Reviewing Le Poème Harmonique and Tragicomedia.
Boston Globe, June 18, 2007.
Reviewing Le Poème Harmonique and Tragicomedia.
Reviewing Le Poème Harmonique and Tragicomedia.
Boston Globe, June 18, 2007.
It’s Bloomsday, the anniversary of Leopold Bloom’s 1904 ramble around Dublin in James Joyce’s 1922 novel Ulysses. I guarantee you that most of what you read about Ulysses today will emphasize its shock of the new, its revolutionary style, its impact on the avant-garde. All true, but I thought it might be fun to mention one aspect of the book that’s thoroughly 19th-century: Richard Wagner.
Joyce was an amateur opera singer, and, according to evidence, rather a good one—he himself occasionally only half-jokingly wished he had pursued singing instead of writing. He knew the repertoire, and his works abound in operatic references. The use of Wagner, though, goes a little deeper.
The most famous Wagnerian bit in Ulysses comes in the “Circe” episode, when Bloom and Stephen Dedalus visit a brothel. Stephen carries an ashplant cane that becomes an ersatz version of Siegfried’s sword:
STEPHEN: AH NON, PAR EXEMPLE! The intellectual imagination! With me all or not at all. NON SERVIAM!
FLORRY: Give him some cold water. Wait. (SHE RUSHES OUT)
THE MOTHER: (WRINGS HER HANDS SLOWLY, MOANING DESPERATELY) O Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on him! Save him from hell, O Divine Sacred Heart!
STEPHEN: No! No! No! Break my spirit, all of you, if you can! I’ll bring you all to heel!
THE MOTHER: (IN THE AGONY OF HER DEATHRATTLE) Have mercy on Stephen, Lord, for my sake! Inexpressible was my anguish when expiring with love, grief and agony on Mount Calvary.
(HE LIFTS HIS ASHPLANT HIGH WITH BOTH HANDS AND SMASHES THE CHANDELIER. TIME’S LIVID FINAL FLAME LEAPS AND, IN THE FOLLOWING DARKNESS, RUIN OF ALL SPACE, SHATTERED GLASS AND TOPPLING MASONRY.)
Certainly there’s a lot going on here, but the “Nothung” reference to Siegfried’s sword, importantly, echoes one of Joyce’s Irish compatriots, the writer George Augustus Moore. Moore packed his novels with music, especially Evelyn Innes and Sister Teresa, both of which concern music and music-making, abetted with copious detail. (“I hear it has to be played on the piano,” Oscar Wilde once quipped about one of Moore’s books.) Moore consciously tried to emulate Wagnerian leitmotif structure in his work, which was not unusual for novelists of the time, but the quest for a specifically “Irish” literary identity gave Moore’s efforts extra urgency. Towards the end of his autobiography Hail and Farewell, Moore writes this aria:
Ireland has lain too long under the spell of the magicians, without will, without intellect, useless and shameful, the despised of nations. I have come into the most impersonal country in the world to preach personality—personal love and personal religion, personal art, personality for all except God…. I asked myself if I were Siegfried, son of Sigmund slain by Hunding, and if it were not my fate to reforge the sword that lay broken in halves in Mimi’s cave. It seemed to me that the garden filled with tremendous music, out of which came a phrase glittering like a sword suddenly drawn from its sheath and raised defiantly to the sun.
At this point in the text, Moore inserts, in musical notation, Wagner’s “Nothung” motif.
Stephen’s swordplay, is then, in the prism of Moore, as much a reflection of his aspiring-writer character as it is a Joycean operatic flourish. Hail and Farewell was first published in 1914, and it’s highly unlikely that Joyce didn’t read it—Joyce has Stephen name-drop Moore elsewhere in Ulysses. Both Moore and Joyce knew and were influenced by the French writer Edouard Dujardin, Joyce crediting him with inspiring his own stream-of-consciousness style. Not coincidentally, Dujardin was a thorough Wagnerian, co-founding a Révue Wagnérienne and providing the template for much of the Irish Wagnerian experimentation. The ashplant brandishing is as much satire as mythmaking, but it points up the deeply Romantic underpinnings of Ulysses. Moore and Joyce were asymptotically converging on a myth of Irishness reminiscent of the way 19th-century German’s attempted to construct their own national identity. Isaiah Berlin, in lectures published as The Roots of Romanticism, put it this way:
Therefore we must have modern myths, and since there are no modern myths, because science has killed them, or at any rate has made the atmosphere unpropitious to them, we must create them. As a result there is a conscious process of myth-making: we find, in the early nineteenth century, a conscientious and painful effort to construct myths—or perhaps not so painful, perhaps some of it could be described as spontaneous—which will serve us in the way in which the old myths served the Greeks.
