Month: September 2006

"You talk about me just as much as you please… I’ll tell God about you when I get on my knees"

Friday’s listening list:

As the clouds roll by: on his blog, Jacob Sudol offers a movement from one of my favorites: Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel.

The Library of Congress has digitized a ton of field recordings from the 30’s and 40’s. Here’s “My Lord Is Writin'” as sung by the Cochran Field Singers in 1943. An unusually sly performance for gospel.

From the recesses of UbuWeb comes Musique pour les soupers des Roi Ubu by Bernd Alois Zimmermann, one of the best collage pieces to come out of that 60’s fad. Starts out funny, then gets rather disturbing, then ends up almost uncomfortably funny and disturbing. The juxtapositions in the final section are brilliant.

I stink, stink, stink at keeping in touch with people that I’ve known, but luckily, most of them are musicians, so I can at least pretend to keep in touch with them by visiting their websites. I went to school with baritone Stephen Powell, who was a fantastic singer and a nice guy (if I remember correctly, he also had a degree in composition, so show a little respect). I’ll assume he’s still a nice guy, and I know he’s still a fantastic singer, because there’s a page full of audio clips on his site. There’s lots of tasteful and serious stuff there, but you know what you want: pop the cork on the last of the summer rosé and scroll to the bottom for “Rondine al Nido.”

Paul at Aurgasm has two tracks by Bitter:Sweet (“Dirty Laundry” is my favorite). Imagine Christian Marclay as a member of Herb Alpert’s band. Or Spinderella doing a Bollywood soundtrack. Or… oh, just go listen to it.

You’re all reading Felsenmusick, right? And not just because Daniel Felsenfeld was nice enough to send his readers to me. Anyway, you might not know that you can listen to a few of his pieces on his other site. “A Dirty Little Secret” is particular fun.

And, just in time for the weekend, our anti-social friend Kid Seditious has a nice blast of pop for you. Follow this link and click on “Bridesmaid Revisited.”

On prodigies

Every art when first discovered seems to resemble a rough and shapeless mass of marble just hewn out of a quarry, which requires the united and successive endeavors of many laborers to form and polish. The zeal and activity of a single workman can do but little towards its completion; and in music the undirected efforts of an infant must be still more circumscribed; for, without the aid of reason and perseverance he can only depend on memory and a premature delicacy and acuteness of ear for his guides; and in these particulars the child of whom I am going to speak is truly wonderful.

From a little gem in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 1779: Charles Burney pays a visit to the three-year-old William Crotch. Crotch, who is mainly remembered today for 1) a couple of pieces in various choral anthem anthologies, and 2) his unfortunately inappropriate name (I always threaten my church choir that we’re going to do a concert of William Crotch and John Blow), was one of the more famous musical prodigies: at 18 months, he began picking out tunes on an organ his father built (!), and within a year was enough of a phenomenon in Britain that Burney was sent to investigate.

[A]ccording to his mother, it seems to have been in consequence of his having heard the superior performance of Mrs. Lulman, a musical lady, who came to try his father’s organ, and who not only played on it, but sung to her own accompanyment, that he first attempted to play a tune himself; for, the same evening, after her departure, the child cried, and was so peevish that his mother was wholly unable to appease him. At length, passing through the dining-room, he screamed and struggled violently to go to the organ, in which, when he was indulged, he eagerly beat down the keys with his little fists….

In his own time, the adult Crotch, in addition to composing, was well-known as a teacher, textbook writer, and music editor. He developed a theory of the evolution of music in which he divided the history of music into three sections: the sublime, the beautiful, and the ornamental—he regarded the sublime period as the golden age, and spent much of his life reviving, imitating, and encouraging the performance of early English church music.

His chief delight at present is playing voluntaries, which certainly would not be called music if performed by one of riper years, being deficient in harmony and measure; but they manifest such a discernment and selection of notes as is truly wonderful, and which, if spontaneous, would surprize at any age.

Nicholas Temperley, in the old New Grove, takes Crotch’s mother to task for dragging him hither and yon during his childhood in order to demonstrate his talents; Temperley blames the resulting “psychological damage” for Crotch’s “ultimate achievement as a composer” not living up to his early promise. I have always found this particular criticism, in general, to be largely meaningless—do any of us really live up to our initial promise? But Temperley does make the more interesting point that Crotch’s output seemed to reverse the typical pattern of those composers who excel in miniatures but stumble in the larger forms. Crotch’s shorter, smaller works are largely uninspired, but in his big statements—oratorios and organ concertos—he showed a real flair for drama, and a surprisingly adventurous compositional palette.

When he declares himself tired of playing on an instrument, and his musical faculties seem wholly blunted, he can be provoked to attention, even though engaged in any new amusement, by a wrong note being struck in the melody of any well-known tune; and if he stands by the instrument when such a note is designedly struck, he will instantly put down the right, in whatever key the air is playing.

