I can't resist linking to this astounding obituary for harpist Sidonie Goosens, dead at the age of one hundred five. Elgar, she recalled, was "an absolute darling." Courtesy of Leo Carey.


I'll save my comments on the Met's sumptuously produced and grandly sung Rodelinda for an upcoming column. In the meantime, read overnight reviews by Hilli Heihmenn at Trill and by Sieglinde's Diaries, who are blogging the Met with vigor.

Neck and neck

I believe I've linked more often to AC Douglas' site than to any other, Teachout possibly excepted. He has the rare gift of being vastly fun to read even when he is completely wrong. We have disagreed before on the question of classical music's place in the firmament. With a carrot in the form of generous praise offered before the stick, he proposes to disagree again. I respectfully decline; I am not interested in writing about music as a horse race with Beethoven or Charlie Parker out in front. I ask this, though: if the ideal critic writes about classical music and nothing but, where would you put G. B. Shaw? E. T. A. Hoffmann? Wagner? The writer who can encompass more than one realm is the one whose words will resonate longest. The best piece of music criticism I've read in a decade was Alan Hollinghurst's TLS review of the Bayreuth Ring in 2000. Why? Because he didn't write like a parochial expert; he wrote like the major novelist he is. In an ideal world, poets, presidents, painters, and priests would talk about music, and there would be no critics. We're just filling the void.

Jack the Ripper and Teddy Bear


No one seems to have had a go at my little quiz question below. I was quoting from Karl Kraus' 1905 lecture about the plays of Frank Wedekind: “The great retaliation has begun, the revenge of a man’s world which has the audacity to punish its own guilt.” Alban Berg was in the audience for Kraus' lecture and for the ensuing performance of Pandora's Box, in which the playwright himself played Jack the Ripper. The seed of Lulu, possibly the greatest and certainly the darkest opera of the twentieth century, was planted. There was a heart-tugging romantic side to the evening: Wedekind ended up marrying the actress Tilly Newes, whose character he had slaughtered onstage. Awww.

Above is the seating chart for the 1905 performance, with Berg's place circled. (Courtesy of George Perle's Lulu book.) He was next to his brother Hermann, who, I recently discovered in a great Google moment, co-invented the Teddy Bear. In 1903 Hermann bought 3000 unsold Steiff bears in Leipzig and put them on sale at Wanamaker's in New York, where they became a sensation. At one point Alban was going to go to America to join his brother's firm. It's difficult to imagine what might have ensued. Perhaps Gershwin would have had a rival.

Karl Kraus was of course the inventor of blogging.

Logrolling in our time

I received an ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award yesterday for my article "Ghost Sonata," and I was honored to be in the company of many writers I admire: jazz critic Gary Giddins, whose imposing new collection of reviews I'll talk about in a separate post; Dean Robert Christgau; Kyle Gann, who won an award for his internet radio station PostClassic; Michael Beckerman, whose New Worlds of Dvorak may be the best book yet about the composer; Denise Von Glahn, whose book The Sounds of Place: Music and the American Cultural Landscape studies neglected links between geography and music; Joseph Dalton, formerly the pathbreaking head of CRI Records, now a critic in Albany; and Henry Fogel, head of the American Symphony Orchestra League. It was great to see Michael Tilson Thomas' Keeping Score project recognized. The highlight of the evening, though, came when one of the presenters read aloud from James Pegolotti's highly entertaining biography of the critic, composer, and radio personality Deems Taylor, who gave his name to the awards. In 1923 Taylor found himself in the awkward position of reviewing a concert at which one of his own works was played, and his solution reveals why he won a place among the wits of the Algonquin Round Table:

The novelty of the evening was another of the American works that Henry Hadley is introducing this month, a symphonic poem, "The Siren Song," by Deems Taylor. The work was written in 1912. As George Bernard Shaw points out in the preface to "The Irrational Knot," human beings are entirely renewed every seven years, so that an author may properly treat a twenty-year-old novel of his own as the work of a stranger. Such being the case, perhaps a reviewer may be similarly distant toward his own eleven-year-old symphonic poem. So far as we are concerned, "The Siren Song" is virtually a posthumous work, written by a young man. We thought it a promising work with a certain freshness of feeling and a disarming simplicity of utterance that partly atoned for its lack of well-defined individuality. On the whole, "Siren Song" interested us. We should like to hear more works by the same composer.

Little Goebbels in Alabama

From the Birmingham News, via Andrew Sullivan:

An Alabama lawmaker who sought to ban gay marriages now wants to ban novels with gay characters from public libraries, including university libraries. A bill by Rep. Gerald Allen, R-Cottondale, would prohibit the use of public funds for "the purchase of textbooks or library materials that recognize or promote homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle." Allen said he filed the bill to protect children from the "homosexual agenda." "Our culture, how we know it today, is under attack from every angle," Allen said in a press conference Tuesday. Allen said that if his bill passes, novels with gay protagonists and college textbooks that suggest homosexuality is natural would have to be removed from library shelves and destroyed. "I guess we dig a big hole and dump them in and bury them," he said.

It should be quite a mass grave: Proust, Thomas Mann, D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov, Oscar Wilde, James Baldwin, Evelyn Waugh, Christopher Isherwood, André Gide, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, William S. Burroughs, Jean Genet, Gore Vidal, Mary Renault, Marguerite Yourcenar, and a hundred others, to make a start.

Apex 04


Notational music:

1. Handel Arias, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (Avie)
2. Mozart, The Marriage of Figaro, René Jacobs conducting (Harmonia Mundi)
3. Schubert, Sonata in B-flat, Leon Fleisher (Vanguard)
4. Popov, First Symphony, Leon Botstein and the London Symphony (Telarc)
5. Vivaldi, Concertos for the Emperor, Andrew Manze and the English Concert (Harmonia Mundi)
6. Phil Kline, Zippo Songs and Rumsfeld Songs (Cantaloupe)*
7. Daniel S. Godfrey, String Quartets, Cassatt Quartet (Koch)
8. Bach, Beethoven & Webern, Piotr Anderszewski (Virgin)
9. Rachel Barton Pine, Solo Baroque (Cedille)
10. Rachmaninov Concertos, Stephen Hough and the Dallas Symphony (Hyperion)

Also hott: Monteverdi, Orfeo, Emmanuelle Haïm conducting (Virgin); Ysaÿe Solo Sonatas, Thomas Zehetmair (ECM); Ludwig Senfl, Im Maien, Charles Daniels and Fretwork (Harmonia Mundi); Bach, The Well-Tempered Clavier Book I, Till Fellner (ECM); John Adams, On the Transmigration of Souls (Nonesuch); Wagner, Tristan und Isolde, Christian Thielemann conducting (DG); Anna Netrebko, Sempre libera (DG); Alvin Curran, Lost Marbles (Tzadik); Roland Dahinden, Silberen (Mode); Eighth Blackbird, Beginnings (Cedille)

More about some of these here and here.

Semi- or non-notational music:

1. Björk, Medúlla (Elektra)
2. Scissor Sisters, Scissor Sisters (Universal)
3. Prince, Musicology (Sony)
4. Kanye West, College Dropout (Roc-A-Fella)
5. Melonie Cannon, Melonie Cannon (Skaggs Family)
6. Rokia Traoré, Bowmboï (Nonesuch)
7. Sonic Youth, Sonic Nurse (Geffen)
8. Jill Scott, Beautifully Human, Vol. 2 (Sony)
9. The Walkmen, Bows & Arrows (Record Collection)
10. Bob Dylan, Chronicles, Vol. 1 (Simon & Schuster)**

Singles: Kanye West, “Jesus Walks”; Björk, “Who Is It”; Prince, “A Million Days”; The Walkmen, “The Rat”; Scissor Sisters, “Laura”; Jill Scott, “Family Reunion”; Melonie Cannon, “Tennessee Roads”; Ghostface Killah, “Tush”; Múm, “Weeping Rock, Rock”; Snoop Dogg, "Drop It Like It's Hot"; Kelis, "Trick Me"; Fiona Apple, "Extraordinary Machine"; Caetano Veloso, "So In Love"; Brad Mehldau, "Someone To Watch Over Me"

*actually semi-notational
**non-musical notation that resonates musically

Jay Greenberg

Interesting discussion at AC Douglas, Steve Hicken, and Marcus Maroney of the Juilliard composing prodigy Jay Greenberg, who was interviewed on 60 Minutes this Sunday (I didn't see the show). I wrote briefly about Jay in my student composers column earlier this year. It's difficult to evaluate someone so young, and I deliberately kept my comments to a minimum in order not to overhype an extraordinary young man who has yet to make the hazardous transition to maturity. I hope Jay is able to keep an even keel through the storm of publicity that 60 Minutes will bring. The social and cultural pressures for a modern American classical prodigy are so unlike those faced by Mozart that no comparison is possible. Then, the market demanded such a talent; now, the market is hostile. As I once wrote in the Times, if Mozart were alive today, he'd be dead. How about a TV profile of a grown-up composer — say, Steve Reich on the occasion of his seventieth birthday in 2006, highlighting his mammoth influence on every form of contemporary music?

Snap review: Andromeda

The Venice Baroque Orchestra's presentation of Andromeda liberata, by Vivaldi and others, was the first early-music event I'd heard at Zankel Hall, and, as others have hinted, Baroque bands take to the space like cats to leftover Thanksgiving turkey. You don't have that feeling of listening through the wrong end of the telescope: the music is full, present, vibrant. For many reasons, this was a very good night. Only the time-stopping aria "Sovvente il sole" sounds like top-drawer Vivaldi, but it's a beautifully crafted score that actually builds romantic suspense as Andromeda and Perseus work through their relationship issues. Andrea Marcon's orchestra was, as expected, a potent mix of precision and swing. Simone Kermes, who sang Andromeda, is an unusual and powerful talent — a lyric soprano with an edgy, forceful way of shaping a phrase and an obvious urge to make the scenery nervous, if not to chew it outright. Ruth Rosique stepped in at the last moment as Cassiope and showed a gleaming, pure voice. Marijana Mijanovic, Enrico Onofri, and Max Cencic were also strong. It was great to hear the audience getting involved in the show as it went on. Early on, some righteous ignoramus actually shushed his neighbors after an aria, but by the end people were cheering after every number. Overall, the evening passed what my friend Jason Royal calls the Zankel Subway Rumble test: I only noticed the N / R train once. There's an excellent DG recording to match.

Boston update

I recently reported that James Levine, newly ensconced at the Boston Symphony, seemed to be the object of widespread adulation in Beantown, despite (or even because) his heavy investment in new-music programming. Alas, there are now scattered signs of unease, although so far the contemporary programming doesn’t seem to be the cause of the trouble. Instead, oddly enough, Levine is drawing criticism from audiences because of his rehearsal style. From the beginning of its history, the BSO has regularly opened rehearsals to the public. As Richard Dyer recently wrote in the Boston Globe, conductors have traditionally made these open rehearsals little more than run-throughs — essentially, extra performances for a reduced fee. Levine, bless his stubborn soul, is actually rehearsing during the Open Rehearsal. Writes Jean Natick to the editor of the Globe: “The Boston Symphony Orchestra open rehearsal on Nov. 11 conducted by James Levine was a disaster. My friends and I understand that Levine is a perfectionist, but I do not understand why there had to be such an extraordinarily large number of interruptions… If this type of rehearsing is to be the norm, we suggest that there be no admission charge or no audience. It would have been appropriate for Levine to acknowledge the audience at least once.”

This attitude is perplexing. Does Ms. Natick want a great orchestra, or merely a mediocre one? Great orchestras are made in rehearsal. Perhaps the gripping intensity of the Eroica that night was owed to the extra burst of rehearsal in the afternoon. Plus, isn’t it interesting to hear how a one-in-a-million musician like Levine rehearses? In defense of Ms. Natick, the conductor’s comments on the podium are apparently all but inaudible, so that to the audience it does sound like nothing more than stopping and starting. Dyer suggests that Levine be given a small microphone so his comments can be heard. And, yes, a little hello or goodbye to the onlookers wouldn’t hurt.

Where's Pablo?


Present somewhere in this throng are Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Picasso, Diaghilev, Cocteau, Stravinsky, Satie, Milhaud, Man Ray, Miró, Duchamp, Ford Madox Ford, Aaron Copland, the Prince of Monaco, and the Princesse de Polignac.

The image comes from the richly stocked American Mavericks website, allied to the public-radio series of the same title. I've looked at this site many times, but I only just discovered that it has some spellbinding film clips relating to the avant-garde showman George Antheil, who began his career as one of the chief Futurist noisemakers of twenties Paris and ended it as a Hollywood film scorer, love-advice columnist, and amateur torpedo inventor. The page linked here contains an interview with Paul Lehrman, who's restored the film that Fernand Léger made to accompany Antheil's Ballet mécanique, scored for sixteen player pianos, masses of percussion, and airplane propellers. The real find, something I'd been hoping to see for years, is an excerpt from Marcel L'Herbier's 1924 film L'Inhumaine, which tells of a Faustian scientist who starts raising people from the dead in an effort to win the favor of a famous opera singer. Having not seen the entire film, I can't elucidate the plot further, but what's apparently happening in this scene is that a crowd is demonstrating for and against the imperious diva (Georgette Leblanc). Where does Antheil come in? Some of the crowd shots were actually filmed during his Paris debut, on Oct. 4, 1923, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.

As Lehrman tells it — repeating the story given in Antheil's wildly entertaining and sometimes wildly inaccurate autobiography Bad Boy of Music — L'Herbier showed up with his cameras at the concert, anticipating that a photogenic riot would occur. In fact, the researches of ballet historian Lynn Garafola suggest that the whole thing was a setup. An advance piece in Figaro announced that the concert would be filmed and that a riot was not only expected but desired. Still, it's fun to see a high-class Parisian audience looking and acting like the crowd that went nuts during the premiere of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring ten years before — yes, in the same space. I've tried and failed to glimpse the mesdames and messieurs named above; perhaps readers with high-tech equipment will have better luck.

