Month: February 2008

It takes a nation of billions to hold us back

Today’s outlandish comparison: why John Adams is like Saint Valentine. This is Valentine’s Day, that festival of sending flowers and mash notes to one’s sweetheart—all commemorating a priest who was (perhaps) beaten and beheaded in third-century Rome. It’s doubtful he imagined he would be remembered with candy hearts, but that’s the sort of thing that happens when information is turned loose in the world.

I thought of Valentine last week, when I read (via Robert Gable) about the cancellation of Trinity Lyric Opera’s planned (and publicized) performance of Nixon in China. “Sources tell us that Boosey & Hawkes withdrew permission for the production, a highly unusual move at a time after Trinity’s public announcement and most of the casting already decided,” reported Janos Gerben. “The publisher’s action, which cited an error in issuing the license in the first place, makes one wonder if the composer might have denied permission.”

How disorganized would a publisher have to be to issue a performance license for a full opera by mistake? And even if they did, why is that the opera company’s problem? They’ve hired singers (and presumably signed contracts), secured a space, started marketing—at that point a publisher should suck it up. And if it was Adams who put the kibosh on the performance, presumably in anticipation of a future San Francisco Opera performance—there’s a better way to keep control over who does and doesn’t get to perform your music: DON’T PUBLISH IT. I rather think that in return for the one hundred and sixteen bucks per piano-vocal score, paying customers get ownership of something beyond exponentially marked-up paper and ink. Maybe Adams and B&H have made things right behind the scenes, but the whole thing is indicative of everything that drives me crazy about classical music publishing.*

In the meantime, the European Union has finally tackled the disparity between composers’ and performers’ copyrights. In the words of Charlie McCreevey, the EU’s internal markets commissioner:

“I have not seen a convincing reason why a composer of music should benefit from a term of copyright which extends to the composer’s life and 70 years beyond, while the performer should only enjoy 50 years, often not even covering his lifetime,” he said.

I agree—life plus 70 years is a ridiculously long time for a work to stay under copyright! Oh, wait: he’s actually proposing lengthening performers’ copyrights from 50 to 95 years. I’d have more respect for these people if they’d just come out and say that they’re in the pocket of large media companies, instead of trying to convince me that individual musicians would actually significantly benefit from such nonsense—I’m sure John McCormack could really use that extra cash. On the other hand, whatever bioengineered iteration of Michael Jackson that’s still around in 2075 certainly deserves his royalties from Thriller. (Digression: I’m surprised there hasn’t been a comparison of Michael Jackson and Richard Wagner—endlessly controversial figures who made absolutely fantastic music.)

Finally: like Pliable and Daniel Wolf, this blog is blocked in Beijing. I ask you: is that any way to treat the proud owner of a 1938 third printing of Red Star Over China? And yet they let through Norman Lebrecht.

*Update (2/14): Lisa Hirsch, via e-mail, plausibly speculates that perhaps Trinity was planning to use an unauthorized reduced orchestration. Certainly grounds for rescinding the license, but that sort of restriction would have been spelled out in the original contract—so the whole “internal error” thing still puzzles me.

Spark plugs and transmissions

The other day, A.C. Douglas pointed out this comment from composer Alex Shapiro:

The music in one’s head and the music on the page are examples of the two cerebral hemispheres, and they really are entirely different animals. The first is the True Inspiration and the latter is how the True Inspiration can be translated into something musicians can actually play and people can actually hear. Left brain, right brain. Maybe they’ll take a picnic together sometime.

Ah, dualism; that left-brain/right-brain caricature is a pernicious one, isn’t it? Good and evil, communism and capitalism, atonality and tonality, Dick York and Dick Sargent—I blame it all on bilateral symmetry. If we had three arms, we’d probably think in terms of light, dark, and, say, crepuscular.

But maybe the whole notion of True Inspiration gets at another division: systematic and non-systematic composition. Again, a dualist caricature—composers don’t pitch a tent in one camp or another, but take up residence somewhere along a continuum. But where you end up depends on your own relationship to True Inspiration.

Shapiro is obviously a composer for whom inspiration comes first: it’s the initial idea, the spark, that drives the actual work of composition. This is, I imagine, how most non-artists imagine artists working. But my own experience is different: every True Inspiration moment I’ve ever had has invariably happened in the middle of a work session, after I’ve already been plugging away at the material for a couple of hours. I have no clue if an idea is an inspired one until I’ve tinkered with it for a while, and then it opens up and I can see where it’s leading, what it can become, how it can shape a musical paragraph or movement. Or that it can’t, in which case it goes in the trash, and I start from scratch the next time.

