum. Some of Adamo's suggestions are not great. E.g., I shudder at the thought of a part for Harry Truman; one of the things that makes Dr Awork is its unity of place. And you know what? I love Doctor Atomic; I think it is a great piece, and I can't wait to see it again. While Adamo makes sure to distance himself from outright attacks on the opera, it's clear he doesn't enjoy it quite as much as I have. But this is twice now that I've read his comments on the art of libretto-writin' and immediately wanted to write somebody a big fat libretto (dude, composerfriends, call me). Who else is thinking this hard about dramatic problems in opera? We need more of this!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

NO, David Hajdu, NO. BAD David Hajdu.

First sentence of David Hajdu's review of Hallelujah Junction, John Adams' memoirs, in the New York Times Book Review:

John Adams is the Care Bear of the American avant-garde.
Wait, what? I—no. No, sh. Don't speak.

I Speak According to the Book: Libretto Problems, Part II

I want you to listen closely, people, because how often do I say this about anybody: Mark Adamo is sooo right. You got that? This is especially worth noting because I was an utter bitch to Mark Adamo last time his name was written here. But he's posted one of the best reviews of Doctor Atomic in the short history of this well-publicized opera, and you should click here and read it, right now. Then while you're doing that, I'll continue to ramble on a related topic. Anthony Tommasini has written this thing about contemporary opera, which if not terrifically insightful on the subject of contemporary opera, is tremendously insightful on the subject of Anthony Tommasini. For instance, it has never occurred to him that he is dismissive of most new opera!

What? I consider myself a proselytizer for new opera, I said, someone who has urged companies to commission works and attended every premiere I could get to, always with hopeful anticipation.

See there, that's where you've made your mistake. Hopeful anticipation. Heh I mean, not really, but if you combine that hopeful anticipation with a set of weirdly specific standards, you're going to be cruelly disappointed every time. Because the U.S. opera scene, right now, seems to be dominated by two subgenres, both of which are bound to be loved by certain parties and hated by critics like Tony T. First of all, we have the good old-fashioned American Melodrama. This is your standard opera commission. It is written by an Opera Composer—the sort of composer whose name you only hear in reference to his or her latest major opera commission—in a mostly tonal musical language that opera singers love to sing and opera subscribers love to hear, because it draws on the musical tradition set down by the great composers of the operatic repertoire. But who hates American Melodrama? Classical music critics! They want something that acknowledges Wozzeck, something that acknowledges the progress that music has made in the past hundred years, which is just as silly as all the folks who would complain that the operas of Thomas Adès don't acknowledge Turandot. Why are my fellow lovers-of-modernism so afraid to admit that Puccini was one of the greatest and most influential composers of the twentieth century? And while I may think that the "progress" of the past hundred years has been an exciting journey, I can still empathize with the guy who says "...but I wouldn't wanna live there." Then we have the Prestige Spectacular. This is a big PR event for the opera company, it's the thing they can point to whenever somebody claims they don't do enough new opera, they pour a huge amount of money into it, and don't you just see every damn dollar onstage. Oh, and the names! The director is a superstar (he/she's done movies!), the librettist is a pretty big name, and the composer is... the director's friend. Audiences tend to like it—they're, god forbid, entertained—and music critics hate it. No wonder, since music is the weak link. So when Julie Taymor, JD McClatchy and Elliot Goldenthal put on their Beowulf, Tommasini objected, "Opera has long embraced spectacle, but isn’t it supposed to be a music-driven art form?" Yes! Or—well, wait, is it? Couldn't opera be an equal collaboration between different media? Or even, god forbid, driven by a great director, or a great text? (I wonder if Professor McJeebie had Tommasini's Grendel review in mind when he wrote this.) These strike me as the chief craw-stickers for Tommasini. Every single contemporary opera he singles out for praise originates with a star composer, somebody who's as well-grounded off the operatic stage as on. His ostensible point, that "specifics" make an opera strong, as opposed to "mystical effusions," falls apart right quick.

