Month: November 2010

Who will save you now, pathetic earthlings?

In reading up on yesterday’s news about Louis Andriessen and his Grawemeyer Award, I missed Norman Lebrecht’s very Norman-Lebrecht-ish post on the award, especially this sentence:

Andriessen does not rank high among composers who will dominate the future.

That is awesome. I finally have a universally applicable aesthetic criterion that can bump me from a humble classical-music stringer to the critical equivalent of a melodramatic, over-the-top science-fiction villain.

“Hmmmm… it’s a nice piece, clever instrumentation, elegant use of post-serialist vocabularies. But wait—will this piece…”
“…DOMINATE THE FUTURE?

Time to start growing that goatee out to a menacing point.

A thousand violins fill the air

Hey, Kim Jong-Il—your isolated, repressive, and dangerously unstable regime has just precipitated yet another military standoff with your neighbors to the south. What are you going to do next?

“I’m going to a concert!”

Apparently having run out of provocations for the weekend, Kim Jong-Il, his designated heir, Kim Jong-Un, and a host of North Korean political grandees took in a little music last night (well, one assumes it was last night, though the report doesn’t specify), attending a concert by the State Symphony Orchestra of the DPRK. According to the North Korean news agency:

Put on the stage were serial symphonies “Song Dedicated to the Party,” piano concerto “Do Prosper, My Country,” orchestras “A Bumper Harvest in the Chongsan Plain” and “A Soldier Hears Rice Ears Sway” and other colorful numbers.

(I don’t think “serial” means what the translator thinks it means, but my Korean is nowhere near good enough to tell what’s trying to be said. If you’re curious, the orchestra has recorded Choe Jong Yun’s piano concerto on “Do Prosper, My Country.”) North Korean concerts inevitably come with a healthy dose of propaganda (this particular concert, for instance, comes on the heels of an annual concert dedicated to Isang Yun, whose stature in the North is equal parts musical accomplishment and his kidnapping by the South Korean security forces in 1967). Maybe that old story about Bismarck listening to Beethoven’s Fifth before declaring war on France is still current in Pyongyang.

In other news:

Louis Andriessen wins this year’s Grawemeyer Award.

Meanwhile, the Louisville Orchestra (like its Honolulu counterpart) mulls bankruptcy options.

Next year’s royal wedding could feature Peter Maxwell Davies and Andrew Lloyd Webber on the same program—if the latter is asked.

Tomorrow, the town of Dumfries unveils a memorial cairn for Angus MacKay, first to hold the post of Queen’s Piper.

In closing: the neurology of Satie’s Vexations.

Holiday (II)

Here in the United States, tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day, a fine idea for a holiday that is nevertheless in perpetual danger of being swamped by the 600-pound-gorilla that is Christmas. (That’s right, I just compared the birthday of the Son of God to a gorilla. Take that, creationists!) In other words, Thanksgiving might just be the most American holiday there is, a kind of calendrical Lagrange point between sentimental gratitude for the stuff we have and mania for acquiring more stuff. And thus it’s always been—witness the years 1939 to 1941, when Franklin D. Roosevelt bumped Thanksgiving from the fourth Thursday in November to the third, at the presumed sales-boosting behest of Lew Hahn, president of both the Retail Dry Goods Association and the era’s largest department-store holding company. (Since it wasn’t yet a national holiday, states could follow FDR’s lead or not, and when one celebrated Thanksgiving became a barometer of political opinion.)

Back then, it was actually considered in poor taste for stores to put up Christmas decorations and have Christmas sales prio to Thanksgiving, a bit of social pressure that seems downright quaint nowadays; I saw places this year putting out their Christmas merchandise prior to Hallowe’en. I am, myself, a purist—nothing remotely yuletide-ish goes up until after Thanksgiving, my own small Maginot Line against the day when the Christmas retail season colonizes so much of the calendar that Thanksgiving becomes a kind of cult holiday. It’s kind of like ostentatiously ignoring round-number anniversaries of Mozart’s death (1791) in favor of Prokofiev’s birth (1891).

Every year, I do two things on Thanksgiving: eat enormous quantities of my mom’s stuffing, and harangue everybody reading this space to cough up a few bucks to the anti-hunger charity of your choice. (Here at Soho the Dog HQ, it’s The Greater Boston Food Bank—you can search for your local equivalent here.) Why should this year be any different? No good reason I can think of. Traditions are so heartwarming, after all.

