Month: November 2007

It’s beginning to look a lot


Guerrieri: O Bethlehem (2003), SATB chorus (PDF, 175 KB)

Advent starts this Sunday, which, for the non-Christians out there, is when even the devout start counting the shopping days left until Christmas (NOTE: good-hearted joke which eight years of Catholic grade school qualifies me to make). In celebration, here’s a Christmas anthem I wrote a few years back (tinny-sounding piano MIDI here) which has yet to get a public hearing—every year, I pencil it in, and every year, we run out of rehearsal time and I substitute something easy out of the Oxford Carols for Choirs book. This year, we’re doing it whether it’s properly rehearsed or not.

The impetus for this piece was Guerrieri’s Rule of Sacred Text Exigesis: always look up passages in context, since they’re usually weirder than you’d think. (This rule only applies to traditional mainstream religions; Dianetics, for example, is pretty much exactly as weird as you’d think.) Given all the slots to fill up in a lessons and carols service, I make it my mission to include at least one that isn’t all cheese-curd-smooth John Rutter-esque warm fuzzies. (If you’d rather not encourage me, Benjamin Britten’s “The Oxen” also fits this bill nicely.)

By the way, for the month, that brings the current score to Daniel Wolf, 29, me, 1. There’s still fourteen hours left, though.

Come, wishes be horses

This year has been a pretty good one for Stravinsky—Stravinsky the horse, that is. The 11-year-old stallion, son of the legendary Nureyev (take a second to properly categorize that nugget of information) now spends his days shuttling between stud farms in New Zealand and Australia, and the track success of his progeny has him currently ranked as the season’s 11th-most-valuable sire in Australo-Asian thoroughbred racing.

His European ranking—51st—reflects more quality than quantity, being based in large part on one horse, the aptly named Soldier’s Tale (other Stravinsky offspring include Korsakoff, Balmont, and Pulcinella). Back in June, Soldier’s Tale won the Golden Jubilee Stakes at Royal Ascot with a furious close in the final furlongs—which made for quite the storybook ending:

When [Soldier’s Tale] was 2, he was unable to race because he had bad knees. He managed to run two races as a 3-year-old and win one of them, but then broke a leg, requiring surgery and six screws. A year later, the horse came back to win two more races, but then had another fracture. Then there was the colic.

“We were within five minutes of putting him down, but he just showed such a will to live,” [trainer Jeremy] Noseda said. “I know it sounds sappy and all that, but he’s like a personal friend now. I come out and see him every night – I stick my head out of the door and call ‘Spam’ and he answers back.”

Yes, the horse’s nickname is “Spam,” which is so simultaneously inappropriate and endearing that it pretty much made my day.

A Boy Like That

News from here and there while I wait for Gruppen to finish downloading….

The British seem to be in a mood for marathons: first Vexations, then Scarlatti: the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester organized a performance of all 555 of Domenico Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas last Sunday, in six overlapping recitals, packing a day-and-a-half’s worth of music into a comparatively breezy twelve hours. Here’s my favorite detail:

Punters will be able to hear 449 of the sonatas for nothing (the other six will be played by Aleksandar Madzar in the final pay-to-get-in recital) and can make their selections with the help of a giant screen listing which piece is being played where and when.

I had an image of a Departure/Arrival screen in an airport. L. 263 is now boarding… L. 397 is delayed….

From around the blogosphere: Jeremy Denk revolutionizes music theory (and manages to avoid a “snap, crackle, pop” reference—you’re a stronger man than I am); ANABlog looks into the future (Utopia? Dystopia? Depends on how well she plays it, I guess); Brian Sacawa (via Darcy) unearths the subliminal seed for an entire generation of avant-garde composers (I heard that soundtrack on a regular basis from age 5 on up, now I’m listening to Gruppen—coincidence?). And I’m a little late on this one, but Andy at The Black Torrent Guard is taking nominations in possible anticipation of this year’s Most Annoying Song contest.

