Month: August 2007

Deeds, Not Words

Drummer Max Roach has passed away. Jazz fans don’t need an introduction, but even if your jazz record collection is limited to a few choice highlights, chances are that Roach is playing on some of them—the number and variety of landmark sessions he was a part of boggles the mind. Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton—Roach played with them all. It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that Roach changed drumming the way Liszt changed piano playing.

Darcy James Argue has many more links.

Flattery, the sincerest form of

Another transfer from 78 RPM: Raymond Scott and his New Orchestra, circa 1941, with “When Cootie Left the Duke.”

Raymond Scott and his New Orchestra: “When Cootie Left the Duke” (MP3, 3.1 MB)

The title refers to trumpeter Cootie Williams, who left Duke Ellington’s band (amicably) in 1940 to join Benny Goodman, and then to form his own band. (Williams rejoined the Ellington orchestra in 1962.) The music is a bluesy lament that riffs on both Williams’ plunger-mute style and Ellington’s lush instrumentation. This is a perfect example of a piece of music that owes its existence to the advent of recording. In referring to a specific performer, Scott is not only utilizing that perfromer’s recorded repertoire to nail down his particular style, he’s counting on the listener being familiar enough with Williams and Ellington to appreciate the tribute.

These types of pieces predate recording, of course—think of those Ravel “…á la maniére de” miniatures—but the older versions mostly reference compositional, not interpretive styles. The only pre-20th-century example I can think of off the top of my head (there must be a few others) that specifically riffs on an individual’s performance style is in the “Chopin” movement from Robert Schumann’s op. 9 Carnaval.

That “4-5-5-4-5” fingering on the ornament is a typical, recognizable Chopinism. (As Charles Rosen has pointed out, it’s by far the most Chopinesque thing in the piece.) But that’s a rare example of a personal, idiosyncratic performance habit that’s easily translated into notation.

In the post-recording era, composers have sought to portray particular performers’ styles—Christopher Rouse’s Bonham (channeling the Led Zeppelin drummer), for example, or William Bolcom’s Violin Concerto (which contains a tribute to jazz violinist Joe Venuti)—but the need for absolute precision in translating the style into notation is obviated by the availability of recordings of the original performers; the notation only needs to meet the players’ knowledge halfway.

(I’m trying to think of an instance of a classical performer making the choice to refer to another classical performer without specific prompting from the composer, and again, I’ve only come up with one, but it’s a favorite—the 1960 world premiere of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when Peter Pears, playing Flute playing Thisbe in the final act’s opera-within-an-opera, seized on Britten’s bel canto-parody music and brought the house down with an over-the-top Joan Sutherland impression.)

Unlikely music critic of the day

We arrived in Rome at night to a reception ceremony held for security reasons in the courtyard of the Quirinale Palace. Colorful lancers on horseback were lined up in neat rows as the national anthems were played. The charming Italian anthem is probably the least martial-sounding one in the world; it is not easy to go forth to battle to the strains of what sounds almost like a waltz.

—Henry Kissinger, White House Years (1979), p. 921

Dr. Kissinger apparently doesn’t appreciate the considerably rousing power of the traditional cantilena-cabaletta sequence of Italian opera. The Inno de Mameli (“Fratelli d’Italia”)—tune by Goffredo Mameli’s friend Michele Novaro—dates from 1847. Sing along with the MP3! (1.3 MB)

Fratelli d’Italia,
L’Italia s’è desta
Dell’elmo di Scipio
S’è cinta la testa.
Dove’è la Vittoria?
Le porga la chioma;
Chè schiava di Roma
Iddio la creò.
Stringiamoci a coorte,
Siam pronti alla morte;
Siam pronti alla morte:
Italia chiamò!
Italian brothers,
Italy has risen
With Scipio’s helmet
Upon her head.
Where is Victory?
Let her bow down;
The slave of Rome
God has made her.
Let us gather into corps,
We are ready to die;
We are ready to die:
Italy is calling!

And here’s Gli Azzurri, the Italian national football team, approaching the task with enthusiasm at their 2006 World Cup victory celebration.

Previously: 1, 2.

Surfin’ Sephardi

I’m working in a coffee shop this morning, and they’re piping in some odd smooth-jazz/Muzak version of “Good Vibrations,” and a clarinet has the melody, and darned if it doesn’t make the song into a convincing klezmer hora/freilach pairing. Brian Wilson is G—d!

Get on board

It seems like a good time to check in on that alleged Death of Classical Music. But first, let’s talk a little bit about non-functional demand curves.

The what now? Hey, you’re smarter than you think—even if you’ve never cracked an economics textbook, you probably have an intuitive sense for the traditional, functional demand curve: all other things remaining equal, as the price of a good goes down, demand goes up, and vice versa. But there are also non-functional demand curves, when the relationship between price and demand isn’t so well-behaved.

The classic paper on non-functional demand is economist Harvey Liebenstein’s “Bandwagon, Snob, and Veblen Effects in the Theory of Consumer Demand” (JSTOR link), published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics in May, 1950. As Liebenstein puts it:

[T]he proposed analysis is designed to take account the desire of people to wear, buy, do, consume, and behave like their fellows; the desire to join the crowd, be “one of the boys,” etc.—phenomena of mob motivations and mass psychology either in their grosser or more delicate aspects. This is the type of behaviour involved in what we shall call the “bandwagon effect.” On the other hand, we shall also attempt to take account of the search for exclusiveness by individuals through the purchase of distinctive clothing, foods, automobiles, houses, or anything else that individuals may believe will in some way set them off from the mass of mankind—or add to their prestige, dignity, and social status.