On the same theme, see my old post about Edgard Varèse's appearance in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Agenda 11/30-12/5

A good week for the music in NYC:

Nov. 29: Andromeda liberata, a concert-length serenata that may or may not be the work of Vivaldi, arrives at Zankel on the heels of a "wildly controversial" DG recording. Whoever wrote it (OK, I did), the Venice Baroque Orchestra under Andrea Marcon are destined to make a glorious noise.
Nov. 30: The composers of Bang on a Can, whose work seems to deepen with the passing years, collaborate with electronic artist DJ Spooky and director François Girard on the theater piece Lost Objects. It has its gala premiere tonight at BAM, with performances to follow Dec. 2-4. Iron your black stretch T.
Dec. 1
: Till Fellner, the deft young Austrian pianist whose Well-Tempered Clavier on ECM was almost too pretty, rolls into Zankel with Liszt, Beethoven, Haydn, and the Bach.
Dec. 2
: Rodelinda at the Met. La Fleming, La Daniels, Mehta, Blythe, Relyea, the works. Stephen Wadsworth, who directed a smokin' Xerxes at City Opera with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson a few years back, will try to repeat the Handel magic. Also tonight: David Robertson conducts the NY Philharmonic in Bartok's Second Violin Concerto (with Christian Tetzlaff),  Steve Reich's Triple Quartet, and some crazy thing by Beethoven.
Dec. 3
: The haughty hotties at Trrill are recommending the regal young Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman (pictured above), who sings tonight at Weill Hall a deliriously tasteful program of Ravel's Cinq mélodies populaires grecques, Britten's Auden cycle On This Island, Montsalvatge's Canciones negras, songs of Copland and Bolcom, and, not to snub the Germans, Lieder of Joseph Marx. Essential:
Dec. 4
: The Arditti Quartet lights up Zankel with an irrepressibly tuneful program of Nancarrow's Third Quartet, Carter's Fifth,Ligeti's Second, and Helmut Lachenmann's Third, subtitled Grido ("Scream"). Same group plays diffferent program at LACMA in LA on Nov. 29 — part of the grand old Monday Evening Concerts series. (I found this out by Googling, not by looking at the Arditti's site or Colbert Artists' Arditti page. Similarly, there is a lack of good tour info on Till Fellner's page at ECM or the Venice Baroque Orchestra's page at DG.)
Dec. 5: I'm going on a wild new-music bender this afternoon, trying to see part or all of the following events: the premiere of Joshua Penman's Songs the Plants Taught Us at the New York Youth Symphony; an Arvo Pärt concert by the venerable Continuum ensemble, which played the composer back when he was a Soviet footnote; and Birtwistle's Pulse Shadows at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.


1. Hot pic of the ninety-one-year-old Licia Albanese chez Trrill.
2. Tim Johnson on music and national identity.
3. Alex Abramovich and I will be talking about the Dylan book on WNYC's Soundcheck Wednesday Dec. 1 at 2PM. Alas, NBC's Passions is on at the same time.

Did someone say turkey?


Happy Thanksgiving!

Sonic quiet

File0065_2 Several years ago I looked on in horror as MTV pundit Gideon Yago sweated through an interview all five ferociously smart members of Radiohead. The memory of that encounter made me more than a little nervous in advance of my New Yorker College Tour interview with Sonic Youth, which took place last Saturday. In addition, I had a certain personal investment: the band's Daydream Nation was the second rock record I ever bought, during my belated discovery of non-classical music in college, and it permanently rearranged my view of the musical universe.

In the end, it went pretty well, despite several dumb questions from the interviewer. Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon, and Lee Ranaldo have been playing together since 1981 (drummer Steve Shelley joined in 1984), and they muse on their long career with the ease and wit of people who have nothing left to prove. The most interesting part for me was when they talked about their creative process, which mixes conventional song-oriented work — filling in the outlines of an acoustic sketch — with a procedure much more like that of a jazz group or solitary composer. A lot of the time, they said, they simply set a process in motion — patterns and textures in collision — and see what emerges from the mix. They never talk about chords in the studio, they said; no one ever says, "OK, let's go to F." Yet the result is not nearly as dissonant as you might expect (ferociously dissonant as this band can be), because they nourish clear forms when they rise up. There's an obvious kinship with the working methods of the minimalists. Sonic Youth's new album, the semi-eponymous Sonic Nurse, has some of their sweetest melodies to date, alongside the usual hallucinatory soundscapes.

On the train back, I was happy to read in Arrive, the official magazine of Amtrak’s Acela Express, of the circumstances surrounding the creation of the Quiet Car, which I rhapsodized in a previous post. (The irony of a Sonic Youth fan sitting in the Quiet Car is duly noted.) Quiet Car turns out to have been brainchild of Alma Goodwyn, pictured above. She is the deacon of a Philadelphia church and an activist on behalf of the homeless. After she worked with sympathetic passengers and conductors to create a Quiet Car on her regular commute, Amtrak made the institution official. “I just like to make things better if I can,” Goodwyn said. Alma Goodwyn is an American hero.

Give the gift of Popov

Leon Botstein's marvelous recording of Gavriil Popov's First Symphony, which I raved about back in September, is now in stores, on the Telarc label.

More non-breakthroughs

A few months back I noted how scientists are in the habit of touting musical "discoveries" which have long been commonplace among composers and musicologists. A new example arrives from The Guardian (link via Byzantium's Shores): "Why is Elgar's music for 'Land of Hope and Glory' so quintessentially English, while Debussy sounds so French? It is all because the music mimics the composer's native language, say scientists. The researchers studied the question because while many classical scores have a distinctly national feel, no one had put forward a good explanation for why that should be." No one? People have been obsessing over this question for centuries: writings on the subject would fill many volumes. Rousseau wrote in his Essay on the Origins of Languages: "At first there was no music at all other than melody, nor any other melody than the varied sound of speech, the accents formed the song, the quantities formed the meter, and one spoke as much by sounds and rhythm as by articulations and voices." Johann Gottfried Herder wrote prolifically on similar topics, noting how each country's language formed a body of folk song. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Bartok and Janacek were measuring with extraordinary precision how folk songs mirrored the rhythms of everyday speech and the qualities of particular languages. Unless there is some genuine methodological breakthrough that the writer has concealed, this is a non-event.

Cindy Adams moment

I looked out my window today and saw, many floors down, Bono holding a pizza on a truck. U2 was doing some sort of parade down Seventh Avenue. Only in New York.

Balanchine in every pot

The Right Venerable Maharajah Terry-Thierry Auguste Baron von Teachoutismus Ah Um has received official confirmation from the US Senate as our nation's first Secretary of Brahms. In all seriousness, I heartily congratulate Terry Teachout on his appointment to the National Council on the Arts. It's almost enough to make you think the Senate knows what it is doing.

Alex Ross, Alex Ross

Regarding the Google predicament I wrote about below, I am deeply touched by the outpouring of support from the bløgösphère, the blogizzosphere, and all the other spheres. Thanks to you all. Special thanks to Byzantium's Shores and Zeke's Gallery, who went above and beyond the bounds of duty. Here's hoping Google takes a page from Yahoo, which has the right idea. I promise now to shut up on this topic.

The great retaliation has begun...

O uncanny apparition! O terrible figure! We are trembling, etc. etc. Mme. Grisi Pasta, Leyla Devereux, and Hilli Heihmenn, three alleged old-school sopranos of Seattle, New York, and Atlanta, have unveiled Trrill: Florid Passages from Queer Opera Zealots. The co-authors of the site have declared themselves unhappy with the state of modern opera singing and have "decided to take a torch to every major opera house in America. We figured someone would get the message. It's gonna be like the Jedi Purge of the Old Republic! They'll all either die or go into hiding!" An early target is Anna Netrebko. Enjoy, at your own risk. The bløgösphère will never be so placid again. (The title of this post does have operatic relevance. Any guesses?)

Note also that New York critic and Italophile Marion Rosenberg has a new blog titled Vilaine fille. In which Anna Netrebko is also attacked. Poor girl. For now, I like her fine.

Through a glass darkly

Le Teachout posts this fascinating musicological digression by our incoming Secretary of State: "I love Brahms because Brahms is actually structured. And he's passionate without being sentimental. I don't like sentimental music, so I tend not to like Liszt, and I don't actually much care for the Russian romantics Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, where it's all on the sleeve. With Brahms it's restrained, and there's a sense of tension that never resolves." Don't we all love the tension that never resolves!  When was the last time an expert apostle of Absolute Music rose to such an exalted position of power? (No, not him; he hated Brahms.) I'd like to have it noted for the record that Brahms was a patriotic liberal who detested the religiously motivated bigotry of late nineteenth-century Vienna. In honor of Ms. Rice, I am now listening to the last of Brahms' Four Serious Songs: "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal ... And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three: but the greatest of these is charity."

Fellow bløggers!

If you are so gracious as to link to this site, one kind favor I ask of you: please put the link under my name, not under "The Rest Is Noise." For reasons I don't understand, it's very difficult to find this blog on Google using "Alex Ross" or some variant thereof. The first thing you see, after the shrines devoted to the famed DC Comics illustrator, is a terrible piece I wrote in 1998 for Slate. Of course, if you're searching for "pusillanimous pussyfooters," "rockism," or "he wrote," this site pops up right away.

Update: Adam Baer has a funny post about the perils of being Adam Baer: "This is how I'm constantly imaged by search-engines: a blowhard college student, postmodern artist, and sex-mag journalist obsessed with some poor girl who achieved urban-legend status for a dorm-room striptease."

Book fatigue

Just now I found myself typing the sentence, "La Mer, of course, depicts the sea." Has anyone else had the experience of more or less forgetting how to write — not to mention forgetting how to talk or think — toward the end of a book-writing process? The other troubling sensation I have is that the more verbiage I produce, the farther I am from being done.

Schlingensief update!

What is the notorious Parsifal director up to these days? Thanks to Berlin Blog, a lively site maintained by an American in Berlin, I have new information. Schlingensief — a so-called Aktionskünstler or "action artist" with a history of assuming Nazi poses in order to make pseudo-leftist political points — has been standing around Checkpoint Charlie dressed up as Adolf Hitler, having his picture taken with tourists. This latest stunt is publicity for his play Art and Vegetables: A. Hipler, which recently opened at the Volksbühne theater. The great detail that Berlin Blog discloses is that Schlingensief has been asking for money from his tourist victims. He probably thinks he is exposing their sick fascination with Hitler. In fact, he is exposing himself. The title of the play (or whatever it is) recycles Monty Python's brilliant "Mr. Hilter" sketch, also starring Ron Vibbentrop and Heimlich Bimmler. Cool it, Führer cat!

Conversation-stopper of the day

Birds are atonal.

Subpoena / Angelina

I know, again with the Dylan. But I have to share something I found in Oliver Trager's Keys to the Rain: The Definitive Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, one of fifty-five books on Dylan published in the last two hours. One of my favorite Dylan rhymes has always been from the song "Angelina": "I was only following instructions when the judge sent me down the road / With your subpoena / ... Angelina." Turns out that none other than W. S. Gilbert perpetrated the same rhyme in Trial by Jury: "For to-day in this arena / Summoned by a stern subpoena / Edwin, sued by Angelina / Shortly will appear." Which is more unlikely, that this is a total coincidence or that Dylan whiles away his afternoons listening to Gilbert & Sullivan? Correct, the former.

"Angelina," which can be found only on the "official" Bootleg Series Vols. 1-3, is one of Dylan's greatest, spookiest songs. No one  has ever been able to say what it really means, but one line after another gently rocks the mind: "It's always been my nature to take chances / My right hand drawing back while my left hand advances ... Do I need your permission to turn the other cheek / If you can read my mind, why must I speak? ... There's a black Mercedes rolling through the combat zone ... I see pieces of men marching, trying to take heaven by force / I can see the unknown rider, I can see the pale white horse ... Beat a path of retreat up them spiral staircases / Past the tree of smoke, past the angel with four faces / Begging God for mercy, weeping in unholy places / Angelina." Apparently the song spooked Dylan himself, for he never touched it after making the recording.

Don't get me started on "The Groom's Still Waiting At The Altar," from the same early-eighties period: "Prayed in the ghetto with my face into the cement / Heard the last moan of the boxer, seen the massacre of the innocent / Felt around for the light switch, became nauseated / Just me and an overweight dancer between walls that have deteriorated..." Kids, don't ever mix coke with the Book of Revelation.

Update: A reader points out that the rhymes in "Angelina" — concertina, hyena, subpoena, Argentina, arena — can all be found in standard rhyming dictionaries. Perhaps it's a coincidence after all. Too bad Dylan couldn't find a way to work in Bosnia-Herzegovina.


When Jacques Derrida died, I thought of writing a mini-essay on my college experiences as a Derrida-head, until I realized that every Ivy-League-y blogger born between 1965 and 1975 was doing the same. I sort of wish I'd spent my years as an English major reading actual English books, but Derrida was, as Marlene Dietrich says of Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil, some kind of a man. This gorgeously written appreciation by Leland de la Durantaye makes me want to dig my "passionately tattered" copy of Of Grammotology out of the storage space.

Agenda 11/16-21

The following concerts might be great.

