Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Confidential to S/M

Here's the post where I mention our favorite mystery novelist.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Me, in a Nutshell

So the other night my friend gave a piano recital, and afterwards we all went out for drinks at a well-loved dive nearby—my friend, his friends, students and teacher, and his teacher's family. One of the students asked, as anyone in his situation must be tempted to do (but never has the nerve to ask so baldly), of my friend's Russian emigré teacher: Tell us about Alfred Schnittke! A pause. Hmm. He wasn't sure how to respond, at first, but quickly recovered and gave us a little sketch. Actually, Schnittke changed a great deal over the course of his life, the pleasant young composer, witty and effervescent, gradually becoming, after a series of strokes, much "darker"—more spiritual, but also less trusting. Embarrassed as I'd been to hear the question aloud, I drank in every word of the answer, fascinated and thrilled. The question then went around the table: What's your favorite piece by Schnittke? Well, I said, I love the whole body of work, I love that young trickster Schnittke, a great, rare musical wit, but perhaps even more than that, I love the older Schnittke, the Schnittke of the Penitential Psalms and even more than that the Choir Concerto. When he stopped kidding around entirely, and distilled his music down to pure passion and terror, he wrote some of the most stunningly expressive pieces in the repertoire. I was shoveling fries in my face the whole time I was saying this, by the way. My friend picked the Viola Concerto—"performed by Kim Kashkashian!" He'd seen her play it live. I nodded seriously. Kashkashian's was my own first recording of the concerto, and it's a fine one, beautifully recorded (of course it is; it's on ECM) and brilliantly played. Kashkashian is a magnificently sensitive, precise performer. "But the best recording," I averred, "is Yuri Bashmet. Not the RCA recording—which is honestly a little lifeless—but the one he did before that, his old Soviet recording. I think so much of his character as a performer is written into the piece... those strange, quick shifts in color..." My friend's teacher nodded. "Schnittke always wrote with the personality of the performer in mind." Well. Once home, quite pleased with myself for having discussed a favorite composer's music so brilliantly with someone who actually knew him, I headed straight to the music shelf to take down and listen to Bashmet's Soviet recording of the Viola Concerto. It wasn't there. "JoJo, where's the other Bashmet recording of the Schnittke Viola Concerto?" JoJo pointed out that we did not, in fact, own this CD, and never had. "Are you sure?" Yes. And it began to dawn on me that I had never actually heard the recording I had defended so specifically and vigorously just an hour before. I had seen it at the store and then imagined I had heard it, or rather forgotten that I had not, and had instead recalled in great detail what the recording sounded like (a little off-balance, a little out-of-control, but in a way that heightened the musical drama instead of obscuring it), to the extent that it had actually become my favorite rendition of the piece, without my even hearing so much as a note. Unbeknownst to everyone, including myself, everything I had said that night had been one hundred per-cent bullshit. Epilogue: I went ahead and bought the record, just now. I decided I'd better. And hey, turns out it's fantastic—I think it might even be my favorite recording of the piece.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Composers Online

I'm a bit late in pointing out that Corey Dargel has posted yet more free music for download, or rather WNYC's Studio 360 has posted two love songs they commissioned as part of his ongoing Other People's Love Songs project. You can download the whole show and/or the songs as discrete mp3s here—both songs are characteristically witty, tender, catchy, and complex in a way that doesn't draw attention to itself. I'm not sure how a body of work-for-hire can sound so consistently inspired. In other, completely and totally unrelated news, that misunderstood genius Prof. Heebie McJeebie has returned to the Web once again. He, too, promises to post more free mp3s, which it is your bitter duty to admire even if your feeble, ignorant mind is not quite sufficiently equipped to comprehend them. So, fun times all around!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

So Percussion

They're awesome! They're coming to my town on Sunday, and I wrote about it here. Probably worth pointing out that (a) my editor deserves credit for the "kicker" (as they call it in journalism)—my draft had a pretty weak conclusion, and I ran out of town just after submitting it; and also (b) I didn't say enough here about the Meehan/Perkins duo, who are commissioning a fair chunk of repertoire in their own right and who gave great interview. Their site is here. And I hope you've already found the new So blog! Oh yeah, and here's the program for that concert, as far as I know—

So: Drumming, Pt. 1 by Steve Reich Meehan/Perkins: Once Removed by John Fitz Rogers Yale: Village Burial with Fire by James Wood;The So-Called Laws of Nature, pt. 2 (I think) by David Lang; and Threads by Paul Lansky.

