Month: August 2006

Ariettes oubliées

I finished a piece last night—a short song cycle on a few of Sandburg’s “Chicago Poems”—and already this morning my peripatetic brain has moved on to greener pastures. I find this happening to me all the time: as soon as a project is done, the next project immediately moves in and evicts all trace of the previous tenant.

I guess a certain amount of creative restlessness is a good thing, but I wonder if other composers/writers/creative types have this problem. And it is a problem, particularly for a composer. We’re supposed to be out there, self-promoting, getting performers interested in our work, etc., etc., but as soon as the work’s on paper, it takes a fair amount of effort for me to remain interested in it. How am I supposed to get other people excited about a piece that I hardly think about? (Just last night, this blog’s muse and better half happened to mention a string quartet I wrote seven or eight years ago. Nice piece, I think—she reminded me that I should send it around to a few groups. Which I might have done, had a single conscious awareness of its existence crossed my mind since the last time I chanced upon a copy.) It’s a contradiction: the composer side of me has to be dissatisfied enough to always be pushing ahead, while the career side of me needs to, in effect, wallow in alleged past glories. (I err on the former side, which the state of my career can attest to.)

In fact, as I was proofreading this latest piece, I realized that, in looking at the first song I wrote, I’ve already forgotten where a fair share of those notes came from, compositionally speaking. This is partially due to the habit I have of using fairly schematic methods to jump-start a piece, and then, once I have a critical mass of sounds I like, letting intuition take over. But one of my greatest fears (I suppose it’s not all that objectively great; I’m pretty foolhardy) is that someone will ask me to talk about a piece of mine from a theoretical/craft point of view, and I’ll have nothing to say. (And the few times I’ve set a piece aside and then come back to it a few months later? An awful lot of rope-pulling to get that mower started again.) Maybe I should do like that guy in “Memento”—I can end up with matrices and key relationships and generating motives tattooed all over myself.

(By the way, if all you know of Carl Sandburg are the same four poems that are anthologized everywhere, you’re missing out on one of the greats. Quality work avoidance begins here.)

Booty Call

Now this looks like serious fun. “PLAY.orchestra” is an outreach project by the Philharmonia Orchestra over in the UK. They’ve set up an outdoor courtyard with 58 boxes like this one:

trumpet box
Each box represents an instrument, and the boxes are laid out like an orchestra. Sit on the box, and it starts playing that instrument’s individual part in a piece. Bring a mob, and you can hear the whole band. The boxes loop two new pieces a week: something from the standard rep, and a commissioned piece from a young composer. (This week’s premiere is Flux by Fung Lam.)

I don’t know what kind of response it’s getting, but the orchestra is certainly giving it a go. There’s weekly “guided tours” of the virtual orchestra, to which you can add your own real instruments—all the commissioned pieces have extra parts suitable for amateurs. And there’s technical types there to show you how to record the resultant sounds as a cellphone ringtone.

This is so brilliantly goofy that I’m currently researching what kind of burnt offerings I need to make to get it across the Atlantic. Can you imagine setting loose a gaggle of kids on these things? You could fill up Boston Common with them and do Mahler 8. You could stuff the technology into seat cushions and make everyone at Fenway park it for the national anthem. This is perfect for people who are supposedly too put off, intimidated, whatever, to go into a concert hall. It’s out in the open and effortless—all you need is your butt. I wonder how “Song to the Moon” would sound.

Product, Pricing, Promotion, Pompousness

The New York Times reports today that the Metropolitan Opera, realizing that it’s almost the 1980’s, for gosh sakes, has unveiled an advertising campaign. Images promoting their upcoming production of “Madama Butterfly” are gracing subway stations, buses, and the like as we speak.

It’s a tectonic shift for the Met, who have historically disdained such self-promotion, correctly reasoning that their subscriber base hasn’t left the house since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Peter Gelb wants to change all that, though, taking square marketing aim at, in the Times’ words, “younger people who may find opera remote and intimidating.” (Actually, the ads are still a little too square. Can’t they borrow a cup of shameless sensationalism from the Post? HARA-KIRI FOR SORDID SAILOR’S GORGEOUS GEISHA. You know, something like that.)