As the most successful mythmaker of the Romantic era, Wagner was an inspiration to an entire generation of Irish artists catching up to the century-old idea of a created cultural nationalism. For all its modernity, the energy of Ulysses is just as much about making up for lost time.
Further reading: Alex Ross highlights more Wagner allusions. If you have JSTOR access, you can read William Blisset’s 1961 article “George Moore and Literary Wagnerism” and Timothy Martin’s “Joyce, Wagner, and the Artist-Hero.” Martin’s full-length study Joyce and Wagner is out of print: hunt around.
Phil at Dial “M” was kind enough to consider this concatenation of ramblings the work of a “Thinking Blogger”, which is certainly a generous assessment of somebody who can’t even quote Beatles lyrics correctly. (I’m leaving it up there, though, just to bait humor-challenged baby-boomer rockists.) Ah, but honor comes at great price, Daniel-san. See, here are the rules of this “Thinking Blogger” thing:
1. If, and only if, you get tagged, write a post with links to 5 blogs that make you think,
2. Link to this post so that people can easily find the exact origin of the meme,
3. Optional: Proudly display the ‘Thinking Blogger Award’ with a link to the post that you wrote.
See that sidebar over there? Those are all blogs that make me think. (And that list is badly in need of updating, as I notice that, for example, neither ANAblog nor Roger Bourland are up there.) So I’m supposed to pick five of those and leave the rest seething in resentment? That’s no fun. So here’s my cop-out: I’ll pick five non-music blogs that make me think. Ha! Sweep the leg, Johnny!
1. Marginal Revolution. I don’t always agree with economists Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok, but the great thing is, they don’t always agree, either, and they regularly link to opinions they don’t agree with. Their blog is one-stop-shopping for the state of the dismal science, on topics trivial and profound. There is no way you will click that link and not learn something. Bonus: Tyler’s Northern Virginia-DC Ethnic Dining Guide. If I ever perjure myself sufficiently on the application form to land government work, my gut will be happy.
2. Arms Control Wonk. Jeffrey Lewis and his fellow wonks keep tabs on once and future nuclear weapons around the world. Scary and funny: kind of like if The War Game were directed by Richard Lester. Bonus: potential opera libretto material.
3. Language Log. The hub of international anti-prescriptivist revolutionary activity—in other words, a sharp-as-nails bunch who know that the way language should be used is far more boring than the way language actually is used. Bonus: no such thing as a dumb question.
4. Renewable Music. Fine, I’ll include a music blog. But this is seed capital, OK? I expect this “Thinking Blogger” award all over the classical blogosphere by Canada Day. We’re all thinkers, dagnab it! I’ll start it with Daniel Wolf, just because he knows that the point of intellectual activity isn’t the grand a-ha conclusion, but all the fascinating waystations along the journey. Bonus: really, you’re too skinny.
5. We have a tie! Barbra Streisand-Katharine Hepburn-style duplicate hardware to a couple of fine newspaper bloggers: Geoff Edgers of the Boston Globe and Jim Emerson of the Chicago Sun-Times. Bonus: follow Emerson’s sidebar links to a whole bunch of movie blogs, and classical music bloggers will feel like they’re in some kind of parallel universe.
Now, I’m off to assume a Rodin-esque pose.
Reviewing The King’s Noyse.
Boston Globe, June 14, 2007.
I was in a Starbucks for coffee this morning, which is unusual for me, but my local joint is closed for vacation this week. This is a long way of explaining why, although I knew Starbucks had been hawking Paul McCartney’s new solo album, I hadn’t actually seen the tag line they were using to promote it:
The solo album worthy of his musical legacy.
That there is some semiotically complicated advertising copy. I’m guessing the immediate subliminal message is supposed to be a solo album as good as the stuff he did with the Beatles, but what really fascinates me is that, although the vocabulary is supposed to hint at classical-music high-art timelessness (for better or worse, nobody talks about Lipps, Inc.‘s “musical legacy”), almost every word of that sentence points up some difference between pop music and classical music.