Longer Post Coming Soon

Promise. In the meantime, enjoy Lauryn Hill's performance of "I Gotta Find Peace of Mind" from her second MTV Unplugged concert, as she enters full diva meltdown mode during a live television taping, complete with vocal crisis and streaming tears: Possibly the best part is around a minute before the clip is over, when the horrified audience begins clapping awkwardly at what they think is the end of the song. Rolling Stone:

She recorded her MTV Unplugged 2.0 in July 2001 while she was pregnant with her third child, Joshua. In a rehearsal the day before, Hill ripped up her throat but refused to reschedule, and on the record her voice is raspy and ragged. She accompanied herself on guitar, the lone instrument on the album, which was courageous given that she hadn't been studying very long. But a veteran industry executive says, "Anyone with ears can hear there are only three chords being played on every song. I saw it with a roomful of professionals, and someone said, 'I feel like jumpin' out a window.'"

Note to industry executives, professionals: go to hell. This here is awesome.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Profound Musicological Insight

This album cover really, really looks like Jesus is giving somebody the finger.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Blogger Plugs Friends, Self

First! Everybody buy the new Kronos Quartet CD, which has liner notes by one of my favorite Gregs. The store has it on sale, which means you can download the mp3s right now AND get the CD in the mail and it'll still be a buck under the list price, even with shipping. (Buy it together with the new kd lang CD, which is one of her best, and shipping is free!) I've only heard snippets of the piece so far, but it sounds gorgeous, and anyway it's Kronos + Terry Riley + Wu Man, so you can be darned sure I'll pick up a copy at my local indie record shop (on account of I work there). As for the liner notes themselves, they are thorough, clever, and duly affectionate. Do read. Also! They ran my latest concert previews in the New Haven Advocate. Ezra Laderman, Alvin Lucier. The first commenter to count all the clichés in the article wins a signed copy of my book. Furthermore! Hope you all read Rebecca Mead's article in the latest New Yorker about my friend Nico Muhly. It quotes "music critic and blogger Dan Johnson," meaning me! But I thought some of the best parts of the article were actually the least flattering to Nico. Whenever I read a fawning magazine profile about the genius of the week I want to run out and stab said genius in the face. But this one turns out to be as much fun as her profile of Peter Gelb, which I hope you all read. Now, this isn't exactly unflattering, but I love that for a little perspective, Mead sought critiques of Nico's oeuvre from the composers he most admires. Namely, Philip Glass:

"The great anxiety among young composers is, when are you going to hear your own voice? But the real problem is, how do you get rid of it, how do you develop? Nico hasn't got to that yet. There is a lot of rapid growth in one's twenties, but the big challenge is to keep that alive over the long stretch, for the next forty years, and not let it get stifled by the meanness of the world we live in."

and John Adams:

...Muhly's music is "eclectic, nondenominational in the world of contemporary classical music, which tends to split off into lots of different orthodoxies. He obviously shows influences from the minimalist composers, but his music is not nearly as rigorously designed. It is very much like him: it is open, it is attractive, it is pleasing." Adams says that he hears his own influence on Muhly's work—"It's like meeting a twenty-year-old who looks strangely familiar, only to discover he's your long-lost son"—but adds that he finds it oddly untroubled. "I could use a little more edge, or a little more violence," Adams says. "At times, there is a surfeit of prettiness in Nico's music, and I am not sure it is a good thing for someone so young to be so concerned with attractiveness."

See? That's actually quite interesting. Glass's warning we can recognize as the product of his own bittersweet experience. The great Glass paradox is that there is at once no better established or more dismissed composer in American concert music. And indeed, this dual position stems largely from the strength and distinctiveness of the Glass idiom. It's worth considering, in light of his advice, how seriously Glass must have taken the long evolution of that idiom over the past few decades. As for Adams, I find he sums up Nico's music better than most critics do. For one thing, it is very like the music of John Adams. How come nobody points that out? There are echoes of Nixon in China all over Nico's orchestral scores. And it is also very like Nico himself. Some composers, if you meet them, you'll think, "That guy wrote that?" But Nico face-to-face is exactly the person you imagine when you hear Clear Music. And again, these are criticisms that shed a little light on Adams' own mature aesthetic. Criticisms, as a friend of mine pointed out, that have been leveled against Adams himself, especially early on in his career: derivative of minimalism, but without the rigor; pleasing and attractive to a fault. I would be the first to defend early Adams against these charges (and hey, I mount a similar defense re: Nico in the NYer piece), but perhaps it's still interesting to consider the extent to which both composers might be guilty—the young Adams, the young Muhly. Isn't Harmonium a lot less gratifying than the Klinghoffer Choruses, precisely because the latter pieces are a little less eager to please, a little more eager to put the "post" in "post-minimalist"? Anyhow, I spent a lot of time thinking about these remarks, which isn't something I usually do after I read an article about music. Why can't more criticism get me this excited? Clearly, what we need are more critics like this: practical, caring. Potshots are too easy. (If you read this blog, you know I take plenty of those.) It's so much more interesting to see people working out the problems in music they care about, rather than dismissing the stuff that doesn't excite them or cooing at the sheer perfection of the stuff that happens to accord with their tastes. Why not? Let's go just a little bit deeper. New Havenites, I'll see you at tonight's concert!