The characters in Wagner’s “Ring,” as the critic and composer Virgil Thomson once quipped, spend a lot of time “predicting doom, describing weather, soul states and ecstatic experiences.” But has there ever been a more inventively detailed generational drama?
Yes. Yes, there have certainly been a few. Like for instance, some of you may be familiar with the Star Wars cycle, in which a father-son duo of fighter-pilot samurai wizards duel in outer space, with swords made out of light. Which, lest we overestimate the value of "invention" and "detail"... I'm just gonna say, Jar-Jar. I suspect that the real problem with "mystical effusions" is that they're so dang hard to write. They're a lost art, those effusions, a second language to writers of modern English, and so they always come out stupid. Take, for instance, the libretto for John Adams' latest opera, The Flowering Tree. Now, I haven't seen the libretto actually printed anywhere—perusal of Amazon.com user reviews suggest that the reason our record shop can't get ahold of any copies of the CD is that the physical libretto, the Little Book with all the words in it, was misprinted with no Act Two? Anybody have this problem? Anyway I only have a promotional copy, which I got a little while before the release date, and that was fun because I got to change all of the Act One track titles in the iTunes CD Database so that instead of being in English or Spanish they were all in LOLspeak. (In case you'[re wondering, I am also the person who changed the CDDB title of John Adams' My Father Knew Charles Ives to Yo Mama Blew Charles Ives. God, I am a genius. So I can't quote much of the piece, is my point, but the first lines go something like:
Children, I want to tell you a story of love, and then pain and then love again.
I don't get this. Are love and pain mutually exclusive? You go from one to the other? And even then, is this is the most elegant way to express the idea? It's a hair away from self-parody! "Children, I want to tell you a story of love, and then pain, and then love again, and then a little more love, and then sandwiches, and then pain, and then a new dishwasher, then love, love, love, pain, love, pain, in that order." Peter Sellars' Doctor Atomic libretto, while on the whole superior, is occasionally as clumsy in its particulars as Flowering Tree is in its generalities. Mind you, Adams' attention to the nuances of operatic text-setting is as keen as always, as in this passage on the dangers of radiation poisoning:
...enough of it in the human body eats through vital tissues, disintegrates human kidneys and causes fatal bone cancer.
The triplet rhythm on the words "eats through vital tissues" syncopates eerily against the accompaniment, creating a visceral sense of unease; the word "disintegrates," tossed off much more quickly, seems itself to be dissolving into the air. The highest note in each of those last three lines climbs just a step higher than the line before it, as the symptoms mount, until our hypothetical patient finally expires on "causes fatal bone cancer" with a dramatic falling-off of rhythm and pitch. Yes, if it were possible to wring music out of the words, "and causes fatal bone cancer," this would probably be it right here. But still the phrase creeks, clanks, thuds. What is wrong with these libretti? Who can help us diagnose them? ¿¿Y ahora quién podrá defenderme?? This looks like a job for... Mark Adamo!! To be continued.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

You Love, and Have Always Loved, Itzhak Perlman

Ever since you saw him on Sesame Street, you loved him. When you didn't know anything about music, he was the one violinist you knew by name. Then you saw him do a little recital near your aunt's house, and he reminded you again what a charmer he is. He charms you to death! Well now there's this:YAY, ITZHAK PERLMAN! He is your hero.

Friday, October 24, 2008

NEW MUSIC MORMON IN GAY FASCIST SEX SHOCK

Okay not really. But while the world "mourns" the death of xenophobic, hilariously gay Austrian politico Jörg Haider, young queer composer Matthew Barnson offers his own recollection of the fallen closet case:

This is crazy! Haider's office was very close to my apartment when I lived in Klagenfurt in 1999-2000. He was running for Chancellor at the time on his typical xenophobic platform where he gave speeches in an incredibly thick Kaerntnerisch dialect that no "Auslander" could hope to understand - myself included. And yet, I met Haider twice on the street - he practiced his (bad) English on me and and my handsomely suited companion doing our rounds as Mormon missionaries - all the more astounding because Austrians generally hated us... he was one of the few to approach us. I wonder if he liked Latter Days?
Dude, between this and Ashley Todd, my lulz runneth over today. (LOL, dude, I can't blame him, who doesn't have a thing for Mormon missionaries? LOL) Oh, man. Okay good night.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Dargeldisc!!!

