Monday, November 29, 2010

I Dig Her Deeply, and No Wonder

Hey! It's been awhile. But let's catch up, shall we, with that gang of superpowered misfits busily engineering the New York new music scene down in the secret underground bunker of New Amsterdam Records. I talked about the new Victoire release in my print column not too long ago, but there've been a coupla discs released since then that we really need to talk about.

For one thing, even longer than we've been waiting for that Victoire disc, we've all been waiting for David T. Little's noisy Newspeak to drop their first record, so the release of their new sweet light crude means we can finally EXHALE, and so now how is it?

Well, I'm not crazy about it, but that doesn't answer the question, since after all do I not like it because it really isn't good or do I not like it because it's just not my thing? Now THAT'S a puzzler, because there's a lot here that is Not My Thing—the sound here leans often towards the heavier genres of popular music, which are most effective when they've got that Wall Of Sound density, aren't they? Those turgid fuzzed-out textures you have to dig into to make everything out? When everything is articulated clearly, demanding instead of just allowing you to hear everything that's going on, we're falling into the genres I'm not crazy about, where the word "rock" is preceded by "prog" or followed by "opera."

But—no, it's not just that. Harmonically, melodically, these pieces leave me, for the most part, unmoved. And these genres don't always gel—there's always the hazard, when crashing all these musics into each other, of coming up with something that combines not the Best of Both Worlds but instead strays into "Most Unwanted Song" territory—nor do these pieces really hang together; I didn't feel, at the end, as if they'd added up to anything bigger.

Which is too bad, because these players are so great! In the aforelinked Victoire review, remember how I complained about their fiddler? Listen to Caleb Burhans play Missy Mazzoli's In Spite of All This and hear the difference a first-rate violinist can make. In Pat Muchmore's Brennschluß, Mellissa Hughes (of The Little Death) delivers her text like a total pro. How many singers can also Talk that convincingly?

Actually, of all the pieces on this program, it's Burhans's Requiem for a General Motors in Janesville, WI that I find myself returning to the most—it's the least fussy thing on the program, and for that reason the most successful as a rock composition. (Although this is clearly reflective of my listening again, I have to say that Oscar Bettison's B&E (with aggravated assault) also holds up pretty well, as the most progg'd-out piece on the program, so, who knows.) Here, anyway, is David T. Little's title track, in a video directed by NewAm regulars Satan's Pearl Horses, which is so 90s that I think I might love it:

As always with NewAm, you can listen to all of every track before you buy the album, here.

In that same envelope, I also got a copy of the new New Amsterdam disc from janus, a trio—featuring Amanda Baker, Nuiko Wadden, and Beth Meyers on flute, harp, and viola, respectively (although they also pick up a few other instruments and speak and sing along the way)—that I really hadn't heard as much about, which is crazy, because this disc is an Incredibly good listen.

(Can I point out here that the fact that the trio is named after a two-faced god reminds me CONSTANTLY of that SNL sketch about the R&B trio called Gemini's Twin? Okay sorry, continue.)

i am not, it's called, and it was recorded by Lawson White, because Lawson White records everything, apparently. Not only did he produce sweet light crude, he recorded the Isabelle O'Connell [SP?] album (Reservoir) whose sound I was raving about that one time, and he did Katrina Ballads for Ted Hearne, which sounded so clear without seeming naked, and he did Cathedral City for Victoire, which like sweet light crude was a little too clean for my money, i am not is not just clean, it is BONE WHITE, and it's terrific. Maybe it's because the album is strung together with interstitial movements composed by White's co–So Percussionist, Jason Treuting—crunchy, savory bites of music, kind of like those little rice crackers my dad's always eating?—that the album hangs together so well despite the range of different composers' voices; at first, I wanted to credit the harp-trio format, with its limited resources, for unifying the palette, but of course with the extra instruments and electronic accompaniments they employ on this record the actual possibilities are limitless. Those resources just happen to be very, very cannily exploited.

Here's janus playing the track Keymaster by (OF COURSE) Caleb Burhans:

I know what you're thinking and yes, it's super Philip Glassy, but it has its own smarts and its own charm—I love the sound of the viola harmonics–versus–flute unison at the beginning of the piece, and the simple fact is that this kind of writing is totally native to these instruments. Cameron Britt, Anna Clyne, and Ryan Brown each turn in a lovely movement as well, and Angelica Negron of Arturo en el Barco fame contributes the especially fascinating Drawings for Meyoko. Huh? What's that you say? Arturo en el Barco does not enjoy what you'd call "fame" yet? Oh, sorry, I temporarily mistook this for a just universe ruled over by a benevolent deity! Now click here and download some free Arturo en el Barco—okay thanks—and then click here to hear & buy i am not.

And then this OTHER recent New Amsterdam release, Penelope by NewAm co-founder Sarah Kirkland Snider. I'd not only heard a lot about it, but I knew Snider was a solid composer, having heard a particularly well-crafted piece of hers during her Yale days (conducted by her future husband, Real Steven Mackey!) on one of the New Music New Haven concerts; Signal is a great band, of course; and I'd loved Shara Worden's singing with My Brightest Diamond and Clogs. Still, there's no guarantee that all these parts will add up to something awesome. Is there anything more cringe-inducing than hearing an overqualified singer struggle to wring something worthwhile out of a song earnestly overcomposed by another talented musician? All the talent in the world don't count for nothin' if you can't write a ditty.

Well GREAT NEWS, y'all: Snider can, it turns out, apply her classical chops towards the creation of an amazingly solid pop record. It's seamless! Snider's hand is incredibly well-hidden here—this could be a singer-songwriter disc that just happens to have especially savvy harmonies and arrangements. Of course, it also helps that librettist Ellen McLaughlin also knows how to write a subtle refrain. And that the album was warmly, clearly produced by, OH LOOK, Lawson White again.

So I have greatly enjoyed listening to Penelope, but more than that, I have actually turned to it for when I am feeling down. It is a balm! It is tha bomb. Now, as I said, the whole album is surprisingly solid, so I really can't single out one song as being the one that you absolutely have to listen to, but also yes I can, it's this song, "Lotus Eaters," which I've been humming to myself for the past several weeks, in a weak and quavering voice, as the autumn sun descends closer and closer to the southern horizon and the days grow dark and cold:

This video I'm actually not that crazy about, despite the often exceedingly lovely photography—it just seems a bit "on the nose." BUT THAT SONG, right?? Buy it, and/or the rest of the rest of the album, here, and be glad you did.

(And remember! Now that NewAm has Naxos distribution, all of these albums are available not just at their website and iTunes but wherever fine compact discs are sold. Jinkies!)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Music Video for "Cathedral City" by Victoire

Mellissa Hughes and Victoire come up with a new answer to the old question, "How many sopranos does it take to screw in a lightbulb?"*

*The previous answer: "Three! One to climb the ladder, one to pull it out from under, and one to say, 'That was really too high for her.'"

(Via PopMatters. I review the disc here.)

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

China Has, Indeed, Got Talent

More talent in its big toe than I've got in ten fingers!

Explanation here.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Thoughts on the HD Broadcast of Rheingold

I slipped into the screening at Yale on Saturday, as the plus-one of a Yale-affiliated friend.

Happily, most of my positive impressions from the live performance were confirmed by the broadcast. The look on Eric Owens' face when he is deciding, inwardly, that he will renounce love and forge the Ring was the most moving moment of the afternoon, for me (granted, I was a little jittery from all that caffeine); Stephanie Blythe, too, was a consummate Wagnerian, modulating her emotional state in synch with the orchestra and carrying herself like a goddess.

