Wednesday, July 30, 2008

You <3 Mark Swed

"The criticism we are going to be discussing here is not the thumbs-up/thumbs-down, opinions-with-attitude style of reviewing," my arts journalism prof intoned on the first day of class. He was trying to teach us that criticism could be, at its best, reportage, analysis, evaluation, and a work of art unto itself. My guess is he read this blog entry with a smile:
[T]he most boring and worthless criticism is that which is about taste. We’ve all got our likes and dislikes. We’ve also got opposable thumbs that, besides going up and down, can be used to grasp things, maybe even to grab prison bars and shake the ego free.

A-to-the-men, Mark Swed. (Okay, that "shake the ego free" bit is a little over-the-top, but you get the idea.) There is a certain type of critic who feels the need to insert him or herself into every review, spend the wordcount reporting on the reviewer's own feelings about Schubert rather than reporting on the performance—as if his or her ideas on the score were so much more interesting to the readership than, say, Thomas Quasthoff's that the latter hardly bore mentioning. (Don't make me name names.) Clearly, the critic's feelings, education, heck life story are inextricable from analysis and judgment, but a music review can still be about the music and not about the reviewer.

Swed checks off, just before the above-quoted, a list of his early prejudices:

I had no use for Ralph Vaughan Williams, Shostakovich, Samuel Barber, Benjamin Britten, Rachmaninoff or, for that matter, Tchaikovsky (even though I grew up in a Russian household where Tchaikovsky was a minor deity). Mozart, I could take or leave. All those attitudes, of course, required changing.
Another minor revelation! You mean it's possible that, if a critic hates Rachmaninoff, it is not entirely Rachmaninoff's fault?

If you're wondering what Swed's talking about, see the review where he suggested, apropos of the Shine movie tie-in David Helfgott concert tour embarrassment, that the Rach 3

has some fiendishly difficult piano writing in it, some clever use of instrumental sonorities and some sure-to-please gushy melodies. It can certainly be an effective piece. Vladimir Horowitz made a great display out of it, as does Martha Argerich today, and there is nothing wrong with that. But great art it isn't.
For comparison, he offered up Xenakis' Keqrops for piano and orchestra, which... heh. You people know I am wild about Xenakis, in particular his works for piano, but to suggest that his monuments of musical design are in any way comparable to what Rachmaninoff accomplishes in his concerti—sister please. Rachmaninoff did not want to be Xenakis, Xenakis did not want to be Rachmaninoff, and if either of them had tried he would surely have failed, hideously. Let me state it for the record: When a critic gives the thumbs-down to Rachmaninoff, it is not the critic but Rachmaninoff who is administering the test, and the critic has flunked.

(Greg Sandow, who was dissed on this blog in an especially petty moment, delivered a canny rebuttal in the pages of Swed's own paper.)

How refreshing, then, to read a critic who actually takes the F. An erroneous judgment, rendered in good faith, is still more noble than an accurate verdict rendered according to a critic's self-indulgence. One advantage of writing online is the ability to repair your mistakes with revisions and addenda after the fact, and admit comment and dissent from your readership; remember this great example over at Steve Smith's place. But Swed concludes:

I’m afraid this is a roundabout way of saying that I don’t believe in regrets. Anything I wrote yesterday, I would write differently today. Meanwhile, I live for tomorrow. And that’s the advantage of writing for a newspaper.
So it's a manifesto of music criticism, it's a sweet sad love letter to print journalism, and I didn't even mention the main thrust of it, which is Swed's changing opinion of Philip Glass. Go read it, it's so good.


Monday, July 28, 2008

Is There Anything He Can't Do

Ess Enn Double Oh Pee Dee Oh Double JizZEE It has been so long since I read an article that made me feel unambivalent hope for the future of music that I can't even imagine what it might have been. Thank you, New York Times, for making my morning.


