Let's play pfootball!

I'm flattered to find that Seattle blogger-singer Peter Garbes has named his fantasy football team the Hans Pfitzner Blues Explosion, in honor of an old post on this site. The Fredösphere is the great originator.

Fall CD roundup


"Sounds from the Studio"

by Alex Ross

The New Yorker
, Sept. 26, 2005.

The EMI label’s new version of “Tristan und Isolde,” starring Plácido Domingo, has received weirdly apocalyptic advance publicity: it has been described as the final large-scale opera recording in history. “Twilight of the CD Gods? A Studio ‘Tristan’ May Be the Last Ever,” read a headline in the Times. With its opulent production values and showy cameos in minor roles—Ian Bostridge as the Shepherd; Rolando Villazón, Domingo’s heir apparent in the Italian tenor repertory, as the Young Seaman—the set is a throwback to the golden age of the nineteen-fifties and sixties, when EMI summoned all-star casts to make generally unsurpassed recordings of “Don Giovanni,” “The Magic Flute,” “Fidelio,” “Tosca,” and, under the helm of Wilhelm Furtwängler, “Tristan.” They don’t make them like that anymore, but they are still making them. Virgin Classics, which is distributed by EMI, just issued a glamorous recording of Vivaldi’s previously unknown “Bajazet.” Decca is releasing a sumptuous studio recording of Richard Strauss’s “Daphne,” with Renée Fleming in the title role. There’s even a competing “Tristan” out, a feisty budget effort from the Naxos label. Where did the end-ofeverything story about EMI’s “Tristan” get started? Probably in EMI’s publicity department. Only in classical music would the alleged death of a genre be used to hype it.

What does seem to be dying out is the practice of spending a million or more dollars to make a studio recording of an opera that could just as easily have been taped live. And that’s no cause for mourning. Modern technology allows engineers to preserve performances with a clarity that was impossible back in the fifties. Deutsche Grammophon, for example, captured a vital “Tristan” at the Vienna State Opera two years ago, with Thomas Moser and Deborah Voigt in the leads and Christian Thielemann conducting. In the case of Domingo’s “Tristan,” EMI resorted to the studio because Domingo has never sung this punishing role onstage. The increasingly ageless tenor, who is experiencing perhaps the longest Indian summer in vocal history, helped round up the money to realize his aim of singing Tristan from beginning to end. Don’t be surprised if he soon repeats the feat with some other dream project, such as Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra.” That one, presumably, will be marketed as really, truly, and absolutely the last.       

Was it worth the million dollars? Is it worth your $50.98? Domingo pulls off some amazing feats of interpretation in the third act: one line after another is given a heartrending spin. Elsewhere, particularly in Act II, he sometimes sounds oddly wooden, and self-consciously careful in his articulation. The endless love music never goes over the brink into delirium. (Compare Domingo with Wolfgang Windgassen on the legendary 1966 recording from Bayreuth—a Heldentenor in heat.) When René Pape comes on at the end of Act II to thunder the role of King Marke, he seems to be giving Domingo a primer in the dramatic recitation of German. Nina Stemme, the Isolde, is a singer of deadly precision, firing off consonants as if they were bullets. But she lacks both the ravishing warmth and the lacerating rage that characterize the perfect Isolde. (She comes closer than most, though.) Mihoko Fujimara and Olaf Bär are miscast as Brangäne and Kurwenal. Antonio Pappano coaxes awesomely voluptuous sounds from the Covent Garden orchestra, but there’s something labored about this effort, as if the cast were too consumed by the imaginary burden of making the Last Opera Recording to make a living, breathing one.

In Borges’s surreal story “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote,” an obscure French Symbolist becomes the author of Cervantes’s masterpiece by copying it word for word. The Pierre Menard of our time is Lionel Sawkins, an English musicologist, who recently convinced a London court that he had composed several motets by the French Baroque composer Michel-Richard de Lalande. Or, to be precise, Sawkins convinced the court that he was owed royalties on a recording of Lalande, which appeared on the Hyperion label, and for which he had prepared scholarly editions. Little of his work could be considered original in the conventional sense—the purpose of such editions is to be unoriginal—but Sawkins was declared the rightful owner of the works. As a result, Hyperion has been forced to pay Sawkins’s legal fees, which ran close to two million dollars. Hyperion, an independent label, does not have that EMI-size sum in its coffers, and it has been reduced to begging for donations on its Web site.       

If you want to give support to one of the most intrepid and principled outfits in the classical business, buy a few Hyperion CDs this month. The label was founded in 1980, by Ted Perry, who, for a while, financed his projects by driving a cab. It is responsible for two of the most monumental projects in recording history: a thirty-seven-volume survey of the complete songs of Schubert, with Graham Johnson at the piano, and a fifty-nine-volume survey of the piano music of Franz Liszt, with Leslie Howard. A list of Hyperion’s greatest hits would fill this column; some favorites are Brigitte Fassbaender’s harrowing disk of Schubert’s “Songs of Death” (Volume 11 in the complete series); Howard’s compilation of Liszt’s translunar late piano works (also Volume 11); the shimmering canons of John Sheppard’s “Cantate Mass” and other sacred works, as sung by the Sixteen, a vocal ensemble; Frank Martin’s archaic, piercing “Mass for Double Choir,” held aloft by the Westminster Cathedral Choir; and, in a recording due in October, the noble Canadian baritone Gerald Finley singing the heck out of the songs of Charles Ives.

Hyperion has made a specialty of obscure composers, often British ones. Fans of Hamish MacCunn, Granville Bantock, Hubert Parry, and Robert Simpson speak of the label with hushed reverence. But one of its strongest recent issues covers music of overwhelming familiarity: the Rachmaninoff piano concertos, with Stephen Hough at the piano and Andrew Litton conducting the Dallas Symphony. These are live recordings, and they crackle with life. Hough, a pianist of keen intelligence, is alert to every emotional turn in the music without ever falling into the trap of Romantic cliché; he lets Rachmaninoff’s great melodies bend and sway, but not in the expected places. Legions of great pianists and orchestras have recorded these concertos, but Hough and the Dallas musicians may have outdone them all.

“Ayre,” a new song cycle by the Argentinean-born composer Osvaldo Golijov, which Deutsche Grammophon is releasing on CD on September 27th, is not only an ecstatically beautiful piece but also a radical and disorienting one. Many people, on first encountering its rasping sonorities, hurtling rhythms, and welters of lament, will be unsure whether they are listening to pop music or to classical music or to some folk ritual of indeterminate origin. However they answer, they will be right. Golijov, whose work will be celebrated at a major festival at Lincoln Center in January and February, has woven his cycle from a skein of Arabic, Hebrew, Sardinian, and Sephardic material. He has enlisted the Argentinean rock producer, film composer, and guitarist Gustavo Santaolalla to give heft and color to the sound; this music jumps out of the speakers in a way that classical records seldom do. Dawn Upshaw, the soprano, delivers an electrifying performance in which she assumes a half-dozen vocal guises. Early in the record she makes a hairpin turn from a fragile, softly glowing Sephardic song entitled “Una Madre Comió Asado” to a bloodcurdling Sardinian number entitled “Tancas Serradas a Muru”—I had to double-check the credits to make sure that Upshaw was still the singer. If a modern classical work could ever crack the Top 40, this is it: Golijov has created a new beast, of bastard parentage and glorious plumage.

Merkel's Wagner

It appears that Angela Merkel might become the next Chancellor of Germany. Which would mean, among other things, that Germany would once again be run by an enthusiastic and knowledgeable Wagner-lover. Before you see anything sinister or regressive in that potentiality, though, you should read some comments that Merkel made in July of this year, in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. The article ran to nearly five thousand words, and it was devoted entirely to the subject of Wagner. An excerpt, roughly and hastily translated:

F.A.Z.: In the third act of Parsifal, God himself speaks. Or so said Romain Rolland. As a Protestant minister’s daughter, what did you make of the voodoo-magic which Christoph Schlingensief unleashed last year in Bayreuth?

Merkel: After Schlingensief’s Parsifal in Bayreuth, I attended Lehnhoff’s Parsifal in Baden-Baden. I confess I had a better time there. On the day of the Bayreuth opening, I resolved to be an open listener. I did not want to batten down the hatches; I wanted to give the new a chance. But this production made excessive demands on me. Herr Schlingensief had many very interesting ideas, but I found that the piece now radiated too many stimuli, a multilayeredness of perceptions, which had a distracting character. The music moved into the background, which led some singers to have the impression that they were no longer at the center of things. It is also interesting to learn from younger people that they had a better time dealing with this immense quantity of stimuli. I probably should admit to the fact that I belong to the over-fifty crowd, and that younger people obviously have an easier time navigating this flood of stimuli around us. I belong among those who are comfortable with silence. For example, I regard Lufthansa’s innovation of playing disembarkation music as no improvement on my quality of life.

F.A.Z.: Kundry experiences redemption through annihilation. It is well known that she is not the only figure in Wagner’s oeuvre in whom traces of anti-Semitism have been discovered. On the other side we know about Hitler’s Götterdämmerung fantasies in the Führer bunker. As a Wagner-lover today, can you simply set this aside this dimension of the work?

Merkel: To set aside is to suppress. One cannot dismiss the concatenation of Wagner with National Socialism, because it was, unfortunately, a historical reality. That is the way it is. Wagner’s work must be interpreted anew and seen anew for today's time — as has been tried in various ways since the end of National Socialism. For me, the Kundry figure is a rather interesting female character. Nevertheless, we should be at all times conscious of where anti-Semitic tendencies might lie. Once you put it out in the open, you banish the danger that such a connotation could remain implicit in interpretations which are no longer acceptable [or something like that]. The total reduction of Wagner’s music to the ideological dimension, which happened in the National Socialist period, later led many people to a total rejection of Wagner. That reduction was an abuse, which covered up the unbelievable many-sidedness of the music, its textual and motivic connections, its progressive tendencies, and it still blocks the entrance to Wagner today. As a result, the modernity of Wagner’s music is, alas, completely overlooked. Many twentieth-century composers partook of Wagner’s compositional technique. I urge that the abuse of Wagner be looked at an open and critical fashion, so that more people can gain access to this great musician. And it’s good to see that exactly this is already happening.

Trent Lott's sonata

There is now a composition entitled Trent Lott's Porch, courtesy of M. Keiser. It uses the first of the two Katrina hexachords.

All things shine


Having spent five days locked in a hotel room writing, I escaped for a few hours and drove up Highway 1 to the paradise of Point Reyes. Next week, a New Yorker column on new CDs, plus notes on many more recent recordings on the blog.

Continue reading "All things shine" »

Dr. Gene Scott


The admirably weird Dr. Gene Scott is still on TV here in San Francisco, despite the fact that he died last February. During the dismal post-college year that I lived in Berkeley (my fault, not Berkeley's), I fell into the habit of watching Dr. Scott in the middle of the night, trying to grasp what on earth he was driving at. He was a maverick televangelist with a Captain Ahab beard who held forth in an inexplicably mesmerizing Idaho baritone on a bizarre variety of topics, from the minutiae of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin versions of the Bible (he was evidently quite learned, and earned the "Dr.") to the secrets of the Pyramids. Sometimes he would disappear from the screen for long stretches, to be replaced by footage of racehorses or polka dancers. One evening, as he was reading aloud from the occult pop history Holy Blood, Holy Grail. I decided to make a tape composition out of his recitation of facts concerning the Spear of Destiny, and combined it with a loop of the final notes of Salome. The result was judged uniquely disturbing by the two people who heard it. Dr. Scott seemed free of the hard-heartedness that drives other pseudo-Christians on TV; he avoided hot-button social issues, although he did once advise George Bush Sr. to nuke Iraq. There were questions about the financial structure of his church, which, no doubt, the IRS is still busy sorting out. If he did engage in chicanery, he couldn't really be accused of being a hypocrite, since his religious system was so murky to begin with. He was a divine American kook of a sort they don't manufacture anymore.

No argument there

Peggy Noonan: "...it's a bad sign.... No president should be surrounded by dry heavers."


Justin Davidson: "The Metropolitan Opera commissions new works with the cautiousness of a cat on the edge of a bathtub."

One Eagle Hill



I essentially haven't moved from this hotel room in three days, except to buy new socks and meet a couple of people. I'm trying to write a very long article in a very short span of time. As you can see, I have been working on the world's smallest desk. I am quite proud of the improvisation with the ironing board. The red book on the desk is Richard Rhodes' The Making of the Atomic Bomb, which might give you some clue as to what I'm doing here. (No, not that, Homeland Security!) Sade's Lovers Rock is playing — a record that gets better with time.

Cupcake wars

There is an entertaining but erroneous article about cupcakes in New York magazine. The author expends much ink detailing a feud between the Magnolia and Buttercup bakeries, failing to acknowledge that Billy's is better than either.

New blogs


Please welcome Marc Geelhoed, who promises to deliver sharp coverage of the music scene in Chicago, and Classical Domain, which aims for a comprehensive listing of classical events in New York City. (More new music, bitte, but this is a great resource that I'll be checking every day.) And note two singer blogs, which are new at least to me: Histoires de Moi and the Canadienne. In my last column for The New Yorker, I touted Jeremy Denk's site; I'd have done the same for Mostly Mozart breakout star Erin Wall (aka the Canadienne) if I'd known she was in the game. Blogging seems to be an excellent outlet for singers on the road: living in hotels can be lonely. Here I am, watching Adamsian tankers rise from San Francisco Bay.


Speech found the ear, for all the evil sound
But the dark italics it could not propound.

— Wallace Stevens

Trent Lott's porch

The tragically destroyed neo-segregationist verandah where President Bush is "looking forward to sitting" (hopefully as a premature retiree) now has its own website.

JD Considine has analyzed the chord that Bush is playing in the famous guitar picture, taken at the height of the Katrina disaster. It seems to be a strongly dissonant sonority consisting of the notes G, G#, A, B, C, and D. Considine speculates that Bush was trying to play a G-major chord and messed up, but I suspect that our Commander-in-Chief, mindful of the inherent tendency of the musical material, has followed Schoenberg over the threshold of atonality. Here he plays the pitch-class set named 6-Z11 in the Allen Forte system — a hauntingly ambiguous chord that brushes against the ghost of a now defunct tonality even as it stares ahead remorselessly into the chromatic future. I am looking forward to the rigorously atonal works that Bush will have time to write on Trent Lott's porch.

Update: Paul Mitchinson has cast doubt on Considine's description of the Katrina dissonance. He says it's a different collection of discordant tones, namely B, C#, E, F, G, G#. Now, I know less than nuttin' about gee-tar-playin', so I will let these two gentlemen duke it out amongst themselves. But I am excited by the news that Bush might be playing pc set 6-Z49 rather than 6-Z11. He thereby shows awareness of the possibilities of octatonicism as the basis for a coherent atonal language.

Adès Violin Concerto

I've been following the music of Thomas Adès since I first encountered it at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1995. His latest work is a Violin Concerto subtitled Concentric Paths, which had its first performance in Berlin on Sept. 4 and its second at the Proms on Sept. 6. BBC 3's "listen again" feature allows you to hear the work until Sept. 13. Blogger Fin Keegan has linked to the relevant portion of the broadcast, so you don't have to sit through Beethoven's Consecration of the House Overture and Stravinsky's Pulcinella. I shan't say too much after only two hearings, but the work seems an imposing addition to the Adès catalogue. It signals a new austerity, if not simplicity, from this formerly devil-may-care composer: phantoms of Shostakovich, particularly the later, haggard Shostakovich, haunt the scene, though none of that composer's characteristic tricks appear. The slow movement is a landscape of awesome breadth.

Florence Bernstein

I am very sad to learn of the passing of Florence Bernstein, the doyenne of PR at the New York Philharmonic — dispenser of tickets, keeper of secrets, master of knowing smiles.

Never have I turned since then


I liked Tony Tommasini's piece about Rufus Wainwright in the Times. The same paper a few weeks ago had some snide remarks about the singer's plans to appear at an "Opera For All" event at New York City (it's happening tonight, but I'm on the road). You got the impression that City Opera had hired some unlettered pop urchin to make itself look young and hip. As Tony's piece makes clear, Wainwright is a keen opera fan who probably knows more about the art than many people on the City Opera board. Years ago, when I still ventured out into what might be called bohemian café society, I met the balladeer in a bar in the East Village. When I told him I wrote about classical music, he launched into a paean to Richard Strauss' Die Ägyptische Helena. If he's new to you, listen to his dazzling song "Art Teacher." He's being interviewed by Andy Young at the New Yorker Festival on Sept. 24, though the event is sold out.

Staying on the subject of New York's brainy pop luminaries, I was elated to see that Antony & The Johnsons, whose record I Am a Bird Now is one of the best releases of this or any year, won the big-deal Mercury Prize in Britain, beating out the rhyme-biting vampires of Coldplay. If you have iTunes, go to the store and listen to "Hope There's Someone." I challenge you to listen to it only once. In my mind, it plays over images of this terrible, irrevocable week in American history.

For Charley Patton


About four years ago I wrote that Beethoven is the only composer who makes sense when the world becomes apocalyptic. I forgot Bob Dylan. Carl Wilson (condolences, Carl) has quoted some lines from Dylan's last album, the one released on September 11th, 2001, and I'll quote them too:

High water rising, six inches above my head
Coffins dropping in the street
Like balloons made out of lead
Water pouring into Vicksburg
Don't know what I'm going to do
"Don't reach out for me," she said
"Can't you see I'm drowning too?"

The trouble with the song, though, is that it's using disaster as a metaphor for free-floating anomie. We are in a moment where metaphor breaks down and reality overpowers the imagination. I have trouble knowing how to write at times like this.

