Month: December 2006

Night Train

(An indistinct landscape. A long line of people waiting to pass through a simple, nondescript checkpoint. In the middle of the line, James Brown. Behind him, Gerald Ford. After a while, Ford tries to make conversation.)

GF: My stepfather was a magnificent person, and my mother equally wonderful. So I couldn’t have written a better prescription for a superb family upbringing.

JB: Where I grew up there was no way out, no avenue of escape, so you had to make a way. Mine was to create James Brown.

(Pause.)

GF: I am proud of America, and I am proud to be an American. Life will be a little better here for my children than for me. I believe this not because I am told to believe it, but because life has been better for me than it was for my father and my mother.

(JB shrugs.)

JB: Any time an Afro-American kid, 9 or 10 years old, can get up and say “Mama, I think I’m gonna study hard because I want to be president,” and have a shot at being president, then we’ve got America. Other than that, we’ve got a name and we’re trying to find out what it means.

GF (defensively): The words I remember best were spoken by Dwight D. Eisenhower. “America is not good because it is great,” the President said. “America is great because it is good.”

(A long pause. JB looks up and down the line of people.)

JB: Killing’s out and school’s in and we’re in bad shape.

(GF nods.)

GF: This is an hour of history that troubles our minds and hurts our hearts.

JB: The real answer to race problems in this country is education. Not burning and killing. Be ready. Be qualified. Own something. Be somebody. That’s Black Power.

GF: “Black is beautiful” was a motto of genius which uplifted us far above its intention. Once Americans had thought about it and perceived its truth, we began to realize that so are brown, white, red, and yellow beautiful.

JB: I think what I came through is great, but my son can take it to another level, not having to fight racism. His mother’s a Norwegian and I’m mixed up four or five times, so he can face the world.

(Another long pause. GF looks tired.)

GF: Sometimes we stumble in the dark, uncertain of the best course for ourselves and the nation we love.

(JB turns around.)

JB: It doesn’t matter how you travel it, it’s the same road. It doesn’t get any easier when you get bigger, it gets harder. And it will kill you if you let it.

GF: We cannot stand still or slip backwards. We must go forward now together.

(JB turns around again, nodding and smiling.)

JB: Die on your feet, don’t live on your knees.

Bark us all bow-wows of folly


Just a quick programming note: because of festive-type obligations, Soho the Dog will be officially on hiatus next week. That doesn’t mean there might not be an unofficial post or two if the spirit moves me, but I’m not making any promises.

In the meantime, I should probably start practicing those Balbastre Noëls for Christmas. When’s Christmas again? Oh, yeah—“The Twenty-Fifth of December” (as performed by the Middle Georgia Four in 1943).

Safe travels to anyone braving our crumbling transportation infrastructure. Happy holidays!

He’s making a list; he’s checking it twice

I was humming Christmas carols to myself last night, and I noticed that an awful lot of them start on the fifth scale degree. “Away in a Manger,” “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing,” “Il est né,” “Silent Night”—lots of them begin with sol. And, being me, I wondered: what kind of a data set would I need to see if this is a statistically significant variance? (Yeah, I’m that much fun at parties.)

Because of my job, I always have lots of Presbyterian hymnals lying around, so I used one of those. I tallied all the initial melodic scale degrees for the Christmas hymns, and then did the same for the rest of the book. Note that I tallied hymns, not tunes; if a tune was used more than once, it got counted more than once. (I skipped the service music.) A few of the tunes (less than 10) were chant-based, which didn’t always make it readily apparent what tonic was; I made judgment calls based on the prevailing harmony. Here’s what I got:

Christmas hymns (39):

Scale degree 1: 13 (33.3%)
Scale degree 3: 7 (18.0%)
Scale degree 5: 19 (48.7%)

Non-Christmas hymns (518):

Scale degree 1: 233 (45.0%)
Scale degree 3: 84 (16.2%)
Scale degree 5: 196 (37.8%)
Other: 5 (1%)

The positions of the 1st and 5th scale degrees are pretty much reversed. In fact, if you take the non-Christmas hymns as representing the expected distribution of initial pitch level, and then run a Pearson chi-square test on the Christmas hymns, you get a chi-square value of 6.385 (I hope I did that right; any mathematically-inclined readers out there should feel free to check my work); convert that to a probability (I used Richard Lowry’s online calculator) and you get 0.0411—that is, there’s about a 4% chance of finding yourself as far out on the tail of the distribution as the Christmas hymns are.

