Month: March 2008

Music of the Spheres

Major League Baseball has been having this rolling series of opening days this year—games in Japan and Washington—which is silly, since everybody knows that the capital-letter Opening Day only happens when your team gets going, so they might as well do them all at the same time. Which is why it’s today (2:20 PM EST, Zambrano vs. Sheets) that we’ll do an Opening Day post.

My loyalties lie elsewhere than here in Massachusetts, but here’s a little something for the hometown crowd—M. J. Messer’s “Una Schottische,” published in 1874, and “Dedicated to the Una Base Ball Club of Charlestown—Junior Champions 1870-72-73.” In 1960, the late Robert Cantwell offered an appreciation:

The amateur clubs were still in existence, and the junior champions were a club from a Boston suburb, called the Una Base Ball Club. When the Una nine won the championship again in 1873 it electrified a Boston dance music composer named M. J. Messer, of whom nothing is known except that he wrote the “Una Schottische” in honor of the victory. With this piece of music, baseball came very near winning a timeless composition in its honor. Perhaps the only barrier to its lasting popularity was its title. The “Una Schottische” was as vivid and lighthearted as the tunes of Oklahoma! almost a century later, and like that music possessed a charming country-dance or outdoor air; it was a work of happy enthusiasm that made it ideally suited for the band concerts that once accompanied ball games.

And here it is: just the sort of music to wax your handlebar mustache and beat up an Irish immigrant by.

I think I’ll go get a hot dog.

Sweatin’ to the oldies

Sports Illustrated is the latest publication to put its archives online, which means I can link to this 1979 article by Sean Kellogg about the athleticism of singing opera. Includes interviews with Sherrill Milnes and Luciano Pavarotti, who compliments some leading ladies: “For a big voice you need incredible muscular power to go to the top. Birgit Nilsson is very strong. The same with Joan Sutherland. She’s a very athletic girl.” And Kellogg anticipates Morris Robinson:

The strength required to sing is the reason you find so many mesomorphs in opera—the same body type usually found in football or weight lifting. Mesomorphs are bulky and muscular and tend to gain weight easily. A number of opera singers are obviously no exception.

Consider four of the top male singers in the world. Placido Domingo stands 6’2″ and weighs 225 pounds; Milnes is 6’2″, 212 pounds; Martti Talvela 6’7″, 250 pounds; and Pavarotti 6’1″, about 240 pounds. That’s a front four Bear Bryant would covet.

(I’ll let Opera Chic photoshop that one.) Nothing a fan doesn’t already know, but still a fun read.

BONUS! From September 29, 1969, Seiji Ozawa falls on his butt:

Seiji Ozawa is a guest conductor with the New York Philharmonic and a second baseman for the Penguins, the orchestra’s softball team. Earlier this month, while the Philharmonic was performing at Iowa State, the Penguins took on a fraternity team. The Penguins won the game 9-8 but almost lost a conductor. Ozawa was knocked down by a determined base runner and suffered a fractured coccyx. It’s nice that conducting is something you do standing up.

Girder and Panel

I’m playing a recital this weekend (for which I’m behind on practicing; hence the lack of posts) that includes a set of Brahms’ folksong arrangements, which I’ve heard, but somehow never performed. They’re fascinating: Brahms adopts a fairly light touch, compositionally—one or two accompanimental ideas per song—but going through them, you can clearly hear how much of, say, Ein Deutsches Requiem was intended to be deliberately reminiscent of folksong.

Every time I play a classical folksong arrangement, I think of something I once heard baritone Sanford Sylvan say in a masterclass. He was coaching a singer on a Britten arrangement, trying to get her to do all the things that classical singers do—inventing a subtext, imagining a dramatic situation with personal resonance—in order to communicate the emotional content of the song. And then, as an aside, he pointed out that this is pretty much the opposite of what real folksingers do. Folksingers don’t create the illusion of emotion; they just tell the story.

This isn’t to say that folksingers don’t worry about the emotion of the song, but that they trust the lyrics to carry that emotion. Here’s Joan Baez singing the old labor anthem “Joe Hill” at Woodstock in 1969:

If I was going to do an arrangement of “Joe Hill,” I would be inclined to try and musically portray the emotional content—shift the harmony, or dynamics, or texture to capture the mystery of Joe Hill’s appearance, the violence of his downfall, the defiant hope of his legacy. Baez doesn’t do any of that; the verses are musically indistinguishable from each other. She’s just telling the story. It’s brilliantly effective on its own.