The amplification did Bryn Terfel a lot of favors as Wotan. His singing did seem far more relaxed, but it was clear that his mic also did a bit of heavy lifting in the bassier bits. It did Richard Croft a few favors as well, apparently, which I only learned secondhand—at the Prima, his Loge had plenty of ping in the back row of Family Circle, the Met's acoustical sweet spot, but apparently he was inaudible enough at Saturday's performance to earn him a few boos. (I still, for the record, have very little sympathy for anybody who booed.) For the broadcast audience, who'd heard him plenty loud, the boos were mystifying.

And the Rainbow Bridge was GREAT. Really spectacular effect.

Disappointments: Somebody's cellphone went off. (Couldn't tell if it was in the theater or the auditorium. "Ringtone des Nibelungen!" I whispered to my date. Yeah, I know.) Were the projections a little off-kilter at first? (The bubbles were rising not from the Rhinemaidens but a little to their right (our left), and ditto with the pebbles in that same scene.) The sound seemed a little compressed. (The opening E-flat wasn't as soft as it might have been, as some commenters here pointed out, and when the orchestra really boiled over it didn't have that hot, hot intensity of the Met's live brass.) Oh and Terfel's Wotan seemed a bit passive (which is an easy mistake to make to make, since he doesn't spend much of the opera DOING anything, but still exactly wrong—everybody's coming to him for help, after all; Terfel needs to convince us that they've got the right guy. He needs to be a King).

All in all, though, it was a happy afternoon at the opera. Movies. Operamovies. Ohmygod, and Brünnhilde tweeted at me!!!

Okay that's all. Boris tonight!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Reservoir Tip

You guys, we need to start listening to more Donnacha Dennehy. Donnacha Dennehy, you need to start putting out more CDs! I keep hearing all these great pieces of his on New Sounds or in concert and then looking for CDs of them and no they haven't been released yet!

But some of his stuff is in print, and one more piece has just trickled out: Reservoir, a solo piano work he wrote for Isabelle O'Connell. O'Connell's on keys in his Dublin-based ensemble CRASH, conducted by Alan Pierson of Alarm Will Sound fame, and the focus on her latest disc (also called Reservoir) is on Irish composers, which is fantastic, because the East Coast new-music scene can get so provincial, right? Sometimes it seems like we're all just playing each other's stuff up here, and so it's quite nice to get a hot injection of fresh meat from the British Isles.

And this is a terrific array of composers. There's the title track, of course, which reminds me of the surprisingly intense effusions of sentiment that you'll hear in a Terry Riley piece, but I was also quite taken with the Ligeti-like relentlessness of Brian Irvine's three movements from The Klippel Collection. The one piece that didn't appeal to me was Jennifer Walshe's becher, a collage of musical quotations from rock and classical music, which seemed conceptually facile—each quotation seemed designed to elicit an easy "ah-ha!", like some cross between a Music Appreciation drop-the-needle quiz and the trailers for EPIC MOVIE—but it also serves as a phenomenal showcase for O'Connell's stylistic versatility, as does the disc as a whole. These composers don't have all that much in common other than a knack for virtuoso piano writing (quick namedump: Ian Wilson, Jane O'Leary, Seóirse Bodley, John Buckley, Elaine Agnew, Philip Martin, CHECK 'EM OUT, ALL OF 'EM), and O'Connell comes through in a big way.

The last time I was this pleasantly surprised by a disc was Danny Holt's A Fast Jump, another new-music solo recital by a pianist who isn't as famous as he ought to be; the other thing these two discs have in common is the quality of the recording. O'Connell's piano thunders and sings and sounds great. Reservoir's out now on Diatribe Records (you can order here), and I basically have no idea what's a "Diatribe Records," but apparently they know how to record an album there.

You can also hear Reservoir, the piece, when O'Connell plays it at the First Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn on November 5. I know you'll be disappointed to learn that the rest of the music is by regular old Americans, but I promise that these are totally underplayed Americans—John Luther Adams, Bunita Marcus, James Mobberley—and the other act on the bill is Flutronix, a flute duo whose recordings play automatically (you've been warned!) at the bottom of their homepage. (I highly recommend the second track, Stacked, by flutronicist Allison Loggins-Hull.) That's 7:30 p.m., admission only $10.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Get Your Hahn On

Have we discussed the genius of Hilary Hahn's programming yet? Probably, right? But lately she does this thing where she puts together one household-name violin concerto with a concerto nobody ever plays: Paganini/Spohr, Sibelius/Schoenberg, and now the Tchaikovsky concerto paired with a concerto written personally for Hahn by Jennifer Higdon. This is great because it helps connoisseurs (snobs) like you and me from letting, say, yet another disc of the Tchaikovsky and Sibelius concerti from dropping into the vast ocean of Tchaik/Sibelius pairings, and because let's face it America's classical radio–loving grandmothers are about as likely to demand the Schoenberg/Higdon pairing they heard about on NPR as they are to pose for a knifethrower.

So depending on who you are, you're likely to consider one of these courses your Vegetables and one of them your Dessert, and if you're a regular reader of this blog, I'm going to guess that it's not the Dead White Male. But I have a very… I have a very intimate personal relationship with a specific recording (Heifetz) of this specific concerto, which I'd probably better not get into here. I'll defend this piece with knives, if I have to, is what I am saying. I really feel, without entirely rational justification, that this is one of the greatest concerti ever written for any instrument, in the history of the form. It manages not to fall into that Concerto Trap, where the first movement is a SERIOUS ESSAY that goes on about ten minutes beyond the point where it starts to become an excruciating bore, and the third movement is a kicky little bagatelle, and that or the second-movement aria is the only thing I actually want to listen to. The first movement of this Tchaik is pure musical ecstasy! The second movement is also gorgeous! The third movement is total gravy!

Anyway, the point is: there's no filler on this disc.

Hilary Hahn's Tchaikovsky is, first of all, meticulous. Maybe even too meticulous? During her entrance, each one of those little black notes is so carefully laid down you could probably transcribe them by ear. It's an arresting effect, but surely the character of those opening bars is supposed to be a bit more extemporaneous. Heifetz is unafraid to make the whole runs sound like big blurry smears of sound, rather than discreet little points, and by doing actually so makes the big picture clearer.

But Hahn's clarity is pretty awesome. It reminds me of what my viola teacher used to say, that when she was a student they would listen to Heifetz (that name again!) 78s at the wrong speed in order to hear if it was true he used vibrato on each and every 16th note. Hahn isn't an "old-fashioned" player as in "sentimental," but a quick, narrow vibrato seems to run through every note of hers as well, every line taut and electric like high-tension wire. She's got a terrifically powerful left hand, and she wants you to know it—every note's ringing and bright and full of life.

But you know who else is great here is Vassily Petrenko, who along with Hahn somehow makes the Tchaikovsky concerto sound more Tchaikovskian than any interpreter I've ever heard. The slow movement sounds like the Tchaikovsky of the operas, with a folksong's combination of heavy pathos and steady forward motion; the last movement sounds like the Tchaikovsky of the ballets, full of flying leaps and fairy magic and shit; the wind soloists of the Royal Liverpool Phil give pleasingly tart, rustic solos throughout the piece.

So while this isn't my desert island recording of the Tchaikovsky, it ought to please fans of the composer as well as fans of virtuoso fiddling in general—but even so, I would hesitate to claim that the Tchaik is the A-side here, and the Higdon the B-side, and not just because the Higdon comes first in play order.

Really, I'm not sure why I've been so disinclined to seek out the music of Jennifer Higdon in the past. I must have heard some piece of hers that didn't strike me once, and then when her name just kept coming up with regard to this prize or that commission, I said to myself, oh, she's one of THOSE composers, YOU KNOW THE ONES, who's middle-of-the-road enough to win all the prizes and get all the commissions, but, ugh, people, don't be like me. Don't take that attitude about music, ESPECIALLY music you don't actually know. That's the moral of this story, because I finally sat down and listened to this piece and I assure you that it is Quite Good.