As such, I have a natural sympathy for compositional systems—it’s how I investigate the possibilities of an idea. Mash it into a chord or stretch it into a melody and see how it sounds. Run an interval vector on the set and start transposing it around. Collect up the remaining pitches to form this or that aggregate and tinker with the juxtaposition. Or a particular rhythm: how’s it work in augmentation? Diminution? Canon? Layer it over various phrase lengths—does the pattern shake out regularly? There’s the old stand-bys: inversion, retrograde, combinatoriality (be the context tonal or atonal).

For me, once an idea opens up a possible landscape, a lot of the systematic determinism falls away—I live probably just left-of-center on a left-to-right systematic/non-systematic spectrum. I have favorite composers from all over the map—Poulenc was non-systematic and proud of it, as opposed to Stockhausen or Boulez, happily ensconced deep on the other side: the system itself is the inspiration, the music its realization in sound. Which, in a full circle sort of way, is not that far from Shapiro’s description.

Thomas Edison perfected the light bulb by methodically testing some 6,000 different filaments; Leo Szilard suddenly glimpsed the entire mechanism of a nuclear chain reaction as he crossed a London street. Of course, Szilard’s vision required a Manhattan Project to reach fruition. Edison’s old saw—10% inspiration, 90% perspiration, or some comparable ratio—still holds, but some of us have to sweat first before the muse deigns to put in an appearance.

Update (2/13): ACD demurs:

[B]y the end of our reading he’d set our teeth to grinding, for what he described with some affection is a virtual definition of precisely what’s wrong with most so-called New Music; a veritable instruction manual of how NOT to go about the making of the thing.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying this is how things should be done, but it is how I personally do things. As for affection, I would hazard a guess that I do have affection for a lot of music that ACD doesn’t care for, but my affection has nothing to do with its construction, but rather its effect in performance. My point was that there’s a lot of different ways to realize that final effect, and that the spark of inspiration can happen in a lot of different places during the work of composing. I would love it if entire pieces or even entire well-formed musical ideas came to me out of the blue while I was sitting on park benches, but for whatever reason—temperament, brain chemistry, undiagnosed ADHD—they don’t. So I do what I can to get the muse in the mood, as it were.

It’s worth pointing out that I was fascinated with systematic manipulations of musical material long before I heard of set theory or total serialism. I learned augmentation and diminution from the d-sharp-minor fugue in Book I of the WTC; I learned inversion from Rachmaninoff’s Paganini Variations—the old stand-bys are old indeed. For an exceptionally fine example of consciously, systematically manipulated materials, look no further than Sondheim’s
Sweeney Todd; I spent the better part of a semester in grad school happily tracing all the mutations of the Dies irae theme in that score. And after all, music itself is already a highly organized system—that the end results are so wonderfully varied is as much a testament to the power of that system as it is to the power of inspiration.

Update II (2/18): Marc Geelhoed has sharp observations from a more performer-centric perspective. He also references the “divine afflatus,” which is as good an excuse as any for linking to what, for a few months at least, was my favorite mural in all of Boston.

Orchestration 101

Thai cooking is a paradox: it uses robustly flavored ingredients—garlic, shrimp paste, chillies and lemongrass—and yet when these are melded together during cooking they arrive at a sophisticated and often subtle elegance, in contrast to their rather coarse beginnings. Often the ingredients employed in a recipe can be an extraordinary, bewildering array of up to 20 items in a single dish. In any other cuisine this would guarantee a cluttered and confused finish, yet in Thai cooking these disparate ingredients are transformed into a seamless whole—the honed result of generations of Thai cooks. This does not mean that all the tastes are blended into an indistinguishable unity, but that the diverse flavors work harmoniously in concert—rounding, contrasting, and supporting each other.

—David Thompson, Thai Food

Early to rise

It’s Lent already? As of last Wednesday, yes. For those of you who got to play outside rather than go to Sunday School, Lent is the 40-day period of preparation for Easter in the Christian calendar. It coordinates with Passover, which corresponds with the lunar calendar, which means it moves around a lot. (Trivia: the last time Lent started this early was 1856.) Then, of course, Orthodox Christians figure their Easter a little differently; and they’re split between old calendrists and new calendrists. This was much easier when I was in Catholic school—one day they’d haul you off to church in the middle of class, which was usually the first inkling you’d have that Lent had started. Once you become a church musician, you actually have to plan for this sort of thing.

Which is why this year’s Lenten introit was finished the day of rehearsal. (I have become more deadline-driven than Edmond O’Brien.) Download it for free—for free—and you can decide for yourself whether the nuns would have given me a gold star or sent a note home to my parents.

Guerrieri: I Wait for the Lord (2008) (PDF, 74 KB; MIDI here)

Il ciel l’ho fatto nascere per far beato il cor

Memes always get a sympathetic ear here at Soho the Dog HQ, and here’s a beauty, via Wellsung (who is, I see, not on the blogroll—bad dog), Parterre Box, and Steve Smith: find out what the Metropolitan Opera was performing the day you were born.

