Month: October 2007

Many Happy Returns of the Day

MASSENET’S ‘GHOST’
SEEN AT REHEARSALS

—————
Singers and Stage Hands of the
Paris Gaiete-Lyrique Swear
They Behold an Apparition.
—————
ACTS AS IF LEADING OPERA
—————
Outsiders Unable to See Anything
on Stage Where Composer’s Last
Work Is Being Made Ready.
—————
Special Cable to The New York Times.

PARIS, April 20.—What is regarded by the Paris artistic world as the chief musical event of the season, the premiere of “Panurge,” the last work of Massenet, scheduled to be given Tuesday at the municipal Opera House, the Gaieté-Lyrique, has taken on additional interest because of the assertions of singers and stage hands that the stage is haunted at every rehearsal by the ghost of the composer.

The extraordinary affair has been kept secret for a fortnight, but just leaked out, with the result that the Gaieté has been beseiged by musicians, opera lovers, and friends of Massenet, eager for details of his alleged appearance.

“I first noticed the apparition at the second rehearsal,” said the baritone, M. Marcoux, to The New York Times correspondent. “It appeared at the end of the second act at the right-hand corner of the stage. At first I thought it was a hallucination on my part, but, try as I might, I could not keep my eyes from the figure, which I could see distinctly, clad in the familiar gray frock coat, beat time with its hands and shake its head in approval or disapproval. I said nothing, for fear of being ridiculed, and as the ghost, or whatever it might be, did not appear again that day, I took a dose of bromide to steady my nerves.

“Next day Mlle. Lucy Arbell, who has the principal rôle, clutched my arm suddenly during the duet in the second act and whispered, in a terrified voice, ‘Look! Look!’ There, in the same place, stood the strange figure, going through the motions of conducting an orchestra. I must confess our voices sounded shaky as we continued singing.”

Marcel Simond, General Secretary of the theatre, was another witness of the strange manifestations. He said that at first the women members of the company were tremendously impressed and hysterical and the tenors and basses were nervous as schoolgirls, while the stage hands refused to go near the haunted corner, but in the course of a few days they appeared to accustom themselves to the strange apparition and the work is now going on as usual.

The correspondent of the New York Times spent this afternoon on the stage of the theatre, but, although M. Marcoux and others pointed to an alleged spectre, the correspondent was unable to see the slightest trace of it.

New York Times, April 20, 1913

Save situation

Reviewing Itzhak Perlman.
Boston Globe, October 30, 2007.

Concert and review preceded Game 4, but with the way the World Series was going, I figured I better get in a baseball reference while I could before the long winter. My lovely rabid-Red-Sox-fan wife and I then watched the game at a bar, surrounded by loud drunk people, which is, really, the only way to see a team clinch. (Good thing, too—had the Red Sox lost, I have a feeling those guys would have gone out and keyed every car in the lot.)

The Smart Set

A management consulting firm called Synectics came out this week with a publicity-stunt “survey” of the top 100 living “geniuses.” If you’re keeping score, Philip Glass tops the musical world, coming in at #9. The rock contingent shows a decided baby-boomer bias. Jazz? No geniuses left, apparently. Dolly Parton squeaks in at #94, though.

Lists like this tend to be pretty silly, and this one is worse than most, with a methodology so flimsy that I question this firm’s proficiency at consulting anybody on anything. But the survey does point up something interesting. The first criterion on Synectics’ list of five defining traits of genius is that old favorite, paradigm shifting. And I realized that paradigm shifting might just be the one thing that unites the past century or two of music history.

The term “paradigm shift” became famous from Thomas Kuhn’s 1970 study The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Notice the word choice, though: not scientific process, or discovery, but revolution. That’s a post-Romantic bias revealed right in the title, but the effects of Romantic thinking (heck, let’s gild the lily and call it the Romantic Revolution) are so deeply ingrained in modern society that we don’t even see it. That might be why 20th and 21st-century music history seems so fragmented and variegated: we take for granted the one universal feature, the way every turn of the musical wheel—jazz, atonality, minimalism, rock, historically-informed performance, neo-Romanticism, &c.—claims (or is claimed) to have shifted some paradigm or another.