There’s an interesting historical divide in the difference between folk music and classical music. Most classical music does tell a story of a sort—even “absolute” music can be thought of as a series of emotional evocations onto which the listener can project an imaginary narrative. But the emotional arc is what matters. Nevertheless, there’s a smaller group of classical works that, in a curious way, have a sensibility closer to that of folk music, and those are pieces that tell the story of their own construction, that act out their own assembly. Now, a few weeks ago in this space, there was quite the to-do over the relationship between, and primacy of, compositional “process” and emotional effect, so I’m going to try to avoid the loaded word “process” here as much as I can. Let’s just say that such pieces fall under a general category of what I’ll call construction narratives. You can find them in just about every period of music history.

Construction narratives in general are pretty common. Basic examples range from the rather cut-and-dry—cable standbys like the Science Channel and the Discovery Channel are full of programs like “How It’s Made”—to the downright sublime, as in the books of David Macauley. (If you’re my age, you remember this precursor.) But variations abound. The Food Network is nothing but construction narratives: the dramatic arc of every program goes from raw ingredients to a finished meal, with close-ups of each successive transformation along the way. Heist movies are basically construction narratives. So, in fact, are a lot of backstage musicals. Over the weekend, my lovely wife and I caught a broadcast of the Fred Astaire-Judy Garland vehicle Easter Parade, which is built around a theatrical construction: build the dance, build the act, build the show—fall in love along the way. (Skip to the 5:00 mark of this clip and you can see the scandalously underrated Jules Munshin satirize the Food Network, still a half-century in the future.)

Even high-concept self-referential construction narratives aren’t all that unusual anymore. Pirandello and Ionesco spring to mind in theater, not to mention James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George (the bulk of whose second act, after all, consists of a song called “Putting It Together”). There are movies about movies—Singin’ In the Rain, . There’s the visual arts—here’s Richard Dorment talking about Jasper Johns’ early paintings in the current issue of The New York Review of Books:

Whereas Rothko’s floating expanses of dark color seemed to offer the possibility that art can provide transcendental spiritual experience, Johns’s work was down to earth. A flag or target by Johns is a real object occupying a real space, which the artist made by using certain procedures in a certain order. In his paintings you don’t find anything that Johns didn’t deliberately put into them—and that the viewer can’t see that he put into them. This is the moral center of his art. It doesn’t lie, it doesn’t deceive, and it doesn’t signify anything other than what the viewer can see in front of his eyes.

That’s a description that could easily apply to a lot of non-programmatic serial music, or more austere examples of minimalism—or, indeed, a traditional fugue. (William Walton made the fugue-construction connection explicit with his musical accompaniment to the manufacture of Spitfires in the WWII film The First of the Few.)

I can’t vouch for all those other media, but I’ve always had the sense that construction narratives in music are definitely a minority taste. Now, I could make the case that all music necessarily communicates aural information about its own construction—you need to be able to hear at least some of how a piece is put together in order to make any sense of the form. But pieces that put such information front-and-center generally get tagged with such criticisms as “arid,” “academic,” “intellectual,” &c. I myself tend to like such works—maybe since I fancy myself a composer, I have no trouble imagining the emotional aspects of creation, and superimposing that emotional narrative on the unfolding construction I’m presented with. But I have a sneaking suspicion this is yet another hangover of that that ultimate emotional-cultural bender, 19th-century Romanticism.

I’ve written before about one of the main differences between Classicism and Romanticism, the knowable process vs. the unknowable leap. There’s a certain amount of that dichotomy in the devaluing of musical construction narratives—Romantics thought that rational artistic forms and processes obscured the sort of emotional effects they were after—but really, it’s far more complex and interesting a situation. Particularly in music, Romantic freedom never completely eclipsed Classical order, and ever since, the two have been circling each other like dogs. One could write a fairly deep history of art since 1900 based around tracing the tension between formal propriety and emotional promiscuity.

That’s from a creator’s standpoint, though. What about the audience? I wonder if a steady erosion of musical literacy has taken its toll on the viability of construction narratives. If you’ve never played an instrument, never translated musical ideas into notation, never worked through the coordination of a piece of chamber music, you can certainly still end up a music lover—it’s strong stuff—but the emotional experience of working with the building blocks might remain foreign, unavailable for reference. Such music has the most traction when an emotional narrative is layered on top of it, as in opera—minimalism proved well-suited to the genre, and Wozzeck, for example, never seems to fall victim to the alleged serialist box-office curse.

Musical construction narratives will still be created—composers, after all, have a built-in emotional connection to the act of creation. In a way, pieces that revel in their own process are like folksongs for composers, the vernacular music of a land inhabited exclusively by pitch and rhythm. It’s kind of ironic that the Romantics seized on folk culture as a lifeline, a balm for Classical formality—such “untrained” art was a more direct pathway to emotional communication. But the result, in “high” art, was a premium on emotional expression that relegated a big part of folksong’s sensibility to the background. Of course, in order to do that, music still needs to be built—even Wagner’s operas are intricate clockwork, their leitmotif construction guiding the listener across the carefully delineated landscape. Unnoticed servants, nevertheless setting the table in plain view. Reversing the upstairs and downstairs of the musical house on occasion is not, on the face of it, an invalid narrative strategy.

