Monday, December 21, 2009

Unpopular New Blog!

So I'm going to try something new? My editor at the New Haven Advocate has asked me to start blogging for them! There is no money in it, but there is no money in this shit either, and I have extracted explicit promises that I can be as "wonky" and "profane" as I desire.

Will this move get me more readers? Lose me all of my readers? Who can say! But anyway, here is my latest entry on the new blog. Lemme know what you think in the comments (here, or there). Oh and, here's a link for the RSS feed on the new blog.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Nothing to Say

The Chronicle of Higher Education is giving me a 404 when I try to leave a comment on this article about David Gelernter, so I'll just spit it out here:

Depending on whom you ask, Gelernter's intellectual adventurism is the mark of a true Renaissance man or the desperate flailing of a scattershot dilettante. Around Yale, there is a curious reluctance to criticize him on the record. "Some communication at Yale is conducted in raised eyebrows and significant silences," notes Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at the university, when asked about this reticence. It may be that many of his colleagues are reluctant to speak openly about Gelernter out of sympathy for his experience with the Unabomber. Whatever the case, few want to be publicly critical.
Oh well allow me! Because I'd like to point out that this is disgusting:
The woman who yearns to be a rabbi resembles the openly practicing homosexual who wants the same thing. Both cases suggest a man who yearns to be a hazzan but lacks the ear or voice for it, or hopes to be a rosh yeshiva ... but lacks the temperament or brains, or wants to be a poet but has nothing to say.
That's from Gelernter's new manifesto, Judaism: A Way of Being. Note the flaccid rhetoric! Note the creepy use of "openly practicing homosexual"—a rabbi who practices sodomy in secret is A-OK, I guess.

Oh, yeah, and in case you're wondering, our "Renaissance man"'s paintings are pretty wretched, too. Way to go, Chronicle of Higher Ed, and way to go, Yale University Press.

Saturday, November 28, 2009


So John Hollenbeck turned up on my radar just recently, when the New Sounds podcast featured his piece The Cloud. I had mixed feelings! But you people know I have Jazz Issues, which I am still trying to rationalize and articulate. For now they remain the sort of Issues that would be better rehearsed on a therapist's couch than on a blog, but insofar as I can gripe intelligently at all about things like jazz fusion and jazz for large ensemble, I guess something strikes me as uncanny about the meticulous performance style—it seems too cautious, somehow. What I love about the jazz I love is how well hidden the precision often is. (CLASSICAL COMPOSERS AND PERFORMERS, YOU COULD LEARN SO MUCH FROM THIS.) But on the other hand, that's clearly not what Hollenbeck's trying to achieve with this stuff, so I guess it is not him, it's me. See also Argue, Darcy James.

But the point is that, like Argue, John Hollenbeck clearly deserves to be on yall's new-music radar as well. Of the two discs his publicist sent me, the one that excites me most isn't the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble, whose latest release (Eternal Interlude) is excerpted in the above podcast, but last year's Rainbow Jimmies, which consists mostly of chamber works Hollenbeck has written for his own Claudia Quintet and for other small groups even further away from any kind of conventional jazz configuration.

His writing for violinist Todd Reynolds is brilliant, maybe because he's thinking about the violin as a percussion instrument, employing both hands to pluck the strings

and even, later on, detuning the G string like it was a kettledrum. (That's Hollenbeck on drumset, on that track.)

Here's my favorite piece off the album, Ziggurat (Interior); it's the companion to the slightly silly Ziggurat (Exterior), a big jagged pyramid of Latin-style percussion; this one's performed by the Ethos Percussion Quartet:

See, that's just good writing!

Anyway, on MONDAY, at the Le Poisson Rouge, John Hollenbeck is doing a release party for the Large Ensemble record, but it's also going to be him and Theo Bleckmann and their band covering Meredith Monk (see Hollenbeck and Bleckmann jamming here), and Todd Reynolds is gonna be there too, to play the stuff from Rainbow Jimmies. So it's kind of a big deal! 8 pm, $15, info here.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Now C Here

Just in case you needed something else to be thankful for (BECAUSE TOMORROW IS THANKSGIVING, GET IT?), here is a streaming mp3 of the Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble playing Terry Riley's In C at their LPR release party! Via them.

I'm not totally loving the alapana (I am guessing that is Michael Lowenstern? somebody who was there correct me) that kicks it off—"the delicacy of taking liberties with scores that already offer a great deal of leeway to the performer" etc etc—but Dennis DeSantis's electronic contributions are sensitive and credible, and this offers a tantalizing glimpse of the full-length performance I wish GVSUNME had released in the first place. More like this, please, everyone!

Thursday, November 19, 2009


The good news is, I finally got around to interviewing New Haven new-music mainstay Jack Vees, apropos of tonight's performance of his Party Talk. The bad news is, Party Talk is canceled! The WORSE news is, I think it's because Timo Andres has swine flu!

Dammit. Ah, well: the Cerrone, Knight, Kuspa, and Wang performances are still scheduled to go on. Everybody drink lots of hot soup and get plenty of rest and let's Party Talk soon.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Your Daily Mindfuck

First, via Timo Andres, Pitchfork follows up on this craziness (Fiery Furnaces guy mixes up Harry Partch, microtonal composer, with Harry Patch, the WWI vet the Radiohead song is about) with the even more bizarre announcement,

Friedberger tried to cover his fuck up with a statement that said: "Matt has not heard the Radiohead song about Harry Patch, but if he did, he is sure he wouldn't like it. No doubt Radiohead and their fans can ignore his opinion of this matter and continue with their triumphant artistic interventions. Matt would have much preferred to insult Beck but he is too afraid of Scientologists."

Now, Beck actually seems to be responding. He's putting up a new song called "Harry Partch" on later today. According to a post on the site, the track "employs Partch's 43 tone scale, which expands conventional tonality into a broader variation of frequencies and resonances." It isn't clear yet if the song is directly related to Friedberger's remarks, or just one hell of a coincidence.
I have no idea whether this is even true, or Beck is just screwing with us now. Andres: "My head a splode."

UPDATE: It is true. The song is up on Beck's website.

CODA. I scrolled down that Pitchfork page, and there was a video of Renee Fleming singing "Perfect Day" with Lou Reed on Czech TV, as if to remind us, lest we forget, that Sting does not have a monopoly on Tragicomic Crossover Nightmares. A perfect day, indeed.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Have You Heard These Things?

New Corey Dargel, everybody. He and violinist Cornelius Dufallo are premiering a new song-cycle at the Stone Nov. 29, and here's a taste—fiddle loops, brutal lyrics, 7/8 time. Highly recommended. It's like Owen Pallett meets Stephin Merritt meets rhythmic complexity? Yikes, okay, the previous sentence just embarrassed us all. Let's move on.

I haven't written much about our New Amsterdam friends lately, which is totally a mistake. They've been continuing this monthly ARCHIPELAGO concert series at the Galapagos Art Space, and I kicked myself when I realized I'd forgotten to tell y'all to check out the show by Roomful of Teeth, a new-music chamber choir, which based totally on YouTube clips, I'm pretty sure is going to become the new thing. Like Toby Twining and the Toby Twining Singers! Or Meredith Monk and the Funky Bunch! Look here they are singing Judd Greenstein: And here they are singing Caroline Shaw: Seriously, isn't this going to be a big deal?