I don’t think this is by definition good or bad, it’s just an observation: the societies we live in are, at their core, products of the Romantic era, and I don’t see that influence ebbing anytime soon. (In a lot of ways, it’s bound up with the spread and solemnization of democratic processes.) But it is a big change from, say, the 1600s, when a composer like Sweelinck was widely recognized as a genius, not because he was an innovator, not because he was a revolutionary, but because he did what everyone else was doing so much better than everyone else did. That’s a contrast with the current touchstone for musical genius, Beethoven. It’s an open question whether Beethoven’s innovations were popular, or whether Beethoven was popular because his penchant for innovation so well embodied fashionable Romantic ideas. I suspect the latter—the really inventive late stuff didn’t gain very much traction at the time. But his is the kind of impact that musicians of all stripes are still, consciously or subconsciously, being judged against.

The censures of the carping world

When O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murder charges in 1995, the only people I talked to who weren’t surprised were friends in law school. O.J.’s lawyers worked a textbook defense: destroy the credibility of the arresting officer, and reasonable doubt descends on the entire case. I thought of O.J. fairly early on in this week’s must-read, Richard Taruskin’s Monty-Python-16-ton-weight of a book review in The New Republic. Taruskin is reviewing recent literature on the allegedly precarious state of classical music in current culture. His favorite?

Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music by Blair Tindall, a journalist and recovering oboist, which despite a pandering title actually contains the smartest and most constructive take on the situation.

Come on. Blair Tindall? I could see if he wanted to cite the book as symptomatic of certain attitudes that he saw in the modern music world and wanted to use in his argument. But “the smartest and most constructive take on the situation”? That book was trash—entertaining trash, yes, but about as constructive as jello shots. The jury would like to see those gloves again, your honor.

This review encapsulates everything that drives me nuts about Taruskin’s writing: at first I’m amused by by the insult comedy, then the rhythm starts to bog down, and finally I’m just exhausted—and, temporarily, reflexively sympathetic to whatever poor idea he continues to bludgeon out of apparent inertia. Taking up a trio of books that could be easily—and deservedly—dispatched on the back of a couple of napkins, Taruskin instead unleashes 12,000 words (12,000 words—let us never speak of this man as “pithy” again), so focused on his invective and his provocations that he ties his shoelaces together, stumbling over his own arguments, lurching past more interesting, subtler points. Even more frustrating, those points are eminently worth making—but they’re drowned out by the irresistable lure of the lapidary put-down.

Here’s a favorite bit. In the midst of Taruskin carpet-bombing Julian Johnson’s Who Needs Classical Music?, anti-Semitism rears its ugly head (I know, I know—Taruskin playing the anti-Semitic card? Shocking) in the Halloween-mask guise of Richard Wagner. Taruskin traces Johnson’s classical-music-as-moral-uplift back to E.T.A. Hoffmann, then condemns it because Wagner took it up:

Between Hoffmann and Wagner, however, the metaphor of depth had been claimed by German writers as a national trait; and just as nationalism underwent its general transformation from a modernizing and liberalizing discourse into a belligerent and regressive one in the later nineteenth century, so the notion of spiritual depth had been turned into a weapon of national and racial aggrandizement in Wagner’s hands.

