Sunday, December 30, 2007

Okay Just One More Post Before Bed

All times are Pacific:

9:57:31 AM Daniel Johnson: My dad had the news on in this room while I was asleep 9:58:28 AM Daniel Johnson: I dreamed Leontyne Price was assassinated 10:01:44 AM Friend: One sec, my boyfriend just arrived. 10:01:51 AM Friend: He laughed at your joke. 10:02:07 AM Daniel Johnson: hahaha it wasn't a joke, that's the sad thing 10:02:13 AM Daniel Johnson: that's just how gay I am

Saturday, December 29, 2007

I Am Sick and Tired of Writing About This Guy

And no, I don't mean Franz Schubert. But seriously, this has got to stop. First, the Timeseses Bernard Holland takes it upon himself to defend the concert hall against the likes of Cornelius Cardew, Earle Brown, and Christian Wolff, whose "1960s arrogance and self-absorption" was actually "damaging to music"—ah yes, who doesn't remember the 1960s as an era dominated by the likes of Cornelius Cardew, Earle Brown, and Christian Wolff! And what does this music-damaging oeuvre sound like? What pieces were performed? I guess that's not so important, since our critic declines to offer any description. What's important is "arrogance and self-absorption," but we might have guessed that: this is, after all, a Bernard Holland column. Well, the deaths of Cardew and Brown have ended their respective reigns of terror, but maybe there's still hope for Christian Wolff. Where can he look for a new aesthetic model? Hey, how about Radio City Music Hall, where the Rockettes put on a world-famous Christmas show each year? Well, I'm not exactly sure how this is even a musical event, since didn't the Rockettes tour with a CD in the orchestra pit one time and nobody noticed but the union? Holland isn't sure either; 875 words in this piece and only fourteen describe the music: "On its elevating orchestra pit Gary Adler and his players perform in high style." "High style," huh? Thanks! I feel like I was there. (For perspective, that is one fewer word than Holland uses to explain that the Rockettes arouse him sexually: "I like them especially with their antlers on. They can pull my sled any day.") [Shudder.] Now there's a piece about the deaths of brilliant young composers, which, as it turns out, aren't such a big deal after all. For instance, "Schubert died at 31. How much music did his early death deprive us of? Not a lot."

Friend #1: "Yes, no one talks much about the music he wrote 3 years after his death. You ever notice that?" Friend #2: "Me, I'm just relieved to see I'm not the only one who hasn't finished On Late Style."

Can anyone make a lick of sense out of this article? I'm starting to think he just bet somebody money he could get an incredibly filthy double-entendre into a New York Times headline.

Ugh, good night, everyone! New New Year's resolution: I will not put this goober's name in my mouth for another twelve months.

Robert Hurwitz vs. Master P

From Actually, I think they've got something here... I mean, Four Tet and DJ Spooky are nice and all, but how about "Proverb (Akon Mix feat. Akon)"? Somebody call Nonesuch Records, right now.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Maury Felice!

Maury D'Annato celebrates his one-hundred-thousandth-or-so hit this morning. My favorite My Favorite Intermissions, I have to admit, is the same one La Cieca quoted earlier this year:

The role, as we all know, is unsingable, and so unsing it he did.

But is that my favorite line from my favorite My Favorite Intermissions? Or is it, re: Debbie Voigt,

No, the top is not the same shiny thing it used to be, but neither is the statue of liberty and we still like her.

In any case, I quote both of those one-liners like thrice daily. Informed, discerning, funny, self-effacing, Maury is truckloads of the very best that opera criticism has to offer. Happy D'Anniversary!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Life Imitates Dargel

So I wrote this thing on my friend's blog about gay marriage and/or divorce, and when I was done I could not get "Move to Vermont" by Corey Dargel out of my head but it looks like it's not on his mp3 page anymore. Didn't it use to be? You'll have to accost him in the street and demand he sing it for you in person so that you have some idea what the hell I'm talking about. And then I wrote this other thing about Lisa Bielawa's Chance Encounter for the local paper. As usual, I'm guessing I got everything wrong, but I hope somebody out there sees it and decides to go to the concert.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Who Blogwatches the Blogwatchmen?

I don't follow Greg Sandow's blog, but I understand there are people who do, so I've always assumed there's something he does right and I'm just missing it. Gramophone cast a little doubt on that assumption this month by selecting for its Blogwatch feature an especially ill-informed and poorly thought-out piece on the music and legacy of Luciano Berio. Sandow's conclusion:

And in Berio's modernism, delightful as it now sounds to me -- and not just delightful; irreverent, too -- you run into a brick wall of limitation. Berio can twitter and burp all he likes, but the connections that he thinks he's making to the world outside classical music are all to highbrow theorizing, cultural, linguistic, and literary. You'd never catch him echoing a snatched memory of popular culture (unless you count folk songs, which I don't, because they're theorized, in Berio's world, as authentic, while pop culture, supposedly, is commercial and corrupt). So that's the boundary. He can giggle all he wants, and also cough and hum and murmur, putting sounds in free association with each other. But if I'd written a piece like this, and my free association took me to a fragment of Led Zeppelin, eyebrows would have been raised. Likewise, when Elliott Carter says that he's inspired (as, for instance, in his piano piece Night Fantasies) by the slither of unconscious thoughts in Joyce's writing, what he'll never do, as thoughts skitter in his music, is let them skitter toward popular culture (by, for instance, echoing a popular song), as Joyce does on just about every page. That's an odd, restrictive limit, typical of modernist music, but not of other modernist art. And it helps explains why modernist music has never had the appeal of modernist literature or painting.