The first movement seduced me immediately with its violin concerto-ness. (Are there enough tautologies in this review yet? Tchaikovsky that sounds like Tchaikovsky, and a violin concerto that sounds like a violin concerto…) The pitch materials, the actual music-stuff, are pretty engaging, and just as importantly, it's a fine showcase for the soloist. But it's the gestural language that hooked my ear, and that's what I want in a concerto dammit is HOOKS. In the small picture, it's the physicality of Higdon's writing for the instrument, the echoes of the Hahn's harmonics in the percussion, and the back-and-forth between Hahn and orchestral soli; in the big picture, it's the way all of the material returns just when you'd have wanted it to, if only you'd known to ask.

The second movement is called "Chaconni," which I'm pretty sure is not a word, but which I guess describes the way the piece spins out over a ground—not that my ears have enough brains between them to pick out how the technique is used in this incredibly elaborate movement. There's a real pleasure, anyway, in the way Higdon intertwines all the competing lines, and the last movement, like Tchaikovsky's, is a stomper.

I actually cannot imagine that this piece will not enter the American repertory—it's just too much fun—and Hahn's Tchaikovsky is a strong enough contender to be measured against the classic recordings. Everybody should probably check this disc out—and violin buffs, actually, must.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

New Das Rheingold at the Met, You Guys

…The entire proscenium
Is covered with a rippling azure scrim.
The three sopranos dart hither and yon

On invisible strings. Cold lights
Cling to bare arms, fair tresses. Flat
And natural aglitter like paillettes
Upon the great green sonorous depths float

Until with pulsing wealth the house is filled,
No one believing, everybody thrilled.

from "Matinées" by James Merrill

THE RING CYCLE. It is so hard to stage! Can we disentangle the deadly vines of poisonous German nationalism from the ash-tree of Wagner's Nordic iconography, or are they in fact joined at the root (METAPHOR!); can we interpret his narrative coherently (complete with gold-grubbing subhumans and inbred purebred Nordic supermen) without echoing his noxious social values; can we even realize his special effects–heavy stage directions convincingly for an audience to whom 19th-century stage technology—and indeed, to a certain extent, any stage spectacle—is something quaint and alienating?

Let's not forget, people, this is an artist who routinely symbolizes divine power with swans, doves, rainbows and flying horses. So if you think that Wagner MUST be staged "literally," that is if you really think this imagery will resonate with contemporary audiences just as it did with his contemporaries, then congrats on having managed to avoid all contact with the past half-century's most revolting kitsch. I mean,

So what do you do! You can go High-Concept, and try to supplant Wagner's elaborate mythological order with another that challenges the composer's Nordic nostalgia directly, or at least to translate it into a rather less cobwebby set of cultural signifiers (e.g., make Wotan a powerful businessman instead of a king, since nowadays "king" = "tyrant" or "figurehead," never "wise but too-proud leader." And you can try and shed some of the kitschy overtones in favor of something with just a bit of a modern edge to it (e.g., make the rainbow bridge a contraption of neon or lasers or something, instead of a greeting-card rainbow).

The design of Robert LePage's production leans towards the latter of these two approaches. Aside from the much-publicized, high-tech unit set, LePage's designs are largely conservative. He's claimed to have drawn inspiration from Wagner's original costumes, but he's updated them in canny ways—three gods wear muscly breastplates reminiscent of the "dark," "edgy" Hollywood reboot of some superhero franchise ("Well, what would you prefer? Yellow spandex?"), and the special effects are interactive CGI projections.

And LePage's use of the technology is impressive. Loge, god of fire, appears surrounded by flame; when the Rhinemaidens sing, bubbles come out; the gods' movements in Valhalla stir the clouds around them. You've probably heard by now about the glitch that screwed up the rainbow bridge, so that instead of entering Valhalla like they had been spending THE ENTIRE OPERA PLANNING TO DO, AT TERRIBLE COST, AND WITH DISASTROUS CONSEQUENCES YET TO COME, they all just kind of peaced out. Anybody who'd seen the pre-production photos of that scene was probably all, "Whoops," and anybody who hadn't was probably a little confused and disappointed. So it was a letdown, and one which slightly overshadowed the amazing coups de theatre the set had made possible earlier—but which, on reflection, were a good deal more interesting than anything that the Met's last production had to offer, visually speaking. Wotan and Loge's descent to Nibelheim dazzled the crowd, and when Donner did his stormclouds-and-lightning thing at the end, it was a fucking thrill. And then the little things: small, brilliant LEDs illuminating the Rhinegold, Loge's fiery fingertips, Alberich's helm, and of course his Ring conveyed Magic Power simply and effectively.

But what he didn't use the technology for was also pretty impressive. Once you've got the stage filled with video screens, you can literally do ANYTHING. "Oh, let's put the Vatican behind them, but it's made out of candy and also there's a mushroom cloud." "I can literally do that!" But if you can do anything, it's worth nothing. We might as well be watching it on TV. Another thing LePage said before this Ring debuted was that he wanted to avoid turning it into Avatar, which I wondered if it might be a subtle dig at the Ring put on by Fura dels baus, an unremitting spectacle of constantly shifting video imagery, stage contraptions and acrobatics: LePage is often content to keep the stage still during the moments when the human drama is supposed to be at the fore; the gods stomp around Valhalla and sing, and the drama is communicated with good old-fashioned blocking—at any given moment in this staging, you can read a character's relationships to everyone else in how and where they're standing—and, yes, singing. (I'll get to the singing in a bit, I promise.)

In some ways, this was the Rheingold of my dreams. In a word, the opera is "elemental": it takes place in the heavens, underwater, and underground; it's about fire and gold and rainbows, pure and intense colors of light. LePage's set emphasizes the vertical strata on which the drama unfolds—divine, human, and subhuman planes of existence—and the "sky" behind it is colored by a single horizontal band of light, glowing behind a scrim, so that (for instance) in the first scene, when the Rhinemaidens sing about their gold's awakening in the morning sun, the blue above them transforms to a golden glow.

One advantage of working from Wagner's costume designs and all of these vertical levels is that the giants didn't end up looking completely retarded, as they do in just about every other production of the Ring ever. Somebody ends up putting Fafner and Fasolt on platform boots with giant latex hands and coneheads and TA DAH, you're looking at John Travolta and Forest Whitaker in Battlefield Earth.
(THEY ALWAYS LOOK LIKE THIS. WHY DO THEY ALWAYS LOOK LIKE THIS.) Instead, LePage gave us giants in slightly chunky costumes standing above and behind the rest of the cast at every appearance, so that a sort of false perspective made them seem Huge and Looming.

I am a total snob, of giants, and this production passed the test. I was a little dismayed when the death of Fasolt earned an unintentional laugh from the crowd; this is one of the trickiest bits of business in the opera. It's so oddly timed—the brothers get the Ring, Fafner kills Fasolt for it, Wotan says "oh snap," and then life goes on. Considering that this Cain & Abel moment (or should I say Sméagol & Déagol moment?) is the greatest act of violence in the entire opera, it's strangely underplayed. It was satisfyingly brutal here: when Fafner hit him with his spear, I thought, "That wasn't hard enough to kill him! That's lousy fight choreography"; then Fasolt moved a little and I was like "Oh whoops he's not dead," and then Fafner beat him some more and finally impaled him, and it was horrifying. Great! Then, as if to reflect the way Wagner and his characters shrug off the murder, the giant robo-set moved in such a way as to unceremoniously dump the body offstage, and he slid down kind of like this. Hmm. Well, It was an ingenious gesture, and I'm sorry it didn't come off as dramatically as it should've.