Dark September

Terry Teachout and Our Girl in Chicago have broken away from the arts beat to compile links relating to Hurricane Katrina. The breaking-news site and readers' blog at the New Orleans Times-Picayune are heartbreaking beyond belief. No victims count more than any others, but two stories haunt me: this one, about two teen-aged brothers who reached out to their teacher, and this one, about the disappearance of "Fats" Domino. (Update: He's been found.) Meanwhile, George W. Bush is playing guitar, Condoleeza Rice is buying thousand-dollar shoes, and FEMA is being run by the former lawyer of the International Arabian Horse Association (where he was forced to resign!). Here are links to the United Negro College Fund and the American Red Cross, although the Department of Homeland Security is not allowing the Red Cross into New Orleans. They're taking care of everything beautifully on their own.

"We have been abandoned by our own country. Hurricane Katrina will go down in history as one of the worst storms ever to hit an American coast, but the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina will go down as one of the worst abandonments of Americans on American soil ever in U.S. history. I am personally asking our bipartisan congressional delegation here in Louisiana to immediately begin congressional hearings to find out just what happened here. Why did it happen? Who needs to be fired? And believe me, they need to be fired right away, because we still have weeks to go in this tragedy. We have months to go.  We have years to go. And whoever is at the top of this totem pole, that totem pole needs to be chain-sawed off and we've got to start with some new leadership. It's not just Katrina that caused all these deaths in New Orleans here. Bureaucracy has committed murder here in the greater New Orleans area, and bureaucracy has to stand trial before Congress now....

"The guy who runs this building I'm in, emergency management, he's responsible for everything. His mother was trapped in St. Bernard nursing home and every day she called him and said, "Are you coming, son?  Is somebody coming?" And he said, "Yeah, Mama, somebody's coming to get you.  Somebody's coming to get you on Tuesday. Somebody's coming to get you on Wednesday.  Somebody's coming to get you on Thursday. Somebody's coming to get you on Friday." And she drowned Friday night. She drowned Friday night...."

Aaron Broussard, President of Jefferson Parish, New Orleans

"Out of the rubbles [sic] of Trent Lott's house — he's lost his entire house — there's going to be a fantastic house. And I'm looking forward to sitting on the porch."

— George W. Bush, President of the United States



Kyle Gann has announced Women Composers' Month on Postclassic Radio. I'm listening now to Maggie Payne's hauntingly folkish Aeolian Confluence. Composer Corey Dargel has started up a funny-informative new podcast called Composers and the People Who Love Them (with a team of satirical experts in the Gerard Hoffnung / Glenn Gould tradition). The inaugural episode features Eve Beglarian. Bernard Sherman has written an excellent wrap-up of the Lionel Sawkins controversy for Andante. The same site has an essay by ethnomusicologist Marc Perlman, who points out that copyrighting a Baroque motet is not unlike copyrighting a folk song. Once a work has passed into the public domain, it should stay there, or the concept of copyright devolves into nonsense. See, for example, the Berlin Sing-Akadamie's so far successful attempt to claim ownership of Vivaldi's opera Motezuma on the grounds that the score was discovered in the Sing-Akademie's archives. I also recommend this properly angry post by Greg Sandow on pop-culture ignorance in the classical world. It never ceases to amaze me that classical musicians complain about how mainstream culture neglects them, and, in the next breath, display total cluelessness about that culture.

Guest blogger: Maulina


While I'm on the road this week, Maulina has generously offered to take over the reins. Take it away, Maulina!


Overheard (classical division)

Two acquaintances run into each other on the street:

Man #1: What's on your iPod?
Man #2: Uh, Dvorak.
Man #1: Wow!

Shining II

A while ago I complained that Piano Man, a nameless virtuoso mental patient, was receiving widespread media coverage principally because the media like to depict classical musicians as freaks. Now it turns out that Piano Man may not be much of a pianist: "Other reports have surfaced that the patient did not, in fact, give a virtuoso piano performance, but, the Mirror said, tapped at one note repeatedly. The hospital disputes this claim." Har. For more on deviant pianists, visit Adam Baer.

Update: John Burke proposes a solution to the mystery — Piano Man is in fact a piano tuner.

Mostly Mozart 2.0

"A Little Late-Night Music"

by Alex Ross

The New Yorker,
August 29, 2005.

A decade ago, the Mostly Mozart Festival, Lincoln Center’s venerable summertime series, was offering some of the dullest concerts in the Western Hemisphere. I remember a performance of Mozart’s Flute Concerto in D, with Jean-Pierre Rampal as the soloist and Gerard Schwarz conducting the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, which was positively bureaucratic in its self-satisfied mediocrity, as if it were being piped in from a department of motor vehicles in Leonid Brezhnev’s Russia. I briefly considered abandoning music criticism for cat-sitting.       

In the mid-nineteen-nineties, with the advent of the multidisciplinary, hipper-than-thou Lincoln Center Festival, many people assumed that the older series would fall by the wayside. Instead, Mostly Mozart has undergone a mildly shocking rejuvenation. The programming now includes period-instrument ensembles, dance (the Mark Morris Dance Group performed its masterpiece “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato” last week), even world music (Kayhan Kalhor, the kamancheh virtuoso, appeared last summer). Late-night concerts have been added, and a new stage has been installed at Avery Fisher Hall. The orchestra, which draws on New York’s inexhaustible supply of skilled freelancers, hasn’t changed all that much; half the musicians on the roster were in the group a decade ago. But they’re now playing with a youthful edge, finding threads of novelty in some of the world’s most familiar music.

The guiding spirit of Mostly Mozart 2.0 is Jane Moss, the Vice President for Programming at Lincoln Center, who conceived the idea of remaking the venerable summer festival. Working alongside her is Louis Langrée, who took over from Schwarz as music director in 2002, having made his name at the Glyndebourne Festival. An amiable-looking fellow with tousled hair, Langrée conducts in a collarless white tunic, which makes him look something like a celebrity chef. His style is at once warm and sharp; he is plainly liked by the players, yet he is able to steer them out of the eddies of harmonious routine. He has a neat way of etching the beginnings and ends of phrases, so that Mozart’s heavenly paragraphs don’t devolve into dulcet murmuring. In the first movement of the “Haffner” Symphony, for example, a pattering eighth-note figure at the end of a measure is given a marked articulation, so that it drives into the next bar with a kind of piston action. In the same movement, upward scales in the strings are dramatized with quick, flaring crescendos. All through the scores, decorative details become pulses of energy, flexings of musical muscle. At the same time, Langrée avoids the bad habit of incessantly poking at the music as if it were almost dead.       

The theme of this summer’s festival—it ends on August 27th, with the Mass in C Minor—is “Travelling with Mozart.” We follow the composer on various revenue-generating trips to Paris, Prague, and London; we sample music from each country and hear Mozart’s works interpreted by native ensembles and soloists. At times, the attempt to keep the governing theme afloat results in awkward intellectual calisthenics. When the Gabrieli Consort of London, under the direction of Paul McCreesh, played Mozart’s great G-Minor Symphony, the program annotator ventured that the work was somehow English in nature. I’d have guessed we were in Italy; the performance was winningly fleet and graceful, devoid of the Romantic histrionics that conductors sometimes bring to this piece. Mozart was, in fact, music’s perfect cosmopolitan: wherever he went, there he was.

The festival also wants to shake up conventional patterns of programming, in an effort to simulate the wildly varied concerts of Mozart’s time. In the opening weeks, concert and opera arias enlivened the usual procession of overture, concerto, and symphony, and a handsome parade of sopranos delivered them. Renée Fleming, who sang at the opening-night gala, gave evidence of having headlined one gala too many: she rendered a group of Handel arias in an unintelligible, mannered style. The diva-in-chief was followed by a posse of younger women who were determined to make an impression. Emma Bell sang Mozart’s “Ah, lo previdi . . . Ah, t’in-vola agl’occhi miei” with gleaming intonation and a buoyant personality; the aria is a howl of fury, but Bell had fun with it. Sally Matthews gave dramatic heft to “Ch’io mi scordi di te . . . Non temer, amato bene.” And Erin Wall, a young Canadian, sang “Bella mia fiamma . . . Resta, o cara” with grace and fire, showing the sort of righteous rage that would make for a great Donna Anna. I hope someone from the Met was taking notes.

Since Avery Fisher Hall opened, in 1962, various wizards have tried to fix the erratic acoustics and consuming blandness of the place. The prime innovation of this summer’s Mostly Mozart Festival has been to put in place a temporary “Mozart stage,” which goes some way toward humanizing the room. If the New York Philharmonic is smart, it will bring back the new arrangement. The musicians now play on a Brazilian bloodwood platform that extends thirty feet into the audience. There is extra seating to the side and in back of the ensemble. The sound isn’t quite voluptuous, but it’s fuller and richer than it was before: an array of overhead baffles helps to bring focus. If you sit in the “courtside” areas, you are practically inside the orchestra. You get to see the body language of the musicians: a congratulatory nudge to a violinist who has finessed a broken string; a sympathetic pat on the knee to an oboist whose reed starts squawking in the summer heat; Langrée’s inviting glances and grateful smiles. You also notice that the triangle is incredibly loud for its size.       

The late-night concerts take place in the Kaplan Penthouse, ten floors above Lincoln Center Plaza. A space usually reserved for institutional powwows has been transformed (if you squint a little) into a classical Rainbow Room, with candles on the tables and appropriate beverages. One night, the gifted young pianist Jeremy Denk accompanied Emma Bell in Mozart and Debussy songs, and also played Bach’s Third English Suite. He’s a powerful, intelligent musician, as severe in Bach as he is sensuous in Debussy. He is also a blogger, of all things. (His site, jeremydenk.blogspot.com, contains a soaring description of Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time.”) A few nights later, Jean-Yves Thibaudet rode the elevator up to the Penthouse to give a mini-recital of Satie’s first “Gymnopédie” and Debussy’s Second Book of Préludes. Although Thibaudet’s Debussy is a bit strict and dry for my taste, his musicianship is impeccable, and he has an easy, charming way of talking to the audience. When it came to the encore, he actually took requests: Chopin won over Ravel.

The Mostly Mozart team must have wondered whether people would really venture into the wilds of the Upper West Side at 10:30 P.M. No problem: both late-night concerts that I attended were standing-room-only. And the audience was noticeably younger than the one that showed up at Avery Fisher. Eight o’clock, the inviolable starting time for classical events, is, for a lot of us, an awkward hour; we’d rather be sitting down to dinner, not digesting. Younger people also reportedly shy away from the concerts because they are afraid of violating grandmotherly rules of decorum. The Mostly Mozart late-night series, casually serious in tone, raises the possibility that a large institution can carve out alternative identities, rather than try to please several demographics all at once.       

Most concerts in big halls are two-dimensional experiences. The orchestra is so far away that it may as well be a projection on a screen; the sound has depth, but the image is flat. Change the perspective and the music changes, too. Last spring, I happened to sit in Row A, right in front of the orchestra, for a performance of “Tosca” at the Met. I could see the sweat on Aprile Millo’s brow as she calculated each step into diva madness. Zeffirelli’s grandiose sets soared on all sides, Roman grandeur incarnate. One gentleman in the brass section read a New York weekly while he waited for Scarpia’s ominous sonorities to arrive. The man beside me whispered to his neighbor about the time he saw Callas; the prompter muttered the tenor’s lines. I’ve never had more fun at the opera.


Hey, guys

Radiohead is/are blogging. Via Thomas.

Albert(o) Vilar update

From Opera magazine: "...More has been revealed about the investigation into the affairs of the one-time benefactor—who was not, it now appears, born in Cuba. He is said to have been born Albert Vilar in New Jersey, but began calling himself Alberto in the early 1990s and made much of his Cuban background. Investigators have said that the enquiry into his affairs took a serious turn when the difference was noted between his Amerindo Investment Advisors Inc and Amerindo Investment Advisors, Inc. The comma would not have been noticed by potential investors, but was not missed by the US Attorney’s Office, for whom the existence of these two separate companies was a red flag. One was based in California, the other in Panama—another red flag." (Via Sieglinde.)

What about Schreker?

Schreker3_3 Two leftover scraps from my piece on the luminously strange operas of Franz Schreker. 1) Not one of Schreker's operas has ever been performed in the United States, according to scholar Christopher Hailey. It would be a fine thing if an adventurous opera company — Santa Fe? St. Louis? — took them up. [A reader adds that James Conlon, who has great sympathy for forgotten 20th-century composers, could do them at the LA Opera.] 2) I wanted to write a brief description of Schreker's famous "shimmering" effects, but couldn't shoe-horn it into the piece. In the opening page of the Gezeichneten Prelude, the harmony oscillates between D major and B-flat minor, and what's really interesting is that this alternation takes place in separate layers, at different rates of speed. In the first layer, piano and harps spell out the two triads in swirling triplet arpeggios. In the second layer, celesta and second violins play in the same rhythm, but they change chords with every triplet sixteenth note, producing intermittent dissonances. The first violins, meanwhile, snake around in sinuous patterns, while bass clarinet, violas, and cellos present Alviano's yearning, ambiguous theme. It's one of the most bewitching soundscapes ever devised.

Photo from the Schreker Foundation. The "What about Schreker?" story was told to me by David Denby. This recording is a good introduction, though not ideal. CDs and a DVD of the Salzburg Gezeichneten may be forthcoming.

Batter my heart


I was trying to capture a screen image from the DVD of Peter Sellars' breathtaking Glyndebourne production of Handel's Theodora when a slightly alarming visual composition appeared on my camera: Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, rising wraith-like over the prostrate Dawn Upshaw, in the middle of my living room. The news that the great Lorraine — whose singing in Theodora might be the most astonishing achievement of her astonishing career — has withdrawn from the premiere performances of John Adams' Doctor Atomic, in San Francisco, has occasioned wailings of lamentation in some quarters. But Kristine Jepson, who sang excellently in Rosenkavalier at the Met this spring, should have the voice and acting chops for the role of Kitty Oppenheimer. Doctor Atomic opens on October 1, and runs until the 22nd — ten performances in all. The libretto, as Adams and Sellars disclosed at a recent press event here in New York, is taken word for word from published documentation of the hours leading up to the first atomic test in New Mexico.


San Diego writer and composer Thomas Larson has sent along a link to his fine essay on Roy Harris' Third Symphony, which appears in a recent issue of the San Diego Reader, alongside various personal accounts of musical passions and discoveries. It's nice to see classical music heavily represented in this anthology; usually, such a piece would include pop and nothing but. Funny final sentence from Mary Grimm: "William Byrd feeds my soul while I feed my kids pancakes."

Web appearances

Talking With Alex Ross, by Rosecrans Baldwin, in the Morning News

Pop Quiz: Alex Ross, in Mediabistro

Alex Ross (New Yorker critic), Wikipedia

We've got Mostly Mozart

Rodney Lister at Sequenza21 reviews new music at the Proms. I heard Unsuk Chin's Alice in Wonderland piece via BBC 3, and was fascinated by its childish-radical vocabulary. More to come: Marc-André Dalbavie premiere tonight, Gubaidulina's Light at the End on Saturday, Thomas Adès' new Violin Concerto on Sept. 6. (Note: you can use BBC 3's "listen again" feature to hear Proms less than seven days old. The Chin work is Prom 36.)

All About Schreker

by Alex Ross

The New Yorker, August 22, 2005.

A friend once borrowed a history of opera from the library, only to find that every other page had been marked up by one of those hyper-punctuating annotators who stalk the pages of library books around the world. Whether the topic was Monteverdi, Wagner, or Gilbert and Sullivan, the voice in the margins kept returning to one agonized, enigmatic question: “WHAT ABOUT SCHREKER???” My friend, who understandably knew little of the Austrian opera composer Franz Schreker (1878-1934), began to use that graphite cri de coeur as shorthand for the cult of obscure art, which sees repertories and canons as conspiracies against neglected genius. Any gathering of aesthetes will sooner or later have a “What about Schreker?” moment.

It's a good question, though. Schreker was better on his best days than most great composers are on their off days, which is why canons of genius are suspect. A child of fin-de-siècle Vienna, he delighted in the traumas of hypersensitive artist types, capturing them inside a glistening spiderweb of orchestral sound. At the height of his career, around 1920, he was anything but obscure: his operas were staged in all the major German and Austrian houses, and he became the director of the prestigious Hochschule für Musik, in Berlin. There were various reasons for his subsequent decline: he grew less sure of himself as he passed the age of forty; the ever-changing stylistic trends of the Jazz Age left him bewildered; he was of partly Jewish descent, which meant that after the Nazi takeover of 1933 he could no longer earn a living. He tried to learn English, in preparation for possibly emigrating to America. “Ladies and gentlemen, let us begin,” he wrote in his notebook. But he did not get the chance, dying, literally and figuratively, of a broken heart.

An attempt at resuscitation is under way. Schreker's operas are sidling back into the repertories of Central European opera houses. This summer, the Salzburg Festival mounted a beautifully disturbing production of “Die Gezeichneten,” or “The Branded,” which, between 1918 and 1930, played in twenty-two cities, and then went unheard for decades. Nazism consigned Schreker to obscurity; now German-speaking opera lovers seem determined to make amends. Heinz Fischer, the President of Austria, who is trying to quell yet more antiSemitic noises from the country's far right, made a point of attending “Die Gezeichneten” and visiting an exhibition of Schrekeriana which the Jewish Museum of Vienna had put together. But it's tricky to frame Schreker as a virtuous victim of history. Nikolaus Lehnhoff, who directed “Die Gezeichneten,” rightly perceives that there is something dangerous and strange at the heart of Schreker's music, an unstable, implosive energy, which guarantees that it will have an uneasy future.


