Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Great Compression

WE LOVE Proper Discord, it is our NEW FAVORITE CLASSICAL BLOG; yet another post here deflating conventional wisdom. This time he's taking on the old lament about how mp3s are another sign that the kids today are forgoing quality in favor of convenience, and how if you're really serious about music you'll buy CDs instead, and how the iTunes store is rotting our nation's moral fibre. Well, maybe a little! But, here, Professor Propz handily/wittily demonstrates that the difference between uncompressed and lossily compressed audio is in fact scarcely audible at all. (Take his test, and then you can see how you fared when the answers are revealed.) The ever-belligerent A.C. Douglas, Old Faithful of classical trolls, lets loose right on schedule with his usual gaseous eruption:
If you’re using the ordinary MP3 audio system like, say, the audio system on your computer or an iPod, you probably won’t notice any difference between the clips. If, however, you’re using a high-priced, high-quality audio system (the two aren’t necessarily the same thing), you’ll notice the difference immediately. Given the ubiquitousness of the iPod and other crap audio systems, you’d be pretty stupid to pay out more bucks and give up more storage space for a CD-quality MP3.
Which—what? An iPod is a crap system? What is he talking about? In fact, the iPod is a pretty decent piece of hardware: the digital-to-analog converter in some models in fact the same as you'll find in high-end, audiophile components; there's no power cord to generate noise; the internal connections (since the device is so tiny) are extremely short and therefore less likely to make trouble than the connections inside your CD player. It has its problems, but it's far from "crap." And so our host responds:
I can’t believe that you have used an iPod to play back any of the lossless formats it supports through good-quality headphones and still think it is a “crap audio system”. I worry that if your idea of “mediocre” starts somewhere beyond this, then you’re hardly typical of even classical music purchasers – indeed it may well be that your idea of “good” surpasses the quality of the electronics used to record most classical albums in the first place.
To which, "Let me guess," ACD suggests; "You think Bose is a high-end, top quality audio system, right? I’d also guess you’re under 30." In other words, the answer is no. No, A.C. Douglas has never listened to a high-quality sound file on an iPod; he is speaking from sheer ignorance; his only response is to accuse his interlocutor of being—shock!—young.

I would actually be a little surprised to learn that Proper Discord is under 30, considering how knowledgeably and capably he writes. It would seem to me that he has some real experience listening to, writing about, and working with classical music. In ACD's spirit of enlightened debate, however, let me suggest that Douglas is over 70, monstrously obese, lonely and sad. Anybody taking wagers?

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Monday, March 22, 2010

Q: What's Shy, Mighty, and Forthcoming from Nonesuch Records?

A: It looks as if Timothy "Timo" Andres' album of two-piano music, Shy and Mighty, has been slated for a May 4 release on the record label that Adams and Reich and those guys call home. You're so excited! You've been hearing about his music for years, but you live out in the boonies and never get to hear it! Well it is YOUR LUCKY DAY, sweetie. (May 4 is.) ANYWAY, you can listen to some clips from the cycle here; you can find more info here, plus an album cover photo that will make you wonder how I forgot to include him in my roundup of new-music sex symbols. Rowr!


Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Non Compos

So eighth blackbird is POSTPONING their first ever composition competition (or "comp comp" as they are calling it because they do not have a proper name for it yet; may I suggest "I WANT YOUR SEXTET") due to general public outcry. Now we love eighth blackbird, as you may recall, sometimes unwholesomely, so, IN THE TANK, but I think this whole thingie is a big kerfuffle over not much.

See, if you're not a addict like Danny, then you might not be aware that that is where the voices of dissent gathered, in the comments section of this post on the subject. The complaint: a $50 entrance fee. Their battle cry: comp the comp comp!

Some very interesting people weighed in in; Corey Dargel (whom we also love), points out that $1000 would in fact be way too low for a commission, when you consider the time and trouble that goes into fulfilling it—but of course this isn't a commission. With a commission, you sign a contract that says you will write something, and then you have to write it. This is totally voluntary, an excuse to stop that score for Pierrot Plus from rattling around in your desk drawer.

This being the Internet, of course, there are also less-than-thoughtful responses. One commenter sniffs that his music won't be of interest to 8bb because a "serial composers [sic] chances aren’t very good these days," which really makes no sense, not just because I wasn't actually planning to enter, I just showed up for the whine-tasting is something of a childish attitude, and not just because I am entitled to performances of the music I am willfully writing in what I perceive to be an outmoded style is a slightly crazy attitude, but also just because this is eighth blackbird we are talking about, and they are HUGE FANS of some serial composers, so sweetie please do your homework.