I suppose it’s good that the Met is finally emerging, blinking and squinting, from their gilded cage. (Although I love the fact that even their advertising campaign has a wealthy patron.) But that’s just me.

“Opera will never again be a popular taste, and coaxing masses of young people into highbrow pleasures isn’t easy. The young are not necessarily the hip, and the hip is not necessarily what will sell out a pharaonically large venue.”

The twenty-five-cent words of Leon Wieseltier, pontificating at the end of the Times article (hey, for once they buried the trash, and not the lede). Putting aside from his annoying use of hip as a noun (he’s probably one of those people who refers to “the gay”), this sentence is still a mess.

  • Fallacy #1: “Highbrow” can’t be “popular.” Wrong, wrong, wrong.

  • Fallacy #2: “The young are not necessarily the hip.” You’re the one segregating by hipness, Leon—the Met is going after young people period. A good move, too: the nerd demographic has both greater numbers and earning potential.

  • Fallacy #3: (Ignoring Fallacy #2 for a minute.) “The hip” is not going to sell out the Met? The Met has 4,000 seats. Assume they actually did put on something “hip.” You don’t think there’s 4,000 hip people in New York? There’s probably at least 4,000 opera singers in New York. (Heck, for Turandot, I think the Met crams 4,000 people on the stage.) I would question the fundamental issue of how hip the Met can make itself, but the demographics have got to be working against Wieseltier here.

    Gawker says it best: “Yeah, we want to drop three hundred bucks to sit next to that guy.” Worry not, friend—if Leon goes to the Met at all, he sits up in the boxes and leaves in a snit after the first act because he can’t stop orating and everyone keeps shushing him. Take my advice: get a walk-up ticket and sneak in a flask of cheap port and some Raisinets. And if you end up next to me, I promise that, if I do use the phrase “pharaonically large”, I’ll at least try to make it sound like a double entendre.
  • What fools these mortals be

    I’m playing a wedding this weekend. It’s the first wedding gig I’ve had in a couple years, and I realized this morning that I’d lost my copy of the Bridal Chorus from Wagner’s Lohengrin. So I figured I’d pull it off the web; it’s in the public domain, it’s out there somewhere.

    I found it in about a minute—but the search also turned up a number of church wedding music guidelines that expressly forbid it. Why?

    1. “Part of the problem is that [its] use is a Hollywood invention.” No, actually, the first use of the “Bridal Chorus” in an actual ceremony was in 1858, at the wedding of Queen Victoria’s daughter.

    2. “[In the opera,] we watch as suspicion triumphs over love, and the marriage celebrated ends before it begins.” Well, they do at least get through the vows. And suspicion does dissolve the couple, but only because the husband won’t tell his wife his freakin’ name… that seems a little extreme even for James Dobson. (And how many weddings have been similarly graced with “One Hand, One Heart”? Anybody remember how that one ends?)

    3. “This instrumental piece originated from theatrical, operatic repertoire.” Flip through a hymnal and ask yourself if the church really wants to start going down that road.

    4. “The impression created by this piece is that the focus is on the bride alone.” Guess what, guys: when she’s coming up the aisle—it is. Even if you play “The Lady is a Tramp.” (Or even “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus.”)

    What really got me was not the reasons they chose, which seem to me to be on the same level as early Puritan debates over infant baptism (try those for your next bout of insomnia), but that they conspicuously ignore the one good reason for keeping Wagner out of the church: namely, that he was an anti-Semitic jerk. Then again, this is a Unitarian wedding I’m playing—maybe surrounding the tune with all those everybody’s-welcome-here vibes will stick in Richard’s purgatorial craw. Serves him right.

    And the title of this post? Well, I also get to play the “Wedding March” from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream music. Sure, it’s the warhorse to end all warhorses, but I love it, and I’ll program it at the drop of a hat. (The man starts on a ii-half-diminished of iii, and somehow gets back to tonic within three bars. It’s like music theory porn.) Turns out that this one’s no good, either—that “Hollywood” thing again (nope; used in ceremonies as early as 1847), and then this:

    The Mendelssohn march was written for the marriage of a young woman to a satyr—half man and half horse!