Was somebody asleep at the wheel of the Gramophone? Within two days of this posting, Sandow had already received a reply correcting the basic error of fact underpinning this argument. Berio loved popular music, and his love was reflected in his composition. Commenter John Abbott wrote:

....yet Berio liked jazz, arranged Beatles songs (supposedly also influencing The Beatles prior to Sgt Pepper), and included all sorts of cultural references in works like Sinfonia. I always associate him with Umberto Eco, who loves mixing "highbrow" and "lowbrow" culture.

And Sandow replies:

I'd love to know more about this. I didn't know about the Beatles arrangements! But -- and maybe this is my fault -- I don't remember pop references in "Sinfonia." That Mahler movement, with the singing and speaking voices, struck me, last time I heard it, as quite notably Mandarin in its culture. I most clearly remember the Samuel Beckett text. I love Beckett -- he's one of my cultural touchstones -- but he's certainly not popular culture.

Err, Berio's Beatles arrangements are not exactly a secret; I'm pretty sure they're mentioned right in his New Grove entry. Here's Cathy Berberian singing "Ticket to Ride," three minutes into this clip.

As for pop references in the Sinfonia, yeah, it's your fault. Maybe listen a little closer to the stylings from Rod Swingle and his Swingle Singers, the gang for whom the piece was composed. Their vocal production is not quite as operatic as one might expect in an hommage à Mahler. Another pop-influenced Berio moment that comes to mind: the drumkits and brass hits of Laborintus 2. Great piece! Give it a listen.

Sandow goes on:

And the Beatles -- I've long thought that the interest in them among classical musicians back in the '60s has been misunderstood. For one thing, it didn't last very long. But mainly, people like Bernstein and Ned Rorem liked the Beatles because their songs did the same kind of things (with melodic and harmonic sophistication) that classical music does. So it wasn't that highbrows started liking rock. It was that rock musicians had started moving into classical territory. If Berio had arranged Rolling Stones songs, I'd have granted him a serious interest in rock & roll. Or if all these classical people had gone crazy for The Band, I'd agree that they had some understanding of rock. The Band's music is easily as sophisticated as the Beatles', but the sophistication derives entirely from American roots music, and isn't like to speak to classical music people who don't move easily on the rock side of the fence.

Why all this speculation about what Berio thought of rock? Let's Google "Luciano Berio" and rock; the first hit is Berio's "Comments on rock," excerpted in the anthology The Lennon Companion. A pity to see how much is omitted in this translation, but we get the idea--what does Berio like about rock? Its eclecticism, the simplicity of its materials, and of course the ease with which those materials can be reconfigured to assimilate Beatles-style avant-gardism. Artists mentioned: yes, Zappa and the Beatles, but also the Four Tops, the Grateful Dead and, guess who, the Rolling Stones.

(Non seq.: Find my new favorite Berio anecdote here.

The conversation was a kind of litany containing the great names of twentieth-century composition: Cage, Messiaen, et al. Then Rihm mentioned Sting. Boulez was shocked. Berio told him to go and listen to Sting's latest album, that he might be surprised.



So after seeing Sandow in the Gramophone, I sent another Greg, one of my Gregs, over to check out the post. His response was immediately to dig up an article in which Luciano Berio actively rails against the kind of "enforced ideology" Sandow claims was propagated by "the crowd [Berio] ran with" (nevermind who Berio actually "ran with"):

In 1968, Berio published an essay in the Christian Science Monitor titled "Meditations on a Twelve-Tone Horse." (available for purchase here.) This essay contains the following notorious passage: "Any attempt to codify musical reality into a kind of imitation grammar (I refer mainly to the efforts associated with the Twelve-Tone System) is a brand of fetishism which shares with Fascism and racism the tendency to reduce live processes to immobile, labeled objects, the tendency to deal with formalities rather than substance. Claude Levi-Strauss describes (though to illustrate a different point) a captain at sea, his ship reduced to a frail raft without sails, who, by enforcing a meticulous protocol on his crew, is able to distract them from nostalgia for a safe harbor and from the desire for a destination."


Serialism is taught in music schools these days -- or rather the history of serialism -- with great respect. Certainly it was when I was in music school. Nobody mentioned the derision of intellectuals like Levi-Strauss, which was as legitimate a part of the history as Boulez's excitement.