The: It’s not “an” album, it’s “the” album, implying that fans have universally been waiting for the event of this CD. This is a pretty common conceit in pop music—lots of releases are touted as “the new album”—but it’s one you almost never see in classical music. Next season, the BSO is premiering a new symphony by John Harbison, and I’ll bet money that’s how it will be described in the press release: “a new symphony by John Harbison,” not “the new John Harbison symphony.” I’m not sure why this is: more focus on the piece than the composer? A tacit agreement to withhold judgement on the work’s significance until after it’s been heard? Unconscious self-effacement due to classical music’s comparatively marginalized status in popular culture? You make the call.
One other thing: notice how “the” in this case also separates this album from all of McCartney’s other solo albums, which presumably weren’t worthy of his musical legacy, although it leaves open the possibility that the Wings albums were.
Solo: Well, of course it’s a solo album, unless you think Paul McCartney is arrogant enough to form a new band and then name the band “Paul McCartney.” But the word is due to the complicated fact that McCartney’s musical legacy is indelibly bound up with three other guys. Take out “solo” and the playing field is uncomfortably expanded—I’m sure there are plenty of people who think that the one album really worthy of McCartney’s musical legacy is Let It Be.
I can’t think of a classical performer that’s in this boat—for example, a solo violinist who’s in constant competition with memories of his or her string quartet days—and the only composer I can think of is Arthur Sullivan. In rock and pop, though, this happens all the time.
Album: Even forty years after Sgt. Pepper’s, the single still rules the pop world, whereas masterpiece status in classical music still tends to accrue to large, multi-movement works. I always think of McCartney, who’s at his best on a three-minute canvas, to be caught in between that particular rock and hard place. Really, what would be worthy of his legacy would be a bright, melancholy pop gem that ruled the charts for a summer.
Worthy: The most loaded word here, because it’s talking about three things at once: the album itself, which (according to the ad) is something good enough for McCartney to put his name on; McCartney himself, who (according to the ad) has finally lived up to the potential he’s teased his fans with all these years; and, most importantly, the fans who (according to the ad) at long last have the album they’ve been patiently awaiting that whole time, suffering through McCartney’s previous presumably sub-standard efforts. This one word, I think, encapsulates the essential impossibility of McCartney’s position, and makes me glad to be in the classical world, where simply reliving your past glories or doing what everyone expects of you tends to get old really fast. I may never have millions of fans, but I’ll never have millions of disappointed fans, either.
Of: Equally loaded. Think about this one for a minute—the ad is saying that the intrinsic essence of this album somehow deserved to have Paul McCartney’s musical legacy bestowed on it. (Maybe it’s supposed to mean “worthy of being part of his musical legacy”—but that’s not what it says, is it?) The idea that creations take on a life of their own, independent of the creator’s intentions, is pretty common; here we have the notion that creations are out there, totally independent of their creators, and whether or not the one you happen to stumble on is amenable to your own talents is pretty much a crapshoot. This one could apply equally well to any genre, really; in classical music, it’s usually used as a warning against slack diligence. Think of Ravel’s comment to the effect that, he composed every day, because when inspiration struck, he wanted to be sure he was around.
His: A near-symmetrical reinforcement to “solo.” Interestingly, in classical music, one’s personal legacy is usually transmitted through other people: students, adherents, disciples who continue to work in the stylistic furrow you first plowed. In pop, it seems, your legacy is transmitted to yourself, which would echo the American ideal of self-invention—and re-invention.
Musical: Something that pop music does much better than classical music is put aside the musicians’ personal foibles. Is this album worthy of McCartney’s personal legacy? Who cares? It’s all about the music, man. In the classical world, we’re constantly talking about Wagner’s anti-Semitism, or Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality, or Mozart’s potty mouth, as if they were some window into the interpretation of their works. The thing is, the translation from music into notes and back into music again is so fuzzy at each step of the way that a good performer will inevitably turn to the composer’s life for any possible clues or insights. Does this mean Wagner’s anti-Semitism should somehow inform how you play (or hear) his music? No—but it’s much, much harder to ignore. Pop songs, as we experience them, are pre-existing sound, not notation that needs to be converted to sound—any personal information you might need to understand it is usually already part of the finished product.
