Speech found the ear...


What I wrote at the time: Requiems. Terry Teachout recounts the same unforgettable performance of the German Requiem.

I took the picture above in 1996. I took the pictures below during a long walk today from my apartment in Chelsea to a friend's cookout in Brooklyn, and back again:








Gottfried Rosenbaum in memoriam

Christopher Miller's deft satirical novel Sudden Noises (see below) sent me back to the grand original, Randall Jarrell's Pictures from an Institution. Here is an immortal paragraph in which Jarrell describes the music of Gottfried Rosenbaum, a would-be lion of Vienna who ends up teaching music at an American women's college:

He loved hitherto-unthought-of, thereafter unthinkable combinations of instruments. When some extraordinary array of players filed half-proudly, half-sheepishly on to the stage, looking like the Bremen Town Musicians — if those were, as I think they were, a rooster, a cat, a dog, and a donkey — you could guess beforehand that it was to be one of Gottfried's compositions. His Joyous Celebration of the Memory of the Master Johann Sebastian Bach had a tone-row composed of the notes B, A, C, and H (in the German notation), of these inverted, and of these transposed; and there were four movements, the first played on instruments beginning with the letter b, the second on instruments beginning with the letter a, and so on. After the magnificent group that ushered in the piece (bugle, bass-viol, bassoon, basset-horn, bombardon, bass-drum, bagpipe, baritone, and a violinist with only his bow) it was sad to see an Alp horn and an accordion come in to play the second movement. Gottfried himself said about the first group: "Vot a bunch!" When I asked him how he thought of it, he said placidly: "De devil soldt me his soul."

The words "half-proudly, half-sheepishly" pop into my head at almost every contemporary music concert I attend. One day, perhaps, a composer will see fit to realize Rosenbaum's grand conception: if composers from Peter Maxwell Davies to Alfred Schnittke can take inspiration from the fictional music in Mann's Doctor Faustus (the target of that last dig) there might as well be a school of Rosenbaum. I'll always be grateful to Prof. John Plotz for introducing me to the joy of Jarrell.

Sudden Noises

On my vacation I finally got around to reading Christopher Miller's hilarious, razor-sharp, strangely haunting novel Sudden Noises from Inanimate Objects. It was originally published two years ago under the title Simon Silber: Works for Solo Piano. It purports to be a set of liner notes for a box set devoted to Silber, an A-1 nutjob of a pianist-composer who combines aspects of Glenn Gould (he wears earmuffs when he plays), Kaikhosru Sorabji (he bans performances of his own music), and Thomas Mann’s Adrian Leverkühn (his hatred of vulgar humanity tilts toward madness and violence). The narrator is a stuck-up literary wannabe who hates his subject and aspires to be an aphorist-philosopher: “Some people shudder to think, and some think in order to shudder.” Miller himself has a gift for writing gemlike, cutting sentences, and the first few pages alone contain a half-dozen quotable lines: “He didn’t even want to be whistled”; “Simon Silber was a complicated person, a perverse chameleon forever changing colors the better to clash with his surroundings”; “’Believe it or not, I used to be even smarter’”; “He was the most — maybe the only — musical person I have ever known”; “The news of his demise was neither unexpected, when it reached me, nor entirely unwelcome”; “Never to have hated Silber would mean never to have known him.”

Miller isn’t a trained musician, but he knows his territory far better than most writers who try to fashion novels on musical themes. Consider the following eerily plausible portrait of the composers’ collective to which Silber cantankerously belongs:

The NCA wasn’t a ‘movement’ or a ‘school’; so far as I could tell, in fact, the only thing that our composer had in common with his fellow members was a lack of interest in all music but his own, including that of fellow members. Otherwise they were a motley bunch: Altschul, who had just finished the thirty-year task of composing a different suite of miniatures for every interjection in Webster’s (twenty-four Aahs, twenty-four Ahs, twenty-four Ahas, twenty-four Ahems, twenty-four Ahoys, twenty-four Alacks, twenty-four Alases, twenty-four Amens…); Battcock, whose instrumental works incorporated laugh tracks every time the music did something ‘humorous’ (though I, for one, have always been skeptical about claims of humor in instrumental music, like claims of flavor in cigarette ads); Cowlick, who for years had confined himself to the note of middle C — not just the key but the note, varying only the volume, duration, and instrumentation; Dunsmore, each of whose eight mammoth symphonies existed, according to their composer, merely to set up a single overwhelming moment (Silber compared them to flowering trees planted for the sake of the week or two each year when they blossom); Earleywine, who kept developing new instruments with names like the trombonium, the pseudobassoon, and the acoustic synthesizer, in order to be the first composer to write music for them; … and Webb — like Silber, better known as a performer, though unlike Silber he was still performing (and, presumably, like any serious musician, practicing several hours a day, every day, on his chosen instrument, the gong).

These composers compete among themselves in the genre of "megaworks," or works that last a very long time. Silber writes a day-long piano sonata, entitled Day. A man named Goodenough responds with a computerized symphony that goes on a year — "music by and for computers," he calls it. Silber then plans a piece called Century, which, alas, never comes to fruition.

Not always kind reviews have compared Sudden Noises to Pale Fire. Yes, there’s an obvious relationship to Nabokov's tale of a biography gone awry. But I was reminded much more often — and in my personal pantheon this is a higher compliment — of Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution, which also has a fabulously daffy composer as a central character. What’s missing, perhaps, is the tone of compassion that underpins Jarrell’s savage satire of intellectual loserdom. Miller, by contrast, is a little too remorseless in his pursuit. Still, I’ll buy his next book the day it’s published.

Funkadelic v. NWA

Excellent post by Tim Johnson, aka The Rambler, denouncing Tuesday's federal appeals court decision against musical sampling. The ruling would force hip-hop artists and other sample-happy musicians to pay for even the tiniest snippet of pre-recorded music. Johnson notes how much art of the past and present — György Kurtág's compositions, Shakespeare's Hamlet — could be judged plagiaristic by such a strict standard. I don't know the legal or economic realities of the situation, but it seems to me that this harsh judgment might have disastrous results, especially for low-paid experimenters who play with samples for a living. Ironically, the decision was made in favor of George Clinton's record label, which was trying to seek profits from a Fundakedelic sample in the 1990 NWA track "100 Miles and Runnin." As All Hip Hop notes, Clinton himself was not against sampling, though he did try to seek compensation on a graded scale: "If they sell records, they pay, if they don't they can try again." What are the chances of such a reasonable, pragmatic approach becoming the norm? Slim. Then again, I wonder whether it might not be a good thing for music to be forced away from the collage aesthetic for a while. Perhaps voices and instruments are due for a second coming.



Listening to recordings of Daphne (Erich Kleiber, Haitink, Karl Böhm) in preparation for tonight's City Opera performance of Richard Strauss' arboreal masterpiece — the first time this work has ever been staged in New York. Let's hope it creates Grand Opera Buzz and not a Trainwreck. I use terms derived from Dr. Repertoire's hilarious Opera Queen Dictionary, featured on Parterre Box. Link courtesy of The Standing Room, a San Francisco-based, opera-centered blogue.

The Popov Discontinuity

There's something inherently improbable in the idea of a forgotten semi-great composer named Popov. The very name may give American college graduates a queasy feeling, reminding them of Popov Vodka, that stomach-scouring serum in a plastic bottle. But Gavriil Popov, a contemporary of Shostakovich (born 1904, died 1972), was the real deal — a major talent cut down by the furies of his time. I encountered Popov's music at Bard College's Shostakovich Festival, which I wrote up in the New Yorker last week. I'd had a couple of Popov recordings in my library for a while, but, as so often, hearing the music live showed me something that the CDs had not.

Popov studied alongside Shostakovich at the Leningrad Conservatory. His breakout work was the Chamber Symphony of 1927, heard at Bard in a fine performance under the direction of Fernando Raucci. The instrumentation, for flute, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, violin, cello, and double bass, recalls Histoire du Soldat, and you also hear echoes of the Hindemith of the Kammermusik series. There are trace elements of jazz, but only in the distant Soviet understanding of the word — fox-trots and other café styles. Popov had a real gift for melody, even as he constantly undercut his lyric flights with murmurs of disaster. There is an open-hearted sweetness that you seldom find in Shostakovich's music. The Trio theme in the second movement is almost like Copland — a plainspoken song in the flute over static accompaniment. The Largo is absolutely magical: midway through comes a high, sad, slow, bewitching violin theme over a funky bass vamp. The fast passages are full of rhythmic surprises, unusual tonal combinations, nasty little dances that start and stop. Overall, the work has more personality and invention than anything by Shostakovich from the same period, even the First Symphony. What it lacks is Shostakovich's rock-solid sense of form, his Beethovenian aura of inevitability.

In the late twenties, Popov moved away from brittle, satirical neoclassicism. As David Fanning recounts in an American Symphony program note, he wrote in his diary of a new kind of "theatrical-musical (symphonic) form," based on a study of Mahler. He seems to have sincerely believed that this monumental, dramatic approach to symphonic writing would match up with Soviet cultural policy. (The critic Ivan Sollertinsky, one of Shostakovich's closest friends and advisers, was writing along similar lines.) His manifesto work was the First Symphony, a work of astounding expressive power and emotional complexity. Very much like Shostakovich's later Fourth Symphony, it stumbles for long periods across an unearthly landscape that resembles partially bombed-out Mahler. The final movement is particularly remarkable: it begins with a Soviet industrial ostinato along the lines of Mossolov's Iron Foundry and Prokofiev's Pas d'acier, but then a human form seems to rise up from the innards of the machine, singing in alternately ecstatic and demonic tones. The symphony closes with an awesome sequence of ringing figures and trilling chords, based on the magic bells of Wagner's Monsalvat and Rimsky's Kitezh — except that some terrible shadow hangs over this shining city on a hill. I thought of Poe: "While from a proud tower in the town / Death looks gigantically down."

Shostakovich plainly paid attention to Popov's idea of theatricalized symphonic form: his own death-drunk Fourth not only resembles Popov's First in design but seems at times to quote its music. There might also be a citation of Popov in the Fifth Symphony, whose great opening utterance resembles a figure that surfaces in Popov's opening movement. Whether Shostakovich was sending a clandestine message with these near-quotations is anyone's guess, but he might have wanted to show solidarity with Popov, who had been briefly purged from the Conservatory back in the twenties and suffered censure again after the First's premiere in March of 1935. (The work was said to show "the ideology of classes hostile to us.") The denunciation of Shostakovich in 1936 was more public and ferocious, but it was accompanied, we now know, by private assurances that the composer would thrive again if he followed a correct path. Popov apparently received no such encouragement. His masterpiece was never heard again during his lifetime.

The two composers together make an interesting case study in the difference between raw talent and genius. Shostakovich showed the world a helpless, vulnerable facade, but he had an inner tenacity that carried him through the Stalinist crisis. He also had a certain canniness, a knack for plotting the twists and turns of his career, which we never like to acknowledge as an ingredient of genius. Popov, exploding with talent but lacking that eerie detachment from his creative self, collapsed under the outward pressure. He felt obligated to produce programmatic Socialist-Realistic pieces on a regular basis (Komsomol Is The Chief of Electrification). He became a raging alcoholic. (Per Skans in an Olympia liner note: "The Soviet Composers Union was never a teetotal organization, but Popov was certainly thirstier than average.") For extended periods after the war he produced little of consequence. His last major statement, the Sixth Symphony, subtitled Holiday, makes for an upsettingly strange experience: you're never sure whether you're listening to some craven attempt at Communist bombast, some fabulously ironic satire on same, or drunken babbling. At its best, it matches the First Symphony's attitude of regal delirium: this Soviet holiday party culminates in obvious echoes of Mussorgsky's Coronation Scene, the crowning of the murderer Tsar, and ends with a noise that you could hear either as a whoop of joy or an onrush of vomit.

For the moment, there's no way of hearing the works I describe here except on used LPs and CDs. The Olympia label, which released recordings of the Popov symphonies some years ago, has ceased to exist. How's that for frustration? Fortunately, Leon Bostein, who presided over the Shostakovich Festival at Bard, has made a very persuasive recording of the First Symphony with the London Symphony, which Telarc will release in the fall. I've listened to my preview copy at least twenty times in the last few weeks: it has the ever-changing, life-enhancing personality of a masterpiece. Popov was a man destroyed by history, and he deserves some restitution after death.

The business we have chosen

IMG_1273AC Douglas, in an Open Letter addressed to me, has announced that he is purchasing the Björk record, and that if he does not like it he is sending over a guy named Guido to give me some things to think about. I would advise him that if anyone tries to deliver sleeping fishes to my door a regular Luca Brasi of a feline named Maulina will be waiting, and she is not to be messed with. I am confident that ACD will view the Björk record as a pseudo-musical travesty of the first order, a rickety rope bridge spanning the chasm between popular piffle and classical cognition, which would collapse unceremoniously into shrieking abysses of postmodern kitsch if so much as a hummingbird were to land upon it. So confident am I that ACD will hate the record, in fact, that I am prepared to refund him his $25 if he likes it.

The D-flat major of this life


Gnomic CD Reviews: Anderszewski

AnderszJ.S. Bach, English Suite No. 6 in D minor, BWV 811; Beethoven, Piano Sonata No. 30 in A-flat, Op. 110; Webern, Variations, Op. 27. Piotr Anderszewski, piano. Virgin Classics 7243 5 45632.

Equal mastery in the Baroque, the Classical-Romantic, and the atonal modern. Everything sings.

Thought for the day

Pride goeth before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.
Proverbs 16:18

Endless modern

So what is it that has got lost? Something imponderable. A prognostic. An illusion. Like what happens when a magnet lets the iron fillings go and they tumble together again ... Or when a ball of string comes undone ... Or when a tension has slackened ... Or when an orchestra begins to play out of tune ... All the relations between things had shifted slightly. Ideas that had once been of lean account grew fat. Persons had previously had not been taken altogether seriously now acquired fame ... Sharp borderlines everywhere became blurred... There positively seemed to be certain proportions in which these elements had to be blended for maximum success in the world ... It is as though the blood or the air had changed; a mysterious disease had consumed the earlier period's little seedling of what was going to be genius, but everything sparkles with novelty, and in the end one can no longer tell whether the world has really grown worse or where it is merely that one has grown older oneself. When that point is reached, a new time has definitely arrived.

— Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities

à la Mode

Happiness came the other day in the form of a fat envelope from Mode Records, the august New York new-music label. For years I've been treasuring Mode's releases of John Cage and Morton Feldman. The new batch contains vol. 8 of the Feldman Edition, Triadic Memories, available either as a single DVD or as 2 CD's, with Marilyn Nonken tickling the ivories; a 2-CD of the music of Cage-Feldman henchman Christian Wolff; the slow, static, largely tonal music of Somei Satoh, with Petr Kotik conducting the Janacek Philharmonic; and nervously expressive works of Jason Eckardt. So far the one I've really fallen for is a disc devoted to Swiss composer-trombonist Roland Dahinden, born 1962, who roams around in the rich landscape between the classical avant-garde and post-free jazz. The big work on the program, silberen, for piano quintet, strongly recalls Feldman in its hushed dynamics and glacial tempo, but something about the mood and sound is quite un-Feldmanlike. The language is not as chromatic as Feldman's, and sometimes hovers on the border of modal tonality, especially at the beginning. While Feldman often has secret narratives and dramas at work in his music, Dahinden avoids even a ghost of tension or conflict; he proceeds serenely from one collection of tones to another, as if puttering around a lunar garden. The Arditti Quartet and pianist Hildegard Kleeb play with magical purity of tone. I'm eager to hear more from this composer.

Partial sayonora


Intersection of 30th St. and Kent Ave., Nowhere, CA.

With the Reupholstery Convention happening just a few blocks from our apartment, Jonathan and I thought it wise to get out of town. I'll be gone all of next week, and the computer's staying home with the kitties. However, thanks to Typepad’s wizardly Publish in the Future feature, the blog will continue bloviating into oblivion without me.

Nordic idée fixe

Thomas Bartlett critiques my use of the phrase "Nordic idea" in the non-online Björk profile. Point well taken, though it was actually Björk who introduced the phrase. (A last-minute cut hid this fact.) I kept trying to work out what she meant by it, and I may have assigned it too much importance because it happened to be the first thing she said when we met. "Icelandic music" would have served better than "Nordic idea" in the case of the song "Vökuró." Some of the repetitions were meant to be tentative/ironic. Still, there is some kind of there there, even if I never effectively mapped it out. As a way of making peace with Glenn Gould, whom I just semi-dissed, I'll quote from his radio essay "The Idea of North": "Something really does happen to most people who go into the north — they become at least aware of the creative opportunity which the physical fact of the country represents and — quite often, I think — come to measure their own work and life against that rather staggering creative possibility: they become, in effect, philosophers." Philosophers of what, Gould wisely does not say.

ADDENDUM: Bartlett responds, gently circumambulating my soporific discussion of the "Nordic idea" on his way to a nice discussion of modern Bach playing. With you on Schiff, got me on Evelyn Crochet and Robert Siemers. I'd love it if some of the rock / pop critics out there dabbled in classical writing, just as I've dabbled in pop, and did it without any change of style. Basically, in the end, when the long black cloud comes down, no one really knows how to talk about this stuff.

ADDENDUM 2: This link from Jason Kottke is much appreciated.

On hockey

So, the Coyotes signed Keith Ballard! This could change a lot, or it could be more of the same. (In response to Delicious Pundit.)

The Rest Is Noise New Music Preview

There’s a crazily vast array of new music being heard around New York in the fall, and I’m not going to try to impose some feeble narrative on it ("Speaking of oboes..."). Click on the date for more info. I've included some non-New York events, too. God bless America.

Sept. 8: The gagaku orchestra Reigakushka gives a concert of ancient and modern Japanese music, including premieres by Keiko Fujiie and Kazuo Kikkawa, at Zankel Hall. They also play at the Terrace Theater and the Freer Gallery in DC (Sept. 9 and 10) and at UC Berkeley on Sept. 12.
Sept. 9-12: US premiere of Bill Morrison and Michael Gordon’s Decasia, in which a film narrative composed of decaying stock footage is paired with an eerie orchestra of retuned and detuned instruments. At St Ann’s Warehouse in DUMBO.
Sept. 13: Kent Nagano conducts Unsuk Chin's new Violin Concerto at the Berkeley Symphony, UC Berkeley.
Sept. 22: The Wet Ink new-music series, whose house ensemble the Zs espouses an aesthetic of “bombastic precision” (yeah!), opens with music of three elders (Christian Wolff, Earle Brown, and Fredric Rzewski) and two youngsters (Alex Mincek and Matt Hough). At the Bowery Poetry Club, $10 a seat.
Sept. 28: John Schaefer's New Sounds Live series at Merkin presents excerpts from Scott Johnson's How It Happens together with Phil Kline's searing anti-war Zippo Songs and his already legendary settings of the poetry of Donald Rumsfeld.
Oct. 6-9: Terry Riley's Sun Rings, which Mark Swed of the LA Times hailed as the In C maestro's late-period masterpiece, comes to BAM.
Oct. 8: John Ashbery settings by Elliott Carter, Lee Hyla, Charles Wuorinen, Milton Babbitt, and John Zorn, together again for the first and last time. At Cooper Union (website out of date).
Oct. 14: Steve Reich’s 1971 Drumming, also at Cooper Union.
Oct. 14-17: Sounds Like Now festival at La MaMa, a major convocation of alternative / downtown / how-you-call-it composers presented by the Interpretations series. The roster includes Robert Ashley, Phill Niblock, Joan La Barbara, David First, William Duckworth, Pauline Oliveros, and the blogosphere’s own Kyle Gann.
Oct. 18: Music from Copland House concert at Merkin, including a Chen Yi premiere.
Oct. 20-23: Alan Gilbert conducts John Adams’ masterly Naïve and Sentimental Music at the San Francisco Symphony. Take a moment to check out MTT's stunning Keeping Score site if you haven't seen it.
Oct. 21, Nov. 11, Dec. 3: Conlon Nancarrow festival at Miller Theatre. Not new music as such, but Nancarrow is so wired that he always sounds new.
Oct. 22: Young composers from Juilliard and the Royal Academy in London, including the brilliant Nico Muhly, write "responses to Webern." My own response to Webern is as follows: Yeah, whatever. Paul Hall, Juilliard, absolutely free.
Oct. 24: Big new piece by Steve Reich, You Are (Variations), for chorus, instruments, and electronics, lights up at Disney Hall in LA, with the Los Angeles Master Chorale.
Oct 24-25: Four excellent young composers — Mason Bates, Kenji Bunch, Daniel Kellogg, and Kevin Puts — appear at the Guggenheim as part of the "Works and Process" series. All have been part of the Young Concert Artists composer program.
Oct. 28: Wildly inventive avant-garde vocalist-composer Pamela Z at the Kitchen.
Oct. 28: English composer-arranger Joby Talbot, formerly of the stylish pop group Divine Comedy, gives a chamber concert at Merkin Hall. On Oct. 30 Merkin presents Talbot's score for Hitchcock’s The Lodger.
Oct. 29: Daniel Catán's Salsipuedes bows at the Houston Grand Opera. One of two premieres to celebrate the house's 50th anniversary: the second is a new Mark Adamo opera in March.
Oct. 31: Charles Wuorinen's Haroun & the Sea of Stories is given birth at New York City Opera.
Nov. 1: A Green Umbrella concert at Walt Disney Hall in LA, including premiere of Omnivorous Furniture, for “sinfonietta and electronica,” by aforementioned Mason Bates, and Henry Brant's almost-new Tremors: Spatial Declamations for 4 Singers and 16 Instrumentalists.
Nov. 4: First Eos Orchestra concert of the season, on a music-and-image theme. Program includes director Jonathan Sheffer's Filmusic #2, John Corigliano's Three Hallucinations From Altered States, and Schubert's Ninth Symphony with computer-generated video.
Nov. 6: Tania León portrait at Miller Theatre.
Nov. 11: Elliott Carter's Symphonia at the Boston Symphony. I'm no Carter fan in general, but I was deeply impressed by this churning slab of a work when I heard it on disc.
Nov. 12-14: John Adams returns to Zankel Hall to direct another pan-genre festival, this year including gamelan works by Evan Ziporyn, the Paul Dresher Ensemble, a Joshua Redman set, and the fantastic Iranian composer/kamancheh-player Kayhan Kalhor.
Nov. 17: American Composers Orchestra season opens with a typically all-over-the-place program of Randall Woolf (music for video by American Psycho director Mary Herron), Michael Daugherty, Morton Feldman, Tan Dun, and Sondheim.
Dec. 5: Joshua Penman's Songs The Plants Taught Us at the New York Youth Symphony. Penman classes himself as "ambient" and "spiritual," but some of the music on his website packs a considerable punch.
Dec. 11: Premiere of William Bolcom's A Wedding at the Chicago Lyric Opera, with a libretto by Arnold Weinstein and Robert Altman. Based on Altman's 1978 comedy of old money and nouveau riche.
Jan. 13-15: Babbitt's brand-new Concerti for Orchestra, Boston, sandwiched between the Fourth and Fifth symphonies of Sibelius. Part of James Levine's season-long series "You vill now like ze Tvelf Ton Musik!"
Jan. 20: The Phil Glass Seventh, National Symphony, DC.

Heartfelt plea to symphony orchestras: Have an easy-to-find place on your sites where the people can find a complete, chronological season listing. Sometimes this basic information is devilishly difficult to find amid all the subscription series profiles. What's more, listings often go out of their way to conceal any new music lurking in their midst: a composer may have labored for a year on a new concerto, but the headline is "André Watts Plays Tchaikovsky!" Having spent the better part of three days straight staring at websites, I am handing out the Rest Is Noise Fall Preview Webtastic Award to Ethel, the sleek new-music quartet, whose site is to die for.

G. G.

Terry beat me to the punch: I was going to excerpt the exact same paragraph from Angela Hewitt's piece on Glenn Gould in the TLS. It's a knowing, sympathetic, non-hagiographic look at a pianist whose posthumous reputation is somewhat overwrought. It's not that I don't love Gould's playing; it's just that I'm more comfortable seeing him as one of many great postwar pianists, rather than the one and only. Hewitt is herself a major Bach player whose recordings of the keyboard works on Hyperion hold their own with Gould's.

Mahler was heavy


Stopped by Academy Records on 18th Street yesterday. The moment I walked in, David Raksin's "Laura" began playing on the P. A., in the wacked-out Spike Jones version. This seemed a perfect accidental memorial to Raksin, who, I'll wager, loved Jones' maltreatment of his hit tune. I dropped $32 on a big stack of records that included Scott Johnson's John Somebody, Sviridov's Poem in Memory of Sergei Esenin, the Vainberg Seventh Symphony (I'm on a Soviet kick), a Thomas Weelkes disc with Peter Pears' Wilbye Consort, Kirsten Flagstad singing excerpts from the Ring with Furtwängler conducting, Peter Maxwell Davies' Vesalii Icones, the entire 1954 Furtwängler Die Walküre, and, best of all, Raymond Lewenthal's classic recording of Charles-Valentin Alkan's Funeral March for a Papagallo, which, in a visionary anticipation of Monty Python, enacts the funeral of a parrot. Alkan's text is as follows: "Have you had lunch, Jaco? And what? Oh." The cover art is, as you can see, possibly the greatest in the history of recording.

As I browsed, I kept seeing less fortunate, wannabe-hip record jackets — Bauhausy sans-serif fonts and abstract forms for 50s-era discs, trippy psychedelic collages for Mahler in the 60s ("Mahler is Heavy" was the Utah Symphony's slogan), ghastly soft-porn scenes for the 70s. The Vesalii Icones LP comes with cover art by Ken "Lisztomania" Russell — a picture of a black guy in partial whiteface and thong underwear. The Johnson disc, issued in 1986, carries a note by Greg Sandow, sounding a familiar theme: "Classical music is hard to place these days. Once it was part of a continuum that included folk and popular music at one end and complex works of art at the other.... Since Mozart's time there's been a divorce ... Johnson wants to heal the divorce. He's not alone: he's joined by other composers, by critics like myself, and, thank God, by a growing audience." It made me melancholy to read these words. Greg and others have been trying for a long time to heal the breach between classical music and popular culture. Kurt Weill was trying to do it back in the twenties. The road is littered with failures and false starts: Mahler, in the end, isn't heavy. But it's still worth pressing on. Better this than the dead-parrot procession of music as usual.


Carnegie Hall informs me that, alas, Michael Tilson Thomas' Stravinsky concerts in December have been canceled. I've removed those events from the Concert Preview below.

Tubthumping studies

Scott Spiegelberg pointed me toward a new academic journal from Cambridge University Press, Twentieth-Century Music. I haven’t had time to digest all the articles, but it looks like a strong debut. The range of topics is vast, everything from Boulez’s Pli selon pli to Chumbawumba’s “Tubthumping.” Some of the titles seem ripe for journalistic mockery — Ian Biddle’s “Vox Electronica: Nostalgia, Irony and Cyborgian Vocalities in Kraftwerk’s Radioaktivität and Autobahn,” for example — but I got a lot out of the scholarship even when the jargon made me fidget. I liked Mark Spicer’s definition of “accumulative form”: “A random sampling from the albums on Billboard’s Top 200 will likely confirm that many current pop-rock songs feature at some point on their musical surface a cumulative process of textural growth: various interlocking riffs – such as drum rhythm, bass line, and guitar vamp – are introduced one by one until the groove is complete, a technique most often employed at the beginning of songs.” I also enjoyed Charles Wilson’s critique of György Ligeti’s recent music, or, more accurately, of the promotion of Ligeti as maverick individualist: “Being valued for your individuality may be gratifying; but being valued only for your individuality ultimately implies that any individual will do just as well as you.” Good point — yet the overall picture of some vast corporate machinery promoting Ligeti is a touch absurd.

Most relevant to my current task — writing up the Shostakovich Festival at Bard — is Marina Frolova-Walker’s “Stalin and the Art of Boredom,” a deft overview of Socialist Realism in music. Prof. Frolova-Walker delivered a truncated version of this article at a Bard panel. Like many recent writers on Soviet culture, she draws on the files of the NKVD, Stalin’s secret police. Here is her arrangement of quotations from the First Congress of the Union of Soviet Writers in 1934, as reported by informants:

M. M. Prishvin: All the time I’m thinking I should leave as soon as possible – the boredom is unbearable . . .
Valeryan Pravdukhin: All we have in the literary world at the moment is unabashed demagogy and publishers’ terror. . . . As for the Congress, even to talk about it seriously is shameful: something more lively was expected of Radek’s and Bukharin’s papers, but even these wilted before they could bloom, since they had, after all, been subjected to drastic cuts by Central Committee officials.
A. Novikov-Priboy: The period of the final bureaucratization of literature has begun.
Panteleymon Romanov: Intense boredom and stifling bureaucracy, which cannot be enlivened by the beat of any drum. Gorky’s paper might be of interest to those who read it in the newspapers, framed by all sorts of enthusiastic comments, but for those of us who heard the speech, it was quite pathetic: there wasn’t an ounce of enthusiasm in it. The head of the Department spoke according to the orders of his superiors, with no inner passion.
P. Rozhkov: A kingdom in slumber.
Ukrainian delegates: Talk of ‘the futility of this whole comedy’ . . .
Babel: The Congress is running in a deadly fashion, like a Tsarist parade.
Semenko: Everything is running so smoothly that I’m consumed by a maniacal desire to take a piece of shit or rotten fish and hurl it at the Presidium of the Congress. Perhaps this would inject a little life into the proceedings. . . . [I]t is a fraudulent ceremony. . . . A good half of the audience, especially the delegates from the national republics, would really like to cry out passionately about gross injustice, to protest, to demand, to speak as human beings, not as lackeys. But instead, they are forced to listen dutifully to our leaders reading their papers, which are nothing but lies – they are assured that everything is just fine. And we sit and clap like clockwork soldiers . . . while the true artists, those who fight for their national culture, are rotting away somewhere in a Karelian swamp or a GPU prison.

