Friday, October 31, 2008

Adams Addendum

As if it weren't enough that my previous posts on Doctor Atomic contradicted each other and themselves, I've just come back from seeing the piece a second time, and this experience was radically different from the first. Worth discussing? Myih. I also noticed that I was sitting just behind everybody's favorite CT/NY power-couple, omnipresent librettist J.D. McClatchy (who will, don't you worry, get his very own episode of Libretto Problems) and amazing fanastic brilliant graphic design genius Chip Kidd (who came up with the dust jacket of every single book you've ever bought just because of the dust jacket). Managed to restrain myself from running up and saying HEY J.D. MCCLATCHY WHAT DID YOU THINK OF THAT at the intermission, but I am dying to know what he was thinking. Also! Let me point out that you can download the whole libretto here, from the Met website, for study or meditation. Okay to bed.

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Thursday, October 30, 2008

I Speak According to the Book, CONTINUED: Libretto Problems, Part III

(See our last episode of Libretto Problems, here.) Hooray, so I spent the night in the city after the excellent NOW/Dargel show at Le Poisson Rouge (more on this soon), and in a few hours I'm going to see the new production of Doctor Atomic at the Met—to my many fans in attendance I'll be the guy wearing a brown cap with no friends, who vaguely resembles the picture to the right only in need of a shave. Okay where were we? Right right right! Mark Adamo. We might have guessed that Adamo knew an awful lot about libretti when we read this insightful interview from NewMusicBox, regarding his Lysistrata. For instance, Adamo talks about how in prewriting his operas, he draws up (1) a synopsis of nothing but sounds, just a description of what you'd hear if you were listening to the opera being broadcast on the radio, in Hungarian or something. Then he draws up (2) a synopsis of nothing but physical action and stage business—the opera as silent movie, nothing but dumbshow. Brilliant! He goes straight to the things that make opera unique. As opposed to Tommasini's eunuch-in-a-whorehouse type advice, this is the sort of trick an opera librettist or composer could actually learn something from. Opera is about the sounds of women's voices mingling offstage, and wordless cries from anguished baritones, but also about people clutching letters to their breasts and hesitating on staircases. On the one hand, music can be exploited as a tool for storytelling—but on the other hand, the music also abstracts the drama to the point where one cannot ask the dialogue to do as much work as it might in a piece of spoken theatre. A certain amount of physical melodrama, a few bold dramatic gestures, are key to the success of a big chunk of the operatic rep. This strategy is a bit old-school, however. What works within a Verdian aesthetic might not work for John Adams. True, if we were to imagine a silent movie production of Doctor Atomic, we would probably imagine a bunch of dudes in suits talking to each other for a couple hours. But I'm going to cut a few yards of slack for this piece, just because the conventional music-drama is so obviously not the model Sellars and Adams are after, or have ever been after. A third of Nixon in China is dudes in suits talking to each other; the libretto of The Death of Klinghoffer, about a hijacking and murder, is structured like an oratorio, not like a conventional opera—the actual death of Leon Klinghoffer takes place offstage, for instance, instead of being dramatized. What sort of opera composer would leave out the death scene by accident? Clearly something else is going on there. Happily, Adamo's critical approach, unlike that of certain music writers I could name, while registering how the dramatic goals of the piece depart from his own tastes, is also capable of addressing the piece on its own terms. He identifies what is missing here that was present in Adams & Sellars' earlier history-operas: Alice Goodman, their visionary librettist. Yes, this libretto is a collage, and draws on a certain poetic energy that only collage can provide. And so I think Adamo is wrong to single out Oppenheimer's John Donne aria for criticism—not only did the Trinity project borrow is title from the poem, but each line, in the context of the opera, takes on multiple meanings relevant to the situation. When