So true! Errr, except for the parts you misread, misremembered, or just plain made up.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Dear Miss Lonelyhearts

From the letters page of USC Trojan Family Magazine, winter 2007:

Opera Opprobrium My husband and I attended the April production of Miss Lonelyhearts at USC (Autumn 2007, “Arts & Culture,” p. 26). Appalled, disgusted, shocked and terrorized by the unnecessarily graphic and downright pornographic gestures, gesticulations, language and Christian-bashing plot, we were forced to leave after the first unfathomable act. We could only assume the director (Ken Cazan) had forgotten that this was supposed to be a student production for educational purposes, edifying and building the careers and skills of the finest young singers that come to USC. I did not see any “NC-17” posted warnings upon entering the theater, on the tickets, on the cover of the program, or posted on the doors, as there should have been. Audiences must be warned in advance – we have a right to know whether to expect graphic violence, graphic sexual scenes, objectionable language and adult situations before entering the theater. That is the law for movie theaters, rented DVDs and CDs for purchase today – why are Ken Cazan’s opera productions exempt from such guidelines? Were any children under 17 admitted to any performances of this opera? If so, he should be charged with endangering the welfare of a child with what he shamelessly instructed college students to do on that stage. Opera fans go to the opera to have a higher artistic experience than we can find in the movie theater or on television. We go to be uplifted, to be moved, to be taught, to laugh, to cry, but we do not go to watch the beautiful art form we so cherish be treated with irreverence, disdain, mockery, smut and hatefulness. While my letter only “officially” represents the opinions of two audience members who attended that performance, there were many more people who left the theater (in disgust) at intermission, not to return for the second act. Arts audiences need to stand up and be heard when they witness something that is an endangerment to students, audiences, university opera programs and the operatic art form in general. Many opera patrons oppose the downward-spiraling moral trend spearheaded by Cazan and other university opera directors. I urge those patrons to voice their opinions and protest a little louder when they are offended by the “entertainment” they see and hear on college stages. Perhaps then administrators and directors will begin to listen. Tricia Oney DMA ’07 and David Gibides VALENCIA, CA USC Thornton School of Music Dean Robert Cutietta responds: The Thornton School is one of the finest music schools in the country. As such, it is critical that we provide students in the opera program experiences that are not available at other institutions of higher education. Therefore, when the occasion presented itself for us to collaborate with the Juilliard School and the College-Conservatory of Music of the University of Cincinnati on a world premiere of an opera, it would have been irresponsible of me to deny our students this unique opportunity. As artists they had to conquer demanding contemporary music while creating characters for which they had no former role models. Professional opera singers will be confronted with this dual challenge, but very few schools of music are in a position to provide such an opportunity. We signed onto the project before the piece was composed (as is always the case with commissions and premieres) but we were aware of the story line. Ms. Oney seems to have missed the point that Professor Cazan did not write the story. Instead, it is the accurate portrayal of the classic 1933 book by Nathanael West, Miss Lonelyhearts, by one of today’s major living composers, Lowell Liebermann. Prior to this production, the book has been made into a Broadway play and two movies. It is read and studied in college-level English classes at USC and many other universities across the country. Last, Ms Oney is mistaken when she states that no warnings about adult content were present. We took extreme measures to assure that audience members were clear that the performance contained adult subject matter and was not appropriate for children. This included a letter from me to all of our regular opera audience members specifically to make this clear. The mission of an academic institution is to provide top educational experiences for its students. The mission of an outstanding educational institution such as the USC Thornton School is to provide an unparalleled array of professional experiences that are not available at other schools. I think we succeeded very well in fulfilling this mission.

1) To all who had the misfortune to miss Miss Lonelyhearts: Aren't you kicking yourself now? I know I am. This show sounds awesome, all of a sudden.

2) To Dean Cutietta: Ummm, didn't someone else help the composer and the director adapt Miss Lonelyhearts? I seem to recall that the dismayingly prolific J.D. "Sandy" McClatchy, America's Librettist, had something to do with this. Let's give the man his props.

3) To Ms. Oney & Mr. Gibides: Kids, you just wrote a letter to the editor of your alumni magazine, complaining about a naughty opera staging. I mean, DMA '07? According to my calculations, that makes you wayyyy too young to be a bitter old person. Please, please get out more. Let's start with a stroll to the lovely Los Angeles Public Library and work up from there.

Okay, that's all. Fight on, Trojans!

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Consider Yourselves Warned

The music of Martin Bresnick can be hazardous to your health! Tim Munro of eighth blackbird reveals the hidden dangers, here. He's all right, thank goodness.

Friday, November 30, 2007

All Your Favorite Nazi Artists, Now DRM-Free!

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

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Why on Earth Are Old People So Afraid of iPods

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

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Nightstand! Of! STEEL!!!

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

Friday, November 16, 2007

A. is for Anonymous

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

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

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

Sunday, November 4, 2007

"Surprise Me."

