Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Yammering and Drama and Stuff: Libretto Problems, Part I

So this is how I spent my summer vacation. Well okay actually, if you want to hear the exciting part, you can click here, then click on #20, and my little talking head will tell you all about it. (Jesus, is my voice really that HIGH?) Then if you click on #13, you can hear a new piece by composer Jay Wadley of the Found Objects collective! Hooray! Click click click! But the soundtrack to my vacation was not, as I all but promised, hilarious Spanish disco band Locomía. No, it was this mix from America's top America's Next Top Model blogger, Rich Juzwiak. It's a straightforward project: mixing together every hit song to sample the drum break from "Ashley's Roachclip" by Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers. If you ask me, and if you don't ask me then whom will you ask, pop critics need to do a lot more of this kind of technical examination of music, to supplement the necessary but for whatever reason grossly overrepresented work of locating the music sociologically. That is to say, why do people not talk about the notes and rhythms and stuff in pop reviews? Anyhow. I had noticed the tendency of soft pop/R'n'B from the late 80s-early 90s to use essentially the same beat for every song, but I had failed to realize the extent to which this was literally true. But some of the acts here could hardly have less in common (Moby, the Geto Boys, Milli Vanilli), so it's fascinating to hear the web of connections that this one common thread begins to weave between the tunes. In each, the Roachclip break is a ready signifier for "smooth," whether that be the gangsta smooth of "Scarface" or the infamous mocha concealer that coated the entire Milli Vanilli debacle. But as we listen closer, we begin to hear some direct lines of influence between the songs themselves. Is EMF's louche chromaticism a response to the Oriental vocals sampled in the "Paid in Full" remix? (Mmmmmaybe.) And, oh my gosh, is Lil Wayne's rhyme itself "sampling" Rakim's? (Okay yes definitely.) See, it's not just a beat, it's an ethos and a tradition— And at this point I find myself having one of those Grand Canyon moments where I am awed by the depth and breadth of the hole in my knowledge about a given subject, in this case the technical rudiments of hip-hop. (This video on the subject of the "Amen break" offers a similar lesson, but is a bit too satisfied with itself to be very satisfying for me. More fun to search the Rap Sample FAQ; see results for "Ashley's Roachclip," "Amen Brother," and maybe the best-loved break of all, "The Funky Drummer.") My last Grand Canyon moment was not too long ago. I'd been watching a few different DVDs of Figaro, listening to a few different recordings, when I came across the mention in René Jacobs' liner note "that from the time of Monteverdi and right up to the nineteenth century, the poet wrote his recitatives in lines of eleven and seven syllables." Wait, what?? I mean, of course, it makes sense—recitative is going to be written in some kind of a fixed meter, right? they're not putting those line-breaks in just for decoration—I had just never noticed it before, on account of I don't read Italian. Sure, we all know the original text for the arias, but for most of the yammering and drama and stuff (especially if it flies by at Historically Informed Mozart Speed) I'm just going to read along with the subtitles. And so it had never dawned on me that virtually every Italian libretto from Monteverdi until the 19th c. (that is to say the core of the operatic repertoire) uses this same metrical scheme. It's like I'd been reading Chaucer and Shakespeare and Milton in Hungarian and all of a sudden somebody says to me, "Hey, you do realize that they were writing all this in iambic pentameter, right?" and no, I'd had no freaking clue. Ahem. Let's take an example from the king of librettists, Pietro Metastasio, in the opening of his serenata Angelica e Medoro:
ANGELICA: Esci dal chiuso tetto, Medoro, idolo mio; fra queste frondi, Fra quest' erbe novelle e questi fiori, Odi come susurra, Dolce scherzando, una leggiera auretta, Che alle odorate piante, Lieve fuggendo, i più bei spirti invola, E nel confuso errore Forma da mille odori un solo odore. Vieni, chè in questo loco, Ove del dì splendon più chiari i rai, Men grave albergo e più felice avrai.