    No, it wasn’t, you dimwit, it was written for the triple marriage that’s celebrated in Act V. Does anybody even know how to crack open a book anymore? Yeesh.

    Who’s Looking Out for You?

    A couple things:

    Mea culpa: Mere hours after I asserted that only classical music fans make a fuss when their radio station changes format, soul and gospel fans are raising a fuss over the sale of WILD-FM here in Boston. With good reason: Entercom Communications plans to use WILD’s frequency (heretofore a stream of soul, neo-soul, and classic R&B) to simulcast WAAF, a cookie-cutter classic-rock affair. (Again: they’re buying the frequency so thay can broadcast the exact same thing in two places on the dial.) So radio listeners in the predominantly African-American neighborhoods of Dorchester and Roxbury (as well as suburban soul fans like yours truly) are being screwed in favor of the presumably more advertiser-friendly South Shore frat boy demographic. The only other station that could be euphemistically classified as “urban” in Boston is “Jam’n” 94.5, which limits its playlists to whatever passes for hip-hop these days. (Yeah, I’m even a rap snob. What did you expect?)

    In other news, the Music Publishers’ Association and the National Music Publishers’ Association (yeah, they’re two different organizations; so much for the efficiency of free markets) are going after Internet sites that post guitar tabulatures—amateur transcriptions of the guitar parts for pop and rock songs. To put it another way: music publishers apparently aren’t making enough money, so they’re taking legal action against their own customer base. That’ll teach the little ingrates. (And do check out the photo of the head of the Music Pulishers’ Association. That has got to be the most Freudian, over-compensatory SUV of a tuba I’ve ever seen. You think this guy reads Forbes?)

    About the only mildly impressive thing I can do on a guitar is play “Day Tripper.” I didn’t buy the music; I didn’t even buy the record. I did essentially what a guitar tab site does: I learned it from another guitarist. Is that really illegal? Am I to live in fear of the giant tuba?

    What do these stories have in common? To my thinking, it’s two instances of government organizations—here, the Federal Communications Commission and the United States Congress—completely screwing the pooch as custodians of culture. The FCC could theoretically have blocked the WILD sale as not being in the public interest, but since 1981, they’ve been content to let market forces determine the public interest, and only get up from in front of the tube long enough to pull an Olin Blitch every now and again. Congress could have theoretically ignored gazillions of dollars’ worth of lobbying and not passed the DMCA, or at least could risk ticking off some corporate types by clarifying “fair use” guidelines in light of the Internet, but… well, they just aren’t going to do that, now are they?

    So who’s watching out for the public cultural interest at the federal level? Nobody. (Even the NEA seems more content to promote that noted American playwright William Shakespeare and spend money to translate the literature of other nations, presumably so future generations of Americans won’t have to suffer the indignity of learning a foreign language.) What this country needs is a cabinet-level Secretary of Culture, with dominion over not just the arts and humanities endowments, but the FCC, the Copyright Office, and, for good measure, the Marine Band (and you thought they were just a harmonica). Send me to Congress, and I promise you… oh, wait, that’s right, I’m unelectable—I used to carry a copy of the Communist Manifesto around as a teenager. Anybody else want to handle this one?

    Alcindoro: La convenienza…il grado…la virtù…

    Every now and again, I feel a faint regret that I decided on a career in music rather that corporate finance or something like that. I’m a smart guy, I think. I could have made a lot of money. Money is nice.

    How do I break out of this funk? Easy; I pick up a copy of Forbes.

    In their latest issue, America’s favorite Fabergé-egghot-air-balloon-and-flat-tax-supporting philanthropy reminds us all that, by gum, nobody’s happy when the pants-wearing in the house is on the distaff side. (Article via Boing Boing.) Yes, “if some social scientists are to be believed” (not just one of them, buddy—some of them! So pay attention!) having a wife with a successful career means you’re more likely to end up a childless, cuckolded divorcé living in your own filth.