Nov. 16: Brenda Patterson, a mezzo I've heard good things about, sings an offbeat program at Tully Hall, including Haydn's Arianna a Naxos cantata, Crumb's Apparition, some Ives songs, and the world premiere of Edward Bilous' Night of the Dark Moon. More about Patterson here.
Nov. 17
: Three rival new-music concerts tonight. American Composers Orchestra presents a typically all-over program, everything from Morton Feldman to Sondheim to Randall Woolf's new work Women at an Exhibition (with film by Mary Harron and John C. Walsh). Also, Wet Ink is presenting another show at Bowery Poetry Club, again with the Zs. I went to Wet Ink back in September and was bewitched by the Zs' collective composition Bump, which is now available on Planaria Records. (You can listen to a sample here.) And the freewheeling postsomething double-bassist / composer Stefano Scodanibbio plays at Columbia's Italian Academy.
Nov. 18
: Soheil Nasseri plays Beethoven sonatas at Weill Hall. Nasseri is an exceptionally elegant pianist who also has a serious commitment to music education, giving morning mini-recitals at schools all around New York.
Nov. 19
: Joel Sachs leads another of his famous "Who dat?" programs with the New Juilliard Ensemble. Works of Josef Bardanashvili, Stefano Gervasoni, Wei-Chieh Lin, Paul Desenne, and Virko Baley. Alice Tully Hall, 8PM, free (but you have to pick up tickets at the Juilliard Box Office).
Nov. 20
: Because of my Evening of Conversation with Sonic Youth down in DC, I'll be sadly missing Kremerata Baltica's all-Shostakovich concert at Carnegie, which includes the crushingly powerful Symphony No. 14. This will be great.
Nov. 21
: The first of two Bartok programs by the Orion Quartet, at the Chamber Music Society at Lincoln Center. $72 for both concerts is a good deal. Bartok bangs.

Work in progress

This announcement will probably be of limited interest to the wider readership, but I am in the process of revising the list of fellow bloggers in the column to the right. I've wanted for a while to expand my links, but I have aesthetic objections to the sort of endless, featureless list  that appears on some other pages. Therefore, I've created separate pages for "Music Blogs" and "All-Over Blogs," with descriptive phrases to be attached to each. So far, I've heard at least one quiet yelp of discontent from elsewhere in the bløgösphère. Rest assured that I will continue to refine the categories and descriptions. Please, dear Reader, patronize the fine sites that I've listed.

AC Douglas writes to ask for a phonetic rendering of the term "bløgösphère." I'm happy to oblige. It's pronounced VLOHNKH-yow-shpairrrrr (with a sharp trilled "r" at the end). A debt is owed of course to The Fredösphere.

Feline perspectives: Copland

Img_2138 Penelope listens to the grandly populist Third Symphony. The sound of the heartland was forged in Manhattan.

Booty sonata

The other day, taking a break from my forthcoming book Apocalypse Forever: How Overwrought Book Titles Are Destroying America, I went to see Ray. I strongly recommend it, insofar as my suspect taste in movies can be trusted. (I happen to love all those bloated blockbusters my film-crit counterparts tear their hair out over.) Yes, Ray does have conventional biopic elements, particularly in the latter pop-star-bottoming-out parts, but Jamie Foxx’s reincarnation of the late great Mr. Charles is everything it’s cracked up to be. Over and beyond the emotional power of the performance, it’s one of the most technically convincing portraits of a musician ever put on film. Foxx, as you wouldn’t necessarily guess from his turn in Booty Call, studied piano from the age of three and attended the International University at San Diego on a music scholarship. He has a natural authority at the piano that can’t be faked. So often you see movie actors flailing meaninglessly around a keyboard. Foxx bends not only with the rhythms but with the chords: you could tell with the sound turned off where the tonic is and where the dominant is. Even the way he stands around the instrument, acquiring social confidence as he reaches toward the keys, is true to life. I hope Foxx one day plays a classical pianist on film. After all the insulting caricatures of classical musicians that Hollywood has perpetrated over the years, it would be great to see a movie about music made with knowledge and love.

A fray I dare not enter

AC Douglas vs. (?) George Hunka.

Perfectly timed bravos

Today I listened to Jascha Horenstein's 1959 live recording of the Mahler Eighth, one of the most electrifying documents of a performance in existence. This being Royal Albert Hall, the audience is primed to explode, and right after the last blast of E-flat you hear what sounds like a simultaneous "Bravo!" from two or three people in different parts of the hall. The rest of the crowd starts screaming a split second later. I then put on a 1988 Proms recording of the Busoni Piano Concerto, with Mark Elder conducting the BBC Symphony and Peter Donohoe doing a hair-raisingly brilliant solo turn. Here a solitary soul manages to get his "Bravo!" in a beat before everyone else, perfectly punctuating the demented giddiness of the ending. At the Met and elsewhere, overzealous bravo artists can sometimes have a ruinous effect, but in Royal Albert Hall the diehards know their cues. I can't imagine these two favorite recordings without the anonymous yelps of joy; they are integral to the performance.

Google is goofy

This site is currently #1 out of 17,600,000 possibilities in searches for the phrase "he wrote."

Update, 11:11 PM: Phil Windley's Enterprise Computing Weblog has pulled ahead. I suspect dirty tricks.

Update, 3:22 PM, after which enough: I've discovered how this happened. The all-powerful Jason Kottke used the phrase "he wrote" in a link to my Radiohead piece.


I just finished Seth Mnookin's new book Hard News, about the scandals at the New York Times. It's sleek, gripping, and, in places, wildly entertaining. I wouldn't be surprised if someone wants to turn it into a movie. Seth has also unveiled, which archives some excellent music writing in and amongst the "serious" commentary. His 1999 article about addiction affected me as much as anything I've ever read.

The "same concert" myth

Das Teachout addresses the syndrome of "critical paranoia" — the persecution complex that overtook B. H. Haggin when he found that other critics did not always share his view of musical reality. "Critics need constant reminding," Terry says, "that criticism is not an exact science—or, indeed, any kind of science at all." It is so. Every critic has heard numberless variations on the phrase, "I don't think you and I were at the same concert." It's an extreme but commonplace exaggeration that dramatizes the sort of communication breakdown that Terry describes. Rather than accept the possibility of simple human disagreement, a certain type of irate single-space-typing listener prefers to deny that the offending critic was there at all. Which, in fact, is perfectly true. No two listeners are ever at the same concert. Each inhabits his or her own richly differentiated world. Two equally informed listeners may come away with a disparate set of sensuous facts, even if they generally agree on whether the concert was a thrill or a spill. (Consensus is more likely in the case of CDs, where fewer subjective variables are in play.) Please note that I'm not espousing some facile sub-Derridean relativism. As a critic, I'm obliged to describe musical reality precisely as I hear it; I can't sway in the breeze of intermission chatter. All the same, I want to write a review that will be of use even to a listener who had an entirely different experience. This entails writing with a certain humble awareness that my experience is not universal, that my account will never be carved in granite. Criticism is at its best where confidence meets generosity. It's a tricky business: the slide into fake omniscience is deliciously quick. But I'm working on it.

Agenda 11/9-11/14

Check it, New York:

Nov. 10: Composer/flutist Alejandro Escuer presents a program of contemporary Mexican works at the Americas Society — part of the ambitious, citywide Mexico Now Festival.
Nov. 11:
Karita Mattila sings Kaija Saariaho's Quatre Instants at the New York Philharmonic; Sakari Oramo conducts. I'll be in Boston for James Levine's solar-plexus double bill of Carter's Symphonia and Beethoven's Eroica.
Nov. 12
: John Adams' second annual festival of non-denominational contemporary music at Zankel Hall presents the Paul Dresher Ensemble.
Nov. 13
: Evan Ziporyn and his avant-gamelan ensemble Gamelan Galak Tika at Zankel, 4PM. At 7:30PM, Pomerium sings Ockeghem at Cooper Unionenough said. And, self-recommendingly, Steve Reich plays the Met Museum.
Nov. 14
: Too much to choose from. Leon Botstein conducts rare works of Carl Czerny. Orchestra 2001 of Philadelphia plays George Crumb's American Songbook at Miller Theatre. The pure-toned Norwegian vocal trio Trio Medieval appears at Corpus Christi Church. And that's just the afternoon.

The new masses

Having operated The Rest Is Noise for a scant sixth months, I can claim spurious status as an elder statesman and express pleasure that the bløgösphêre (classical bloggerdom) has grown rapidly since I started out. The Muse at Sunset is the work of Chapel Hill-based composer Forrest Covington, who just posted a delightful Chord of the Month: "Let added sixths, sevenths and ninths soothe the savage beast within." (But where's the added sixth?) Lisa Hirsch, a San Francisco-based connoisseur and jujitsu artist, has inaugurated the Iron Tongue of Midnight. Marcus Maroney is a Messiaen-venerating composer who recently posted some passionate thoughts on whether there can be a "gay" sound in music (yes, he says). And Adam Baer's brand-new Glass Shallot offers up a bracing mix of music, pop culture, and politics. Baer on Lang Lang: "If [he] ever gave up music, he might easily become a successful politician. He’s all smiles, and these days he sports slick threads and side-swept bangs. A born crowd-pleaser, he appears doused in self-regard, content to keep other emotions off the stage."

Satie marathon

Here, by unpopular demand, is an old review from the New York Times: a mildly brain-damaged report of a twenty-hour performance of Erik Satie's pioneering conceptual work Vexations.  As I mention in the review, the original "complete" performance took place under John Cage's direction in 1963, at the Pocket Theater in New York. In the audience for part of the time was Andy Warhol, who would remember the experience when he began making radically uneventful minimalist films the following year. In the audience for part of the time was Andy Warhol, who would remember the experience when he began making radically uneventful minimalist films the following year. In the audience for part of the time was Andy Warhol, who would remember the experience when he began making radically uneventful minimalist films the following year. In the audience for part of the time was Andy Warhol, who would remember the experience when he began making radically uneventful minimalist films the following hi Mom year. In the audience for part of the time was Andy Warhol, who would remember the experience when he began making radically uneventful minimalist films the following [etc.]


It is hard to think of a thing more out of time than nobility. Looked at plainly it seems false and dead and ugly. To look at it at all makes us realize sharply that in our present, in the presence of our reality, the past looks false and is, therefore, dead and is, therefore, ugly; and we turn away from it as from something repulsive and particularly from the characteristic that it has a way of assuming: something that was noble in its day, grandeur that was, the rhetorical once. But as a wave is a force and not the water of which it is composed, which is never the same, so nobility is a force and not the manifestations of which it is composed, which are never the same. Possibly this description of it as a force will do more than anything else I can have said about it to reconcile you to it. It is not an artifice that the mind has added to human nature. It is a violence from within that protects us from a violence without. It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality. It seems, in the last analysis, to have something to do with our self-preservation; and that, no doubt, is why the expression of it, the sound of its words, helps us to live our lives.

— Wallace Stevens, "The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words"


If the soul of an audience could be photographed it would resemble a flight of scattering dipping birds, who belong neither to the air nor the water nor the earth. In theory the audience is a solid slab, provided with a single pair of enormous ears, which listen, and with a pair of hands, which clap. Actually it is that elusive scattering flight of winged creatures, darting around, and spending much of its time where it shouldn't, thinking now "how lovely!", now "my foot's gone to sleep," and passing in the beat of a bar from "there's Beethoven back in C minor again!" to "did I turn the gas off?" Beethoven does not flicker, Beethoven plays himself through. Applause. The piano is closed, the instruments re-enter their cases, the audience disperses more widely, the concert is over.
Over? But is the concert over? Here was the end, had anything an end, but experience proves that strange filaments cling to us after we have been with music, that the feet of the birds have, as it were, become entangled in snares of heaven, that while we swooped hither and thither so aimlessly we were gathering something, and carrying it away for future use. Schumann — or was it Brahms? — sings against the gas and obliterates the squalor, or, sinking deeper till he reaches the soundless, promotes that enlargement of the spirit which is our birthright. The concert is not over when the sweet voices die. It vibrates elsewhere. It discovers treasures which would have remained hidden, and they are the chief part of the human heritage.

— E. M. Forster, quoted in Robert Philip's Performing Music in the Age of Recording


Penelope and Maulina in 2008. A stronger, fishier America.

For the Senate and House, I endorse penguins.

I can't resist posting Canada 2.0, via Place and Thyme. Sasha, there is an alternative. OK, back to the music.


I have discovered the tricky part of this blogging business. The idea is to be more casual, more candid, more spontaneous. That's fine and dandy when you're feeling fine and dandy — when you get up in the morning ready to natter on about this and that, weigh in on whosit and whatsit, etcetera. But if you happen to wake up one fine day feeling deeply troubled, if a queasy fear stops you from doing much of anything, if on the train to Providence you find that the woman across the aisle is looking at you funny because tears are running down your cheeks, if you start to feel like an alien in your own country because of this hypocritical pseudo-religious detestation of the minority to which you belong (Jesus Christ, silent on the subject of homosexuality, said rather pointedly, Judge not that ye be not judged), then it gets a lot more difficult to natter on as you did before. Activity may be minimal here for a bit.

Agenda 11/2-11/7

Between out-of-town missions and a touch of the flu, I'm not going to make all of the following shows, but I recommend them to the idle and the restless:

Today: Andres recital mentioned below.
Nov. 4: For anyone in Philadelphia, the top-notch new-music band Eighth Blackbird is playing at the Kimmel Center.
Nov. 5: Lutenist Paul O'Dette and the viol consort Parthenia brood upon John Dowland's masterpiece Lachrimae, at Corpus Christi Church, 529 W. 121st, 8PM.
Nov. 6: Tania Leon portrait concert, Miller Theatre, 8PM.
Nov. 7: Thurston Moore, Maryanne Amacher, and Jim O'Rourke, plus David First and the Note Killers, at Tonic.

Speaking of Moore and Sonic Youth, I will be interviewing their dissonant majesties at a New Yorker "College Tour" event on Nov. 20, at Georgetown University in my hometown of DC. Tickets are on sale now for $5-10. Details here. Sonic Youth piece here.