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

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

Friday, November 2, 2007

Spread the Word

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

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

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

Thursday, November 1, 2007

It Was Bound to Happen Sooner or Later

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

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Actual Transcript

DB: Hello, Banhart residence. 
SFJ: Hey, Devendra? 
DB: I'm sorry, who's this? 
SFJ: It's Sasha. Sasha Frere-Jones, at the New Yorker? 
DB: Um, hey, what's up, Sasha. 
SFJ: Hey well listen. I've just heard your new record, and I've decided it's too white. 
DB: You have? I mean--have you heard the record--? 
SFJ: Well, not exactly. I've, I've heard of it. 
DB: Because it's actually, actually like a quarter of the record is in Spanish. I've been listening to a lot of Latin music lately, and I've been listening to a lot of Brazilian music, and I decided I wanted a lot more of sort of a South American feel on this one. 
SFJ: But why not go for more of a black feel. 
DB: What? 
SFJ: I mean like, you're a big fan of the new R. Kelly album, right? 
DB: Well, sure, I-- 
SFJ: So why not go for a sound more like that? You know, black. 
DB: Well--I mean, if you listen to the record, I think you'll hear an awful lot of, like, Gilberto Gil, and--  
SFJ: --but why? Why Gilberto Gil, and not somebody black? Like R. Kelly? [awkward silence] 
DB: You--you don't know who that is, do you. 
SFJ: Black people are so soulful! And they love sex! You like that song, "Freaky in the Club"? 
DB: How did you get this number. 
SFJ [singing]: Get freaky in the cluuuuub! Get freaky in the cluuuuuub! 
DB: [click] 
SFJ: Get fr--hello? Hello?

Friday, October 19, 2007

Russian Opera Update

First, I've added a little YouTube magic to my Borodin post, over here, just so you can see what I'm talking about when I sing the praises of Prince Igor. Our next Russian DVD adventure is Shostakovich's surprisingly obscure operetta, Cheryomushki, recently released on London/Decca DVD. I'd read somewhere (Gramophone? Opera News?) the complaint that Cheryomushki's satire of Soviet life was "toothless," and so I was pleasantly surprised by just how grim this peppy little musical actually is. Which makes sense. The implied promise of every Broadway/Hollywood musical comedy is that you will transcend your class and achieve your dreams just by being beautiful and clever and passionate. In an ostensibly classless society--the young lovers here include a bureaucrat's chauffeur and a pretty crane operatrix; nary a millionaire heiress in sight--maybe the most magical promise a musical comedy can offer is a medium-sized apartment, in a new building, with no waiting. Here's a characteristically charming glimpse of our heroes' modest ambitions:

How sad--but how cute! Although I might be a little biased by Sasha's resemblance to my own JoJo (pictured here, if you scroll down). Probably because I have so little experience with Soviet musicals (I understand Stalin was a big fan?), seeing this kind of filmic and musical glitter sprinkled over such a bleak and humble way of life makes Cheryomushki, for me, all the more touching, and a little refreshing.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Dreadful Note

Renaissance man A.C. Douglas' legion of fans can finally stop holding their breath. The critic, blogger, and longtime foe of lossy compression has finally announced the (self-)publication of his first mystery novel, A Deed of Dreadful Note--a "'cozy' mystery" starring a pair of (what else?) intellectual aesthetes. I can't quote the whole synopsis here, but here's my favorite sentence:

The execution-style killing has all the earmarks of a professional hit, and using that as his springboard and applying some imaginative thinking, Hirsch proceeds to solve the bizarre if apparently clueless murder until he's seemingly dead-ended by an inconsistency he can't resolve that threatens to consign his entire chain of inductive reasoning to the proverbial toilet.

Chain? Toilet? I'm not familiar with that proverb. But if the back cover reads like this, I can't wait to see what's on the page!

Saturday, October 13, 2007


Thanks to Alex Ross for the link! I was excited to get a sneak preview of the truly impressive collection of info and audio links he's put together to accompany his new book. If by some unfathomable set of circumstances you're visiting this page without visiting his first, I highly recommend the new addition to his already-essential website.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Let's Not and Say We Did

Geez, I've been watching a lot of opera on DVD lately. Don Giovanni, directed by Peter Sellars, is as great as you might expect, which is to say it might make you sick to your stomach. I felt that way about his Così fan tutte, which doesn't even have any raping in it. Boris Godunov, conducted by Gergiev (again), in the Andrei Tarkovsky production, is really sublime theatre. Even Inferno by Dario Argento has a little bit of opera in it, but that's a whole 'nother post. Anyways, all of this is at least worth watching, at best great. One video NOT to watch is the Peter Weigl DVD of Let's Make an Opera by Benjamin Britten. Anyone who has seen Weigl's somewhat crappy videos of The Turn of the Screw or Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk might have suspected that Weigl had the potential to accomplish something profoundly wretched. His Let's Make an Opera is not only worse than Mtsensk, worse than Screw, it is--I say this totally without hyperbole--worse than murder. Seriously, it is worse than a human body lying facedown in a ditch. Now, I'm not one to be over-critical of opera DVDs. I reallyh tend to be thankful for whatever I can get. But I'm sad to say that the video adaptation of Let's Make an Opera is far worse than no adaptation at all. The piece itself is a wonder of concision, with a tiny cast, brief action, and an "orchestra" made up of just a string quartet plus two pianists and percussionist. (How tiny is the cast? So tiny that the audience has to double as the chorus--the opera's second part doubles as their rehearsal for the finale. See? Concision!) Confronted with the problem of how to translate near-perfect economy to the small screen, Weigl has devised a brilliant solution: lard it up with a bunch of totally irrelevant bullshit. Watch this.