Anyway. The next Archipelago concert, on Nov. 20 (there will also be a Dargel one in the spring), is all about Victoire, whom—as we have established—you totally love, and special guests Arturo en el Barco. Arturo en el Barco is one Angélica Negrón and her band, and you'd really better check it out, here. Eerie, sample-driven ambient, very good. It makes me want to wear gloves. And eyeliner. Actually, after listening to a little Arturo and a little Victoire just now, I think I am going to try to bring hats back, so this is a dangerous combination. You're warned. You're welcome.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

fuori dall'abitato di Malbork

Okay this was kind of crazy. But the really crazy thing about this thing HERE

is how not-bad it is. Sting's affected and overwrought Classical Voice was a colossal drag on his Dowland album, Songs from the Labyrinth—Dowland's songs are already overwrought with (well) a labyrinth of lines, and demand a clear, simple vocal style. (Shouldn't a pop singer be capable of a clear, simple style?) Das Leiermann, on the other hand, which Sting has recorded on his new If on a Winter's Night..., is a clear and simple tune already, and it actually benefits a little from his ridiculous stage whisper, if you've a high tolerance for camp. Plus that's DANIEL HOPE playing that violin. Plus Sting's translation is LOL.

Apparently he also covers Bach, Prætorius, and Purcell up on this record? Gee, I hope he sings them all in this sickly baritone range!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Importance of Being Kernis

I really, really, really wanted to use that as the headline for my review of Aaron Jay Kernis's deeply earnest Third Symphony.

Fiery Furnaces' Matthew Friedberger Disses Radiohead, Is Dumb

Or maybe he just mis-heard the interviewer? Anyway, here's the quote:

When told that Radiohead's Thom Yorke sent out a mass e-mail describing the group's tribute song to the UK's last veteran of World War I, 'Harry Patch (In Memory Of),' Friedberger adds the British rock star to his fraud alert list. "'Oh, please listen to our new song about Harry Patch,'" Friedberger says mockingly. "F--- you! You brand yourself by brazenly and arbitrarily associating yourself with things that you know people consider cool. That is bogus. That's a put-on. That's a branding technique and Radiohead have their brand that they're popular and intelligent. So they have a song about Harry Patch.

"How's the song?" Friedberger asks. "Is it 48 notes to the octave? What does it have to do with Harry Patch? Oh, my wife says I am being very rude. She doesn't like me insulting Radiohead. She's afraid they will send their lackeys through the computer to sabotage us. But they needn't worry -- we are a band that sabotages ourselves."
Ha ha ha.  Psst!  Hey dude!  You might wanna...

via Stereogum.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

In C Remixed: Too Much Remixed, Not Enough In C

That is the short version of my review. Glib, yeah, but it's true! The Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble's interpretation of Terry Riley's masterpiece (I hate people who throw around "masterpiece" but, look, it just is, let's move on) leaves me wanting more, more, more. I hope you've heard of GVSUNME before; their performance of Music for 18 Musicians got a lot of press, partly because they work that piece, and partly because GVSUNME's backstory is a reporter's dream—did you know they have avant-garde music in places that aren't New York?? in STATE schools???—but that's a little condescending, and not entirely relevant to the enjoyment of their music.

Okay, this part is relevant: they're young, which gives them at least two advantages. One is that for classical musicians born after 1980 or so, the aesthetic code of minimalism is a first language. Not that they grew up humming Violin Phase, but they are too young to have known a world in which, say, Koyaanisqatsi had not inspired a whole world of imitators.

The other advantage is that young musicians don't take shit for granted. An ace professional ensemble could sleepwalk through a score like In C, and I'm sure many of them do. But every note counts on this recording; there are no throwaway gestures. Check out those string players! Their Bartok pizzicati, their sixteenth notes bowed heavily and close to the bridge, tell us that they are in this for keeps. (When the clarinets go for the same grit, wailin' in their high registers, it seems a little more affected, but I can deal with that.) They sound excited to dig into even the most superficially unglamorous phrase.

But it's over too soon! This is a speedy performance, just twenty minutes or so, which would make sense if they were trying to fit it on one side of a record; as part of a two disc set, it just seems ungenerous. I could listen to these guys play this for eighty minutes, easy. Why not make this a set with one disc of In C and one disc of remixes, instead of hurrying along from section to section quite so zippily?

If I thought there were two discs of absolutely essential remixes here, I'd be more forgiving, but really, two discs of remixes would be too many remixes of any one tune. Maybe I am getting all old and bitter? I used to LOVE the remix album, as a thing. Now I feel as if we can be finickier, when there's the possibility of releasing a track "download only," because while I can happily wander through the architecture of Terry Riley's funky cathedral for an hour and a half, one hour spent listening to five-minute chunks of In C with breakbeats under them is not an experience I will want to repeat very often. Crank the last track on your stereo, then feed the rest to your iPod to shuffle through at your leisure.

But I've skipped over the big question hanging over In C Remixed. Should In C even be remixed? I've kvetched in this space before about the delicacy of taking liberties with scores that already offer a great deal of leeway to the performer. In some ways, a piece with this added dimension of Conceptual beauty is that much more fragile; a bad-faith performance of John Cage is going to be yet far more unsatisfying than bad-faith Beethoven. On the other hand, one of the great things about screwing around with an open-instrumentation, open-form piece like In C is that every performance is, in a sense, a remix: you've got a page of stems, you loop them to make a groove. It's a short step from "open instrumentation" and "open form" to "open source." Was Terry Riley the first IDM artist??

No. Well, okay, maybe. Actually, one of the things that's so exciting about In C is that you can't really say what it is. I mean, yes, it's a piece of "Western concert music" in terms of context and construction, but on the other hand the cycling form and limited pitch materials push it, and so much minimalist music, into an in-between territory that could be something out of the vernacular. On a superficial level, anyway, it has a lot more in common with a rock jam than anything out of the European concert-hall tradition, and so it doesn't really come down as one thing or the other; it's content just to float there.

Which makes some of the remixes on this disc seem a little unimaginative by comparison. Yes, you could just tag a drum track onto In C, lay a bassline & synths under it, and it would become a piece of tonal pop music. But that would be pinning the butterfly down. Something is lost. Granted, something is lost in any interpretation of any piece of music, but with many of these remixes not much is added, either.

Herewith, a lumpy review of each and every remix, not quite in order.

Track 1: Jack "Meat Beat Manifesto" Dangers' "Semi-Detached" mix; I'm a fan of Jack Dangers, and this mix would be a credit to any chillout compilation, but it's hard not to suspect that he could've made essentially the same piece of music out of any source material. (Ditto, to a lesser extent, bass clarinetist Michael Lowenstern's "Bints" (Track 4) and "Foster Grant" mixes (Disc 2, Track 3), and Dangers' own "Extension" mix on track 1 of disc 2. Dennis DeSantis makes an appearance here as well (Track 10), as the world's most in-demand remixer of new music into undistinguished dance music.)

But the other 90s electronica star here, DJ Spooky, fares far worse. What's going on here? Track 8 sounds, without exaggeration, exactly like what I've described above: tag on a drum track, lay down a bassline & synths, and call it a day. Isn't this just a lazy run-through of pop clichés, slapped onto In C? And this is critical darling DJ Spooky we're talking about, here! Shouldn't he, of all people, know that the unexamined breakbeat is not worth banging?

Track 2: Mason Bates. Not an unconventional piece of electronica, but quite charming to the ear, and springing naturally from the source material. I especially like those moments of tension and release ("PONGGG!" goes the sampled chorus) that derive out of a certain self-conciousness this project could have used more of. But even better in this vain is the collage-like, sample-heavy Jad Abumrad remix (track 6), which I was poised to dislike (he's the RadioLab guy! They can be so freaking smug and simplistic) but actually it's awesome, one of the highlights of the set, for that same reason, self-consciousness generating musical drama.

Track 3: Glenn Kotche. Glenn Kotche, you are great! Why did I file you under "indie rocker with high-art pretensions"? This is formally surprising, dramatic and intense, with real rhythmic sophistication. Class, Glenn Kotche gets the gold star. Be more like Glenn Kotche.

Track 5: Zoë Keating, cellist, kicks off the performer-driven remixes on the disc, which are largely mediocre. Actually, violinist Todd Reynolds brings his remix to a nice climax (Disc 2, Track 5), but fellow fiddler DBR cannot help but drape those signature hair-metal violin stylings all over the mix on his own track (Track 11) and that's just embarrassing.