Holiday (I)

Of this Cecilia thus it is written in the Martyrologe by Ado, that Cecilie the Virgine after she brought Valerian her husband espoused, and Tiburtius his brother to the knowledge and fayth of Christ, and with her exhortacions had made them constant vnto martyrdome: after the suffering of them she was also apprehended by Almachius the ruler, and brought to the Idoles to do sacrifice: which thing when she abhorred to do, she should be presēted before the iudge to haue the condemnation of death. In the meane time the Sergeants and officers which were about her, beholding her comelye beuty, and the prudent behauiour in her conuersation, began with many persuasions of words to sollicite her mynde, to fauour her selfe, and that so excellent beutye, and not to cast her selfe away. &c. But she agayne so replyed to them with reasons and godly exhortatiōs, that by the grace of almighty God their harts began to kindle, and at length to yeld to that religion, whych before they did persecute. Which thing she perceiuing, desired of the iudge Almachius a little respite. Whych being graunted, she sendeth for Vrbanus the bishop home to her house, to stablish and grounde them in the fayth of Christ. And so were they, with diuers other at the same tyme baptised, both men and wemen, to the number (as the story saith) of. 400. persons, among whom was one Gordianus a noble mā. This done, this blessed martyr was brought before the iudge, wher she was condēned: then after was brought to þe house of þe Iudge, wher she was inclosed in a whote bathe, but she remainyng ther a whole daie and night without any hurt, as in a colde place, was broughte out agayne, and commaundement geuen that in the bath she should be beheaded: The executour is sayde to haue iiii. strokes at her necke, as yet her heade beynge not cut of, she (as the storye geueth) liued iii. dayes after. And so dyed thys holy virgyn martyre, whose bodye in the night season Vrbanus the Byshop tooke and buryed amonge the other byshops.

—John Foxe, Acts and Monuments
(Foxe’s Book of Martyrs) (1570 edition)

From the online variorum edition (in progress) produced by the Humanities Research Institute at the University of Sheffield. (Previously: 1, 2.)

Organ donor

Somehow, I missed this, which makes me wonder what else I’ve been missing, but James Kibbie, organist and University of Michigan professor, recorded all of J. S. Bach’s organ works on a variety of German baroque organs, and then posted all the recordings online, for free. Extra nerd nourishment: for each piece, he’s also listed the organ registration. That’s about a week’s worth of procrastination fodder, right there. Fantastic.

I immediately went to my two favorites: the “St. Anne” prelude and fugue, and BWV 679, a sly little show-off fughetta on “Dies sind die heiligen zehen Gebot” (“These are the holy ten commandments”), in which Bach states the fugue subject, yes, ten times, and at the point where the commandments shift from “thou shalt” to “thou shalt not,” inverts the subject. I always imagine Johann pouring himself an extra, self-congratulatory glass of beer after dashing off that one.

Leftover Beethoven Miscellany: BPM

From time to time until the book comes out, this space will feature bits and pieces that were too esoteric, tangential, or just plain odd to make it into the final version.

The Allegro was taken, as we thought, too fast;—the common fault of all our orchestras. Beethoven was constantly lecturing his leaders on this matter. It is true that the whole rate and standard of time has accelerated lately, in perfect keeping with the restless character of the age; we live fast. And it is true that time is rather relative than positive, and that the most rapid prestissimo seems to glide on without hurry when the tempo of our own nerves and feelings and whole system corresponds.

The pioneering American music critic (and Beethoven fiend) John Sullivan Dwight, from an article (“Musical Review: Boston Philharmonic Society”) in the Feb 27, 1847 issue of The Harbinger, the Fourierist journal produced at the short-lived Brook Farm commune on the outskirts of Boston.

Hey, sport. You connect the dots

Thanks to holiday temporal creep, the Hammacher Schlemmer Christmas catalog showed up in the mail yesterday. Back before the World Wide Web—that dark, dark age when Abe Vigoda’s complete filmography was esoteric knowledge, people with extreme opinions talked mainly to themselves, and pornography was mildly difficult to procure—the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog was actually something, full of things that one really couldn’t find anywhere else. Nowadays, it’s lost a little of its wherewithal, but, as a loyal American—and thus unable to resist the siren song of consumerism—I dutifully flipped through this year’s catalog.

On page 37, there’s something called the “No Wrong Notes Strumstick.”


“It uses the unique, diatonic fretting of an Appalachian dulcimer,” the description says, “tuned in a drone relationship such that there are no wrong notes.” Now, I was all set to exercise my inner Victorian parliamentarian on that wrong-note thing. That is quite the sweeping generalization of systems of musical hierarchy and coherence you are making, good sir! But then I kept reading:

A major scale is played by simply fretting just one string and strumming like a guitar.

Now, I try to be forgiving when non-musicians trip on musical terminology, which—let’s face it—can be quirkier than a Wes Anderson movie. But it’s a red-letter day when I can’t even figure out what they’re trying to say. My best guess is that, if you fret one string in a particular place, or maybe fret all three strings, you get a major chord. But the more I think about it, the more I like the thought of propping this thing on your lap, randomly fretting one string, and then strumming away while cascading major scales pour forth. Can you imagine what Terry Riley would pay for something like that?