Art has gotten so mixed up in the past century that even trying to separate out each impulse is tricky. Sondheim’s George is an artist, and a musical, concerned with (as the character says) order, composition, and balance, yet the core of that show is the inchoate, inarticulate nature of creativity, and the difficulty of integrating that into everyday life. Serialism reimposed classical order on musical expressionism with a result that, to many listeners, uncannily evoked violent chaos. The mechanical, repetitive discipline of minimalism can carry waves of emotional power.

In 1950, Jean Cocteau released quite possibily the most perfect depiction of the Romantic ethos, his film Orphée. The poet Orphée thinks he has found his artistic salvation when he finds a car radio broadcasting a narrated stream of seemingly random numbers. For him, it is a Romantic ideal, a creative source completely unmediated by process or model. But numbers imply order and instruction, and Orphée’s new creative routine—in the front seat, diligently taking dictation—is a model of monastic discipline compared with his brawling colleagues. It’s also a movie explicitly about creation and the mechanism of the artistic method. Orphée has discovered a new process he thinks will be his salvation. He ends up crossing between the upper world and the underworld, a passage marked by ritual and rules, a bureaucratic tribunal, and the consequences of violating order are too terrible to mention. The philosophy is Romantic—the movie is not only Classical, but almost folk-like in its everyday realism. Everything is matter-of-fact: the ban on Orphée looking at his wife bursts into the real world with sitcom absurdity, and the logistics of death are translated into mid-century plausibility, with motorcycle delivery and a checking of the files. Towards the beginning, a critic tells Orphée—and, implicitly, the movie—to “amaze us.” Cocteau does so, it turns out, by just telling the story.

Und ich, ich, ich, ich, ich, die ihn dir geschickt, / ich bin wie ein Hund an deiner Ferse

Needless to say, critic-at-large Moe is licking his chops after reading this story.

[A proposed] bill submitted to the Tuscan regional parliament… would allow pet owners in Tuscany to take their cats, dogs and other animals to any sort of public place—including museums, cinemas and even theatres.

(Via.) Even theatresOpera Chic may have herself some canine competition. Talk about real-time criticism: if Moe likes my practicing, he curls up under the piano. If he doesn’t, he drops a drool-laden ball in my lap and barks at me. Is that really all that different from the La Scala loggione?

On the other hand, I don’t know if we’re ready to pack up for Europe, and domestically, I fear that Moe won’t be sitting in that Met box anytime soon. (They’ll let ’em onstage but not in the seats.) Still, a dog can dream. (Though, on a sad note, and all his theatrical anti-feline bluster aside, Moe is truly sorry that he won’t have the chance to chase Bert up the Grand Tier on the way into that 2010-11 Nixon in China. Condolences and—no mean feat for a terrier—a moment of silence.)

Make it up as you go along, lauda, laude

Our Easter anthem this year is a venerable old barn-burner, the “Gloria” from “Mozart’s Twelfth Mass.” It’s not by Mozart at all—it was written by a guy named Wenzel Müller—but under Mozart’s name it was a big church choir hit in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Loud, bright, common-time C-major: what’s not to like? Here’s a typical passage towards the end:

The edition in our choral library—which appears to date from just after the Crucifixion—has a typo in this bit. The alto line reads:

Here’s how slap-happy church music directors tend to get during the onslaught of Holy Week: I was curious enough to take time out of rehearsal to see what this passage would sound like if all the parts were rewritten in 7/8:

Instant Chichester Psalms! Next week’s episode: how to make Beach Boys background vocals by swapping the bass and alto parts of Protestant hymns.

Wen suchet ihr?

Via Geoff Edgers, this bit of Hub ridiculousness:

Peter Watchorn is a professional harpsichordist, an Australian-born US citizen, and a 21-year resident of Cambridge. He was very surprised last week when he was mistaken for a terrorist…. A tip from a passenger and a manhunt that followed disrupted the T’s Red Line for about 13 minutes during rush hour Thursday morning, as police surrounded a train with bomb-sniffing dogs. It also forced Watchorn to miss a business trip to Buffalo while he was being questioned by State Police.

Peter Watchorn is an awesome guy. A number of years back, I somehow ended up at an informal concert/party he was throwing in his apartment. Knowing even less then than I do now about Baroque music or the ins and outs of harpsichord technique, I was a little uncertain about whether I’d make any conversation at all. But Peter pulled out a pristine vintage RCA no. 50 suitcase Victrola and spun a few priceless 78s, and we ended up chatting about local sources for proper needles. Wonder what his anonymous tipster would have made of that conversation.