They call these mostly unrhymed lines—similar to, yes, the blank verse of Milton and Shakespeare—versi sciolti, which in the context of opera libretti means alternating settenari (seven-syllable lines) and endecasillabi (eleven-syllable lines). The endecasillabo is the basic line of Italian poetry, like how the iambic pentameter is the basic line in English. In fact, you can probably think of a few lines of Shakespeare that would scan like endecasillabi—"Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer," e.g.

Just in case your Italian is no better than mine, let me point out that all consecutive vowels scan as a single syllable (so that line 9 has eleven syllables, not fourteen). Then, if a line ends with two unstressed syllables, the last syllable doesn't count; if a line ends with a single stressed syllable, it counts as two (as in the last couplet of this example, which if you're counting actually consists of two ten-syllable lines). So go back and look at that again, and that shit should scan. Italian people, opera people, am I getting this right? Everyone else, have I bored the heck out of you?

These lines also give us a hint of what made Metastasio such a sought-after librettist. He doesn't paint us a word-picture; instead, he describes things that can't be seen, but beg to be expressed in music: a playful, whispering breeze in lines 4 & 5, and in lines 6-9, the gradual mingling of the meandering ambient fragrances into a single fragrance. Perfect! Music is a dynamic artform, and a visceral one. How ingenious to use it to describe a gradual change in smells. Nothing here could be illustrated better by any other medium other than music.

Thing is, though, I really can't supply you with a very accurate translation, because I don't know where there is one. L'Angelica is a terrifically important piece, combining the talents of Metastasio, composer Nicola Porpora, and in his public debut, the castrato Farinelli. But the one recording I can find (released in a well-reviewed set as Orlando) doesn't have any English translation in the box, or so says the word on the street. In fact, I'm not sure that an English translation of this work, by one of the greatest of all Italian poets, has ever been published. It's not such a surprising lacuna, since I'm pretty sure that there are some works of Dante that have never been English'd, but... prove me wrong, kids?

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Sweet, Crunchy, High in Counterpoint

via BoingBoing.

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Friday, August 22, 2008

Someone Just Got Shot on My Street Corner

UPDATE 8/22: My third-hand description of the shooter was totally wrong. According to the official police statement:
The male is described as being approximately 25 years of age, chubby build, wearing a dark shirt, blue jeans and white cap.

ORIGINAL POST 8/21: I was drinking coffee in my kitchen when I heard a popping sound like somebody setting off a firecracker. Then I heard a scream, which at first I thought was just the sound of people having too much fun at a barbecue, lighting fireworks, but when Joe and I stopped and listened, we could tell it was not a happy sound, it was a woman in anguish, screaming for help, and I hurried, not fast enough, downstairs. I walked, didn't run to the corner, sure that I was going to see a woman holding a dead child.

But no one was dead. There were a few people gathered around to help a young, very thin lady, who was bleeding from her hand, and the woman there calling 9-1-1 said that there was a round from a small-caliber pistol still lodged in it. The caller definitely seemed to know what she was doing, and directed the bystanders accordingly. I called David on my cellphone to ask if he had any first-aid supplies, and he and JoJo came running to the corner with towels. I don't remember handing a towel to anyone, but David said that he had brought the red towel with him to the corner, the lady's hand was wrapped in a red towel when the paramedics arrived, and we are now missing one red towel, so it's nice to know that I wasn't totally useless. All I remember doing is trying to stay out of the way while the victim moaned and sobbed in pain.

The police started taking statements—"Did anyone see or hear anything?"—but since other people had hurt shots same as I did, heard screams same as I did, and even seen the shooter face to face, I guessed my testimony would be a waste of the officer's time and left around the time the news van showed up. I heard someone say the attacker grabbed her bag first, and then shot her. Someone else said it was the victim's first day in New Haven. The welcome wagon was seen dressed all in black, fleeing west on foot with a purple purse.