Then and now

From Jean Edward Smith's biography of Lucius Clay, the U.S. military governor of occupied Germany from 1945 to 1949:

When World II ended, the United States Army became the custodian of what Clay described to Secretary Stinson as "the greatest single art collection in the world." This collection included not only the various masterpieces of Rembrandt, Rubens, Tintoretto, and El Greco (to name but a few) looted from Nazi-occupied Europe, but almost all of the really valuable German artworks that had been removed from their museums during the war and stored for safekeeping in that portion of western Germany liberated by U.S. forces.
Clay took an immediate personal interest in preserving the artworks the Americans captured. He expanded military government's Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives branch to include some of America's most celebrated art historians and curators (including James Rorimer, of the Metropolitan Museum of Art), and instructed them "to identify, salvage, and restore everything worth saving." And Clay told Stinson he hoped to get immediate approval to return to their original owners the works the Nazis had looted throughout Europe, and to preserve the prewar German art collections in trust for the German people.
Stinson applauded Clay's plan and assured him of his support. To Stinson, the preservation of Europe's cultural treasures and of Germany's own important artworks bespoke the dignity of America's war aims....

Donald Rumsfeld, April 11, 2003:

The images you are seeing on television you are seeing over and over and over, and it's the same picture of some person walking out of some building with a vase, and you see it 20 times and you think, "My goodness, were there that many vases? [Laughter from press corps.] Is it possible that there were that many vases in the whole country?"

The Gelb Ambiguity

I'm not sure what to make of the announcement that Peter Gelb, head of the Sony Classical label, will be the next general manager of the Metropolitan Opera. I was expecting the house to go in a more safe, predictable direction and hire Placido Domingo. That they picked Gelb is an encouraging sign that they're thinking outside the parterre box. On the other hand, Gelb's record as a label head has been rather mixed. He is responsible, among other things, for James Horner's godawful Titanic soundtrack. I have  nothing against movie soundtracks — they should all be put on CD for fans to enjoy or discard — but I do have a thing against promoting Hollywood hackwork as a leap forward in contemporary composition. There is, note, a long tradition of profit-shifting at Columbia / Sony — using blockbuster pop records to pay for more abstruse classical fare. Goddard Lieberson used the My Fair Lady soundtrack (a wonderful thing in itself) to underwrite the complete Stravinsky and Webern. Bob Hurwitz and Manfred Eicher have done something of the same at Nonesuch and ECM. But two big differences between, say, Nonesuch and Sony: 1) their "pop" releases are superior; 2) the classical releases are usually superior, too. (Footnote: Allan Kozinn, of the Times, once made an inspired analogy between Lieberson's strategy and Wotan's, in the Ring — building Valhalla with other people's money.)

Still, I'm cautiously optimistic. Greg Sandow testifies that Gelb is an energetic, curious man. (I don't know him.) He obviously has a surer understanding of the infinitely changeable, unpredictable twenty-first-century music market than Joe Volpe and James Levine ever did — or Placido Domingo, for all his big-media celebrity, ever would have. Gelb already has a relationship with Julie Taymor, whose Magic Flute was hailed almost everywhere but at the Times. With solid artistic administration under him, with canny choices in commissioning and recent repertory (maybe we'll finally get to see some John Adams at the Met), Gelb should be fine. If he starts talking about a James Horner opera, though, we're up the creek.

Quiet Car

Amtrak’s Acela Express is the only form of travel I look forward to, chiefly because of the Quiet Car. The conductor on my trip back from Boston went so far as to request a “sort of library atmosphere” in the Quiet Car. If only life had a Quiet Car.

[For an ode to the inventor of Quiet Car, see Sonic Quiet.]


I don't know. You tell me.

Dissonate the vote


Timothy Andres is a formidable young composer-pianist who figured in my piece about New York-area student composers last spring. In June he gave a powerhouse performance of Ives' Concord at the CAMI recital hall; Richard Dyer of the Boston Globe was there and raved. On Election Night, Andres is playing at Sudler Hall at Yale, in a program that includes Adams' China Gates, Barber's Excursions, Rzewski's Four North American Ballads, and his own piano sonata. He also designed the gripping red poster above.

Say nothing


A platform for a speech is being built in Copley Square.

The joy in Boston





James Levine's challenging programs of atonal music are arousing unexpected enthusiasm in Boston. No, wait, wrong pictures. We'll go back to music shortly. Here are my observations on the Red Sox World Series victory: "YOW! WOOOO!!!! YEEAAAH!!!" My mother grew up in Boston, and, as you can tell from the souvenirs below, attended the 1946 World Series. I was here for the unspeakable events of 1986. An obscure wound is healed, to take a phrase from rabid Sox fan Henry James. It seems kind of absurd that I am here to attend a concert of Mozart, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Ligeti. Then again, as Joseph Horowitz notes in his forthcoming history of American classical music, Isabella Stewart Gardner used to wear a Red Sox headband to Boston Symphony concerts.


I'm boarding the Acela today for another visit to the Boston Symphony under James Levine. The program this week includes Ligeti's Lontano, Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra, and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring — a fearsome phalanx of twentieth-century masterpieces. Let's hope the diabolism in the music doesn't fuse with Red Sox mania to incite a riot. While up there, I'll be giving a talk at Harvard on the musical activities of the Office of the Military Governor, United States (OMGUS) in Germany from 1945 to 1949. It's at 5PM on Thursday at the Barker Center, Room 133 — free and open to the public. The topic may sound kind of snoozy, but it's actually kind of hot. Two years ago I spent a week or so going through the files of OMGUS, and I came away awed by the scope and thoroughness of the effort, not only in the musical field but in every aspect of German life. Military Governor Lucius Clay, a forgotten American hero, conducted himself with adamantine neutrality and showed a fearsome eye for detail. Even before the war had ended, he had taken steps to ensure that Germany's great art collections would remain untouched by looting. When he left, in 1949, hundred of thousands of Germans poured into the streets to wish him goodbye. Readers are invited to draw their own comparisons with the occupation of Iraq.

Anyway, GO SOX!!!

Addendum: WOOO!!!!

Note on Eminem

Not that anyone asked, but I used to think of Eminem as a very talented guy who was egregiously full of himself and lacking moral compass. I am now flip-flopping on that position.

Black Brown & Beige

Without making the slightest pretense toward expertise in jazz, I'll venture some hazy and ill-informed impressions of last night's Jazz at Lincoln Center program. As most people know, Wynton Marsalis' empire of swing has moved into a huge new performance space in the Time-Warner building at Columbus Circle. The lobby areas are unpromising, extending the highbrow Wal-Mart feeling of the entire development, but the Allen Room, where Wynton and orchestra played last night, is one of the most visually astounding music halls in the world — huge raked glass windows affording a billionaire's view of Central Park and surrounding buildings. The moon glimmers through clouds, reflections of the lights of 59th Street go straight up in the air. It's a perfect place for glamorous young Manhattan couples to celebrate their anniversary. I went primarily to hear Duke Ellington's Black, Brown, and Beige — Benny Carter's Kansas City Suite filled out the program — and I was mesmerized by the playing. Eric Lewis' piano solos floated in from some Ravelian heaven. (Please note: I'm agnostic on the whole pro/con Wynton brawl.) The work itself is about as sublime and deep as American music gets. Let it never be forgotten that aesthetic policemen on both sides of the classical-jazz divide denounced Ellington in 1943 for attempting this brave symphonic experiment. Paul Bowles, in the New York Herald Tribune, called it "formless and meaningless … a gaudy potpourri of tutti dance passages and solo virtuoso work." That's one of the stupidest reviews in the history of criticism, right up there with Hanslick on Tchaikovsky and Virgil Thomson on Sibelius. If Bowles had been able to write music one-tenth as beautiful or haunting as "Come Sunday," he would never have given up composition in favor of books.

Points west

New composer-blogger Paul Bailey describes the premiere of Steve Reich's big new choral piece You Are (Variations) in Los Angeles. Argh, I wish I could have heard this. Meanwhile, up in Bagdad by the Bay, The Standing Room gives a thumbs down to Alan Gilbert's performance of Naive and Sentimental Music at the San Francisco Symphony, while Josh Kosman gives it a thumbs up. Read either piece for a discerning appreciation of Adams' symphonic tour-de-force.

Here are the texts that Reich set in You Are:

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov: "You are wherever your thoughts are."
Psalm 16: "I place the Eternal before me."
Ludwig Wittgenstein: "Explanations come to an end somewhere."
Rabbi Shammai: "Say little and do much."

Game 3


Courtesy of long-suffering Red Sox fan Daphne Ross.

It's getting a little cold outside

Today is the 42nd anniversary of James Brown’s famous live show at the Apollo. It’s also the 42nd anniversary of John Cage’s experimental piece 0’00”, which asks the performer to “perform a disciplined action” of an undetermined nature. I learned of this coincidence in Douglas Wolk’s meticulous, poetic new book James Brown Live at the Apollo, which puts the Godfather of Soul in the context of the Cuban Missile Crisis and other roiling events of the time. I’ve been listening obsessively to “Lost Someone,” and I'm in love with the modulation at the beginning of the song— the plunge down a whole step after the brassy introductory chords. It’s the feeling of a door opening, of stepping from a shiny modern place into an old carved room. (Something similar happens in the final section of Janacek’s Jenufa.) There’s another seismic harmonic shift later on: after five straight minutes of I, IV, I, IV, you suddenly get a V chord underneath the phrase “ten thousand people.” Another door opens to another secret room. I’ll let Mr. Wolk say the rest.

How gay is it?

A good piece by Tony Tommasini on Nadine Hubbs' new book The Queer Composition of America's Sound, an attempt to analyze Copland, Virgil Thomson, David Diamond, and other mid-century American composers in terms borrowed from contemporary gay studies. I've been grappling with the book myself, and I share many of Tony's frustrations. It's great to have a study that celebrates these composers' sexuality instead of cloaking it in euphemism. Yet Hubbs goes astray in trying to connect musical style to sexual politics. The fact that so many of these composers embraced tonality does not, I think, have much to do with the fact that they were gay, nor does it have much to do with how they were publicly received, scattered bits of in-house gossip aside. Where did Copland get that wide-interval open-prairie sound? From Stravinsky's Symphonies of Wind Instruments, not from Thomson's alleged camp aesthetic. Meanwhile, experimental, non-tonal sounds ran rampant in the work of gay composers Henry Cowell, John Cage, Harry Partch, and Lou Harrison — Partch and Harrison with their alternative scales and systems of tuning; Cowell with his violently dissonant "cluster chords"; Cage with his chance procedures. Why couldn't these outlandish sonorities be considered an authentic expression of outsider sexuality? Several scholars have argued as much, and it's hard to reconcile their work with Hubbs'. She doesn't deny that gay composers made all different sounds, but she talks herself in circles trying to maintain that tonality and gayness have some special relationship:

The careers of Cage, Harrison, and even the eccentric Partch (a longtime member of gay hobo subculture) flourished in the viciously homophobic Cold War era. We might surmise that this was because 1) their (mostly nonserial) music — perceived as internationalist, advanced, and cerebral — aligned well with prevailing masculinist and imperialist values; and 2) their homosexuality, whether or not rumored, remained deniable.

These are two very problematic sentences. First, it's weird to suggest that Harrison and Partch "flourished" in the fifties. Both men were far outside mainstream musical life. Second, I'm unaware of any extant commentary that categorized their music as "internationalist" or "cerebral." The published philosophies of each artist pointed in exactly the opposite direction. Cage, a composer of international repute, was a different case, but I'd be interested to know what "masculinist and imperialist values" he was ever said to have embodied. Finally, it's insulting to the memory of the great Lou Harrison to suggest that he ever denied his sexuality. From an early age, he matter-of-factly announced it to everyone he met. A full account of homosexuality in American composition will need to pay more attention to the facts and more respect to each composer's individuality.

A final irony: Hubbs models her methodology on the work of Michel Foucault. Is she aware that for some time Foucault's lover was the impeccably atonal composer Jean Barraqué? And that Foucault once said: "If my memory does not deceive me, then I got the greatest cultural shock from the French representatives of serial music and 12-tone music — from Boulez and Barraqué, with whom I was acquainted. It was they who first tore me from the dialectical universe in which I had lived until then"? I get nervous whenever people try to put sexuality in a conceptual box, even when they do it with the best intentions. It doesn't get us any closer to freedom.

Ends and odds


The linkerrific Zoilus has what appears to be the definitive nuancing of Dylan's relationship with activist politics.

Having had a good time decorating the Dylan piece with old road-trip photos, I've done the same for the gorgeous men of Radiohead. The Björk piece is coming soon.

Now is the time of year when New York concert organizations drive everyone nuts by scheduling all the best concerts simultaneously. I'll be at Miller for Nancarrow tonight, but I'd just as soon be at Carnegie for a David Daniels Handel thang, or downstairs at Zankel for a Robert Levin Mozart thang, or at the Met for the last Magic Flute, or at Cooper Union for a program of new works incorporating the spinet (“Spinet: an experiment on Gesamtkunstwerk - Totalart"), with — I kid you not — Prof. Kyle Gann performing the role of Abraham Lincoln.

Is it possible that Boston is going to win everything? And I don't mean just the World Series. I'll be going up on Friday for James Levine's grand debut as the Boston Symphony's music director. Mahler's Eighth: "The unattainable here becomes fact..."

Addendum: A reader queries the application of the phrase "gorgeous men" to Radiohead. I didn't mean it quite literally.

Dance music

The prize for the most madly eclectic program of the season goes to the NYC ensemble Fireworks, whose "Dance Mix" show at Club Makor tonight includes Johann Strauss's "Thunder and Lightning Polka," Aphex Twin's "Analogue Bubblebath," Lully's Bourgeois Gentilhomme Suite, Duke Ellington's "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," New Order's "Blue Monday," the Minuet from Haydn's Quartet No. 62, and The Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive." Here's Fireworks' site. I liked their semi-electric Rite of Spring CD, though it doesn't rock as hard as the original.


Helen Radice, on her harp-driven site Twang Twang Twang, quotes W. H. Auden: "Every high C accurately struck demolishes the theory that we are the irresponsible puppets of fate or chance." Genau, babe. When I hear Deborah Voigt soaring up effortlessly to A in "O hehrstes Wunder" in Die Walküre, I think, this is going to change the world somehow.