Alas, I’m a summertime baby, so no Met performance for me. Hmmm… I wonder what they were doing the night I was conceived?

October 26, 1970

Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848)

Don Pasquale…………Fernando Corena
Norina………………Reri Grist
Ernesto……………..Alfredo Kraus
Dr. Malatesta………..Tom Krause
Notary………………Gabor Carelli
Servant……………..Judit Schichtanz
Servant……………..Frank D’Elia
Servant……………..Arthur Backgren

Conductor……………Carlo Franci

Maybe that’s a too-much-information situation. La Cieca’s solution for us Leos was to visit the Salzburger Festspiele:

Montag, 26. Juli 1971, 19.30 Uhr

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)

Favola in musica in einem Prolog und fünf Akten
Libretto von Alessandro Striggio
Freie Neufassung von Erich Kraack

In italienischer Sprache


Bernhard Conz, Dirigent

Giorgio Zancanaro, Orfeo
Maria Maddalena, Euridice
Gabriella Carturan, La Musica
Carol Smith, La Ninfa Messagiera
Anton Diakov, Caronte
Carol Smith, Proserpina
Anton Diakov, Plutone
Paul Esswood, Apollo

Not bad for a composer. But my birthday could have been marked by one of the craziest performances ever. July 26, 1971, was the scheduled date for a heavyweight boxing match between Muhammed Ali and basketball star Wilt Chamberlain, which would have been possibly the ring’s all-time-great novelty match-up. Chamberlain eventually backed out, allegedly over money, although perhaps his better judgment had started to kick in—Ali, even fresh off his punishing, marathon loss-by-decision to Joe Frazier, hadn’t even planned on training for the fight. “The Greatest vs. the Biggest” was not to be; instead, Ali spent my birthday defeating his old sparring partner Jimmy Ellis; he eventually won back the heavyweight crown from George Foreman (who had taken it from Frazier) in 1974’s “Rumble in the Jungle.” Boxing and opera are close enough for me.

Update (2/7): My lovely wife checked her own guardian angel: a Leontyne Price Manon Lescaut. “YIPPEE!!!!” she writes. “I always knew my life would devolve into an existence of shallow indulgence and despair.”

You must eat a beefsteak

GENTLEMAN WITH TOP HAT. I am your patron. Do you recognize me?

He throws him a purse.

I buy your genius. I buy your good digestion. I order big yellow billboard advertisements for your concerts.

On the rear wall, big placards appear:THE MUSICAL GENIUS, SEBASTIAN, BACH’S NATURAL GRANDSON!”

You are my indivijiol!

SEBASTIAN. Mercy, sir! What have I ever done to you? Have pity on me: I am a harmless artist. Leave me my unheard obscurity. Leave me the sorrow which whips me, and which my darling Olga has left me. Are you perhaps blaspheming?

POLICEMAN. In the name of the law: you belong to the state. The collective community has a claim on you, but you have no claim to starvation and loneliness.

THE CROWD. Social liberation!

On the rear wall appears a bog placard in red: SOCIAL LIBERATION! HUMAN KINDNESS!”

POLICEMAN. Loneliness is strictly forbidden! I’m giving you a reprimand! You must eat a beefsteak and take a walk in the park every day! And a minimum of work?

A man climbs upon the windowsill and unfolds a newspaper as large as himself: he is the JOURNALIST. He screams: “Sebastian, the musician-saint of the people!”

At the same instant appears on the rear wall in fat black newsprint: SEBASTIAN, MUSICIAN-SAINT OF THE PEOPLE!”


The CROWD shouts. Then it disperses. Through the door enters LUPUS, THE LANDLORD.

Celebrated maestro!

SEBASTIAN. Pardon me, Mr. Lupus, don’t underestimate me. Be frank. I know I owe you sixty marks. I slave for it day and night. I am perfectly aware that sixty marks for such a view and mice under the bed is not too much. Oh, I know everything. Just two more years of patience, Mr. Benefactor, then I shall have finished my forty-seventh opera!

Yvan Goll, The Immortal One
translated by Walter H. and Jacqueline Sokel

You’ll Never Get Rich

Today is Super Tuesday in American politics: two dozen states are holding primary elections or caucuses to choose the parties’ nominees for November’s presidential election. The first Super Tuesdays were in the 1980s, held in early March. Now they’re a month earlier. This thing has been going on for the better part of a year, and it still has to drag on until November. Hoo-ray.