Here is her impressive windup:

All too often, Socialist Realism is viewed as something unique and hermetic, incomprehensible to those who have never experienced it. But perhaps this is prompted not so much by humility, but by a complacency that allows us to imagine nothing remotely comparable can be found in the West. This was certainly not the perception of Russians as they were tossed from the Soviet frying pan into the free-market fire. Where the roadside hoardings and television screens had formerly presented the iconography of the old regime, they now presented the iconography of the new: out with Lenin, in with Marlboro Man. They soon became weary of the repetitive gabble of advertising, just as they were once weary of the dull monotony of Politburo speeches. Even before perestroika, the similarities were noticed by those capable of distancing themselves from the over-familiar. Andy Warhol remarked on the affinity between Soviet propaganda art and the Western commercial art he parodied in his pop-art works (compare his multiple images of Marilyn Monroe to the sixty or so faces of Lenin on the walls of the Lenin Museum). Or from the other side, the Russian artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid had become famous for their satirical broadsides at the pompous pretensions of Soviet Realism; they were not long in the West before they transferred their satire to Western banality and kitsch. Where Socialist Realist art once was used to cocoon the Soviet citizen from reality, in the West we have the shopping mall, those temples to the free-market, with their archways, fountains, and mood music. No, if we remove the blinkers, Socialist Realism no longer seems an alien phenomenon.

Oasis Lyric Carefully Copyedited

"All of my people — right here, right now. Do you know what I mean?"

The Rest Is Noise Fall Concert Preview

yahoo_Apologies to the non-New York reader — limits of space, time, and brain prevent me from looking outside Manhattan in this companion to the Opera Preview and the New Music Preview.

Carnegie Hall: The season opens on October 6 with a de-luxe all-Strauss program — Christoph Eschenbach conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra, Renée Fleming, Yo-Yo Ma, the works. Ian Bostridge, who delivered a hair-raising Die schöne Müllerin at Zankel Hall last season, sings Winterreise on Oct. 15, with Leif Ove Andsnes miming the hurdy-gurdy. On Oct. 25, James Levine marshals the Boston Symphony in Mahler’s Eighth; he’ll have made his debut as the new Karl Muck three nights before. On Nov. 20, Gidon Kremer’s Kremerata Baltica in an all-Shostakovich program, including the death-shrouded Fourteenth Symphony; Kremer’s way with Shostakovich is spellbinding. On Nov. 29, the Venice Baroque Orchestra plays the serenata Andromeda Liberata, which may or may not be Vivaldi’s; no matter whose it is, the Venetians will make it glow. On Dec. 1, the poetic young Austrian pianist Till Fellner, whose recording of the Well-Tempered Clavier has serious traction on my playlist, gets his Zankel on.

The New York Philharmonic: Lorin Maazel’s merry band begins the season on Sept. 21 with a shockingly innovative program of the Beethoven Violin Concerto and the Dvorak New World Symphony. There are scattered points of interest in the months that follow. From Sept. 29 to Oct. 5, Maazel unveils Augusta Read Thomas’ Gathering Paradise, a set of Emily Dickinson settings; Thomas has gained distinction as the only American composer under the age of ninety to whom Pierre Boulez will give the time of day. Also, Lang Lang will either bang or sing his way through Tchaikovsky’s First Concerto, depending on his mood. October: not a whole lot going on. November 11-13: Sakari Oramo, Simon Rattle’s successor at the City of Birmingham, who English chums swear is the real deal, does Sibelius, Saariaho, and Tchaikovsky, with the aid of Karita Mattila. Dec. 2-4, David Robertson leads the string orchestra version of Steve Reich’s Triple Quartet. Dec. 16-18, the divine Lorraine Hunt Lieberson sings Britten's Phaedea with Colin Davis conducting.

Great Performers at Lincoln Center: Jane Moss’ fastidiously progressive series plays it safe this fall with dollops of Brahms, who, as Gunther Schuller demonstrated in his book The Compleat Conductor, is the most badly played great composer in the repertory. I’m not too worried about Herbert Blomstedt’s programs with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (Oct. 18 and 19), which anchor the series. Blomstedt is a greatly underrated conductor whose secret is that he’s got rhythm (at least of the Brahmsian kind). On Oct. 17, Wolfgang Holzmair sings Brahms Lieder, hopefully reminding us how powerful Brahms’ songwriting can be. On Oct. 31, the absurdly gifted scholar-violinist Andrew Manze dispels the Hamburg fog with a program of Mozart and Vivaldi; I stress again that Manze’s new Vivaldi disc (not out til Sept. 14) is beyond. Curiosity will lure me to Leon Botstein’s all-Czerny program with the American Symphony (Nov. 14). To give over a whole program to Czerny, long-reigning tyrant of piano finger exercises, sounds like a self-parodying gesture on Botstein’s part, but some people actually consider Czerny some sort of lost great composer, and in 2002 the pianist Anton Kuerti went so far as to organize an entire Czerny Festival in Edmonton. We’ll czee. Lastly, you wouldn’t be a fool if you bought a ticket to Simon Keenlyside’s song recital of Schubert, Brahms, and Mahler (Dec. 5).

A sped-up, inadequate tour of other New York halls: The New York Early Music Celebration (Oct. 1-10) has dozens of worthy events — count me in for Pomerium’s program of Ockeghem and Gombert at Corpus Christi Church. That same afternoon, the Mozartean Players are playing at the Frick Collection, which hasn’t yet announced its entire fall schedule. The never boring New York Festival of Song presents a Kurt Weill / Berlin–in-the-twenties evening at Merkin Hall on Oct. 14. On Oct. 24, the Metropolitan Museum of Art presents the really early music ensemble Sequentia in selections from the group’s new CD, Lost Songs of a Rhineland Harper, up at The Cloisters. The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center has the Orion Quartet doing the six Bartok quartets (Nov. 21, 23; $72 for the set). Miller Theatre is generally pegged as a new-music clubhouse, but under George Steel’s direction it has become a hotspot of early musicking as well. See Europa Galante reuniting Bach and Vivaldi et al (Oct. 14) or the Tallis Scholars belting out Palestrina, Lassus, Isaac, and de Rore (Dec. 10; “belting out” ironic). The Miller season opens on Sept. 18 with a Leonard Bernstein tribute; it includes excerpts from the great man’s troubled but potent late opera A Quiet Place, which New York has never heard. Finally, poking my head into jazz, I’ll put in a probably unnecessary plug for Black, Brown, and Beige chez Jazz at Lincoln Center on Oct. 25 — part of the new jazz hall’s opening festival. I have never experienced Ellington’s symphonic masterpiece live, and I’m as eager to hear this show as anything else on the fall schedule.

ADDENDUM: I know I've limited myself to Manhattan, but I want to add that the New Jersey Symphony looks to be in great shape under its new conductor Neeme Järvi, despite all that risky business with stolen and/or fake violins. The indefatigable Estonian adds to the Brahms flux with a program of the Second Serenade and German Requiem (Nov. 19-21) and presides over a festival of Scandinavian music in January.

The immortality game


One more thought about film music, following on the Elmer Bernstein obituary below. Bernstein, Jerry Goldsmith, and David Raksin, by doing their utmost for a few immortal films, have, in the process, gained a certain kind of immortality. This is an ironic turn of events because film composers are so often dismissed as the hacks of the composing world, the manufacturers of imitative background pap. "Sounds like a film score" is the put-down of choice for tonal orchestral music. "Serious" composers are supposed to suffer neglect in their lifetimes, with the gratitude of posterity their invisible reward. The my-time-will-come mindset was especially widespread in the twentieth century, with composers believing that if they invented a new sound or came up with a "big idea" they would win their place in history. The result was a great deal of superficially difficult, emotionally disposable music, whose ultimate historical value is now very much in question. By contrast, it seems certain that in a hundred years people will still be talking about Bernard Herrmann's Vertigo, Goldsmith's Chinatown, Raksin's Laura. They have gone down in history, because they found a way to make their music matter.

Elmer Bernstein 1922-2004


The fact that Jerry Goldsmith, David Raksin, and now Elmer Bernstein have all died in the space of a month may make people talk about the end of an age in film music. Bernstein himself addressed this issue in an impassioned speech in 1998:

People say to me, 'You know, what has happened to film scoring?' I hear this all the time. I hear it from filmmakers. 'You know, what happened, you know, what happened to the great film scorers?' Well of course it's a nonsensical question because I'll tell you, I teach a class at USC, and I'm here to tell you that there's nothing wrong with film scoring and the people that I teach there, I just hope to see them fed into our business. There's nothing wrong with film scoring and there's nothing wrong with the talent, but there is something wrong, seriously wrong with the process and the system.

Bernstein went on:

The composing of music is an art. In our business, art is the only three-letter dirty word because art requires courage, and it's very hard to have courage when you spend a year and a half ... two years developing a project, shooting a project. A project which costs millions and millions and millions and millions of dollars. And you blow it out all one weekend on sixteen hundred screens, and what happens on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of that weekend determines whether that picture is going to survive or not. It's a numbers game. Everything about our business has become a numbers game. We're automated and that is not a good atmosphere for art. And that is the problem we're facing.

In any case, Bernstein wrote a lot of wonderful music, from Man With the Golden Arm in 1955 to Far From Heaven two years ago. Sweet Smell of Success is my personal favorite — it hints at the hot emotion behind the film's ice-cold facade.

Today's special

From Christopher Isherwood's Prater Violet, lately purchased at the Rodgers Book Barn:

There is one question that we seldom ask each other directly: it is too brutal. And yet it is the only question worth asking our fellow-travelers. What makes you go on living? ... I supposed, vaguely, that it was a kind of balance, a complex of tensions. You did whatever was next on the list. A meal to be eaten. Chapter eleven to be written. The telephone rings. You go off somewhere in a taxi. There is one's job. There are amusements. There are people. There are books. There are things to be bought in shops. There is always something new. There has to be. Otherwise, the balance would be upset, the tension would break.
It seemed to me that I had always done whatever people recommended. You were born; it was like entering a restaurant. The waiter came forward with a lot of suggestions. 'What would you advise?' And you ate it, and supposed you liked it, because it was expensive, or out of season, or had been a favorite of King Edward the Seventh. The waiter had recommended teddy bears, football, cigarettes, motor bikes, whisky, Bach, poker, the culture of Classical Greece. Above all, he had recommended Love, a very strange dish....

Death Cab for Dmitri

Carl Wilson, aka Zoilus, has an excellent piece on the insecure friendship of literature and rock. Choice line: “How do you get 50 novelists out of the swimming pool? Tell them there's an argument in the kitchen about Dylan's gospel period.” Harry Pata, you’re my hero for this unexpected take on the somber giant of Soviet music: “Dmitri Shostakovich, we love you. And your little circular-rimmed glasses. Because you were emo before the word even existed.” Bard College’s program is doctored to illustrate the thesis. George Hunka, Jessica Duchen, and Helen Radice, all linked to the right, have joined forces on a new site called ArtsBlogging. It will be taken into account. Greg Sandow has written another aggressively sensible overview of the classical predicament. And Terry Teachout has finished his seventeenth book of the year. Excuse me while I stare moodily into space for an hour.... Damn book ... the summer's over ... hopeless ... how do you cut 100,000 words? ... Teachout! ... Should have chosen an easier topic, like Debussy’s Parakeet, or Spinal Apocalypse: How Overwrought Book Titles Are Ruining Publishing, or An Oral History of Anal Sex ... apathy, despair ... [more coffee] ... OK, I'm back. Congratulations, Terry!

Björk profile illustrated


Back in January, I traveled to Iceland to work on a profile of Björk, which appears in this week's New Yorker. I later went to Salvador, Brazil, and London, England. Here I'm posting scattered snapshots from the Iceland and Brazil trips, fleshing out scenes described in the profile. Some of the pictures will already be familiar to close readers of the blog. I did not photograph Björk herself, for obvious reasons. I was grateful enough that she'd let me in to her extraordinary world.

Below are various views of Reykjavík, beginning with Mt. Keilir as seen from the airport road:




What I saw when I talked to Björk about the "Nordic idea":


Moving on to Brazil, this is the view from the house where Björk worked on Medúlla for several weeks:


Here is a shot of the Cortejo Afro drummers, whom Björk recorded for "Mouths Cradle" and then left out because they didn't fit the (nearly) all-vocal concept of the album:


Next are several shots of Matthew Barney's float in the Salvador Carnaval, taken from the balcony where Björk was observing the procession. Valgeir Sigurdsson, who engineered Medúlla at his Greenhouse Studios, can be seen in the white coat on the right-hand side of the top of the float.




The man in the green and pink shirt is the great Caetano Veloso:


The seething crowd of Carnaval:


At this point, alas, the battery in the camera gave out, and the next day I was flying back to New York. The remaining drama of the making of Medúlla was sonic rather than visual.

Here are some Björk- and Iceland-related links that I found useful while working on the piece. Björk's official site is a geysir of lovely graphics and useful information — see especially the "specials" devoted to individual albums. Bad Taste is the leading Icelandic label for both popular and classical music. The Iceland Music Information Centre tells you all about Icelandic composers, including Jón Leifs. The Iceland Review has delightful deadpan news stories. (Some headlines I collected: "Power Outage Ruins Handball Game," "Mysterious Markings Found on Sheep," and "President Unhappy," which had this immortal opening sentence: "President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, who is currently in the United States, was unhappy that no one notified him about the commemorative programme on Sunday celebrating the 100 year anniversary of Icelandic home rule and an official state meeting.") Finally, as already mentioned, Opacodex is the definitive Björk fan site. The author, Nick Scholl, sings in the Seattle Opera Chorus.

That's all I have on Björk and Iceland.

Dogma breath

A reader sent me a link to the Pierre Boulez Project, in which Josh Ronsen takes at face value Boulez's old proclamation that "all the art of the past must be destroyed." I'm not sure if journalistic ethics permit me to take part in the project, but I have a duplicate copy of Boulez conducting Birtwistle that I would happily donate to the bonfire.

Another reader pointed the way to David Rakowski's site, which gives a hilarious and harrowing picture of the pedantic gobbledygook that still infuses composition classes at some American universities. Imagine the expletives Mozart might have spat out if you'd told him to "keep all registers active." Rakowski also has a Lexicon with definitions for "Lenny's Revenge" ("Contemporary concert music that sounds like warmed-over Bernstein, especially ze mambo from ze Vest Side Story") and "Dogma Breath" ("A person with an overdeveloped sense of Manifesto Destiny"). Wise and funny stuff.