Oppenheimer confesses that he is "betroth'd unto Your enemy," we wonder if he has, like the Doctor Faust alluded to in the title of of the opera, sold his soul for the enormous power he is about to wield; but when he sings, "ravish me," is he begging to be mastered instead by Good, or is he simply willing himself to surrender his own moral judgment to a higher political authority? Is he praying to God, or to the Bomb? I'd go so far as to defend what somebody (who? remind me!) has called the "carbs aria" of General Groves, a musical recitation of his calorie intake. This is an opera about hubris, after all; Groves is trying to win the war in the Pacific, he's trying to split the atom, we even see him try to control the weather—but he can't even master his own body. It's a good and revealing joke. (And while I'm being critical of Adamo's critique, I can't let him get away with this silliness: "Not since Szymanowski have we heard such opulent ninths and elevenths; not since Saarijaho, such shimmering harps and gongs." "Not since" Saariaho?? Saariaho is now. She is not dead yet. You cannot say "not since Saariaho," as that would mean, like, "not since last summer," which is to say, it would not mean anything. Nit picked, carry on.) The shift between these two modes, between what is known about a given political situation (what was said in the presence of reporters, what happened in front of the TV cameras) and what will be forever unknowable (what they were thinking it happened) gets at the essence of the Sellars/Adams opera project in general. Nixon especially focused on the divide between public and private life, between the yin and yang of historical/heroic/male vs. personal/domestic/female. In Act One, we get to see Nixon shake hands with Chou En-Lai; we see him and Kissinger sit down with Chou and Mao, and the libretto sticks largely to realistic, political/philosophical dialogues. In Act Two, we meet the missus; Pat Nixon takes a tour of Beijing, Madame Mao puts on her terrifying ballet, The Detachment of Red Women, and the libretto veers off into fantasy. Act Three finds the whole gang in a liminal, half-dreamed space of strange rhapsodies. And that's the thing—bringing a bona fide librettist on board allows you then to negotiate between those two spheres. Like, Pat Nixon did not really say, "Let Gypsy Rose kick off her high-heeled party shoes!" while taking her big stroll—that's a lyrical flight of Alice Goodman's fancy—but she actually did say, "That's prophetic!" to her Chinese handlers (and the assembled press corps), and Goodman then transmuted those two words into the aria, "This is prophetic." (See how a poet can massage a clunky turn of phrase into something musical—"that's" to "this is"?) In Klinghoffer too, actual quotations and historical facts are woven into arias of rhymed couplets; real and fictional characters share the stage. But when Doctor Atomic shifts registers between documentary and lyrical, the thread is lost. We back off of the action just when we should be zooming in. Whole characters turn into a blur. Says Adamo:
Pasqualita’s rainsong is authentic Tewa lullaby, Rukeyser may have been acquainted with the Oppenheimers, and Groves’s diet worries are amply documented. But a libretto is not a program note. Pasqualita’s lullaby boasts impeccable historical pedigree. But what does it tell us dramatically? If this is characterization, what on earth is stereotype?
Bingo. I'll insist that there is nothing wrong with going all high-toned and dreamy once in a while, but the Native American characters never get a chance be human. They never get to count their calories. They just have to stand around and symbolize unspoiled Mother Nature or something. I mean c'mon, Pasqualita? More like Pasquahontas! LOL! Hum. Some of Adamo's suggestions are not great. E.g., I shudder at the thought of a part for Harry Truman; one of the things that makes Dr Awork is its unity of place. And you know what? I love Doctor Atomic; I think it is a great piece, and I can't wait to see it again. While Adamo makes sure to distance himself from outright attacks on the opera, it's clear he doesn't enjoy it quite as much as I have. But this is twice now that I've read his comments on the art of libretto-writin' and immediately wanted to write somebody a big fat libretto (dude, composerfriends, call me). Who else is thinking this hard about dramatic problems in opera? We need more of this!