So what? Ideas don’t automatically lose their validity just because unscrupulous people try and assimilate them into their own distasteful worldviews—and it’s an awfully tenuous assumption that, by listening to a composer’s music, we automatically perceive and accept that composer’s philosophy. (I’ve listened to Wagner for years without succumbing to the temptations of rabid nationalism, racial superiority, or wife-stealing.) Now, Taruskin is bringing up Wagner’s anti-Semitism in the context of taking down Johnson’s advocacy of classical music as a moral tonic. Taruskin rightly points out that art should bring pleasure, first and foremost, and that pleasure takes many forms:

But pleasure does not have to be defined sensuously, and there are all kinds of pleasures: guilty pleasures, altruistic pleasures, animal pleasures, spiritual pleasures, perverse pleasures, the pleasure of a good meal, of a good cry, of worthy accomplishment, of self-improvement, of self-possession, of exclusion, of ascendancy, of dominion, of revenge.

Taruskin coruscates Johnson: “To cast aesthetic preferences as moral choices at the dawn of the twenty-first century is an obscenity.” But Taruskin, of course, is doing just that, saying that if you derive pleasure via a Hoffmann-esque aesthetic philosophy, you’re headed down the same road to perdition that Wagner took. “Belief in [classical music’s] indispensability, or in its cultural superiority, is by now unrecoverable,” Taruskin states, “and those who mount such arguments on its behalf morally indict themselves.” First of all, a belief is not an argument, and second of all, doesn’t that belief constitute an aesthetic preference? Certainly some pleasures are morally reprehensible, but that means that other pleasures (even if just the pleasure of avoiding the morally reprehensible) are, by comparison, morally advantageous. Taruskin wants it both ways.

Both the book itself and its reception (as recorded on Amazon.com) expose the sort of pleasure it promotes: that of solidarity in sanctimony. To all who have read it with enjoyment I urgently prescribe a reading of Father Sergius, Tolstoy’s parable of moral exhibitionism and its comeuppance. I will pray for the salvation of their souls.

God’s eyes would probably glaze over around the 8,000-word mark.

The thing is, all three of these books (or at least the two that I read) deserve a certain amount of opprobrium, but the interesting review that might have come out of that—promulgating a theory as to why, market forces to the contrary, so many of us do still listen to classical music—is buried under spluttering, Dickensian rage and that seemingly deathless nostalgic 1970s hit, poking Adorno with a stick. (ANABlog has already pointed out a couple more of Taruskin’s less watertight arguments.)

On the other hand, why make a big deal? I don’t particularly care for the eat-your-vegetables rationalization of classical music in these books, either. Here’s why: on the header of his blog, the film scholar Jim Emerson quotes the philosopher Daniel Dennett: “There’s nothing I like less than bad arguments for a view that I hold dear.” In my book, scattershot bullying counts as a bad argument; by the end of the article, I had to consciously remind myself that I actually agreed with a lot of his positions. Taruskin closes by quoting Tony Soprano—see, kids? Your professor is down with pop culture, too. (In the meantime, the kids have moved on to “The Office” and Arcade Fire songs.) “Do not expect nuance from a mob boss,” he warns. I won’t, Don Taruskin.

Über Sternen muß er wohnen

Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina is easily impressed, if this interview is any indication:

If you could sit down with one person from history, who would it be?

I would like to sit down and talk to Beethoven, my favorite composer. That would be amazing. I suspect what would be most fascinating is the discovery that these people are human too.

Really? That would be more fascinating than the discovery that Beethoven was a lizard-like creature from another solar system who needed twice-daily injections of growth hormones in order to survive Earth’s crushing atmospheric pressure? (That would go a long way towards explaining the whole middle period.)

Warhorses

Daniel Barenboim was at it again last week, announcing a plan for the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, the Israeli-Palestinian youth ensemble he co-founded in 1999, to perform the first act of Wagner’s Die Walküre at the Waldbühne, an open-air arena in Berlin built by the Nazis for the 1936 Olympics.

“Can you imagine that?” Barenboim was quoted as saying in the interview, released Wednesday. “The Waldbühne was built by Hitler. The music is Wagner. Played by us! Hitler and Wagner would turn in their graves.”