Why They Really Call Him "The Mac"

Excerpted, an email from Lisa Kaplan of 8th Blackbird to Wilco percussionist Glenn Kotche:
Michael Maccaferri, clarinets - grew up in Plymouth, MA. Enjoys the whole gay, rodeo circuit which the rest of us know NOTHING about. Has a great eye for graphic design and does a lot of the designing for the group. Was crowned the Drag Queen when we were in college at Oberlin’s annual drag ball for his handmade costume of “Marie Aquanette”. Used to be a vegan, but now he’s the groups only vegetarian. He loves good food and likes to cook. Constantly on his blackberry in rehearsals. He also has a dry sense of humor and is generally easy-going.

Now please allow me to point out one glaring omission, namely, homeboy is aitch-oh-tee, and I do mean eBay-his-underpants hot. Ladies and gentlemen of the Internet, I am in sweaty gay love. Click stalkerishly cropped publicity photos to enlarge.

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

What If!

On the Schirmer calendar for August 17, in an alternate reality: Philip Glass becomes the first living American composer to be performed for the secretive North Korean regime. On the calendar for today, in that alternate reality? Hahahahahaha just kidding! Just kidding. Phew.


Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Letter

In 1971, Swedish rocker Hans Edler's career took a sharp left turn. He released what some claim is the world's first pop album to be created entirely on a computer, with his own eerie vocals layered on top. He had spent two years creating it, and the results are stupefying, like one of those deranged "outsider" albums, but with meticulous microtones instead of wrong notes and primitive technology instead of primitive technique. Elektron Kukéso is an unlistenable must-listen, a stew of strong pop sensibility and avant-garde insanity that somehow sounds so wrong but feels so, so right. So, yeah, it bombed. And he went back to making records like this:


Friday, August 15, 2008

Nico vs. Cieca?

Have I mentioned how very much I love Parterre dot com? Well I do, I have read it religiously for years, and frankly it's taught me more about the world of opera than any other single resource I've come across. That's probably a bad thing. But I don't have much to add to moderatrix La Cieca's two cents on Nico's forthcoming theatrical project except to point out the in my not so humble opinion Uncanny resemblance between playwright cum librettist Craig Lucas and Flaming Lips singer Wayne Coyne. Who's with me, here? Anybody? Anybody? Okay never mind. At any rate, I was charmed to meet Lucas at Nico's Merkin shindig a while back, especially since he introduced himself as a fan of my blog! Then I ran away from him, fast, because frankly, from what I've read in my comments section, all of you people are completely insane. So he didn't get a chance to introduce himself, and I probably owe him an apology. Well, two apologies, now. And I was going to end this post right there, but then this afternoon I was chatting with a friend of mine and Nico's who seemed genuinely upset by the drubbing N got over at Parterre. Understandable. Look again, though. Of course the comments section is going to be a Haters' Ball, that's what comments are for. I have said nasty, nasty things under various pseudonyms. What's impressive is that many of the opera queens have leapt to the defense of what, on the face of it, seems like the least operatic project ever: teenagers staring at computer screens. Recently our doyenne has fretted over whether her Parterre Box has become an echo chamber; I think she can rest easy. (Nico himself responds here.) That said. Can we please squelch the kvetching, right this instant, over whether this opera will be, like, Bad for the Gays? Even if it turns out to be a piece of crap, and (in my again not so humble but highly biased opinion) I don't think it will since I like what I'm hearing about it from the Muhly Camp, I don't think that gay composers writing gay opera in the year 2008 really need to be worrying about the burden of representation. The pendulum has swung far enough, by now, in the direction of insipid Will & Grace shiny happy nonsense that I don't think we need to hesitate before we set down depictions of gay life—for the, let's face it, 60% gay, 40% gay-friendly new opera audience—that are ugly, disturbing, and yes, tragic. Also, this comment made me titter and hee. Thank you that is all.

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Monday, August 11, 2008

Robert Craft Threatens Own Family with Chainsaw

Story here. What? No no, you're thinking of a different Robert Craft.


Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Soundtrack to Your Vacation