Track 7: Nico Muhly. Okay you know I'm IN THE TANK for homeboy so if you want objectivity skip to the next paragraph. I like this remix because it makes me genuinely uncomfortable—does that oboe REALLY have to do that? Why does this all sound so naked?—and then warms up so subtly.

Track 9: Phil Kline. Another one for the win column—seems simple without seeming lazy, a high-concept tribute to a high-concept piece.

Disc 2, Track 2: Mikael Karlsson and Rob Stephenson actually rock this. Glitchily delicious; disorienting and gnarly.

Disc 2, Track 4: "Is In C in F?" is the title of R Luke DuBois's remix; the short answer is "No." A pleasant sheen over it, but not much to hold onto here.

Disc 2, Track 6: Kleerup. I have no intellectual or theoretical justification for enjoying this track so immensely, I'm just a sucker for a stiff electro beat and that giddy backbeat clarinet.

Disc 2, Track 7: Leave it to David Lang to whip up a remix—of the world's shaggiest, warmest piece of new music—that is VINEGAR TO THE EAR. Fortunately, I love vinegar, I pour it on everything, and so this dissonant scraping is a treat for me. If my ear had lips, it would be licking them. It sounds a little like software, if you know what I mean, but it's so much more daring than every other remix on this compilation, and digs so close to the heart of the source material, that it stands out in a crowded field.

In conclusion: Should you buy this? If you're an audiophile, or if you collect recordings of In C you should probably pick up the disc. If you consume electronic music in large quantities, you should probably download the album. The download isn't even a bad buy even if you don't like most of the remixes, although it's frustrating that iTunes and Amazon won't let you grab the excellent title track on its own, then cherry-pick the most interesting cuts from the rest of the set.

If you prefer to insert some live music into your ears, here's going to be some kind of crazy In C Remixed party at Le Poisson Rouge tonight at 6:30; Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble will be there, as well as DeSantis, DuBois, Reynolds, Lowenstern, and most exciting of all, Jad "MC Jad" Abumrad will be MC-ing. It's $15 to get in which isn't bad and since it's LPR you can get fully drunk on Rolling Rock and ask MC Jad to sign his podcast for you. Hooray!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Not to Be Outdone

So one of the big highlights, for me, of John Adams' talk in New Haven, was when he discussed the criticism his unorthodox Doctor Atomic libretto had received in the press. "Opera is bloodsport," he said, and began to quote one of his detractors—whose words I instantly recognized as Mark Adamo's! Well, Mark Adamo's blogging again, and he is again too much. I cannot wait for the day that Adamo and Adams and Marshall and Muhly all sit on a panel together at some festival and then all go home and blog about it.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Oh Goodness

So you heard that John Adams has a blog, but guess who ELSE has a blog now! That's right: John Adams' BFF Ingram Marshall. This blog is, to the surprise of nobody, quite a bit more laid-back. (Via Timo Andres, who points out that there are so far two entries and both of them are about fungus.) I've talked about Marshall a couple times on here, I think, but it really is true that you should get to know his music—here's a video of his guitar piece Soe-pa, the second movement, which is the musical equivalent of stepping into a boutique selling sweet frankincense and gradually realizing that the building is on fire:

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Crowdsourcing [Shudder]

Attention all friends and readers, but especially composers, performers, and electronic musicians among you: a friend of mine asked me, the other day, if I had any bright ideas for an iPhone app he and his techie friends should get to work on. I know lot of you work seriously with live electronics, compose at the computer, etc. Is there anything you wish your iPhone would do?

More from the Hell Mouth

Boosey's wonderful Sarah Baird points out that John Adams is going to be speaking at Yale TODAY, so all (er, both) you local readers can get on that—4:30, Whitney Humanities Center, and then again tomorrow, same bat-time. Hey look, some provincial hack did a write-up for the town rag.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

This Should Be Interesting

I'm told that world's greatest musicologist Richard Taruskin once sent one of his infamous postcards (goose quill dipped in venom) to John Adams, with the message: stop talking to the media.

NOT BLOODY LIKELY, the dude just published his MEMOIRS, for chrissake. Also, someone has to defend him in print from such unhinged or uncharitable critics as, say, Richard Taruskin. But I have to admit, I did not see this coming: ladies and gentlemen, the John Adams Blog.

It is called HELL MOUTH, because John Adams is a huge fan of Buffy.

Well I, for one, cannot wait to see what comes flying out of this Hell Mouth. Welcome to my blogroll, John Adams! And the URGENT folder of my RSS reader.


Nutless Wonders

Okay so here's the deal. There are a bunch of blogs with a bunch of trivia questions. The trivia questions have to do with Sacrificium, Cecilia Bartoli's crazy new album of music for written for the castrati. Type all the answers into this website, and SOMETHING AMAZING WILL HAPPEN. (Yeah, I don't know.)

Here's the blog with the first question—Parterre Box, technically an opera magazine targeted at gay men, but possibly the best (and CERTAINLY the most entertaining) classical news/gossip website of any stripe.

Here's the blog with the third question, which, if you read this blog, you're probably reading already—Sequenza21 is THE enclave of new-music wonkery online.

And HERE is Question #2:

Mozart's famous motet, “Exsultate, Jubilate K. 165”, was written for which of Nicola Porpora's students?
Okay, because I'm such a nice guy, I will give you a hint: it was a dude. A dude with no testicles. Okay here's another hint: if you broke your Google, I believe you can find the answers to all of these questions at the promotional website for the album.

So, again: First question here, third question here, enter the answers here.


Sunday, October 25, 2009

Combination Pizza Hut and Analytical Dressing-Down

In case you somehow haven't heard of them by now, here is a fanmade video for the YouTube hit "Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell" by Das Racist:

And here (via The Standing Room) is an essay (and 24 haiku!) in which they demolish the disingenuous racial politics of New Yorker pop critic Sasha Frere-Jones. (SFJ, you'll recall, is quite unafraid to "stir up" "controversy" in his essays for the magazine, and I use those words in the sense that one might "stir up" "controversy" by farting in crowded elevators.)

It should become clear as soon as you start reading that these guys are at least as learnèd as they are clever, but I still can't help but think it must sting to get schooled in hip-hop and race by the "Combination Pizza Hut" guys. Seriously, on some level, that's gotta be like getting an intellectual beatdown from Afroman. Well done, gents! I shall listen to "Combination Pizza Hut & Taco Bell" with new ears.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Somewhere at the Bottom of This Post Is a CD Review

The first time I heard the music of Mikel Rouse, I had the sense of an enormous door opening. I'd always had the sense that it should be possible to apply Reich-like techniques to popular music, but inexplicably I'd hardly ever seen it done. Why not? Why wasn't everybody doing this? But here was Dennis Cleveland, here was a whole opera constructed in vernacular forms—made out of pop songs, staged as a talk show—but with immense rhythmic and structural interest as well conceptual sophistication.

It was at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, and as my friends (one Greg and a Chris) and I took our seats, the piece's conceptual ingenuity was already paying aesthetic dividends. The black-box theater was set up like the studio for a talk show taping; before the piece started, an audience wrangler coached us on applause, etc., the way a real studio audience is coached. Throughout the performance, the cameras passed over the audience, so that (as in a real talk show) we could watch ourselves on monitors; members of the audience turned out to be plants, standing up when the "host" (Dennis Cleveland, played by the composer) approached and asking questions of the other performers (as in a real talk show).

And as is ever the case with artworks that break down the fourth wall, all of this carefully choreographed "interaction" served to make me more awkwardly aware of the imaginary and yet very real boundary between audience and performer. The same way that holding a baby fills me with an irrational fear that I will suddenly be seized by the urge to drop it, or standing on a rooftop makes me suddenly afraid of jumping off (have I just revealed myself to be totally, dangerously insane?), I became terrified of disrupting the performance when an actor suddenly revealed himself just a few seats away, and Mikel Rouse pointed a microphone at him; the awkwardness was thrillingly heightened by the presence in the audience (only-in-(Greater)-L.A.!) of Actual Hollywood Celebrity Keanu Reeves, and my Greg wondered afterwards if "Keanu's people" had made special arrangements for him not to be caught on camera during the piece (sample refrain: "Celebrity all the time / Celebrity all the time").