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Sunday, October 26, 2008

NO, David Hajdu, NO. BAD David Hajdu.

First sentence of David Hajdu's review of Hallelujah Junction, John Adams' memoirs, in the New York Times Book Review:
John Adams is the Care Bear of the American avant-garde.
Wait, what? I—no. No, sh. Don't speak.

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I Speak According to the Book: Libretto Problems, Part II

I want you to listen closely, people, because how often do I say this about anybody: Mark Adamo is sooo right. You got that? This is especially worth noting because I was an utter bitch to Mark Adamo last time his name was written here. But he's posted one of the best reviews of Doctor Atomic in the short history of this well-publicized opera, and you should click here and read it, right now. Then while you're doing that, I'll continue to ramble on a related topic. Anthony Tommasini has written this thing about contemporary opera, which if not terrifically insightful on the subject of contemporary opera, is tremendously insightful on the subject of Anthony Tommasini. For instance, it has never occurred to him that he is dismissive of most new opera!
What? I consider myself a proselytizer for new opera, I said, someone who has urged companies to commission works and attended every premiere I could get to, always with hopeful anticipation.

See there, that's where you've made your mistake. Hopeful anticipation. Heh I mean, not really, but if you combine that hopeful anticipation with a set of weirdly specific standards, you're going to be cruelly disappointed every time. Because the U.S. opera scene, right now, seems to be dominated by two subgenres, both of which are bound to be loved by certain parties and hated by critics like Tony T. First of all, we have the good old-fashioned American Melodrama. This is your standard opera commission. It is written by an Opera Composer—the sort of composer whose name you only hear in reference to his or her latest major opera commission—in a mostly tonal musical language that opera singers love to sing and opera subscribers love to hear, because it draws on the musical tradition set down by the great composers of the operatic repertoire. But who hates American Melodrama? Classical music critics! They want something that acknowledges Wozzeck, something that acknowledges the progress that music has made in the past hundred years, which is just as silly as all the folks who would complain that the operas of Thomas Adès don't acknowledge Turandot. Why are my fellow lovers-of-modernism so afraid to admit that Puccini was one of the greatest and most influential composers of the twentieth century? And while I may think that the "progress" of the past hundred years has been an exciting journey, I can still empathize with the guy who says "...but I wouldn't wanna live there." Then we have the Prestige Spectacular. This is a big PR event for the opera company, it's the thing they can point to whenever somebody claims they don't do enough new opera, they pour a huge amount of money into it, and don't you just see every damn dollar onstage. Oh, and the names! The director is a superstar (he/she's done movies!), the librettist is a pretty big name, and the composer is... the director's friend. Audiences tend to like it—they're, god forbid, entertained—and music critics hate it. No wonder, since music is the weak link. So when Julie Taymor, JD McClatchy and Elliot Goldenthal put on their Beowulf, Tommasini objected, "Opera has long embraced spectacle, but isn’t it supposed to be a music-driven art form?" Yes! Or—well, wait, is it? Couldn't opera be an equal collaboration between different media? Or even, god forbid, driven by a great director, or a great text? (I wonder if Professor McJeebie had Tommasini's Grendel review in mind when he wrote this.) These strike me as the chief craw-stickers for Tommasini. Every single contemporary opera he singles out for praise originates with a star composer, somebody who's as well-grounded off the operatic stage as on. His ostensible point, that "specifics" make an opera strong, as opposed to "mystical effusions," falls apart right quick.

The characters in Wagner’s “Ring,” as the critic and composer Virgil Thomson once quipped, spend a lot of time “predicting doom, describing weather, soul states and ecstatic experiences.” But has there ever been a more inventively detailed generational drama?
Yes. Yes, there have certainly been a few. Like for instance, some of you may be familiar with the Star Wars cycle, in which a father-son duo of fighter-pilot samurai wizards duel in outer space, with swords made out of light. Which, lest we overestimate the value of "invention" and "detail"... I'm just gonna say, Jar-Jar. I suspect that the real problem with "mystical effusions" is that they're so dang hard to write. They're a lost art, those effusions, a second language to writers of modern English, and so they always come out stupid. Take, for instance, the libretto for John Adams' latest opera, The Flowering Tree. Now, I haven't seen the libretto actually printed anywhere—perusal of user reviews suggest that the reason our record shop can't get ahold of any copies of the CD is that the physical libretto, the Little Book with all the words in it, was misprinted with no Act Two? Anybody have this problem? Anyway I only have a promotional copy, which I got a little while before the release date, and that was fun because I got to change all of the Act One track titles in the iTunes CD Database so that instead of being in English or Spanish they were all in LOLspeak. (In case you'[re wondering, I am also the person who changed the CDDB title of John Adams' My Father Knew Charles Ives to Yo Mama Blew Charles Ives. God, I am a genius. So I can't quote much of the piece, is my point, but the first lines go something like:
Children, I want to tell you a story of love, and then pain and then love again.
I don't get this. Are love and pain mutually exclusive? You go from one to the other? And even then, is this is the most elegant way to express the idea? It's a hair away from self-parody! "Children, I want to tell you a story of love, and then pain, and then love again, and then a little more love, and then sandwiches, and then pain, and then a new dishwasher, then love, love, love, pain, love, pain, in that order." Peter Sellars' Doctor Atomic libretto, while on the whole superior, is occasionally as clumsy in its particulars as Flowering Tree is in its generalities. Mind you, Adams' attention to the nuances of operatic text-setting is as keen as always, as in this passage on the dangers of radiation poisoning:
...enough of it in the human body eats through vital tissues, disintegrates human kidneys and causes fatal bone cancer.
The triplet rhythm on the words "eats through vital tissues" syncopates eerily against the accompaniment, creating a visceral sense of unease; the word "disintegrates," tossed off much more quickly, seems itself to be dissolving into the air. The highest note in each of those last three lines climbs just a step higher than the line before it, as the symptoms mount, until our hypothetical patient finally expires on "causes fatal bone cancer" with a dramatic falling-off of rhythm and pitch. Yes, if it were possible to wring music out of the words, "and causes fatal bone cancer," this would probably be it right here. But still the phrase creeks, clanks, thuds. What is wrong with these libretti? Who can help us diagnose them? ¿¿Y ahora quién podrá defenderme?? This looks like a job for... Mark Adamo!! To be continued.