Saturday, July 26, 2008

I Would Buy Punishment Ice Cream

Oh my goodness, this whole Kyle Gann/David Byrne thing is out of control. If you're tuning in here before reading their blogs, which is pretty unlikely because I think I win the, like, Web Razzy for Last Music Blog Anyone Is Likely To Read, David Byrne went to see Die Soldaten and was unimpressed; Kyle Gann said amen but got stomping mad at Byrne's suggestion that the impulse to alienate or assault the audience "is not limited to academic classical composer"; defenders of the prickly avant-garde (example here) went ahead and suggested that audiences often enjoy being alienated and assaulted. (DJA continues the debate here and here.) What makes this ragin' debate fun for me is that everybody talking is obviously silly and wrong. First Kyle Gann, who says Byrne has apparently "not closely observed the behavior of the Downtown scene for a few decades," because if he had observed said behavior as closely as Kyle Gann, he would have seen "that Downtown was first the world of Steve Reich, Charlemagne Palestine, Pauline Oliveros, Laurie Anderson, Elodie Lauten, William Duckworth, and a few hundred others" who were "devoted to music of great beauty, clarity, and accessibility," and only later the domain of wicked "John Zorn, Elliot Sharp and their cohorts." This is comical because, of course, during the period in question (pre-1980, as Gann defines it), David Byrne was actually rockin' the Downtown scene his very own self, while Kyle Gann was busy rockin' the music departments at some excellent Midwestern universities. So I'm not sure why Gann thinks we should trust his measure of dominant Downtown attitude, whose temperature he was apparently taking from the other end of the time zone, over Byrne's. It's also comical because it reveals that Kyle Gann has never actually heard David Byrne's music, which from '79 on is pretty obviously indebted to the likes of Reich and Anderson. I mean, you've all heard this song, right? Byrne, his fellow Talking Heads, and "fifth Head" Brian Eno were crazy about minimalism and performance art, and it's all over some of their biggest hits. So if you really think that's an aesthetic Byrne is unfamiliar with, dude, you and I need to sit down and listen to some records together. It's also a bit disingenuous for Gann to pretend that Zorn and his fellow noisemakers were some johnnies-come-lately to the Downtown scene. He should check out this great CD NO NEW YORK that Byrne's producer compiled of the noise-punk "no wave" scene at the end of the 70s. (Did you know, some music of the Downtown avant-garde was not made by classical composers!) Aren't we all familiar with the music, or at least the attitude, that Byrne is talking about? Isn't there a reverse-snob factor within many varieties of "simple" music that are also bafflingly ugly, or bafflingly loud, or just bafflingly repetitive? Hasn't Gann heard the complaint that, say, Philip Glass sold out when he stopped writing ear-battering counterpoint studies and started writing happy triads? I still hear that, in 2008! Byrne's also a little wrong, for reasons I mention in the comments section of the above-linked Rambler. To quote my brilliant self:
Why is it that everyone talks about “sadomasochism” in music as if it were a bad thing? I say, it’s the composer’s job to be a sort of dominatrix: one of the greatest pleasures of listening to music is being subjected to something you don’t want, or at least don’t know you want. Isn’t everyone who goes to a rock concert thrilled that the volume consistently exceeds the comfort level? Isn’t everyone teased and titillated when a pop song goes on to another wordy verse, instead of to the catchy chorus? I’m not sure why it’s socially acceptable for music to be difficult, disturbing, or even physically painful, in certain respects, as long as the harmonies, melodies and rhythms are clear. Why can’t the harmonies, melodies and rhythms be disturbing, too? I love a spicy, spicy, spicy meal, as long as it’s thoughtfully prepared from high-quality ingredients. And I love noise, feedback, distortion, and dissonance in my music, as long as they are wielded by someone who knows what she’s doing. I can’t speak for Zimmermann—I was among the many who, as Tommasini suggests, were left out in the cold—but Byrne hasn’t convinced me that B.A.Z.’s methods here don’t match up to his aims. I’m not sure quite sure what Byrne (one of my, let me point out, all-time musical heroes) was complaining about. In conclusion: a gut-punching hip-hop bassline? Yes, please! An hour-long disc of drilling hardcore? Sure! A nightmarish twelve-tone opera? Thank you, ma’am! May I have another!

Ha, genius! I could listen to myself all day! But seriously it's true. And the same young people I know who are fans of Stockhausen and Xenakis are fans of Rhys Chatham and Alvin Lucier and the Zorn clique and Sunn O))) and so on and so on. I think it's a bit silly to call Byrne's post "dumb," as Rutherford-Johnson does, for not remembering where in 2001 we first hear the music of György Ligeti, since I for one have seen The Shining about a billion times and consider myself a Ligeti fanatic but still could not tell you what scene has Lontano in it. But Byrne's claim that atonality has earned a place in film music that it doesn't deserve on the operatic stage comes so close to being right that it hurts me to see it miss.

See, that's a phenomenon whined at by no less a champion of whining than the prophet Moses himself, Arnold Schoenberg. Why do the vulgar masses I loathe and keep at bay dislike my music, but love atonality in the movies? he asked, or something like it. The answer is: Well, genius, in the movies, there is a dramatic analogue to this music-without-center, which most of your work, composed for the concert stage, lacks. But David Byrne isn't talking about a concert work, he's talking about an opera full of insanity and degeneracy and whatnot, so the dramatic analogue is right there! This is basically what high modernism is for! So what's he complaining about?

