Thursday, September 17, 2009

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.

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Blogger La Majestueuse said...

I'll defend Ceiling/Sky!

September 17, 2009 at 1:53 PM  
Blogger Dan Johnson said...

Honestly? I used to LOVE it in college. I was a JOHN ADAMS FANBOI. The whole thing is written with his usual big heavy chops, and there are moments of real beauty, but I think not even Adams is defending Ceiling/Sky these days.

According to his memoirs, apparently he was talking to June Jordan about how they might fix it... just before she died.

But I'm still obsessed with it, even though my obsession is now shot through with schadenfreude. Did someone say "revival"??? Because I'm there.

(No one said "revival.")

September 17, 2009 at 2:39 PM  
Anonymous Bill S. Preston Esq. said...

Don't contemporary composers have anything better to do than ripping off Family Guy?

September 18, 2009 at 5:53 AM  
Blogger La Majestueuse said...

I'm chomping at the bit to do it out here in CLE....if I can get my hands on an asian tenor, it's so going to happen. Speaking of incredibly flawed Peter Sellars operas....What ever happened to Peony Pavilion?? That's next on the list.

September 18, 2009 at 8:12 AM  
Anonymous Proffessor of Duh said...

Ceiling/Sky was a mistake and Adams knows this. Heck RENT is a masterpiece by comparison. Then again opera is a dead art from so it's not big loss and Adams has composed better things. The only operas worth mentioning are R. Strauss's and Kyle Gann's. Still no one is ever perfect right?

September 18, 2009 at 3:36 PM  
Blogger Dan Johnson said...

Perfesser: Please let's not troll. Let us make reasonable assertions, and let us support them.

September 18, 2009 at 3:57 PM  
Anonymous Proffessor of Duh said...

So you're defending the validity of Ceiling/sky? as opposed to RENT? It will take some time to gather the evidence but I will try to put it to words soon. I apologize if the former post appeared insincere.

September 18, 2009 at 4:18 PM  

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