It's almost Halloween! The nights grow long, the winds turn chill, the trees are losing their leaves, and every young man (or young womyn)'s heart turns to thoughts of love. Here just in time for the holiday is Corey Dargel's new CD, Other People's Love Songs, a concrete manifestation of that Commission-a-Love-Song project I was talking about before. October 28th, y'all will be able to go on iTunes or eMusic and download you some spanking new Dargel. Or BETTER YET, go straight to New Amsterdam Records Dot Com, where you have the choice between an affordably priced download, or a physical "Compact Disc" of uncompressed digital deliciousness in a lovingly designed package. Read more about the project here. BUT WAIT THERE'S MORE! To celebrate the release, Dargel will be playing a show at Le Poisson Rouge, Oct. 29, with his labelmates NOW Ensemble. No, I don't just mean they're sharing a bill, I mean he's going to be playing with his labelmates NOW Ensemble! His synth-pop artsongs will be costumed in brand-new arrangements for living breathing musicians—including, rumor has it, a number dolled up in acoustic drag by Dargel & NOW's other new labelmate Darcy James Argue! You LOVE that guy! How could you miss this. Album release Oct. 28, LPR show Oct. 29. Dargelicious. (Graphic ganked from The Onion Dot Com.)

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Yet Another Reason to Vote for You-Know-Who

Poor John McCain! He gets a lawsuit here, a cease-and-desist there, and bad publicity all around, every time he tries to use a hip piece of music to accompany his campaign. Last I heard, the estate that controls "Happy Birthday to You" forbade him from singing it before blowing out the candles on his Cookie Puss. Barack Obama, on the other hand, has been serenaded by a team of musical all-stars throughout his campaign. I'm pretty sure all he'd have to do is make a phone call and then bam, Justin and Britney would be in the studio recording their hot new single, "Vote 'Bama, Y'all." But WHOSE music are the Obama People using to touch the hearts of Americans across America? See if this tune sounds familiar: That's right! It's "Folk Music" by Judd Greenstein, from the album NOW by the NOW Ensemble, the now band playing now music for now people. You can buy the CD or a cheap, high-quality download from the New Amsterdam website, and I suggest you do so... now. (Via Judd's blog, natch.)

Monday, October 6, 2008

D.S. al Coda

Jesus these New Amsterdam people are the END. The living end. First I hear Corey Dargel's NewAm debut is going to be out at the end of this month (more on this soon), then I hear they've signed composer/bandleader/blogger extraordinaire Darcy James Argue's Secret Society, and then, I hope you all caught this Times article on the scintillating composer/performer/doctor/lawyer/Indian chief Caleb Burhans, whose itsnotyouitsme project is also down with the NewAm fam. The best part of the profile:

Mr. Burhans took a job as a substitute in the Rochester Philharmonic, which was sometimes rocky. Once, when Mr. Burhans turned up at a rehearsal with his hair dyed purple, the orchestra’s managing director asked him to do something about it before the concert. Mr. Burhans turned up in a witch’s wig, cut short. The next week he tried to dye his hair a conventional red, but because of the purple die, it came out crimson, so he shaved his head. “I found out that one of the trumpet players was going around saying that I was making a mockery of classical music because my hair was purple,” Mr. Burhans said. “And I had a really intense conversation with the managing director, where I said: ‘You know, I’m just trying to help classical music, because if we don’t get more people like me coming to these concerts, this orchestra is going to die. The only people who are coming are old people, and you’re shooting yourself in the foot.’ And he said: ‘Yeah, you’re right. Sorry.’ “But I made a sign that said, ‘I Make a Mockery of Classical Music’ and started wearing it around.”

I loved this quote because, among other reasons, the visual self-presentation of classical music is such a peculiar one. Lately people are rethinking this notion that a classical ensemble has to be a mob of old folks in black tie, for better and for worse. It makes sense, to a certain extent, that you want your orchestra to be wearing a uniform. After all, the goal of a classical ensemble is uniformity of sound, that no individual obtrudes from the texture. There's also the notion that, just as the players onstage are supposed to disappear into the ensemble, the ensemble should diappear into the sound of the ensemble, that you should forget about the people you see in front of you, and think only about what's going in your ears. The ideal of most classical performance is to communicate the composer's ideas; the performer is not a creator, but an interpreter.

But there are problems with all of these assumptions. Every act of interpretation is also an act of self-expression, though this may be more obvious in some contexts than in others—if you stand under a girl's window with a guitar and sing "And I Love Her," your hope is not that she will run off and marry Sir Paul McCartney. (That would end badly for all involved.) And classical music's attempts at a null visual component have themselves become strong visual signifiers, the black tie and tails increasingly out of place in concerts for jean-and-t-shirt audiences.