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Saturday, October 25, 2008

You Love, and Have Always Loved, Itzhak Perlman

Ever since you saw him on Sesame Street, you loved him. When you didn't know anything about music, he was the one violinist you knew by name. Then you saw him do a little recital near your aunt's house, and he reminded you again what a charmer he is. He charms you to death! Well now there's this:YAY, ITZHAK PERLMAN! He is your hero.

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Friday, October 24, 2008


Okay not really. But while the world "mourns" the death of xenophobic, hilariously gay Austrian politico Jörg Haider, young queer composer Matthew Barnson offers his own recollection of the fallen closet case:
This is crazy! Haider's office was very close to my apartment when I lived in Klagenfurt in 1999-2000. He was running for Chancellor at the time on his typical xenophobic platform where he gave speeches in an incredibly thick Kaerntnerisch dialect that no "Auslander" could hope to understand - myself included. And yet, I met Haider twice on the street - he practiced his (bad) English on me and and my handsomely suited companion doing our rounds as Mormon missionaries - all the more astounding because Austrians generally hated us... he was one of the few to approach us. I wonder if he liked Latter Days?
Dude, between this and Ashley Todd, my lulz runneth over today. (LOL, dude, I can't blame him, who doesn't have a thing for Mormon missionaries? LOL) Oh, man. Okay good night.

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008


It's almost Halloween! The nights grow long, the winds turn chill, the trees are losing their leaves, and every young man (or young womyn)'s heart turns to thoughts of love. Here just in time for the holiday is Corey Dargel's new CD, Other People's Love Songs, a concrete manifestation of that Commission-a-Love-Song project I was talking about before. October 28th, y'all will be able to go on iTunes or eMusic and download you some spanking new Dargel. Or BETTER YET, go straight to New Amsterdam Records Dot Com, where you have the choice between an affordably priced download, or a physical "Compact Disc" of uncompressed digital deliciousness in a lovingly designed package. Read more about the project here. BUT WAIT THERE'S MORE! To celebrate the release, Dargel will be playing a show at Le Poisson Rouge, Oct. 29, with his labelmates NOW Ensemble. No, I don't just mean they're sharing a bill, I mean he's going to be playing with his labelmates NOW Ensemble! His synth-pop artsongs will be costumed in brand-new arrangements for living breathing musicians—including, rumor has it, a number dolled up in acoustic drag by Dargel & NOW's other new labelmate Darcy James Argue! You LOVE that guy! How could you miss this. Album release Oct. 28, LPR show Oct. 29. Dargelicious. (Graphic ganked from The Onion Dot Com.)

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Yet Another Reason to Vote for You-Know-Who

Poor John McCain! He gets a lawsuit here, a cease-and-desist there, and bad publicity all around, every time he tries to use a hip piece of music to accompany his campaign. Last I heard, the estate that controls "Happy Birthday to You" forbade him from singing it before blowing out the candles on his Cookie Puss. Barack Obama, on the other hand, has been serenaded by a team of musical all-stars throughout his campaign. I'm pretty sure all he'd have to do is make a phone call and then bam, Justin and Britney would be in the studio recording their hot new single, "Vote 'Bama, Y'all." But WHOSE music are the Obama People using to touch the hearts of Americans across America? See if this tune sounds familiar: That's right! It's "Folk Music" by Judd Greenstein, from the album NOW by the NOW Ensemble, the now band playing now music for now people. You can buy the CD or a cheap, high-quality download from the New Amsterdam website, and I suggest you do so... now. (Via Judd's blog, natch.)