Julie Taymor's Magic Flute

"Taymor's Mythology"

by Alex Ross

The New Yorker, Oct. 25, 2004.

In the fall of 1791, Mozart was a sick man who felt his life slipping away. Still, he was intensely happy. The motive for his joy was “The Magic Flute,” which had opened at the end of September, in Vienna. Representatives of the musical élite were hailing the opera as perhaps the richest of Mozart’s career. Antonio Salieri told his sometime rival that it was “worthy of being played at the greatest festival for the greatest monarchs.” Members of the brotherhood of Masons smiled among themselves as they recognized a kindred spirit at work: the tale of handsome young Tamino, who passes a series of tests set by the mysterious magus Sarastro, was both a parable and a parody of the rituals of Freemasonry. Yet “The Magic Flute” wasn’t a proper opera at all; it was a Singspiel, a hybrid genre akin to musical theatre. The staging aimed to astonish the eyes: one visitor reported seeing “a thousand grotesque forms.” Tickets cost between seven and seventeen kreuzer—about what you’d spend on a round of beers after the show. Mozart had made his imperial art democratic, and he exulted in the many-sidedness of his appeal. “What really makes me happy,” he wrote to his wife, “is the Silent applause!—one can feel how this opera is rising and rising.”

I reread stories of Mozart’s last months just before seeing Julie Taymor’s production of “The Magic Flute,” at the Metropolitan Opera. They stayed with me as Taymor’s deeply dazzling vision took hold. “Silent applause” is an apt phrase for what happens when a listener’s inward experience locks in synch with the experience of several thousand others. It’s the sense of a performance “rising and rising,” as Mozart said; of a jaded, lonely crowd made to grin like kids; of a world gone right. I hung on to the feeling as long as I could.

"The Magic Flute” is half mystery play, half street comedy. Directors usually bend it in whatever direction their sensibility lies. Taymor, who first directed the opera back in 1993, well before she created her Broadway production of “The Lion King,” does not try to resolve its tensions. Instead, she mobilizes every device in her repertoire to render with extreme vivacity whatever Mozart and his librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder, throw at her. To the usual Masonic symbology she adds motifs from the Kabbalah, Tantric Buddhism, Bunraku, Indonesian puppet theatre, and so on. The Met stage has never been so alive with movement, so charged with color, so brilliant to the eye. The outward effect is of a shimmering cultural kaleidoscope, with all manner of mystical and folk traditions blending together. Behind the surface lies a melancholy sense that history has never permitted such a synthesis—that Mozart’s theme of love and power united is nothing more than a fever dream. But Taymor allows the Enlightenment fantasy to play out to the end.

Mystery sets the tone before comedy takes over. Forty-three triangles hang in a spooky, asymmetrical pattern on the stage curtain. James Levine’s tempos have been exhilaratingly fleet of late, but I wish he’d lingered longer on the three majestic, light-dark chords that set the music in motion—E-flat major, C minor, E-flat in first inversion. They pose a question that the opera never quite answers. George Tsypin, who created sets for “War and Peace” at the Met two seasons ago, suspends Masonic and Kabbalistic emblems in towering Plexiglas façades, gateways, and columns. That these sets could serve as the backdrop for some very scary Vegas magic show—David Copperfield raising the dead, perhaps—is part of the whimsical appeal of the production, which stops well short of taking itself too seriously.

An incredible variety of figures and creatures swirl through Tsypin’s hieroglyphic castles. Tamino and Sarastro both look like Japanese princes, while Papageno, the bird-catcher well on his way to being a bird himself, has a streetwise look, wearing a green jumpsuit and a sporty beak cap. The Queen of the Night, who tries to lure Tamino from his appointed path, appears with huge moth wings fluttering behind her. Monostatos, Sarastro’s wayward henchman, is a bit of a bat. What might have seemed arbitrary in another production here seems simply right, because Taymor controls each tableau with a painter’s eye. Mark Dendy obtains some of the sharpest dancing I’ve seen on the Met stage; when Papageno immobilizes Monostatos’s would-be tough guys with his magic bells, they become screamingly gay Broadway hoofers. Meanwhile, all manner of puppet beasts, including serpents, bears, and the entire contents of Papageno’s birdcage, stream around the singers. The animals, created with the help of Michael Curry, become co-stars of the piece, not because they impart a “Lion King” glamour but because they move so buoyantly to the music. At times, the entire stage is dancing to Mozart’s time.

Matthew Polenzani, a lyric tenor with a lovely, stately voice and a stiff stage presence, never looked altogether comfortable as Tamino. Dorothea Röschmann, as Pamina, relished the challenge, projecting a dusky gleam in her lower register that I don’t remember hearing in her “Figaro” début last year. L’ubica Vargicová was dangerously hesitant in her opening aria, but she showed fire alongside the required coloratura precision in “Der Hölle Rache” later on. Kwangchul Youn was a noble Sarastro, although he lacked some strength at the bottom of his range. With no fewer than four singers performing in the house for the first time—Anna Christy did well as Papagena—this was a potentially nervous cast, but Levine kept them all on track and maintained a limpid tone from beginning to end.

One singer stood out from the others in his enthusiasm to embody Taymor’s vision: twenty-six-year-old Rodion Pogossov, who until recently had been part of the Met’s Young Artist program. He filled in on short notice for Matthias Goerne as Papageno, having never sung a major role at the Met or anywhere else. He has a mellifluous baritone voice and is a natural, extroverted performer. Basically, he rocks. In place of the cutesy clowning that star baritones often indulge in, he created an antic, athletic, sexy bird-man on the prowl. Perhaps the Old Guard disapproved when Papageno broke into a strutting, arm-swinging hip-hop dance, but it’s about time the Met got some flava.

Two lessons emerge from the soon-to-be-legendary phenomenon of this “Magic Flute.” One is that Taymor has a great future at the house. If I were Joseph Volpe—and, happily, I’m not—I would be stalking her with offers for future projects; at the top of the list would be Wagner’s “Ring.” The Met’s eighteen-year-old “Ring,” the “Walküre” installment of which is now playing in a wildly uneven, weirdly cast performance under Valery Gergiev, has tilted from the grand to the grim. Taymor, with her flair for myth, might produce a “Ring” for the ages.

The other lesson is more wistful. When I got home, I wanted to write, Gene Shalit style, “This Flute’s a hoot! Run, don’t walk!” But there was no point in telling anyone to go anywhere; only a few three-hundred-dollar tickets remained, and these were quickly sold. (There will be five more performances in April; tickets go on sale November 21st.) Whenever the Met stumbles onto something truly wonderful, such as this “Magic Flute,” or “Salome” last season, those in the know snatch up all the tickets before those in the dark can get a taste of what opera can achieve. Such is the enigma of classical music; the better it is, the more inaccessible, until, in its most rarefied form, it hardly exists. Perhaps Mozart took joy in the triumph of “The Magic Flute” because it showed him a way out of that gleaming prison: he could see a real public at last. Then he wrote his Requiem and died.



I'm doing a Slate dialogue with Alex Abramovich, the stylish gentleman on the right, about the new Bob Dylan memoir. A warm welcome to those visiting from that fine publication.

...if not to Dershowitz

From the Lincoln Center Playbill: "Johannes Brahms' place in musical history is assured. Indeed, while he was still alive, conductor Claus von Bülow already spoke of him as one of the great B's, equal to Bach and Beethoven."

Three chords and the truth


Warning: This post contains wacky technical lingo.

E-flat major, C minor, E-flat major: the opening chords of Mozart's Magic Flute. I mention them briefly in my review of Julie Taymor's new production, appearing in the New Yorker next week. There is so much more to be said about just these three chords (five, if you count the brief upbeats to the second and the third). They seem simple in construction, yet they create an aura of power and mystery. The first is the purest chord there is, rising up from a core E-flat in the bass. It's Pythagoras' chord of nature, the lowest tones of the harmonic series sounding together. The C minor is the relative minor of E-flat: two of the tones, E-flat and G, are the same in both chords. It's the natural harmony tilted downward, turned toward the darkness. Finally, E-flat again, but it sounds more sober and resigned, as if the darkness of C minor has been subsumed into the light. It is "first inversion," meaning that there is a G instead of an E-flat in the bass. The bass notes — E-flat, C, G — together spell out C minor, again bringing out the shadows of the scene. Yet the top notes — E-flat, G, B-flat — anchor the sequence melodically on the major triad. All told, it's as if Mozart has written the emotional stages of an entire life in three bars: hope, pain, wisdom.

Popov resurfacing

A little while back, I extolled the bewitchingly strange music of Gavril Popov, a Soviet composer who more or less disappeared into the shadows of Stalinism. I stated that no Popov CDs were currently available, although a sensational recording of the First Symphony is forthcoming on the Telarc label. A reader writes to say that reproductions of Olympia's Popov recordings can be purchased at the top-notch classical site Arkiv Music. Here, for example, is the recording that pairs the Chamber Symphony with the Sixth Symphony. As for the First, I recommend strongly that you wait for Leon Botstein's Telarc recording. It's one of the top recordings of the year, along with Rene Jacobs' Figaro, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's Handel, Andrew Manze's latest Vivaldi explosion, and Leon Fleisher's two-hand return.

Janacek speaks


"Are you familiar with the dead silence of a deep forest? It almost hurts one’s ears. You are more likely to hear the strange rushing sound of your own blood, as if somebody was shaking tiny bells, like kernels of mist. The silence and coolness descend on your thoughts, on your steps, on your words. You have time to think, your thoughts are not racing, you stand here and there, your speech is sparse."

Not much else to offer today. It's nice to be alive. I commend to your attention some excellent posts at ionarts on Messiaen's St. Francis and the underrated Alessandra Marc in DC. And congratulations to the excellent Jens Laurson on his Post debut. We've seen political bloggers make the leap into the so-called mainstream, and now classical blöggères are doing the same.

Epiphany #9: Korngold

Attempt at a catalogue of life-altering musical moments.


My high school had (has) a beautiful art room, a sunny space with exotic plants, where I used to while away the hours painting pseudo-Turneresque paintings and listening to records. A prior teacher, the legendary Mr. Stambaugh, had accumulated a large, eclectic record collection, which I employed to educate myself about composers like Sibelius and Prokofiev. I loved John Barbirolli’s recording of the Mahler Sixth, with its geological, plate-tectonic tempo in the first movement. I also loved Rudolf Kempe’s recording of the Erich Wolfgang Korngold Symphony in F-sharp. I didn’t know at the time that you were supposed to dismiss Korngold as a second-rate overdue-Romantic composer who had found his fortune in Hollywood. The symphony struck me as a vast, dark, towering thing, and it shook me to the core every time I heard it. It still has the same effect. Korngold wrote the piece in 1950, at a time when he had almost given up concert work in favor of Hollywood scoring. Nothing he had done in the past, not even the prodigious operas of his teens, had suggested that he was capable of such furiously sustained eloquence. It was almost as if the ghosts of the German Romantic age had taken possession of him. I can’t improve on what Nicolas Slonimsky wrote in the liner notes: “The lengthy Adagio takes us deep into the sublime world of symphonic art. Not since Bruckner and Mahler has there been such an important slow movement.” I remember listening in the art room late at night, the volume turned up so high that the brass chords splintered in the air.

Previous epiphanies: #34, #32, #17.

Thank you, Goldstines!

Agenda 10/11-10/17

Who says music critics don't work?

Oct. 11: Evening of Joan La Barbara's music at NYU's Frederick Loewe Theatre, 35 W. 4th St., "with live interactive videoscapes by Kurt Ralske and performers including Joan La Barbara and musicians from Ne(x)tworks."
Oct. 12: New production of Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites at New York City Opera.
Oct. 13: Mikhail Pletnev recital at opening of Lincoln Center Great Performers season.
Oct. 14: Sounds Like Now festival at La MaMa.
Oct. 15: Sounds Like Now concert #2.
Oct. 16: Music critics' symposium at 9AM. Sounds Like Now concerts at 2PM and 8PM.
Oct. 17: Music critics' symposium at 9AM. Joint appearance with Justin Davidson at 4PM. Sounds Like Now at 8PM.

Sounds like exhausting.

Taymor's Magic Flute (revised)

Just saw Julie Taymor's debut production at the Met. Since I'm writing a review for The New Yorker, I won't upstage myself by saying anything too specific here, but suffice to say this was one of the most bloody marvelous things I've ever seen on stage — one joyfully imaginative tableau after another, a dream world dancing to Mozart's time. There are only four more performances this fall, all of which are sold out except for a few $300 seats, but five more performances follow in April, with an even better cast — René Pape as the Speaker! Also (special for ACD): Taymor must direct the Ring. People at the Met should be calling her every hour on the hour until she agrees to do it.

CD shelving tips (with Maulina)

Img_1977I have a lot of CDs, probably more than ten thousand of them. To some, this may sound like a windfall, but it gets to be a bit of a problem after a while. When I moved from Brooklyn to the big city a few years ago and faced a drastic reduction of space, I decided to consign large numbers of the little silver wonders to a storage facility. I made draconian decisions about who was staying in the major leagues and who was going to be sent down. Elgar, for example, was condemned to storage en masse. Lately, I've been cocking an ear to Elgar again, and he's returned from exile. The question, of course, is where the collected Elgar will go when Eisler and Enesco have that shelf locked down.

A couple of years ago, I found the solution. It has almost literally saved my life, and I'd like to spread the word to any other suffering souls. It is a plastic CD sleeve put out by Jazz Loft. I'm sure other companies put out similar products, but my loyalty is to Jazz Loft, with whom I just placed another order. What you do is this: you crack open a jewel case, take out the CD, booklet, and paper liner, and transfer them to the plastic sleeve. The genius thing is that you can fold the liner in such a way that you can still read the "binding," though it's at an angle. It takes up about one-tenth the space of a jewel case. I've been able to squirrel away a thousand or more new CDs without needing an inch of extra space. The transfer process is tiresome, but you can make a festive occasion of it, as Pack can attest. I am not, by the way, in any way affiliated with the Jazz Loft company.