There were also laughs during Alberich's transformation into a dragon, which I was a little uncomfortable with at first, even though this actually is supposed to be a funny scene. Again, the laughs come from Wagner's own timing, and I probably shouldn't have worried about it—it's not a bad dragon. (The toad is even more low-tech—it's not even a puppet; it just "hops" onstage and is captured.)

I guess part of the reason I was uncomfortable is that Alberich, in this production, is not the stupid little clown we're used to seeing; in fact, he's fucking terrifying. I didn't want to read any reviews of this performance before writing this, but I couldn't help running across this one:
and, yup. You'll recall that I last saw Eric Owens threatening to destroy the world in Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre at the New York Phil; he was pretty scary then, and he was even scarier this time. He was funny when he had to be—scrambling up the pebbly CGI shoal to chase the Rhinemaidens—but his humiliation was also painful to watch, and when he promised to take his revenge upon the Earth, it was all too believable. (It helped that the boiling intensity of James Levine's brass section seethed up out of the pit straight up to the back row of the Family Circle and SCALDED MY FACE OFF at this point.) He is my new favorite Alberich, I think. He and LePage created a really terrific villain.

All of the singers were champs, really. Bryn Terfel, sharping and hollering a little in the lower register, is maybe not a born Wotan, but as my friend Maury pointed out afterwards, who is nowadays (COME BACK JAMES MORRIS), and whatever the condition of the low notes, all of the high notes were magnificent blasts from the Terfel Trombone. The Croft brothers, Sid and Marty Dwayne and Richard, were superb as Donner and Loge respectively—especially Richard Croft, whose voice has a far sweeter sound than the role requires. Freia's distress, as sung by Wendy Bryn Harmer, was affecting, and the star of the evening (for me) (and, from the sound of the applause, for a lot of people) was Stephanie Blythe as Fricka—her huge, well-controlled sound was all one could ask for.

What else. Anything else? I mentioned James Levine was fantastic. But he seemed so frail, going up to get his applause! I still can't think too hard about what will happen to the Met when he's gone. Somebody get him some more golden apples, STAT. We need him back in godlike health. Receiving applause mixed with a boo or two, or a few, Robert LePage—that's the way it goes, I guess, when you chuck the most beautiful set at the Metropolitan Opera and replace it with a malfunctioning wall. Well, whatever, HATERS.

I saw all your favorite movie stars in the lobby: Patrick Stewart, Anjelica Huston. That's all of your favorite celebrities, right? I think that's all you need. Just two. And of course your favorite critics—James Jorden, Alex Ross, Seth Colter Walls, Zachary Woolfe. Oh and poet/librettist J.D. McClatchy was there, with his partner, superstar book designer Chip Kidd! McClatchy's translations of Mozart libretti are actually coming out in a single volume shortly, and I sent away for a review copy, so with any luck I'll be reviewin' it for you very soon, and I promise to be BRUTAL, because that's the highest compliment, right? (The second highest compliment is that I didn't quote any more of the above Merrill poem, since I think McClatchy is Merrill's literary executor and so if I quoted the whole thing without permission he could come to the record shop where I work and slap the discs out of my mouth.)

AND FINALLY, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised to learn that I have finally acquiesced to the urgings of my friends and added a NEW T-SHIRT DESIGN, designed to piss off (a) the people who tell you you're not allowed to enjoy Wagner's music because he hated Jews and (b) the old worm-eaten bigot himself, whatever afterlife he's gazing up at us from:

That's funny, right?  I'm not in trouble, right?  Anyway it's also the perfect shirt to wear next time you tell this guy to KNOCK IT OFF.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Who Wants to Listen to New Music and GET BAKED (Goods)?

YOU DO, that's who, and tomorrow night you will get your chance, with performances from a crazy all-star lineup including Newspeak (new-music band), Todd Reynolds (violin), Kathleen Supové (piano), and Matthew Welch (bagpipes), except that those words in parentheses are kind of like if I said "Abraham Lincoln (politician)" and oh but P.S. there's a TON of other excellent performers, there's going to be a raffle AND an auction in addition to the sweets and other merch that are going to be on sale, AND you two free drinks, AHEM, in addition to the concert, for only a $15 ticket. The doors open at 4:30, which is less than 24 hours from now, so start laying out your clothes this instant, and the show runs from 5 until 11:30 p.m.


Yes. You're even allowed to take a break and come back later, if you start to get new-music'd out over the course of seven hours, as the ticket price includes reëntry, but why would you leave? There's food and drink and probably clothing for sale right there, so conceivably this concert could be seven MONTHS long before you even started suffering from any health side effects. It's at the Irondale Center in Brooklyn, which is a place in New York. I don't think I mentioned that people have been talking on Twitter about some of the items being auctioned and that they sound pretty incredible? So go to this thing! Go go!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

More Tales from the Tank

I love Mark Swed. (So do you!) When I lived out West I used to feel like he was my critic, in a way that I have never quite felt about our East Coast critics.

Also, I hate to look like I'm leaping to the defense of Nico Muhly, a composer who really couldn't need my support any less. He's got his own damn blog, for one thing, and for another, hasn't he already gotten a metric ton of love from the classical press? Also, I can't even pretend to be objective about (#1) a friend who has (#2) paid me American dollars to write about his music in the past. Still, I couldn't help but laugh, "fa fa fa," at the way Swed's review of Nico's latest CDs is basically begging to be deconstructed on Nico's own aforementioned blog. Swed uses all these Code Words! Here, let me show you what I mean.

First, read the review in full. Isn't it well written? But very negative!

OR IS IT. Let us examine, shall we, its Nico-related passages:

Here the chorus is being used to persuade a wider public than New Yorkers about Muhly, a young composer who is the talk of that town.

Muhly, who turned 29 last month, has already received two of New York's top accolades — a New Yorker profile and a Metropolitan Opera commission. Although less known elsewhere, he has L.A. champions in Gershon and also the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra's Jeffrey Kahane. Plus, Muhly has also composed appropriately treacly soundtracks to "Joshua" and "The Reader."

Muhly can be a precious and facile composer, a showoff.

But Muhly also has a delicate touch, and when the sweet sounds of ethereal early music singing meets post-Minimalist rhythmic rapture, the music floats in its own special space.

A young composer begging attention couldn't ask for anything more.
This reminds me SO MUCH of this passage from Philip Brett's essay on Britten (which I already quoted, appropriately enough, in my liner notes for Nico's first album):
To appreciate the fact that there was considerable tension surrounding not only Britten's homosexuality, but also the success that he enjoyed despite it, one has to dig a little deeper beneath such blatant attacks as that against "bachelor composers" in the Craft/Stravinsky conversation books. What is revealed is a curious set of opposite and equally loaded critical terms. On the one hand Britten's music was characterized as "mere cleverness," "devilish smart." On the other it was accused of sentimentality. Behind both attitudes, of course, lay the unspoken fascination with Britten's homosexuality, both labels being the reverse sides of the oppositions claft/cleverness, sincerity/sentimentality, which belong among a whole plethora of binarisms that Sedgwick has claimed as "epistemologically charged pairings, condensed in the figures of 'the closet' and 'coming out.'"
Tell me I'm wrong! In fact, I was actually delighted to discover that we could easily go through this review and switch out these loaded words of faint praise for nearly exact synonyms, and by merely substituting tonally different (often, less "gay"-coded) adjectives, totally invert the apparent meaning of the review. Watch:
Here the chorus is being used to persuade a wider public than New Yorkers about Muhly, a young composer who is the talk of that town.
Sounds like a con job! How about:
Here the chorus champions Muhly, a young composer who is the talk of New York.
Same meaning, totally different connotations. But let's get to the gay-bashing:
Plus, Muhly has also composed appropriately treacly soundtracks to "Joshua" and "The Reader."
"Appropriately treacly" soundtracks to a creepy kid movie and a Holocaust picture? What could be appropriate about treacle? Well okay, I'm not arguing with his actual opinions here, it's fine, I'll let it go. But:
Muhly can be a precious and facile composer, a showoff.
Aren't "precious" and "facile" TRANSPARENTLY ways of complimenting an artist in a mean way? You could just as easily say:
Muhly is a meticulous but prolific composer, a virtuoso.
Except when you say it that way, it doesn't sound faggy enough.