Crotch was also a noted landscape painter, he wrote plays, and he dabbled in the sciences like a true English gentleman. As he grew older, he largely turned away from composition (the bulk of his later output is in the arid genre of Anglican chant), and became sharply critical of younger composers, particularly Samuel Wesley, who would succeed him as the preeminent English church musician. Crotch would come to regard as inappropriate much of the innovative vocabulary that the newer generation took from Crotch’s own works.

Into what the present prodigy may mature is not easy to predict; we more frequently hear of trees in blossom during the winter months than of fruits in consequence of such unseasonable appearances.

If there is any lingering effect from his precocious beginnings to be found in Crotch’s later music, I think there’s a case to be made for a certain devaluation of the craft of music. Burney pointed out that the young Mozart was surrounded by the best music and musicians of the day, whereas the young Crotch was largely left to his own devices. Crotch’s imagination was fired by the most dramatic and high-profile public projects, but the more everyday corpus of practical church music must have seemed to be hack-work. Apparently he lacked any formal training until the age of 10 or 11, by which time he had already toured the country and played at Buckingham Palace; it must have been difficult for anyone to instill in him a sense of discipline towards the act of creating music.

Premature powers in music have as often surprized by suddenly becoming stationary as by advancing rapidly to the summit of excellence. Sometimes, perhaps, nature is exhausted or enfeebled by these early efforts; but when that is not the case, the energy and vigour of her operations are seldom properly seconded, being either impeded or checked by early self-complacence, or an injudicious course of study; and sometimes, perhaps, genius is kept from expansion by ill-chosen models; exclusive admiration, want of counsel, or access to the most excellent compositions and performers in the class for which nature has fitted those on whom it is bestowed.

"Chopin saw a dream of a fairy-tale land populated by people with incurable diseases but also magical powers"

I had a real post for today, but I was forced to withdraw it due to threats of terrorism. Seriously, I love free speech more than Gummi Bears, but honestly, guys—beheading the Prophet onstage? It’s Idomeneo, not The Mikado.

In other news: As part of winning a grant from the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, 12-year-old composer and pianist Drew Petersen is meeting with members of New Jersey’s congressional delegation to “urge them to pass legislation requiring that classical music appreciation be taught in the nation’s schools.” More power to him—if anybody can explain a subject in terms that Congress can understand, it’s a 12-year-old.

The Amazing Things Arts Center here in my hometown of Framingham is having an online auction to raise some funds. The first item in the “Fine Dining” category: a $25 gift certificate to Honey Dew Donuts. I like their style. Think I can sneak a dozen into Moses und Aron? (Thanks to This Is Framingham for the heads-up.)

New for Xbox: Chopin’s death, the video game. In his delirium, “Chopin comes into contact with Polka, a young girl who resides with her mother in the village of Tenuto. Polka is near her death, and Chopin, Polka, and her young friend Allegretto… look for some way to make use of Polka’s great powers to help save her.” I’m hoping that all the cheat codes involve Schenkerian analysis.

"Can’t he be both, like the late Earl Warren?"

A follow-up to yesterday’s crankiness.

Over at aworks, Robert, talking about Miles Davis, takes mild but justified issue with my criticism of the oft-heard pronouncement that “jazz is America’s classical music.” Let me clarify: I wasn’t trying to say one was better than the other, I just think that particular metaphor does a disservice to both. (And I wonder if jazz musicians have the same suspicions—I would imagine that at least a few of them would roll their eyes at being lumped in with the sort of classical performance that Virgil Thomson called ”silk-underwear music.”) But it’s a beaut of a coincidence that he was discussing Miles. Because Miles figures in another follow-up, to the whole “uptown-downtown” thing.

The other clichés I was trying to kill off annoy me mainly because of their shallowness, but that one is different. It annoys me because it tries to create an either/or situation where there doesn’t have to be one. I never heard “downtown” music as diametrically opposed to “uptown” music—just the opposite, in fact. I first liked Feldman—the slow pace, the way he makes the decay as important as the attack, the tight focus on short, open-ended gestures—because he sounded kind of like Webern. I first liked Carter—the virtuoso floods of notes, the floating rhythm, the unexpected juxtapositions that keep the drama of the piece in tension—because he reminded me of Zorn. And I first liked Stockhausen, because he reminded me of Miles.