None of the candidates are composers—Mike Huckabee, still hanging on by the ribbon bookmark in his bible, comes the closest, playing a respectable garage-band electric bass. In fact, except for the occasional accidental tourist, there’s never been a composer that also made significant strides as a politician in the U.S. (A couple of rock and/or country songwriters in the Congress is as far as it’s gone.) Certainly not an avant-garde, non-pop-music composer. The reason, I think, is that the majority of American voters don’t take composition seriously as a job. And when it comes to picking leaders, we fetishize work in this country. Business experience is always a big plus. Made a lot of money? Good for you! Garry Wills once pointed out that the Republican establishment didn’t really respect Richard Nixon until he joined a high-powered New York law firm, i.e., until running for president meant giving up real money. He worked hard in business; he’ll work hard for you in Washington! (Note that it’s never necessary to indicate exactly what the candidate will work hard at. It’s oddly non-judgmental. I mean, I’m sure Hitler put in some long hours at the office.)

This sort of mindset is so ubiquitous that we don’t even notice it anymore. Here’s National Endowment for the Arts head and poet Dana Gioia, quoted the other day in Wall Street Journal:

“See, I’m an artist,” [Gioia] says, “and so my primary goal is really bringing the transformative power of great art to the broadest audience possible. And I’m a business person, and I had a day job for two decades, and it taught me that there are ways to take a good idea and make it more effective and more affordable.”

Because, of course, artists have no idea how to do this themselves. I’m certain there are millions of non-musicians out there who still think that composition consists of elegantly waiting around for inspiration, jumping up from the chaise, throwing on a velvet smoking jacket, and dashing off a Great Symphonic Theme. There may have been a time and place when that image could at least have hinted at the possibility of a Balfour-esque noblesse oblige. But nowadays, you’d better have earned that money. And everybody knows that composers don’t earn their money—they subsist on highbrow handouts.

This leaky dinghy of an argument against government funding for the arts has been going around the ether for a few days now. (I found it via a message from the Fredösphere.) I originally wasn’t going to bother writing about a hypothesis so patently absurd (taxpayer funding for avant-garde music was “unlimited”? In Germany and France? Just after World War II? Really?) but I realized that, were a composer of “modern music” to run for president, these are exactly the sort of specious insinuations that would be used to club him/her. Modern music is elitist; the public hates it; it’s a waste of government funds.

All these arguments can easily be framed as laissez-faire free-market capitalist boosterism. It’s elitist—it’s arrogant and foolish not to appeal to as large a segment of your potential market as possible. The public hates it—if a majority of the market isn’t willing to pay for it, then by definition, it has no value. Governments shouldn’t pay for it—if it can’t make it’s own way in the market, then it’s irresponsible of government to artificially prop it up.

That last one has been deployed against arts funding for years now. When the government funds arts that wouldn’t gain sufficient traction in the free market for survival, those making this argument see it as somehow cheating, bending the rules, gaming the system. What they can never let themselves admit is that the rules of free-market capitalism are bent all the time—if they weren’t, capitalism and any society based on it would collapse. When the Federal Reserve tinkers with interest rates and the money supply to ensure that the markets don’t slip into runaway monopolistic inflation or an insurmountable depression, it’s gaming the system. When Congress engineers tax credits and deductions to encourage corporate behavior that the market would otherwise unduly punish, it’s gaming the system. Medicare? Unemployment benefits? Face it—it’s government spending that keeps the economically disaffected from turning into revolutionaries. Any free-market capitalist system requires perpetual benevolent interference to protect it against its own potential for economic and political damage.

In receiving and expecting state support, the arts aren’t playing outside the rules, they’re playing by the exact same rules everybody else does. Of course, to say this in American politics is unthinkable—far better to blame government itself. Or individual incidents of corporate malfeasance. Or, yes, industries that unfairly leech off your taxes in violation of a magically self-sustaining market.

It’s too bad, because I think a composer would have a terrific sense of how to utilize and capitalize on the true nature of democracy. We like to think that democracy is all about choosing the best person for the job. Now, I’m not sure the best possible person has ever been chosen for the job, and frankly, democracy’s record at being able to pick out even the lesser of two evils is pretty spotty. But that’s not the point—democracy is less a process than a performance, a choreographed drama designed to give voters the satisfaction of feeling like they have some control over their own governance. It’s a formalized, orchestrated, arranged, conducted ritual. It’s composed, in other words. It’s incredibly dense textures. It’s irregular, sometimes unpredictable rhythms. It’s aleatoric—what is an election, after all, but chance operations within a tightly controlled framework? A modernist composer would find the levers of democracy awfully familiar. They know the job. The trouble is convincing the electorate that it’s a real one.

Over my head, I hear music in the air

Those of you in the Boston area feeling the need for some church, stop by The Presbyterian Church in Sudbury this Sunday morning , where we’ll be having a pre-Lenten carnival of American sacred music. Anthems and choruses by Julian Wachner, the Williams Bolcom and Billings, Brian Wilson, and more—including commissions from Brett Abigaña and Dennis Báthory-Kitsz. Services are at 8:45 and 11:00. (We’re the one next to the town hall, with the Revolutionary War cemetery in our backyard.)