Weird. Why would Christmas songs be more likely to start on sol than do? Maybe it has to do with the season of Advent, the four weeks before Christmas in the Christian calendar. It’s the only part of the church year that’s specifically devoted to waiting (Lent, the period leading up to Easter, is much more about penance and reflection). By the time you get to Christmas itself, you’ve been spiritually standing around for the better part of a month. Slow carols tend to start on sol and then take their time getting to tonic, perhaps a musical reminder of the joys of expectation; fast ones jump in with a solid V-I cadence, a harmonic reassurace that, yes, you’ve made it, the day is finally here.

Or maybe it’s just a coincidence. Something to listen for over the weekend, though.

Update (12/22): Critic-at-large Moe pointed out to me that my math was only half right—I did the chi-square test on the percentages, which would be the equivalent of a 100-Christmas-hymn sample. If you use the actual 39-hymn sample, the chi-square is 2.63, which gives you a probability of 0.2685—about a 27% chance, in other words. To my taste, that’s still too far out on the curve for a random variance.

I didn’t come here to be consulted

Lord knows I try to be funny. I love coming up with absolutely absurd notions about music for your amusement. But OboeInsight reminds me that, try as I may, I just can’t compete with reality.

Canadian arts consultant Elaine Calder, hired by the Oregon Symphony to evaluate its weaknesses, has suggested that one problem is that the orchestra plays too much classical music.

She also suggested that zoos have too many animals and that sushi restaurants serve too much fish. It’s a symphony orchestra, you moron. What do you want them to play? Oh, right.

[Calder] points out that when the Edmonton orchestra played with Christian soft-rock singer Michael W. Smith, $250,000 worth of tickets were sold, mostly to symphony newcomers.

She also advocates performing in other locations, like churches, according to The Oregonian.

Oh, dear God. I’m all for pops concerts that boost the bottom line, but not pops concerts that are straight-up religious pandering. (How about some klezmer concerts and visits to the temple? An oud soloist and a trip to the mosque? Nah—it’s not like those people will ever assimilate. Besides, there aren’t enough of them to make pandering financially worthwhile!) If I were a patron of the Oregon Symphony, I’d be downsizing my donations by the exact amount they’re paying this blowhard.

Variations (2)

One wet morning, when she was playing the hotel piano, and he listening, thinking to have her to himself, there came a young German violinist—pale, and with a brown, thin-waisted coat, longish hair, and little whiskers—rather a beast, in fact. Soon, of course, this young beast was asking her to accompany him—as if anyone wanted to hear him play his disgusting violin! Every word and smile that she gave him hurt so, seeing how much more interesting than himself this foreigner was! And his heart grew heavier and heavier, and he thought: If she likes him I ought not to mind—only, I DO mind! How can I help minding? It was hateful to see her smiling, and the young beast bending down to her. And they were talking German, so that he could not tell what they were saying, which made it more unbearable. He had not known there could be such torture.

—John Galsworthy, The Dark Flower

(It wasn’t like the time I lost my boy—the time my boy played the piano with that girl Reina in a little New England farmhouse near Bennington, and I realized at last I wasn’t wanted. Guy Lombardo was on the air playing Top Hat and Cheek to Cheek, and she taught him the melodies. The keys falling like leaves and her hands splayed over his as she showed him a black chord. I was a freshman then.)