Back in undergrad, one of the first Stockhausen pieces I heard was his first major work, Kreuzspiel. It’s regarded as a seminal work of pointillist serialism. Three instruments—oboe, bass clarinet, and piano—jab individual notes, widely-spaced chords, and occasional melodic fragments at each other, while three percussionists accompany with tom-toms and congas, then cymbals, then both. Listening to the first section, the short, enigmatic interjections by the winds, the sparse piano, the tom-toms a background tattoo with unexpected (serially-determined) accents… we all looked at each other (we were all pretty jazz-savvy—DePaul is a big jazz school) and said, “It’s Birth of the Cool!” Which is exactly what it sounds like. Stockhausen has claimed on more than one occasion that no one had ever heard anything like Kreuzspiel before, but of course they had (and no doubt he had, too.) But by taking away the familiar tonal harmony and the regularity of rhythm, that particular sound suddenly sounded new and shocking again. It reminded me of the excitement I felt the first time I heard Miles—not a triumphalist “this is what I’ve been looking for all my life” excitement, but an excitement that here was music that didn’t behave the way I expected it to, that showed a little more of its hand each time I listened to it, that let my experience of it change over time and place.

Hence my recoil at the uptown/downtown dichotomy. It’s not even that such a manichaean view of music is telling me that I can’t like both, it’s that it’s implying that if I do like both, that there must be something wrong with the way I listen. But one of the attributes of great music is that you can listen to it in myriad different ways and still feed your soul. No part of town has a monopoly on that.

Eight sentences about classical music I’d be happy never to read again

“Nobody actually enjoys listening to atonal music—they just want other people to think they’re a pretentious intellectual.” For the record, I enjoyed listening to atonal music well before I was a pretentious intellectual. Seriously, stop telling me that I don’t like what I do like, OK? Because otherwise, I’m going to have to bring up that whole Proust thing. And I know you never got through Swann’s Way.

“Jazz is America’s classical music.” The music of Adams, Babbitt, Bernstein, Billings, Brant, Cage, Carpenter, Carter, Copland, Corigliano, Crumb, Diamond, Eaton, Feldman, Fine, Flynn, Foss, Glass, Harbison, Heinrich, Imbrie, Ives, Johnston, Kirchner, Larsen, Macdowell, Moran, Nancarrow, Oliveros, Parker, Partch, Reich, Riegger, Riley, Rouse (both of ‘em), Ruggles, Seeger, Shapey, Tower, Williams, and (god help me) LaMonte Young (just to name a few) is America’s classical music. Jazz is jazz. Why is this so hard?

“Mozart and Beethoven were the popular music of their time.” Mozart and Beethoven may have been more popular than, say, Hartke and Wuorinen are today, but that hardly makes them 200-year-old equivalents of Justin Timberlake. Both relied heavily on royal patronage and a state-supported musical infrastructure. Both wrote the majority of their works for an aristocratic audience. (Want to breathe new life into this meme? Try working in John Gay.)

“The atmosphere at classical concerts is intimidating.” Too formal? Sure. Snobbish? On occasion. But if you find a bunch of well-dressed old people to be intimidating, a suggestion: maybe Mahler 6 isn’t the best entertainment choice for you in the first place.

“Orchestras need to do away with tuxedos because they’re stuffy and outdated.” Yeah, that James Bond—what a prudish old geezer. Besides, if all enterprises rose and fell on the aesthetic quality of their uniforms, Major League Baseball would have bit the dust years ago.

“Blah blah blah uptown composers blah blah blah downtown composers.” Look, I’m sure this particular dialectic felt terribly, vitally important at a certain place and time. But to all of us living in the vague and undifferentiated string of comical hick towns that New Yorkers regard the rest of the world to be, this is pretty much like listening to your grandparents debate the relative merits of Ovaltine and Postum. Think of how much wonderful music would result if all that wasted energy was applied to something constructive, like making fun of emo.

“In celebration of the [large number]th anniversary of the birth of [dead composer].” Why is it that all those people who reject formalist composition as too intellectual and schematic are perfectly happy to flood the world with concerts/broadcasts/recordings of old-timers for no other reason than a numerological coincidence? Just asking. (Today, for instance, is Shostakovich’s 100th birthday. Strike a blow for reason and listen to him tomorrow.)

“Composers today only write music for other composers.” Only if they’re buying.

Shana tova, cats

I told Charlie Parker about the Rabbi of Ladi. I explained that during Napoleon’s siege of Moscow there was a relentless debate among the Jews on whether Napoleon’s victory would be good or bad for the Jews. Rabbi Israel of Konitz wanted Napoleon to win while the Rabbi of Ladi did not. It was decided that they both should go to the synagogue at the same time and whichever one of them was first to blow the shofar would win. The Rabbi of Konitz arrived together with the Rabbi of Ladi but was the first to start blowing the shofar and then the Rabbi of Ladi snatched the notes from the Rabbi of Konitz’s shofar and so, from a distance of nine hundred kilometers determined Napoleon’s fate at Moscow. Bird said that any jazz musician who doesn’t make a lady out of jazz like that Dave Brubeck knows how to snatch notes from a shofar. Outside everybody was playing the numbers and losing pots of money to the black professionals all dressed up to the nines in their colored suits and magnificent neckties. Bird liked to see Jimmy Slide beating Napoleon at Moscow with his tap dancing.

