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.

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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:)

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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.

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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.

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Monday, August 24, 2009

Flight of the Bumblewtf

All the cool kids are posting this highly embarrassing sequence of YouTubes. Who am I to resist? WARNING, NSFW, MAY CONTAIN BOOBIES:

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Wednesday, August 19, 2009



Monday, August 17, 2009


Wednesday, August 12, 2009


I have heard great things about the Seattle Ring Cycle. Word is, it's that rare production that manages to be as beautiful as it is faithful. People are always saying that such a thing should exist, but like the Arabian phoenix, no one has actually seen it. Anybody reading this going to catch the cycle in Seattle? Anybody know if there's going to be a video or something? (Everybody's making videos nowadays!) Anyway, this a pretty exciting time for me to be getting to know Wagner, with all these Ring Cycles cropping up. Seattle! Next summer, L.A.! Then, the new Met production! The L.A. Ring, which I've mentioned here before (1, 2), is apparently drawing some controversy because some attention-hogging professional whiners in local government have proposed, "in a bewitchingly Oulipian move" (Guerrieri), that the Wagner Festival celebrating L.A.'s first-ever production of the Ring be dedicated instead to the works of other composers who were not as anti-Semitic. This is funny because EVERY SEASON OF THE L.A. OPERA is dedicated chiefly to the works of other composers (this is L.A.'s FIRST RING CYCLE, remember?)—increasingly, to the works of composers suppressed, ruined or killed by Nazi Germany. And, as would seem to be the hip trend in politics nowadays, the arguments of these fanatics are padded with nice fat lies. Like, the festival is a celebration of Wagner the MAN, not Wagner's MUSIC (in fact, there will be discussions of Wagner's anti-Semitism as part of the festival). And, putting on a Wagner festival will make L.A. a tourism destination—FOR NAZIS!!1! Because, apparently, there is nothing skinheads love more than to sit through hours and hours and hours of opera. Oh but wait. Via Slog, there's this genius— —who smiled for a photo (since deleted from his Twitpic) by Zach Carstensen of The Gathering Note, a Seattle blog closely covering the Ring and surrounding hullabaloo. (Cick to reveal homeboy's face, if you must.) Upon a moment's reflection, one realizes that this person is probably not an actual neo-Nazi. Nazis tend not to be big on pony-tails, and that swastika armband is missing a swastika. He must be protesting something? Because dressing up as a Nazi is a great way to make people think about your MESSAGE. He's objecting to Wagner's anti-Semitism, maybe. Or to Wagner's touchier detractors (see above). Or Obamacare. One of those, probably. (I wrote that yesterday. Checking the comments at Gathering Note today, apparently his armband read "HSS"; Hoosier State Skinheads maybe? Still seems... unlikely...) Anyway, the commenters at the above Slog link suggest that this may be one Richard Berthold, retired classical history prof., but I cannot confirm; if it is not, I apologize to Richard Berthold for the unwitting slander, as the person photographed above is a douchebag. If anybody went to the Seattle Rheingold the other night, did you see this guy? Did anybody get him to explain himself? Why didn't security throw his ass out? Or at least force him to change into a sweatsuit or something? Let me know.

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Monday, August 10, 2009


As I am, generally speaking, not as interested in attending live performances of new works as I am in hiding in my dank troll-cave and shunning all joy, I missed the premiere performances, right here in New Haven, of TIMBERBRIT, a new opera by Jacob Cooper about a fictional reunion between Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears. I mean not only had I seen the flyers around town, I think like Ingram Marshall was in line in front of me at the coffee shop one day and he was telling me how excited he was about the piece and STILL I did not go. Well now that it's been all over NPR and all the HOT MUSIC BLOGZ I'm jumping on the bandwagon and watching this video of "Worst Fantasy" and kind of digging it:Mellissa Hughes TEARS UP this aria, which was apparently composed by slowing actual Britney Spears music down to an excruciating dirge, and this video is pretty well put-together too. So it looks like I missed out. ON THE OTHER HAND, I watch this video from the semi-staged piece and am ever-so-slightly annoyed. Not by the musical performances—look! it's our favorites, like there's Ted Hearne as Justin Timberlake, and isn't that Trevor Gureckis on keys? why yes I believe it is—but there's something naggingly annoying about the failure to even semi–stage direct this semi-staging. Wouldn't the logical maneuver here be for the singers to face each other with the microphones in their hands, as one would do in any he-said she-said pop duet? And then TH wouldn't have to hang on the mic stand like, and everybody could inhabit their character, and the idiom, a little more fully? (C'mon people I can't do everything for you.) So I'm not totally sure I could've endured a whole evening of such semi-staging combined with such aggressively, awesomely unbearable music. (Like DOOM METAL with POP BELTING?) Though apparently there's a fully staged version coming? Which could be awesome? Keep ya posted. Via I think Matt Marks—who has helpfully written in, since I posted this with the actual spelling of Mellissa Hughes's name (double L as in mellifluous, not single L as in melisma), and the correct URL to his webpage. Tune in next week, when I talk about how I missed the free New Haven premiere of Chris Cerrone's apparently awesome operatization of Calvino's Invisible Cities, because I didn't feel like it that day. God I am horrible.

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Thursday, August 6, 2009

So You Think You Can WTF?

Winning the Pulitzer Prize seems to have... opened certain doors, shall we say, for a certain composer of head-banging music. Via Loyal Reader Grrg, who suggests that this was not quite as good as the Meredith Monk singoff on American Idol.