Anyhow, you get the picture. How could such a positive review be so mean! Well, I sort of understand where Swed's coming from. There's this weird provincialism in New York that assumes that it's the classical music center of America, if not the Universe, and when you're working in a market that is constantly getting dismissed, you gotta represent. And there's nothing to sour one on an artist like the stink of Media Hype.

But the problem is that neither of these things is Nico's fault ("begging attention"? he doesn't even have a publicist!), and even if they were, they wouldn't be audible on the CDs under review. Please, music critics, review things that are audible!

Of course, I'm prejudiced totally oppositewise, so you're probably taking all of these opinions with a grain of salt as well. (If you ain't, you oughta be.) Thanks to Proper Discord for bringing this one to my attention—there is not enough Swed in my life. But, maybe somebody should say something to him.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Composerly Memes

laskdjfals;fjals;dfjsalfkj I have been SO LAZY lately, I scarcely blogged a blog all summer. My big excuse is that I finally wrote my first article for a glossy magazine and I've been stressing over that but really it's a short article and a pretty puny excuse. Also I helped my brother move to Texas! Scroll down the right-hand column to see the bitchin' lamp we got for his new office. But that is also a puny excuse since the whole time I was in the car I was revising that article.

By the way all of my interviewees for that piece were SO GREAT, I can't believe how much amazing material they gave me. It was pretty painful to distill pages of brilliant comments from James "La Cieca" Jorden and Zachary "Z-Wolf" Woolfe into the itty bitty handful of quotes I could actually shoehorn into the article. Which brings me the other thing I've written lately, this pair of reviews for La Cieca, of discs from the James Levine 40th Met anniversary boxsets: Berg's Lulu, Corigliano's Ghosts of Versailles. You'll want to click through; some great comments await. A sample:

So provocative! Clicky clicky.

Cieca's comments also got me to thinking again about the ways in which composers are and aren't oppressed by mainstream classical institutions. Apparently Caleb Burhans' string quartet for JACK was actually Boo'd, at Darmstadt? Which is on the one hand distressing (were they booing it on the grounds of style alone? or was the piece actually bad?? neither of those is a very happy possibility!) and on the other hand, forget it, JACK, it's Darmstadt-town. Somebody told me that the Kronos Quartet was boo'd there before they even sat down; after the performance, they shook the dirt off their tevas and never looked back. If that story's true, MORE POWER TO KRONOS. Y'all don't need those bitches. (I mean, can you IMAGINE booing someone BEFORE THEY PLAYED?)

In some respects, what seems like systematic institutional discrimination is really just built in to the institutions—the perennial complaint, for instance, that only "academic" composers are recognized by academia; well, duh!—and there's no way around that tautology except to wait for that battleship, whether it's The University or The Symphony or The Festival Scene, to slowly turn your way. (Okay actually there is one way, and fortunately a lot of people are doing it nowadays, which is to get your friends together and pilot your own sleek little dinghy into those uncharted waters you've got your eye on.) And sometimes you will actually, personally be kept down by composers who find your music ideologically unacceptable, such as in (PDF) this article John Halle wrote about what a jerk Mario Davidovsky was to him. He makes a pretty convincing case!  Mario Davidovsky:  jerk.

A combination of the above factors has produced a surprising number of bitter, bitter boomers and post-boomers. What's great though is that those people's students, having been told that there are no stylistic Wrong Answers, are increasingly setting out in fleets of those metaphorical dinghies. Look at Corey Dargel! I know I keep harping on him, but that's just because he's one of my super duper favoritest composers in the world right now. Or in other words, if he would like a pull-quote for his press materials: Each new song from Corey Dargel only reinforces my sense that he is one of the most compelling and important composers emerging from the New York scene. I'm still kicking myself for having missed the reading from his new opera (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!), The Three Christs, this past Monday, and someone should probably kick ME for having totally failed to review his new record yet despite its having come out like last year or something. (I SWEAR TO GOD I WILL REVIEW IT, I'VE JUST BEEN… BUSY.)

But one interesting thing about his success is how few of the conventional trappings have surrounded it. Yes, he has written for starry new-music institutions like the American Composers Orchestra and the newer but no less starry International ICE Ensemble, but mostly he's been putting on concerts in nightclubs, by himself or with a handful of friends, and putting out largely D.I.Y. records on independent labels. He basically embodies the notion that you young composers don't need to chase the DMA, the prizes, and the professorship in order to be able to make the music they want to make.

(Lest we romanticize the situation over here, let us also note that for many composers, while "making the music they want to make" might be very important, things like "comprehensive dental insurance" might also be very important, and it's pretty nasty to have to trade that stability for the opportunity to make meaningful art.)

And so while I am totally OVER hearing established, middle-aged composers with tenure or glamorous commissions or whatever complain about what victims they are because they got one bad review someplace (I'm not even going to name names here; you can fill in the blank), I do have to cringe whenever I hear America's most Dargelicious composer picking up their old refrain, with tweets like this about the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra's open commissioning thingie, Project 440:
Because FIRST of all, isn't that kind of a mean thing to say about the composers who made the finals? Actually, now that I look at it, the rhetoric he's using borrows a lot from the old modernist bullies—the finalists are "mundane," not "innovative" enough.

On the face of it, this would seem to be the "tautological" complaint. Why isn't Orpheus (most famous for recording, like, Handel's Water Music and the Mozart wind concerti) commissioning more out-there music? Well, they're not a new-music ensemble; they really don't hang out on the cutting edge. But have they really chosen such boring composers? If I could pick four winners out of the final 12, here's who I'd probably go with. This decision is totally subjective and shockingly non-binding:

1. Timothy Andres, composer/pianist, bright young star on Nonesuch Records.
Facile comparison: John Adams.
I'll admit I've never been shocked by Andres's music, but it seems like a good fit for Orpheus, and frankly, it's incredibly well put-together. Listen to this stuff, both of these pieces are really kinda moving:

2. Tyondai Braxton,
rock star, plays with BATTLES on Warp Records.
Facile comparison: Frank Zappa.
I was never a huge fan of the BATTLES LP, but I have to admit Braxton's style meshes incredibly well with the sound of a chamber orchestra in these clips. Exuberant to the brink of kitsch; maybe even (dare I say!) subversive?

3. Alexandre Lunsqui, Brazilian awesome person.
Facile comparison: Dude, I don't know. Somebody from Europe?
Okay now HERE are some unfamiliar orchestral effects. This is crazy! What's even going on here! This is very exciting! Alexandre Lunsqui should be famous!