Yoram Kaniuk

More (including Billie Holiday singing Mayn Yiddishe Mame) here.

Been there, done that

The music I write hasn’t had a lot of repetition in it—I mean taking a section of music and repeating it note-for-note. I got hooked on the whole developing-variation thing fairly early on, and for whatever reason (need for control, excessive affection for ornamentation, short attention span, take your pick), it’s served my aesthetic needs rather well. Except for the small wing of my compositional library devoted to ragtime, I don’t think I’ve ever had the occasion to notate an actual repeat sign (and even the last batch of rags were pretty through-composed). There’s also the fact that repeating a section sometimes feels almost too easy (especially these days, where it’s merely a matter of doing an electronic cut-and-paste), as if I’m just filling up time, or I’ve run out of ideas.

The piece I’m working on now, though, has a fair amount of exact repetition, for a variety of reasons. The people I’m writing it for also play in a rock band, so I’ve been consciously and subconsciously using elements of pop music forms. Also, some of the passages are pretty tricky from a technical standpoint, so (although it’s never stopped me before) it seems a little churlish to make them do all that work for a fleeting few bars that never come back. But mostly, it’s because, all musical evidence to the contrary, I persist in imagining the piece as an analogue to the sort of multi-movement suites and cycles that Schumann wrote. And Schumann is a master of repetition.

Schumann’s repeats can break your heart: the end of Frauenliebe und -leben—after the singer finishes sadly admonishing her husband for dying and leaving her, the piano repeats the opening song of the cycle, where they first meet—is one of the three or four most emotionally devastating moments in all of music. (All the more amazing considering that the emotions embodied in the poetry have dated badly; the distance and loss Schumann conjures up with that simple gesture are, I’m convinced, the main reason the cycle stays in the repertoire.) In the Davidsbündlertänze for piano, the second movement magically reappears in the eighth movement, an unexpected repeat that sets up the enigmatic finale. On the other end, there’s the opening movement of Faschingsschwank aus Wien, where the lyricism is always being interrupted by a boisterous beer-hall ritornello: Florestan suddenly showing up to shake Eusebius out of his reverie and drag him back to the party.

But it’s the other kind of repetition, the immediate repetition of the phrase, the melody, we’ve just heard, that Schumann makes his own. Flip through the various pieces that make up the piano cycle Carnaval and you’re struck by the sheer variety of where and when repeats turn up. Sometimes it’s the opening section (“Promenade”); sometimes the closing section (“Chiarina”). Sometimes a tightly repetitive exposition will give way to a free-wheeling new structure (“Préambule”). Sometimes it’s almost as if the music can’t let go of the melody (“Aveu”). And sometimes it’s as if, by chance, we stumble upon a sudden discovery that freezes us in our tracks (“Florestan”). Schumann, more than any other composer, realized that repetition is it’s own form of expressiveness, that, in practice, there’s no such thing as an exact repetition, even if the notes are identical. The fact that we’ve already heard the material means that we’ll hear the repeat differently, whether it’s finding more meaning in the music, or feeling the meaning of the music slip away into insensibility, the way a word becomes meaningless if you say it over and over. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously declared that we never set foot in the same river twice—but he also used to argue from that proposition to the paradoxical idea that, at the same time, everything exists and nothing exists. I don’t know about you, but to me, that combination of the fullness of life and the nihilism of the abyss seems awfully Schumannesque.

This past month I found a marvelous use of repetition in music by György Kurtág, who is the closest thing to a modern Schumann that I can think of. (All my MIT keyboard harmony students started with Kurtág pieces this year; sometimes it takes extraordinary measures to get myself psyched up for the semester.) “Hommage à Schubert,” from the ongoing piano collection Játékok (Games), is a short piece in two parts. The first part starts:

Kurtag Hommage part a
The second part starts:

Kurtag Hommage part b
The notes are exactly the same. But what in the first part is an out-of-tune hymn, becomes, in the second part, a delicately awkward negotiation between the hands. With an economy of means, he shifts the focus from the disembodied nature of the sound to the physical effort of its production. Not bad for a cut-and-paste. Robert would be proud—although he’d probably repeat it a few more times, just for good measure.

Oscar Wilde, blogger

I feel now as if the extreme reticence of wearing a body was almost indecent. It is far more decent to go about blaring one’s loves and hates, blowing them in the faces of those we meet—as it were, being so much on the outside that we cannot be said to have an inside.

Oscar Wilde, communicating through Hester
Travers Smith via ouija board, June 20th, 1923
(as recorded by Mrs. Travers Smith in
Oscar Wilde From Purgatory, 1924)