Schreker had sharp features, a high forehead, and incisive eyes. He looked a little like Mahler, which may explain why Alma Mahler had an affair with him after her husband's death. His father was a portrait photographer for the European aristocracy; his mother came from an old Austrian Catholic family. He was one of the few young composers of his generation who refused to be overwhelmed by Richard Wagner, paying heed instead to international contemporaries, notably Debussy, Puccini, and Paul Dukas, whose opera “Ariane et Barbe-Bleue” is another hidden gem of the fin de siècle. (New York City Opera will revive it this fall.) Schreker's first major opera, “Der Ferne Klang” (“The Distant Sound”), first heard in 1912, stood out from myth-based, swords-and-sorcery operas of the period, because it was set in the present day, in the salons and cafés of the bourgeoisie. An ambitious young composer goes in search of a “distant sound,” turning away from the woman who loves him. She descends into the dregs of society, not unlike Wedekind's Lulu, and only when it is too late does the artist realize his error.

From the start Schreker had an urge to make art about art, to show the exhilarating possibilities and creeping dangers of the creative path. In “The Music Box and the Princess,” a wandering youth summons magic sounds with his flute. In “The Singing Devil,” an organ builder creates a wondrous instrument that is supposed to bring peace, but falls into the hands of an evil fanatic. In “Der Schatzgräber,” a musician uses an enchanted lute to locate buried treasure. In “Irrelohe,” an itinerant fiddler sets fire to the countryside wherever he goes. And in “Christophorus,” the strongest opera of his later years, a wise old composer oversees a quarrelsome posse of students, one of whom is a Schoenberg-like fanatic who “writes linearly.”

Schreker wrote his own librettos, mobilizing naturalistic devices that hadn't been used in German opera before. Freudian dream journals mix with slangy chitchat; one scene melts into another with cinematic ease. There are fascinating effects of distancing: often, a character will sing in elegant phrases about something horrible—in “Ge-zeichneten,” the soprano lingers lovingly on the word Hässlichkeit, or “ugliness”—while attempts at wholesome passion are undercut by dissonance. The music vacillates between melodies of Mediterranean grace and textures of otherworldly complexity. Schreker never abandoned tonality, but he made the triad a nucleus around which extra notes move in flickering orbits. Periodically, his late-Romantic orchestra dematerializes: heavy instruments recede, and chiming tones of harp, xylophone, and celesta (the sound of Tchaikovsky's Sugar Plum Fairy) take over. One minute, you are standing on solid ground; the next, you are dancing on mist.

Anything but a Romantic reactionary, Schreker was nevertheless seen as a throwback in the foxtrotting nineteen-twenties. The fashion was for hard, dry sound; he could not let go of his gossamer textures. A brilliant teacher, he watched sadly as his own students disavowed him. He got a secret revenge in “Christophorus,” which was too far-out and meta-operatic to be performed in the composer's lifetime. (The Kiel Opera has made a good recording for the CPO label.) Master Johann's star students are Christoph, a strutting prodigy beloved of the critics, and Anselm, an ambivalent, watchful youth. Christoph ends up a murderer, a drug addict, a disciple of brute strength. Anselm finds virtue in truth, simplicity, “female weakness”—everything that Germany was preparing to reject.


If “Der Ferne Klang” is Schreker's most inspired work—the Venetian party scene in Act II, with its layering of choruses, Gypsy bands, and singing gondoliers, is worthy of “Don Giovanni”—“Die Gezeichneten” is the one that takes you by the throat. The plot, which Schreker initially concocted for his RomanticImpressionist colleague Alexander Zemlinsky, sets up a love triangle among three habitués of Renaissance Genoa: Alviano, a hunchbacked aesthete, who builds an island utopia called Elysium; Count Tamare, handsome and heartless, who, with fellow-squires, converts Elysium into a hotbed of sexual depravity, taking the daughters of Genoa's merchant class as victims; and Carlotta, a diffident painter, who falls in love with Alviano, or at least the idea of him, only to give in to Tamare's advances. The Schreker scholar Gösta Neuwirth has found that the scenario contains various cunning portraits of fin-de-siècle personalities. Alviano resembles the industrialist Friedrich Alfred Krupp, who built a gay pleasure den in a grotto on Capri. Tamare seems to have been based on Tamara von Hervay, an accused bigamist and witch. And Carlotta, who rightly fears that sex would kill her, is probably a stand-in for the perpetually keening Zemlinsky, as well as for the less sentimental Schoenberg, who painted in his spare time. The libretto supplies a description of Carlotta's painting of a glowing hand: it precisely resembles one of Schoenberg's pictures. The transposition of gender roles is typical of Schreker's devious psychology.

The music, too, is full of deceptive surfaces and tricky allusions. It is itself a kind of magic grotto, designed to lure the unsuspecting ear. A splashy, hummable melody linked with Tamare functions like “La donna è mobile,” the ditty that the Duke sings in Verdi's “Rigoletto”; it is the charming face of a vicious man. A complementary melody, wavering between major and minor, represents Carlotta's moody yearning. It collapses in on itself as the opera goes on, until it becomes nothing more than a D-major triad superimposed on D-minor: a clotted, shivering mass. These unearthly sounds appear in conjunction with a finale of shameless melodrama. Some twists are predictable—Alviano kills Tamare in a rage—and some are not. When Carlotta, nearly dead in the wake of a rough night with Tamare, looks up to see Alviano, there is no tearful reconciliation. Instead, she screams, “Away, away! A troll!” Alviano goes mad. Curtain.

Lehnhoff, in his production, takes Schreker's sadistic manipulations a step further. In the first two acts, an austere, ominous landscape unfolds: characters crawl over the surface of a gigantic broken statue, which makes for a dramatic sight amid Salzburg's rock-hewn Felsenreitschule stage. In Act III, we enter Elysium, which here becomes a mechanical sexual ritual, not unlike the boring orgies in Pasolini's “Salò” and Kubrick's “Eyes Wide Shut.” In Lehnhoff's vision, the girls who have been abducted into Elysium are not teen-agers but mere children, and they are not only raped but murdered. It is a grisly tableau out of Egon Schiele or Otto Dix. European opera stages are full of such unspeakable acts nowadays, and they usually have no dramatic point. Lehnhoff, who in other productions has proved anything but a sensationalist, knows what he is doing: he is following to the logical extreme Schreker's cultivated understanding of the worst in human nature.

The musicologist Christopher Hailey, who has long campaigned for a Schreker revival, observes that the operas work best if they are done in the highest possible style. The Salzburg performance, despite a series of awkward cuts, came close to the ideal. Kent Nagano conducted the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester of Berlin, applying the same priestly devotion to Schreker that he brings to Mahler and Messiaen. Robert Brubaker sang the taxing role of Alviano with unflagging intensity, perhaps missing some lyric nuance along the way. Michael Volle was a charismatic and brutal Tamare. Above all, Anne Schwanewilms was transfixing as Carlotta. With her hotly expressive stage presence and coolly beautiful soprano voice, she caught the ambiguities of Carlotta's character and, by extension, all the fire and ice of Schreker's world.

Mahler on the beach


During my recent trip to Salzburg, I went out to the tiny town of Steinbach, in the spectacular lake-and-mountain region of Salzkammergut, to see Gustav Mahler's composing hut. There are, in fact, three Mahler composing huts — in Steinbach, Maiernigg (to the south, on the Wörthersee), and Toblach (now Dobbiaco, in Italy). This is the one where the big man wrote much of his Second Symphony and drafted his Third. He built it to escape ambient noise at the Gasthof zum Höllengebirge, which is now the Gasthof Föttinger. Mahler's unquiet ghost is no doubt upset by the fact that his idyllic lakeside retreat is surrounded by an RV site and campground, where kids squeal all day long and German rap pumps from boomboxes.


If you look up to the colossal rockface of the Höllengebirge, which towers hundreds of feet above the lake, you can get a sense of why Mahler found this site so inspiring:


From Bruno Walter's memoir of Mahler: "I arrived by steamer on a glorious July day; Mahler was there on the jetty to meet me, and despite my protests, insisted on carrying my bag until he was relieved by a porter. As on our way to his house I looked up to the Höllengebirge, whose sheer cliffs made a grim background to the charming landscape, he said: 'You don't need to look — I have composed all this away!" The rockface became the introductory theme of the Third Symphony, the unison chant for eight horns, which he dubbed in one sketch "What the rocky mountain tells me."


Accompanying me on the expedition was Jeremy Eichler, critic at the New York Times, whose own report on the Salzburg Festival can be read in Sunday's paper. We picked up the key to the hut from the Gasthof reception desk. Turning the key in the lock seemed to trigger a switch; the Third Symphony started blaring when we walked in. Inside the hut is the piano on which Mahler composed, or a replica thereof. Photographs and fascimile manuscripts line the walls. There's a guestbook in which pilgrims can record their impressions; one visitor made an evocative sketch of Mahler at work.


I was prompted to make the trip to Steinbach after receiving a copy of Calling on the Composer, a new guide to composers' houses and museums by the late musicologist Stanley Sadie and his wife Julie Ann Sadie. Portions of the book had been appearing in Gramophone for several years. Sadie, whose life's work was the massive New Grove Dictionary of Music, finished this book just before his death last March. The last music he heard was the slow movement of Beethoven's final string quartet, Op. 135. The Chilingirian Quartet, which had just performed in a concert series that the Sadies had organized near their home, played it for him in his bedroom, as he went in and out of consciousness. He died the following day. The usual admonition to "rest in peace" seems unnecessary.


Schoenberg speaks


When I set up this site last year, one of my first links was to www.schoenberg.at, the bangin' website of the Arnold Schoenberg Center in Vienna. You won't find a more comprehensive online documentation of a composer, maybe of any artist in any medium. And the site has continued to grow over the past year. Schoenberg WebRadio, the audio portion, now offers dozens of historical items, including a flavorful recording of Schoenberg conducting the second movement of Mahler's Second Symphony. Schoenberg Jukebox allows you to listen to the composer's entire output. And, for the musicologically inclined, most of Schoenberg's music manuscripts are now available for viewing. If you like.

Photo: Schoenberg on cello, Choire Sicha playing fiddle.


Timothy Noah of Slate catches up with the deepest, darkest secret of the ever-developing Tom DeLay scandal, noted here back in April: the House Majority Leader likes opera.

Summer hiatus


While I'm on the road, visit music blogs and all-over blogs.

Death of a symphonist

Diamond Life. The New Yorker, July 11, 2005.

Agenda (underground edition)

Call it the Stockhausen conundrum: even as modernist and avant-garde works alienate mainstream classical audiences, they intrigue fans of the noisier subcultures of so-called popular music. Here in New York you can often hear some very severe twentieth-century fare in dusky, clubby spaces. One is Galapagos, in Williamsburg, which, I learned through Eppy, is presenting a new-music series entitled Darmstadt. On Wednesday, Emily Manzo plays a free concert of John Cage, Galina Ustvolskaya, Eve Beglarian, Mary Halvorson, and Chopin (!), with video projections by Andy Graydon. Meanwhile, on Tuesday night at 8PM and 10PM, The Stone, John Zorn's new club, presents the Dedalus Quartet in back-to-back concerts of Elliott Carter, Kurtág, Feldman, Nancarrow, and György Ligeti. And, on Thursday, Lukas Ligeti, the great man's son, does a solo show in the same space.

Keep the day job




A friend asked to see more of my amateur photography. The technique is to turn off the flash and put the camera on the floor.

Recording / Destroying Angel


Temporarily closing the file on the history and philosophy of recorded music, I want to mention Evan Eisenberg's marvelous book The Recording Angel, which has just been reissued by Yale University Press. It's a rhapsodic and ambivalent history of recording, at times enthusiastic about the possibilities of the medium and at other times skeptical of their impact on the art. The only way to sum it up is to provide some sample quotations:

Now the Symphony of a Thousand could play to an audience of one. Now a man could hear nocturnes at breakfast, vespers at noon, and the Easter Oratorio on Chanukah. He could do his morning crossword to the "One O'Clock Jump" and make love right through the St. Matthew Passion. Anything was possible; nothing was sacred; freedom was (barring complaints from neighbors and occasional desperate holding actions such as the Russian synod's 1912 ban on the recording of prayers) absolute. It was the freedom, once the cathedral of culture had been wrecked, to take home the bits you liked and arrange them as you pleased. Once again a mechanical invention had met capitalism's need to recreate all of life in its image. The cathedral of culture had become a supermarket.
We have all become like Prospero, able to conjure up invisible musicians who sing and play at our pleasure. Part of the fun is our sense of power. We can manipulate the poker-faced, flawless Heifetz. We can shut up Streisand. We can boost the basses and cellos of the Berlin Philharmonic, defying Karajan's meticulous balances.
[Arguing with Glenn Gould's defense of Muzak]: It is true that background music gives the listener "a direct associative experience of the post-Renaissance vocabulary," and a smattering of non-Western vocabularies as well. The problem is that the associations are all wrong. Muzak is nowhere near as neutral as it pretends.... We associate atonality with horror and anxiety; this may help a score like Wozzeck to succeed but dooms much of Schoenberg and Webern, whose attempts at serenity seem guilty by association. In the same way, the language of Debussy comes to express only sensuality, the language of Mozart only old-world grace, the language of jazz only insouciance. Each language is reduced to a couple of phrases, and with our huge vocabulary we cannot say anything, only quote. The alphabet soup that the mass media (including records) make of good music quickly spills back into the world of good music. Soon our  best composers find that they cannot speak, or can only speak in quotes, ironically or pathetically.
The record listener is a child of the supermarket. His self-expression is almost entirely a matter of selecting among packages that someone else designs. And he tends to think that these packages exhaust the possibilities. That kind of freedom can be tyrannical.
People seem more comfortable dancing and courting to mechanical music. The charitable interpretation is that it lets them be alone with each other. The other interpretation is that it lets them be alone.

In the final section, Eisenberg moves beyond pessimistic pronouncements to extol the phonograph's ability to multiply musical meaning, with Schopenhauer, surprisingly, as his chief guide. There are further twists in the new edition, in which Eisenberg weights the pros and cons of music in the form of MP3s. It's a book well worth reading.


Like a lot of people, I was put off by Karl Rove's recent statements about "liberal" reactions to September 11th. I watched the World Trade Center collapse from my roof, and if this administration had done the job of capturing or killing Osama bin Laden I would have gone into the streets to celebrate with a million other liberal New Yorkers. Stab-in-the-back rhetoric will not change the unhappier history that is being written.


"We are flooded from every quarter with scientific musicianship; nothing is left undeveloped, save a basic feeling for music. I am haunted by infant prodigies, who, at the age of ten-and-a-half, can, and do, astonish us with full concertos on the violin; and yet a whole orchestra-full of mature and adult violinists is incapable of performing the accompaniment to the duet from Armida! Music, considered as a mechanical technique, is moving rapidly towards a state of perfection; music as an art is perishing by degrees. One is forced to conclude that, with people such as these, any increase in knowledge is accompanied by a proportionate decrease in sensibility."

— Stendhal, Life of Rossini

Sunday morning Rorem

Monsieur C—, curator of The Standing Room, has also written, for the SF online mag SFist, a nice review of the documentary Ned Rorem: Words and Music, starting out with the bold lead sentence "Ned Rorem certainly was a hottie." Noteworthy is his closing exhortation:

The Victoria Theater was packed -- PACKED!-- at 11 o'clock on a Sunday morning with people who came to see this film about a contemporary American composer who is writing new music for concert halls. Most musicians would be delighted beyond words if they could get 300 people to a performance of contemporary music on a Saturday night! I once heard Peter Sellars (the opera director, not the Pink Panther guy) say, in every field -- theater, literature, movie -- something new is something exciting, something people rush to go experience.... except music. He called it pathological. To everyone who was in that theater at 11am on Sunday, and to everyone who looked at that film description and thought, hmm, that could be interesting, your charge is to go forth into our concert halls when there's music by someone you don't know and who's living in the same world that we are -- with open ears. It's astonishing how many interesting things our contemporaries have to say.

Dropped a coin into the cup

Such worthy peeps as The Standing Room, George Hunka, Bryant Manning, and Paul Wells have passed along various bloggy quizzes and questionnaires, or "memes," as the kids like to call them. Answers ensue.

Continue reading "Dropped a coin into the cup" »

Glass's Koyaanisqatsi


"Sound and Vision"

by Alex Ross

The New Yorker, June 27, 2005.

Some of the most compelling film music of the past year appeared not on the big screen but on the small one. Michael Giacchino’s score for the TV show “Lost”—the tale of several dozen plane-crash survivors marooned on a vaguely supernatural, “Tempest”-like island—has unsettled millions of American viewers with an eerie array of orchestral sounds: fluttery four-note figures, shivery tones produced by bowing strings near the bridge, nasty glissandos on the trombone, and, at moments of maximum tension, a low plucked note on the harp. According to convention, harps are called upon to herald angels or other vessels of goodness. Giacchino makes the instrument gaunt and deathly, much as Mahler did in the last song of “Das Lied von der Erde.” In general, Giacchino has done such a bang-up job of generating menace that the scriptwriters may have a hard time satisfying the expectations that he has created. Something mighty grim will have to crawl out of that lush jungle in order to justify those twangs of terror.