Shostakovich was here




...Frank Gehry's performing-arts center at Bard College, where I spent the weekend. Bard's Shostakovich Festival continues for another week, the probable highlight being the Fourteenth Symphony with the great Russian bass Nikita Storojev. Fans of the Solomon Volkov controversy will be interested to know that Laurel Fay has uncovered a memo by Shostakovich's close friend Isaak Glikman, reporting that the composer railed against the writing of memoirs in the months before his death. He also asked, "What sort of person is this Solomon Volkov?" A full report will appear in the New Yorker in a couple of weeks.

On Saturday I broke away from the round-the-clock socialist-realist hilarity to visit the other chief cultural destination in upstate New York, the Rodgers Book Barn. It's one of the most delightful used-book stores in the country, not just because of the selection (large, cheap) but because of the adventure of getting there. Study the map closely and watch out for those little signs. I picked up first editions of Isherwood's Prater Violet and Klaus Mann's Pathetic Symphony.

I wrote a brief discography to accompany my Björk profile, which appears in the New Yorker this week but is not yet online. Some more Björkiana will follow later this week.

Scattered threads

I'm heading upstate today for Bard College's weekend-long Shostakovich Festival. Unfortunately I will miss the opening ceremony of the Olympics, which is supposed to have interesting music. I may meet up with a rural S/FJ to plot our co-blogging venture, the Popular Vs. Classical Extreme Eustace Tilley Smackdown. My profile of Björk will shortly be flying toward the presses, to appear on Monday alongside some New Yorker online-only and Rest Is Noise barely-online features. This is the "top-secret project" I've been not very subtly hinting about. The passing of David Raksin (see below) is much on my mind.

In one ear

Ear While finishing up Björk, I listened to a slew of CDs at the office yesterday. The winner was Baltic Voices, a Harmonia Mundi compilation of modern sacred music from the Baltic Sea region. The composers are Urmas Sisask, Toivo Tulev, Per Nørgård, Galina Grigorjeva, and Alfred Schnittke; the luminous chorus is the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, under Paul Hillier. The influence of Arvo Pärt is strong but not inescapable. Grigorjeva, in particular, is a composer I’d like to hear more of; her On Leaving ruminates in the grand Russian Orthodox tradition. Other CD’s I’ll deal with in ultra-gnomic Christgau style. Daniel S. Godfrey, String Quartets (Koch): rare wedding of flawless craft and flowing lyricism. Haydn, The Seasons (Harmonia Mundi): René Jacobs spews out another eccentric but persuasive recording. Get his semi-definitive Figaro first. Dan Bern, My Country (Messenger): boring righteousness. Kanye West, “Jesus Walks” (Roc-a-fella): sexy righteousness. Anna Netrebko, Sempre Libera (DG): the girl can sing. Scissor Sisters, Scissor Sisters (Universal): ditto. Vivaldi, Concertos for the Emperor (Harmonia Mundi): Andrew Manze’s playing in the scalding finale of the C-minor sounds exactly as scary as Vivaldi’s was said to have been.

David Raksin 1912-2004

01I was very saddened to read of the death of David Raksin, whose Laura theme is one of the great inspirations in film-music history. I knew Mr. Raksin slightly. He was a warm and witty man whose library of anecdotes reached back deep into the golden age of Hollywood. I was amazed to read that he was 92 — he looked 75 at most. A few years ago I had lunch with him at Musso & Frank's, and when we sat down he said, "I used to have lunch at this table with Charlie" — meaning Charlie Chaplin. He told me fabulous stories of Schoenberg, from whom he took some lessons. Once he made the mistake of asking how to write music for an airplane sequence, whereupon Schoenberg snarled, "Like music for big bees, only louder." He also retold at my request the famous Raksin Hitchcock anecdote. Hitchcock didn't want music for the lost-at-sea drama Lifeboat because he thought audiences would wonder where the music was coming from in the middle of the ocean. Raksin said, "Ask Hitch where the cameras are coming from." I had been meaning to e-mail him asking whether he knew Lulu at the time of Laura, because something about the theme resembles Berg's "portrait" music. Too late. First Jerry Goldsmith, now Raksin: these are sad days for film-music buffs.

Incidentally, Raksin not only wrote a glorious, swaying theme for Laura but also introduced a striking electronic innovation. Everyone who's seen the movie remembers the scene in which Dana Andrews stares at Laura's portrait and falls under her spell. The  mood is set by eerie shimmering chords on the soundtrack. What Raksin did — as he explained in an interview with Roy Prendergast, author of Film Music: A Neglected Art — was to record a series of piano chords with the initial attacks omitted. The engineer turned on the microphones only after each chord had been struck, and continued bringing up the levels until ambient noise saturated the ringing tones. Raksin then made tape loops from this spectral, disembodied sound. "It was the interplay of the partials without the ictus," he explained. Some years later, the Beatles used the same trick to create the massive piano chord at the end of "A Day in the Life."

The Rest Is Noise Fall Opera Preview

67I've been reading over brochures for next season, trying to nail down my reviewing agenda for the fall. I like to take my time deciding what to cover; my first instincts usually lead me to write about the same Germanic foolishness over and over (Schoenberg, Wagner, Schoenberg, Wagner). As a public service for those who live around or are passing through New York — The Rest Is Noise is nothing if not public-spirited — here's a rundown of potential highlights at the major halls and houses. Today, opera; next week, concerts. I issue a challenge to all you culturally aware non-attenders out there: you are not allowed to use the adjective "operatic" unless you have actually seen an opera in the last three months. Troy does not count.

The Metropolitan Opera: On paper, it doesn’t look to be a particularly mind-blowing season at the Met. Four new productions: Cyrano de Bergerac, Faust, Rodelinda, The Magic Flute. The first and the third are star vehicles — the Franco Alfano obscurity Cyrano done at the bidding of Placido Domingo, Rodelinda made to order for Renée Fleming. Rodelinda  will at least have an outstanding stage director in Stephen Wadsworth, and if Renée’s acting doesn’t grip you then Stephanie Blythe’s surely will. The Magic Flute, opening Oct. 8, ought to be a visual hoot: Julie Taymor makes her Met debut, the wizardly George Tsypin designs. There’s a fine young cast led by Dorothea Röschmann and Levine’s new favorite Matthew Polenzani. This is probably my Met review for the fall. As for the revivals, I’m most jazzed about seeing Karita Mattila tear up the stage in Janacek’s Katya Kabanova (Dec. 17). There is no way this can go wrong. Otherwise, the newly budget-conscious Met seems to be banking on a lot of newish singers in the repertory pieces. Angela M. Brown as Aida? Sylvie Valayre as Tosca? Elena Evseeva as Mimi? You take your chances.

New York City Opera: The season opens on Sept. 8 with Richard Strauss’ luminous late masterpiece Daphne. I've never seen it in a full staging, though I have fond memories of the San Francisco Opera’s semi-staged production ten years ago. Elizabeth Futral sings the title role; Stephen Lawless directs. The tricky thing about Daphne is that it ends with a woman turning into a tree. Good luck with that. I’m also duty-bound to attend the Oct. 31 world premiere of Charles Wuorinen’s Haroun & The Sea of Stories, with a James Fenton libretto based on Salman Rushdie. A quick listen to an Albany CD of voice-and-piano excerpts didn't leave me giddy with anticipation, but, as the great Anna Russell used to say, I will go with a completely blank mind. City Opera also presents Tazewell Thompson’s production of Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites, which drew raves from Peter G. Davis in its Glimmerglass incarnation.

I plan to leave town in December for the Chicago Lyric Opera world premiere of William Bolcom’s A Wedding. The Lyric, celebrating its Golden Jubilee Year, also has a Don Giovanni with Bryn Terfel and Karita Mattila, the first installment of a Ring cycle (but I've filled my Wagner quota for the year), and a promising new production of Janacek’s Cunning Little Vixen. I’ll probably also stop in at Placido Domingo’s Washington Opera, which has the junior tenorissimo Salvatore Licitra in Andrea Chénier and Britten’s monumental Billy Budd in the Francesca Zambello production from Covent Garden. Domingo’s West Coast office, the Los Angeles Opera, offers a strong, Placido-led cast for Idomeneo, plus Exorcist director William Friedkin taking on Ariadne auf Naxos (let's hope there's no projectile vomiting). Finally, the San Francisco Opera has its own Billy Budd with barihunk Nathan Gunn and the North American premiere of Ligeti’s comic-apocalyptic Le Grand Macabre. There's no reason to envy New York.

Gnomic CD Reviews: Zemlinsky Songs

B00004TR17.01.LZZZZZZZAlexander von Zemlinsky: Complete Orchestral Songs. James Conlon conducting the Gürzenich-Orchester Kölner Philharmoniker; with Soile Isokoski, Violeta Urmana, Andreas Schmidt, Michael Volle. EMI 5 57024 2

Is there such a thing as second-rate genius? Mahlerian settings of Langston Hughes, among others, gloriously sung.

Prophecy fulfilled

I finally finished Michael Chanan's Musica Practica: The Social Practice of Western Music from Gregorian Chant to Postmodernism. In what has to a personal best of sustained procrastination, I've been trying to get through this book since its publication in 1994. Not the writing itself but my odd reading habits are to blame: I tend to bury one half-finished book under the next. In any case, Musica Practica is a tour-de-force, demystifying the "music itself" (as musicologists used to say) by showing how social practices and technologies shape it and direct it. Something quite uncanny happens at the end of the Prologue; working off citations of Mark Poster and Jacques Attali, Chanan essentially predicts the entire musical universe we've been living in for the last few years, the world of MP3s, downloading, and the iPod:

Whatever becomes information, anyone can now store and reproduce, repackage and refashion to their own purposes without anyone's permission, without payment, and largely without detection. Hence the expanding domain of information threatens the principle of private property....The results can be heard in the cacophony and confusion of contemporary music, which the recent introduction of synthesizers and samples has only increased. On the one hand, the technification of music has distorted the process of listening and damaged our hearing. On the other, it increasingly throws everything back into the arena, as the ease of reproduction allows the circulation of music to escape the control of the market and discover new forms. In short, the old hierarchies of aesthetic taste and judgment may have broken down, but music continues to breathe and to live according to its own immanent criteria.

I'm glad I waited to finish the book, because back in 1994 I would have had no idea what he was talking about.

Today in history

It has been 59 years since the dropping of the bomb on Nagasaki, 35 years since the Manson murders, 30 years since the resignation of Nixon, 29 years since the death of Dmitri Shostakovich, and 90 days since my first post on this site. Surely the worst is now behind us.

On Schadenfreude

"Is there any significance to the fact that this word for pleasure in the discomfiture of others exists only in German?"

— Peter Gay, My German Question

Just act, dear boy

Kyle MacMillan of the Denver Post has an arresting lead for his profile of the brilliant coloratura Natalie Dessay:

Ask an opera diva about the biggest challenges she faces on stage, and you might reasonably expect her to cite nailing the high notes or handling a tricky articulation. But 39-year-old French soprano Natalie Dessay, the unrivaled star of this summer's Santa Fe Opera season, likes to buck expectations. She offers a surprising answer that reflects a huge transformation underway in recent decades in the opera world — achieving dramatic impact. "It's the hardest job," she said. "You have to be able to sing, of course. But the other half of the job is to be able to act. Even if the libretto is not so interesting, it's our job to make it interesting."
So many singers these days are trained to make beautiful sounds, so few have thorough grounding in acting. Those who do command the stage — a short list might include Dessay, Karita Mattila, René Pape, Lauren Flanigan, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, and, yes, Placido Domingo — seem to have an inborn knack for it; few were actually schooled in theater. Hopefully, the "huge transformation" that MacMillan mentions is just beginning, and the next generation of stars will make good operatic acting the rule and not the exception. Link via ArtsJournal.

Hoiho! Hagen!

What do Inuit throat-singing, avant-garde heavy-metal vocalism, Japanese beatboxing, the impossibly cool electronic production of Mark Bell, and the centuries-old Icelandic choral tradition have in common? Opacodex can tell you.

Lullabies of sorrow

Terry Teachout asks some heavy questions about the point or pointlessness of writing about art in a dangerous time, and answers them movingly. What would I do if only a day remained? It doesn't do my mood much good to contemplate such questions, but at some point or another I would reach for Brahms' Intermezzos Opus 117, and in particular the first, which since age seventeen or so has been the music closest to my heart. Some years ago Radu Lupu made an irreplaceable recording of Brahms' late piano music. It offers something more than beauty — it gives sympathy, compassion, companionship. Other than that, I'd want to get out of the house and leave art behind. When, on September 11, I left the building from which I'd watched the terror unfold and joined the endless crowd of people walking up Seventh Avenue, I felt one of the most powerful emotions of my life, which was the feeling of belonging to a mass. Strange how seldom our so-called mass culture provides such a feeling. Even the rowdiest entertainments return us to the suburbs of solitude, our disconnectedness rushing back in.

Breaking news

Clive Gillinson, the managing director of the London Symphony, will be the new head of Carnegie Hall. Given that the LSO is an orchestra in excellent musical and financial health, one of the leaders of a semi-moribund business, Gillinson looks to be a strong successor to the late and lamented Robert Harth.

The future, Mr. Gittes, the future


With my top-secret summer project looming like some sort of massive glacier or lava flow, I regretfully took my leave of the lively and stimulating exchange of ideas at ArtsJournal's Critical Conversation on the Future of Music. In my last post, I quoted at length from some e-mails I'd received in response to the discussion: “I think the most beautiful thing about composing now, as opposed to then, is that there is the option to ‘hang out’ in the crazy network of music that is available. Writing music feels like I'm having a conversation or writing an e-mail or making a phone call rather than writing an essay. It has to do with the way people talk with their friends – a little language begins to develop, little nuances and half-truths and leitmotifs. … Wise young composers are eating everything up in their path, devouring all the available musics and building a family made up of Conversants, rather than Inductees....The Future, which I'll define here as representing a movement from Bad Attitude to Good Attitude, operates, like evolution, on the level of the individual, not on the level of the institution. If you see writing as a form of social engagement, you soon realize that it doesn't make any sense to be undiplomatic, ever....”


I said I was stopping, and I meant it. For coverage of the latest scandal involving Russ, you have to go to ionarts. I also wish I'd thought of this headline, chez Armavirumque. But I'm done.

Last Tango in Bayreuth


Once you start talking about Wagner, it’s hard to stop. Nonetheless, this will be my final Wagner post of the season, with a title nabbed from the great Peter Schickele. My New Yorker review of Parsifal is up and running. Over at AC Douglas, you can read a quite different take on Boulez’s conducting, as experienced on an internet feed. I might well have agreed more with ACD if I’d been listening to the broadcast alone. Boulez’s performance of Act II in concert at Carnegie last season was curiously uneventful, even bland. I don’t think the Maître did anything too different in Bayreuth. Yet it was a totally entrancing experience. Perhaps because the music seemed triumphantly sane in conjunction with the staging; perhaps because Boulez was manipulating Bayreuth’s famously blended acoustics to maximum effect. If the interpretation never reached the stratosphere, it never touched the earth either. “Alles schwebt,” Webern once said: everything hovers.