And what is this? "...8bb has never had particularly strong community interaction, having been guided early on by success-driven agendas." Dude, no. Haven't they actually been pretty good about commissioning young composers? And, now think about this, what the hell is wrong with a "success-driven agenda"? What does the word "success" mean in this sentence, and why should we be so afraid of it? Should 8bb be shooting for failure? Who has a "failure-driven agenda"? (If you are my father, do not answer that question.) If they weren't "successful" then we wouldn't even be having this conversation, now would we, because nobody would want eighth blackbird to play their music.

But what's most striking about these comments is the peculiarly adversarial relationship that some of the commenters are imagining between composers and performers, formulated by one composer as a "men-women, white-black, straight-gay" sort of power imbalance. 8bb won their Grammy "[on] the backs" of the composing class!

Wait, what? I mean, well sure, if you want to get all Marx-y about it, then yes there is an imbalance of power between performers who have dedicated their careers to performing new works and composers of new works, because such performers are so few, and DMA composers are so many. And yes there is an imbalance of power between eighth blackbird and, well, YOU (I am assuming, when I write this, that you are not a world-class composer of new music), because they have earned so many laurels doing their jobs, and you are still on your way, with much to prove.

But then let's take this economical analysis of the situation the rest of the way and you will discover that you, composer, DO NOT NEED eighth blackbird. They do not have a monopoly on musical performance. You can play your own music! Your friends can play your music! You can form a collective of likeminded composers and performers and record it yourselves, distribute it yourselves. It's the 21st century! YouTubes are everywhere! Seize the means of production! Composers of the world, unite! You have nothing to etc but your etc.

Is $50 too high of an entry fee? Okay probably yes, just because a lower entry fee would have encouraged more submissions and been less of a PR headache. I'm not against an entry fee in principle, though, just because it seems like a smart way to stem the cataract of scores that you KNOW is already gushing in their transom. And look: if you think that an entry fee is too great a gamble, then fine, don't pay it. You're free! No one can make you enter this contest.

The important message here, though, is that this adversarial attitude is Not Healthy. Not for your career, and not for Music. Performers are not the enemy—performers are, or can be, and should be, your friends! Corey Dargel, you are going to be in Chicago this weekend, right? eighth blackbird, are you going to be in Chicago? Why don't you guys check out his show, which I am pretty sure will be great, and then afterwards he can buy you some beers (because of the POWER IMBALANCE), and then you can all be friends. Sound cool? Okay now hug.


I Don't View the Prospect with Equanimity

I meant to post our good friend M. Croche's entry in the Parterre Box procrastination contest sometime last week, but never quite got around to it.


Tuesday, March 9, 2010


New York City Opera just put up the new schedule for the next season, and it is INSANE. Not surprises: Stephen "Pippin" Schwartz's Séance on a Wet Afternoon, Leonard "Mass" Bernstein's A Quiet Place, and Schönberg's Erwartung, all of which were predicted by the enigmatic La Cieca, astrologer to the stars.

SURPRISES: the other two one-acts completing the Erwartung-evening are, get this, La Machine de l’être, a new work by John Zorn, and Neither by Morton Feldman and Samuel Beckett; there will also be a benefit matinee performance of the brief, brilliant, savage Where the Wild Things Are by Oliver Knussen and Maurice Sendak.

People, THIS is how you make modern opera appealing to audiences. You don't apologize, you don't pander, you don't bait and switch. Zorn fans know exactly what they're getting themselves into with his music, and if they stick around for Feldman and Schönberg they're going to get even more of what they love. Expect the Miller Theatre/The Rest Is Noise crowd to turn out. Actually, can I please have three tickets for this, right now, please?

Stephen Schwartz—I don't know his Séance, but the man has demonstrated that he can write for voices and pit band, that he can tell a story with music. Surely some tiny fraction of the millions who have swarmed to Wicked will be curious to hear the guy do opera?

I was pleased, if not thrilled, by the announcement of this season's City Opera programming; this time around, color me thrilled. More here.