Composers usually enter the filmmaking process late in the game. They’re given a few weeks to add music to the mix, often under strict instructions as to mood and style; they’re essentially applying a finishing coat of aural stimulus. But music can do much more than echo the action on the screen. It can evoke hidden lives, unknown destinies, unseen histories, forgotten voices. The greatest filmmakers have all understood the complicating significance of music, and one measure of their greatness is their willingness to delegate power to composers. When Eisenstein made “Alexander Nevsky” and “Ivan the Terrible,” he had Prokofiev as his house composer, and he would sometimes wait until Prokofiev had finished a certain segment before filming the corresponding scene. He wanted to chain the camera to the notes. Orson Welles followed Eisenstein’s practice on “Citizen Kane,” hiring the young New York composer Bernard Herrmann. For the final sequence of the film, which shows the destruction of Rosebud in the fireplace of Kane’s castle, Welles had Herrmann’s cue playing on the set. He later said that the score was fifty per cent responsible for the film’s success.       

Music can take control of the image; it can also suggest a world separate from the image, or expose the image as a lie. Shortly after sound came in, Eisenstein and other Soviet directors wrote a manifesto declaring that soundtracks should create “sharp discord” with the visual dimension, in order to cultivate critical thinking on the part of the audience. (That’s not quite what Stalin had in mind, of course.) One early illustration of the practice was Shostakovich’s 1929 score for “The New Babylon,” a story of the Paris Commune. At the end, when the Communards are killed by a firing squad, Shostakovich responds not with a tragic utterance but with a distorted version of Offenbach’s Can-Can. Giacchino’s music for “Lost,” in its own non-Marxist way, plays this same game of estrangement. Dispatching the ghosts of Schoenberg, Xenakis, and other twentieth-century sonic terrorists into an island paradise, it touches on the universal modern suspicion that surfaces are not what they seem, that the center does not hold, that it ain’t necessarily so.

When the images themselves are terrifying, music can bring about an even trickier reversal, providing ironic reassurance or genuine compassion. Stanley Kubrick’s decision to play “We’ll Meet Again” over a montage of nuclear annihilation at the end of “Dr. Strangelove” is one famous example; another is Oliver Stone’s use of Barber’s velvety “Adagio for Strings” over scenes of carnage in “Platoon.” Harold Budd and Robin Guthrie, in their score for the new Gregg Araki film “Mysterious Skin,” do something wholly unexpected: as a horrendous story of child abuse in a Kansas town unfolds, the music sways toward a state of irrational bliss, as if to numb the pain. Music, in these cases, doesn’t show the image as a lie; instead, it is itself the lie we tell ourselves in order to survive.       

Lincoln Center’s Great Performers series recently presented a mini-festival titled Sound Projections, in which live ensembles played alongside silent movies, both classic and modern. The series began with a vintage radical Soviet film, Vsevolod Pudovkin’s “The End of St. Petersburg,” for which Alfred Schnittke supplied a score in 1992. Pudovkin was one of the directors who had argued for freethinking musical narratives in film, and it was fitting that Schnittke, the master surrealist of late-twentieth-century music, should have subverted Pudovkin’s story of the education of a Bolshevik hero with all manner of brooding ostinatos, kitschy digressions, and anarchic pileups of tunes. The Asko Ensemble gave a committed, demented performance. The Ensemble Intercontemporain, from Paris, one-upped them by presenting Benedict Mason’s 1988 score “ChaplinOperas,” a kaleidoscopic companion piece for three classic Chaplin silents. It’s a dazzling, dizzying, ultimately wearying exercise in free association, as chaotic in technique as Chaplin’s films are clean.       

The Lincoln Center series culminated in a blast of Glass: “Koyaanisqatsi,”  “Powaqqatsi,” and “Naqoyqatsi,” a trilogy of documentary film fantasias conceived by Godfrey Reggio and scored by Philip Glass. (The live performances were courtesy of the Philip Glass Ensemble.) The titles are Hopi Indian words approximately meaning “life out of balance,”  “life in transformation,” and “life as war”: the aim is to see human civilization in its mundane entirety, without reference to politics, culture, or history. There is no dialogue or plot; scenes of high-tech American cities, poverty-stricken Third World streets, frenzied factories, and empty canyons unfold in dreamlike motion. The images are sometimes sped up and sometimes slowed down. Humanity comes off as an insectoid species, though not without certain redeeming features. Glass’s trademark arpeggios and carved-in-granite chords generate a ritualistic, vaguely ancient air, circling back, time and again, to an abiding sadness.

“Koyaanisqatsi,” which was shot during the nineteen-seventies and released in 1983, is the masterpiece in the series, and a singular event in film history. There is no more potent example of a score dominating a film. The relationship between filmmaker and composer extended Eisenstein’s ideal to the nth degree: Glass watched the footage and wrote some music, Reggio and his editors listened to the music and reworked the footage, and the process went on until the appearance of fusion was total. In an interview that accompanies the “Koyaanisqatsi” DVD, Glass provides his own eloquent definition of the film-music art: he calls it “observing accurately the distance between the image and the music.” In other words, instead of trying to make image and music serve the same ends, you play one against the other, letting the disparity become an emotional experience in itself.       

Glass’s solutions to the challenge of “Koyaanisqatsi” are riveting. The opening is famous and majestic: a deep bass voice chants the title phrase in monotone while an electric organ turns slow pinwheels above it. As the camera of Ron Fricke, the cinematographer, floats across immense Western landscapes, a flute plays a lonely figure in open intervals, perhaps in tribute to the prairie music of Copland; then the bass chant returns, sounding very much like a sad, angry god. A later sequence, devoted to various forms of transportation, dwells for a long time on slow-motion footage of a jumbo jet taxiing on a tarmac. Glass responds to this grungy image with music of exhilarating quickness and lightness, high female voices predominating. In later sections, Glass abandons his attitude of cosmic detachment and picks up the racing rhythms of Fricke’s cinematography. To depict the decay and destruction of the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex, in St. Louis, the composer writes a monstrous neo-Baroque moto perpetuo, which, as the buildings fall, devolves into nothing more than descending scales. (This footage has become more haunting with time; Minoru Yamasaki, who designed Pruitt-Igoe, was also the architect of the World Trade Center.) During the twenty-minute frenzy titled “The Grid”—crowds swirling, traffic churning, televisions flickering, hot dogs and Hostess Twinkies being exgurgitated from production lines—Glass and his musicians become manic machines, firing off notes like so many 0s and 1s. The distance between sound and image disappears, and the viewer is left with little space in which to think or breathe.

When I saw “Koyaanisqatsi” in college, I dismissed it as a trippy, slick, MTV-ish thing, to which some well-meaning soul had attached hippie messages about the mechanization of existence and the spoliation of the planet. At Lincoln Center, I understood it as something else altogether—an awesomely dispassionate vision of the human world, beautiful and awful in equal measure. What made the difference, apart from the fact that I was no longer a facile collegiate ironist, was the experience of hearing the music live, with Kurt Munkacsi’s sound design adding heft and definition to every gesture. For all the deliberate coldness of some of Glass’s writing, “Koyaanisqatsi” is deeply expressive; its blistering virtuosity is often the only sign of emotional life on display, excepting a few wan smiles on the faces of pedestrians who hurry through Times Square.       

“Powaqqatsi” and “Naqoyqatsi,” the sequels, don’t match the force of the original, though they are absorbing throughout. Glass supplies many passages of cool, aching beauty, but the urgent side of his early style, the technique of eviscerating repetition, is diminished. As a whole, the trilogy mimics the uneven shape of the composer’s career, which has ranged from achievements of staggering originality (“Music in Twelve Parts,”  “Einstein on the Beach,” the Violin Concerto) to statements of baffling neutrality (a world-music cantata entitled “Orion” is the newest instance of the latter). These days, he often seems trapped in his formulas; he writes “Philip Glass music” in place of music that happens to be by Philip Glass. But he has won his place in history, and he may figure out a way to knock us sideways once again.


Still from Koyaanisqatsi, dir. Godfrey Reggio, cinematography by Ron Fricke.

For Diamond

David Diamond, who died one day before Carlo Maria Giulini at the age of eighty-nine, was the last faithful representative of the mid-century populist school in American music. I will write about this often fiercely eloquent composer in a future New Yorker; for now, here are links to an obituary by Richard Dyer and to my own 1992 review of Diamond's Eleventh Symphony, which proved to be his final effort in the form.

Update: Lisa Hirsch reminds me that Harold Shapero, composer of a classic mid-century American symphony, is alive and well; Diamond was not the last of the breed. And a reader points out that Robert Ward, composer of The Crucible, has always remained loyal to the populist style, and recently completed his Seventh Symphony.

For Giulini

The conductor Carlo Maria Giulini, who died on June 14, gave a rare interview last year to the Orange County Register's Timothy Mangan. It's a touching, revealing piece. To quote: "The memories fade for Giulini, or perhaps he has chosen to forget. 'With music I have nothing to do anymore,' he says firmly. Does he like looking back? 'No, I don't want to think back.' But he perks up when Los Angeles is mentioned. 'I heard that they have a new concert hall now, yeah? It's beautiful?' He is touched to find out that his orchestra and listeners still speak of him with admiration. 'They remember me, yes? Ah, thank you, I'm very happy because I also remember this beautiful period that I had....'" By all accounts, Giulini was that rarest of God's creatures, a humble conductor.

Summer blockbuster review: Batman

Batmanbegins24_1"After a slow start, Batman Begins begins — to rock!" — Alex Ross, Syndicated Online Verbiage. Opera fans might be intrigued to know that Boito's Mefistofele figures in the plot of the latest caped caper. A performance of that work so frightens the young Bruce Wayne that he asks his parents to take him home, whereupon they are shot by an economically downtrodden miscreant and a dark destiny takes hold of the child. The score, by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, is a dour, serviceable Philip Glass heavy-metal symphony. Christian Bale isn't quite all that, but he gives good bat.

Second annual Bloomsday post

Mathx3_2Robert Sherard, in his biography of Oscar Wilde, remarks that the great cosmopolitan aesthete resembled the actor Henry Irving. When Irving arrived in the United States, he found to his irritation that Americans made much of the resemblance (it was "the only unkind thing" said of him, Irving's biographer stated). At this period, Sherard writes, "Wilde...was still masquerading and mumming; and if there is one person in the world for whom the hardworking and conscientious actor, the sincere artist, has a dislike, it is the man who acts, as an amateur, by grimace and posture on the stage of life." The resemblance became less marked as the years went by, yet the faces merged once again in Sherard's mind when he watched a performance of the Victorian play The Lyons Mail, telling of a real-life Frenchman named Joseph Lesurques who in 1796 was mistaken for a highway robber and beheaded on flimsy evidence. Here Sherard describes Irving's performance of the lead role:

In the scene where Lesurques, having been denounced by the witnesses from the inn, makes his pathetic appeal to one of the women to speak the word which admitting her mistake shall absolve him from the horrible charge which has been brought against him, and the witness turns mournfully but resolutely away, Lesurques' face assumed a look of agony and horror, as the vista of what lay before him opened out—a look in which the blood rushed to the face and made it turgid and vultuous, there was at the same time a distending of the eyeballs, which seemed about to leap from their sockets, a twisting and contortion of the mouth roughly kneaded into a mass of agony by torturing hands, while the face lengthened as though by two crushing and simultaneous blows on each cheek it had been flattened downwards .... At that moment Irving presented the exact facial picture of Oscar Wilde, as looking sideways at the foreman of the jury from his place in the dock in the Old Bailey he listened to the verdict that meant to him ruin, shame, and death.

At the center of the inebriated, phantasmagoric "Circe" chapter of Ulysses is the Trial of Leopold Bloom, in which literature's average man par excellence is accused of all manner of bizarre crimes — of being nothing less than the "archconspirator of the age." This spectacle was probably meant to reflect in part the persecution of the European Jews, a subject that Joyce had pondered as early as 1906, when he was reading tracts on anti-Semitism in Rome. But it also echoes the persecution of Oscar Wilde, at his sodomy trail of 1895. You can find many signs that Joyce was thinking of Wilde when he wrote this scene — for example, the rather campy line "I have moved in the charmed circle of the highest ... Queens of Dublin society" (ellipses are Bloom's own). Then there's a brief reference to The Lyons Mail, and the accusation scene in Sherard's biography (which Joyce owned) provides an interesting subtext for it:


(scared, hats himself, steps back, them, plucking at his heart and lifting his right forearm on the square, he gives the sign and dueguard of fellowcraft) No. no, worshipful master, light of love. Mistaken identity. The Lyons mail. Lesurques and Dubosc. You remember the Childs fratricide case. We medical men. By striking him dead with a hatchet. I am wrongfully accused. Better one guilty escape than ninetynine wrongfully condemned.

The shade of Henry Irving shows up later in "Circe," behind another hallucinatory figure, that of Bloom's sex-obsessed grandfather Lipoti Virag.  This apparition enters with Henry Irving's characteristic gait — a sideways movement, often likened to the crawling of a crab. He possesses Irving's spider-like legs and high, nasal voice. He is outfitted in multiple overcoats, which a reminder of Irving's most famous entrance — as the burgomaster Matthias, bundled in fur coat, cap, and muffler, in The Bells. This play, based on a French melodrama The Polish Jew, was Irving's principal vehicle, even more than Hamlet; it first made his reputation in 1871. Matthias is a man haunted by a murder he committed fifteen years before; one Christmas Eve, he hears sleighbells, which remind him of the sound that accompanied his original crime. Like Bloom, he is tormented by hallucinations; they eventually drive him to his death. In the play's extensive dream sequences, an imaginary court summons a mesmerist to draw out Matthias' confession. Matthias conducts his own defense — "is it a crime to dream?" — and, like the character in The Lyons Mail, protests gross injustices and false accusations; but he yields to the prosecution's questions under hypnosis. Here again a man is on trial, except that this time he has actually committed the crime in question. The man he murdered was the Polish Jew of the title. What all this has to do with the cryptic figure of Lipoti Virag is anyone's guess, but it's telling that Joyce should have filigreed his chapter with these stories of grueling trials and unspeakable acts; they seem an essential part of Bloom's frame of reference, his way of living in a politely hostile world.



John Adams' website has a synopsis of Dr. Atomic, his third opera, which will have its premiere at the San Francisco Opera on October 1. Most of the action takes place in the hours leading up to the Trinity atom-bomb test, outside Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945. The final line given in the synopsis is "Zero minus one...."

Was Stravinsky ready for this Jelly?

A correspondent has skeptically greeted my claim ("The Record Effect" again) that Stravinsky could have listened to Jelly Roll Morton in 1916. He says that there were no Jelly Roll Morton recordings before 1923. (Or 1918, if you believe the artist's own recollections.) My statement was based on the fact that Morton's "'Jelly Roll' Blues" was published in Chicago in 1915. It seemed to me possible that there was a disc of that classic number in circulation, and that Ernest Ansermet brought it back for Stravinsky to hear after a 1916 American tour with the Ballets Russes. Admittedly, there's no evidence of such a recording. It's more likely that Ansermet found some sheet music. In any case, Gabriel Fournier insisted in a 1952 essay on Erik Satie ("Erik Satie et son époque," Revue musicale, June 1952) that Satie was in the habit of playing Jelly Roll Morton during the period in which he wrote Parade (premiered in 1917), and that he obtained the music from the pile of recordings that Ansermet gave to Stravinsky. Certainly there's potential for confusion on the French end of things. For "apparently," read "possibly."

A striking fact emerges from Lawrence Gushee's important new book Pioneers of Jazz: The Story of the Creole Band (Oxford UP). In the year 1916 the Creole Band was spreading the New Orleans sound across America, and in December of that year it opened a run of shows at the Empress theater in Omaha, Nebraska. Opening that same night at the Omaha Auditorium — Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes! The company was on the second leg of its American tour, and the star attraction was Nijinsky's new production of Till Eulenspiegel.

Stray notes

Composer Marcus Maroney is featured in Orchestra of St. Luke's concerts at the Chelsea Art Museum (Saturday) and at Dia:Beacon (Sunday). Program also includes music of David Rakowski, Ingram Marshall, and Anna Weesner.... Please welcome a blog by critic Zachary Lewis.... Bartione Tom Meglioranza is writing a wry, revealing behind-the-scenes account of his progress in the Naumburg competition.

How did I get here?

A certain David Byrne has written a long and fascinating response to my "Record Effect" piece on his eponymous website. I'm thoroughly flattered by the attention. In passing, Mr. Byrne calls me a "classical guy" who's broadened his field to include John Cage. Wait, isn't John Cage a "classical guy"? Not to many people in both classical and pop, I suppose. Interesting how certain postwar composers such as John Cage, Stockhausen, and Philip Glass have secured honorary coolness in the pop world, to the point where they are considered "classical guys" no longer — more like kindred spirits on the horizon. The classical world needs to show somehow that all the great composers are kindred spirits. In any case, Mr. Byrne offers many rich thoughts on the changing and multiplying roles of recording in pop. Arresting idea: "When music as a product, as a consumable object, is subverted and undermined by technology and by its own success, then maybe we have come full circle. Maybe if music is no longer seen as an object, but as pure information, data, sound waves, then the object becomes at best a mere delivery device, and we’re back to viewing music as an experience, albeit still one that other people produce."

Also, reader Charles Andrews writes: "The hype around the Edison Tone Tests is not as improbable as it might seem.  The Edison Diamond Disk player was a miracle of fidelity.  If you've ever heard one of the big ones in good working order, with a clean disk, the sound can be amazingly life-like.  It would not surprise me at all if people couldn't tell the difference in a darkened hall, given the right circumstances.  The player probably came closer to capturing the live sound of a singer than any other medium before or since.  Edison's ideas were really brilliant, and resulted in a remarkable piece of technology." Perhaps the old man wasn't putting us on after all. For more, see Emily Thomspon's excellent article "Machines, Music, and the Quest for Fidelity: Marketing the Edison Phonograph in America, 1877-1925," in The Musical Quarterly, Spring, 1995.

