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.


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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.

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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.

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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.

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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