Legacy: For pop music to be talking about legacies is a big change from the 1950s and 60s. Nik Cohn, in his fantastic late-60s rock eulogy Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom, mentions a Stan Freberg satire on pop music of the 1950s: a young heartthrob is ushered into a recording studio and just sings the words “highschool highschool highschool” over and over again. That’s what rock and pop was: music for teenagers. I’ve always thought that big shift in popular culture in the 60s wasn’t the fact of rock-and-roll, but that everybody started talking and writing about rock-and-roll in the same way that previous generations had talked about classical music, which, to my ear, was always in uneasy conflict with the ephemeral, youthful nature of the music itself—the vocabulary that had evolved to talk about music as an art form was a square peg in the round hole of a genre that didn’t put a premium on ambiguous reflections on the essential decay and mortality that’s part of the human condition. (Not that all classical music mines this ore, of course, but when you think about it, a lot of the really celebrated monuments do, either with rue or defiance.) McCartney is now, famously, sixty-four, and even the title of the new album hints at the constant presence of the past, the interlocking network of time within which we construct our perception of the world and ourselves. Rock and pop songs navigating this territory have been in the minority; looking around now, though, you can see a new confluence in the psychic landscape of pop and non-pop.
Yeah, yeah, I know this post now represents an approximately sixteen-thousand-percent expansion on a bit of text from an advertisement. But it puts into words the sort of thing that all musicians, especially composers, try to embed in the music: a management of expectations that results in a more meaningful experience for the listener. In this case, the goal may only be measuring that experience as meaningful in so far as the listener forks over his or her money to buy the album. But, in a sense, every piece of music is also functioning as its own tag line; it gives a little taste of the inexhaustable complexity of music to realize just how complicated even a simple advertisement can be.
We’re heading into the patriotic season here in the U.S. (Flag Day, Independence Day, Carl Garner Federal Lands Clean-Up Day), and if you’re going to be singing the national anthem, Howard Weiss has words for you.
People forget the original purpose, and now the national anthem has become a vehicle for shameless self-promotion by many popular entertainers.
Singers and instrumentalists tastelessly ornament the original melody by adding high notes that were not written, actually singing/playing wrong notes and rhythms and holding notes way beyond the composer’s written intentions. They are calling attention to themselves and not the more noble purposes of the national anthem. The self-aggrandizing posture is loathsome!
Weiss is the former concertmaster of the Rochester Philharmonic, and the founding conductor of the Rochester Youth Symphony (not to mention a long-suffering Cubs fan, apparently), so we’ll take his rant seriously, but even still, I think he’s trying to lasso a river here. (As a sometime organist, I also need to point out that the Ives “Variations” are on “My Country, ‘Tis Of Thee.”) Is it unpatriotic to fess up and say that I think “The Star-Spangled Banner” is a less-than-stellar piece of music? It’s far too hard to sing (an octave-and-a-half range? Yikes), it commemorates a war that wasn’t one of our more shining moments; and unless you know any verse beyond the first, it ends on an unanswered yes-or-no question. (It’s not accidental that the renditions Weiss holds up for admiration are instrumental.) And as for “the more noble purposes” of the anthem, the only reason I don’t advocate switching to “America the Beautiful” (a lovely Katherine Lee bates poem sung to Francis Ward Smith’s lovely Materna), is that the current tune was originally a drinking song.
No, that’s not the only reason. We need this anthem. I think it’s a good bulwark against fascism and undue state-worship to have an anthem that’s so inevitably caterwauled. It’s a reminder that songs, or flags, or rituals aren’t what made this country great; America has been at its greatest when fallible individuals have reached out to other fallible individuals, with all the risk it entails. The anthem is, like the country, more a hopeful ideal than a fixed artifact. When the crowd cheers for the high note, they’re recognizing the chance the singer is taking; when the singer misses, it lets just enough air out of the dignity of the proceedings to remind us how far we have to go. The awful, beautiful thing about this country is that it is, still, an unresolved question.
And hey, every once in a while you get Marvin Gaye.
Charles Addams, the great New Yorker cartoonist whose lugubrious turn of mind suggested an important source for a death fantasy, wrote (without sending an illustration) as follows: “I am hoping to break into a thousand tiny pieces while attending a theremin concert in Malone, N.Y., in mid January.”
I was very excited by this, but not knowing what a “theremin” was, I had to reach Mr. Addams on the phone to ask. I said I was embarrassed not to know; someone had assured me that a theremin was a kind of “Eastern” religion, and the “cracking into a thousand pieces” was the consequence of being peered at by a waiflike holy man enveloped in a white shroud.
“No, no, no,” said Mr. Addams. “Heavens no. A theremin is a musical instrument… a sort of electrical coil which gives off a humming sound.”
“It works by the distance you hold your hand to it. The closer you put your hand,” Mr. Addams went on, “the higher the tone, and right up close you can get a terrific vibrational shriek. It’s a bona fide musical instrument and by making the proper hocus-pocus gestures you can get Beethoven’s Fifth out of it, or anything else.”