—F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Last Tycoon

CHARTERIS. She did what a woman like Julia always does. When I explained personally, she said it was not not my better self that was speaking, and that she knew I still really loved her. When I wrote it to her with brutal explicitness, she read the letter carefully and then sent it back to me with a note to say that she had not had the courage to open it, and that I ought to be ashamed of having written it. (Comes beside Grace, and puts his left hand caressingly round her neck.) You see, dearie, she won’t look the situation in the face.

GRACE. (shaking off his hand and turning a little away on the stool). I am afraid, from the light way in which you speak of it, you did not sound the right chord.

CHARTERIS. My dear, when you are doing what a woman calls breaking her heart, you may sound the very prettiest chords you can find on the piano; but to her ears it is just like this—(Sits down on the bass end of the keyboard. Grace puts her fingers in her ears.)

—George Bernard Shaw, The Philanderer

Cemetery Blues

Bring me the head of Georges Bizet! The bronze bust of the composer, best known for his operas Le docteur Miracle, Don Procopio, and Numa (he was also known to dabble in Spanish themes now and again), has been stolen from his grave in the famed Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

“We’re dealing with a group theft carried out over a short period of time,” said an unnamed source quoted in The Independent. “And there is without doubt a collector behind it. The pieces are almost never catalogued, and so it would be very easy to sell them on the black market.”

And only five shopping days left until Christmas! I need to update my list.

Investigators might want to check that now remounted Berlin production of Idomeneo (which, yesterday, I heard our local news radio station pronounce as Indomínio, with the accent on the third syllable, making it sound like a Phil Collins song). They were down a few heads as of last week—maybe they got desparate.

In terms of borrowing from Bizet, though, it doesn’t compare with the Horowitz transcription. (The Bizet starts at the 3:36 mark; you’ll have to sit through Schumann’s Träumerei first, which isn’t such a bad thing.)

That’s from his 1968 Carnegie Hall recital. Wondering what all those notes were? You can compare various transcriptions of all the successive versions of Horowitz’s Carmen Variations here (as well as other Horowitz arrangements and compositions, including the early “Danse Excentrique,” which remains one of my more prized 78s).

Also via YouTube, here’s a couple of wonderful silent home movies of Horowitz playing at parties in the 1920’s. If your primary image of Horowitz is as a kindly old man being bossed around by Toscanini’s daughter, it’s fun to see him at his most rakishly sly. I wonder what he’s playing in the first clip—he seems to be having a great time hamming it up.

Incidentally, the Horowitzes are unfortunately also no strangers to grave robbers. (And you thought I couldn’t bring this meandering post full circle.)

"Oh, take your next vacation in a brand new Frigidaire"

If you follow these things, you probably know by now that last week, Bank of America announced that it will no longer sponsor the Celebrity Series, one of the more venerable and reliable classical-music (and dance) concert promoters here in Boston. The Celebrity Series was founded in 1938 by Aaron Richmond (check out the first few seasons here, they’re pretty amazing)—since then, it’s operated under the auspices of Boston University, the Wang Center for the Performing Arts (soon to be the CitiCenter), and, since 1989, as a non-profit with Bank of Boston and its successors as lead sponsor. Three mergers later, North Carolina-based Bank of America is pulling out.

That’s fine—it’s their money, they can do with it what they like—but what’s with the disingenuous smarm?

[BoA Massachusetts President Robert] Gallery said it makes sense for the 68-year-old Celebrity Series to become more self-sufficient….

“These things have a life cycle, and this has been a pretty long run,” said Gallery. “We’re very proud of that, but every organization we work with, we want them to reach out to as broad a community as they can to develop as their funding base. No institution should be too dependent on one provider.”

Thanks for the advice, Polonius. Unfortunately, unlike your company, Bob, the Celebrity Series doesn’t have access to providers like, say, customers’ Social Security benefits, or $42 million in taxpayer-funded job retention subsidies (not that the last round of corporate welfare kept any of those jobs around), or $650 million in 9/11 Liberty Bonds to build a new office, um, nowhere near Ground Zero.