4. Andrew Norman, Modestonian pianist/composer.
Facile comparison: STOP IT, LEAVE ME ALONE, I DON'T KNOW
I am IN THE TANK for Norman, having admired his music immensely since I was a young 'un (btw I'm sorry this list is All Male and includes not one but Two pianists from Yale), and he's such an intensely self-critical and publicity-shy composer that it causes me a spasm of physical pain to hear someone gripe that he isn't enough of an "innovator" to deserve his little bit of success, but all the same, I hope you'll agree that it's not just me, that his music is quite well-wrought, lively, and satisfying to the ear:

I mean, right?? These are all good composers! Everyone one the list whom I DIDN'T name is a really good composer! They would all write something awesome for Orpheus! Let's just relax, everybody. Young composers, I want to see a little bit less of this
and a whole lot more of this:


Saturday, August 21, 2010


So I went Monday night to hear the International Contemporary Ensemble, or as they're sometimes known, "ICE," or "the ICE ensemble," or as I like to call them, "the international ICE ensemble." The international ICE ensemble are actually not, as their name might lead you to believe, from Iceland, but rather from Chicago or New York or something. [Note to self: look up where ICE is from before clicking PUBLISH. Actually, eh, don't bother.]

BUT ENOUGH WITH THE JOKING, I'm just a little punchy, the point is that they were pretty fantastically great. It's such a cliché, and a fallacy, to say that an ensemble can (or should) play so well that they present a given piece umediated by of interpretation, but that was certainly the illusion Monday night—I kept having to remind myself to pay attention to the performers, not just the score, so that I could tell y'all about them.

The program was part of a Mostly Mozart series curated by Pierre-Laurent Aimard, your favorite pianist (I mean seriously, am I the only one who watches this video frame by frame to make sure he hasn't cheated and grown a third hand?), looking at the music of Bach in the context of a giant survey of polyphony, spanning cultures and æons. This concert specifically was about juxtaposing the European/British avant-garde with their interpretations of baroque counterpoint, so the first piece was a Purcell arrangement by George Benjamin, featuring Aimard on celeste, accompanied by just a few ICEpeople who kept sneaking in to realize and resolve the long lines the celeste couldn't sustain. It was eerie and sweet and unsettling, and I wish I had a CD of it. SOMEBODY SEND ME A CD OF IT.

Next was Benjamin's Antara, featuring Aimard on sampler—dueling ICE's Corey Smythe—and Claire Chase and Eric Lamb played (the fuck out of their) flute soli. The piece is an elaborate exploration of a sampled pan-pipe—flutes imitating its breathy sound, violin harmonics imitating its overtones, and the keyboards, of course, supplying the "actual" pipes. It draws the listener into a dense and shadowy thicket of sound, only to be BOMBARDED BY AN AMBUSH OF BRASS BRASS AND PERCUSSION. The samplers controlled their attacks with pedals and noodled through microtonal scales, but still Benjamin was unable to fully liberate the sound of a sampled pan-pipe from the cultural context of somebody scoring a TV show and wanting a naïve Andean sound (TV scores are racist) but being too cheap to hire actual Incas. The flutes aped the pipes, the band aped the pipes, the samplers aped the pipes—I wonder if the piece would have felt more satisfying if there had just been an actual set of pipes onstage. Why not? Maybe that was the point? At any rate, odd, and beautiful.

Next, from Harrison Birtwistle's Bach Measures, two arrangements of Bach's Li'l Organ Book chorales, which were pretty zesty and sparkly and cute. "I think that one's from Birtwistle's Christmas album," said somebody next to me, which has prompted me to do another mockup for you guys in the classical record industry:


It occurs to me that there's something perhaps inherently campy about Bach arrangements for new-music ensemble. It's drag, basically: they put on those shoes and those tights and that big curly wig and they get a little zany about doing those things they aren't supposed to do (Perfect Authentic Cadences, NAUGHTY) while ostensibly underlining those things that are most 20th/21st-century about Bach's own music. You can read about this in my forthcoming dissertation, "SWITCHED ON: Performing Bach and Gender in the 20th Century." I think part of this lurid effect stems from the chamber orchestra's lack of a firm sonic foundation in the form of a large string section: the colors are constantly shifting, every line is broken up amongst the different sections, and we get a lot of coloristic frosting, not a lot of actual cake.

That's fine! It's fun! Just something to be aware of. Another thing that is fine and fun, but be aware: usually with a project like Aimard's "Bach & Polyphonies," the comparison/contrast between old and new is a little skewed towards the contrast. What usually happens is that the tonal stuff ends up sounding a little dry and old-fashioned and the crazy bleep bloop music sounds crazier than ever. Birtwistle, though, a composer I don't know well (not that I know Benjamin well, or Lachenmann), really did open up a bit when his Slow Frieze was paired with his Bach arrangements. Those same contrapuntal voices, chugging along steadily through their material, except that they were all chugging along at different speeds in the Birtwistle, and without a tonal center. But the point is, the piece spoke, and all the more clearly thanks to Bach's intervention.

After intermission it was Berio's Contrapunctus XIX, one of Berio's many "completions" of unfinished works (in this case, the end of Bach's Art of Fugue) and the only piece on the program I'd heard before. The Gimmick is, see, that Berio ends the piece not by completing the fugue but by allowing each voice to trail off and then resolve to a ghostly cluster on the notes B-A-C-H (that's German for B-flat, A, C, B-natural), which Bach had used as a musical signature within the piece. It's a beautiful dedication, and heavily dependent on the ensemble's ability to summon up the appropriate musical color, which they did throughout the piece, keenly and sensitively. I did wish that they'd gotten a little sentimental—it would've been exciting to hear them let loose a bit more passionately on the B-A-C-H section, for instance, when that motif first came up.

But the real meat of the program was the final piece, Lachenmann's Mouvement, an astonishing work that I'm grateful to have heard in person—it's impossible to imagine such a piece having anything close to the same effect when emitted, disembodied, from a pair of speakers. The ensemble was divided spatially into three sections—winds, strings, percussion—which then traded and developed musical material, which was to my delight not, for the most part, pitch or rhythmic material, but pure timbre, created mostly through an incredible array of extended techniques. I never even knew, e.g., that bowing the pegs of a fiddle would even MAKE a sound. But the whole thing cohered, which I suspect is a testament to the band's exceptional musicianship.

Okay, a cranky little voice inside me asks the question of, if you're not going to let the performers play their instruments properly, why write for conventional instruments at all—that is, if you're going to treat the instruments like pieces of wood and lengths of tubing, why not just have them bow pieces of wood and strike lengths of tubing, since you're not really using the performers' training or their instruments' sound-generating properties—but yknow SHUT UP, cranky little voice, for there are plenty of practical and conceptual reasons why you might write unconventional techniques for conventional instruments, and so if you're going to do it this well, I'm not going to complain about it. The piece had basically everything I demand from a piece of avant-garde music—a clear, dramatic form, and arresting new sounds—and I could scarcely have been more satisfied by such an adventurous piece of music. The piece ended; the audience went nuts; ICE deserved it. Thank you, ICE! I shall endeavor to attend more of your concerts in the very near future.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

I Think that You Will Be Amused by Our Collection of Musical Clocks

So I've been very busy lately, but I really wanted to start blogging regularly again, now that I have a lot of free time, but I haven't really got anything to say this morning, so I thought that instead of saying anything I would just share with you some videos from the website of Utrecht's Museum Speelklok, "The most cheerful museum in the Netherlands," which it very well may be!

Here is a link to all of their videos; I suggest that you employ a friend to press Play on each video, and that you then listen to each tune whilst dancing around the room holding a small, patient housecat (e.g.). Then you can go back and watch the individual mechanisms at work. The mechanical ingenuity is the most remarkable part of most of these devices, although some really great music has been written for mechanical instruments. Think of Mozart writing tiny masterpieces for musical clocks, or Ligeti (inspired by Nancarrow's example) arranging his music for the barrel organ. I believe Swatch once commissioned a chime from Philip Glass. What tune is this thing playing, though? It's lovely:

Here's a most charming little organ playing the old-timey French tune, "Est-ce Mars":

Here's one where robot fingers play a wheel of violins:

Wow! Still sounds better than the strings on Renee Fleming's last record. Ooh and here's a REALLY fancy one. Who wouldn't want to hear THIS every hour?
And here's one where AUGHHHHH

Okay Utrecht WHAT THE FUCK.