To the tune of a concertina

Some excellent Dylaniana over at Zoilus. Apparently Sean Penn is doing the book-on-tape of Chronicles. If not Bob himself, I was hoping for Morgan Freeman. Carl and I are trying to figure out what in heaven's name Dylan is talking about in the Oh Mercy chapter when he unveils his new harmonic system ("If you're using the [diatonic] scale, and you hit 2, 5 and 7 to the phrase and then repeat it, a melody forms"). Has he been reading Schillinger? Is he going to convert to twelve-tone music late in life, like Copland and Stravinsky? Momentary opacities aside, it is a gobsmacking great book. Among other surprises, it turns out that Dylan derived his entire songwriting art from Brecht and Weill's "Pirate Jenny," and that at some point in the early sixties he was listening to the violin concertos of Darius Milhaud. Time to get those out of storage, I guess.

La grande porte

Here's a choice passage from Herbert Breslin and Anne Midgette's book The King and I, a riveting and darkly funny memoir of Breslin's career as manager of Luciano Pavarotti and other would-be opera stars:

I used to represent a Russian soprano named Nina Rautio. Ever hear of her? I thought not. Madame Rautio was someone who was very clear about where she belonged.
“I want to enter par la grande porte,” she would say. Through the big door.
In other words, she wanted to make a big splash. No modest entrances for Madame Rautio.
Her husband, a little Russian man, used to come around the office.
“What is she doing next? Remember, she wants to enter par la grande porte.”
“Well, I’m afraid la grande porte doesn’t exist.”

This is not quite a tell-all book about Pavarotti's antics, though there are many amusing anecdotes. It is really a book about the ineffectual flailings of classical musicians and their handlers in the wilds of American culture. Breslin is a man interested in selling musicians to a large public, and most of them are unwilling or unable to play along. Most are still waiting for La Grande Porte to open: they expect to proceed effortlessly to a now imaginary position of high-culture celebrity. Pavarotti, for all his foibles, was humble enough to work for his fame. There are much bigger fools elsewhere in the business.

Profuse apologies

It turns out I had the wrong address for tonight's Dylan reading in my "Agenda" listing below. I gave the correct address in "Appearances" to the right but somehow failed to notice the discrepancy. Terribly sorry if I sent anyone (i.e., Pack, myself) to the wrong place. It already feels like a long fall.

The umbrella is folded


I picked up Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, thinking that I should have some familiarity with it in time for tonight’s reading. It’s a most goddamn wonderful book, as Hemingway said of Ulysses. The rough magic of the style was to be expected; the novelistic powers of observation are stunning. In one extended sequence, he’s in the library of a friend’s apartment, picking up books, reading parts of them, putting them down, free-associating, evoking the moment he was in and his history between then and now. Maybe he has photographic memory, maybe he took really good notes, maybe he’s making it all up, but who cares when you’re spending time with a mind like this:

I cut the radio off, crisscrossed the room, pausing for a moment to turn on the black-and-white TV. Wagon Train was on. It seemed to be beaming in from some foreign country. I shut that off, too, and went into another room, a windowless one with a painted door — a dark cavern with a floor-to-ceiling library. I switched on the lamps. The place had an overwhelming presence of literature and you couldn’t help but lose your passion for dumbness…
I liked the French writer Balzac a lot, read Luck and Leather, and Le Cousin Pons. Balzac was pretty funny. His philosophy is plain and simple, says basically that pure materialism is a recipe for madness. The only true knowledge for Balzac seems to be in superstition. Everything is subject to analysis. Horde your energy. That’s the secret of life. You can learn a lot from Mr. B. It’s funny to have him as a companion. He wears a monk’s robe and drinks endless cups of coffee. Too much sleep clogs up his mind. One of his teeth falls out, and he says, “What does this mean?” He questions everything. His clothes catch fire on a candle. He wonders if fire is a good sign. Balzac is hilarious.

Then there’s the part where he rides Tolstoy’s bicycle — but enough for now. I'm hoping for a book-on-tape version, and Vol. II before it's too late.

The picture was taken in northern Minnesota, not far from where the Meister grew up, during my endless Bob Dylan expeditions of 1998. Here's the very long article that emerged. More Dylan musings here and here.

Check it!

Two new blogs I dig: CultureSpace and Listen. Latter blog, by critic Steve Hicken, creates and annotates a list of 101 masterpieces of the twentieth century. This is parallel to my own project in The Rest Is Noise (book version), and I'll comment more on Hicken's list and methodology soon.

Agenda 10/4-10/10

Where I go this week:

Oct. 5: American Classical Orchestra's Mozart symposium, 10AM, Christ Church at Park and 60th.
Oct. 6: Bob Dylan panel with Rick Moody, Gary Giddins, Bob Christgau, Sean Wilentz, and yours sincerely, at Barnes & Noble at 86th and Lexington, 7:30PM, in support of the new book Studio A: The Bob Dylan Reader. If I weren't doing this, I'd have liked to see the gifted young organist Paul Jacobs play at Holy Apostles on Ninth and 28th.
Oct. 7: American Classical Orchestra's Mozart concert, Church of St. Vincent Ferrer at Lexington and 60th.
Oct. 8: Debut of Julie Taymor's Magic Flute at the Met.
Oct. 9: Terry Riley's Sun Rings at BAM.

Ockeghem experience

I'm in a state of quiet bliss following Pomerium's concert of Ockeghem, Gombert, Morales, and other Renaissance masters at Corpus Christi Church. Polyphony does wonderful things to a self-fatiguing urban brain when it's sung as impeccably as this. I walked away brightened and becalmed. Something funky happens when the intricate art of counterpoint, this quasi-mathematical interweaving of lines, takes life from singing voices — especially in a near-ideal acoustic such as Corpus Christi's, where the sound acquires an aura of warmth without degenerating into reverberant murk. The emotional and intellectual sides of the musical game are in perfect balance.

At the concert, an early-music insider slipped me Peter Phillips' new book What We Really Do. Phillips is the leader of the mighty Tallis Scholars, which helped reveal Renaissance polyphony to worldwide audiences in the eighties and nineties. It's a most unusual book that talks about the music in painstaking detail while also supplying wry, even scandalous anecdotes about the strange business of singing ancient church music for a living. Who knew, for example, that the Scholars, avatars of timeless sublimity, have on occasion collapsed into giggles in the middle of the performance — a syndrome called "corpsing"? (Perhaps this happened on the occasion the group was advertised in a local paper as the Tallis Sisters.) In his "Singers' Argot" Phillips also gives an entry for "drug-like trance," a state that the Tallis Scholars are often said to produce. He's obviously a bit amused by the choice of words:

I have wondered which drugs might lie at the back of this metaphor: for example the hallucinatory ones which make you see many-colored backgrounds, or the ones that make you giggle. The former would yield an interesting adjunct to the all-round experiencing of polyphony. Perhaps the individual lines would become color-coded like on those improving television programs about how fugues were written that we used to watch as kids in the 1960s; or even better they might acquire their own animals, of which the pink elephants in Disney's Fantasia are so memorable a feature when the music gets a bit contrapuntal. The ones that make you giggle are not always needed (cf. "Corpsing"). But I know what people mean by this. It's just that I never get a chance to sit back as they do and let the music wash over me. I regret this, but the risks of my trying it are too great when conducting, and when it comes to recordings I tend to listen to romantic symphonies for relaxation. Or Tom Lehrer.

Yet at the end of the book Phillips can't resist comparing polyphonic art to the mind-bending effects of abstract painting. "Trance" is not the right word: the mind is not numbed out but made more alert. It is a state of pleasurable perplexity:

It is no coincidence that the paintings of Kandinsky and his modernist colleagues, especially the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock, send me into the same kind of reverie as an eight-part motet by Byrd. The surface is seductive, the meaning obscure, the desire to grasp something that is too abstract to be grasped only causing me to try again and again, a lifetime of agains, a thrall without end.

The New York Early Music Celebration, of which Pomerium's concert was a part, continues through Oct. 10, and the Renaissance masters will figure in several more programs, such as Polyhymnia's on Oct. 6 and the Choir of St. Ignatius's on Oct. 10. The Tallis Scholars themselves will be touring America in December, stopping in Berkeley, Santa Barbara, LA, Toronto, Buffalo, Boston, DC, Princeton, and NYC (the Miller Theatre on Dec. 10). Pomerium sings more Ockeghem at Cooper Union on Nov. 13 and travels to the Cleveland Museum of Art, Cornell, and Colgate. Unless, of course, John Ashcroft gets wind of this and declares Ockeghem an illegal substance.

Here's a piece I wrote in 1998 about the Franco-Flemish scene.

The search goes on

Phrases that have recently lassoed readers to my site: "Hitler Youth cyanide concert," "La Juive shopping cart," "rent a tennis racquet in Toronto," "teen muscleboys," "botched embalming" (#1 on the Internet!), "Radu Lupu is crap" (begging your pardon).


Nationalist insanity is a terrible thing. Once an idea has taken root in a nation, is respected and held in high esteem, how could it not be truth? Who would even dare to doubt it? Language, law, education, the course of daily life — everything confirms it. Whoever does not share in the folly of others is an idiot, an enemy, a heretic, an alien. And if — as is usually the case — this folly is a boon to certain prominent people, or even is thought to benefit all classes; if it has been sung by poets, demonstrated by philosophers, if fame has trumpeted it as the glory of the nation — who would want to contradict it? Who would not prefer, out of courtesy, to share in this folly? Even vague doubts of an opposing folly serve only to reinforce an established one. The disparate natures of peoples, sects, classes, and individuals jostle against one another, and each clings all the more tenaciously to its own point of view. Folly becomes a national emblem, a coat-of-arms, a guild banner. It is frightening to see how strongly folly becomes attached to words, once it has been forcefully imprinted on them…. When taken over by political parties, watchwords previously associated with no concept, signs which meant nothing at all, have plunged minds into madness, sundered friendships and families, assassinated men, devastated countries. History is full of such demonic words — it could yield an entire glossary of human error and folly….

— Johann Gottfried Herder, 1794

Concert notebook: NYPhil 9/30/04

Mussorgsky, Prelude to Khovanshchina: a chilly dawn on the Moskva, but beautifully colored.… The Philharmonic’s program book looks better, exposition up front and dull facts at the back. Time was you’d start off reading about the instrumentation — “Three flutes and piccolo, two oboes and English horn, four clarinets (one doubling E-flat clarinet, another doubling bass clarinet)…”— and fall asleep before the music started.… Tchaikovsky First Concerto: Lang Lang, clang clang…. Choice sentence from Maazel’s bio: “Between age 9 and 13 he conducted most of the major American orchestras.”… Augusta Read Thomas’ new Emily Dickinson settings, Gathering Paradise. Gleaming, Gehryesque orchestration. Ungainly vocal writing, warmly delivered by Heidi Grant Murphy. Shiny happy atonality…. Miraculous Mandarin: wow. Maazel is perfect for this vicious, fabulous score. He could conduct it in his sleep, possibly from the grave.

Strauss and the G.I.s


Cleaning my office the other day, I rediscovered this photo, which was given to me by the oboist John de Lancie. It is of Richard Strauss in the summer of 1945, at his home in Garmisch. De Lancie, who asked Strauss to compose the work that became the Oboe Concerto, sent me an extremely generous letter after I wrote about Strauss in 1999. He commented that he had a hard time recognizing the alternately cold and vulgar figure who was depicted in many books, articles, and portraits; this snapshot, he said, caught the man he knew. De Lancie died in 2002. Opening that letter, and seeing that craggy smile, was one of the loveliest moments of my writing life; it was almost as if I'd had a message from Strauss himself.

The Rest Is Noise, my history of twentieth-century music, begins and ends with tales of Strauss — first, a scene of him presiding triumphantly over the Austrian premiere of his opera Salome in 1906; then, glimpses of him in his last weeks and days, as he muses wryly over his long, strange life. ("I have outlived even myself," he said.) I'm not sure why Strauss fascinates me so. When I wrote in my New Yorker essay that he was the "composer of the century," I did not intend to suggest that he was the greatest composer of the century; there are pieces of his — the ballet Schlagobers, the opera Friedenstag — that seem to gainsay greatness by their very existence. Actually, there is no "greatest composer of the century"; it's a condescending formulation that diminishes a fantastically rich period to a quaint village that one man could be the mayor of. Who would try to pick out the greatest composer of the eighteenth century, or the nineteenth? Yet I do feel there is something profoundly representative about Strauss' work, in all its strengths and flaws. Thomas Mann began his long essay on Wagner with the words: "Sorrowing and grand, like the nineteenth century of which he was the perfect expression, the spirit of Richard Wagner stands before my eyes." That's how Strauss appears to me, except that "sorrowing" and "grand" aren't the right words.

For several years, I have been gathering stories from American soldiers who met Strauss in Garmisch after the end of the war. For some reason I find these tales incredibly moving. If you or anyone you know met the composer in the period from 1945 to 1949, please write to Alex Ross, The New Yorker, 4 Times Square, NY NY 10036, or to axlroth [at] I would love to hear your story. The 10th Armored Division and the 103rd Infantry Division were in the area at the time. Also, I would like to know more about Maj. John Kramers, a military-government officer hailing from Philadelphia, who seems to have been the first American to talk to Strauss on April 30, 1945, the day of Hitler's suicide.

The awesome power of the Internet

My experiment in direct marketing must be counted a triumphant success. Evidence exists that no fewer than three people bought Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's Handel record at my urging. What's more,'s servers have obviously gone haywire as a result of the untold dozens of readers who followed my link there yesterday morning. How else to explain the album actually falling in Amazon's sales rankings? They must be begging me to stop the insanity. Therefore, I am calling an end to my "strike" and will go back to nattering on about Richard Strauss.