So while I'm tempted to say, oh, come on, don't be in an orchestra with purple hair (wasn't that an episode of Daria or something), it's about twenty times as silly to pretend that the audience is going to somehow enjoy the concert less because of one purple head in the band. Let's loosen up a little.

I'm just going to warn the classical music kids—who, and I am including myself in this, do not tend to have the greatest fashion sense in the world—that there are also style choices that are worse than the no-style-choice of classical convention. I think I saw one of these sweaters onstage at a new music concert once, and the huxtability of the performer seriously distracted from the music he was playing.

But the real reason I like this quote is, hello, T-SHIRT IDEA!!! From now on the Daniel Stephen Johnson CafePress store is going to be selling these puppies in a variety of styles and colors. Or better yet, one of these! This is the front and this is the back. All items are modestly priced, unless you are Caleb Burhans in which case they are free if you ask politely, and all proceeds go to support my CD buying habit. Thank you that is all.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Did I Make This Joke Up, or Did I Steal It from Somewhere

Q: "Daddy, where do babies come from?" A: "The stork brings them." Q: "Where do baby storks come from?" A: "Fucking."

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Murder in High Heels

Please people, when visiting Cameron Carpenter's website, set aside the immediate questions (Why is he naked? Is that eyeshadow? Is this the website for a gay techno singer? No seriously why is he naked) and skip straight to the serious questions, such as How in the world does he do this? That's CC's own arrangement of the "Revolutionary" Etude of Chopin, the left-hand part given over to a fleet and flashy pair of kicks. Is this the next Virgil Fox? Does the world need or even want another Virgil Fox? Did we really need the first Virgil Fox? Do we— Wait, wait, wait, stop. I apologize. People, we are too old to complain about "mere" virtuosity. I am going to shut my mouth now, give silent thanks that there is this much talent sitting on an organ bench someplace, and continue hoping that he will use these enormous powers for good. That is all. Carpenter's new CD, Revolutionary, came out last week on the Telarc label. Dig.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

But Can Galway Dress a Kill?

Yeah, she's no Condi. (via Gawker)

Monday, September 29, 2008

Graverollin'!

So we've all heard of the Cato Institute, the thinktank dedicated to the promotion of fiscal libertarianism. But we don't hear very much about Cato, the pseudonymous 18th-c. epistolizers the Institute ganked its name from. Well let's read a little bit more about them in this article from Dissent, which dares to suggest that such Founding Fathers as Thomas Jefferson were—like Cato, from whom the founders derived many of their ideas, were far more populist than modern libertarians and conservatives would like you to think. Here Lew Daly quotes Cato on the free market:

A free people are kept so, by no other means than an equal distribution of property; every man, who has a share of property, having a proportionable share of power; and the first seeds of anarchy (which, for the most part, ends in tyranny) are produced from hence, that some are ungovernably rich, and many more are miserably poor; that is, some are masters of all means of oppression, and others want all the means of self-defence.
Oh WHOOPS, that doesn't sound like contemporary fiscal libertarianism at all! That sounds like... well it sounds like somebody modern "conservatives" would call a goddam commie.

Well hmmm, so JoJo read this piece and has thus been inspired to dive a bit deeper into Cato. He retrieves this pearl, on the occasion of the collapse of the "South Sea Bubble":

What progress we have lately made in England, towards such a blessed state of confusion and misery, by the credulity of the people, throwing their all upon the mercy of base-spirited, hard-hearted villains, mischievously trusted with a power to undo them, is too manifest from the woeful condition that we are in. The ruin is general, and every man has the miserable consolation to see his neighbour undone: For as to that class of ravens, whose wealth has cost the nation its all, as they are manifest enemies to God and man, no man can call them his neighbours: They are rogues of prey, they are stock-jobbers, they are a conspiracy of stock-jobbers! A name which carries along with it such a detestable and deadly image, that it exceeds all human invention to aggravate it; nor can nature, with all her variety and stores, furnish out any thing to illustrate its deformities; nay, it gains visible advantage by the worst comparisons that you can make: Your terror lessens, when you liken them to crocodiles and cannibals, who feed, for hunger, on human bodies.
Ha ha ha capitalism.