Also, I wish to make a point about Hitler and the dogs. My cutesy post about Wagner’s dog Russ got a most intelligent reaction from the badthings blog, which is usually concerned with matters of cuisine:

It is very nice to have an intimate relationship with "your" past, but the festival form tends to spectacularize it (the past), with all the predictable distortion, trivializing, elision, simplification. I'm not suggesting that Germans need to have a conference on nineteenth-century constructs of national identity every time they listen to Siegfried, but I'm not sure Wagner really needs a human face either. (I'm also not sure that I approve of the allegedly "humanizing" affects of pet love for that matter). The music itself should, of course, be the point, but if you're going to build a theme park you better put the anti-semitism ride next to the pet-lover ride.

Point taken. Bayreuth is notorious for ignoring the Hitler intermezzo, which began back in 1923 and lasted up until (and beyond) the bitter end. When I visited the Wahnfried museum four years ago, I could find only one mention of Hitler in the entire place — a photograph of the man saluting the festival audience from the window shown above. Wolfgang Wagner, who runs the festival, was doted on by Hitler when he was a child. The worst man of modern times was a father figure to both Wagner grandsons. Bayreuth has still a long, long ways to go before it comes to terms with that legacy. Some years ago I wrote a long piece for The New Yorker about the connection between Wagner and Hitler. More information has surfaced in the meantime, most startlingly in Brigitte Hamann’s biography of Winifred Wagner. There it is revealed that Hitler wanted Wieland Wagner to produce an abstract, “timeless” Parsifal; in Wieland’s own words, "[Hitler] wants to have Parsifal performed so to speak against his own Party!!!!” The so-called “anti-Nazi” Parsifal of 1951 might actually have realized Hitler’s innermost dreams of the opera that he once said would be the foundation of his new religion.

So, yes, there needs to be far more comprehensive documentation of Hitler in Bayreuth. Yet even without an “anti-semitism ride,” as badthings so mercilessly puts it, Hitler is never far from anyone’s mind. As I walked around at intermissions, I kept hearing that name on Anglo-American lips. The fact that Hamann’s book was a bestseller shows that the Germans themselves have not forgotten the relationship. The equation Wagner = Nazi is so universal that it is worth saying a few things against it. The most powerful character witness is, paradoxically, Bayreuth itself. I had not visited the festival when I wrote my overwrought 1998 article; if I had, I would have been more gentle. Bayreuth is a peculiarly serene, unworldly, intelligent, cosmopolitan place. It gives off an undetectable spiritual hum. I flat-out love being there — I became giddy when I stepped off the train, because I was about to walk into classical-music Neverland. I am lucky in my job, and one of the luckiest things about it is the ability to write to the Bayreuth press department asking for a ticket.

It was on my first visit in the summer of 2000 that I really experienced the operas in their plain, full humanity. The Ring is a relentless critique of political power; Parsifal is an ode to compassion; Tristan und Isolde addresses love and nothing but. Clichés all, but the language of goodness is always dull. Bombast and violence and hatred are also part of Wagner’s world, but they have their assigned roles, and they do not win out in the end (although the ending of Meistersinger has never ceased to make me uneasy). Wagner is the human race at its best and worst; increasingly, I’m inclined to take what I like and leave the rest. I’m reminded of a line from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Britten’s beautiful opera of which I saw in Tanglewood last weekend: “The best in this kind are but shadows, and the worst are no worse if imagination amend them.”


IMG_1494Two fellow bloggers, Badthings and Byzantium's Shores, noted with understandable alarm the pictures I posted of Wagner's dog Russ, statues of whom can be found all around Bayreuth. Mr. Byzantium proposed an amusing secondary installation to go along with them. Badthings averred that the dogs were "menacing." In person, the effect is more like goofy, even cute. I didn't realize it at the time, but, as this Andante story reveals, the Wagner doggies are part of a project by the German sculptor Ottmar Höhrl, entitled, naturally, "Wagner's Dog." His aim is to make Wagner a less forbidding, more sympathetic figure. There are 800 statues in all. Russ himself is buried next to his master in the garden at Wahnfried. Höhrl is also responsible for an installation entitled "Opera in the 21st Century," which consists of eight Daimler Smart cars parked around the city. I took a picture of this project, too, not knowing what it meant:


It turns out that I could have climbed into the car and listened to Wagner on the stereo. Oh those wacky Germans!

Now I'll clean my room

An attentive reader who has been following my work since Day 1 (Jan. 12, 1968) points out that I have been misspelling "pilgrimage" as "pilgrimmage." I'm not quite sure where the extra "m" came from, but it's gone.

Morton Kondracke! Wrong!

Over at ArtsJournal, eleven distinguished American music critics, plus yours truly, are debating the future of classical composition. Have a look if you dare.

Bayreuth Pilgrimage, Day 3

Go here for Day 1


Last snapshots from my expedition to the Richard Wagner Festspiel. The tale of Parsifal continues to generate heat in the German press: director Christoph Schlingensief responded to lead tenor Endrik Wottrich's denunciation of the production by calling Wottrich a racist and a Nazi, whereupon Wottrich responded by calling Schlingensief a worse racist and a worse Nazi. I enjoyed ionarts' wrapup of contradictory reports of the premiere, variously suggesting that 1) there was a huge amount of booing, with smatterings of applause; 2) there was loud booing, balanced by loud applause; 3) there was some booing, quickly drowned out by applause; and 4) there was no booing at all. Take it from me: 1) is correct. I looked around the hall and saw no more than one-third of the audience applauding, probably more like one-fourth. How it was that this apparently disastrous evening became a "success" in the German press is something I will discuss in the New Yorker next week.

Here is one more shot of the red carpet spectacle on Sunday, and it seems to sum up modern Germany in a single frame:


In the city, statues of Wagner's dog Russ are ubiquitous:



Pierre Boulez at lunch (I am not a good paparazzo):


Dark trombones at the Tannhäuser intermission:


Choristers take a cigarette break:


Storms passed, the Festspielhaus is again at peace:



The end:


Bayreuth Pilgrimage, Day 2

More scenes from the Wagner festival in Bayreuth. Opening day is not only a major event in German music but a minor media sensation: celebrities from entertainment and politics enter along an Oscar-style red carpet. I didn't recognize most of these people, but there were appreciative murmurs from the crowd when each appeared ("Beckstein! Beckstein!").




According to this sign, Poles love Wagner:


Well-dressed Wagnerphiles aren't above gawking:


Camera crews corner operagoers for on-the-spot reviews of Act I:


The traditional brass fanfare, consisting of a short phrase from the evening's opera, summons the crowd back to their hard-backed wooden seats:


At a press conference the following morning, Christoph Schlingensief defends his production while Wolfgang Wagner, the festival director, looks on in a bemused state.


Wagner responds to a question about Endrik Wottrich, singer of the title role, who publicly disavowed Schlingensief's conception three days before the premiere. The Wagner Grandson, as he is called in the media, defends the right of artistic expression.


A drunken German is ranting anti-American slogans at me in the cafe where I am typing, so I will beat a tactical retreat and finish the travelogue tomorrow.

Day 3

Bayreuth Pilgrimage, Day 1


Coming to you live from the Wagner festival in Bayreuth, courtesy of the wireless-ready Café Mondial. My review of Christoph Schlingensief's production of Parsifal will appear in the New Yorker next week. I'll withhold comment until then, except to say that the production is probably fated to be known as the "dead rabbit Parsifal." Instead, a photo-essay on the ever-crescendoing scandal and hysteria, with another installment to follow tomorrow.


Delay at JFK. Music: Mogwai, "Stanley Kubrick."


Train to Bayreuth. Music: Parsifal.


Saturday night in town. A man is auctioning off teddy bears while another man (not pictured) plays bad blues guitar.


This young man is preparing for his first Parsifal by bicycling for six hours upside down.


All-Wagner window display at the Markgrafen bookstore.


Wahnfried, Wagner's home, with his patron Ludwig II. The name means "free of madness," ironic in context.


Every year on the morning of the festival opening, the chorus gives a brief concert at Wagner's grave in the Wahnfried garden. The conductor is Eberhard Friedrich.


The genius conductor Christian Thielemann, wearing a nice pink Lacoste shirt, gives a talk at the Markgrafen bookstore.


A phalanx of protesters marches on the Festspielhaus.


The great barn itself, with paparazzi already gathering.


A camera crew goes looking for scandal, finding only an American in search of a last-minute ticket. The couple in white behind them are visiting from the year 1898.


Wolfgang Wagner, the composer's grandson. The getaway car is ready, in case tonight's performance turns into a riot.

Day 2

Jerry Goldsmith 1929-2004

Jerry Goldsmith, one of the finest Hollywood composers, has passed away. The tone-deaf Motion Picture Academy made sure that this brilliant craftsman won only one Oscar in his forty-year career. Goldsmith's score for Chinatown went a long toward making that movie the masterpiece that it is. The stroke of genius was in juxtaposing the unforgettably moody title theme with various avant-garde devices, notably a lot of strumming and plucking on the strings of four grand pianos. Adventurous as it is, the music is perfectly in keeping with the movie's period setting, Henry Cowell having pioneered inside-the-piano techniques in Northern California in the second decade of the century. There's much else to remember Goldsmith for: his sure hand will be missed.

Read this book (2)

"He did not know what to say in the face of such sorrow. He sat in silence by his sister's side in the spring verdure, which was too young; and the hidden strings of his breast began to quiver, and to sound. This was the first time that he had ever looked into the labyrinth of the human soul. He was very far from understanding what he saw. But what was of more value, he felt and suffered with her. In years that were yet to come he relived this memory in song, in the most beautiful song the world has ever known. For the understanding of the soul's defenselessness, of the conflict between the two poles, is not the source of the greatest song. The source of the greatest song is sympathy. Sympathy with Asta Sollilja on earth."

— Halldór Laxness, Independent People

A ciGar is just a ciGar

IMG_1302Via the unimpeachable TMFTML, a critique of the iPod: "I’ve read that white headphone wearers on the streets of Manhattan nod at each other in solidarity, like members of a tribe or a secret society." I don't know about other people, but I usually move to the other end of the subway platform when I see someone else wearing the white headphones. The thesis seems to be that the iPod has become a hipster status symbol, which it may well have, in certain lower Manhattan and upper Brooklyn neighborhoods where the boys wear plaid shorts and polo shirts with upturned collars like refugees from the evil frat in the John Hughes movies, but I would suggest a more arcane explanation, which is that the iPod is popular because it's a really good product. Reminds me of one of Steven Johnson's favorite stories — he was reading an article about the marketing of the Gillette Mach razors, and he came across an exchange in which some ultra-savvy advertising guru was asked how the company had achieved such a grip on the market, and the guy replied, "Have you tried this thing? It's awesome!"

All that said, I've become a little disenchanted with the Shuffle feature, which I praised a few months back, causing myself to be widely quoted in ways that made me sound like a nincompoop (always a good lesson for a journalist). The trouble is that my iPod is now loaded up with all kinds of book-related high-modernist material, which I seldom want to hear when I'm trying to make it over that last big hill on the cross-trainer. The machine has a mocking fondness for Stravinsky's Agon in this respect, and, if it's feeling really vicious, Stockhausen's Gruppen. I'm going to land in the hospital if that happens again. All I really want is "Champagne Supernova." Yes, Sasha, this is basically the same post I put up two months ago and then took down, not wanting to become "one of those blogs." You know, the kind that has cute kitty pictures.

Forest murmurs


Hard at work on my top-secret summer project, I’ll rely on other Kulturbloggers for inspiration. Jens F. Laurson at ionarts writes a lovely appreciation of the late Carlos Kleiber, then reviews the new Deborah Voigt / Christian Thielemann Tristan recording in a way that relieves me of the duty, as I agree straight down the line. (I like the way Thielemann and Voigt handle the “false starts” to the Liebestod at the end of Act III — those scattered teasing bars in which Isolde seems ready to begin her final monologue, then comes to a halt when other action intrudes. She’s so lost in her private world that she keeps missing her metaphysical cue. The effect is heightened by the fact that the first phrase of the Liebestod is such an instantly recognizable musical object. What’s really dizzying is that Wagner knew his music would acquire this iconic status — otherwise the false starts would make no sense.) Also on ionarts, Charles T. Downey praises the Renée Fleming / Robert Carsen Capriccio in Paris, which I wish I could have seen. Elsewhere in the musosphere, I’m enjoying Carl Wilson’s site Zoilus, particularly his heroic and principled stand against writing about Wilco.

I hit the road for Bayreuth tomorrow. If the right Verbindung can be found, I’ll post some candid shots of Wagnerland. Let the blogging of Bayreuth commence.

20 not by Brahms

The stats page reveals that most of my visitors aren’t dyed-in- the-wool classical fans. Pavement gets clicked on ten times more often than Brahms, even though Brahms has sold a hell of a lot more records. That’s OK — he's in no rush. To introduce myself to those nose-in-the-air, high-falutin' classicalphobes out there, I thought I’d put up another list, matching the “Top 10 Classical” I posted earlier. I’m not going to give a name to this one, though. I’m well aware of the yawning gaps, gulches, canyons, mid-oceanic trenches, interstellar voids, and metaphysical abysses as regards pop history, so don't get on my case with your sock-hop music and whatnot. Sasha will take care of you. This is just an irrational series of powerful attractions.

Duke Ellington, The Blanton-Webster Band
Bob Dylan, Blood on the Tracks*
Velvet Underground, Live 1969**
Miles Davis, Sketches of Spain
Louis Armstrong, The Hot Fives and Hot Sevens
Hank Williams, Ultimate Collection
Radiohead, Kid A***
Billie Holiday, Greatest Hits
Skip James, Complete 1931 Recordings
Bo Diddley, “Bo Diddley”
Led Zeppelin, III
James Brown, Live at the Apollo
Mahalia Jackson, Gospels, Spirituals, and Hymns
Beatles, The White Album
Frank Sinatra, Only the Lonely
Cecil Taylor, Alms/Tiergarten (Spree)
Björk, Vespertine
Public Enemy, Fear of a Black Planet****
Brian Eno, Here Come the Warm Jets
My Bloody Valentine, Loveless
*The traumatic original version, not the official party mix. Bob, the world’s ready.
**Until the end of time it will be 42-7 at the half.
***Re: the raging debate on Will Carroll’s baseball blog about which Radiohead album is the awesomest, I honestly never really liked The Bends.
****In my iTunes library, “Fight the Power” gives way to Purcell’s “When I am laid in earth.” Hot. Is that a sample of Jon Hassell's Before and After Charm in there? or is it more "Funky Drummer"?