But the talk-show trappings were only a jumping-off point for the drama, the way that (f'rinstance) "Puzzling Evidence" from David Byrne's True Stories
uses the rhetoric of the sermon as the framework for an aesthetic that would actually seem to owe a lot to (f'rinstance) the work of Robert Ashley.

So what I don't understand is why, ten years or so after I saw it for the first time, I don't enjoy Dennis Cleveland a lot more. After I moved to New York, I picked up the disc at ye Tower Records Outlet, back when there was such a thing, and was oddly unmoved to hear the music again, out of context.

Why? We might find a clue in the review that inspired me to buy my copy of the disc. [Now, this is a bit awkward, since that review was written by a critic who, uh, hates me, and has asked me not to mention him again, but he's easily Rouse's most important champion, so let's just call him Thinskinned Critic ("T.C.") and move on.] T.C. was responding to a review by Anthony Tommasini, who missed the point somewhat—ignoring the theatrical elements almost entirely, waving aside the complexity of the score, and complaining that "the layered elements are mostly drowned out by the blaring surface stuff. When some inner element does come through, it's often not much more than a lame rock riff"; Rouse's "rhythm tracks are intended to stimulate your medulla oblongata, which in turn provokes an involuntary tapping response in your foot. But the music bypasses the brain receptors that register auditory pleasure."

Harsh! At this point, I was as ready to dismiss Tommasini as he was to dismiss Rouse—and then I read T.C.'s response. This is how it begins:

To take one of many examples from Mikel Rouse's talk-show opera Dennis Cleveland: There is a passage in the final "Madison Square" scene in which Rouse, as Dennis, is rapping, "I've been waiting for this, a potential arcade," and so on, and the chorus enters with a chorale heard earlier in the opera, in a different meter, key, and seemingly even tempo. The effect is much as though you're sitting in the opera house listening to and watching "The Ride of the Valkyries" from Die Walkure and quietly the "Magic Fire" music from a different part of the opera enters superimposed, so that you're listening to both at the same time. Through the end of the scene, the music adds layers of already-heard material, until you're listening to at least four at once.

The fact that, in Rouse's work, you can hear those layered musical passages at the same time without their getting muddy is not because Rouse has secretly crafted them to work together harmonically, the way Mozart did his three dances in different meters at the climax of Don Giovanni's Act I.
Again, that's how the column starts. In the first two paragraphs, T.C. compares Rouse to arguably the two greatest achievements in the history of Western music-drama. "Well," I said, "I loved Dennis Cleveland, but my experience of it wasn't like that at all." Because there are a few essential differences between these works, some of the greatest ever conceived by man, and Dennis Cleveland.

Let's take apart T.C.'s example. First, we have Dennis, rapping about a potential arcade. This is not a good rap—"Instead of crossing what lingers in the state of lip balm," goes one couplet, "And saluting the mentors kind of capturing calm"—and Rouse, strictly as a vocalist, does not deliver it especially well on disc. Then the chorale enters, and it is not a very good chorale. The series of pitches sounds a bit arbitrary, as if they were chosen for their contrapuntal possibilities over any kind of appeal they might hold as an independent melody—which, one imagines, they must have been.

Now, there are of course many passages in the Ring in which Wagner brings together a number of distinct leitmotifs in a lucid contrapuntal texture. The great difference is that the Magic Fire Music, to use T.C.'s example again, is exquisitely composed and orchestrated, and the Ride of the Valkyries is one of the best-loved and most distinctive melodies in the history of classical music. And as for Don Giovanni, one of the most dazzling aspects of the Ball scene is that each of those three dances—each in a different meter, all at the same time—still sounds like Mozart. Dennis Cleveland is all process, no materials. And even Steve Reich will tell you that it's really all about the materials.

And so I went back to Tommasini. Was he right? In some respects, yes! The rock riffs are, in fact, lame. And while the layers of rhythm do add up to more than the sum of the parts (they could hardly add up to less! ba da bum! ok sorry that was a cheap shot), none of them is calculated, individually, to provide auditory pleasure.

Anyhow, here is a short promotional reel with clips of the opera, so you can make up your own damn mind:It's an interesting piece! However flawed, it is a worthwhile piece of theatre. I wish it were on DVD.

So, fast forward. I'd heard a few tracks from Mikel Rouse's more recent work, and it sounded very different from the now-dated (though somehow highly appropriate) Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis sound. Now the feel is more like recent Lindsey Buckingham:which sounds like a diss, but is it really? I wouldn't buy a Lindsey Buckingham CD, but I'm not going to go around saying he's a musical idiot. And it doesn't seem valid for me to say that Mikel Rouse's music is somehow lacking because it is insufficiently voguish.

But I do feel, and this is confirmed by listening to an advance copy Rouse's new disc, Gravity Radio, that Rouse's attempts to buck a certain modernist fallacy—the one that surfaces are unimportant, that every dimension of the music must be dense with information to the point of obscurity, that re-listening is all, and that casual listening is to go unrewarded (or even punished)—have drawn him into a counterfallacy in which the opacity of the modernists is replaced with a sort of blankness. Dig just beneath the surface, and yes, Rouse's music is quite sophisticated, but a casual listen offers meager rewards: banal tunes, familiar sonorities. The vocal delivery is the Adult Contemporary singer-songwriter's knowing rasp; the lyrics try too hard to hint "casually" at hidden depths; the melody to every single song seems to be built around a stepwise descent, to the point where I begin to wonder if there's some connection to the album's title—Gravity, get it?—or if it was just another underexamined pop cliché. (Hint: if you have to wonder, the answer doesn't matter.) Process is elevated above materials and, ultimately, results.

There is a lot to like about this album. It's hard to overstate the subtle intricacies of its rhythmic construction. The song "I'm So Blue" is a standout—the tension between the 7/8 meter and passages of syncopated 4/4 is appealingly realized and richly orchestrated. And I still have that sense, listening to his music, of a great door opening—I sense that Rouse is an important artist, and one worth hearing and seriously thinking about.

(Hence this enormous, meandering review; Rouse is not a famous composer, and if I thought he wasn't an important one, I'd feel comfortable dismissing the work I didn't like.)

But his work is also profoundly flawed. While Rouse has packed the album with the sort of careful detail that distinguishes a great rock album from a good one, he's neglected to include many of the elements that separate a good rock album from a bad rock album.

Think of it as a challenge to composers interested in creating a music that owes as much to rock as to Reich: he has opened the door; he has pointed to a potential art; now's your chance to step across the threshold.

You can hear the album live at tomorrow night's release concert at Galapagos Art Space, 8 p.m., $15 admission ($20 at the door), featuring that ACME ensemble you love so much; the disc itself drops November 3.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

More Player Piano Awesomeness from Austria

This is 8 minutes of KLOING! by Olga Neuwirth, with the excellent Marino Formenti on the keys. High-quality clip here.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

By Unpopular Demand

It's probably a little unseemly to blog a love-letter to my new editor at the New Haven Advocate, but he has been VERY aggressive about ensuring adequate coverage of the local arts scene, to the extent that I have not one but TWO pieces in the latest issue. Here's a breezy new review/preview column (New Music New Haven and Yale Concert Band; Emma Kirkby with Jakob Lindberg vs. the Florilegium ensemble, respectively), and here's a preview of tonight's New Haven Symphony Orchestra concert with the music of Augusta Read Thomas and Jin Hi Kim.