Friday, September 26, 2008

What's Norwegian for "Quarter Turns!"?

Seeing as this blog makes occasional forays into the realm of pop and rock, and seeing as I am a big shrill gay, my readership has asked me to weigh in on the recent coming-out controversy involving a prominent figure in popular music. I have to admit, I was as surprised as anyone to learn that Gaahl—lead singer of Norwegian black-metal projects Gorgoroth and Trelldom—was gay. His aesthetic as a musician and performer is not quite in line with the notion of a "gay sensibility," whatever that might be. And his recent torture conviction, for the brutal, hours-long beating of a middle-aged party crasher—whom Gaahl ordered to collect his own blood in a yahtzee cup—suggests that, if anything, our Gaahl might be a bit too macho. Here's an interview with the Nordic menace from the 2005 film, Metal: A Headbanger's Journey. Bad. Ass. Well, news broke this past July that when Gaahl (born Kristian Eivind Espedal) decided to launch his forthcoming line of ladies' pret-à-porter, his relationship with a new business associate—Norwegian modeling agent Dan DeVero—had moved rapidly beyond the professional. And what many in the Norwegian scene had known or suspected was at last publicly confirmed. (Here's a photo of the two from the source of that article.) The reaction here? Quite simply, we at Daniel Stephen Johnson's Weblog are eager to welcome this exceptional artist and personality into the international gay community. And we can't wait to see those frocks. (via djmrswhite)

Thursday, September 25, 2008

I Knew Him When

Oh hey! Belated congrats to composer Andrew Norman, who just got signed by the prestigious Schott Music publishing house. Hindemith, Ligeti, Norman. I'm happy to say that, yes, I knew him back when his obvious gifts were the envy of his fellow undergrads at the USC School of Music. Obviously I should have married him when I had the chance. (Note: I did not have the chance.) OMG Andrew call me! (via NewMusicBox)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Congratulations MacArthurs!

It's going to be a great year for new music. Alex Ross, best-selling writer, classical critic and all-around advocate of pretty new sounds (yes MAYBE YOU'VE HEARD OF HIM) has received a $500,000 MacArthur "Genius Grant" Fellowship. Also on the list: Leila Josefowicz! When I was a wee little Suzuki violinist and she was a wee little Suzuki violinist, she was like a fantasy version of myself. She studied with Idel Low? I knew Idel Low! I watched her onstage, playing the Mendelssohn concerto, and thought, she's just a year than me... maybe if I practice a LOT in the next twelve months... Yeah, no. Didn't happen. But as she outgrew the Child Prodigy pinafore, she grew into the tight pants and body glitter of the New Music Champion, in which guise she knocked my socks off with an intimate New York performance of the Adams concerto some years ago. She marked the ferocious accents of the last movement with pelvic thrusts (she did!), and suddenly a piece which I had known through Kremer's sweet, wry, neoclassical interpretation revealed itself to be something totally different and–y'know what–better. She tore it up. When I heard that she had devoted herself to learning and performing the complete Adams violin music, I was delighted. Hey, between the MacArthur prize and this shortlist, it's been a pretty good couple weeks for her! And finally I'll leave you with a clip of freshly minted MacArthur fellow Walter Kitundu, instrument maker-in-residence with the Kronos Quartet and bird photographer. (Note that this ties in nicely with our earlier discussion of classical turntablism.) Read more about Kitundu at the SFGate and/or at the SFist, or just watch the clip below and be delighted.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Let's Objectify!

This is weird and creepy and offers to push classical music yet further down that grody path to the tits & ass & dollars obsessions of popular culture but still: I am perversely glad to see the women of classical music getting even this much attention. Go ahead, click that link. It's a hundred percent Safe For Work. You're just reading it for the articles, HAR HAR. What's crazy is that whoever compiled this list for Playboy dot com made it a list of classical musicians that are actually quite good! Like, Hilary Hahn is a very pretty young woman and all, but let's face it, she's not the boring-pretty you usually see drooled over in men's magazines. (Gay men's magazines, wipe that smirk off your face, I'm looking at you too, those dudes are seriously BORING.) No, she's obviously on this list because she is blonde and young, but just as obviously because she does play Schoenberg and Bach (and Stravinsky and Spohr). The inclusion of Danielle de Niese, a great opera star for television, is possibly symptomatic of something bad. I watched her Giulio Cesare and while she did turn in a thrillingly watchable performance in a very difficult role to act, I am not sure that it was a thrillingly listenable performance. While (to pick another name from this list) Anna Netrebko sings some roles inappropriately, and sings others a bit boringly, at least she always sings notes. I've been skeptical of the opera queens' laments re: the changing shape of divas (Covent Garden didn't want Debbie Voigt? COVENT GARDEN'S LOSS) but de Niese's variety of opera-celebritydom does give me pause. Still, the creepiest talk here is about Anne-Sophie Mutter:

WHO SHE IS: MILF violinist with rock-solid technique and a body to match Mutter made the transition from hot Austrian prodigy to hot Austrian star violinist with ease. Early in her career she could be counted on to try out edgy new works; later she married Academy Award-winning composer André Previn and premiered his Hollywood-lite Violin Concerto. They’re divorced now, so maybe we can expect more daring things from her again.
Creepy, because it sounds like something I would hiss to my bitchy new-music friends without thinking about whether or not it's actually true, but with that word "MILF" (weird pun on "Mutter"?) also thrown in there for extra creepiness points. First of all, should I point out that she recorded the Dutilleux concerto while she was still married to Previn? (Although I do wonder whatever happened to that Boulez piece she was supposed to premiere. There was supposed to be an Anthemes III but I don't think it ever happened. Anybody?) It drives me crazy when people put together a whole narrative of an artist's career based on a single blip. Like when Harold Bloom used the words "precipitous decline" to refer to a single novel of Thomas Pynchon (guess he didn't like Vineland) even though it was bookended by two masterpieces. Only so much worse, because Harold Bloom didn't say "MILF."

Anyway, mostly I'm just jealous that Playboy dot com has stolen my thunder, because now nobody will care when I rate the hotties of the new-music scene. Even so, let me throw the question out to my commenters: whom do YOU nominate as the sexiest composers, performers, etc in new music? (And speaking of the Mac, any guesses as to the identity of his mysterious double-reed-playing crush, as alluded to in this post? Hautbois or Faggott?) Just to get the ball rolling, let me show you all this picture of composer Matthias Pintscher. You're quite welcome. (Link via the one the only Molly Sheridan)

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Eh?

Via David Rees's miraculous new blog at www.mnftiu.cc. Bookmark it now because David Rees is the greatest thing to happen to comedy since ever.

Maurico Kagel Died the Other Day

I can't pretend to know much about the music of Mauricio Kagel, but at least one performance of his music was very important to me. JoJo and I went to see the Carnegie premiere of Kgael's crazy oratorio Abduction at the Concert Hall not too long after we met—god, eight years ago?—and for all its hokey moments, it was a thrill. Metadrama in the concert-hall! (Simulated) explosions! You can read Paul Griffiths on the piece here. Kagel studied English and American literature under no less an authority than Jorge Luis Borges, and his music might be heard as an attempt to do for music what Borges did for words. True, the words themselves in Entführung im Konzertsaal left something to be desired—maybe it worked better in German?—but conceptually and musically, it was a buzz. The other piece on the program was a kick in the pants as well: Mitternachtsstük(sic), a suitably bizarre choral setting of excerpts from Robert Schumann's unrealized sketches for a truly demented gothic-horror opera libretto. In his program notes, Kagel quoted admiringly from other mysterious fragments from Schumann's diaries, including one motto—opera without words—that has lingered in my imagination ever since. I mean, I guess it also happens to be the name of a few of those opera-for-dummies series of easily digested classical CDs, but what I mean is that it rings true for me in the way that only a myth rings true—like Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk or Bazin's mythe du cinema total—as an unrealizable principle towards which to aspire. I think Kagel aspired to it, in a sense, and came as close to realizing it as I've ever heard, with his metadramas and antidramas, whole histories and narratives built into the music itself, and "the music itself" expanded into realms undreamed of. (The photo above is a still from his film Ludwig Van, just out on DVD; the soundtrack to this scene is the piano music of Beethoven played off the surface of the objects in this room as the camera pans across them.) His influence will be felt for decades—and so will, every bit as much, his absence.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Stylophony

Presenting Mann Gegen Mann, a Finnish stylophone ensemble named after, I'm guessing, a Rammstein song about the joys of gay sex. Is it just me or does this kind of sound like Ratatat? Anyway here's their MySpace. (Thanks to loyal reader Grrg for the tip!)