    Or not. Let’s take a quick gander at a couple of these articles. This is the one that says men get depressed when their better halves are bringing home more bacon. From the abstract:

    Increases in married women’s absolute income generally have nonsignificant effects for married men. However, married men’s well-being is significantly lower when married women’s proportional contributions to the total family income are increased. The likelihood of divorce is not significantly affected by increases in married women’s income. Nevertheless, increases in married women’s income may indirectly lower the risk of divorce by increasing women’s marital happiness. [emphasis added]

    So low-income husbands (I do love the stock photo of the schlub they have to accompany the article) may be feeling low, but those marriages are better than ever? Not so fast, says our distinguished magazine: this study, again, is the one that supposedly says no, those upwardly mobile hussies are more likely to call that lawyer. From the abstract:

    First, the authors predict change in wives’ employment between the two waves using marital happiness and other Time 1 characteristics. The results show that shifting into full-time employment is more likely for unhappily married than for happily married wives. Second, they examine how changes in wives’ employment between Times 1 and 2 influence marital stability and changes in marital happiness. The authors find that contrary to frequently invoked social and economic theories, wives’ full-time employment is associated with greater marital stability. [emphasis added]

    Say howdy? Either Forbes is misrepresenting the second article, or that last word is a typo. And if they really did mean to write “instability,” wouldn’t that be the result of a methodological flaw? It seems from the abstract that they’re drawing their conclusions from the pool of women who were stay-at-home wives, but later moved into full-time careers. That’s right, the ones whose marriages were more unstable to begin with.

    What does this have to do with music? Well, gosh—having a spouse who makes more than you? Isn’t that every composer’s dream? I can’t think of a single professional musician in this situation who isn’t tickled pink that his wife makes more than he does. Could it be that perhaps we’re more secure in our manhood? Just askin’.

    Virgil Thomson nailed this way back in 1939:

    A surprisingly large number of composers are men of private fortune. Some of these have it from papa, but the number of those who have married their money is not small. The composer, in fact, is rather in demand as a husband. Boston and New England generally are noted for the high position there allotted to musicians in the social hierarchy and for the number of gifted composers who have in consequence married into flowery beds of ease. I don’t know why so many composers marry well, but they do. It is a fact.

    (from the wonderfully titled “How Composers Eat, or Who Does What to Whom and Who gets Paid”)

    And hey, with proper and extensive training, we might even do some of the housework.

    (As long as we’re referencing academics, you should consult the estimable Tyler Cowen of George Mason University, who, among other arts-related economic things, has done a fair amount of work on composers and inherited/married wealth. But that’s a future post.)

    Mi, a name I call myself

    An interesting story via the BBC’s “Newshour” this morning: some Britons are concerned that immigrant British Muslims are increasingly self-segregating with regards to their media consumption, eschewing the mainstream UK television channels in favor of satellite programming from Pakistan, India, and the Middle East. The fear is that, in doing so, they’re “not becoming attuned to British ideas” and are thus more susceptible to radicalization.

    I think that analysis is both simplistic and overblown (with an important caveat; see below)—I’ve always considered mass media to be resultant phenomenon, not a causal one—but it got me thinking: what would a similar self-censorship in favor of classical music do to somebody’s worldview? My sense is that classical music fans tend to forsake other styles to a greater extent than other entertainment consumers; I mean, nobody raises much of a fuss when a top 40 radio station changes its format, but tamper with a classical station, and fans organize like communists (with a distressingly similar success rate).

    Like most practicing musicians, I’m demographically odd in that I’ll listen to just about any style. But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that I limited my recorded media menu to the glories of German Romanticism—Schumann, Brahms, Wagner, Strauss, Mahler, etc. What would that aesthetic nutrition information panel look like?