Of course, Kyle Gann actually loves him some thorny-ass high-modern, with a fondness at which he usually only hints on his blog, but which he articulates fully in this well-reasoned if slightly overlong (hi Pot, it's me, Kettle) post. (I actually met Kyle Gann one time, but before getting up the balls to shake his hand and say OMG IT'S ME THE GUY WHO BASHES YOU ON THE INTERNET I kept a respectful stalkerish distance while watching him talk high-modern with Yale's resident 20th-century dude, and I was duly impressed by his enthusiasm for the contemporary Euro avant-garde.)

The angry mob from whom he's defending himself in that post represents the next group that is silly and wrong here, the academic avant-garde and their defenders. There's still a surprisingly large contingent that subscribes to, in some form, the notion that music of nigh-inscrutable complexity is a historical necessity and inherently demands not only our attention but our baffled awe. It ain't necessarily so. If anything, the opposite is the case: the burden of aesthetical proof is higher for difficult musics.

Why? Well, the problem with complexity is, har har, simple. If the pitch and rhythm relationships in a piece of music are too complicated to be intuited by the listener, the listener will be forced to find a handhold (earhold?) elsewhere. This means that a masterpiece of atonal harmony is that much harder to write. F'rinstance, it might be easy for an untrained listener to distinguish, at least on some gut level, between a tritone (that one makes me feel "weird"!) and a major third (that one makes me feel "happy"!), or even between a major third ("happy" again!) and a minor third ("sad"!), but maybe not so much between a tritone and a minor seventh. This is one reason why John Q. Public can distinguish between the moods of near-identical pop songs but thinks all atonal music sounds the same.

(I'm ignoring the elephant in the room right now: Culture. John Q. Public also thinks all music made in any given country outside the United States sounds the same, and that's more obviously because he is an ignoramus and can't be bothered to listen to non-American music—God, I hate John Q. Public!—and the same is true of atonal music or music with irregular pulses. But you really can't argue that all of the antipathy towards music based on complex relationships is Mr. Public's fault, for the reasons I hope I'm articulating here.)

Like, you read an article once in a while about a chef who has invented a brilliant garlic or bacon or lobster ice cream, right? And while it's true that these ices are every bit as aesthetically valid as sweet ones—heck, I'm thrilled to see something just a little out of the ordinary, a Red Bean Gelato perhaps—an ice cream parlor whose 32 flavors were 8 sweet, 8 savory, 8 spicy, and 8 bitter would probably be offering fewer flavors, not more, that I would have the urge to lick on any given day than the 31 sweet scoops of Baskin Robbins.

Again, that doesn't mean you, as a composer, have to restrict yourself to the sweet menu of diatonic melodies in 4/4 time. That just means that if you aren't going to privilege the more readily distinguishable system of signals (simple pitch relationships) over the more opaque one (complex), you are making your job—namely, giving the audience something to think about—that much harder. You will have to corral every other resource available to you, every formal or coloristic effect, to draw listeners' attention to hear what you want them to hear.

So if you open your bacon ice cream shop in Apple Valley, California and call it MOM'S OLD-FASHIONED ICE CREAM, you can't sit at the counter and wail, "Why is no one eating my delicious ice cream?" You know exactly why. What you're supposed to do is open it in downtown Manhattan, call it PUNISHMENT ICE CREAM, and watch a line form around the block. That's the lesson to learn here, kids. Now if you'll excuse me, I need something cold and delicious.

UPDATE: Gann has pwned me in the Comments.

DOUBLE UPDATE: Gann responds further at his own 'blog.

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Friday, July 11, 2008

Onwards and N-Words

Mary Jane Leach, the musicologist who for so long tirelessly (well, maybe she's a bit tired after all these years) devoted herself to unearthing the oeuvre of Julius Eastman—composer of such provocations as Evil Nigger and Gay Guerrilla, legendary singer of Peter Maxwell Davies' impossible Eight Songs for a Mad King—has (reports Gann) finished. For now. Every available manuscript has been scanned and uploaded as a PDF. Eastman, for anyone who doesn't know the story, was the brilliant and promising composer and vocalist who managed to make even John Cage lose his cool. ("The freedom in my music does not mean the freedom to be irresponsible!" he shouted at Eastman after Eastman interpreted a Cage score's instruction to "lecture" as a lecture on sex, with... reluctant...? audience participation.) But his career slid downhill, his personal life fell apart, and he found himself homeless and destitute. He died in 1990, most of his music lost. So here's what's left. Scholars, start your engines. I'd like you to please decode Eastman's first and only symphony (the, sigh, Symphony No. 2) and prepare a set of parts in time for the fall orchestral season. Could you do that for me? Thanks!