Coming soon, a note on Evan Eisenberg's important book The Recording Angel, newly reissued by Yale University Press.


67_5 A call for academic papers on Brad Pitt: "Depicting masculine American whiteness in various states of crisis, his characters generally enact complex postmodern agencies; they are never wholly coherent, they are often self-destructive, and they generally rely on a certain amount of play -- between stability and instability, between life and death, between autonomy and alter-dependency, between control and abandon. Simultaneously reifying and challenging hegemonic codes of race, class, gender, and regional or national identity, his characters explore the complex and changing postmodern cultural landscape." (Via Beautiful Atrocities.) I'm not so sure about all that, but Mr. and Mrs. Smith looks hot. There is no strictly musical point here.

Who wrote Bach?

The Guardian reports that a new aria by Bach has been discovered in a three-centuries-old shoebox. The first page of the score can be viewed at the Leipzig Bach Archive website. I have two questions: 1) Are shoeboxes really three centuries old? 2) Who's going to cash in? According to the magnificent new legal precedent set by Dr. Lionel Sawkins, whoever writes out an arrangement for strings and basso continuo is eligible for royalties on his or her work. If you're still interested in the possibly exhausted Sawkins matter, read on.

Continue reading "Who wrote Bach?" »

Here's your popular music

Vilaine fille has a link to an incredibly charming video of the brilliant young Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez singing "Te amo, Perú" and "Granada," before a wildly enthusiastic crowd in his hometown of Lima. If Simon Cowell can get his okay pop-classical ensemble Il Divo into the Billboard Top 10, why can't a singer of this magnitude become a global phenomenon as well? Perhaps he will. The Fille also brings news that Esa-Pekka Salonen's Paris Tristan, which I raved about last month, will be broadcast on various radio stations in July, including WHRB — which, someone should point out, pioneered decades ago the concept of a "complete works broadcast," or "orgy," such as BBC 3 is currently presenting.

Update: The Tristan is being sent out by the WFMT network. Check Operacast to see if it or anything else of interest is playing in your area. Of course, thanks to the Internet, everywhere is your area. WQXR in New York broadcasts the Tristan on June 18 at 1PM.

The axe just fell

Here are three of the greatest recordings ever made, courtesy of the MP3 blog Moistworks.

Vibrato imbroglio

Joachimjoachim2_3Amid a lively response to my recent article "The Record Effect," I've received several strongly worded letters and e-mails objecting to my — or, more accurately, Mark Katz's — account of violin vibrato in the early twentieth century. (For those who didn't read the piece, or have already forgotten it, Katz argues in his book Capturing Sound that violinists took to using continuous vibrato in the period between 1910 and 1920 partly or wholly because the oscillation in tone helped them to penetrate the primitive recorded medium.) There has apparently been some ensuing discussion in certain elite on-line forums. Katz does not claim, as one scholarly critic has him (and me) saying, that vibrato is a twentieth-century invention; that's obviously absurd. Nor does he propose Fritz Kreisler as the inventor of continuous vibrato. Indeed, he says quite the opposite: Kreisler was at first perceived as having been responsible for the rapid spread of the style, but there were deeper forces at work. And, while the picture was certainly more complex than you'd gather from my rapid paraphrase, I don't buy the counterargument that Joseph Joachim's classic 1903 recording, in which vibrato is used quite sparingly, is untrustworthy because the great player made it at an advanced age. True, Joachim was seventy-two and had only four years to live. But, to judge from a photograph taken of him that year, he was not infirm, and below the picture is a fine, flowing signature. And surely not even deteriorating health would have caused such an august musician to make a fundamental change in his practice. We really have no idea how violinists sounded before the phonograph arrived on the scene, but the fact that vibrato becomes progressively more pervasive on recordings from 1900 to 1920 — and that the likes of Leopold Auer and Carl Flesch remarked upon the trend — suggests that it was much less common in the nineteenth century than it is now. And Katz's explanation for the almost total victory of the "new style" still seems to me convincing. But, hey, I got no PhD.

Noise Aid lineup announced

Thomas Bartlett, master of musical ceremonies at Salon and lead singer of Doveman ("lamp rock"), asked various pundits to suggest an ideal lineup for Bob Geldof's Live 8, a festival of global musical mediocrity that's being held in July. My suggestion was the following: Prince, Björk, Cecil Taylor, Missy Elliott, Mary J Blige, Sonic Youth, Radiohead, the Flux Quartet playing Feldman's Quartet II, Steve Reich & Musicians, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, René Pape and the Berlin Philharmonic (all-Wagner program), and the Scissor Sisters. You'd pay to see that, right?


La Cieca on fire: "Well, Mr. Vilar, there's good news and bad news. The bad news is that you fell $1 million short of meeting bail and so you're staying in the slammer. The good news is that your cellmate could be Russell Crowe."    

The medium is not the message

Terry Teachout has written a formidable essay on the brief history and broad culture of blogging. It's maybe the most considered statement yet on a phenomenon that has inspired a huge amount of breathless commentary, both of the effusive and panicky sort. Terry makes the point that blogs need not be seen as rivals to traditional media. The Internet has simply multiplied the media in which writing becomes available. No matter what the medium, only good writing will survive. Terry also celebrates the Internet's embrace of the older and more eccentric art forms, which most major media outlets now avoid like the plague. A case in point is the lively, expert opinion on the Van Cliburn blogs, official and unofficial. It's not surprising, in the end, that another brawny virtuoso (Alexander Kobrin) won the competition. It is surprising that a single post on a piano blog drew 113 intelligent comments.

There shall be time no longer

Pianist Jeremy Denk, whose blog I've recently started reading, has a deeply moving post about playing Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time:

It is a piece for the "end of time," and yet the pianist (yours truly) has to be time. In the cello and violin solo movements, I simply play chords, awkwardly slowly, marking moments which are much slower than seconds, and marking (with my harmonies) a larger, really time-free, arc of meaning under the melody. In no other piece do you feel such a tremendous strain between something achingly large (something that only eventually will be expressed) and the snail's steps you must take to express it. But he (Messiaen) manages it; not a note is out of place in the last movement; every harmony is extraordinary, an essential step, a grammatical and striking word of the holy overall sentence... somewhere toward the middle of the last movement, I began to feel the words that Messiaen marks in the part, I began to hear them, feel them as a "mantra": extatique, paradisiaque. And maybe more importantly, I began to have visions while I was playing, snapshots of my own life (such that I had to remind myself to look at the notes, play the notes!): people's eyes, mostly, expressions of love, moments of total and absolute tenderness. (This is sentimental, too personal: I know. How can you write about this piece without becoming over-emotional?) I felt that same sense of outpouring ("pouring over") that comes when you just have to touch someone, when what you feel makes you pour out of your own body, when you are briefly no longer yourself -- and at that moment I was still playing the chords, still somehow playing the damn piano. And each chord is even more beautiful than the last; they are pulsing, hypnotic, reverberant... each chord seemed to pile on something that was already ready to collapse, something too beautiful to be stable... and when your own playing boomerangs on you and begins to "move yourself," to touch you emotionally, you have entered a very dangerous place. Luckily, the piece was almost over... When I got offstage I had to breathe, hold myself in, talk myself down.

Who needs music critics when performers write like that? Read the whole thing here. My own attempt at a panegyric to the Quartet is here. The recording to get is Tashi's. If you have some notion that "great music" ended with Brahms or Mahler, the Quartet is the work that might make you think again.

Fun Friday

A while back I posted a link to a performance of Handel's Messiah in which the organist had a very bad day. Marc Geelhoed sends along a link on a similar theme — a page devoted to infamous trumpet bloopers. The Hummel concerto disaster and the Mahler Seventh catastrophe are not to be missed. As a bonus, there's an excerpt from the Portsmouth Symphonia's performance-recomposition of Also sprach Zarathustra. The Portsmouth was an avant-garde / comedic outfit founded by Gavin Bryars, featuring, among others, Brian Eno on clarinet. No one in the ensemble was particularly familiar with his or her instrument, which was the idea.

Agenda (NYC)

Just returned from Philip Glass' tremendous Koyaanisqatsi, about which more in an upcoming New Yorker column. The cycle of Glass -qatsi films continues Friday and Saturday with Naqoyqatsi and Powaqqatsi; they complete Lincoln Center's month-long "Sound Projections" festival of film and live music intertwined. As it happens, Anthology Film Archives is in the middle of a series on a similar theme — "Eye and Ear Controlled." This weekend they're showing films by the zany-brilliant composer-conceptualist Mauricio Kagel, culminating in the notorious Beethoven bicentennial tribute Ludwig van. Most of these films have never been seen in America before. Coming June 9 is a program of Steve Reich and Terry Riley soundtracks, including rare sixties-underground items such as Plastic Haircut and Oh Dem Watermelons. (Thanks to Tiffany Kuo for the tip.) Meanwhile, Esa-Pekka Salonen, fresh from triumphant performances of Tristan in Paris, comes to town this weekend with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Friday night it's Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony, Sunday afternoon the local premiere of John Adams' Dharma at Big Sur, which made bewitching noises at the gala opening of Disney Hall.

Maybe it's just time to move on

Professor William C. Gaines of the University of Illinois, whose four-year-long journalism class on Deep Throat led to an incorrect solution of the mystery, tells the Times that he is "now planning a new course on how the study went astray."

Deep Throat was Alfred Schnittke

Now that I have your attention, a miscellany of smatterings.... Pop-bloggers are again debating Rockism, a hardy perennial that's their equivalent of our beloved Evil Serialist Conspiracy. Read a broadside by John Shaw and a mellow riposte by Franklin Bruno.... The sharp-tongued, well-sourced opera maven La Cieca is blogging prolifically. Genius description of poor Alberto Vilar as "apprehended altruist." Trrill is also back on the warpath.... Kyle Gann writes an elegant appreciation of the late George Rochberg. Like Kyle, I never quite got Rochberg's neo-tonal music, with its reliance on quotation (if you want to write tonal music, write tonal music, as Berio said to young Steve Reich), but I admired his conviction. As Sequenza21 points out, you can hear his Circles of Fire at Art of the States....  Why do I not care who Piano Man is? He's received attention outside the ghetto for one reason only: the media love to depict classical musicians as basket cases. The guy has received more coverage in the past few weeks than any living pianist with the possible exception of Lang Lang.... If you want to while away an evening in the company of charming genius, curl up with Cage and Feldman, courtesy of Other Minds (and Richard Friedman).

No more buttered scones for me, Mater...

The Van Cliburn Competition in Fort Worth enters its final phase on Wednesday, with six pianists — Davide Cabassi, Sa Chen, Chu-Fang Huang, Alexander Kobrin, Roberto Plano, and Joyce Yang — competing. This being the age of the Internets, you can watch live webcasts of the finals, and also follow some sharp debate on various blogs: the Cliburn's official blog, WRR Blog, the Well-Tempered Blog, and, in German, Thomas Vitzthum of Klassik.com, who writes ambiguously, "Fort Worth is not exactly the navel of the world."

Memorial Day, Nutley, NJ


Time's arrow

Who was the last classical musician to appear on the cover of Time? According to the magazine's website (if a search for "music" on the covers page does not lie), it was Vladimir Horowitz, in 1986. The last living composer to appear on the cover (excluding the polymath Bernstein)? Stravinsky, in 1948. Only one all-classical American composer has ever been chosen for the signal honor: Deems Taylor, in 1931. Among conductors, Toscanini appeared three times, Stokowski and Koussevitzky twice, and Beecham, Szell, Zubin Mehta, and James Levine (in 1983) once. Among composers, Richard Strauss appeared twice, Sibelius, Shostakovich, Mascagni, Britten, Stravinsky, and Johann Sebastian Bach once.

Addendum: I missed Gian-Carlo Menotti in 1950.


Mark Stryker of the Detroit Free Press writes a fine assessment of Neeme Järvi's fifteen-year reign as director of the Detroit Symphony. (Via ArtsJournal.)

Over the universe

Here's another link to Drew McManus' "Take a Friend to Orchestra" project. This is not to advertise my own contribution, which will be familiar to anyone who's read me droning on here, but to draw attention to the fabulous welter of posts that Drew received in response to his central, simple question: How should people who already love the music communicate that love to others? Obviously there's no one answer, and many brilliant proposals are circulating. What counts most is the almost desperate enthusiasm that everyone has shown in tackling the problem. I liked Garth Trinkl's ideas about attending outdoor concerts, free rehearsals, chamber-orchestra concerts, and manifold other variations on the "orchestra" idea. Whether humble or exalted, ragged or hyper-professional, the live concert is the one that changes people's minds.

The title of this post might sound like a mangled reference to the John Lennon song, but it's actually a nod to E. M. Forster's immortal description of the third movement of Beethoven's Fifth in Howards End: "...The music started with a goblin walking quietly over the universe, from end to end." Read the whole thing here; the relevance to TAFTO is obvious.

4 8 15 16 23 42

Hurley's numbers have their own blog. 

My theory is that they are the opus numbers of various pivotal works by Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht, the Six Orchestral Songs (4+8=12), The Book of Hanging Gardens (15 songs), the Five Pieces for Orchestra, the Five Klavierstücke (finished in 1923), and the Piano Concerto (written in 1942).

Related: my post on Lost and Alias composer Michael Giacchino; Adam Baer's LA Times profile of Giacchino.

Roll over 50 Cent

Bryant Manning was watching the 70's Harvey Keitel movie Fingers when he heard the following line of dialogue: "You seem like a sensitive guy, man. I mean, you should be out in the streets listening to some Shostakovich, man."


"Out in the real world there exist detailed plans, visionary projects for peaceable realms, all conflicts resolved, happiness for everyone, for ever — mirages for which people are prepared to die and kill. Christ's kingdom on earth, the workers' paradise, the ideal Islamic state. But only in music, and only on rare occasions, does the curtain actually lift on this dream of community, and it's tantalizingly conjured, before fading away with the last notes."

— Ian McEwan, Saturday

Piano on the cheap

Someone on eBay purports to be selling the Principessa di Belgiojoso's Érard piano, on which Liszt and Thalberg fought their famous piano duel. Bidding starts at 150,000 pounds. (Via Leo Carey.) In other auction news, the Strauss Daphne typescript I mentioned the other day went for 31,200 pounds at Sotheby's, three times as much as projected. No word yet on who the buyer was; we're hoping it was the Bavarian contingent.

My latest works


Click on the image to see genius in action!

Since my freshman year of college, my compositional pen has lain dormant. I'm happy to report, however, that this morning I experienced a madly prolific spell of creativity. I am proud to introduce to the world, and in particular to the attentions of British copyright law, my three-act opera Tristan + Isolde, which bears certain superficial resemblances to the similarly titled Richard Wagner opera, though in truth there are numerous small but telling differences of tempo, dynamics, articulation, and instrumentation (a brief xylophone solo in the King Mark scene, for example); also my lovely orchestral tone poem Prelude to the Afternoon of a Fern and a song entitled "Hey, Jude?" in the key of F-flat. My first set of nine symphonies should be done by the end of the day. I look forward to receiving worldwide royalties from these powerful and original new works.

Update: Marc Geelhoed of Chicago has been delving into the manuscripts of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and has come to a startling conclusion: the eighth-rest at the very beginning of the work should in fact be an eighth-note G, meaning that the symphony's famous "fate motto" is not da-da-da-DAH but da-da-da-da-DAH. As Mr. Geelhoed's legal counsel in this matter, I, in turn, have been delving into the intricacies of early nineteenth-century Austro-Hungarian law, and have come to the perhaps equally startling conclusion that Mr. Geelhoed is owed retroactive royalties on all performances of Beethoven's Fifth over the past two hundred years, including but not limited to recordings, electronic transmissions, print reproductions, Morse Code, and humming. Although I expect to receive a portion of these royalties myself, I wish to make clear that my primary motivation is not untrammeled greed but a simple desire to see justice done at long last.

Bill Viola's Tristan

"The Waves"

by Alex Ross

The New Yorker, May 30, 2005.

It was in Paris that the liquid revolution of “Tristan und Isolde” first entered the bloodstream of the world. Wagner conducted the Prelude to the opera at three concerts in 1860, baffling most of the audience with his art of endless melody, his chords of longing that never resolve. But the bohemians of Paris fell into a trance—at one of these concerts, Baudelaire experienced “love unbridled, immense, chaotic, raised to the level of a counter-religion, a Satanic religion”—and the phenomenon of Wagnerism began. Shock effects of the mass-market or avant-garde variety are now so routine that we no longer know what it’s like to go slowly, majestically, and irreversibly over the edge. Leave it to the director Peter Sellars to make “Tristan” mind-bending once again. His production of the opera, created in collaboration with the video artist Bill Viola, was first seen last fall, in semi-staged form, at Disney Hall, in Los Angeles, and the definitive version opened last month at the Opéra Bastille, in Paris. I saw the last performance of the Paris run, and came away in something like the state of dazed bliss that Baudelaire described.

The dominant presence in this Southern California “Tristan” is Viola, whose images play for almost the entire duration of the opera, on a screen behind the singers. The artist has in common with Wagner a disdain for the rhythms of daily life: in his work, events often happen in slow motion, so that they acquire an atmosphere of sacred ritual. Much of the first act of the “Tristan” video is taken up by footage of a man and a woman walking toward the camera, removing their clothes, and washing themselves at a fountain. The compositions have a glowing clarity, like Renaissance frescoes. The faces are devoid of obvious emotion, yet are focussed by meditative feeling. There are few direct traces of the medieval legend on which Wagner based the opera: no ship on which Tristan brings Isolde to King Mark, her appointed husband; no garden where the lovers conduct their secret tryst; no castle where Tristan suffers and dies. Yet, on another level, the film is obsessively faithful to the human and natural elements that Wagner obsessively invokes—faces, eyes, hair, bodies, air, fire, earth, water.       