That's all for now! Stay tuned for more tomorrow, maybe.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Full of Shit: or, 'Poo Poo Poo Poo Poopageno'

You know, I keep saying THAT IS THE STUPIDEST THING I HAVE EVER HEARD more and more often these days, and yet it's true every time. The cottage industry that has sprung up around the thoroughly debunked Mozart Effect keeps reaching lower and lower lows; it has finally, literally, reached the sewer. Reports BBC Music,

A pioneering German sewage plant is piping Mozart opera to waste-eating microbes in a bid to increase their efficiency and lower costs. Initial tests at the centre in Treuenbrietzen, south-west of Berlin, suggest that the music stimulates the microbes, encouraging a faster breakdown of biomass.
Right! No, sure! Of course! This is totally real science. They probably had control groups of shit-eating microbes listening to Soler and Cimarosa before they came to the conclusion that Mozart was the most effective at optimizing the breakdown of shit.
But why do the microbes respond so well? Stucki believes the answer is simple: ‘Mozart managed to transpose universal laws of nature into his music. It has an effect on people of every age and background. So why not on microbes? After all, they’re living organisms just like us’.
Yup! Universal laws of nature. In the music. That is completely, scientifically true. Microbes, living in water, eating shit, with no ears, respond to Mozart the same way you and I do.

Hey, classical record labels, are you gonna cash in on this, or what??? Here, I even designed the cover for you:
YOU'RE WELCOME. This one's free.

Daniel Stephen Johnson
Head Marketing Consultant

Monday, June 21, 2010

Lives of the Great Composers: John Adams' Librettist Calls Him a Dickhead

There is an interesting and somewhat problematic interview with John Adams up at the Guardian. It's one of those articles that tells you a lot more about the author than its subject. Just f'rinstance, here is the part that really gets me:

During the Vietnam war, he dodged the draft, dosing himself with caffeine and over-the-counter drugs to ensure that he failed the medical. Yet 30 years later, when asked by the New York Philharmonic to compose a 9/11 elegy, he succumbed to what he acknowledged was his "civic duty". Has the coyote been collared and tethered?
Because I guess going off to kill and/or die in a distant jungle is basically the same as accepting a commission from the New York Phil? In terms of doing your civic duty?

So weird. The article is full of stuff like that! This passage is also kind of confusing—
Alice Goodman, who wrote the text for of [sic] Nixon in China, is now an ordained minister of the Church of England, dispensing piety to her flock in the shires; holy orders did not restrain her from denouncing Adams as a "dickhead" when their opera was performed in Brussels.
I guess this is technically true? But kind of misleading. "Holy orders did not restrain" Alice Goodman (litotes?) because she was not an ordained minister at the time—in fact, I think she was Jewish. Also, he says "their opera," but the opera in question wasn't Nixon in China, as this passage seems to imply, but The Death of Klinghoffer, their second collaboration. Also, she didn't actually "denounce" him as a dickhead, since "denounce" implies a public statement, and actually it went something like this, according to Goodman at least (quoted by Rupert Christiansen in Thomas May's indispensable John Adams Reader, p. 253):
Anyway I'm very happy I read this article because it reminds me that I Was Looking at the Ceiling and then I Saw the Sky, Adams' foray into… light opera? popular song?… is coming to London! And the cast sounds great! Even if this production flops, it should be fascinating; the candid dissection of the original Ceiling/Sky productions was one of my favorite parts of Adams' memoirs. But maybe it will be a smashing success! History will judge! Here is some video to whet y'alls appetites: and there are more videos + info here. I would like a FULL REPORT, please, from anybody in London.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

And While We're on the Subject

of late–20th century coloratura arias sung by totalitarian sopranos caught on videotape, here's a clip of Barbara Hannigan singing Gepopo's first aria from Le Grand Macabre at the NY Phil the other day:(If you haven't read my review yet, you should! It's here.) Note that this video is kind of really well shot? I wonder if it will be broadcast! Or even, maybe, just maybe, just possibly, released commercially…? Okay okay maybe not. [UPDATE: Alas no.] Anyway, you can hear it on the radio or online this Thursday, and it's gonna be available for purchase on iTunes soon. Oh hey and here's a pdf of the whole libretto, courtesy of the NY Times (thank you, manou!).

Here's another video of that performance, from the same NY Phil page.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Is It Okay if I Write a Post About Nixon in China–Related News that Doesn't Make a Joke about How "News Has a Kind of Mystery"? Okay Cool

So one reason a lot of us were really excited when we heard that Nixon in China was going to play the Met, because that meant the possibility of an HD broadcast, because that meant the possibility of a video recording, and Peter Sellarses production of Nixon in China is one of the best things he ever did! But then we found out that it was not on the HD schedule and we all cried, softly, into our signed copies of the I Was Looking at the Ceiling and then I Saw the Sky libretto. BUT NOW IT IS ON THE HD SCHEDULE, HOORAY, THAT IS SO AMAZING!!! Even if there is no recording, it means that anybody who hasn't sent away for a bootleg DVD of the old Great Performances broadcast (complete with Walter Cronkite commentary) will finally get to see what the opera is supposed to look like, on the BIG SCREEN, deliciously filmed and amplified. Did I mention I AM SO EXCITEDDDDDD

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Two Reviews

I tweeted these links, but didn't blog them:

Here's my review of the new Timo Andres CD. I made some really odd choices in formatting this review, which understandably got taken out in editing, but which would've changed the tone or even the sense just slightly: for one thing, I hate short, one-sentence paragraphs, so the last paragraph originally read,

Fortunately, now that we’re all jaded citizens of the 21st century, we’ve all heard Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony enough and never need to hear it again. Just kidding, no we haven’t. Hear the New Haven Symphony play it (right after the Eighth Symphony) on May 13 at Woolsey Hall or May 15 at Fairfield University—it’s why we’re alive.
And this sentence became slightly different when the Mark Trail–like weirdness of my italics was corrected:
A generation (or two) has passed, the battle is over and the Andres/Adams camp has won — and is there anything more tiresome than the pose of rebellion?
Emphasis on POSE. I love rebellion! It's the pose that's tiresome.

And then, here's my review of György Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre at the New York Phil. I should have mentioned in the first paragraph, when I mentioned how "self-righteous" I was at twenty, "dropping the…Grand Macabre I’d just bought at Tower Records into my CD player," I would not have dreamed that ten years later I'd be reviewing a production for Parterre Box. I was planning to review this for my own blog, but then I scored a pair of press tickets and decided that I therefore ought to review it for a publication that people actually read. If you're a Ligeti fan, I hope you'll click through—I tried to make the review as thorough and meaty as I could.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Redefining "NSFW"

Hardcore gay porn director Joe Gage has blogged about Gustavo Dudamel on his hardcore gay porn blog. If you click on the link I'm about to give you, it will show you—after a clip of some hardcore amateur porn—a few pictures, a link to the L.A. Times coverage of Dudamel, and a short video of Gustavo Dudamel. I give you this link not because the Dudamel content is especially interesting, and certainly not because I think you should click on this link at work, around children, or really anywhere in public (NO TO ALL OF THOSE THINGS), but rather because, if you are not offended by hardcore porn, you may find the juxtaposition amusing. That is all.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


Alex Ross points out that this pic of Igor Stravinsky is NOT as rad as it appears to be—it may be a photo of Igor Stravinsky taken by the Boston PD, but it's not actually a mugshot, just a snapshot they took for his visa renewal. Stravinsky wasn't actually arrested; he got off with a warning.