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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Better than Dogs Playing Poker

God it's been AGES since I've blogged on a regular basis. The world has changed. Sarah Palin resigned! By computer broke! Our cat ran away! I got a new computer! Our cat came back! My new computer also broke! Michael Jackson continues to be dead! But more importantly I have not been keeping up with important CATS PLAYING PIANO news. I already showed you the Piecatis CATcerto back in June, but here is, via I forget who, the piece in its entirety: Also, via (IRONICALLY) SoHo the Dog, CATS PLAYING SCHOENBERG. Op. 11, I: II: III: Artist Cory Arcangel explains here how he created the piece.

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Monday, August 3, 2009

Gonna Cock My Glock and Pop 'Til They All Drop

Thanks to loyal reader Grrg for pointing out the Tchaik quote in the glockenspiel at 2:15 of the latest AutoTune the News:

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I had a dream about Hilary Hahn the other night. In my dream I was reading an article in a scholarly journal, collected in a library binding, which cited a conversation that she had had with Anne-Sophie Mutter, but there was no transcript of this conversation beyond the excerpts printed in the footnote of this article, and so I went to Hilary Hahn's apartment to talk to her about it. There was another girl there who was just a dumb fan, and was NOT there out of serious musicological interest, like me, but Hilary Hahn was very polite to both of us, and played a little for us on the violin, and then showed us a bizarre string instrument I'd never seen before, sort of a cross between a ten-course lute and a viola da gamba. What does this dream tell us? First of all, it tells us that I have THE MOST BORING FUCKING DREAMS OF ALL TIME. Seriously, if I dream about a famous concert violinist again, she'd better KILL AND EAT SOMEONE in that dream. "Scholarly journal," jesus. But it also tells us something about the power of good marketing. I don't own any Hilary Hahn CDs. There are a great many musicians whose actual work is far more present in my life than Hilary Hahn's. There are CERTAINLY more musicians who are marketed more aggressively, and whose personalities are more present in the culture. But Hilary Hahn is the one whose image appeared in my weird dream. Why is that? I think it's because Hilary Hahn has been successfully marketed to me. Hilary Hahn is probably the sort of thing I like, and so Hilary Hahn turns up wherever I look when I go to look for things I like. She is all up in my imagination. If I haven't yet decided I need (e.g.) her Schoenberg concerto in my life, well, it's probably just a matter of time. In other words, I blame Amanda Ameer. She's Hilary Hahn's promoter, and is therefore the one person—other than (obvs) hardworking, talented, lovely Hilary Hahn—most responsible for the fact that Hilary Hahn has seeped into my subconscious. I really hope that all you artists and promoters out there are reading her blog as faithfully as I am, but just in case you aren't, check out her recent blog-dialogue (DIABLOGUE?) with Nico Muhly on the subject of The New-Music Scene. Her thing is here; his thing is here with a follow-up here. Read all the comments, it gets pretty heated. DRAMA. What's funny is that, presenting each other with a really open-ended question, both AA and NM came up with VERY SIMILAR answers. (Were they reading off each other's test papers??) They both said, "Scene? NEW AMSTERDAM RECORDS." Also they said, "Who is this Darcy James Argue??" It sounds as if somebody has got to THEIR subconsciouses, too! New Amsterdam is EVERYWHERE. There are a handful of very influential music critics who love and love to support New Amsterdam and New Amsterdam knows how to reach them. New Amsterdam knows how to reach US. Okay now, did you read those comments? New Amsterdam cofounder Judd Greenstein and publicist Steven Swartz, who both deserve a lot of credit for the marvelous ubiquity of their label, both wrote in to defend themselves—which makes sense, since AA & NM were both fairly critical of various aspects of the scene that JG & SS have worked to build. But maybe they should be congratulating themselves instead: is this some kind of (friendly, admiring) "backlash"? Is this the consequence of going from "something spontaneous," as Nico says ominously of Bang on a Can, to "an institution"? Because if so, that sounds like—well— It sounds like success! New Amsterdam is a brand. It has a strong reputation, and a readily identifiable sensibility. It is AGGRESSIVE about supporting members of its community of artists. Have its responsibilities shifted, now that it's an institution too? Probably. New Amsterdam has to be as true as ever to its sensibilities that define it, and not only maintain but probably raise the standards that have given rise to its burly rep. But the greater responsibility lies with the dissidents that New Amsterdam will, inevitably, earn itself. If you don't like this scene, if you don't fit into this scene, you need to start your own! MUSIC ITSELF needs you to start your own. You have friends, right? Put out your own damn records! Support the composers who slip through the cracks! Do your own thing—but collaborate, cooperate, compete! (This advice does not necessarily apply to Nico Muhly personally, who already does in fact put out his own damn records, in a matter of speaking.) The tools you need are all around you, and journalists and bloggers are all looking for something new and great. I know I am. New Amsterdam is a scene, an institution, and also a model—they did it; they've succeeded; so can you. P.S. Darcy James Argue is a JAZZ COMPOSER, people, go to his BLOG, it's really good, and there are free mp3s RIGHT THERE. You can find out for yourself whether you like it. (I think you will like some of it.) P.P.S. This YouTube of NewAm artist Caleb Burhans playing 1st violin in Nico Muhly's arrangement for that Grizzly Bear song cracked me up so hard:Ha ha ha whoever posted this video hates him SO MUCH. As I write this, it is the only video uploaded to this account, which means they started their YouTube account JUST to hate on Caleb Burhans (as, in the future, there will be a YouTube account dedicated to hating on each and every one of us, I suppose). Said the aforementioned DJA, "Someone needs to write a concerto for Caleb called "h8 u pluck bro." AGREED.

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