Water above all: this production may be remembered as the “Tristan” that goes beneath the waves. Wagner’s libretto is soaked in water from start to finish; Act I begins with a sailor hailing the ocean, and Act III ends with Isolde preparing “to drown, to sink—unconscious—highest bliss!” Viola, likewise, dwells at length on the sensation of immersion. One visually astounding moment occurs after Tristan and Isolde imbibe the love potion, in Act I. For several minutes, the screen is featureless except for two tiny human figures, intertwined and gesturing. Then the bodies fill the screen, and the screen seems to bend and bubble with them. It turns out that we have been watching from the bottom of a pool of water as the couple dive in. The plunge coincides with a crucial moment in the score—the moment when the arching phrases of the Prelude are heard again, setting in motion the first great love duet.

Indelible images appear throughout: Tristan walks through a wall of fire, and afterward embers glow on his shirt like stars; Isolde lights a vast array of candles, one by one; the sun rises in real time through the branches of a solitary tree; the dead Tristan is raised in the air by a swell of water. And there are many other stunning congruences of sight and sound. The sunrise sequence unfolds during King Mark’s lament for Tristan’s betrayal, and the sun first glimmers over the horizon when the English horn lingers dejectedly on the note A. (At each performance, an editor adjusts the pace of the video in accordance with the tempos of the night.)       

Some operagoers in Paris complained that Viola’s work distracted from the efforts of the singers and players. I didn’t have that problem, although it took me a quarter hour or two to grow accustomed to the overlapping of onscreen and onstage action. Because the images move so slowly, they don’t impose a competing montage rhythm. Instead, they are subsumed by the flow of Wagner’s music. I found myself listening with heightened alertness, as if the film were bringing Wagner into sharper focus. The images seemed to arise from the subconscious of the score, from the mysterious nexus where words become notes. After all, there can be no better metaphor for the experience of listening to Wagner than a plunge into deep blue water.

Sellars achieved the remarkable feat of erasing his own presence. The long-reigning activist director has not lost his power to confound; in a recent Carnegie Hall staging of György Kurtág’s “Kafka Fragments,” he induced Dawn Upshaw to apply a prop steam iron to her face. But there was nothing outré in the “Tristan” production. Sets were minimal, the stage action incisive and straightforward. Only once did Sellars dramatically intervene: at the end of Act I, when Tristan and Isolde break out of their first duet to land on the hostile ground of Cornwall, the houselights went up, cruelly dispelling the magic of the love-potion scene, and King Mark was discovered standing in the middle of the orchestra seats, silently staring up at the lovers. That bone-chilling apparition not only forecast the eventual tragedy but also had the effect of putting the film in its place: live actors asserted their flesh-and-blood presence. The characters in the video seemed to have a sadness to them, as if they knew that they were trapped in a digital world, whereas the singers exulted in their freedom.       

The leads were Waltraud Meier and Ben Heppner, both in great voice. Meier’s Isolde is a familiar quantity, but still unpredictable; her cutting accents, her way of flaring the end of the phrase, her precise but spontaneous-seeming stage gestures convey every hairpin turn of emotion. Heppner has emerged from a rocky patch with his voice in better shape than ever. A couple of years ago, listening to him was an anxious experience: you cringed in expectation that his gorgeous legato would run aground on a cracked note, which it periodically did. Now the voice seems solid to its roots, and Heppner has the confidence to take the risks that make for a raw, hair-raising Act III. Yvonne Naef, as Brangäne, held her own against Meier with a bold, deep mezzo tone. The weak link in the cast was Franz-Josef Selig, an effortful, leathery King Mark.

Esa-Pekka Salonen led the pioneering performances of the Sellars-Viola “Tristan” in Los Angeles last fall, and he travelled with the production to Paris. He offered a hugely impressive interpretation of a score on which almost every great conductor of the past century has made his mark. Already in the Prelude, you had a sense of a canny master plan, with crescendos plotted like parabolas of expanding size. Not unexpectedly, this contemporary-minded conductor made much of the work’s sharper edges: he had the violins lean on a passing note in the Act III prelude, highlighting a brief semitone clash. There was a startling sonority in the scene of Tristan’s death: the wind and brass choirs were eerily glassy and smooth, almost electronic in timbre. For the most part, though, this was an authentically Romantic reading, not a revisionist one. True to the atmosphere of the production, it had a surging and ebbing natural rhythm.

The Paris Opéra is now under the direction of Gérard Mortier, who led the Salzburg Festival from 1991 to 2001. Much of what Mortier did in Salzburg has gone down in the annals of pseudo-transgressive opera direction; his Paris regime will undoubtedly bring more of the same. But he also knows real talent when he sees it, and he is a longtime supporter of Sellars’s ventures. His programming for next season knocks sidewise that of any opera house in America: a return of this “Tristan,” under Valery Gergiev; a revival of Hindemith’s Weimar Republic shocker “Cardillac”; a general repertory running from the Baroque to the avant-garde; and, most important, the world première of Kaija Saariaho’s opera “Adriana Mater.” Perhaps Paris audiences, which ceased to be surprised sometime between Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” of 1913, and George Antheil’s airplane-propeller concert, of 1926, will teach Mortier the futility of inciting the bourgeoisie. Better to humble them with transcendence, as this “Tristan” does.

I can think of maybe fifty works that should have been introduced into the Metropolitan Opera repertory in advance of Franco Alfano’s 1936 mediocrity “Cyrano de Bergerac,” which just had three performances at the house. Start with Strauss’s “Daphne,” Nielsen’s “Maskarade,” Britten’s “Gloriana,” and Messiaen’s “Saint Francis.” Why is the Met wasting its time on a lesser work by a lesser composer who is best known to operagoers for having made a garish mess of the ending of Puccini’s unfinished “Turandot”? Because Plácido Domingo likes the piece, and Domingo is one of the few singers who can still sell out the house. The Met has fulfilled the tenor’s whim with a classy show. Francesca Zambello directed the production, in picture-postcard rather than provocative mode. Sondra Radvanovsky, a new Met star with an unforced, luminous, richly expressive soprano voice, sang opposite the inexhaustible Domingo. Marco Armiliato conducted enthusiastically. But no amount of fabulosity can redeem the opera itself, which must have seemed like a stopgap even at its première.       

Alfano hardly lacked talent. He wrote expertly for the voice; he had an ear for quirky tonal harmony; his orchestration glitters like the best of Nelson Riddle. An Italian who longed to be French, he copied Debussy, Ravel, and Les Six more than he did Puccini. There are subtle, wry, poignant moments scattered through his adaptation of “Cyrano,” including a very haunting “Pelléas”-like duet for the hero and Roxane at the end. But whenever Alfano feels a climax approaching he goes in for crude, gassy, Technicolor sounds, of the sort that make his completion of “Turandot” so intolerable. It’s as if he didn’t trust his finer instincts to make an impression. The contrast with the man who wrote “Tristan” could not be more extreme.


Immigrant1_4 New music rules New York this week. Tonight (Monday), the American Contemporary Music Ensemble will present a "21st-Century Schizoid Music" concert at Cornelia Street Café, with NewMusicBox's Frank Oteri as host. Program runs gamut from Ives' venerable Second Quartet to Reich's New York Counterpoint to Nico Muhly's Keep In Touch, a superb new piece for viola and electronics featuring the recorded voice of Antony from Antony & The Johnsons. On Tuesday and Wednesday the Ensemble Intercontemporain plays in Lincoln Center's "Sound Projections" series under the direction of Jonathan Nott. Tuesday's concert is the local premiere of Benedict Mason's ChaplinOperas, wild live music to accompany three classic Chaplin shorts. (Don't miss Allan Kozinn's Mason profile in the Times.) Wednesday's show combines Ligeti's dreamlike Piano Concerto with Wolfgang Rihm's ferocious Jagden und Formen. On Thursday, NOW Ensemble plays at the Church of Christ and St. Stephen's. On Friday the Line C3 percussion group appears at Tenri Cultural Institute; more Muhly (Ta and Clap), more Reich (Drumming Part 1). And on Sunday the New York Youth Symphony presents the premiere of Today and Everyday by Judd Greenstein, who has already been touted in this space.

Mahler in America

"Here the dollar does not reign supreme — it's merely easy to earn." — Mahler to Alfred Roller, January 1908

Pierre Menard is the author of Quixote!

AC Douglas promises to set me straight on the matter of Dr. Lionel Sawkins (1657 - ) and his dispute with the Hyperion record label. Watch his site for a response. [Update: He's come through, with surgical lucidity.] Apparently, from the standpoint of British law, Sawkins can indeed assume authorship of the music of Michel-Richard de Lalande. Essentially, you can copyright a public-domain work if you assert yourself upon it in some identifiable way, even if your work hardly amounts to "originality" in the real-world sense. Translators, for example, increasingly demand royalties in their contracts. A good musical editor is supposed to erase his own personality in pursuit of the original composer's voice. Yet, the harder he works to disappear, the more he deserves to be considered the author of the work! Or so the law currently suggests. But consider this example. Suppose a certifiably authentic new Shakespeare play is discovered. The text is mostly intact, but it's water-damaged in a few places, and some lines need to be guessed at. Perhaps large parts of it use some kind of shorthand which must be deciphered, but once the method is figured out it's all perfectly clear. Perhaps parts of the play were scattered all over the globe and it took a scholar many years to assemble them. When it's all put together, and it's a ragingly magnificent tragedy on the level of Hamlet, would the scholar dare to claim copyright? I'm guessing no, because it's Shakespeare. If it's Michel-Richard de Lalande, no one cares. There's something chilling about the ever-expanding definition of copyright; it's serving the public less and less. As Mark Katz observes in his crucial new book Capturing Sound, it is mainly a gift to large corporations, which can seize rights to intellectual property practically in perpetuity. No surprise that a small company is the big loser here.

Maazel's 1984

BBC 3 will be airing Lorin Maazel's already infamous opera this Wednesday at 7PM GMT. Details at On an Overgrown Path, our new choice blogstination.

Update: WFMT Radio Network will release 1984 for American broadcast on June 17th.

The Pierre Menard of early music

Lionel Sawkins, a scholar of French Baroque music, recently took the Hyperion record label to court with the claim that his editions of the works of Michel-Richard de Lalande entitled him to royalities from Hyperion's recordings of same. The label lost the case and has now lost an appeal. The company is expected to pay not only royalties but also Sawkins' lawyers' fees. 

Continue reading "The Pierre Menard of early music" »



Drew McManus, host of the unfailingly sharp Adapistration blog, has been collecting mini-essays from musicans, composers, bloggers, and critics on the theme Take a Friend to the Orchestra Month. The aim is to thrash out ideas for making classical music palatable to newcomers. It's kind of like the Huffington Post for classical music, but less demented and chaotic. William (Bill) Eddins, conductor of the Edmonton Symphony, has just penned an entry which is an instant classic of the Cut the Classical Crap Already genre:

Every week that I'm on the road someone, at some point, will get to the moment in the conversation where they discover that I'm a musician.  Usually they are very intrigued.  Then they learn I play the piano, which frequently generates stories of how their parents tried desperately to get them to learn the instrument but they didn't have the time/patience/whatever.  This last part is always accompanied by a certain wistfulness in the eye that betrays that they wish they had kept at it.  But then comes the fateful moment that they discover that I play – gasp! – Classical music.  Not only that, I'm that rarest of the specie Homo Musica Musicallis – a CONDUCTOR! Instantly the barrier comes up.  They look at me like I'm some Old Testament prophet baying at the moon. I guess the fact that I'm a black guy from Buffalo dressed in jeans, dark sunglasses, a t-shirt, and sporting a silver cuff in my left ear had thrown them off.  Gee I wonder why?  I look in the mirror and I could just swear I look like a typical conductor.  Well, the next several minutes is spent with me trying to assuage them that: 1) No, I don't sleep in a coffin during the day; 2)  Yes, I love garlic; and 3) what I do is not the cultural equivalent of selling your soul to Bill Gates (I use Macs anyway).  If I manage to calm them down enough then I can move on to #4 – "Say, would you like to come to one of my concerts?"  Critical to this idea is getting the mark's email address so that you can hound them mercilessly over the next couple of days.
...I can't help but believe that Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, whomever, would be down right sick to their stomach with the hero-worshipping over-glorifying idolizing holier-than-anybody veneration that's thrown at them these days.  They wrote music to be enjoyed. Please do not approach them as if they are the 2nd coming of Christ.  As it is many of the best composers were Jewish, so that's not going to fly at all. Now, if by some odd chance you liked the concert then please applaud, whistle, holler, jump up and down, but definitely do not spare one second worrying about the "stick-in-the-mud" next to you who believes in (the next phrase said in a exaggerated British accent) "proper concert hall etiquette."  Said person needs to get over their bad self.

Drew has set up ticket discounts at orchestras around the country, and even offers Take a Friend to the Orchestra merchandise, including a Kyle Gann T-shirt with the legend “Some of you people may think I’m underdressed…but somewhere, Kyle Gann is cheering for me!” That honestly blows my mind.

Salome day


The opening scene of my book, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, took place ninety-nine years ago today. It feels like I've been writing it for nearly that long. The finished product won't be available until the fall of 2006, but here's a teaser:

When Richard Strauss conducted his sensuously savage opera Salome on May 16, 1906, in the Austrian city of Graz, the crowned heads of European music gathered to witness the occasion. The world première of Salome had taken place five months before, in Dresden, whence word had spread that Strauss, the master provocateur of German music, had created something beyond the pale—an ultra-dissonant Biblical spectacle, based on a play by a recently deceased British degenerate whose name was not to be mentioned in polite company; a work so frightful in its depiction of adolescent lust that imperial censors had banned it from the Court Opera in Vienna.
Gustav Mahler, the Court Opera’s director, attended with his wife, the beautiful and controversial Alma. Giacomo Puccini, the matinee-idol creator of La Bohème and Tosca, made a trip north to hear what “terribly cacophonous thing” his German rival had concocted.  The bold young composer Arnold Schoenberg arrived from Vienna with his brother-in-law, Alexander von Zemlinsky, and no fewer than six of his pupils.  One of them, Alban Berg, traveled with an older friend who left a memoir of the occasion, describing the “feverish impatience and boundless excitement” that all were feeling as the evening approached.  Raoul Auernheimer, a protégé of Arthur Schnitzler, was one of several rising literary stars in attendance. The widow of the waltz king Johann Strauss, no relation to the composer of Salome, represented old Vienna.  Ordinary music-enthusiasts filled out the crowd—“young people from Vienna, with only the vocal score as hand luggage,” Strauss noted.  Among them may have been an Austrian teenager named Adolf Hitler, who had just seen Mahler conduct Tristan und Isolde in Vienna, on the night of May 8th. Hitler later told Strauss’s son and daughter-in-law that he had borrowed money from relatives to make the trip to Graz.
There was even a fictional character present—Adrian Leverkühn, the hero of Thomas Mann’s novel Doctor Faustus, a tale of a composer in league with the devil....

Happy birthday, Alex S.!


"I've learned not to look at my music as sacrosanct."

— William Bolcom, at a panel discussion before the premiere of his opera A Wedding in Chicago, Dec. 11, 2004

The problem with Maazel

Anthony Tommasini writes in the Times: "Mr. Maazel has bought his way to the top without having paid his dues as a composer....Typically, the path to a premiere at a leading house like Covent Garden entails writing dozens of songs, often for singers you know well: the best way to learn how to write for the voice. Composing short, effective dramatic works, perhaps a one-act opera. Peddling ideas to small and midlevel companies and often being rejected. Finally, getting a smaller-scale work accepted for performance — on the condition that you will make any suggested alterations and accommodate the whims of the stage director, who may be a musical ignoramus. It is an exasperating but invaluable rigmarole. By the time you get through it and are ready to write a substantive work for a major company, you should have learned the ins and outs of opera.”

I haven't heard Lorin Maazel's 1984, which was roundly though not universally panned by English critics. Even if it turns out to be a masterpiece, Tony's point still holds: we're facing a grim future if opera commissions are awarded to whoever can most readily take care of money matters in advance. ("If you have the means, you develop your own opera," director Robert Lepage said of the 1984 situation.) Opera companies should be putting their main resources into premieres, not using them as a way of getting a new production almost for free. 


Note: Sotheby's subsequently changed the code on their site, rendering my links useless. The main site is now here.

A helpful source pointed me to an upcoming auction of musical manuscripts at Sotheby's in London. The Sotheby's website shows sample pages from the 186 items on offer, and they give mesmerizing glimpses into composers' creative worlds. You can see Samuel Barber struggling to cut and revise his opera Antony and Cleopatra, which failed at the Met in 1967; Bela Bartok meticulously correcting the score of the Concerto for Orchestra a few months before his death; Debussy declaring his unfashionable devotion to "that which is naturally beautiful"; a 1622 edition of Monteverdi's Seventh Book of Madrigals; a curious signature by Leopold Mozart; the weirdly slanted handwriting of Max Reger; Schoenberg complaining about money; the manuscript of Sibelius' Night Ride and Sunrise; and  Wagner's very friendly 1847 letter to his future enemy Eduard Hanslick, in which he has the following lively metaphor for the art of criticism: "Whether I read praise or censure regarding myself I always feel as though the reviewer had thrust his hand into my entrails." Ouch! He also says: "I am fully convinced that criticism is far more useful to an artist than praise: the artist who is destroyed by such criticism deserves to go under, — only the one whom such criticism encourages has any true strength...." Hanslick would shortly put that thought to the test. (Translation from Stewart Spencer and Barry Millington's Selected Letters of Richard Wagner.)