This is Barenboim the world-class provocateur; anyone who criticizes him as naïve is badly misjudging him—the man knows exactly what he’s doing. (For a sample of the consternation Barenboim tends to cause, see the comments at the end of this Ha’aretz report, or go here for a particularly heavy-handed approach.) For the record, I find Barenboim’s music-making and his provocations to be sincere and thought-provoking—even when I’m not convinced, I’d rather be disagreeing with Barenboim that agreeing with a lot of other musicians, if that makes any sense. Still, I would imagine that most Germans don’t immediately associate the Waldbühne with Hitler anymore—the Rolling Stones were already playing the arena in the 1960s, after all, and the Berlin Philharmonic traditionally closes its season there every June with a festive summer night. But Barenboim’s reminder is entirely in keeping with a way he has of approaching the repertoire, which is fascinating.

Barenboim’s use of repertoire and venue is, in a way, a complete reverse of how classical music has come to be promoted in modern culture. Usually, the fact that the classical canon was composed a) a long time ago and b) in a not-particularly egalitarian atmosphere goes politely unmentioned—the rationale (which I’ve often used myself) being that it doesn’t matter where the music came from, it speaks to something universal in all of us, loosing itself from its socio-politico-historical moorings and floating free as the common property of humanity. Barenboim flips this on its head: Wagner’s music is vital to us today not in spite of the politics of the composer and the music’s subsequent historical associations, but because of it. For Barenboim, the way music can embody the universal human condition is a choice we make, a choice that reflects an essentially optimistic view of the contest between good and evil within the human soul. We can look Wagner in the eye, as it were, and reject his anti-Semitism by embracing his music, the nobler aspect of his human existence. When Barenboim programs Wagner in Jerusalem, or takes the podium at a Nazi venue as a Jewish artist, he’s asserting that evil isn’t something that needs to be quarantined, it’s something that needs to be confronted and defeated by mankind’s capacity for good. Rather than passively ignore the potent historical baggage, he actively puts it front and center, then invites us to consciously choose the positive experience of the music over the negative aspects of its past misuse, or even its origins. It’s almost as if Barenboim is exercising the listeners’ minds in the method of engaging the world that he thinks is necessary for ever improving it.

Wagner is the most obvious vehicle for this sort of thing, but here’s another example that works in subtler ways. When Barenboim took the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra to Ramallah in 2005, on the program was a tribute to the late Edward Said, the Palestinian-American scholar who co-founded the ensemble with Barenboim: the “Nimrod” movement from Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Last summer, I participated in a discussion panel when a documentary of the concert was screened at the Boston Jewish Film Festival; at the time, I joked that Elgar was a canny choice, since the last time that Jews and Arabs in the region had been united was in their opposition to the post-WWI British Mandate. But scratch the surface, and there’s multiple levels of the sort of intellectual aikido that accompanies Barenboim’s Wagner: a piece that often memorializes heads of state being played for someone who spent his career trying to articulate the position of the disposessed, a composer indelibly associated with one of history’s greatest colonial empires put into service celebrating an originator of post-colonial theory. The great thing is that it reflects back on the music, too—hearing Wagner’s powerful beauty in Israel makes you realize the contrast between the large, deep humanity of Wagner the composer and the small, petty transience of Wagner the racial theorist; hearing Elgar in Ramallah highlights the ambivalence and poignancy forever present beneath the nobilmente Edwardian façade.

I’m more or less a moderate on the Israeli-Palestinian question: I think anyone who denies Israel’s right to exist is a fool, but equally foolish is anyone who thinks that its existence can long persist in any worthwhile fashion without finding a peaceful co-existence with the Palestinians. And I have to admit that often, my view of human nature isn’t sanguine enough to believe that the conflict between good and evil within the human soul is anything like a fair fight. At times like that, Barenboim’s idealism can seem like naiveté or simplistic grandstanding. But Barenboim’s whole point is that your reaction is a choice—even if you don’t choose to believe that most people will do the right thing, at the very least, you yourself can choose to do the right thing. You can look at the awful ways in which even the most beautiful of human endeavors have been put to use, and decide that, even if it was that way in the past, it doesn’t have to be that way in the future.