More classical hilarity

Archived in the categories to the right are two stabs in the direction of humor: “Stanley Kubrick Was My Friend, Too” and “The Gazebo of Ecstasy.” Here is another. Back in 1996, during my fidgety last months as a critic at the New York Times, I sent my editor Jim Oestreich a parody of classical music news, which he unwisely put into print. To judge from reader response, the satire was too deadpan for its own good: I received one inquiry about how to contact teenage oboe sensation Sarah Qin, one pained complaint about the alleged homoeroticism of the motets of Ockeghem. Also, the jokes had a way of becoming fact. Michael Daugherty went ahead and wrote a Jackie O opera, and at least two composers dramatized the tragedy of O. J. Simpson. (Believe it or not, someone took the Kubrick piece seriously, too.) Explanatory footnotes: 1) Kaisersaschern was the birthplace of Adrian Leverkühn in Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus. 2) Dylan McKay was Luke Perry's character on Beverly Hills 90210.

None greater

The great Carlos Kleiber is no more. No one will ever touch his recording of the Brahms Fourth.

Still, better than McCartney

For me, Elvis Costello’s Il Sogno, which the Brooklyn Phil- harmonic played at Lincoln Center last night, was a scary blank. After half an hour, I did something I’ve never done in twelve years of reviewing concerts in New York: I got out a book and started to read. My brain needed something else to grasp on to — I felt like I was clawing the air and plummeting. It’s not that Costello is inept; the score actually showed a fair amount of skill, especially in the orchestration, which is usually the aspect of the art that newcomers master last (see Gershwin). It made a clean, lucid sound, whether in the faintly Stravinskyish neoclassical passages or in the jazzy vamps. But the content was bafflingly trite. On the radar screen of compositional authority, where Gershwin registers as a dominating blob, Costello would be lucky to show up as a blip. Portions of melodies wandered in constricted circles; sequences began unpromisingly and went nowhere. At its best, and this is not as big a compliment as it sounds, Il Sogno ranked with mediocre Sibelius — those purring interludes that the old man tossed off when he was trying to replicate the freak popularity of “Valse Triste.”

I’m all for flinging open the doors of "classical music" to pop sympathizers. Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, the BBC's new composer-in-residence, is probably the most promising boundary-smasher right now; his Bodysong has wonderful Bartokian passages for string quartet. Björk could make the same transition if she wanted to. Back in the day, Ellington and Gershwin made nonsense of the distinction between "composer" and "pop musician": they weren't beyond categories so much as categories melted down. Costello, too, has an all-devouring mind, as he showed in a virtuoso Vanity Fair article about what to listen to at different hours of the day. But he has nothing urgent to say with instruments alone. He’s simply demonstrating another facet of his cleverness. More power to him, I guess, although if I were a young composer struggling to get my music heard I’d be angry at Lincoln Center for fawning over him. Now, if it were a symphony by Prince, that might be another matter…

Just a first impression. See Terry Teachout for another view.

A book sells in Chelsea

IMG_1297 I was going down Eighth Avenue in Chelsea when I saw this title for sale on the sidewalk. Needless to say, I came screeching to a halt. First I should explain that books are a rarity in this part of Manhattan. You can walk down Eighth from 23rd to 14th and find nary a book or CD, unless you count Gay Love Signs and the music of Junior Vazquez. It goes to disprove the hurtful stereotype that the gay demographic is arty and sophisticated. Yet here in front of the Rite Aid was a fine, eccentric assortment of used books — Lenin at Iskra, The Collected Tales of Pierre Louÿs, stray volumes of Trollope and Thackeray and Irving, prewar travel guides, and the like. I hope these sellers come back regularly with their van and chihuahua. I went away with The Strange Death of President Harding ("from the diaries of Gaston B. Means") and Maxim Gorky's Mother. There was nothing strange scribbled in them, admittedly, but the opening paragraph of Harding is odd enough in itself: "'If Gaston Means should talk!' I almost spoke the words aloud as I stepped my six foot, two hundred pound avoirdupois through the iron-grilled outer door of the Altanta Penitentiary on the forenoon of the 10th day of July 1928, and breathed once again for the first time in three years the sweet clean pure air of God's outside world." I'll delve deeper into the mystery when I have the time. The scholar/critic Caleb Crain, who, I'm delighted to find, has a blog with the brilliant title Steamboats Are Ruining Everything, has posted his own book-collecting curiosities.

Grail Derby


By this time next week I'll be in Bayreuth, home of the Richard Wagner Festival, to review a new production of Parsifal. Christoph Schlingensief, long-reigning chief provocateur of the German theater, is directing the show, which, well in advance of its opening, has already provoked nervous chatter in the press. I haven't been able to find any preview of the staging, but I did find a site devoted to Schlingensief's "Wagner Rally" in the Ruhr region, which sent into the streets ten Wagnermobiles blasting passages from the operas. Each car was tricked out in Wagner regalia and had an assigned part in the orchestral score (trombones, for example). There was a gala finale in Recklinghausen, with dancing cheerleaders and cars busting through paper walls. "Richie says only music survives" was the banner over the stage. If this mise en scène anticipates what we'll be seeing atop the Green Hill in Bayreuth, one of the great "boo concerts" of modern German opera history may be in the offing. I feel a strange mix of excitement and dread.

Ye Art-Tech Tour (Arty Cue Hotter)

The notorious Terry Teachout party float in Carnaval.

Happy birthday to About Last Night, the Café Griensteidl of the internet. I started reading Terry Teachout’s blog at a time when signing on in the morning was tantamount to being kicked in the gut, world-historically speaking. He and Our Girl provide a daily blast of intelligence and enthusiasm and taste — you wish the world were like this. Terry has made me think that every active critic should have a blog. It's a riskier but also more honest medium for writing on culture. While classical music and other types of elitist-seeming art are basically shut out of the mainstream media — I am lucky to be working for a great exception — the internet is wide open.

Douglas Wolk, meanwhile, has posted the Ex / Dog Faced Hermans single I pined for the other day. Vet. One of these days, I will figure out how to digitize vinyl: my iPod needs such LP-only treasures as the complete Ruggles, Mussorgsky’s Sorochintsy Fair, Death of Samantha’s “Rosenberg Summer,” and Ligeti’s Poème Symphonique for 100 Metronomes. Douglas also provides a link to Ex MP3s on the band’s site, including an orchestral version of “State of Shock.” I’ve been trying to write an “Epiphany” on the subject of hearing “State of Shock” at Epicenter Zone in SF in 1991, so far without success. There are some experiences that can't be put in words. Right now, the download doesn’t work for me, but I’ll keep trying.

Because of intense work on a top-secret summer project, posting will be unambitious for the next few days, but I'll try to keep the chuckles coming.

Thor vs. Harmonielehre

No cancellation announcement yet for Philharmonic in the Park, despite ominous blobs on Doppler 4000. The forty E-minor chords might be more dramatic than usual.... In the end, it was not to be.

Out of my depth

We got hold of the Prince tickets by way of a few connections — namely, eBay and PayPal. (As a classical critic who ventures on occasion into the pop realm, I can usually obtain tickets to any show in town, but only if it features Caetano Veloso or Radiohead.) I will leave analysis to the professionals and confine myself to a few nerdy non sequiturs: 1) if you are a classical specialist who ends up being seated twenty feet behind the drums, bring earplugs; 2) the advantage of being deafened by the stage speakers is that you are unable to hear the cathedral-style three-minute reverb that makes most shows at Madison Square Garden sound like the latter half of Alvin Lucier's I Am Sitting In A Room; 3) Prince liked our section the best because he saw no “cool people” sitting down (blessedly, I had just stood up); 4) collegiate codependency — i. e., calling one’s buds ten rows back to say, “It’s Purple Rain, bro!” — is annoying; 5) can't wait to hear the American Musicological Society panel on "Musicology"; 6) Prince is pfunkatronic.

The same hypocrisy, Senator

Popular counterpart Jessica Hopper relates an ugly tale on her blog, then asks: “Does Alex Ross ever get this kind of hate? Like did Esa-Pekka Salonen ever beef with him over some back stage shit from '93?” I’m a little unnerved that she should bring up the Esa-Pekka thing. Yes, as everyone knows, back in ’93 I made the mistake of writing that one of Esa-Pekka’s early chamber works exhibited “remnants of doctrinaire post-serialist chromaticism.” Some of Esa-Pekka’s people came round and gave me a whole series of chromaticisms to think about. I now walk with a slight limp and have a really bad reaction whenever I hear the sound of a pencil sharpener. But Esa-Pekka’s a great guy, a real mensch in my book, and I have nothing bad to say about him.

The preceding is a satirical anecdote. I have no beef with Esa-Pekka.


Tonight, Prince at the Garden, provided tickets come through. Tomorrow night, the New York Philharmonic playing John Adams’ Harmonielehre in Central Park. I love the idea of Adams’ mighty forty opening chords, inspired by a dream image of an oil tanker rising from San Francisco Bay, blasting their way into the New York summer night. David Robertson conducts; Leonidas Kavakos is the soloist in Samuel Barber’s dreamy Violin Concerto. You can hear the same all-American program in Prospect Park tonight (Tuesday), in Cunningham Park on Thursday night, and in Van Cortlandt Park Friday night. Then, a smattering of events at the Lincoln Center Festival — the Elvis Costello show, the premiere of Costello’s orchestral opus, and Nicholas Brooke's Tone Test, a dramatization of some hilariously peculiar promotional events that the Edison company employed to advertise its de-luxe gramophones in the early days. A trip to Bayreuth will keep me from attending the John Tavener all-night vigil, but that’s OK: I saw plenty of all-night vigils as an altar boy in the Greek Orthodox church.

ADDENDUM: Prospect Park concert cancelled. Not looking good for tomorrow night, either.

Top 40 analysis

Not to change gears too violently, but I'm amazed to hear that the New York electro band Scissor Sisters somehow reached the top of the UK charts. I last saw them playing for about twenty people at the Lakeside Lounge on Houston Street, as part of Sweetie's fondly remembered Cheez Whiz variety hour. Now they've booked Royal Albert Hall. The Scissors were the surprise hit of the Glastonbury Festival, drawing attention for a possibly non-spontaneous "wardrobe malfunction" by lead singer Jake Shears; the other unexpected smash was the English National Opera's traveling production of Act III of Die Walküre.

Free Shostakovich!


Copyright 2004 by Indiana University Press

I’ve been puzzling over some fellow critics’ reviews of two recent books about Dmitri Shostakovich — Solomon Volkov’s Shostakovich and Stalin and Malcolm Hamrick Brown’s anthology A Shostakovich Casebook. In particular, I’m surprised at the response, or lack of response, to Laurel Fay’s essay in the Casebook, in which Testimony, the dissident memoirs of Shostakovich as allegedly dictated to Volkov, is subjected to a vigorous forensic examination. A few months back, Edward Rothstein and Jeremy Eichler, two writers I admire, wrote pieces for the New York Times in which Fay’s findings were mentioned only in passing. Tim Page, a superb critic, reviewed the two books for The Washington Post and summarized the Casebook with the phrase “nits are picked.” I had a quite different reaction. Setting aside the usual questions of Shostakovich’s political orientation within the Soviet system, I found Fay’s essay a fascinating piece of detective work, and I think it deserves more than a word or two of paraphrase and/or dismissal. I will cover Bard College’s Shostakovich Festival for the New Yorker in August, and there I’ll try to sum up the state of the Shostakovich nation. Here I’ll delve into the details of Fay’s nit-picking and see where it leads. For those who don't know the backstory, the following may be pretty dense; for an in-depth treatment, read Paul Mitchinson's Lingua Franca piece from 2000. >.

The controversy started back in 1980, when Fay published an essay questioning the authenticity of Testimony. At the time, she hadn’t seen a copy of the original typescript; now she has. The signatures of Dmitri Shostakovich — “Read. D Shostakovich” — are to be found at head of all chapters but the very first. As Fay showed in 1980, each of those chapters begins with material previously published under the composer’s name. The possibility arose that Shostakovich had authenticated nothing more than a collection of mundane essays, and that Volkov later performed some sort of switcheroo. The Volkov camp, who marshaled forces in a 1998 book entitled Shostakovich Reconsidered, suggested in response that the composer had relied on his photographic memory to recite those passages for Volkov’s benefit, somehow conveying punctuation and layout down to the tiniest detail. OK, but how did those quotations end up at the beginning of each chapter? Volkov’s defenders asserted that Shostakovich started each interview session reciting, then free-associated. Perhaps — except that the introduction to Testimony describes the writing process otherwise. There, Volkov says that he fashioned a narrative from piles of scattered notes. Still, we don’t have any smoking gun here. A few years back, when I wrote a long piece about Shostakovich for the New Yorker, I was impressed by one Volkovian argument: that the composer’s signature could be found at the head of the first chapter, which begins not with previously published material but with grim anti-Soviet images of “mountains of corpses.” I repeated that claim in my New Yorker piece.

I felt a flush of embarrassment upon reading Fay’s essay, because I had been led to repeat something that was not true. Reproduced at the beginning of this entry, with the permission of Indiana University Press, are pages 2 and 3 of the manuscript (click on the image to make it bigger). There is no signature on page 1; as you can see, it is found at the top of page 3. What appears precisely at the top of page 3? Another excerpt from previously published material — a memoir of childhood dating back to 1927. For those of you who have a copy of the book, this quotation begins at the bottom of the published page 4, with the words “I had not expressed a desire to study music…” The excerpt goes on for exactly one full manuscript page. At the top of manuscript page 4 (which was originally numbered “2,” suggesting that the first two pages were added later), the narrative returns to the familiar Testimony style — right in the middle of the sentence. Here is the 1927 essay: “Nevertheless, I continued composing and wrote a lot then. By February 1917 I became bored with studying with Gliasser. Then my Mother decided to present me and my sister to A. A. Rozanova….” Here is Testimony: “Nevertheless, I continued composing and wrote a lot then. By February 1917 I [here starts page 4] lost all interest in studying with Gliasser. He was a very self-confident but dull man. And his lectures already seemed ridiculous to me.” Notice how an innocuous recollection suddenly acquires that ad hominen, nasty tone which distinguishes Testimony throughout — and which so many of the composer’s close colleagues found unbelievable. How elegantly the signed page 3 is woven into the rest of the narrative: you don’t feel a jolt of transition.

Fay has found that all the pages with Shostakovich’s signature contain nothing but old material. What’s more, she describes how sentences here and there have been dropped from the quoted essays, particularly those that would have given away the original date of composition. For example, a mention of the hundred anniversary of Chekhov’s birth disappears under correction tape; this would have dated the passage to the year 1960. The question rises once again: What manner of thing did Volkov ask Shostakovich to sign? As far as I can tell, there is only one hypothesis for the defenders to fall back on: Shostakovich knew what Volkov was doing, knew that the old material was contained in the new, and signed those pages in order to give himself an out in case the manuscript was discovered prematurely. “I signed a different document!” he could say. “Just a collection of essays!” We’re getting pretty far out on the grassy knoll. And it would be hard to advance such a hypothesis at this late hour because it would contradict everything Volkov has previously said about the provenance of Testimony. He insisted that Shostakovich read and signed the “true” manuscript. He insisted that he had never read the previously published essays. In fact, as Fay points out, when one of them appeared in a 1974 issue of Sovetskaia muzyka, it carried an introduction by… S. Volkov.