Discerning viewers may have noticed that the above has absolutely nothing to do with Let's Make an Opera by Benjamin Britten. Almost none of the characters are from the original piece, none of the action is in the original stage directions, and most horrifyingly, none of the music is from the original score. Which wouldn't be quite so offensive if it weren't so bad. It's as if Weigl realized just before filming that the piece was too short for feature-length treatment and hurriedly engaged the cast and crew of the Bel Ami production filming next door--hairless Czech beefcake, cheap synths, and ludicrously asynchronous lip-synching of the spoken dialogue. And people, there is SO MUCH MORE of this garbage on the DVD. I've posted only half of the prologue above, and literally every other scene in the video is one more embarrassing, cobbled-together interpolation.

Avoid at all costs.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Glaring Omissions

Hey look, they've posted my New Haven season classical music preview here. I'm not sure how long that link will last, but I thought it was worth pointing out. Just for space, I had to cut some of my very favorite events and series from the preview: Alvin Lucier and Ingram Marshall do New Music/New Haven! So Percussion reunites with Yale Percussion Ensemble! Apologies to everyone who was left out.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Motetten, Mo' Problems

Next time you want to stir up a whole pot of crazy, just start talking "performance practice" with a roomful of Bach queens. Sure, it might start out as a civil, intellectual conversation, but before you know it, they're all shouting Authentic This, and Authentic That, Correct This, and then the hair-pulling starts. Of course, by Bach queens, I mean those other Bach queens. JoJo and I may have a dozen different Goldberg Variationses or so, despite living in a hovel, but we are ideologically pure. Completely. To show you what I mean, let's first watch this YouTube video, posted a little under one year ago, of period-instrument veteran Ton Koopman playing Bach's "little fugue" in G minor:

Wow! Pretty exciting, right? Koopman adds a few subtle ornaments, and takes the fugue at a breakneck speed (but not so fast you can't tell what's going on); elegant, but with plenty of gusto--in other words, some of the best musicianship that the current fashion in historically informed performance has to offer.

And now let's take just a glance at the YouTube viewer comments. Go ahead, click here.

Did you see that? There are THREE HUNDRED SIXTY FIVE COMMENTS on that video, as of this writing, most of them weighing in on an absurdly vitriolic argument between just a handful of commenters. (I'm especially pleased to note the dude who, to cement his Bach cred, cites his first-name-basis relationship with organ virtuoso Virgil Fox, pictured above. Another glimpse into Virj's unorthodox Bach performance practice may be had here.) Why the hysterics? Why does everybody have so much invested in this shouting match? What's so great about making "correct" music?

One of the most important shapers of modern Bach performance practice was Wanda Landowska, the first star harpsichordist of the twentieth century. Bach queens that we are, we've just bought a DVD documentary about her, basically just for the performance footage:

If I may quote a pair of Koopman Kommenters,

Too bad the camera kept on cutting away RIGHT when I wanted to see how something was done Yes, this is typical almost all classical music films (as well as pornos :-) )

But these frustrations aside, I hope you can see why JoJo & I had to have a DVD of Landowska. Look at those fingers! Even if she had not been such a pioneer, she would still have been one of the last century's greatest keyboardists. But what's interesting about Landowska's greatness, for the purposes of this blog, is that she was neither "authentic" nor "correct" in her performance practice. She was certainly sure of herself--"You play Bach your way," she famously joked, "and I'll play him his way"--but her custom-built harpsichord was enormous, with a steel frame and a penetrating tone, dwarfing in size and sound anything that Bach would have used. And if memory serves, her Bach-his-way mot referred not to the use of harpsichord but to her strange, square, and almost certainly mistaken rhythms in the first fugue of the Well-Tempered Clavier (big giant mp3 available here).

Still, I say that she was a superior artist not just despite but, in part, because of these peccadilloes. Landowska's iconoclastic approach to interpretation is one of the reasons her recordings are still worth listening to so many decades and performance-fads later.

Her harpsichord may not resemble 18th-century (or 21st-century) specimens, but it is a gorgeous machine and makes a rich, tremendous sound. Poulenc wrote his Concert Champêtre for it and for her; Ton Koopman's recording, on an "authentic" Baroque instrument, is a hilarious botch--the solo is practically inaudible.

Thanks to our friend Don--and to the lovely gentlemen then executing the estate of Denise Restout, Landowska's widow--here's a color photo of that same harpsichord from the video above, taken in that same living room, but this time with JoJo at the controls. (Not pictured: JoJo's inexpressibly intense glee.) It was more than a little out of tune, but still a spectacular work of art, from the impossibly elegant lid over its keyboard to its ranks and ranks of crisscrossing strings. If you ever get the chance to see and hear a Pleyel harpsichord in person, dude, take it.