Multitasking

One of [Virgil Thomson’s] peccadilloes was dozing during concerts. When I was reviewing for the Sun we quite often were at the same concert, and I could observe him in this condition and occasionally hear a snore or two. What amazed everyone was the fact that when he came out in the intermission his remarks indicated that he hadn’t missed a thing. When I moved over to the Tribune Thomson and I would go out to dinner together from time to time before covering our respective assignments. Once Thomson cautioned me against having coffee (the decaf vogue had not started yet) and to be sure to have enough wine so that I would be able to sleep at the concert. There were times when I wished I could sleep but I lacked the talent—though I recall falling asleep at the Metropolitan during one ear-shattering passage in a Wagner opera, drowned in the sound and luxuriating in the red plush interior of the old opera house.

—Arthur Berger,
Reflections of an American Composer

Berger also quotes the funniest sentence I read all day, a Bernard Holland description of George Rochberg’s neo-Romanticism: “Mr. Rochberg’s quintet does remind us of the frontiersman who, having fought his way arduously through badlands and hostile Indians to the promised West, abruptly decides to resettle in Philadelphia.”

Our Prayer

Sasha Frere-Jones has an article in the latest New Yorker that’s been getting a fair amount of attention, in which he complains that indie rock has pretty much abandoned a long-standing rock tradition of more-or-less stealing from African-American musical styles. I don’t know nearly enough about current indie rock to critique that, but he did say a couple of things that set my gears turning. First off, he seems to regard the African-American influence as an almost purely rhythmic one.

If there is a trace of soul, blues, reggae, or funk in Arcade Fire, it must be philosophical; it certainly isn’t audible. And what I really wanted to hear, after a stretch of raucous sing-alongs, was a bit of swing, some empty space, and palpable bass frequencies—in other words, attributes of African-American popular music.

But African-American music has its own distinct harmonic features as well. And I hear a fair amount of African-American harmonic influence, particularly from gospel, across the pop landscape. But, more interestingly, I hear even more of it in a lot of music by a guy Frere-Jones correctly points up as an inspiration to a lot of the indie crowd:

Several groups that experienced commercial success, such as the Flaming Lips and Wilco, drew on the whiter genres of the sixties—respectively, psychedelic music and country rock—and gradually Brian Wilson, of the Beach Boys, a tremendously gifted musician who had at best a tenuous link to American black music, became indie rock’s muse.

Now, I would say that the link is more than tenuous—the initial Beach Boys sound was heavily indebted to Chuck Berry. “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” after all, is just “Sweet Little Sixteen” with different lyrics. But the sound was soon transformed into a new genre: “Fun, Fun, Fun” lifts its opening guitar riff from “Johnny B. Goode,” but after that, it’s essentially a Chuck Berry song that Chuck Berry would never be able to sing. And some atypical later Beach Boys albums (such as Wild Honey or Carl and the Passions) make explicit a debt to R&B and soul that was percolating under the surface of all those bright surf anthems.

But the harmonic influence is a far trickier matter, and points up the difficulty of tracing musical influence in general. The sound I’m thinking of is gospel’s subdominant-dominant mash-up. The subdominant, which we all know and love from plagal “Amen” cadences, colors much of gospel harmony. It’s a common ornament to the tonic chord:


At some point, that neighborly rocking was combined with a stronger V-I bass movement:


That subdominant-over-dominant IV-over-V sound (in chord symbols, either G11(add9) or F/G) is one of the touchstones of gospel. The presence of the first and fourth scale degrees push it past the basic V-I found in hymns, but its resolute diatonicism keeps it from sounding like straight-up jazz. Here’s the conundrum: I hear a lot of that sound in Brian Wilson’s later, more critically-revered output, but did he really get it from gospel? Or did he come up with it on his own, as a natural evolution of his musical voice? Part of the problem is that he uses such sounds in a fairly idiosyncratic way.