Whether the main body of Testimony contains scattered genuine utterances of the composer is a topic I no longer care much about, because there is no way of telling what’s real and what’s not. Plenty of reliable documentation exists elsewhere. In my history of twentieth-century music, I will not be using Testimony as either a primary or a secondary source, and I hope other writers will finally see it for what it is. The author has abused our patience long enough.

Epiphany #17


As a pseudo-tragic twentysomething living in Berkeley in 1990 and 1991, I used to listen for days on end to the Lachrimae of John Dowland. Jordi Savall's recording, devastating to a fault, is the saddest hour of sound I know. Even the dances have a morbid air, a whiff of Jacobean death. I find this music hard to listen to now — it's like re-reading certain drunken late-night letters I never mailed. Instead, I put on Poulenc in the morning.

Epiphany #32, Epiphany #34.

Talkin' August Wilhelm Ambros blues

Twang Twang Twang takes up the cudgel, ending with a fine Tom Stoppard quote, "We are always living in someone's Golden Age." Reminds me of Randall Jarrell: "The people who live in a Golden Age usually go around complaining how yellow everything looks."

Over the transom

Terry Teachout has taken a step toward becoming the first American Minister of Culture, or, better, People's Commissar for Education and Enlightenment. Congratulations, Terry! I will happily rename my site the National God Bless America Musical Internet Monument in return for a modest grant.

Mediocre elitism #115

Greg Sandow, as usual, completely nails the controversy over the expanded definition of the Pulitzer Prize for Music. Composers such as John Harbison and Stephen Hartke are complaining that the prize has been devalued by the inclusion of jazz and other "popular" forms. Sandow stares right through them:

What's really going on here — if you ask me — is a last-ditch defense of the obsolete and snobbish idea that only classical music can be art. Or, maybe, something even worse. Since just about everybody knows by now that this old idea is totally and completely wrong, I wonder if Hartke, Harbison, and others aren't (whether they know it or not) simply trying to protect their turf, trying to preserve some distinction, some chance at prestige and momentary fame, that might elude them if the Pulitzer prize were given simply for artistic merit [Ed.: my italics; ouch]. Which, I'll quickly say, isn't to say that they write bad music. Not at all. (Even Gatsby is fine, sometimes terrific music; it's just — in the best tradition of Haydn's works for the stage — a terrible opera). But have classical composers created the best and most important American music of the past 50 years? That's the main question we ought to ask. And the answer, pretty clearly, is no. Or, to be more careful, that classical composers have created some of the most memorable music, but very far from all of it.

Amazing that we work in a business where that last sentence is some kind of controversial and necessary declaration, rather than a statement of the screamingly obvious.

I was skeptical when the change was first announced — not because I thought other kinds of music were undeserving, but because I thought the new definition was too vague, too wishy-washy. I still think it's vague, and the way these prizes are chosen suggests that we may have merely expanded the definition for distinguished musical mediocrity. But Greg has made me more optimistic. Any idea that is opposed with such reflexive hand-wringing must have something good in it. The best thing that could happen to new American composition would be to put it in the company of ambitious popular music that is actually being talked about and is part of people's lives.

See also Nat Hentoff's moving account of the anger that Duke Ellington felt when he was denied a prize in 1966 (not the real prize, just a token). I hope the Duke had the satisfaction of knowing that his music will be loved and learned for centuries to come, long after every last person involved with that 1966 decision is forgotten. Come Sunday, they'll be gone.

Jet in warble man

The superficially complex English composer Brian Ferneyhough has written an opera entitled Shadowtime, about the death of Walter Benjamin. It had its premiere in Munich in late May. The libretto is by the avant-garde poet Charles Bernstein, and, needless to say, it is something other than a realistic narrative of the tragic last days of the author of “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Instead, we get an intellectual fantasia showing Benjamin in conversation with Friedrich Hölderlin, Pope Pius XII, the two-headed figure of Karl and Groucho Marx, and Adolf Hitler, among others. One passage consists simply of a series of anagrams of Benjamin’s name:

       I'm a lent barn Jew
       A mint bran jewel
       A barn Jew melt in
       A rent Jew in balm
       A Jew lamb intern
       Brain mantle Jew
       Brain mental Jew

I studied the reviews, which are linked on Charles Bernstein’s site, and could find no mention of a singing part for Adorno. A disappointment. I’ll be good and say no more until I have actually seen and heard the opera, which is coming to the Lincoln Center Festival next summer.

Don't rush the tempo

Delightful story on Andante about the very slow John Cage piece that has been playing in a German church since 2001. Two new notes, octave E's, have been added to the G#'s and B that began sounding in February of last year, making for pure lush E major. (The Associated Press is mistaken in hearing an E#.) On August 5, the B and one of the G#'s will stop sounding, and in March of 2006 everything goes half-diminished. If funding is available and the Lord God sees fit, the performance will end in the year 2639. For 1000 euros, you can sponsor a particular Klangjahr (soundyear), but you'd better act fast: such choice soundyears as 2050, 2104, 2222, 2433, and 2639 are already taken.

The pleasure is all mine


Björk has revealed the title of her forthcoming album: Medulla. It means the inner part of an animal or plant structure, also the lowest part of the brain. I trust that someone is writing a long, ponderous magazine article about Medulla as we speak.

But enough

Some interesting debate on the New Elitist question at Reflections in D Minor, Jessica Duchen, Superfluities, and Byzantium's Shores. Reflections writes: "Have you ever heard of any other product that is successfully sold with the slogan, 'We're no better than the other guys'? .... You don't sell a Lexus by telling the potential buyer that it's no better than a Chevy. Instead, you tell the customer that he should step up to a Lexus, he deserves a Lexus." This sounds reasonable, but, as marketing specialists who've studied the problem of the audience will tell you, it ain't gonna work. We're not selling a product here; we're trying to build a community. A great many bright, serious, cultured people shun classical music because it seems to them a closed-off, antisocial world — the kind of club they wouldn't want to join whether it wanted them or not. Since my teen-age years, I have been trying to win people over to the music I love, and the arrogant, high-handed approach never seems to do the trick. We have a horrendous image problem — ever wonder why serial killers in movies listen to Bach? — and we need to counteract it in every aspect of our behavior. If you doubt the marketing power of unpretentiousness and generosity, examine, please, the career of Yo-Yo Ma.

OK, Mann

I took Terry Teachout's test and, alas, I don't think I passed. I preferred the more irresponsible, flamboyant, Germanic alternative at least a third of the time: Duke Ellington, Dickens, Tolstoy, hamburgers, Wagner, Johnny Cash, Brando, Olivier, Lucinda Williams, Double Indemnity, Don Giovanni, tragedy, Monet, the Gershwins, Henry James, Cole Porter, Oscar Wilde, the Twenties, Turner, Motown, magazines, Election, Vertigo, opera, electric, Oklahoma, William Shawn, The Wings of the Dove, Winston Churchill, Moby-Dick, Whitman, and bebop. Sounds like a hell of a party. I passed on the dance questions, being a dance dunce, and I can't honestly decide between Mann and Joyce. Overall score: 55%. Nobody's perfect.

Dept. of self-regard

"I don't like classical music, but I like AlexRoss," writes Tlogmer on metafilter. Aw shucks, but thanks. Check out classical music sometime. Not only is classical music the repository of the most transcendently sublime utterances of the last thousand years, classical music kicks it hardcore.

Read this book

"There is much comfort in the thought that time effaces everything, crime and sorrow no less than love."
— Halldór Laxness, Independent People



This is an archive of my magazine pieces going back to 1992, together with posts on musical topics both classical (Dylan) and popular (Verdi). Back in February I wrote a long article entitled Listen To This, which more or less sums up my view of things. I've also assembled a rough top 10 of classical recordings.

The few, the proud

Mandarin culture-blogger AC Douglas is back on the warpath with a new site. He takes issue with quasi-populist ideas that I’ve lately purveyed in the New Yorker, and which have animated Greg Sandow’s writing for years. Classical music, ACD says, is by nature an elitist art; it can’t pass itself off as something for the masses, any more than an aristocrat can pass as a redneck. (His metaphor, not mine.) This neo-con position is enjoying a late surge in classical circles. A while back I was talking to a brilliant young composer who told me flatly , “If we don’t say our music is better than other music, then it is doomed to die.” Kyle Gann, on his blog, quotes a 22-year-old composer who promotes a “New Elitism” — “somewhat more broad-minded than the past one, but not as all-inclusive and allegedly populist as post- modernism claims to be.” Snobbery with a knowing smirk.

I won’t address this mindset head on, having already done so at length. Suffice to say I don't recognize its mode of listening, which seems to require a feeling of superiority as part of the aesthetic experience. If you’re worrying about how your music ranks with other people’s, I wonder if you’re actually listening at all. We’ve been trying the holier-than-thou gambit in American classical music for more than a century, and while it has sucked up big donations it has backfired time and again with the general public. I’ll use a very crude metaphor. You go to a party where you know no one. Do you go up to someone and say, “I am the finest individual in this room, and everyone else is fundamentally uninteresting”? It might work if you say it with the right crazed conviction — if you are Gustav Mahler or Arturo Toscanini, say — but chances are that you will leave as friendless as you came, with people whispering “Who’s that creep?” behind your back. Better, perhaps, to say something smart but lively, leading others to conclude on their own that hey, this guy is more interesting than Bill who is talking about spackling. You embody quality, you don’t announce it.

Culture doesn’t work that way, the Elitists might protest. CM must advertise its greatness. It is a Great Tradition that needs to be Maintained. I’m willing to admit that populism has its limits: if you go in front of a roomful of kids saying, “Hey, this dude Beethoven was one wild and crazy homey,” they’ll see through you. But you can celebrate Beethoven’s genius without necessarily suggesting that he’s better than Beyoncé. He's in a different world: so paint that world as vividly as you can and show how it invades your own. I’m imagining another objection: Isn’t pop music boastful beyond belief? Didn’t Chuck Berry advance his agenda by singing, “Roll over Beethoven”? Shouldn't we fight back? Well, as Susan McClary points out, the full line is “Roll over Beethoven and tell Tchaikovsky the news,” which is a somewhat more suggestive and inclusive message. In any case, Chuck Berry is boasting that he’s more fun, and he has the riffs to prove it. The crux of the classical boast is: Can we back it up? Just how goddamn civilized are we? The experience I described in "Listen To This," of meeting a bunch of punk-rock DJs who were more cultured than I was, destroyed that assurance in my mind, and I’ve never felt the need to get it back.

Maybe ACD and I can agree on this formula: If classical music is absent from your life, then you are missing out on something huge and grand. What unifies us, I hope, is the urge to tell the news about this music, which, for all its elitist trappings, occupies an underground position in contemporary culture. I sometimes don’t mind seeing pop music take a little pounding, because, for all its regular-folks veneer, it is the Establishment, and it has major smugness issues of its own. (The only people who seemed really incensed by my piece were pop snobs who didn't want me venturing outside my culture ghetto. Within CM it was much less controversial than I'd expected.) I like reading ACD because I sense the passion behind the words — and people respond to passionate messages, even if they leave a bitter taste. The ultimate enemy is the sort of passive, neutral, vaguely fatalistic thinking that has driven major classical insitutions for too long. I expect we can also agree on that.

There wasn't enough time, Michael...

...wasn't enough time.


For those of you who enjoy the rocking-roll music, Douglas Wolk has posted, with the band's permission, an MP3 of the brilliant Dog Faced Hermans song "Time Bomb" on his site. The trumpet solo reminds me of "Das Lied des Steinklopfers," a razor-sharp Kurt Tucholsky setting that the Hermans did with The Ex. Another candidate for the Lacunae library?

Gnomic CD Reviews: Bach WTK

bachfellnerJ. S. Bach: Das Wohltemperierte Klavier, Book 1: Preludes and Fugues 1-24, BWV 846-869. Till Fellner, piano. ECM 1853/54; 2 CD's.

Serene playing, magically recorded. Bach as trance, not game.

Previously: Schubert B-flat, Fantastique, Figaro.

...views expressed are not endorsed...

Checking up on the activities of the Satanist noise artist Boyd Rice, I found the following:

I made plans for a concert in 1975 called Hazard Music, and it consisted of a box of bullets dumped out on a barbecue grill (over hot coals) in the centre of a room with chairs for the audience placed around the perimeter of the room in a circle. Between the spectators and the ammo would be large sheets of glass, so when a bullet heats up and fires, a person would hear the glass shattering about a split second after they heard the blast, and know whether or not the projectable was heading in their direction (though it wouldn't give them time to run, just maybe time to know it was coming). So anyway that was a concert. Maybe the audio portion of it was extremely minimal, but I'm sure the New York Philharmonic would be hard pressed to match the emotional impact!

I think we've finally located Lorin Maazel's successor.

They're yelling in Baton Rouge

I've been meaning for a while to quote an excellent mad-as-hell rant that appeared on Helen Radice's blog. She's an English harpist, but don't prejudge her:

Clearing out my CD rack I came across Pulp's Different Class album. I loved this album like most people when I was about 17 but hadn't heard it for ages. So it's having a well-deserved Renaissance chez Radice. To make stuff "accessible", the classical music industry soft-soaps everything into relaxing, uplifting, smooth classics (Classic F Off). But pop music doesn't do this: they're allowed to release dark, fin de siecle songs. 'Common People', obviously, from Different Class ("And we dance, and drink, and screw, / Because there's nothing else to do"); 'Spy' is even angrier ("My favourite parks are car parks, grass is something you smoke, birds are something you shag. Take your "Year in Provence" and shove it up your ass"), and that's before the later work on This Is Hardcore. And this is popular music - that is, with wide appeal. In the quest for accessibility classical industry moguls are missing something. Pop musicians do face enormous constraints from the industry but at least they don't all have to release "flute moods." It's the songs with sadder or darker elements that are often most loved because they connect with multifacets of our experience, not just the gin and tonic at seven.

Do not laugh at Faery

When life gets me down, I open up Nicolas Slonimsky’s Music Since 1900, a day-by-day chronology of what Leonard Bernstein once called the “century of death.” What I like most about this book are the brief descriptive entries for hugely obscure operas that somehow caught the compiler’s eye. For example, “25 September 1929: The Woman Who Laughed at Faery, fantastic opera in one act by the 55-year-old English composer Fritz HART, is produced in Melbourne, Australia.” I'm scared to know what happened to that woman.

I once had the honor of interviewing Slonimsky for my college radio show, which was called, not coincidentally, "Music Since 1900." He talked about giving piano lessons to the Tsar's nieces and walking around Petrograd on the day of the Revolution. Some years later, he did a solo at a Zappa show.