Critic on strike

I'm not writing a new post until all 100,000 people who've visited this site since May — I know, 40,000 of the hits are me refreshing the page after making pointless revisions — have bought Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's Handel record. Amazon is offering it together with her similarly soul-transfiguring Bach record for $28.98. Here are some other things you can buy for $28.98: the Swingline 390 Heavy-Duty Stapler, Eric Clapton's There's One in Every Crowd, the Linksys Network Adapter, two pounds of Whey Protein Bodybuilding Chocolate, and a DVD of The Nutty Professor II. The fate of culture is in your hands.

100,000 hits to date

Thank you, Mr. and Mrs. Internet.

Death and transfiguration (revised)

Image004_2Tony Tommasini wrote in the Sunday New York Times: “For too long, the troubles among the major record companies and leading performing arts institutions have been taken as proof that the entire classical music field is struggling to engage an uninterested general public.” Yes. The former leading labels may be struggling to justify themelves to the corporate (non)entities that own them, but Nonesuch, ECM, Hyperion, and Harmonia Mundi have defined the category "major" out of existence, and there seems to be no end of new glories. I dithered over a dozen rave-worthy releases before picking René Jacobs’ Figaro, the Anna Netrebko recital, and Till Fellner’s Well-Tempered Clavier for my CD column last week. Here are six other recent discs that are evidence of something other than an industry in decline:

Handel Arias, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (Avie). I'm running out of superlatives for La Lieberson. What can you say about her singing of "Ombra mai fù"? It is supreme. It is beyond. It is beyond the beyond. It leaves the beyond in the dust. It obliterates. It is absolutely the end. It is the music that will be playing ten thousand miles above the powers that be as they shuffle down to the special hell reserved for those who judge and will be judged. Sorry. Got carried away. It's really good.

Vivaldi, Concertos for the Emperor, Andrew Manze and the English Concert (Harmonia Mundi). Manze’s soul-shivering arpeggios in the finale of the C-minor concerto give you a very good idea of how the composer himself might have sounded at a famous concert of 1715: "Towards the end, Vivaldi played a solo accompaniment — splendid — to which he appended a cadenza which really frightened me, for such playing has never been nor can be."

Bartók, Violin Sonatas, Christian Tetzlaff and Leif Ove Andsnes (Virgin Classics). More white-hot fiddling: the raw rural songs that Bartók heard in Eastern Europe and North Africa dance through the modernist melee.

Monteverdi, Orfeo (Virgin Classics). A cast of young stars — Ian Bostridge, Natalie Dessay, Alice Coote, Christopher Maltman, Lorenzo Regazzo, Véronique Gens, Patrizia Ciofi, Paul Agnew — sing Monteverdi’s genre-solidfying opera better than it has ever been sung in the past. Emmanuelle Haïm draws beauty and mystery from Le Concert d’Astrée and the European Voices.

Bach, Beethoven, and Webern, Piotr Anderszewski (Virgin Classics). A staggeringly gifted young pianist with a Richter-like ability to sustain tension through stretches of perilously slow playing.

Leon Fleisher Two Hands (Vanguard). When I wrote about Fleisher's mesmerizing master classes last spring, I never actually got to hear him play the piano. The dean of American pianists has regained the use of his right hand, and his account of Schubert's B-flat sonata dwells in no one's shadow, not even the master Schnabel's. The encores come first: "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" had me in tears after thirty seconds.

And the hits keep coming — surreally beautiful Ysaÿe solo violin sonatas played by Thomas Zehetmair (ECM); Fretwork's ravishing, revelatory compilation of the sixteenth-century songs of Ludwig Senfl (Harmonia Mundi; with tenor Charles Daniel); the fine young violinist Daniel Hope playing Ravel, Ravi Shankar, Bartók, and Schnittke with an east-west ensemble (Warner Classics); Rachel Barton Pine’s masterly Baroque recital (Cedille). I don't know if it's an age, but it's golden.

Hans Pfitzner Blues Explosion

I've received a few suggestions from elsewhere in the blögôsphère for rock-band-ish classical ensemble names. Robert Gable proposes Joan Tower of Power and the Amy Beach Boys, while Madrigalia (I blush) offers Nissan Doorman, The Vivaldi Underground, Wreckwiem, and Stradella My Ass, Baby. Although the Fredösphere himself has not spoken, he has ventilated his permalinks and prepared an extraordinarily gracious nonacceptance speech for the MacArthur "genius" awards. You can find his original crazy-band-name post here and my response down there.

Dept. of Oops

I just noticed that an error crept into the final copy of last week's column, and I'm surprised there hasn't been a spate of irate letters about it. The Well-Tempered Clavier is not a set of "piano preludes and fugues." Bach was unacquainted with Signor Cristofori's pianoforte invention at the time he wrote Book I. Is this, Sir, what passes now for criticism in the once august pages of the New Yorker? Cancel my subscription forthwith and posthaste. (An editor writes: the word "piano" was meant to go in front of "reading," not "preludes and fugues.") The other mistake in the piece is that it did not mention Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's Handel disc, which I just bought at Virgin Megastore, of all places, and cannot stop listening to.

Agenda 9/28-10/3

My beat this week:

9/28: Music of Phil Kline and Scott Johnson at Merkin Hall. Includes Kline's Zippo Songs and Rumsfeld Songs.
9/29: Michael Webster's workshop opera Hell, with libretto by poet Eileen Myles, at St. Marks Church.
9/30: Augusta Read Thomas' new work Gathering Paradise at the New York Philharmonic. Emily Dickinson settings.
10/2: Mr. Sasha Frere-Jones pimps a panel on pop and politics.
10/2: Frederick Renz leads a 60-piece original-instrument orchestra in Handel's Royal Fireworks and Water Music.
10/3: Pomerium sings sacred music of Gombert and Ockeghem at Corpus Christi Church.

Feline perspectives: Bartók's "atonal" period


Penelope registers the seismographic dissonance of Bartók’s First Piano Concerto, yet the alienated familiarity of the folkloristic material keeps her attention engaged. Plus, the top of the stereo is nice and warm.

The Fredösphere

is my new favorite blog. Fred Himebaugh is an Ann Arbor-based choral conductor and composer whose music, enticingly excerpted on his site, has a hand-carved hymnal beauty. He is also, ja, funny. I posted his variations on the "dancing about architecture" motif below. I've now found his suggested names for sensitive-quirky rock bands of the Death Cab for Cutie type. Favorites are “Anthropomorphine,” “Charismatic Megafauna,” “Orthogonal To Blackness,” “White Like Ike.” (He doesn’t have permalinks, so you have to scroll down to Sept. 20.) As Fred mentions, classical ensembles like Ethel, Eighth Blackbird, and Alarm Will Sound are getting in on this “Huh?” act. Here is my list of possible names for the next generation of would-be hipper-than-thou classical groups:

Majestic Morendo
The Fussies
Karl Ditters von Diddydorf
Collapsing Talmud Edition
Samuel Barber of Seville
Hans Pfitzner Blues Explosion
B8thoven Boyz
The Revolution Will Not Be Chromaticized

Kind of lame, I know. Help me out, blögôsphère (as classical bloggers might be called).

The Toronto gambit

The Times Magazine has a piece today on the lightning-fast world of political blogging. That’s nothing next to the speedfreak intensity of the classical blogosphere (blögôsphère), where, if you don’t respond within seconds to a hot Glenn Petry press release or ArtsJournal posting, you’re left gasping in the dust. That’s what happened to me when Sandow jumped all over the news that the Toronto Symphony has decided to ghetto-ize new-music programming in an annual festival format. You snooze, you lose. Damn you, Sandow! (Irony now ending.) I half-agree with the Sandow take on this — not to condemn the action but to praise it (kind of). As long as orchestras are doing something for composers, I’m happy, and maybe Toronto has seen the future. Classical music has at least two potential audiences — the extant subscriber public, which wants nineteenth-century concertos and symphonies, and a younger crowd, who’d theoretically like a mix of old and new. The institution of the subscription-series premiere long ago turned into a ghastly ritual, generating reams of five- and twenty-minute pieces that served no vital function. Only a few composers are capable of making subscribers happy; John Adams can write only so much. And even he gets dyspeptic reactions from the Philharmorons. If the practice of squirreling premieres in the regular season could be replaced with vigorously marketed new-music festivals, catering to a different audience altogether, cool. But I’m skeptical that orchestras have the will or savvy to pull it off. The unions would probably find a way to quash the concept before it got off the drawing board. Hasn’t this already been tried, q. v. Boulez’s pseudo-psychedelic Rug Concerts? Let’s see what happens in Toronto.

About the about

AC Douglas responds to my post below: "Alone among the arts, music addresses and speaks directly to the center of feeling, bypassing altogether, and with no need of the interposition of, the intellectual faculty." It's an elegant paraphrase of Schopenhauer, who wrote, "Because music does not, like all the other arts, exhibit the Ideas or grades of the will's objectification, but directly the will itself, we can also explain that it acts directly on the will, i. e., the feelings, passions, and emotions of the hearer, so that it quickly raises these or even alters them." I agree with ACD and AS that music can have a tremendous blindsiding effect, but I don't see why other art forms aren't capable of doing the same. Turner's paintings affect me in ways that I could never hope to put into words. Then again, I'm not an art critic, so it's easy for me to gesture vaguely toward the unspeakable sublimity of Turner and leave it at that. (Checking my links, I find that Scott Spiegelberg has written a post almost identical to this one, and more thoroughly argued.)

Felix Salmon has a thoughtful response to my post about City Opera's Daphne last week. He's wrong to suggest that I was trying to be nice at all costs; I simply wanted to avoid repeating myself. But he generally has a good point, which is that classical music critics might be so afraid of injuring their allegedly endangered art that they become, in Spiro Agnew's deathless phrase, pusillanimous pussyfooters. This is a topic for the music critics' symposium next month; Justin Davidson and I have been e-mailing about it. More than once I've heard a colleague say at intermission, "God, this is awful," and then read a review with sentences like, "While the singers were not always in perfect form, the performance was a worthy effort all round." Perhaps I've done it myself. As Justin wrote to me the other day, the important thing is to be both passionate and honest — at once an evangelist for the art and a skeptical recorder of its follies. The prime disease of CM criticism is being polite.

Here is a classic post by Greg Sandow on and around the issues Felix raises. As a rule, I don't like talking about criticism and other critics — it's like yodeling about yodeling. "Not ideas about the thing but the thing itself...."

Breakdancing about bluegrass

The difficulty or impossibility of writing about music is a topic of debate at such estimable sites as Musical Perceptions, Sounds and Fury, and Reflections in D minor. I have to admit I never got that old "dancing about architecture" joke, which has been attributed variously to Schopenhauer, Schlegel, Schleiermacher, and Snuffleupagus. Why is music more difficult to write about than any other art form? Why isn't writing about architecture like sculpting about poetry? Or, to quote some imaginative variations introduced by The Fredösphere, like "yodeling about film noir," "woodworking about virtual reality," "chanting about matchstick cathedrals," "weaving about anime," or "boogying about wabi-sabi"? Here is my choice aphorism: writing about music is like writing.

Boulez as Fonzie

Mr. Sun kindly provides a link to my "top 10" apparatus mentioned below. He also comes up with a briliant aperçu: "If classical music isn't dead, it's at least jumped the shark." For those who don't know, "jumping the shark" is web-generated lingo for long-running TV shows that enter their decadent stages by introducing ridiculous plot devices — for example, Fonzie waterskiing over a shark on Happy Days or the "it was all a dream" season on Dallas. (The genius of Alias is that it has jumping the shark as its premise.) These credibility-destroying moments are usually the work of self-absorbed, burned-out teams of writers. Thanks to Mr. Sun, I think I finally understand what happened in twentieth-century music: we jumped the shark. But, hey, we're still on the air.

Top 10 in depth: Eroica

Img_1936_1A while back I promised to write some entries explaining my rough-and-ready top 10 list for classical music. At the top of the list is Leonard Bernstein's recording of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony, his Third. I picked this recording not because it's the greatest Eroica ever — if pressed, I'd name Klemperer's EMI version instead — but because Bernstein's radio lecture, included with the Sony CD, is maybe the most effective introduction to the intellectual and emotional power of classical music that I know of. Be forewarned: Lenny's Brahmin ahccent makes John Kerry sound like Boss Hogg.

I rambled on about the Eroica in my long essay "Listen To This." (There's the fatal C# in the corner of the picture.) Here, briefly, I'll say that the Eroica is the ne-plus-ultra demonstration of how to develop a theme. "In the beginning was the Note,” Bernstein intoned in another lecture. That's what you hear at the outset: the Note, the Word, E-flats reverberating as total chords. But then what? The Note was what Beethoven perceived in the far reaches of his imagination or felt in the depths of his soul; after the flash of the eternal begins the struggle. It's really not much of a theme, once it gets started. Beethoven had good ideas, but Mozart and Schubert usually had better ones. The genius was in the working-out, the struggle, the creation of a form. Often, the more sundry the ideas, the more astounding the form. The Eroica marks the point at which Beethoven stops trying to conceal his difficulties behind a mask of Mozartean mastery; instead, he brings the struggle directly to the surface of the composition. The music seems sometimes not to know where it is going because Beethoven has no idea where it is going. This is, above all, honest music. Genius sweats and thrashes in real time. I get caught up the human drama time and again: Oh God, I think, this time he's not going to make it. But he does.

Reading Judit Frigyesi's book Béla Bartók and Turn-of-the-Century Budapest, I came across some remarkable sentences by Georg Lukács: "The essence of art is form: it is to defeat oppositions, to conquer opposing forces, to create coherence from every centrifugal force, from all things that have been deeply and eternally alien to one another outside this form. The creation of form is the last judgment over things, a last judgment that redeems all that could be redeemed, that enforces salvation on all things with divine force."

In short, Beethoven kicks it.


"My efforts even in my young days were to rend the listeners' hearts with chords. It's a subtle matter and not achieved by mere discordance. Music is not made agonizing by crude events; it is the contrast between the sweet and the hard that is heart-rending."