Yeah, yeah, I could probably pull skeletons out of any corporate closet I peer into. But come on—do you really expect us to believe that Bank of America is yanking its funding as some form of tough love? This is a numbers game. It should also be another shovelful of cemetery soil on the notion that corporations view arts philanthropy as anything more than tax-deductible advertising.

BoA was contributing $600,000 a year to the Celebrity Series. The Celebrity Series pulls in about 100,000 people a year; that works out to six bucks a person. To compare, they’ve also given $5 million over the past two years to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, including underwriting this year’s big “Americans in Paris” exhibition; extrapolating out from the only numbers I could find, the “Americans in Paris” show drew about 100,000 people in approximately three months. The back-of-the-envelope math still works out to around six bucks a person ($5 mil/24 months/~30,000 people per month; there’s added benefits for BoA in that the exhibition also visited London and New York, but nobody’s talking as to how much exactly was spent, and I don’t think it would make a huge difference in the calculation).

But figure in the number of people passing through the museum who didn’t buy the extra ticket needed for the exhibition, along with the plethora of bus, billboard, and streetlight-banner advertising that the MFA pumped out, all featuring the BoA logo, and that’s a lot more corporate exposure for your buck. In other words, the Celebrity Series is getting dumped not because it’s less efficient than other arts organizations, but because it’s more poorly suited to ancillary advertising benefits. It doesn’t have its own building; it doesn’t get a lot of “passers-by” to glimpse a corporate logo as they walk through; it isn’t big enough (as, for example, the MFA or the BSO) to warrant the kind of civic boosterism exemplified by those ubiquitous streetlamp banners.

BoA talks about changing “priorities,” but the driving force behind those priorities isn’t artistic excellence or value to the community. It’s rather that the priorities are things BoA can permanently and physically slap its name on, the emphasis is on philanthropy that comes with a high-profile billboard for the brand. Why do you think BoA is shifting its performing arts support to free and/or open-air events—and concentrating more and more on museums? (Peruse this already out-of-date list.) Why do you think their competitor CitiGroup spent $34 million to rename the Wang Center? Why do you think (in the for-profit realm) BoA is also spending a ton of money to sponsor NASCAR, as close to a gravitational singularity of corporate branding as you can get?

Again, they’re just doing what good corporations do to build their brand. But there’s two forces at work here that musicians need to be aware of. As corporations get bigger and bigger, and are frequently operating far away from their own home base, corporate visibility and brand promotion will become the main goal of all non-operational activity; the personal relationships and local civic pride that support smaller, less splashy causes will become more and more abstract until they disappear completely. And if visibility is the key, let’s face it: music is not the most visible of art forms. It would appear that the transitory, elusive nature of music has a real-world financial cost, at least in a society where the free market reigns, and philanthropy is just another front in the war for eyeballs. There’s a built-in bias towards the visual arts and organizations with a bricks-and-mortar component; mid-level venue-renting classical music organizations like the Celebrity Series, too big to scrape by on government grants and small donations, too small to be attractive to increasingly huge corporations, are left high and dry.

What’s to be done? Not much, I’m afraid. There are possible tax structures to try and alleviate this—for example, you could tie deduction rates to geographic diversity for companies operating in multiple states, or a balance between large and small receiving organizations; you could give greater breaks for long-term support, either via year-to-year increases or favors on extended commitments—but they all have significant downsides, and, more importantly, they’d just be used by corporations as an excuse to be less philanthropic overall. You could aggressively enforce anti-trust legislation—ahhh, who am I kidding?