Finally, Chevy Chase reveals just how crazy “Saturday Night Live” nearly got:

But meantime, did you know that “West Side Story” composer Leonard Bernstein almost guest-hosted “SNL” in its first season? “The idea of John [Belushi] and Danny [Aykroyd] coming out doing a number from that show cracked us up,” Chevy recalls.

He and writer Tom Schiller were invited by Bernstein to the New York Philharmonic to discuss the idea. After the show they went to see the famous virtuoso with a penchant for young men backstage.

“He put his hand on my knee. When we were leaving, he kissed me full-on, on the lips. I wagged my finger at him and said, ‘No, no, no.’ And that was the last we ever heard from him.”

A hell of a town.

Les anges musiciens

Practicing has been less of a chore lately due to a larger-than-usual concentration of songs by Francis Poulenc in the to-do pile. Poulenc has an unshakeable spot in the top bracket of my all-time favorite composers, but it’s hard to explain exactly why. I usually fall back on turning the most common Poulenc criticism inside-out: yes, I say, he just wrote the same song over and over again, but it’s a song I happen to like. A joke, but in a way, it starts to get at just what it is about his music I find so endlessly bewitching.

Two of the songs I’m practicing this week—the “Air champêtre” from the 1931 Airs chantés, and “Il vole” from the 1939 cycle Fiançailles pour rire—both end with nearly identical passages. The “Air champêtre”:

And “Il vole”:

That figure—the repeated open-voiced roulade outlining V7-I—sounds an awful lot like a stock gesture, but I’ve only ever run across it in Poulenc. And I think that’s one of the keys to what makes Poulenc’s music tick: his ability to come up with patterns and phrases that sound like clichés, but are completely idiosyncratic and original.

More than that, though—it’s not just his facility for melodic invention, but the fact that he uses such passages as if they were pre-existing clichés. Neither the “Air champêtre” nor “Il vole” foreshadow or set up the closing figure in any way; it’s just dropped in, tacked on, like a trill over V-I in Mozart or a 4-3 suspension in a Lutheran chorale. Poulenc is, I think, having some fun with the semiotics of musical endings. We’re used to pieces ending with a predictable plugged-in cadential module; Poulenc plugs in a module, but it’s not the predicted one, and our musical expectations are yanked in two directions at once.

Poulenc’s fondness for these kinds of endings—a sudden, brief introduction of new material—owes something to Schumann lieder, and both composers exploit an ability to make such endings feel like the product of unconscious intuition rather than deliberate calculation. But where Schumann’s often extensive postludes serve to bring to the fore the emotions that have been simmering under the surface, Poulenc’s have the effect of hinting at an unfamiliar vernacular just out of earshot. To compare with another composer: if Webern’s music sounds like it comes from a planet where nobody composes like earthlings do, Poulenc’s music sounds like it comes from a planet where everybody composes like Poulenc. It has both the satisfaction of tradition and the frisson of originality. It feels like common practice music, but the practice itself is completely individual.

Poulenc’s illusion of an established rhetoric creates a similar combination of intimacy and disorientation as literary experiments with invented languages—compare the fictional Russlish of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, for example. For Poulenc, though, it’s also crucial to his sense of musical structure, which is surprisingly disjunct. Perhaps some of this is due to his fondness for setting Surrealist and proto-Surrealist poetry, but I think that, even more, it reflects the influence of cinema, which, after all, was the most avant-garde medium of the young composer’s day. (That “Il vole” cadence, implacably winding around itself, sounds like nothing so much as the last few frames of film lapping against the take-up reel.) Poulenc almost completely eschews a Romantic sense of development in favor of cinematic montage—but it doesn’t seem random or scattershot, because his musical materials always feel like they’re serving some pre-existing symbolic or rhetorical purpose, even if it’s a completely invented one.