  • Using aphoristic rhetoric to approach the sublime (Schumann)
  • Projecting individual emotional crises onto the physical environment (Schumann, Brahms, and Mahler)
  • Using strict constraints to intensify emotional experience (Brahms)
  • Putting the exceptional individual beyond the strictures of conventional society (Strauss and Mahler)
  • Equating the aesthetic validity of order and chaos (Schumann and Mahler)
  • Equating the respective emotional catharses of love and death (all of them, to varying degrees)
  • World domination (Wagner)

    Now there’s a profile that’ll land you on the no-fly list. But of course it doesn’t work that way—which is another reason why trying to draw sociological conclusions from entertainment predilictions is a tricky business. Even the most “passive” viewer/listener brings a host of individual assumptions and emotional experiences to the process of seeing and/or hearing, making all but the most innocuous generalizations risky. From another angle: sure, some of those British Muslims pulling Al Jazeera off the satellite dish might be ripe for radicalization, but that’s not going to change just because you convince them to watch “EastEnders” instead.

    Hey, what about that caveat? Well, one of the consequences of the unstoppable advance of technology has been the fragmentation of mass media. As such, I think the power of television, radio, the movies, you name it, to be some sort of societal common ground has been diminished. What still alleviates that is our everyday interactions with the outside world and other people—but, given the proliferation of cell phones, instant messaging, and always-on internet connections, it’s not hard to imagine a society where every interaction is mediated electronically. And if that happens… that loner down the block who always blasts “Ride of the Valkyries”? I’m keepin’ my eye on him.
  • Of Thee I Sing, Baby

    Driftwood: Well, I uh, I want to sign him up for the New York Opera Company. Do you know America is waiting to hear him sing?
    Fiorello: Well, he can sing loud, but he can’t sing that loud.
    Driftwood: Well, I think I can get America to meet him half-way.

    —The Marx Brothers, A Night at the Opera

    Alex Ross has a column in the latest New Yorker that makes passing reference to the quixotic quest for “The Great American Opera.” (This entire concept amuses me no end. Do you think music panjandrums in, say, France waste valuable time seeking out “The Great French Opera”? Germany? Well, maybe in Germany.)

    There isn’t a great American opera, of course, and there probably never will be. Blame it all on the venerable idealists who first booted the natives out of my adopted state of Massachusetts. There’s a Puritanical streak in the history of American opera. And any of the fundamental concerns of the operatic stage (presented here in alphabetical order) would be a Puritan’s nightmare:

  • Abuse of wordly power.
  • Blasphemy (usually punished in the end, but with far more boring music)
  • Murder.
  • Sex.

  • (For example: I don’t know exactly what my ten favorite operas would be, but three definites: Don Carlos, a conflict of power; Carmen, a conflict of sex; and Turandot, a conflict between people who can’t tell the difference. Murders in all three, for those keeping score at home.)

    Why should this be? Great swaths of American culture are gleefully vulgar. That is: great swaths of commercial culture. Mind you, all of this flamboyant salaciousness would be fine if opera actually turned a hefty profit, but it doesn’t, so it instead falls under the category of tasteful things that are supposedly good for you, in other words, bluestocking fodder.

    I bring it up because I think the whole idea of a “Great American Opera” undermines the viability of opera in America, which is a rather different thing. On the face of it, opera seems inherently well-suited to the American media landscape: bigger than life, melodramatic as hell, packed to the gills with spectacle. Trying to take that and make it an Important Artistic Statement On The American Condition is just overloading it with baggage. Can’t we just let opera be grand and ruthlessly entertaining?

    This may sound like an endorsement of the popular-musicalization of classical music. I admit that opera is the most populist meat in the classical music stew, but that doesn’t mean it’s pop music. Indeed, I think this obsession with artistic meaningfulness in opera has let pop music move in and take over the cultural role of expressing those emotions that are at the core of opera. I don’t think the problem with American opera is that it’s not presented as pop music, it’s that it’s not presented as what it actually is: the familiar territory of pop music exponentially raised to a power that pop music can only dream of.

    (Incidentally, if I had to pick a “Great American Opera” [at gunpoint, say] my vote would be Nixon in China—but I think most Americans’ reaction to that piece must be a kind of nervous recognition, like the way you wince when you hear a recording of your own voice.)