I wish I could've written about ten times as much about all this stuff—probably half of the time I spent actually writing these was spent deciding what to delete. I wish I could've said more about soloist Mihai Marica, who's been a dazzling cellist since I met him at a festival like ten years ago; I wish I could've gone into greater detail about Kim's connections to Korean folk music; I wish I could've quoted more from my fascinating conversations with her and with Augusta Read Thomas, who just didn't get enough space in this piece. Also, I wish I could have discussed the works on the concerts I reviewed (including one by my Orchestration for Non-Majors teacher, Frank Ticheli, hooray!) and singled out for PUBLIC SHAMING the people who sat right in front of me at the Yale Concert Band show and took flash photos and talked loudly and then walked out during the first movement of the Hindemith. H8ED them, with a capital H8.

I'll Cut the String that Makes the Hammer Strike

Update your links. It's not The Rest Is Noise anymore, it's Unquiet Thoughts. (Via Steve Smith.)

Monday, October 12, 2009

Drive-By Tosca Review

Just a few words on the new, already discussed-to-death Met Tosca, as viewed at this weekend's HD broadcast.

First: the cast was superb. It was a pleasure to watch Gadnidze dart his eyes like a good old silent-movie villain, and he was in fine voice as Scarpia. Álvarez was a warm and charming Cavaradossi, and he died great too—his "Whuh-oh, REAL bullets?" moment was heartbreaking. But Mattila TORE IT UP in the title role. She's got that bit of rasp up high, but she was convincingly hot-blooded and, in the second act, desperate as the diva, with a nice bite to her tone in all the right places. I'm gonna go ahead and dismiss all this "she's not a Tosca."

At the second interval, she thanked Bondy profusely for helping her create such a natural performance. It was true that some of her business was very well-thought-out: her embrace of Cavaradossi towards the end of their first scene together was elegant and stirring; when she began Vissi d'arte it was clear from her body language that we were watching a wreck of a woman. (There were a few unintentional giggles—when La Mattila briefly fumbled the knife, her comic timing was accidentally perfect, and titters went through the audience; there was another whoopsish laugh, but I forget what it was. Tosca's "stage directions" for Cavaradossi, on the other hand, were a moment of genuine, poignant comic relief.) Throughout, the drama was smartly matched to the score.

The sets were ugly. I love a simple design, I've seen some very spare productions that are nevertheless very attractive, and I appreciate that—esp. "in this economy"—opera is an expensive proposition, but at least on camera, the whole thing looked not so much "spare" or "elegant" as "cheap." The first and last acts were shrouded in darkness, which was dramatic but didn't register well on camera and was ultimately frustrating.

I thought the presence of the hos in the second act was a missed opportunity. If they'd seemed broken or frightened, like real women who'd been pressured into white slavery (Scarpia's favored seduction technique, as he makes clear in that scene) (also, can I even say "white slavery"?), it would've fit in better with his character and the scene and made his confrontation of Tosca that much more disturbing, and it would've seemed less like a bit of gratuitous flesh. As it was, they looked like happy sexual objects, from a Hollywood movie or gangsta rap video, maybe in it for the shoes.

But I thought the criticisms of the end of the second act were definitely too harsh. Again, we were watching a woman at the end of her rope; by foreshadowing the seizing of the dagger and the final suicide leap, Bondy really did accomplish his stated goal of taking the rhythms of melodrama out of the narrative—those crazy bootleg turns the plot takes into murder and suicide—and made it into something more reflective and psychological. One thing I haven't heard anybody point out is that Tosca, after contemplating suicide, sits down on the couch the murderous Scarpia was in when she sang Vissi d'arte, and he is of course slumped in front of the couch that she was in. It's a clever director's way of pointing out that the sainted Tosca has become a killer, and the self-styled predator has become the prey. And when she fans herself—well, of course, a lady's fan is an essential prop in Act 1; that's a good callback, and (again) shows the reversal of Scarpia's movement from (again) self-styled Iago to the victim of a crime of passion.

Finally, the Leap. I thought the special effect came off very well, much better (so I hear) than it did at the prima. I heard a low murmur from the crowd at my screening, so I think they were with me, although the "COME GET SOME" gesture on the way up the steps was a grossly miscalculated bit of business. Kung Fu Tosca? No.

All in all, my impression was overwhelmingly positive. I spoke to about six different people at the screening, four of them strangers, and the only one who disliked the production was my own friend, a die-hard connoisseur. The opera newbies were all crazy for it, and with good reason. The production packs a visceral punch, and the performers were a huge amount of fun to see and hear.

What else... I have to admit I wasn't paying much attention to the orchestra, though I thought the soloists nailed it. And uhhhhh get well, Jimmy!! Okay bye.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Rands Update

For those of you living in the real world instead of that gothic Disneyland we call New Haven, it looks like that New Music New Haven concert is going to be streaming at the Yale website tonight? Hooray! (via @yalemusic)

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Rands and the Italian Style (I just made that up)

Here's a quick preview of tomorrow's New Music New Haven concert, featuring the music of Bernard Rands. Writing about a composer I don't know very well is pretty much the most fun, since it means I get to prepare for the interview by cramming hours of music into my ears. And then I got to put my editor through hell by accidentally going about a paragraph over the limit. Whoops. Hopin' the digested version of this article still makes sense.

Playa Piano

It's a talker:(via @bearinetist)

Sunday, October 4, 2009


Saturday, September 26, 2009

Like New, Runs Great

Loyal reader Greg has found the perfect gift for the person who has everything. I apologize for pasting all of this up in your grill, but it's impossible to pick out the best part, and this has to be immortalized before it disappears into the Craigslist æthers:

I'm not sure one can truly "buy" an opera company, particularly if it is on the "non-profit" track...but hear me out.

I founded San Francisco Opera Baroque this year and produced a "gala" concert on Saturday evening, September 19, 2009 at the Victoria Theatre. The performance featured an all-Handel program of opera arias sung by some outstanding singers from around the state of California. The small period-style orchestra was superb and the dancing was lovely. A rather small, but appreciative audience was in attendance--and we picked up a couple of new "fans". This company is finally "off the ground" but there is a great distance to go before it can produce a fully-staged opera. Instead of being SF Opera Baroque it is still SF Opera B-roke! I am an unemployed church musician who dreamed of designing and singing in a Handel opera, and my desire led me to start this company. Although I feel capable of running this company, I am not in the right position financially to do so and truthfully I think I am "past my prime" as an operatic performer.

I am seeking one or more passionate lover(s) of Baroque operatic music to take over the ownership and development of this venture. The ideal person or persons who step forward to take on this exiting new project should be financially stable, be available for hard work, possess the ability to think creatively in seeking solutions, and be in a position to offer some degree of financial support to the development of SFOB. To facilitate the transfer of ownership of this company, I am hopeful that the new owner(s) can put up the funds to compensate those professionals who performed and/or worked on last week's production (a total of $10-15k, but I'm willing to negotiate something less). I am looking only to be reimbursed for my own expenses for setting up the corporation and the gala, which I believe is less than $1,000. No personal profit would be made in this transfer. The web address is

If interested, please contact me by Email.
"I thought one did the fund-raising before one hired the professionals," Greg suggests, "but I understand church musicians have a different relationship to funding mechanisms than the rest of us." Heh heh heh. I just hope this doesn't turn out to be one of those Nigerian Baroque Opera Company scams.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

How You Can Help in Iraq

Hey did you ever notice that when people complain about the difficulties facing people in the war-torn Middle East, the solution they come up with is usually "drop some more bombs on it"? Wouldn't it be nice if, instead, we could give them money and music and other things that actually improve life instead of ending it?

[If my politics are grossing any of you out right now, please keep reading, because I know the situation is complicated, I'm being tongue in cheek, and what I'm about to draw your attention to is something I think everybody can agree is a pretty good idea.]

Well guess what! Our friend, composer and activist R. Timothy Brady, has been at it for a while, and now is a perfect opportunity for you to help him.