In other words, I think Poulenc knew exactly what he was doing: taking the raw materials of tonal music and finding a way to make them behave in a radical way. He figured out how to take his ear for sensuous tonal beauty and his avant-garde aesthetic and, not just cleverly patch them together, but actually have the two reinforce each other. It’s a long way from the insouciance of Les Biches or “Toréador” to the devastating power of Dialogues des Carmélites, even though the basic musical language, amazingly, has hardly changed.

Darcy James Argue had this to say this week about one of his favorite composers: “I can’t help but feel that there is something fundamentally wrong with people who would dismiss music of such astounding vitality and artistry because it happens also to be very pretty.” I would say the same thing about Poulenc—in fact, the more years I spend with his music, the more I realize that its sheer prettiness is, in fact, one of the least interesting things about it, and, given how damned pretty it is, that’s saying something. The real beauty of Poulenc’s music goes very deep indeed.

Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen


Just in time for the annual holiday orgy of rampant consumerism, Strauss and Mahler (previously: 1, 2, 3) have gone into business selling t-shirts. Click on this link, and you’ll find the pair in all their countercultural glory on a variety of apparel, suitable for kids from 2 to however many years one can expect to pile up with an uncompromising artistic vision and a difficult wife. Makes a great albeit potentially nonplussing gift! (Any and all profits, by the way, will benefit this place, which, as causes go, is one of the good ones.)

All of Me

Reviewing Les Voix Baroques and Les Voix Humaines.
Boston Globe, November 26, 2007.

One thought from this concert: I appreciate the rationale behind using only period and period-replica equipment, but maybe it’s time for a miniature early-music Manhattan project to integrate a little bit of modern technology into the instruments so they don’t have to be re-tuned every ten minutes. Especially in a long work like the Membra Jesu Nostri, it’s tough to maintain a suspended mental involvement with everyone stopping between movements for peg-turning.

Look For the Silver Lining

More copyright hilarity: a decade-old squabble over the rights to the songs of Jerome Kern has a new lease on life:

The granddaughter of the late composer Jerome Kern won the latest round in a long-standing legal dispute with the manager of a trust that oversees royalties from hits like Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and The Way You Look Tonight.

The nearly 10-year-old conflict made its way to the Kentucky Supreme Court, which on Wednesday reversed a lower court ruling that could have put the case to rest.

The wheels of justice grind exceeedingly fine: this decision only sets forth whether the Kentucky courts are the proper venue to hear the case or not. You can read the overturned Court of Appeals verdict here: basically, Linda Kern Cummings claims that R. Andrew Boose, the attorney who manages the trust that controls Kern’s copyrights, improperly took advantage of the “diminished capacity” of Betty Kern-Miller, Jerome’s daughter, to alter the terms of her will back in the 90s. I haven’t found a whole lot of background on the case, but it bears some hallmarks of a family feud—one of the defendants is Steven Kern Shaw, Cummings’ half-brother, and also the son of clarinetist and bandleader Artie Shaw: as of this 2005 New York Times story, the younger Shaw was nowhere to be found, and when one finds his own notoriously blunt father calling him “a very weird kid” in public (scroll down), you start to get an inkling why.

Nevertheless, I will remind everyone that Jerome Kern died in 1945; the fact that people are still hiring attorneys to tangle over his royalties 60-plus years later tells you something about the strange state of our current intellectual property regime. And some of those royalties are apparently earmarked as charitable bequests, as Cummings is also suing the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind. After hearing that, critic-at-large Moe, not surprisingly, showed teeth.

Holiday (II)

Julia Margaret Cameron: Saint Cecilia after the manner of Raphael, c.1865
Albumen print from a collodion-on-glass negative
Victoria & Albert Museum, London


The Royals: “Shrine of St. Cecilia,” 1953 (MP3, 1.6 MB)

A cover of a minor Andrews Sisters hit, coming shortly after Hank Ballard joined the group, and shortly before they recorded their breakout hit, “Work With Me Annie,” and changed their name to the Midnighters.