The bandwagon effect is the most familiar: makers of trendy goods can charge more for them, even if there’s no danger of a supply shortage—demand goes up even though the price doesn’t go down. Liebenstein, as he hints in the above passage, divides the second category in two: a “snob effect,” where a good becomes desirable simply because most people don’t have it; and a “Veblen effect” (named for the originator of the concept of conspicuous consumption), where a decrease in the price of a high-status good decreases its perceived status, and thus its demand.

I’m not trying to argue that classical music falls into one or the other of these categories—one of the great misguided assumptions in most reports of classical music’s “death” is that classical music itself is a single product, rather than an umbrella categorization of a host of varying (and sometimes competing) goods. But I do propose that where one’s opinion falls on the health of classical music has a lot to do with how one imagines its demand curve, and what kind of a curve one would like it to be.

Basically: people who say classical music is dying are doing so, in large part, because they don’t think that classical music generates enough of a bandwagon effect. (Some will often go further, charging classical-music organizations with actively promoting a snob effect in their marketing.) A lot of this arises from a comparison with pop, and is usually follwed by a prescription to present and market classical music more like pop culture. Pop culture dominates the market because it generates lots of bandwagon effect—it’s designed to. (Think of the way Hollywood blockbusters are marketed, and the way they open in thousands of theaters to maximize the return on their short-lived bandwagons.) Unless it can follow suit, it’s claimed, classical music will be left hopelessly in the dust. Not that classical music doesn’t have its own bandwagon effects—Peter Gelb, for example, has shown a fair talent for generating buzz at the Met—but it’s never enough in this kind of analysis.

There’s almost always an accompanying argument that classical music must be dying because it’s lost the competition for mindshare/media attention/cultural relevance. The concept is similar to another economic idea, a close relative of bandwagons. It’s called a network effect. The best example of this is a telephone: the value of a telephone to a potential buyer has a lot to do with how many other people are within the same telephone network. The fanciest phone in the world doesn’t do you a whole lot of good if it’ll only connect you to two or three other numbers. In the same vein, critics will say that classical music doesn’t really matter anymore, because only a small portion of the potential audience listens to it.

So when people ask if classical music is dying, in economic language, what they’re really asking is some combination of these two questions:

1. Are current benefits from non-functional demand sufficient for classical music organizations to remain economically viable?

2. Is the ultimate value of an artistic pursuit necessarily dependent on its ability to generate network effects?

I would answer those questions “yes” and “no”; thus, I do not think that classical music is dying.

I admit that my answer to the first question is based on anecdotal evidence; enough organizations, ensembles, and recording companies seem to be making enough money to be hanging in there, still doing what they’re doing. And enough musicians seem to come along, generation after generation, finding a way to make a living. It might actually be possible to collect enough relevant data to settle this question one way or another. I think that both the non-utilitarian and fragmented natures of the product would make such data pretty slippery; still, at least in theory, it’s a testable hypothesis.

But the second question, in reality, isn’t economic at all. It’s philosophical. And this is why this argument has gone on, and will go on, for so, so long. There’s no way to prove that question one way or another—either you believe that art has an intrinsic value regardless of the size of its audience, or you don’t.

Rudolf Serkin, infamously, once played the entirety of Bach’s Goldberg Variations as an encore. “When I finished,” he remembered, “there were only four people left in the hall—Adolph Busch, Artur Schnabel, Alfred Einstein and myself.” Did the value of Serkin’s recital dwindle along with the number listening? Hardly. My sanguine view of the survival of classical music is reflected in that illustrious trio staying in their seats. There will always be an audience whose demand for the music will remain purely functional, immune to fads, buzz, trends, what have you. Will it be smaller than the audience for this month’s pop sensation? Probably. Does that matter? Nope.

Ni les peintres ni Maupassant ne se promènent

I’m guessing this is the week when it hit everybody that summer is almost over. Here’s a little creation to soothe your melancholy. I realized that I had never named a drink in honor of Francis Poulenc, so I’ll borrow the title of one of my favorite of his songs, a bittersweet Apollinaire recollection of the perfect summer hang-out, now closed, never again to be graced by frivolity, abandon, or pretty girls dumb as cabbages.

La Grenouillère

Equal parts:
Dry gin
Apple eau de vie
Rose’s Sweetened Lime Juice

Shake with cracked ice and strain into a martini glass.

While you imbibe: here’s Poulenc himself, along with Jacques Février, performing the second movement of his 1932 Concerto for two pianos.

Soothe Me

Here’s a pending patent application with the World Intellectual Property Organization. The inventor is Michinobu Suzuki, working for a company called the Faith 21 Corporation. What, exactly, is this new product?

A musical instrument having a substance, which obtained by blending microparticles of a natural mineral such as graphite-silica emitting far-infrared radiation or minus ions with various coatings, applied and/or deposited in a definite part of the instrument body. Since this instrument can emit the far-infrared radiation or minus ions by itself or in the tone range thereof during musical performance, it can soothe the heart of the musician or listeners around her/him. At the same time, attempts are made to improve the physiological effects of the far-infrared radiation or minus ions on the human body to thereby enhance natural healing ability and preventive effects against diseases.

I should find a Japanese speaker to translate the full description, although I doubt it would make a whole lot more sense. In the meantime, somewhere out there, Scriabin is updating his Christmas list.