The quasi-gospel harmonies stay pretty much in the background in those early Beach Boys songs; everything is arranged for the standard rock instruments of guitar and bass, which doesn’t highlight the vertical thinking as much, and while something like that first progression forms the basis of much of the rhythm guitar, it sounds more like rockabilly than gospel. The gospel sounds only come to the fore around the time of Pet Sounds, when Brian’s focus turns from the bass to the piano (and, by extension, other keyboard instruments) as he eschews live performance for the studio. The textural model is the repeated right-hand quarter-note chord, something Brian probably picked up from listening to Phil Spector records. You can hear it clearly in the organ part that opens “Good Vibrations”:


This is still very much in the Phil Spector mode, solidly triadic. But by the time of “Surf’s Up,” written for the ill-fated Smile album, things have gotten a little more complicated:

The third and fourth bars are close to the typical IV-over-V gospel dominant. But the first two bars are something else entirely. In essence, he’s flipped the V-I movement in the bass, making the second chord of the pair the dominant. And he obscures the movement towards resolution by harmonizing the first bass note as a chord in second inversion, a particularly unstable sonority. The unexpected inversions are something Brian turns to again and again in this period, layering on a question where the bass line would seem to give an answer.

Are the fact that these sorts of chords are also found in gospel a sign of influence or coincidence? On the one hand, Brian has said in interviews that it was actually Burt Bacharach songs that opened up his ears to extra-triadic harmonies, major and minor seventh chords and the like. On the other hand, in the America of the 1950s and 60s, it would have been hard for Brian not to be influenced by gospel—I’ve written before about how the Civil Rights movement infused American vernacular music with a healthy dose of the African-American church.

But the most fascinating possibility is that Brian’s gospel chords evolved separately, but from a common source. If you consider the music he grew up with—Protestant hymns, Four Freshman pop, early blues-based rock-and-roll—it’s not that different from the stew out of which Thomas Dorsey first synthesized gospel in the 20s and 30s. Maybe it’s a musical version of the Miller-Urey experiment: if the right elements are present, the necessary combinations form no matter what. It’s like trying to trace the cross-pollination between the Beach Boys and the Beatles: “Surf’s Up,” for example, wasn’t commercially released until 1971, but had been famously featured in the 1967 Leonard Bernstein-hosted CBS documentary Inside Pop. And put side by side, the Beatles’ “Let It Be” and “The Long and Winding Road” sure do seem to be in debt to it. But maybe they were just all drawing on the same zeitgeist.

For comparison, here’s one more Brian Wilson similarity, one that most certainly represents a parallel development, and not a direct influence. “God Only Knows” is, on one level, a celebration of the subdominant. It starts on IV (A major); the tonic E-major harmony never appears in root position. Here’s the main progression of the song:


The tonic-related harmonies, in the center of the phrase, are second- and third-inversion instabilities that need to be resolved. That point of tension is surrounded by chords all related to either subdominant IV (including the F-sharp minor triads, which are, after all, the relative minor of IV) or the subdominant substitution ii. The tinta of the song is perennially stuck in the middle of an “Amen” cadence.

You know who else used to stack his harmonies heavily towards the plagal, the flat side of the circle of fifths? Edward Elgar. And for precisely the same reason that Brian Wilson does—to give the music a sense of melancholy grandeur, a sense that bright, sturdy perfect cadences would flood with too much sonic light. Now I know that Brian Wilson wasn’t consciously trying to imitate Sir Edward. But they both heard the bittersweet longing within the plagal cadence, and chose their vocabularies accordingly. Tracing influences is fascinating, but for me, just as fulfilling is the realization that even total musical strangers are sometimes, in the same way, chasing the same star.