What's got me thinking about all of this is the new Hilliard Ensemble CD of Bach motets. Martin Geck's liner notes summarize what is probably the most heated debate of Bach performance practice, the controversy over the size of the choir that should be used--musicologist Joshua Rifkin having discovered late last century that Bach's music was probably written not for a "choir" in the traditional sense, but for a small ensemble of vocal soloists. This revelation has, not surprisingly, gone down pretty poorly with Bach traditionalists, but is finally managing to gain some traction these many years later, resulting in some exquisite recordings by the Hilliards, Paul McCreesh and Konrad Junghänel, in addition to Rifkin's own. And keep in mind, this is all based in some pretty solid scholarship. But here's where I get off the bus:

"Rifkin feels that Bach feels that Bach proceeded so economically not because of the evident shortage of virtuoso boys' voices, (a shortage of which he himself complained), but for artistic reasons." Well, Bach complained about a lot of things. One of them was that his choir was just too small--he wanted, at minimum, three voices on a part. His ideal choir and the choir he was stuck with were two different things. Richard Taruskin snipes, in his Oxford History, "One often daydreams about what the music heard today sounded like when first performed. It would seem that in the case of Bach, it might be better not to know."

So on the one hand, Bach was probably writing his music for a choir many times smaller than is commonly used nowadays, but on the other hand, he probably wished he was writing for a choir just a few times larger than the one he was using. But on the other other hand, for all of our idealization of Bach as a creator of abstract music, was an imminently practical composer. His vocal music, even at its most difficult, sits quite easily in the voice--of all the motets recorded here, it is worth noting that the most spurious, BWV 230 (though brilliant, lovely, etc.) is also the most likely to cause vocal strain. And to pick up where I left off with Geck, the motets' "intricate counterpoint would, [Rifkin] argues, be heard to better effect when sung one voice to a part. In other words, Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied requires a different kind of choral body than the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah." But on the other, other, other hand, what happens in those moments when Bach reaches for a Handelian grandeur that the four- or eight-person choir just can't achieve so convincingly?

This is why my favorite interpreter of the motets is still René Jacobs--the countertenor-cum-conductor best known for his recent Mozart operas--whose sense of drama is a surer guide than any dogma. He augments a chamber choir with the subtle, colla parte accompaniment suggested by historical evidence (NB: the historical evidence is, again, totally self-contradictory) and alternates pragmatically between soloistic and choral textures, and the result is extremely effective. Is the Hilliard Ensemble disc, one-on-a-part, a-cappella, something less? No--it's something different, something purer. When they get to the most emotionally intimate motet, Komm, Jesu, komm, I can hardly imagine a superior performance.

Really, there is hardly a reasonable approach to Bach's scores that would not illuminate another facet of his genius. There are no wrong answers here, only wrong arguments--his music is almost indestructibly elastic. Or as a favorite teacher put it, "The answer to the old question, 'Should Bach be played on harpsichord or piano?' is yes."

Friday, August 31, 2007

Nothing Is Better than Prince Igor

Concert audiences, familiar with Borodin's Prince Igor mostly (if not only) through the famous "Polovtsian Dances," will bring to the opera at least this one burning question: where in the hell is Polovtsia? This, of course, is what Wikipedia is for. According to the Wiki people, the Polovtsians (or Cumans) were apparently a tribe of Turkic nomads, whose wars against Igor--prince of a region now located in the Ukraine--became the basis of a great work of twelfth-century Slavic literature, The Song of Igor’s Campaign. Borodin’s opera, freely adapted from the poem, describes the capture of Igor and his son by the Polovtsians, figured as noble savages from the mysterious East. When I wrote about the Dances this spring in a program note for this fantastic orchestra I was in as a kid (a program note I'm now cannibalizing for this blog), one of the Gregs said that the must-read article on the subject was Richard Taruskin's "'Entoiling the Falconet': Russian Musical Orientalism in Context"--and indeed it's brilliant in the way only Taruskin, among musicologists, can be, without any of the pure unshirted looneytunes he has sometimes been known to talk. The prose is strong, always a pleasant surprise in academic writing, and more importantly, the argument is strong, well-supported by musical examples and close analysis. In a nutshell, he points out that Russia's 19th-century musical identity was defined by the incorporation of exotic, Oriental sounds, noting a handful of clearly recognizable musical features that read as "Oriental"--sinuous melodies, pulsing drones, descending chromatic lines, double-reed timbres, etc.--and tracing them throughout the romantic Russian music, with a special emphasis on Prince Igor. I just wish I'd had space to quote, in my program notes, Taruskin's oblique suggestion that the Russian imperialist project contemporary to Borodin's opera--the political cousin of his musical project--"only came to an end with the Soviet debacle in Afghanistan," as Taruskin put it (in 1992). "Soviet debacle in Afghanistan"? You mean that war against the Taliban? The exact same Taliban we're at war with right now? Hmm. Polovtsia may be closer than it appears. Of course, for Western opera lovers, the Russian repertoire is doubly exotic. The dramatic masterpieces of Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, and even Tchaikovsky are only now becoming familiar to American audiences--thanks mostly to Valery Gergiev, whose DVD of Prince Igor I netflixted last week. (I wish Philips were better at making his videos available; I hear his Fiery Angel is really something to see.) This Igor is a tremendous production, done up with the strange richness and flatness of 19th-century academic painting, which seems to me exactly right. The Khan's daughter (Olga Borodina!) lounges around on silk-draped ottomans, trying on jewelry.... perfect. The dancing is a hoot, too, reviving Mikhail Fokine's wild choreography with more smokin' abs than the Blond Ambition tour:

And to my delight, the score turns out to be uniformly vivid, melodic and sophisticated, all thundering choruses and noble arias and knock-'em-dead musical effects. I do understand Gergiev made a few cuts toward the end--probably for pacing--along with reshuffling an act or two from their original order. (Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov completed and orchestrated the opera after Borodin's death, so Gergiev probably felt free. Still, cuts always make me a little sad... I suffer from mild Wagnerite Personality Disorder and would always prefer to endure too much opera than too little.) At any rate, by the end, I couldn't understand this piece is so neglected, beyond the well-loved concert excerpts; thank God for DVD. Everybody can, and should, see this weird and brilliant thing.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Lousy Books by Fake People Mystifyingly Popular

Back in spring 2005, one of my Gregs went on record saying that camera-shy publicity hound and autobiographical novelist JT LeRoy was, and I quote, "a total fraud, a fake, an elaborate hoax"; "Fake! Fake! Fake!"; "FFFFAAAAAAAAAAKE." As my fellow schadenfreudeholics will recall--especially if you relished this recent profile of the lovable sociopath behind the "literary" phenom--it was not long afterwards that LeRoy was revealed as a phony, a sham, a counterfeit (definitive coverage here). To which Greg said: "When Augusten Burroughs's nice, well-adjusted, middle-class non-abusive parents get interviewed in the Times, I am buying myself a scotch." Close enough, Greg? It's finally official: Augusten Burroughs is a damned fake. Although I'm still waiting for them to make it official that Augusten Burroughs is vapid, smug and unfunny. How I have shuddered, all these years, to find his stupid, ugly books in the "Favorites" lists of otherwise sane and intelligent-seeming people! This latest link is from, naturally, and as always, their reader comments are delicious. Enjoy.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Dan's Labyrinth, Part I

This week, some words on Film. Apologies: our philosopher friend David (pronounced Dah-BEED) has given us a DVD of Slavoj Žižek's The Pervert's Guide to Cinema, a three-part essay for the BBC, and I'm afraid everything I say re: the silver screen is going to be warped by Žižek's manic, self-indulgent mutterings for the foreseeable future. (Please note that this gift does not imply that David in any way endorses the ideas expressed by Slavoj Žižek.) The Pervert's Guide is actually kind of delightful--S/Ž is a very funny guy, sometimes surprises with the effectiveness of his insights, plus the program itself is stylishly and wittily put together. So. Even though this has absolutely nothing to do with anything else I have to say about Pan's Labyrinth (another new DVD acquisition) I feel compelled to deal with the way Žižek's discussion of the fantasy life, the dreamworld, might play out in an analysis of this macabre fairy tale of the Spanish Civil War. My friend Josh complained that the main character's brutal "reality," which she periodically flees for a magical netherworld, is itself a bit too storybookish to make the contrast between her two lives dramatically and politically persuasive; the very real, very complex, and very recent (within living memory, at least) conflict fictionalized in the film has been reduced to a story about the Big Bad Wolf. On the DVD, the director describes this as his exact intention--the scenery in "real life" is devoid of color and detail, according to his explicit instructions, and he admits that the republican resistors hiding in his fictional woods bear less of a resemblance to historical rebels than to the woodsman who dissects aforementioned BBW to rescue Little Red. He does this to more successfully intermesh reality and fantasy, or so he says, so that the one can gradually contaminate the other over the course of the film; Josh wishes that fantasy and reality were much more dissonant, the way that the golly-gee Hollywood ingenue-meets-Nancy Drew daydream of Mulholland Drive runs headlong into agonizingly realistic erotic betrayal, or the way that the Dogme-esque melodrama of Dancer in the Dark periodically bursts into brightly colored song and dance. Well, this is obviously something of a personal-taste question. We can't ask every movie to be Dancer in the Dark or, god forbid, Mulholland Drive. (Let's pause to imagine a Rope with amnesiac Hollywood lesbians in place of the sociopathic preppie gays, or a Philadelphia Story in which WASP divorcée Björk is courted by Joel Grey and David Morse. Okay, never mind, both of those would be kind of awesome.) But I think I see where Josh is coming from on this. To a certain extent, filmmakers take on a moral responsibility when they fictionalize historical events. Using "Nazi" or "Fascist" as shorthand for comic-book style "evil" probably does somehow obscure the more subtle aspects of evil and fascism, and reducing the anti-fascists to knights in shining armor might even do the real anti-fascist heroes a certain disservice. Even so, I'm not sure I buy this argument. For one thing, I think it fails to take into account the strange and nuanced role that fantasy plays in Pan's Labyrinth. Žižek tracks the Lynchian narrative, in films like Mulholland and Lost Highway, as a trip from reality to dream and back again: when the world becomes unbearable in its particulars, the protagonist escapes into his or her dream-life--only to discover that this dream-life, when realized in all its own particulars, is even more unbearable. In Pan's Labyrinth, reality is already infected with this unbearable fantasy. Think of Don Quixote, maybe, that other Spanish tale about a fairy-story addict--we all distort, reimagine reality through the lens of fiction. Every child interprets real life according to the stories she's been told; every child imagines that her stepfather is a monster; Ofelia's stepdad, a Fascist war criminal, just happens to be one. And so her escape is not into a simplified fantasy, like the paranoid universe visited in a Lynch film, but an enriched one: She immediately intuits the Captain's evil; the Faun, on the other hand, is totally ambiguous, his motives unreadable until the last moments of the film. The first fairy she meets isn't quite like the ones she's read about in her books (even though, tellingly, it seems to have model itself after them)--it's hairless, green, eats raw meat, and speaks in an uncanny insect chatter that an edit in the first scene compares to the sinister ticking of the Captain's pocketwatch. While Ofelia is sheltered at home, mostly shielded from the horrific violence that surrounds her at the keep, her fantasy-world is filled with images of viscera, infanticide, and cannibalism, and the choices she faces there are strange, even arbitrary, and difficult. Hence her dream-life isn't about escape, for her--it's a release valve for her terror, ambivalence, and guilt, an ordeal to exorcise her world of the doubt and brutality which she senses all around her but cannot comprehend. Part II comin' soon.

