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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.