No, the problem here is that corporate philanthropy requires a free-market benefit, and the benefits of classical music are rather poorly perceived by the free market—and those benefits are downright invisible unless the guy who pays the piper can make him wear a sandwich-board as well. Maybe you’re you’re more sanguine than I am about private philanthropy stepping in to close the gap, but for me, it’s this sort of situation that government arts funding was invented for—fixing the holes that the free market leaves behind. Yes, the government is inefficient, and unresponsive, and often downright stupid, but at least there’s a veneer of accountability, and at least they’re not particularly worried about building their brand (domestically, anyways). Besides, the alternative is like a boyfriend who breaks up with you because you don’t have enough pictures of him on your wall, and then tries to tell you it’s for your own good.

(The title? From these guys. The rest.)

This is your brain on drugs

Last week’s post on all things edible and ovoid brought forth a slew of creativity from the ether. I recommend you experience the entire comment thread in all it’s mouth-watering glory; here are a few of my favorites.

From Ben.H of Boring Like a Drill fame:

Eggs Antheil: Place a pistol in clear sight on the kitchen counter. Cook eggs using fifteen pressure cookers, while switching on every fan, electric mixer, garbage disposal, blender, and smoke alarm. When done, throw out the lot and cook another set of eggs in a traditional manner, as your mother used to make. Serve with a toast to Hedy Lamarr. Do not switch off your cellphone.

(This one actually got my lovely wife curious enough to want to hear some Antheil.)

From the intensely serene Seth Gordon:

Eggs Cardew: Truffles are for the elitists! I will eat my eggs with a simple accompaniment of fermented beans and fish heads, as Chairman Mao did.

Be sure to also check out Seth’s updated Eggs Partch recipe, which is a thing of beauty.

Galen Brown leaves us wanting more:

Eggs Cage: Heat up your frying pan. Turn it off. Think about what not eating eggs tastes like.

Although, as Mark Meyer cautions, best to avoid cage-free eggs.

Speaking of Cage, Colin Holter whips up an imaginary landscape:

Eggs Champaign-Urbana: Devise an elaborate plan for cooking eggs in a manner that will produce mildly piquant results. (Consider Herbert Brun’s ideas on language.) When finished, name your eggs with an adjective followed by a singular common noun.

In honor of UIUC, a suggested title: Flat Cornfield.

The mysterious Susanna cooks for a crowd:

Eggs Mahler: Obtain 432 eggs. Claim you have a thousand. Cook as many of the eggs as time permits. Invite people over. When they’ve had enough eggs, give them some more eggs. This really only needs to be done about once every twelve years.

Samuel Vriezen keeps it simple:

Eggs Messaien: Brood.

And from the Hardest-Working Supposedly-On-Hiatus Man in Show Business, Alex Ross:

Eggs Wuorinen: Music is much more complicated than eggs. It is a typical travesty of the “I Pod” generation to talk about serious music of a problematical character in relation to eggs. Moreover, in the wake of twelve-note composition, eggs have become superfluous. But, if eggs must be made, scramble them vigorously for nineteen minutes.

Finally, from the palate of Daniel Wolf, an actual recipe. I’ll name it appropriately:

Eggs Wolf: Take one ostrich, one duck, and one quail egg. Store them refrigerated, tip downward, for at least 24 hours (to insure that the yolks are centered). Hard boil the eggs, each at the appropriate time length, scare with cold water and peel and slice in half lengthways immediately to avoid greying. Remove yolks and mash them until smooth with a bit of mayonnaise, toasted and ground spices (fenugreek, cayenne, mustard, cumin, coriander), one finely chopped small dill pickle and salt to taste. Now place the the quail egg white within the duck egg white, and that within the ostrich egg white, with a healthy layer of the yolk mixture between the white layers and in the quail egg white. Garnish with sweet paprika powder and fresh fenugreek and coriander leaves.

Again, read ’em all if you haven’t: they’re all good. Thanks also to Alistair, Mike, Marc, and Zachary, who, like Susanna, are but names—if any of you have a web presence you’d like me to link to, e-mail me and I’ll update the post. (And, from Matt Van Brink, don’t miss the Steakhausen compendium of puns.)