Cat + Girl = Hilarity

Just to draw the Web of Gregs a little tighter round you-all, let me draw your attention to one of my favorite webcomics, Cat and Girl by Dorothy Gambrell. I've been a faithful reader for some time now, but until this afternoon I never bothered to explore everything that this little website has to offer. Come to find out, it's all incredibly good. In addition to the comics and the inevitable merch table, there's also an elegant blog-cum-travelogue, and best of all, the Donation Derby, a quietly brilliant account of your PayPal dollars at work. I totally want to give her money now, even though I am poor. Everybody go look at it. The only creepy thing is that, yes, I first heard about this comic from one of the Gregs, who went to school with the author--which I guess means that she also went to school with composer Judd Greenstein, bassist Peter Rosenfeld (of Silk Road and NOW Ensembles fame), and one of the Books. That is to say, around fifty percent of the content I've blogged here. Yeesh.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Lives of the Great Composers: György Ligeti

Apropos of the Conlon Nancarrow conversations going on at The Overgrown Path and Sequenza 21, I'm going to steal an anecdote from Ligeti's student Martin Bresnick.

LIGETI: "Martin, who would you say is the greatest living composer?" BRESNICK: "The greatest living composer? Er--other than yourself, of course--" LIGETI: "--yes, of course, other than myself."

Ligeti was fond of such questions; he had a Top Three for the twentieth century, for instance, that went something like

1. Bartók, 2. Janáček, 3. Stravinsky.

And sure enough, Ligeti had his own answer all ready: the greatest living composer, in his opinion, was Conlon Nancarrow.

BRESNICK: "Conlon Nancarrow?" LIGETI: "Conlon Nancarrow. I really think he is the greatest living composer." BRESNICK [polite, but still dubious]: "Nancarrow? I mean, yes, the player-piano studies are great. They represent quite an achievement--but such a narrow achievement! If I had to choose between Schumann and Chopin, for instance, it would be difficult, but I would still choose Schumann every time. For while Schumann offers a great cello concerto, great symphonies, a body of indispensible songs, Chopin's highest masterpieces are limited almost exclusively to a narrow body of work, his pieces for solo piano--and Nancarrow's body of work is narrower still, limited to player piano!" LIGETI [thoughtfully]: "Hmm. Maybe, maybe he is not the greatest living composer."

(NOTE: Be sure and read the comments below to see how I completely screwed this story up when I first posted it. Christ, I do the same thing at parties, too.)

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Tell It Again, Again

That's right, I found it! And I've gone ahead and uploaded the whole thing to one of those stupid awful file-download sites, so you can listen to the whole thing as you please. Download Track 1: Favorite Nursery Rhymes Download Track 2: School Days and Learning Songs Download Track 3: Songs of Fun and Nonsense Download Track 4: The Animal World Download Track 5: Bedtime Songs and Lullabies You'll notice there's one fewer track listed here than there is on the official discography--I'm guessing that "Puzzle," the first track on side 2, has been folded into the "Songs of Fun and Nonsense," the last track on side 1. Commentary to come.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Sortes Proustianae

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


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

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

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

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

That is all.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Lives of the Great Composers: Steve Reich

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

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

Saturday, July 14, 2007

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

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

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

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

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