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Monday, October 6, 2008

D.S. al Coda

Jesus these New Amsterdam people are the END. The living end. First I hear Corey Dargel's NewAm debut is going to be out at the end of this month (more on this soon), then I hear they've signed composer/bandleader/blogger extraordinaire Darcy James Argue's Secret Society, and then, I hope you all caught this Times article on the scintillating composer/performer/doctor/lawyer/Indian chief Caleb Burhans, whose itsnotyouitsme project is also down with the NewAm fam. The best part of the profile:
Mr. Burhans took a job as a substitute in the Rochester Philharmonic, which was sometimes rocky. Once, when Mr. Burhans turned up at a rehearsal with his hair dyed purple, the orchestra’s managing director asked him to do something about it before the concert. Mr. Burhans turned up in a witch’s wig, cut short. The next week he tried to dye his hair a conventional red, but because of the purple die, it came out crimson, so he shaved his head. “I found out that one of the trumpet players was going around saying that I was making a mockery of classical music because my hair was purple,” Mr. Burhans said. “And I had a really intense conversation with the managing director, where I said: ‘You know, I’m just trying to help classical music, because if we don’t get more people like me coming to these concerts, this orchestra is going to die. The only people who are coming are old people, and you’re shooting yourself in the foot.’ And he said: ‘Yeah, you’re right. Sorry.’ “But I made a sign that said, ‘I Make a Mockery of Classical Music’ and started wearing it around.”

I loved this quote because, among other reasons, the visual self-presentation of classical music is such a peculiar one. Lately people are rethinking this notion that a classical ensemble has to be a mob of old folks in black tie, for better and for worse. It makes sense, to a certain extent, that you want your orchestra to be wearing a uniform. After all, the goal of a classical ensemble is uniformity of sound, that no individual obtrudes from the texture. There's also the notion that, just as the players onstage are supposed to disappear into the ensemble, the ensemble should diappear into the sound of the ensemble, that you should forget about the people you see in front of you, and think only about what's going in your ears. The ideal of most classical performance is to communicate the composer's ideas; the performer is not a creator, but an interpreter.

But there are problems with all of these assumptions. Every act of interpretation is also an act of self-expression, though this may be more obvious in some contexts than in others—if you stand under a girl's window with a guitar and sing "And I Love Her," your hope is not that she will run off and marry Sir Paul McCartney. (That would end badly for all involved.) And classical music's attempts at a null visual component have themselves become strong visual signifiers, the black tie and tails increasingly out of place in concerts for jean-and-t-shirt audiences.

So while I'm tempted to say, oh, come on, don't be in an orchestra with purple hair (wasn't that an episode of Daria or something), it's about twenty times as silly to pretend that the audience is going to somehow enjoy the concert less because of one purple head in the band. Let's loosen up a little.

I'm just going to warn the classical music kids—who, and I am including myself in this, do not tend to have the greatest fashion sense in the world—that there are also style choices that are worse than the no-style-choice of classical convention. I think I saw one of these sweaters onstage at a new music concert once, and the huxtability of the performer seriously distracted from the music he was playing.

But the real reason I like this quote is, hello, T-SHIRT IDEA!!! From now on the Daniel Stephen Johnson CafePress store is going to be selling these puppies in a variety of styles and colors. Or better yet, one of these! This is the front and this is the back. All items are modestly priced, unless you are Caleb Burhans in which case they are free if you ask politely, and all proceeds go to support my CD buying habit. Thank you that is all.

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Friday, October 3, 2008

Did I Make This Joke Up, or Did I Steal It from Somewhere

Q: "Daddy, where do babies come from?" A: "The stork brings them." Q: "Where do baby storks come from?" A: "Fucking."


Thursday, October 2, 2008

Murder in High Heels

Please people, when visiting Cameron Carpenter's website, set aside the immediate questions (Why is he naked? Is that eyeshadow? Is this the website for a gay techno singer? No seriously why is he naked) and skip straight to the serious questions, such as How in the world does he do this? That's CC's own arrangement of the "Revolutionary" Etude of Chopin, the left-hand part given over to a fleet and flashy pair of kicks. Is this the next Virgil Fox? Does the world need or even want another Virgil Fox? Did we really need the first Virgil Fox? Do we— Wait, wait, wait, stop. I apologize. People, we are too old to complain about "mere" virtuosity. I am going to shut my mouth now, give silent thanks that there is this much talent sitting on an organ bench someplace, and continue hoping that he will use these enormous powers for good. That is all. Carpenter's new CD, Revolutionary, came out last week on the Telarc label. Dig.

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Wednesday, October 1, 2008

But Can Galway Dress a Kill?

Yeah, she's no Condi. (via Gawker)

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