In happier news, this picture of Stravinsky's penis is still totally real.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Cross Purposes

At first I wondered whether I disliked Matt Marks's new New Amsterdam Records record The Little Death: Vol. 1 because some of its most prominent features scored direct hits on my NOT MY THING button: conventional pop/musical theater vocals? NOT MY THING. Proggily rapid changes in musical texture? NOT MY THING. Put it together, and the record has this vibe of The Glee Kids Sing Fiery Furnaces, which = NOT MY THING squared.

But. Repeated listenings convinced me that the problem wasn't (entirely) me; it was the record. It's not just a song cycle, it's a concept album/rock opera—a form that's capable of some very exciting things, but which (like all opera) requires a delicate balance between forward narrative movement of a traditional drama and the lyrical suspension of time that we get in a pop song (or operatic setpiece). Actually, Marks's ability to create a convincing pop-music moment is pretty solid—the "Penetration Overture" is satisfying, Avalanches-style sample-driven chillout—but it's constantly being undermined by a half-baked dramatic sense.

Most obviously, the libretto is a problem. The story is pretty straightforward: boy meets girl; girl prefers Jesus; boy does something they'll all regret. They're even named "Boy" and "Girl," as if suggesting that these characters are archetypes, and their story, in some sense, fabulous or universal—but instead the characters seem flat and uninvolving, and the story sketched-in.

Pull in for a close-up, and the picture doesn't get much better; line-for-line, there's not much going on here. Here are the lyrics for the song "I Don't Have Any Fun," pasted in their entirety:

BOY: I don’t have any fun on my own
I don’t have any fun on my own
If you want to have fun fall in love with me
If you want to have fun fall in love with me

GIRL: I don’t want
I don’t want
I don’t want you (repeat)

BOY: I don’t have any fun on my own
I don’t have any fun on my own
If you want to have fun fall in love with me
If you want to have fun fall in love with me (repeat)

GIRL: I’m afraid
I’m afraid, Boy
I’m afraid I’d laugh in your face
I’m afraid, Boy
I’m afraid I’d laugh in your face, Boy
I’d laugh in your face, Boy

BOY: You’re like God
You’re like God
You’re like God to me
You’re like God
You’re like God to me (repeat)
What we learn from this song is that Boy doesn't have any fun on his own, but Girl doesn't want him—she's afraid she'd laugh in his face!—even though Girl is like God to Boy.


Now, repetition is great! Repetition is practically what makes music music! Repetition is even more necessary in a critique of Christian kitsch, as anyone who has ever heard a [shudder] "praise song" will attest. But this seems like repetition for lack of something to say. Why is she like God to him? How did he go from just wanting to have fun to literally idolizing her? There's no transition, no connection, and it makes it impossible for us to sympathize with Boy or with his change of heart. It's a problem within the more formally ambitious songs, and from song to song (and here I'm torn between wanting to cite more of my least favorite moments and feeling like I'm harping on it already, and I don't want to harp on it).

Perhaps inevitably, the structural failures of the libretto are reflected in the music. Marks incorporates a cover of the Gaithers classic "He Touched Me" on the album, seemingly because of the opportunities for innuendo at the expense of a naïve and corny tune. So why is "He Touched Me," with its embarrassing lyrics and wobbly old melody, the album's most compelling moment of songcraft? Marks and costar Mellissa Hughes are highly competent pop/show singers; if only his own compositions had gone deeper than aping the bombast of Christian pop, and dug into what it is about this stuff that can make it so touching in spite of itself, he might have created a far more satisfying piece of work. But the album never finds a happy compromise between narrative and lyrical, or between its two ironical poses of happy-face pop and breast-beating histrionics.

But don't take MY word for it! Stream this thang over at the New Amsterdam site (it's just two songs now, but I imagine that after tomorrow's release they'll let you hear the whole thing before you buy), and if you like it you can purchase your very own copy and then argue about this with me in the comment section.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Lives of the Great Composers: Igor Stravinsky Poses for His Mugshot

Here's the picture from when they busted Igor Stravinsky for his arrangement of the Star-Spangled Banner! (UPDATE: No it isn't. Click here for more info.) I guess his harmonization could be considered "irreverent"? But, C'MON. Hardly offensive:

Igor Stravinsky (arr.) - The Star-Spangled Banner

And in fact, listening to it again since I put this post up, it's not even that irreverent. That trumpet dissonance on "that our flag was still there" is, for instance, a little startling, but it serves the text—in any other arrangement, that line would swerve up to a G or down to an E to fit in with the C major chord, but instead it is STILL on that F when we get to the word STILL. Word painting! And the dominant seventh chord on "land of the free" is a surprise too, but cmon—it, and the other changes are just lovely. This recording is Stravinsky's own, available in that giant Sony boxset of Stravinsky conducting Stravinsky, which obviously all of you should buy. Buy it now. Are you buying it? Okay good.

Photo from Washington Musica Viva, via Boing Boing.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Well Can a MIDI File Do... THIS??

Really, any actual lover of music should take one look at a bathroom wallpapered in piano rolls and just die inside, but still it looks pretty cool. Maybe I'll do our loo up with a Xenakis theme? Photo by Cory Doctorow.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Another NYC Concert Heads-Up

Just saw that the Canticum Novum Singers and the Russian Chamber Chorus of New York are doing a concert of "Sacred Music in the Soviet Era," including the Concerto for Choir by Alfred Schnittke (plus some Pärt, some more Schnittke, some Murov, and WORLD PREMIERES by Golovanov and Reeves), this Saturday and Sunday.

Do you know the Choir Concerto? If so, then you know it is one of the greatest pieces of music from the last century. If not, then DUDE. Get there. Details here.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Everyone Must Go Hear EVERY THING MUST GO

I already "tweeted" this on the "Twitter" but just in case you don't use the "Twitter," TONIGHT at (Le) Poisson Rouge you can go hear music off of Martin Bresnick's new CD, Every Thing Must Go, out today. Performers include our friend Wei-Yi Yang, and of course Prof. Bresnick's people Lisa Moore, plus Ashley Bathgate (cello), Abigail Nims (voice), and the Preludio Saxophone Quartet (duh). Buy tickets here, now.

Thursday, May 6, 2010


To help promote his forthcoming New Amsterdam double-disc Someone Will Take Care of Me, Corey Dargel's new song cycle with Cornelius Dufallo (mentioned here) is available for FREE DOWNLOAD at NewAm's website. Go there NOW NOW NOW and download it; it's a bite-sized work of art that will get lodged in your brain for the next year. FOR FANS OF: Arthur Russell, Owen Pallett.

Monday, April 26, 2010

More Videos About People and Birds

I know this piece was already brought to your attention by Molly Sheridan or the Boing Boing but even so look at it, LOOK, it's BEAUTIFUL.

British artist Marcus Coates made videos of people singing along to slowed-down birdsong in ordinary human habitats. Then he sped the videos back up to pitch:

Then he projected the videos, arranged around the room like a garden of morning birds:

Go here now, whence these videos were ganked, to find out more about the project. It's science! It's art! It's music! You love it.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Oh This Must Be One of Those Post-Modern Stagings I Keep Hearing About (Possibly NSFW)

So the other day I was thinking to myself, "What's Arlen Austin up to?" See, Arlen was the kid who got all the bass solos in Columbia Bach Society because of his big wonderful voice, and the fact that he was also a visual artist kind of went in one of my ears and out the other, until I finally went to check out his senior exhibition at the school gallery and OH MY GOD, it was so good! So I said "I'll bet he's up to something interesting now," and wowzers, he sure is. There he is singing the Wanderers Nachtlied by Schubert. Here's another video, this one's set to the Rosenkavalier trio, called Birdbath:

Genius, basically. Go check him out some more over here!