I said I was relieved to know that he didn’t want to be extinguished by a guru’s glance, and he said, “No, no, no, no,” again. “A theremin. A theremin.” He said that he had thoroughly enjoyed working out the problem. “A real challenge,” he said.
—George Plimpton, Shadow Box
News and opinion of a musicological bent from all over:
Over at Sounds & Fury, A.C. Douglas, in his inimitable style (i.e., framed as some sort of righteous smackdown), waxes knowledgeably about dynamic markings in Wagner. This is part of a subject close to my heart, the difference between notated scores as representations of the music or as instruction manuals. Some composers (Schumann and Webern, for example) seem to construct their scores as paper versions of the end effect of the piece on the listener: you can read the score and imagine the sounds in your head without any translation. Wagner aimed for the latter: his markings are designed to take into account what he suspects the individual musicians are going to do naturally, and he either countermands it or tacitly allows it to happen. (This is one of the reasons I like to know as much about a composer’s personality as I do about his or her music before I perform it—you can get a sense of how they approach this sort of communication.)
The guys at Amusicology are back blogging now that the finals crunch has disspated, and it’s like coming across a network summer-replacement series that’s exponentially better than anything on the fall schedule. The latest fun: Ryan tracks down a persistent, suspiciously too-good-to-be-true anecdote about George Gershwin’s childhood, and in the process, points out the slippery nature of even what seem to be primary sources.
George Hunka, from a theatrical perspective, lays it on the line with regards to challenge and accessibility. As time goes on, I get the sense that the move towards audence-friendliness is in large part due to increased modern opportunities to be played for a fool—with the number of scams, hoaxes, and misinformation we run into every day, people are less inclined to give the avant-garde a chance if there’s any hint of a con about it. Personally, I learned to enjoy being a fool, because a) the payoff for risking being an audience-member patsy has been so high for me, and b) you go through three-quarters of your life as a fool anyway. (However, I do have my new shorthand for meaningless, artistically cynical provocation: “No soap; radio!”)
Phil Ford calls for lolmusicologists. I give this lol thing about eight more weeks—enjoy it while it lasts, meme-aficionados! I’ll play along, not least because “lolTaruskin” is the funniest-looking word I’ll type all week.
The other day was a good one for serendipitous musical juxtapositions. In the car, I got Glenn Gould’s performance of the b-minor prelude from Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier drifting slowly in and out of rhythmic phase with the clicking of the turn signal; waiting in the dentist’s chair, the ceiling speaker serenaded me with the Talking Heads ballad “Heaven,” which I imagine is the closest my life will ever get to turning into a Jim Jarmusch movie; later, while correcting papers, I needed to reference something on iTunes, and mindlessly leaving it on, six songs later, Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters started singing “White Christmas,” which is always much more poignant in hot weather anyway.
I think this intersection of everyday life with random pre-recorded music, an experience unique to the last 75 years or so, has changed the way we expect to interact with music. This sort of serendipity goes way back, of course—think of Clément Janequin’s “Les cris de Paris,” a quodlibet of 16th-century vendors’ cries; In the 19th century, there was a bit of a vogue for the combination of worldly concerns and overheard church music, Schumann’s song “Sonntags am Rhine” being a gorgeous example. But it’s only in the 20th century that music begins to be piped in everywhere, where it’s possible for the sort of surreal found art you get from hearing doo-wop in the supermarket, or free jazz in traffic, or Mozart’s greatest hits while on hold on the phone. We’re far more used to music grabbing our attention in unexpected and often inappropriate situations.
Occasionally there’s a bit of music that pays knowing, beautiful homage to this novel ubiquity. One of the other songs that turned up during my grading shuffle play was “Dance, Dance, Dance” by the Beach Boys, a fragment of pop at its most ephemerally joyous. There’s an upward modulation to the final chorus that always sticks with me—a jarring, shift-without-a-clutch harmonic crank in the backing track disguised by a genial slide in the voices. It’s an uncanny musical representation of an old car radio, the kind where the presets were accessed with those black push-buttons that physically yanked the needle to the appropriate place on the dial. Normally, any piece that conjures an experience so time- and place-specific tends to dilute its purely musical impact for me; I’m pulled out of the piece and into another world of reduced possibilities. This one always works for me, though—I’m there in the car, peeved that the current offering isn’t bright and rhythmic enough, punching the radio, looking for an epiphany. It’s an appropriate fantasy for listeners saturated with music: to be able to grab control of the ambient mix, and tune the ether to the exact song for that moment of your life.