You might know Brady as the composer of Edalat Square, a prize-winnin' opera about the execution of two gay boys in Iran; since then, he's founded the Soulbird organization to promote arts and tolerance in the places that need them the most. This summer, they put on Iraq's first ever new-music festival, featuring the Iraqi premiere of Terry Riley's In C(!!!), and now they're taking it to the next level by founding a school to serve as a haven for Iraqi artists in the relatively stable region of Kurdistan. From the website:
Concert halls, art galleries, and movie theaters have been completely destroyed. Walking to school while carrying an instrument and practicing piano at home can get you killed. This is reality for the majority of artists living in Iraq today. Hundreds have been targeted by terrorists and insurgents for torture and murder since the US-led invasion began in 2003. Some reports estimate as many as 80% of singers have fled the country....
If you thought you got picked on as an artistic type at your middle-American high school, it is time for a big fat Reality Check, or better yet a big fat Bank Check (TAX-DEDUCTIBLE). And if you don't have money, that's okay too—the Soulbird Arts Academy of Kurdistan is looking for CDs, scores, DVDs, books, electronics, or anything you can donate to help the cause.

I'm told Bang on a Can and their Cantaloupe label have already made a generous donation. Go indie classical!! How awesome would it be if the bigger labels stepped up to the plate as well?

More info here. Please give all you can, folks! This might be the most important arts-related charity I've ever heard of.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Matthew Guerrieri Wins Again

A lot of people have been bitching about Luc Bondy's new Tosca at the Met, none louder than Franco Zeffirelli—the vain and silly queen whose much admired production is being (temporarily, perhaps) replaced—who was crying about it before the curtain had even gone up on the new one.

Sweetie, age gracefully. Yes, you're going to die someday. That doesn't mean the rest of us have to preserve your turds in amber. Get over it.

Anyway, of all the zingers that have consequently been zung at the Zeff's expense, the best probably belongs to our beloved Matthew Guerrieri:

Personally, I don’t think anyone who cast Mel Gibson as Hamlet should be playing the “faithful to the author” card.
Oh. Snap.

Thank you.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

In Other Condiment Pun News

In the new New Haven Advocate, a quick preview of the '09-'10 classical music schedule! Expect a season seasoned with spicy new musical blah blah blah [too weary to complete own hackneyed "joke"].

Kill Them with Sweetness

Quick rundown of congrats for the New Amsterdam Records-and-affiliated crowd of young composers:

The WNYC podcast doesn't seem to have put out a lot of episodes lately, so it was a pleasant surprise to find in my pod-hole an episode dedicated to Missy Mazzoli's Victoire! Listen to it (mp3 here, podcast RSS feed here) and tell me what y'all think. For me, one of the most satisfying features of the music is the canny use of electronics—and one of the most troubling is the integration of the clarinet. Sometimes I think it wants to be a trumpet? At any rate I feel that the place of the woodwind section within the bandsemble lineup, as I noted so long ago in my Free Speech Zone review, is its weak spot, its Achilles heel if you will. Listen yourself, enjoy, & tell me what you think.

ALSO, let's toss a bouquet of congratulations at Ted Hearne, who won the Gaudeamus Prize for his Katrina Ballads! (Via, probably, @dja?) Here's the thing: I am not that crazy about the Katrina Ballads. Why am I so resistant to a work that is so obviously well-crafted? I enjoyed the New Haven premiere of Hearne's Eyelid Margin immensely, but his political music makes me feel more harangued than provoked. A clearer example than this might be his piece You Have AIDS. No, no, you don't actually have AIDS! (I mean, unless you do. Get tested, everybody!) No, that's just the title of the piece. It asks the listener to assume the position of a South African man being apprised of the fact that he has AIDS by what must be one of the worst HIV Counselors in the world ("So, like I said, you have AIDS. / Am I going too fast? HIV. CD4. AIDS. Any questions?"). I guess the idea is to shock the audience into an awareness of the reality of the AIDS crisis in Africa, but when I listened to this sound clips, I felt more like I had found myself at the audience at LEASE: The Musical. As if there's something smug, or presumptuous, or, it seems unfair to say, condescending going on here.

"Unfair," because, what—are Ivy League composers not allowed to comment on events affecting Black America or the developing world? That's absurd. I'm not fully able to articulate where I'm coming from with this, which may be why I've allowed my attempt to qualify my congratulations run on about ten times longer than the actual congrats. What is wrong with me?? Do I just dislike this off-Broadway sort of idiom? Maybe that's it, is that it feels in some superficial way like a Urinetown without the intentional self-parody, or an I Was Looking at the Ceiling and then I Saw the Sky without, well, okay I'm not actually going to defend I Was Looking at the Ceiling and then I Saw the Sky:

John Adams – "Leila's Song About the Wise Young Women"
from I Was Looking at the Ceiling and then I Saw the Sky

I'm sorry. I'm obsessed.

And our final CONGRATULATIONS WITH EXCESSIVE QUALIFICATIONS (should I start drafting this blog before I post, so I know where I'm going before I get there?) goes to Corey Dargel, whose "Condi songs," Con Dolcezza, earned a tweet from that very special lady who makes me fantasize about going to one of those weird ex-gay camps where they teach you how to un-limp your wrist and then make you marry a lesbian, just so that the two of us could be forced into a sexless opposite-marriage, Rachel Maddow.

I actually love these songs. Almost a year after the election of Barack Obama, now that the people in charge of representing America to the rest of the world are less prone to making them totally hate us, and we can look back on Condoleezza Rice's tenure the way we look at pictures of a kegger gone horribly wrong ("I can't believe we actually DID that, dude we were so WASTED"), I'm hearing these pieces for the first time, and they've lost little of their impact—because Condoleezza Rice has lost little of her mystery. How did an intelligent, cultured woman end up rubber-stamping such a disastrous foreign policy? How did someone whose family struggled up from slavery join an administrative team that turned its collective back on the cause of equal rights for Americans? Dargel doesn't pretend to answer these questions, but he asks them more eloquently than I've ever heard them asked before, by generously and sensitively setting to music remarks that make Rice sound more like a civil rights leader than, say, a coldblooded conniving bureaucrat with the blood of innocents pooling about her Manolos.

But since I'm being a total bitch to everyone today, I'll also point out that this performance is a bit unsatisfying—I feel as if really pulling off a number like "Gospel Song" requires a vocal instrument with more gravity than this lady is able to muster. ATTENTION ALL SINGERS, please check out this piece! I want to hear a second recording.

Jesus, WHY am I so negative. Anyway, congrats again to everybody, and if you didn't already know that Naxos is picking up the New Amsterdam catalogue, the first releases are trickling out next month—including the debut from NOW Ensemble, and Dargel's Other People's Love Songs—so if you actually still buy records in a record store nowadays, you will suddenly be able to find them there! Hooray. Okay g'bye.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Friday, September 11, 2009

LIVES OF THE GREAT COMPOSERS: Igor Stravinsky Bangs Coco Chanel

Receiving its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, it's... that OTHER Coco Chanel movie, the one without Audrey Tautou ("Would that make this 'Chanel No. 2'?" —a Greg):So, you're probably wondering: did any of this shit actually happen? Yeah well you can't prove it DIDN'T happen.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Notes on Notes on Classical Style

I should have noted, when it came out, this uncommonly intelligent review in the New York Times (via the Straussmonster). James Oestreich demolishes the Mostly Mozart Festival's fawning guide to the music of its namesake:

“Make of it what you will,” Mr. Vigeland writes, ending his discussion of the “great” G minor Symphony, No. 40, “there had until its composition never been anything like this symphony in the history of music.” “They had to rewrite the textbooks again after the ‘Jupiter’ Symphony,” he continues, as if textbooks had flooded out in the 16 days of 1788 between the premieres of the 40th and the 41st. “Stupendous,” he adds of the “Jupiter.” “Unbelievable. Beyond superlatives. Maybe simply: miraculous. This perfect piece,” and so on. I have no wish to denigrate the “Jupiter” Symphony. I would almost grant Mr. Vigeland “stupendous” if he hadn’t used the word so often elsewhere. But the rest of it raised the old hackles again. Now I was trapped. Feeling the need to sound a caveat, I thought it would be unfair to do so without reading the whole book.
Oestreich recognizes the Mostly Mozart book as one example of a larger problem, people who love Mozart so much that it results in spells of temporary stupidity. O Mozart, you're so fine, you're so fine, you blow my mind, hey Mozart. In case we had any doubts that this is a serious illness, here's Russell Platt in the New Yorker, suffering from a severe case of the Mozart Effect:
Why are Mozart’s symphonies more popular than Haydn’s? In a sense, the answer is simple: Mozart’s more accurately imitate the full range of human emotions; they can swerve from laughter to tears in the space of a single phrase.
Uh, are Mozart's symphonies more popular than Haydn's? I work at a record store, and nobody ever seems to ask for any Mozart symphonies before #38. On the other hand, I have ordered for more than one customer a complete set of Haydn's hundred. People want the London Symphonies, the Paris Symphonies; they want the Farewell Symphony, and all that jazz. God knows nobody's asking for Haydn's operas, and Mozart's Haydn Quartets are more in demand than Haydn's actual Haydn quartets, but I'm pretty sure symphonies is the one place he's got Mozart beat. Platt has just taken some conventional wisdom about Mozart and Haydn, plugged in the word "symphony," and then phrased his conclusion in the form of a question. The answer to his question is, of course, more received wisdom, but rarely is the genealogy of such wisdom so readily traceable. If Platt reads his own magazine, he probably ran across this nugget
Nicholas Kenyon, in his excellent new “Faber Pocket Guide to Mozart,” writes, “Other great composers have expressed the extremes of life: affirmation, despair, sensual pleasure, bleak emptiness, but only in Mozart can all these emotions co-exist in the space of a short phrase.”
—absently dropped it in his pocket, and forgot where it came from. Platt adds, as if it meant something, "It was Beethoven, who studied with Haydn, who brought the legacy of these composers into the Romantic age"; I'm not sure that I'm willing to accept such a lazy analysis even in a capsule review. Has any New Yorker reader who ever heard of the "Romantic age" in Western concert-music know it as anything other than the age that followed Beethoven? I guess I am willing to accept lazy Beethoven-worship when it comes from non–music critics, e.g. novelist James Ellroy in the OC Register. He totally gets a signed permission slip from me, even when he plays his new girlfriend
the Adagio of Beethoven's "Hammerklavier" Sonata on the stereo and tells her, "This is how I feel about you." And means it. "Why does anyone pretend that this (Adagio) is about anything other than transcendent emotion and the seeking of the divine?," he says.
I'm forgiving this sentiment mostly because I'm pretty sure that the words "this (Adagio)" were probably "this fuckin' shit" in the unexpurgated interview, but also because I saw James Ellroy on Conan one time years ago and he (Ellroy) did this indescribable gesture that means to have a penis like a forearm, which gesture I still use in conversation today. He's hilarious, is what I'm saying, and he's mastered the art of saying just a little too much in interviews, being just a little too vulgar, without actually getting arrested. In fact, I love this interview so much, I'm going to forgive the usually reliable Tim Mangan his regrettable foray into silly "noir" prose in the lede and just thank him for bringing us something so awesome. Finally, while we're on the subject of Beethoven and the novel, you have to read this Matthew Guerrieri piece about various appearances of the Beethoven's Fifth ringtone in fiction. It is the OPPOSITE of lazy, digging up citations in books that you and I might never have thought of reading:
My favorite Beethovenian cell-phone adopter is Moxy Maxwell, the stubborn 10-year-old heroine of Peggy Gifford’s series of children’s books. From Moxy Maxwell Does Not Love Writing Thank-You Notes: Moxy was so quick on the draw when she picked up her cell phone that Ajax often remarked that she would have made a first-rate gunslinger in the Old West. And this time was no exception. After the second but before the third note of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Moxy was saying “Yes” into the phone. “Yes” was what Moxy said instead of “Hello,” unless it was someone she didn’t know. If Beethoven’s Fifth stops after the first two notes, is it still Beethoven’s Fifth? Moxy does not have time for your trumped-up pop koans. But the joke only works if the tune is something everybody knows, once again both reinforcing and perpetuating the ubiquity of the Fifth symphony’s iconic opening.
Hooray! Well-written, well-researched, well-thought-out. More like this, please.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

We're Too Busy Singin' to Put Anybody Down

Scientific studies about music are ALWAYS THE WORST. Here's an experiment where they played human music for monkeys, and the sample of human music consisted of Barber's Adagio, Metallica's "Of Wolf and Man," some Nine Inch Nails (a piano instrumental off the fragile, in case you're wondering, but for some reason they don't mention the title of the song here, so I guess I have to go back and listen to both discs of the fragile to remember which tracks are piano instrumentals), and Tool's "Grudge" (or rather an excerpt from Tool's "Grudge," because even a group of caged lab monkeys don't have time for your three minute polyrhythmic drum solos). Sure, that seems like a pretty representative selection of music listened to by the human race! You've got your American post-Romantic, your American speed metal, your American post-industrial ambient, and your American progressive metal. Are we forgetting anything? Nah that's about it, I think we got our bases covered. But actually, if I do say so, I think that this specially composed "monkey music" is pretty excellent. I would definitely buy a CD of music for monkeys. (With the exception of Viva la Vida.) Via The Awl.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Phoenix: Libretto Problems, Part IV

So somewhere in there, JoJo & I ended up spending an afternoon with a total genius, a friend of a friend of ours—you know, the kind of guy you can talk to about Leoš Janáček or William Blake and you really want to hear what he has to say on either subject. At various points we talked about Così fan tutte; we talked about Cymbeline. I'd never read Cymbeline! I went right home and did that. And I noticed something weird. See—wait, have you read Cymbeline? Oh, you haven't. Well, it's the story of Princess Imogen, the daughter of King Cymbeline of Britain. (FUN FACT: the name "Imogen" was probably invented for this play. Except that it's actually supposed to be "Innogen"—"Imogen" is probably an error in the transmission of the text. So everybody named "Imogen" is actually named after a typo?) Imogen's husband, Posthumus (and in the unlikely event that you are named "Posthumus," you also have this play to thank) has been expelled from the kingdom because her parents don't approve of her marrying somebody of such modest means, apparently? Really her wicked stepmother is to blame, because she wants Imogen to marry her idiotic, hot-tempered son, Cloten. There's also a pair of long-lost princes in there somewhere, obviously, because you always need a long-lost prince or two. Oh and an invading Roman army. So what happens is, the exiled Posthumus and his friend Giacomo the ancient Roman make a bet over whether or not Giacomo can seduce Posthumus's gal. Posthumus claims that she is totally faithful, but Giacomo insists that no woman in the world is totally faithful. (Is this starting to sound familiar?) Well, Giacomo meets the lady in question, introduces himself as a friend of her husband, and, wowed by her beauty, says:

If she be furnished with a mind so rare, She is alone th'Arabian bird, and I have lost the wager.
By "the Arabian bird," he means the Phoenix, my helpful footnotes point out. But okay now is it sounding familiar? Because that's the moment at which a little bell went off in my head! This is, essentially, the same plot scenario as Da Ponte's libretto for Così fan tutte—and isn't that pretty much the same figure of speech, even, that Don Alfonso uses on the boys in that opera?
Woman's constancy Is like the Arabian Phoenix; Everyone swears it exists, But no one knows where.
Crazy! So what does it mean, this correspondence between Shakespeare and Mozart? I guessed there were a number of possibilities: OPTION #1. Da Ponte, as we know, was familiar with Shakespeare, and was quite the magpie. Did he have Cymbeline in mind when he wrote Così? OPTION #2. Shakespeare was a magpie too. Could both of them have borrowed this line from the same source? OPTION #3. Maybe "a faithful beauty is rare as the Phoenix" is just the sort of thing people used to say in olden times. Fortunately I recently found out about these things called "books," which apparently contain just this sort of information! I asked JoJo if he had any suggestions, and he did, and more about that in a minute, but first he asked me, "What exactly are you trying to find out?" Which gave me pause. I was investigating a small, specific link between the two texts—and the link was undeniably there; all I was doing now was determining whether or not it was intentional. If it were, would that help me to understand either work any more deeply? Or was I just falling into the old high-school essay trap of treating the text under consideration as if it were a mystery to be solved? (Like Oedipa Maas, mistaking clues for evidence.) JoJo quoted George Saintsbury: "I have never myself had much of a fancy for Quellenforschung, and plagiarism-hunting as a sport appears to me to rank only one higher than worrying cats"—"worrying" here meaning, like, "torturing." But I went source-hunting anyway. One of those books I checked out was the extremely helpful and well-written Cambridge Opera Guide by, as luck would have it, one of my favorite undergrad professors, Bruce Alan Brown! PLUG: If anybody out there wants to get to know Così a little better, I highly, highly recommend this book, which even by the high standards of the Cambridge Opera Guides is charmingly written and well-rounded. Brown places the piece in a Big Picture of philosophy, art and literature, while also scrutinizing the internal workings of the piece. Anyway, as it turns out, both Cymbeline and Così are probably based on a tale from the Decameron (by which I mean, Cymbeline is obviously and perhaps directly descended from the Decameron; Così is more of a variant.) But there's nothing in Boccaccio's story about the lady being like a phoenix, so that seems to scratch off the aforementioned option #2. Option #3 is far less sexy, but seemed increasingly more likely than #1, and sure enough, we find that both Da Ponte and Shakespeare returned to the phoenix as an emblem of female chastity on more than one occasion—such as Da Ponte in his earlier Una cosa rara libretto and Shakespeare in his perplexing poem, "The Phoenix and the Turtle," which is about a phoenix and a turtle who get married. Just kidding, it's about a phoenix and a turtle-DOVE who get married. The trope makes a sort of sense: a phoenix is beautiful; it burns (as with ardor) but consumes itself aone; it remains solitary (being a totally unique creature); and yeah, as implied by these passages, it's really hard to find one (see last parenthesis). So, is it reasonable to suggest that the audience might be expected to put Shakespeare in mind when we hear these lines? Well, I'm not totally ruling it out here, but I'm disinclined to say so. Not because Cymbeline was nearly as unpopular during Mozart's time as it is in ours (it was apparently a pretty hot ticket back in the 18th c., apparently?), but because there's another, very specific allusion in play here—the Don's aria is an almost exact quotation from an earlier libretto by Actually this post is already a little long. Let's continue this discussion next time in LIBRETTO PROBLEMS, PART V, a slightly deeper discussion of Da Ponte's sources for Così fan tutte, and this passage in particular.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

My Cousin Risa

had a dream in which her mother purchased a bag of the following snack food item at Pic 'n' Save. Upon waking, Risa mentioned her dream to a friend, who was happy to whip up the package design. I am immensely pleased (click to enlarge):Says Risa, at her flickr: "we're half way to making this a reality... I just need to get Della's people on board!"

Friday, August 28, 2009

Double Sextet Recording Sessions UPDATE

I'm sorry to keep posting on this same subject but this is seriously like porn for me you guys. (It's kind of sad, in a way.) Check out this highly revealing blogpost from blackbird Tim Munro, very technical, very candid—

This first movement is all piano and percussion madness, and, as the Kap said later, “That was actually much harder than I thought it would be.” They were doing amazing work, but the Kap decided to shift the tempo up very slightly for the last third of the first movement, and this eventually sent the recording booth into a technical tail-spin, and suddenly it was taking 5 minutes to begin a take in an unusual place.
—that sort of thing. AND, they have TWITTER VIDEOS from his iPhone! (Accidentally held portrait-style instead of landscape-style, so, DISORIENTING:)

Thursday, August 27, 2009

In Case You Hadn't Heard

News on the official premiere recordings of new works by Reich & Pärt, two composers famous for their early, severe process-music, each of whose styles have aged over the decades like, uh, [consulting Wheel of Clichés] fine trappist cheeses, gaining bite and subtlety while still retaining the same delicious mixture of basic ingredients. Or something. NAMELY! Eighth Blackbird is in the studio with the composer, like RIGHT NOW, recording that Reich piece you people have been crying about forever, and the L.A. Phil is finally ready to put out its live recording of Pärt's Symphony #4, commissioned by the orchestra, as DG download next month. Hooray! The wait will be over soon. And I can stop listening to these dubious internet bootlegs (SH). Via 8bb and Mangan, respectively.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Improv Everywhere

I always feel kind of stupid "alerting" people to something Alex Ross has written, since if you're not reading him faithfully already, what are the chances you're going to read this blog—but this New Yorker piece is probably worth noting all the same. The subject is the lost (and recently regained) art of classical improvisation. Of course, still lingering in the air of the concert hall, like a sulfurous odor, is an ethos that prizes the art of composition over the art of performance in every case: composers who spotlight the performers' virtuosity rather than their own are dismissed as "superficial"; music history textbooks are actually histories of musical composition, with the greatest performers who ever lived mentioned as footnotes to the scores they played; the highest compliment a critic can pay a performer is to say that he channeled the spirit of the composer. The notion that someone might play something that hasn't been written in the score, or god forbid just make a piece of music up on the spot, might still rankle some classical aficionados, especially if the aficionado in question is an utter tit. People tend to forget that some of our greatest composers were also great improvisers; e.g., the famous marathon concert that introduced Beethoven's Fifth to the world also featured an extended solo jam from our Ludwig Van before he launched into the premiere of the Choral Fantasy. It's true! Anyhow, as Ross observes, those crusty ol' attitudes are changing—though mostly in the relatively narrow realms of cadenza and ornament—and I don't have much to add to his observations, other than... 1) Lawrence Brownlee. Right??? I just watched the DVD of Maazel's 1984 a few weeks ago, and even more impressive than Brownlee's ability to bang out expressionistic tenor coloratura up above high C is the incredibly sweet timbre to his voice while he does it. This guy is a star. In a year's time, your mother will know who he is. Here is a video uploaded by someone called LawrenceBrownleeFan: 2) Schnittke's Beethoven cadenzas. Again: right??? I was about to link to ArkivMusic dot com, where I believe at one time you could buy a print-on-demand CD of Gidon Kremer playing them, but it's no longer available, because somebody hates you. Ah well, I can listen to my copy all I want, la la la, gloat gloat gloat, and you can settle for YouTube, as Ross suggests. 3) Richard Egarr's recordings of the Handel organ concerti. I really didn't think that he could do anything as interesting on the organ as he does on the harpsichord. I was WRONG. These recordings are revelatory, a thrill. 4) One quiet word of dissent: reading this passage

For a recent paper in NeuroImage, Aaron Berkowitz and Daniel Ansari studied what happens cognitively when someone improvises; they observed increased activity in two zones of the brain, one connected to decision-making and the other to language. Even if a soloist extemporizes for only a minute, the remainder of the performance may gain something intangible.
I could just imagine a Greg of my acquaintance reading it at the exact same time on the other edge of the continent and emitting a grunt of frustration, followed by SEE, THIS IS EXACTLY WHY I CAN'T LISTEN TO RADIOLAB. People make too much, I think, of studies that say, "When you do x, the y centers of your brain light up!" What, after all, does this data really tell us? Can we really draw from this study the inferences that we're being invited to draw? I don't buy it; let's not go there. Furthermore, I am a staunch opponent of doing something in art just because it seems to be rooted in nature or biology. Not that there's anything wrong with nature. It's just that sometimes, art is better.