The most newsworthy item in the collection is Joseph Gregor's typescript of the libretto for Richard Strauss' Daphne, with the composer's annotations in the margin. Strauss often formed precise musical ideas upon reading his librettos; this document promises to show how the lustrously beautiful music of Daphne blossomed in his brain, and, by extension, how his late style, the language of the Four Last Songs, arose. At least one Strauss scholar I know is agog at news of the sale. Gregor apparently sold off the typescript to help pay for a messy divorce, and no one has seen it for decades. Let's hope it ends up in responsible hands, preferably in a scholarly collection.

Sonic Hillary


The Lower Manhattan Cultural Council recently handed out awards to Senators Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer, John and Dan Tishman of Tishman Construction, and Sonic Youth. Soon to follow: "Teenage Riot" at the Inaugural Ball.

Jazz notes (1)

Jeffrey Magee's excellent new biography of Fletcher Henderson, The Uncrowned King of Swing, notes that the bandleader was famous for delivering extraordinarily exciting live performances — “fiery full-band improvisations which had an ecstatic freedom such as I have heard from no other jazz orchestra,” one critic said. It's difficult to hear anything like this on Henderson’s records, captivating as they often are. Recordings can never be trusted as a total record of the musical past. Another thing that strikes me in Magee's book is the description of Henderson's absurdly strict musical upbringing. His middle-class parents would lock him in the piano room for hours to make him practice; the repertory was entirely classical music and church music. "He is destined to become an eminent authority," a college classmate later wrote, "classed with Rachmaninov and other noted musicians." Then he heard the blues, as personified by Ethel Waters, and his destiny shifted.


Img_3142_4One recent development in the geologically gradual evolution of the symphonic repertory has been the ascension of Dmitri Shostakovich. The composer now routinely appears among the ten most-often-performed composers in the American Symphony Orchestra League's annual list. Not all conductors, though, endorse the notion of Shostakovich's greatness. Chicago Tribune critic John von Rhein just made passing mention of the fact that Daniel Barenboim "avoids conducting the music of Dmitri Shostakovich because he feels it wears its emotions too personally, and on both sleeves." Pierre Boulez has, of course, a long history of dissing DS. In 2000 he said, "Well, Shostakovich plays with clichés most of the time, I find. It's like olive oil, when you have a second and even third pressing, and I think of Shostakovich as the second, or even third, pressing of Mahler." And there's James Levine, who, in a recent Charlie Rose interview, claimed that "he loves to listen to Bruckner and Shostakovich but can't find a meaningful way to conduct their music himself" — a typically roundabout Levine utterance, hinting at stronger feelings. Interestingly, all three conductors are known for their advocacy of Elliott Carter. Does Carter make them sign a waiver before they can conduct his music? The notion that the composer of the massively cryptic Fifteenth Symphony wore his emotions on his sleeve is pretty laughable. It's also a second or even third pressing of the clichéd accusation that critics used to throw at Mahler.

Anniversary issue


 "I have four razors and a dictaphone."
— Andrey Tarkovsky, Diaries, 1979

Many thanks to all who've read this blog over the past year.

Weekend agenda

I commend to the attention of New York concertgoers several events of the  experimental, "downtown," woah-dude variety. On Friday and Saturday, members of the ne(x)tworks ensemble will present a new piece by Joan La Barbara, in collaboration with the Nai-Ni Chen dance company. Then, on Sunday, some of those same players will join Elliott Sharp, Jenny Lin, and other edgy notables in a tribute to the pioneering electronic composer James Tenney, a Project Room event in the East Village. The crowd favorite is almost certain to be Tenney's astonishing 1961 piece Collage #1, aka "Blue Suede," after which you'll never listen to Elvis Presley in the same way again. (You can hear it on a New World Records Tenney compilation.) Also, the Bamberg Symphony plays two concerts at Lincoln Center. On Sunday, they combine Ligeti's Atmosphères and Etudes (Pierre-Laurent Aimard pianifying) with Beethoven's Emperor and the Adagio from Mahler's Tenth.

Partched lips

Partchvol2_5When I recently wrote about Harry Partch, I made no mention Danlee Mitchell's Harry Partch Foundation in San Diego, which had custody of the Partch instruments from 1972 to 1989. For this omission I apologize. Incidentally, four important recordings of Partch's music, originally put out by the late lamented CRI label, have now been reissued by New World Records. Also, Innova, the label of the American Composers Forum, has a series of archival Partch issues, including a recording of the 1952 premiere performances of Oedipus, at Mills College, Oakland. Actually entitled King Oedipus, this original version of the opera uses W. B. Yeats' free translation of Sophocles; Partch later had to substitute a new libretto when the Yeats estate refused to cooperate. It's thrilling to have Yeats' text woven together with Partch's music. Of all composers, though, he is the one you have to hear live: most of his effects of resonance are lost in translation.

On Hollywood

"I'm not persuaded that the unfairness of being paid so much money to write or perform nonsense is truly a justifiable reason for lifelong malevolent narcissism."

— David Thomson, The Whole Equation

Das ist hardcore

I was thinking of changing my name to Alex Noise, but it turns out the name is already taken, by a German DJ who purveys "hard stuff for rough guys." Be sure to listen to the audio sample. It's my new theme song. Q.v. Funkyzeit mit Bruno.

Noteworthy / inexplicable

Strindberg and Helium. Via Björk.

Beethoven sitting in a room

NewMusicBox, the throbbing new-music webzine, has achieved a handsome new incarnation, more "bloglike" in design. Check out, among other things, a webcast of the S.E.M. Ensemble's recent concert at its Willow Place Auditorium, in the rumbling shadow of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. Alvin Lucier's The Exploration of the House is a piece in the spirit of the same composer's experimental masterpiece I Am Sitting In a Room: fragments of Beethoven's Consecration of the House Overture are played live by the ensemble, recorded on computer, played back, then recorded and played back again in a looping pattern, so that the resonant frequencies of the room gradually transform the original, if you get my drift.

Paging Messiaen


Peter Rolufs, our friend in Tokyo, writes to propose, only half in jest, that an American orchestra commission an Ivory-billed Woodpecker Symphony. He sends a link to the captivating song of the Ivory-bill, which starts off sounding a bit like Giacinto Scelsi and then morphs into pure Louis Armstrong.

By way of addendum, Benjamin Weiss of Cambridge, MA writes: "As it happens, there already is a piece built around a recording of the song of the Ivory-bill Woodpecker. Lee Hyla's 'Wilson's Ivory-bill,' for baritone, piano, and tape, intersperses the recording, original composition, and bits of text from Alexander Wilson's American Ornithology, in which Wilson discusses the havoc wreaked on his hotel room by a captive Ivory-bill." Did not know. You can hear the piece here.

Travel rule #1:

Watch out for those hotel phone charges!

The vortex widens

Having frittered away much of Good Friday listening to Dylan MP3s, I spent much of the late evening in the agreeable company of Moistworks, a new, yet not new, MP3 blog. In between, I heard Gidon Kremer play the Shostakovich First Violin Concerto, with the Baltimore Symphony at Carnegie. No words adequate to the experience immediately come to mind. A line of Yeats, maybe: "Now days are dragon-ridden, the nightmare rides upon sleep."

12th Street & Vine

Bob Dylan is attempting a career-summarizing tour-de-force in his current run of shows at the Beacon Theatre. Songs that he's played over three nights so far: "To Be Alone With You," "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight," "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)," "Visions Of Johanna," "Cold Irons Bound," "Moonlight," "Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again," "High Water (For Charley Patton)," "Summer Days," "Standing In The Doorway," "Highway 61 Revisited," "Desolation Row," "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," "Tombstone Blues," Love Minus Zero/No Limit," "Lonesome Day Blues," "This Wheel's On Fire," "Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum," "John Brown," "Under The Red Sky," "Bye And Bye," "Shooting Star," "Honest With Me," "Masters Of War," "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," "Drifter's Escape," "Señor (Tales Of Yankee Power)," "Down Along The Cove," "Girl Of The North Country," "I'll Remember You," "Tangled Up In Blue," "Tough Mama," "Floater (Too Much To Ask)," "Blind Willie McTell," "Honest With Me," "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," and "Mississippi." Of these, only "High Water," "Highway 61," and "Watchtower" have been repeated.

I caught Monday's show, avec Pack, and was impressed by the power of the current band. New lead guitarist Stu Kimball plays crisp, incisive melodies, often preserving the ghost of old vocal lines that the Meister, in his urge to recompose even his most recent songs, has suppressed. After several comparatively straight-ahead years, the singing has entered another mannered phase. "Visions of Johanna" was essentially sung on two notes, the first and fifth of the scale, like "Rock Me Amadeus." Maybe Dylan is stripping down the melodies so the words come through more clearly, although I have to admit I kind of see where Sasha is coming from in terms of the whole issue of comprehensibility. I listened to the first verse of "Visions" under the impression it was "Desolation Row." But, you know, I really don't care. Judge for yourself by listening to an MP3 at bobdylan.com. Scroll down for great 2001 versions of "Standing in the Doorway" and "Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum," a rocking 2002 "High Water," and a gorgeous 1998 "Born in Time."

Merle Haggard's show was high-grade pleasure — effortless give-and-take between him and his band, music as smart, relaxed conversation. Kind of like Jordi Savall. I have a half-baked theory about how there are two kinds of music: 1) Marching in Lockstep, where everything's governed by notation or electronic arrangement (orchestral classical, hip-hop, arena rock); and 2) Shuffling Along, where musicians play freely over given chords (old-school country, jazz, early-music classical). The theory needs some work, but it nicely busts up the usual pop/classical and racial divides.

Porno rat-suit

Justin Davidson of Newsday goes to town on the Met's inane new production of Faust.

More Pope

On Tuesday I appeared on WNYC's beloved Soundcheck show, alongside author and radio personality William Berger, to discuss the new Pope's musical policies. Will, as it happens, knows a huge amount about music and the Vatican. He even quoted profusely from then-Cardinal Ratzinger's musical writings in his book Puccini Without Excuses, which will be out in the fall. (What the Vatican has to do with Puccini is something you'll have to read the book to find out.) In my post the other day, I offered a paraphrase of the Pope's chapter on music in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy. Will has found the full text, and it's fascinating stuff. I was joking when I said the Pope sounded like Adorno, but the use of phrases like "century of self-emancipating subjectivity" suggest that he may well have Minima Moralia and a few other titles on his shelves. Here's the money graph, if one may speak of the Pope's writings that way:

There are two developments in music itself that have their origins primarily in the West but that for a long time have affected the whole of mankind in the world culture that is being formed. Modern so-called "classical" music has maneuvered itself, with some exceptions, into an elitist ghetto, which only specialists may enter -- and even they do so with what may sometimes be mixed feelings. The music of the masses has broken loose from this and treads a very different path. On the one hand, there is pop music, which is certainly no longer supported by the people in the ancient sense (populus). It is aimed at the phenomenon of the masses, is industrially produced, and ultimately has to be described as a cult of the banal. "Rock," on the other hand, is the expression of elemental passions, and at rock festivals it assumes a cultic character, a form of worship, in fact, in opposition to Christian worship. People are, so to speak, released from themselves by the emotional shock of rhythm, noise, and special lighting effects. However, in the ecstasy of having all their defenses torn down, the participants sink, as it were, beneath the elemental force of the universe. The music of the Holy Spirit's sober inebriation seems to have little chance when self has become a prison, the mind is a shackle, and breaking out from both appears as a true promise of redemption that can be tasted at least for a few moments. What is to be done?

What is to be done, indeed? The Pope has one strong point. He's saying that modern music is unnaturally divided between extremes of obscurantist complexity and extremes of mass-marketed simplicity, and he wants to see a healthy middle restored. He's actually in a position to do something, by commissioning and cultivating works of sacred music that restore the old unity of "popular" and "classical" elements. But the discussion is framed by a drastic judgment on pop music, indeed on the "dictatorship of relativism" in modern society, and that itch to judge will make it harder for him to achieve anything positive. An irony attends on those who complain about rampant relativism, whether in music or anything else. They say that all values are being leveled. But by dividing music into "serious" and "commercial" realms, or any other simplistic binary scheme, they are leveling everything within those genres, limiting the expressive potential of each. They are relativizing like crazy, and suppressing the individual voice.

Mozart is as Mozart does

Via AC Douglas, a brilliant list on A Dog's Life of other musical "effects," akin to the now discredited and never remotely believable "Mozart effect," which held that listening to Mozart makes you smarter. I lost 15 IQ points at a Gerard Schwarz Mostly Mozart concert in 1994, and I'm never getting them back, no matter how many episodes of Alias and 24 I watch.

Gidon's army

Gidon Kremer, like Jordi Savall, is a performer whose gifts go far beyond simple mastery of his instrument. He creates an entire world — a vast repertory tilted toward the present; a style of performance that is at once engagingly casual and ferociously intense; programs that unfold like pages of a cryptic novel. The luminous Latvian is coming to Carnegie this week and the next. On Friday, he appears with the Baltimore Symphony, under Yuri Temirkanov, to play Giya Kancheli's Lonesome and Shostakovich's sublimely dark First Violin Concerto. Then, next Tuesday, he and his Kremerata ensemble present a new piece by Alexander Wustin and two more works of Shostakovich: the Viola Sonata, which the composer finished literally on his deathbed, and the Fifteenth Symphony, in an extraordinarily effective arrangement for piano trio and percussion. As I wrote last year on the blog, I heard Kremer play the "chamber Fifteenth" at the Lockenhaus Festival in 1995, and it was, as Merle Haggard sang last night, unforgettable.

Jordi Savall

"The King of Spain"

by Alex Ross

The New Yorker, May 2, 2005.

When the Catalan viol player Jordi Savall presented three concerts at the Metropolitan Museum earlier this month, one musical border after another melted away — borders between past and present, composition and improvisation, “popular” and “classical,” East and West. Centuries-old songs and dances glowed with sadness and jumped for joy. The sounds of a dozen different nations and three world religions consorted in a richly believable utopia. Savall’s first program opened with a trio of far-flung pieces: “Quantas Sabedes Amare,” a cantiga by the thirteenth-century Galician poet Martin Codax; “Nastaran,” an instrumental piece from Afghanistan in the naghma genre; and “Noumi, Noumi Yaldatii,” a Hebrew lullaby. Later in the performance, Savall pointed out that the music of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish cultures often features similar or even identical melodic shapes. As he illustrated with a few phrases on his viola da gamba, a sentimental vision of global unity acquired heartbreaking force.

The Met called the series “Celebrating Jordi Savall,” and, amid the usual parade of famous, anonymous maestros, here, finally, was a man worth celebrating. Savall is not only a performer of genius but also a conductor, a scholar, a teacher, a concert impresario (he founded the Hespèrion XXI, Le Concert des Nations, and La Capella Reial de Catalunya ensembles, all of which accompanied him to New York), a record-label director (his is called Alia Vox), a minor film personality (he played on the soundtrack of the 1991 movie “Tous les Matins du Monde”), and the patriarch of a formidable musical family. He was born in Barcelona in 1941, and still lives in the area. With his wavy mane and courtly beard, he could pass for one of El Greco’s more debonair Spanish knights. Part of his mission is to restore the splendor of Iberian musical traditions, which have long been disparaged by the Teutonic mind-set of the classical world. Appropriately enough, Savall performed two of his concerts in the Medieval Sculpture Hall, in front of the great choir screen from Valladolid Cathedral, where King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella were married, in 1469.

The ancestry of the viola da gamba, or viol, can be traced to Central Asia, where bowed string instruments were first observed in the tenth century. Viol-like instruments appeared in Moorish Spain not long afterward. (Perhaps this is why Savall placed a naghma piece at the beginning of his series.) The viol looks like an ancestor of the cello, but it has more in common with the guitar or the lute. It is much lighter in construction, so that even the softest tones resonate handsomely, and its strings lie flatter on the bridge, so that a single stroke of the bow can produce rich chords. On the debit side, the viol has a hard time making itself heard in a large ensemble, which is why the more muscular cello began to supersede it in the Baroque period.

No one plays this eccentric, eloquent instrument more beautifully than Savall. Minute details of phrasing, dynamics, and timbre join together in an endlessly varied singing line. The constant interweaving of melody and chords has a pronounced hypnotic effect, as Savall and friends prove on classic recordings of such masterworks as John Dowland’s “Lachrimae,” William Lawes’s Consort Sets, and the Pièces de Viole by Marin Marais and his teacher, Sainte Colombe (the lead characters in “Tous les Matins du Monde”). Anyone who thinks that the music of several centuries ago is less emotionally immediate than the modern product needs to hear a few of these disks. The Dowland, in particular, should have been packaged with appropriate medication: “Lachrimae” was published in the same year as the Second Quarto of “Hamlet,” and it goes to the brink of the same abyss.

Savall has recaptured, as far as anyone can tell, not just the technique but also the artistic spirit of the Renaissance musicians who made the viol the center of their world. One of his guiding lights is a treatise published in 1553 by Diego Ortiz, a composer-performer from Toledo, which shows the novice gambist how to embroider a given melody or chord progression with ornaments, variations, and outright inventions. It is an art of controlled improvisation, closer to jazz than to modern classical composition. Richard Taruskin, in his monumental new history of music, describes such instructional treatises as glimpses of a “great submerged iceberg of sound”—everything about the musical past that dots and lines on parchment do not preserve.