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Moment of Silence

Kyle Gann's ongoing John Cage project has resulted in the best "desperately seeking disc"-type post I've ever seen:

One thing I could sure use before finishing this book on 4'33" is an obscure recording on the Korm Plastics label called 45'18" (Forty-five Minutes, Eighteen Seconds). It's a CD of nine versions of 4'33" by Thurston Moore, Keith Rowe, the Deep Listening Band, Voice Crack, and others. It doesn't seem to be available anywhere at the moment. Is there someone out there who could dupe me a copy, with program info? I'd gladly pay a reasonable price for a CDR. (I mean, I am paying basically for silence, but it's really important silence.)
Please, people, if you have that disc, or know someone who does, help a brother out. And Jesus, don't make him pay for it! Who does that??

(Photo of Jim Altieri, also from Gann's blog.) UPDATE: Found, before this post even left my queue. Hooray!

HEY YOUNG COMPOSERS You Oughta Do This Thing!

I just got an email from the New York Youth Symphony regarding this program they're putting on for young composers and musicians, meaning 22 and under. There is an application fee ($70, looks like), and a materials fee if you get in ($100 plus a refundable $100 deposit), but no tuition! Everybody gets a scholarship.

The program consists of 11 seminars held throughout the season at ASCAP (see 08-09 syllabus below). We discuss compositional structure, form, harmony, rhythm, and the many issues involved in putting musical ideas down on paper. At each session, a guest speaker illuminates aspects of composition and instrumentation, and discusses their experience as it relates to the creative process. At the end of the year, members of the Youth Symphony perform music by the program participants on a final concert at Symphony Space. Students receive one-on-one tutorials at BMI to help them develop and realize their compositions. This year we will be continuing Orchestrations +, a collaborative workshop with the American Composers Orchestra/EarShot whereby students arrange, and compose new works for an orchestra that combines ACO and NYYS musicians. In addition, we are excited to be collaborating with the New York string quartet, ETHEL, for a readings and feedback workshop.
You're excited already! The press release lists guest composers such as Kernis, Muhly, and Reich, plus performers like Jason Treuting of So Percussion. So click here for more info, then here to download your application. (And click here if you want to email somebody with questions.)

Now do it quick! Deadline is October 1.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Live from the Uncanny Valley

(Thanks to loyal reader Brett for this one.) There are a bunch of YouTube videos of the Vocaloid software singing Bach arias and chorales, but this duet from BWV 78 works much better than, say, the opening chorus of the St. Matthew Passion. The "choral" effect blunts the creepiness of Hatsune Miku's weird diction by making it sound sort of endearingly cheesy, a la Wendy Carlos's "Ode to Joy"—whereas these twins' goopy melismas are just real enough to be super disturbing. According to Wikipedia:

The series is intended for professional musicians as well as light computer music users. The programmed vocals are designed to sound like an idol singer from the future. According to Crypton, because professional singers refused to provide singing data, in fear that the software might create their singing voice's clones, Crypton changed their focus from imitating certain singers to creating characteristic vocals.
Understandable. (An idol singer! From the future! Awesome.) But this means that the technology is not here quite yet which would allow me to generate a synthetic battalion of Elisabeths Schwarzkopf...? Hey, let's work on that, Yamaha, shall we?

Monday, September 15, 2008

People Who Do Not Like Wagner

(1) John Eliot Gardiner said the following to the Gramophone:

"I really loathe Wagner—everything he stands for—and I don't even like his music very much." Pressed on why, and why he won't perform it: "It's like you have a palate that you've developed over the years to distinguish between the best Burgundy and Côtes-du-Rhône—then you're suddenly given this appalling Spätlese that's actually got a fair dose of paraffin in it as well, and sheep drench—I think your palate would be ruined. That's my fear."

(2) Arthur Szyk, Jewish caricaturist of the fascist era, drew this deafeningly furious picture of Wagner as proto-Nazi (click to enlarge, slightly), and it makes Gardiner sound like Herbert von Karajan. Read more about Szyk in this Times review.