I'm struggling to stay awake after reading the following headline on Andante: "Carl Michael Bellman, Sweden's Robert Burns, To Be Subject of New Opera." Apologies to any Swedes for whom this is really big news. More gripping is a report of Calixto Bieito's scandalously violent production of The Abduction from the Seraglio in Berlin. "When the prostitutes were massacred on stage I had to leave," said an angry official from Komische Oper's chief sponsor Daimler-Chrysler. Bieito has used this motif before: his production of Verdi's Masked Ball featured the gang-rape and garroting of a hustler. How will he shock us when he stages Lulu, the one opera that actually calls for the murder of a prostitute? Perhaps Jack the Ripper will turn out to be a kindly country doctor who gives everyone a hug.

Chill out

Felix Salmon on MemeFirst responds to my post below with his own strong ideas on the psychoacoustics of “musical chill.” I think we’re talking about musical moments that dramatize themselves as physical events in physical space — foreground, background, figures in a field. A little ways into a piece, our ears have mapped the landscape in which the music is unfolding, defined it as a given. When something happens to change those parameters, there’s a heightened chance of chill. The Shostakovich Fifth example — solo winds in front of a tremolando curtain — can be explained not just as a replay of a primitive scene, as per Prof. Panskepp, but as a simple break in spatial logic: we have to reconfigure our ears when a solo instrument steps from the crowd. Steve Reich mentioned a different sort of “chill” as the epiphany that led to minimalism — the feeling that went through his body when the two tracks of “It’s Gonna Rain” began to go out of sync.

Felix cites the Commendatore’s entrance in Don Giovanni, which is certainly one of the chillingest moments in history. What’s going on here? What provides an extra tinge of drama, aside from the vehemence of the orchestration? The Commendatore sings constantly over a plunging octave (the same notes as the “Notung” motif in Wagner and the commercial jingle “By Mennin”). The octave plunge is then repeated in the dominant, pushing ever lower. Down, down, down, down: we know what floor this elevator is going to. Another example: I remember distinctly the day during my sophomore year in college when I listened to Simon Rattle’s recording of the Mahler Second Symphony. I felt a thoroughgoing shiver at the end of the first movement, when the orchestra plays a cataclysmic downward chromatic scale. Rattle played it super-slowly and super-loudly, which increased the drama, but it wasn’t the volume but the sheerness of the drop that did the trick. (A lot of octave descent here, too.) Other random examples come to mind: Salome singing into the bass-drum cistern, the slight but shattering fall from D to C# in Reich’s Music for 18. And this “floor dropping out” effect is only one of a million spatial illusions.

Felix suggests that these chills happen more often in live performance. Yes: you buy into the illusion of space when you’re in a real space. Music of extended duration, such as composers tend to write, also helps, though I can think of plenty of moments in both popular and unpopular music where chills well up inside four minutes. Forgive the inevitable Radiohead example, but one moment comes in their song “Just,” when the guitars ascend four octaves. This smacked me upside the head the first time I heard the band live: I had the physical sense that the sound was about a mile high (and no, I wasn't). Whatever genre you’re in, the challenge is to lay out a familiar space and then climb up the walls. Minor Threat’s “In Your Eyes” just came up on iPod: Ian suddenly screaming “Do you fookin get it?!?” halfway through the song is an excellent violation of the rules. Or the curt ending with its missing chord: your ears go pinwheeling for a second in the blankness.

It's the Mind

IMG_1044I enjoy reading science stories about music, but I sometimes wish they’d pay more attention to music history. Last summer, researchers at Duke announced they had discovered inter- relationships between the pitches of human speech and the pitches of musical scales. The coverage generally overlooked the fact that Leos Janacek, composer of several of the greatest operas of the twentieth century, based his mature musical style on a painstaking study of this same relationship. Wagner, before him, made the speech-ness of music a cornerstone of his theory of opera. Since the mid-nineteen sixties, Steve Reich has been writing a series of works in which the musical material is derived note for note from speech samples. No doubt the Duke team have added new insights in their research, but "discovery" isn't the word.

Likewise, Nature recently reported on studies comparing the structure of tonal music with the structure of language (link via Arts & Letters Daily). An Argentinian physicist has found that Schoenberg’s atonal works do not repeat “key words” the way tonal works do. This, in fact, was the composer’s well-advertised intention. Writing on Mozart and Beethoven, he bemoaned the fact that those composers felt obliged to recycle their material for the benefit of the inattentive listener. The twelve-tone method of composition is designed to keep tones in rapid circulation and to prevent any one tone or set of tones from achieving primacy. (And yet, twelve-tone composers, starting with Schoenberg himself, have subverted the rules.) Schoenberg wanted his music to be more difficult than tonal music. He refused to provide familiar landmarks for the listener. It’s not as if he didn’t know what he was doing. His great misconception was in thinking that his new atonal realm could replace the old, could become “second nature.” So far, this hasn’t happened, and prospects look bleak for the future, The Sopranos notwithstanding.

What’s really novel in the science/music field are researches into psychoacoustics — how the brain processes music, sound, and noise. Steven Johnson mentions some of these studies in his new book Mind Wide Open, a riveting survey of modern neuroscience that has the eerie effect of seeming to be reading you. His notes led me to an article by Jaak Panskepp, who has investigated the phenomenon of the “musical chill,” in which listeners are suddenly overcome by a physical tremor that runs down the body and raises the hairs on the skin. Panskepp says that music in which a solo instrument steps in front of a softer background is especially prone to cause this effect. He compares such moments to “the separation call of young animals, the primal cry of despair to signal caretakers to exhibit social care and attention.” I immediately thought of the Largo of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, in which solo winds sing out plaintive motifs over a backdrop of tremolando strings. An entire nation is crying for its mother in the night.

Our Founder

The previous entry was already drafted when I discovered that Steven Johnson had written some lovely words about me on his blog. Many believe that Al Gore invented the Internet; as far as I’m concerned, it was Steven. Sometime in the early nineties, the ex-editor of Gyre and former guitarist of The Lenny Kravitz told me the unlikely story that he was going to put a magazine on the “World Wide Web.” I said, “Great, Steven! Is it going to be written in FORTRAN?” At the time I wrote my first piece for Feed, in 1995, I still had only a hazy idea of where the prose was going; I just liked the idea that someone, somewhere was willing to publish my six thousand words on New Zealand indie rock. Many years later, I’m finally beginning to grasp the possibilities that Steven was so quick to perceive. He's a writer of uncommon elegance, and when I read his book I felt the sort of envy from which you can learn a thing or two.


In the wake of a feverish middle-of-the-night reorganization, extant links to my older articles will no longer be working. I've placed the entire archive of New Yorker writing on this main site (www.therestisnoise.com) rather than the now deleted auxiliary site (alexrossmusic.typepad.com/archive). Why did I have two sites? I was confused. Everything still resides in the categories on the right. The movie-scores article is here, the Adorno article is here, to name two that seem popular. It will probably take a while for the search engines to make sense of this mess, but better now than later. Damn you, Google.



Arvo Pärt's Cantus in memory of Benjamin Britten is the music heard during the brief but powerful World Trade Center sequence in Fahrenheit 9/11. When I interviewed Pärt two years ago, he mentioned to me, with a sorrowful shake of his head, that September 11th is his birthday.

And now, Pfitzner funkalicious

It seems obligatory for the novice blogger to marvel over the goofy Google searches that bring readers in. I’ve already noted “pure sunglasses stravinsky,” and I can now boast of “morton feldman prostitutes,” "rienzi nazi," “wacky polyphonic tone,” “doctor faustus nietzsche art discussion” (yikes), “ashtrays sings," and “gergiev weird conducting.” The two most popular are “pavement song meanings” and, at least twice a day, “karita mattila salome.” More people like Caroliner than I ever would have guessed. Basically, to dredge up a sample of my writing it helps to have one word that’s very high-falutin' and one word that’s a little bit loosey-goosey. This is the only site in existence containing the words “Ustvolskaya" and "gobsmacked," for example. Adorno muscleboys, you have a home.

Stuck in my head for whatever reason

“Dreaming of Maria Callas, whoever she is…” — R.E.M.
“If you can read my mind, why must I speak?” — Bob
“I’m sorry you saw that…” — Björk
“Is this the couch on which your father bled to death?” — Lulu

Stanza my stone

As J. J. Gittes once remarked, summer colds are the worst. The most I can offer today is a link to an old Slate piece, which I’ve added to the “Literary” category of my archive. The subject is Wallace Stevens. Re-reading the piece, I asked myself: Is Orangeade that old? It is.

A skyline made whole


Dresden's Frauenkirche is now rebuilt, ionarts reports. This is amazing to see. When I visited Dresden nine years ago, staying in a former East German computer factory that had been converted into a massively creepy budget hotel, the Frauenkirche consisted of ruins and piles of stone. I remember thinking that the project would take decades to complete, if it happened at all. I don't subscribe to the thesis that the Dresden bombings were a "war crime"; in the final balance, the Allies treated the Germans with abnormal civility. But it was moving to read that the silver cross now atop the Frauenkirche was made by the son of one of the bomber pilots.

At the Grave of X. Scharwenka


Previously: At the Grave of Fibich, At the Grave of Enesco.

"Marked up"


Our Girl in Chicago, Terry Teachout's mysterious co-blogger, has roused me out of a sinal stupor with a wonderful post about strange things written in used books. I've never found a fifty-dollar bill or a Salvador Dali doodle, but I have my own prize collection of inside-flap oddities. In Berlin I picked up a gorgeous red-jacketed copy of James's The American, which was signed "Reynolds Crink[something], Brown, 1940." I imagined a convoluted tale of a James-loving soldier-aesthete who fought in the war, shacked up with a German girl (or boy) in Berlin, and left this token behind. My copy of Turn of the Screw and Other Short Stories comes from the library of the Northern California Bible College, where not a living soul ever checked it out. The most chilling inscription I've found was in a paperback of Lord Jim: "Texas School Book Depository, 1963." Swear to God. By far the most thrilling was the signature reproduced above. I was in a Vermont bookstore some years ago when I began noticing a peculiar excess of German books about music. They all, it turned out, came from the library of the great pianist Claudio Arrau. I went away with boxes of them. Lucky break.

I have Frank Sinatra's cold

Sorry I don’t have more to offer today, but my head feels like a nerfball orbiting Jupiter. Instead, look at Sasha’s ideograms, Gann on Sorabji, or Picasso's FBI file.

And the ship sails on

A sharp piece by Barbara Jepson on administrative ineptitude at the New York Philharmonic. It's not even an attractive rearrangement of the deck chairs, gentlemen.

News from N. Rockingham II


More from the Schoenberg Reader, which I can't stop reading — it's like Krispy Kremes for crazy-modern-music addicts. One of the most riveting documents is "Notes Toward a Biography," from 1949. This was evidently written either for Schoenberg's own use or for some trusted literary executor. It begins with early memories: "vaccination certificate, grade cards from school, milkman downstairs, his first love: a horse, water outside only, bathtub on Saturday evenings, playing funerals with a violin case." An ordinary Viennese childhood, in other words. The troublemaking started early: "Fighting: 1) hole in the knees of his pants a sign of victory 2) winning a fight 3) drinking his coffee with the spoon in it." What's that last one about? Is it like wearing a red hoodie on a Cripp block?

Things get tense when Mathilde Zemlinsky, the composer's first wife, enters the picture. "Schoenberg married Zemlinsky's sister, who said she would kill herself if he would not marry her." In the end, it was Mathilde's lover Richard Gerstl who committed suicide, hanging himself naked in front of a full-length mirror in December 1908. Schoenberg had known about the affair for over a year, and the so-called annihilation of tonality, which took place at this same time, may not have been an unrelated development. What really got my attention was the following entry: "Later [after the Gerstl fiasco] at Berg's house Schoenberg's wife had an affair with someone else." Skandal! It seems unthinkable that Mathilde had an affair with Alban Berg himself, but Berg must at least have known about it. In his Chamber Concerto, Berg created a clandestine depiction of Mathilde's decline and death, and listening to that music one senses that his sympathies lie with the woman and not with the man. Subjects for further investigation.

Why North Rockingham Avenue? Schoenberg lived there from 1936 until his death in 1951. Judge Ronald Schoenberg, one of his sons, presided over the 1989 spousal abuse trial of O. J. Simpson, who lived up the street. It's a small world.

News from N. Rockingham Avenue


One of the best music books of last year was Joseph Auner’s Schoenberg Reader, a beautifully edited selection of Mr. Atonality's essays, rants, prose poems, letters, and aphorisms. I say this as something other than a diehard Schoenbot; I found objectionable ideas on almost every page. Yet I was mesmerized as always by the power of the man's personality. Auner's book reminded me that Schoenberg was, among other things, ja, pretty funny. Some samples:

“Many who liked my earlier works dislike my current ones. They simply have not understood the earlier ones properly.”

“Compositional child prodigies are those who already in their earliest youth compose as badly as others do only in ripe old age.”

“Years ago I became always very angry about the nasty words critics applied to me. Since then I have found out that a sewer does not stink in order to annoy me. Though, when I pass, it stinks at me, it is not its intention to annoy me. It stinks because it can only stink.”

Note the resemblance of the last thought to Edna Pietsch's aphorism below. In other Schoenberg news, I've been skulking around the Vienna-based Schoenberg Center, which is featured on my "music links" page. This may be the most luxuriously appointed website devoted to a single composer: much of the vast Schoenberg archive has been digitized, with more being added each month. Be sure to check out Schoenberg WebRadio, where you can listen to music and voice recordings. Some of the links seem to be broken, so go instead to "Schoenberg talks," where you can hear a moving tribute to George Gershwin and a dense analysis of the Variations for Orchestra (delivered on Frankfurt Radio in 1931). The opening section is classic A-SCH, exposing his essential hostility to modern democratic culture — I am "essential," they are "superfluous" — yet still inviting sympathy with a plea for equal time. In the dearly departed, never-to- be-repeated Weimar Republic, he got it.

I find myself in a minority, facing not only those who prefer light music, but also those who prefer serious music. It would be inconceivable to attack the heroes who make daring flights over the ocean or to the North Pole, for their achievement is obvious to everyone. But although experience has shown that many a pioneer trod his path while absolute certainty at a time when he was still held to be wandering half-demented, most people invariably turn against those who strike out into unknown regions of the spirit. Here in the radio the majority are given their due. At all hours of the day and night their ears are pampered with titbits [sic] which they seem to need in order to survive. So if they ever have to do without them they are utterly aghast. Against this delirium of entertainment I want to assert the rights of a minority; the essential should have a place as well as the superfluous. We accept the activities of potholers, polar explorers, and pilots as essential. So, if I say so in all modesty, are the activities of those who try to achieve something comparable in the spiritual and artistic fields. They, too, have rights: they, too, have a claim to the radio.

If you want an introduction to what Schoenberg and his school were about, I'd recommend this Simon Rattle CD,  which will set you back seven dollars. You have nothing to lose but your mind.