From the beginning, Savall has been lucky to find musicians who share the disciplined freedom of his style. His most important collaborator is the soprano Montserrat Figueras, to whom he has been married for thirty-seven years. She, too, looks beyond the cold facts of notation to grasp the spirit of the age: her smoky, penetrating, flatly expressive voice falls somewhere between grand opera and rural folksinging, and combines the best aspects of both. The other dominant presence in Savall’s smaller ensembles is the percussionist Pedro Estevan, whose technique runs the gamut from traditional Spanish folk music to Senegalese drumming and the European avant-garde. A heavily bearded man who slightly resembles Professor Dumbledore in “Harry Potter,” he contributes pattering polyrhythms, swaggering martial beats, and crisp splashes of tambourine. Whether anything like this racily smooth, head-nodding sound was heard in the background of Renaissance songs and dances is anyone’s guess, but the earthiness of Estevan’s approach rings historically true: even the courtliest European music of the Renaissance and the Baroque overlapped at every turn with the music of the streets.

Savall’s two concerts in the Medieval Sculpture Hall provided a rough map of his world. One, with the players of Le Concert des Nations, presented a sumptuous portrait of court music of the Baroque: the ballet given for Louis XIII in 1627, excerpts from Purcell’s “Fairy Queen,” Rameau’s “Les Indes Galantes.” The other was an almost purely domestic affair, with Savall and Figueras joined by their children Arianna and Ferran. Arianna plays the harp and sings in a light, pure voice; she has released a record under her own name. Ferran has studied the theorbo, or bass lute, and has also taken up singing, not in early-music circles but in jazz clubs around Barcelona. With the addition of Arianna and Ferran’s pop-inflected songs to the music of Spain, Greece, Israel, Afghanistan, and so on, the program became mentally hard to navigate; as a friend commented, the border between early music and smooth jazz is one that should perhaps remain intact. But it was a thrill to watch this extraordinary family making music together. During the slower stretches, I imagined a Savall Family sitcom: “But, Dad, I don’t want to play theorbo!”

The final event in the series, with the players of Le Concert des Nations and the singers of La Capella Reial, was an overwhelming experience, the concert of the year. It took place at the Temple of Dendur, where the Met presents music several times each season. Savall chose the theme “Music and Songs of War and Love,” with vocal works by Monteverdi predominating: the mini-opera “Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda,” in which the baritone Furio Zanasi gave a happily blood-curdling performance; “Tirsi e Clori,” with Arianna Savall again; and, the ne plus ultra, Monteverdi’s time-stopping madrigal “Lamento della Ninfa,” with instrumentals by Marini and Rossi providing a sombre frame. Figueras drenched the vocal line with her wine-dark tone; Andrew Lawrence-King offered piercing embroidery on the harp; and Savall somehow remained the master of the scene even as he confined himself to four repeating notes. That one quarter hour of music was as good as it gets, and I became downcast in the middle, because I realized that it had to end.

Even amid the prevailing gloom, the spirit of the dance was present throughout. By finishing up with Juan Arañés’s 1624 chacona “A La Vida Bona,” which can be heard on Alia Vox’s unofficial dance-party CD, “Villancicos y Danzas Criollas,” Savall reminded us that certain of Monteverdi’s gravely expressive bass lines echoed the sensual dances that the conquistadores brought back from the New World. Estevan banged out fat beats on his big green drum, and the circle of Savall’s world was complete.

Nielsen consensus

304_1Jerry Bowles at Sequenza 21 poses an interesting question: who is the most underrated composer of the twentieth century? Kyle Gann and I agree on the same name: Carl Nielsen. For years, I've been waiting to write a Nielsen column for the New Yorker, but the occasion has refused to arrive. There are plenty of recordings, but live performances of the great Dane are rare, at least in this neck of the woods. Every couple of years, someone does the Fourth Symphony, the Inextinguishable, and that's it. (Danish for "Inextinguishable" is "Det uudslukkelige." When I was recently in Copenhagen, I had a strange urge to walk up to people and say, "Det uudslukkelige!" I did not.) The rhythmic power of the music is enormous. The Fourth is dynamic in the way that only Beethoven is dynamic. The Fifth, with its snarling snare-drum improvisation, is a half-hour explosion. The Sixth, the Sinfonia semplice, is a kind of meta-symphony, trumping Stravinsky at his own game. Try Herbert Blomstedt's two-disc set of the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth. Although the really revelatory performances are live recordings by the likes of Thomas Jensen, Launy Grøndahl, and Erik Tuxen. This composer needs the drama of live performance.

We all know what that means

Investigators have finally found a chink in Tom DeLay's armor: he was seen at a Three Tenors concert.

À la Sieglinde, suggested lines for the Majority Leader as he makes his way in the world of grand opera:

1. "Who does Alagna think he is, César Vezzani? Did Villazón have a dental appointment or something?"
2. "American opera houses have hardly begun to do justice to Zemlinsky, never mind Schreker."
3. "Girl, I know drunken go-go boys who can sing 'Vissi d'arte' better than Guleghina."
4. "Gergiev's tempos in Parsifal — talk about pest control!"  etc.


Lord, deliver us from Muti.

Paging Palestrina


What can we expect from the German Pope in terms of musical policy? New Yorker editor Leo Carey writes: "Have you noticed that the world is being gradually taken over by unlikeable conservative hardliners who are good pianists? Seems that Ratzi, like Condi, favors the core Austro-German repertoire. Hardly surprising — one wouldn't have figured him for a Poulenc man. [I should hope not!] He has said that rock music styles are incompatible with church liturgy. In 1986 he described rock music as 'the secularized variation' of an age-old type of religion in which man uses music — and drugs and alcohol — to lower 'the barriers of individuality and personality,' to liberate 'himself from the burden of consciousness. Music becomes ecstasy ... amalgamation with the universe.' This 'is the complete antithesis of the Christian faith in the redemption.' More recently, he wrote The Spirit of the Liturgy, which portrays music as a language which transcends rational speech." Evidently, there's good irrationality and bad irrationality. Sacred music, the Pope says, should aim for "sober inebriation." Sounds awesome!

Brian Wise of WNYC's Soundcheck writes to point out the contrast between the new Pope and the Bob Dylan-loving old one. This AP photo illustrates the sort of scene that we will evidently not be witnessing at the court of Benedict XVI. Nor is it likely that we will be hearing much twelve-tone music in the Vatican. According to a paraphrase by a commentator, Benedict disapproves not only of "pop (a manufactured commodity)" but also of "rationally constructed high-brow music (an elite, degenerate form of 'classical' music)." Holy cow — Theodor W. Adorno has been elected Pope.

Esa-Pekka Salonen's Wing on Wing


Classical Notes. The New Yorker, April 25, 2005.

Isn't it authentic?

Carl Z. Wilson smartly reports an extended discussion of musical "authenticity" at Experience Music Project's Pop Conference, stemming from a presentation by Love and Theft author Eric Lott. He writes: "Lott said, and I think this is right on, that the idea of authenticity is only ideological, only used to police boundaries, and that truth or honesty is more an affect than any isolatable quality."


In the early days of the Weimar Republic, Richard Strauss tried to persuade the theater critic Alfred Kerr to write a libretto for a theatrical-political operetta entitled Revolution, which was to have featured, in the composer's words, “workers' and industrial councils, prima-donna intrigues, tenor ambitions, resigning directors of the old regime ... a National Assembly, soldier societies, party politicking while the people starve, a pimp as Culture Minister, a criminal as War Minister, a murderer as Justice Minister," and, somewhere in the middle, an echt-Romantic, Hans Pfitzner-like composer who fleeces wealthy Jews while spouting anti-Semitic remarks. To the anguish of posterity, nothing came of the project.

Schnittke is everywhere


The best way to describe is alfredschnittke.com is ... well, you really have to look for yourself. To me, it's an oblique but poetic tribute to the late Russian master. Others disagree, to judge from the site's bizarrely overheated guestbook commentary: "This site is very bad. But i can understand this because you' re american... Thanks for everything!" I think the man who created this design for his gravesite would have understood the humor.

Lower Midtown manifesto


As the competing orthodoxies of Uptown and Downtown music fight their endless war of attrition, composers are increasingly finding their way outside, to the freer climes of Lower Midtown Music. The Look & Listen Festival, which takes place this weekend at the Robert Miller Gallery on West 26th Street, exemplifies the Lower Midtown sound at its best: accessible and uncompromising, populist and antisocial, fiendishly complex and instantly hummable, ethereally sublime and grindingly hot. OK, I'm making all that up, but the programs for Look & Listen do seem to offer a fine cross-section of freethinking New Yorkish music. Durable classics like Meredith Monk's Book of Days, Steve Reich's Four Organs, and Feldman's Structures (for string quartet) share space with fresh thoughts by such promising youths as Judd Greenstein (not Judy) and Mark Dancigers. eighth blackbird, SO Percussion, the Lark and Daedalus Quartets, and the NOW Ensemble participate. Monk delivers a keynote speech on Thursday, and various composers will speak on panels. You can read all this for yourself.

St. Louis non-blues

The St. Louis Symphony, having apparently recovered from its recent attempt at public hari-kari, has announced its first season under David Robertson, and it's a pleasure to behold. Everything from Josquin to Adams, in elegant groupings. Without trying to force thematic connections, the orchestra* has come up with neat titles for each event. I like "Radiance" as a catch-all for the Magic Flute Overture, Feldman's Coptic Light, and Das Lied von der Erde. Notice also that the orchestra now has its own blog. It'll be interesting to hear how the St. Louis plays for Robertson at Carnegie on Saturday. An all-American program: Ives' Unanswered Question and Second Symphony, Adams' Century Rolls, and Copland's Lincoln Portrait, with none other than Paul Newman as narrator. Will he wear the beard?

*Greg Sandow's handiwork, it turns out.

Gerisi gürültü!

The Turkish magazine Andante, which is publishing some of my pieces under the rubric "Gerisi Gürültü," or The Rest Is Noise, looks to be an excellent all-around classical-music journal, commenting on opera, orchestras, new music, local festivals, and some jazz and rock as well (Mingus, the Tiger Lillies). I've never understood why the vast American classical audience can't sustain a magazine of this type. I assume the advertising business, with its rich-old-queen habit of spending money only on young males, has something to do with it.

Il Re di Spagna


Coming this week in NYC is a trio of concerts by Jordi Savall — master viol player, conductor, teacher, entrepeneur, and all-around musical humanist. Vilaine Fille has the advance word on the series, which takes place in the Medieval Sculpture Hall and the Temple of Dendur at the Met Museum. There will be much music from Spain's Golden Age, together with works of Monteverdi, Marin Marais, Purcell, and Rameau. Alas, no Dowland — the above-pictured disc, on the Astrée / Naïve label, is to my taste one of the sweetest, saddest records ever made.

Harry Partch's Oedipus

by Alex Ross

The New Yorker, April 18, 2005.

Of all the triumphantly weird characters who have roamed the frontiers of American art, none ever went quite as far out as the composer Harry Partch. His exit from civilization has assumed the status of legend, and it’s all true. The turning point in Partch’s life came in 1935, after he spent six months travelling through Europe on a grant. He was thirty-four years old; his explorations of new tunings and instruments had aroused smatterings of interest. In the hope of making an opera from William Butler Yeats’s adaptation of Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex,” he had met with the poet in Ireland, and had received his blessing. But few others grasped what Partch was after, and when he returned to the United States he couldn’t summon the will to beg for more money. Instead, he decided to drop out, and it wasn’t your feel-good hippie kind of dropping out. He spent much of the next eight years living as a hobo—riding trains, doing manual labor, sleeping in shelters or in the wild, contracting syphilis, working occasionally as a proofreader, and, all the while, rethinking every parameter of music. One day in 1940, while passing through Barstow, California, Partch found some graffiti along a highway, and he saw in it what no one else could have seen, material for a rasping, pugnacious song: “It’s January 26. I’m freezing. / Ed Fitzgerald. Age 19. Five feet ten inches. / Black hair, brown eyes. / . . . I wish I was dead. / But today I am a man.”

Partch, whose “Oedipus” recently had a run of performances in Montclair, New Jersey, was destined to be different. He was born in Oakland in 1901, and spent much of his childhood in the lonely railway outpost of Benson, Arizona. At the age of eighteen, he moved to Los Angeles, where he studied music at U.S.C. One pivotal early experience was his romance with the actor Ramón Samaniego, whom he met when both were ushers at the L.A. Philharmonic. Samaniego ended the affair shortly after becoming Ramon Novarro, the silent-screen idol. That disappointment helped cement Partch’s determination to reject the mainstream. He could be difficult, and, with enough alcohol in his system, impossible. But there was something incorrigibly pure about him. Yeats said he was “very simple,” and did not mean it as an insult.       

Early on, Partch started asking himself why there were twelve notes in the Western scale. Reading the history of tuning, he paid special attention to the theories of Pythagoras and other ancient Greeks, who codified the relationship between elemental harmonies and vibrating strings. (If you pinch the midpoint of a rubber band tuned to C and then pluck it, the tone goes up to the next higher C. At a third of the length, the tone rises to a G. With fractions of a fourth and a fifth, you get another C, then an E. Together, these notes spell a lovely major chord.) Since the early nineteenth century, Western music has been tuned according to the equal-temperament system, which adjusts the neat Greek ratios in order to create a standardized scale. Partch wanted to restore the eerie “rightness” of the old tunings. At the same time, he added minute gradations, or microtones, until he had a forty-three-tone scale, each interval controlled by ratios of integers.

He summarized his thinking in a 1949 book entitled “Genesis of a Music,” which begins with the most startling forty-five-page history of music ever written. The art really began to go downhill, we’re told, when Johann Sebastian Bach got his grubby fingers on it. Partch held Bach responsible for two trends: (1) the movement toward equal-tempered tuning, which meant that composers could not absorb the scales of other world traditions; and (2) the urge to make music ever more instrumental and abstract. Although Bach advocated neither of these things, Partch’s critique of the long-term denaturing of music still packs a punch.       

The irony is that Partch himself was sometimes suspected of being a professional originator, a paper genius who tried to write his way into history with outré gestures. In fact, he invented his forty-three-tone scale not to inflict another system on the world but to allow for a new style of vocal setting that followed the contours of the speaking voice. In his insistence on reuniting song and word, he mirrored another outlying genius of twentieth-century music, Leos Janácek, whose notations of the music of speech bear a fascinating resemblance to Partch’s hobo travelogue “Bitter Music,” minus the nude drawings. If Partch wanted “to find a way outside,” as he once said, he also wanted to find his way back, to a ritualistic, bardic art. On this point, he and Yeats—not the gay-hobo type—understood each other perfectly.

Perhaps the most impractical, and charmingly quixotic, aspect of Partch’s project was that it could be realized only on instruments that he himself had constructed. Starting in the thirties, he hammered together an orchestra of strings, keyboards, and percussion. After Partch's death, in 1974, the instruments were housed for some years at San Diego State University. Then, in a development that remains controversial in the small but avid circles of Partch enthusiasts, they were moved to Montclair State University, under the care of the composer Dean Drummond. The collection includes adaptations of familiar instruments—viola, guitar, reed organ—along with resonating objects that double as dramatic sculpture: the Cloud-Chamber Bowls, which consist of Pyrex carboys that Partch obtained from the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory; the Kithara, modelled on a harplike instrument seen on Greek vases; and the Marimba Eroica, whose lowest notes are produced by five-foot-high blocks that the percussionist must stand on a riser in order to play. Made of redwood, spruce, bamboo, and rosewood, the instruments look as awesome as they sound.       

The stylish new Kasser Theatre, on the Montclair campus, hopes to become a center for next-wave programming, a bam West. With this production of “Oedipus,” it succeeds. The staging was by members of New York’s Ridge Theatre group: the director Bob McGrath, the filmmaker Bill Morrison, and the visual designer Laurie Olinder. The action is split between the mythic world and the sitting room of Sigmund Freud, who is psychoanalyzing the title character. Morrison’s films draw on old Austrian newsreels, including slow-motion shots of the funeral of Chancellor Dollfuss. As in other Ridge productions, such as “Everyday Newt Burman” and “Decasia,” the images summon an atmosphere of worlds in decline, of ancient terrors surfacing. The superb cast included Robert Osborne, as Oedipus; Beth Griffith, as Jocasta; and David Ronis, as the Spokesman (a.k.a. Freud). Daniel Keeling made Tiresias a mad preacher, with a bit of Ray Charles thrown in. Drummond led the Newband ensemble in a virtuosic performance.

What of the music itself? It is staggeringly strange, but also achingly beautiful. Partch said that his “Oedipus” should achieve “emotional saturation, or transcendence,” and, by gods, it does. It begins slowly, with the bigger instruments held in reserve and long stretches of the play delivered as straight dialogue—in ersatz Yeats, because the poet’s estate stupidly withheld permission for Partch to use the original. Then the screws begin to turn. The chorus of women sings winding laments that devolve into wordless cries; the cello unfolds fragments of another long, dark song; the Marimba Eroica emits its mind-bending basement tones; tribalistic dances and sonic rave-ups take over; and, amid the fog of microtones, pure Pythagorean consonances appear like ghosts. The climax is Oedipus’ interrogation of the Herdsman, during which he discovers the awful truth. The simplicity of Partch’s method—sending words into the listener’s brain along all musical channels—creates hair-raising tension, an aria of the uncanny.       

At one point, I wondered why Oedipus’ voice kept swooping up and down in singsong patterns. Had Partch really stayed true to his philosophy of speechlike song? Then I remembered what I’d read in Bob Gilmore’s biography of the composer—that the model for the music was Yeats’s voice, chanting lines like “For death is all the fashion now, till even Death be dead."

Twang of doom II

Michael Giacchino, whose music scares the living daylights out of millions each week on Lost, explains his art to Adam Baer of the LA Times. Boone, we hardly knew ye.