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Monday, March 8, 2010

Oh Hey AND

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A Nose Not to Be Sniffed At

What to say about The Nose? No, really, I mean that. What to say about it? I walked out of the hall speechless, unable to articulate what I'd just seen. It is what it is, I'll say that. It demands to be taken on its own terms. While it may not be the greatest opera of the 20th-century, or even the greatest opera written by Dmitri Shostakovich, it is a thrill, an unjustly neglected work, and easily the greatest opera about an anthropomorphic, disembodied nose since Arianna a Naso.

The Met's first production of the piece, by visual artist William Kentridge, most certainly does take the piece on its own terms, answering the absurdity of the libretto with visual absurdities, and answering the flatly confrontational music with a visually flat, confrontational aesthetic. In response to Shostakovich's musical collages and abstractions, Kentridge has gleefully ransacked the genius of the early Soviet avant-garde to pack the set with found Russian texts and with geometric shapes; the moving projections constantly superimposed upon them recalled the Russian masters of animation and montage. Using a newspaper-office scene as his starting point, Kentridge adopted a color scheme that was black and white and red all over, plastered with faux newsprint and popping with sensational "headlines" (you can switch off your Met Titles: supertitles are projected onstage, incorporated seamlessly into the text-heavy visual design), and the rumor-maddened townsfolk of the chorus are constantly reading giant, stylized papers as they march across the stage.

There were a few opening-night glitches; in one scene, the a cartoon horse supposed to be pulling the set across the stage was accidentally projected a few too many feet ahead of it; at the end of Act One, the curtain fell on top of the set instead of in front, and had to be tugged down by an unseen stagehand; my post-HOC drinking buddies, all of whom (oddly enough) were apparently fluent in Russian, complained of misspellings in the Cyrillic text projected onstage, and I even caught one in an English supertitle (FIGHTEN when it should've been FRIGHTEN, if you're reading this and work for the Met). But I think that's pretty much it as far as flaws in the execution.

Am I focusing too much on the visuals? Am I making it sound as if William Kentridge, and not the beautiful, gifted, charming South Pacific baritone Paolo Szot was the star of the show? Well y'know what, he (Kentridge) was. Of course, each member of the cast received warm applause, especially Szot, and even more especially Andrei Popov, whose performance as the Police Inspector required him to sing most of his lines way up in the treble clef; living musical treasure Valery Gergiev earned the audience's general adoration (though as he ascended the podium to begin the piece, we heard, bizarrely, what sounded like a solitary boo. What the fuck happened there?? "Maybe he was saying 'bra-VOO,'" I suggested to a friend afterward; "Maybe he was saying BOO-URNS," replied friend. Or maybe he was a disgruntled emigré booing Gergiev's cozy relationship with BFF Vladimir Putin? It was hella Slavs in the house Friday night).

But the greatest applause went to Kentridge. He deserved it. Not only did the production rise to the challenges of a, let's face it, very challenging opera, it was a work of art in its own right. When I was in school, I used to look at the photographs of the old Ballets Russes and its collaborations between the most daring composers, dancers, and visual artists of their era and think, why not now? Why couldn't we have an institution today that marries the most gifted visual artists to the greatest performers and composers of classical music? At The Nose, I felt as if it were finally happening, as if I were finally seeing opera live up to its potential as a place where challenging music, classic literature and deeply satisfying visual art can appear on a single stage and add up to something even greater.

Okay, but no, let's talk about the music. The history of Russian art having been written at the barrel of a gun, it's difficult to imagine that Shostakovich might once have been responsible for some of his era's hairiest avant-gardisms, and the sound of The Nose will certainly come as a shock to anyone familiar with Shostakovich chiefly through his Greatest Hits. It does have its moments of weird beauty, however, brought to glowing life by Gergiev's band and by the cast's perplexingly vast parade of minor players, and when the score's ostentatious complexity became baffling, as it was surely designed to, it was never allowed to become totally obscure.

For me, Szot was the great unknown here, since I am a neglectful faggot and have not kept up with the world of Musical Theatre. Would he have the musical chops, or the vocal power, to get his part across from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera? Answer: YES. He rose to the opera's musical challenges as ably as its considerable dramatic challenges—he made me care about an unappealing character's progress through a series of impossible situations.

If only there were an HD broadcast this season, to record Szot's performance; if only there were plans to revive this production at the house. Everyone should get a chance to see this thing. The first unambiguous artistic triumph brought into existence by the Gelb regime and a resounding vindication of its values, the synergy of the Kentridge/Gergiev/Szot Nose represents everything the opera can be. It's enough to revive one's hope for opera as a medium, and for the Metropolitan Opera as an institution.

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