— Percy Grainger, as quoted in the notes to John Eliot Gardiner's glorious 1996 Grainger CD (see esp. "Shallow Brown").



Bittersweet jogging playlist for the last hot day of the year: Rufus Wainwright's "Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk," Prince's "A Million Days," Percy Grainger's "Shallow Brown," Melonie Cannon's "Tennessee Roads," Scissor Sisters' "Mary," Kanye's "Jesus Walks," Led Zeppelin's "Since I've Been Loving You," The Walkmen's "The Rat," György Kurtág's Stele. Line that sticks in the head: The Walkmen's "Now I go out alone, if I go out at all" (the influence of Dr. Piazza is obvious).

192 Books is an excellent small bookstore on 10th Ave that deserves the support of local Manhattanites. Orhan Pamuk is reading there tonight at 7PM.

Confession: I don't feel like writing about Stravinsky.

At the Grave of Schnittke


Susan Tusing, professor of music at Andrews College in Georgia, sent me this photograph of the grave of Alfred Schnittke, which she took on a recent visit to Novodevichye Cemetery in Moscow. She thought it might serve to illustrate the guiding concept of my book and site, "The Rest Is Noise," which indeed it does. The deceased composer asks for a very loud (fff) silence (rest), prolonged by an extra beat or two (the fermata overhead).

Some years ago I got into the morbid habit of snapping pictures of composers' graves, the more obscure the better. Here are the final resting places of Fibich, Enescu, and Xavier Scharwenka. And here are my 1992 and 1998 essays on the late Dr. Schnittke, whom I had the honor of meeting a few years before his death, oddly enough at the Watergate Hotel.

Ask Mr. Noise

Christopher Porter recently asked on his blog whether the music of Luigi Nono had any effect on Jerry Goldsmith's score for Planet of the Apes. Embarrassingly, I've never seen the grand original, though I did see the sucky Marky Mark remake. I've been listening to the Planet of the Apes soundtrack, and I'm not hearing anything that positively screams "NONO!" to me, like Lulu on the ropes. Instead, Goldsmith, like Michael Giacchino in the Alias music I talked about yesterday, draws selectively on devices from the 1950s / 1950s generation of avant-garde European tone-setters. The rapid, jerky, non-tonal movement among a pointillistic scattering of notes recalls Webern and his myriad 1950s clones. Tones that slither upward or downward in glissando motion are (to reuse yesterday's coinage) Xenakitastic, also Ligetidelic. The faintly upsetting mix of instrumental and electronic sounds evokes the tunecrib* of Milton Babbitt's electronic pieces. Pounding rhythmic themes for strings doubled by piano are très, très Bartok. Most original to my ear is the mixing of electric guitar with all the above; this is quite unusual for a composer writing in 1968, anticipating Bernstein's Mass (1971). All told, it's fabulously inventive film music, and I'm glad Mr. Porter led me to it. But as for Nono, I no know.

*Technical term meaning Klangwelt, or sound-world.


Hdlegacy20_3Mwanji Ezana, of the be-jazz blog, posts about the seductively implausible TV series Alias, which somehow gives me license to do the same. Jonathan and I recently finished a marathon Alias-watching session that took us through Season 3. We are now thoroughly conversant with The Passenger, The Restoration, The Hour-Glass, and other apocalyptic gadgets of Rambaldi. (This season was a sort of seamless blend of the Revelation of St. John and the Sharper Image catalogue.) I do have a topical point to make: Michael Giacchino writes excellent music for the show, and is particularly adept at 50’s / 60’s avant-garde styles. One or two episodes were essentially Xenakitastic from beginning to end. And I love the musical joke that plays out each week over the closing credits: the main Alias theme is a take-off on “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” Which is what the series is about.

Picture courtesy of the Vartan Hos.

Cooper Union heads-up

I'm told that the indispensable music series at Cooper Union, in NYC's East Village, has no advertising budget, so here is something. The fall schedule includes an evening of John Ashbery settings with Speculum Musicae, Steve Reich & Musicians playing Drumming, Britten's Canticle II together with a lecture on the Abraham / Isaac story, Pomerium singing the lyric-Gothic masses of Ockeghem, and Morton Feldman's minimal-Gothic Patterns in a Chromatic Field. So, this fall you can spend $20 on a ticket and popcorn for some pseudo-artistic Miramax crap, or you can spend it on several of the most fearless works of the last thousand years. How's that for an ad?


The Minor Fall, The Major Lift, darksome scourge of culture journalists everywhere, claims to be calling it quits. Now we can write lazy sentences with impunity. Yet a sadness grows.

Dead rabbit opera #115

I was talking yesterday with a scholar / friend who pointed out another problem with the City Opera's "revisionist" production of Daphne — that the opera is insufficiently well known to be revised. "You have to have seen the Mona Lisa before you can paint a moustache on it," he said.

Orchestras in cyberspace

I recently spent a lot of time online gathering information about the fall musical season. I was struck at the huge, Reger-sized variations in quality among various ensembles' websites, from the dazzling to the deadening, the very cool to the very lame. The topic may seem rather trivial, but you can get a good sense of how organizations think — and how they limit their vision — from looking at their websites.

Drew McManus, proprietor of the hugely informative Adaptistration blog, has done a meticulous ranking of orchestra sites, giving pride of place to the Chicago Symphony. I agree that Chicago's is probably the best of its kind, but McManus' criteria often differed from mine. He declares himself uninterested in aesthetics; instead, he prizes lucid concert information, efficient ticket-buying procedures, and plentiful information about the musicians. That's all good, but I think aesthetics are absolutely vital. And few orchestras are using the Internet to appeal to the fast-surfing interloper who's in search of something new. Websites shouldn't simply provide hitch-free functionality to long-term subscribers (many of whom don't depend on the Internet anyway); they should also sell the music on offer. Chicago, for example, has an excellent page entitled "Discover Classical Music", introducing basic terms and asking questions like "Was Bela Bartók the original hip-hop artist?" (No, but it's one way to get the conversation started.) Such bonus features may well explain why the orchestra now does $2.5 million of its ticket sales online. The National Symphony site, by contrast (McManus #2), is official and bland. "Please allow extra time driving to the Kennedy Center," proclaims the front page. We're told that "The Music of Barbra Streisand" is coming up on the Pops series, though Babs herself is not involved. All told, if I were a DC-based Culturally Aware Non-Attender, I'd look at this, roll my eyes, and go back to Wonkette.

I've commented before that many sites actively conceal whatever novelties the orchestra might have deliberately or accidentally perpetrated. Premieres, like deformed Victorian children, are hidden behind a screen. Consider the Indianapolis Symphony, for example, ranked by McManus at #9. Here is their 2004-5 season overview:

Many great works that have figured prominently in the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's history will be performed in 2004-05 ... Copland's Appalachian Spring ... the fiery Symphonie Fantastique of Berlioz ... Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 and the Bruch Violin Concerto ....Mendelssohn's "Italian" Symphony ... The 2004-05 season will also boast Rachmaninoff's lush Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, the beloved Grieg Piano Concerto, the brilliant Fourth Symphony of Johannes Brahms, Beethoven's "Pastorale" and "Choral" Symphonies, Mozart's "Prague" Symphony, Saint-Saens' "Organ" Symphony, Nielsen's "Inextinguishable" Symphony, Respighi's majestic Pines of Rome, and the romantic Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. Many familiar faces will take part in the Orchestra's 75th anniversary celebration ... André Watts ... Joshua Bell ... Stephen Hough and Louis Lortie ... the dazzling young violinist Leila Josefowicz, and the stunning Eroica Trio....

How prescient of Nielsen to supply his own adjective, removing the need for a "brilliant" or "fiery." (My own First Symphony will be called "The Familiar.") Only by scrolling through the calendar and clicking on each concert headline was I able to discover that the Indianapolis Symphony is in fact presenting four premieres this season, plus several other new or new-ish works. On Oct. 15, for example ("Venzago conducts Bruckner"), the orchestra is playing Brian Current's this isn't silence. Who he? A search for "Current" retrieves the information that "Maestro Venzago currently resides both in Heidelberg and Indianapolis with his wife Marianne, Principal Viola with the Heidelberg Symphony, and their two sons, Mario and Gabriel. He loves to cook Italian-style and enjoys visiting art museums." But nothing about Brian Current. It turns out he's a young Canadian composer whose work For The Time Being is definitely worth hearing (and you can hear it on his site). All told, I'd deduct points for Indianapolis' new-music coverup. Why not explain your new-music programming, perhaps even use it to attract new audiences, instead of dumping it like cold water on unsuspecting subscribers? Chicago, by contrast, takes pride in its premieres and advertises them under a "Music Now" series. The Pittsburgh Symphony supplies pithy descriptions and sound samples for the likes of Berio and Christopher Rouse.

McManus is also an invaluable inside source on the contract negotiations that are now roiling the orchestra world. The biggest stink is in Philadelphia, where players and board members have accused each other of greed, sloth, pride, and all the other deadly sins. To the outside observer, the entire argument seems unbelievably petty, since all involved, including the lowest-ranking orchestra players, have nothing to complain about in terms of salary, benefits, and everything else. Concertmaster David Kim makes $253,000 a year; Philadelphia Orchestra Association President Joe Kluger makes $285,000 a year. Who's dying here? Where's the tragedy? "A squabble between the rich and super-rich," Peter Dobrin of the Inquirer has called it. What I want to know is whether anyone has any strong ideas for saving the orchestra from accelerating cultural obsolescence. From what I know, orchestra unions are too stubbornly attached to the old model — practice, rehearse, play a concert, go home — to accept the kind of flexible, multidimensional approach that the orchestra of the future will demand. Yet chairmen and board members are often too full of themselves to make an effective case for systemic change. Each side blames the other for problems that go much deeper, that are profoundly cultural. Alas, it may take a catastrophic failure or two for people to get their priorities straight.

This rough magic

I'm revising the Sibelius chapter of my book, and feeling awe again for the incidental music to The Tempest, which Sibelius wrote just before the end of his composing career. A few years ago, Osmo Vänskä made a remarkable recording of the complete score for BIS; it shows us a composer working at the very limits of his art, looking into beautifully depopulated musical spaces ("The Storm," "Miranda Lulled To Slumber," "Full Fathom Five") that no one else had ever seen. There is a shadow opera here, perhaps the greatest Shakespeare opera never written. The cue entitled "Ariel Brings the Foes to Prospero" is a precise counterpart to the magician's great speech of renunciation, "Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves..."; the fearsome dissonances of the opening section suggest the dimming of the noontide sun, while the resigned final section shows Prospero drowning his book and abjuring his magic.

My scores of the Tempest suites once belonged to the English composer Howard Ferguson, who died in 1999. I looked him up in Grove and found this summary of his achievement: "Modest though his output was, it involved very few miscalculations and no outright failures." May we all be so lucky.

Strangely riveting

On-line guide to the papers of Morton Kondracke in the Dartmouth College Library.

Scriabin's milkshake


A few weeks ago I mentioned the lurid record jackets that American record companies deployed to promote standard repertory back in the sixties and seventies. Steve Swartz has scanned for me a startling example from the old Soviet label Melodiya. It really speaks for itself, doesn't it? Mr. Swartz, by the way is known to music critics as the ace promotion man at Boosey & Hawkes. He studied composition with none other than Morton Feldman. He is also, I was surprised to find, the expressive lead singer of a jazz-folk fusion band called Songs from a Random House, which combines soprano and baritone ukeleles with viola, string bass, and drums. Their new record is called gListen, and it's a bright, quirky, tuneful work.

In other e-mail news, ace NYC composer Nico Muhly has made a striking theoretical breakthrough in the understanding of a significant contemporary work. At the risk of boring readers with musicological arcana, I will reprint his essay in its entirety:


Finger Cymbal Scheme

1. The 4-bar phrases exist in two formats, here called A and B.
2. The 4-bar phrases alternate between A and B regardless of how they fall on the scheme of verse/chorus.
3. There is a 1 bar introduction.

PHRASE A: Finger Cymbal hit on 4th beat of 2nd bar.
PHRASE B: Finger Cymbal hit on 4th beat of 3rd bar.

We look forward to an expanded version of this analysis in the pages of Perspectives of New Music.

Cage silence

Robert Gable, aka aworks, has put John Cage's 4'33" on his iPod, so that the ambient sounds of his environment periodically interrupt the mad rush of music on Shuffle. It's a delightful idea. Apropos of little, in college I helped to organize a radio broadcast of 4'33" — a performance on Baroque instruments, or so we claimed. It lasted only one minute, because tempos were much faster in the Baroque period, har har.

Daphne debacle

Img_1781I had intended to start the fall season by reviewing the New York City Opera production of Richard Strauss' Daphne. Instead, I ended up doing a quick round-up of recent CDs, to appear on Monday. The Daphne left me feeling totally dispirited — it was miles away from what I'd hoped for. Maybe there is really no way of representing Daphne's transformation onstage: the miraculously beautiful final scene is not simply the mythological rebirth of a nymph as a tree but the composer's own mysterious rebirth in the Germany of the late thirties. (Go here to see Strauss playing this music on the piano a few months before his death; click on "Videos," then "Composer and Conductor.") But we deserved something more than the bizarrely depressing spectacle that City Opera put on stage — the worthy Elizabeth Futral standing forlornly at the top of a column, rain falling on her head. In the wake of Bayreuth's "rotting rabbit" Parsifal, I just didn't feel like bemoaning another harebrained production of a German Romantic masterpiece, one that purports to address historical issues that are better dealt with in history books. (Yes, there were Brownshirts galore.) I hope to write up City Opera on a happier day; I advise curious listeners to skip the performance and pick up Karl Böhm's glorious live recording on DG.

Kiki und Herb

I was going to write an item promoting Kiki and Herb Will Die For You, the legendary downtown duo's Carnegie Hall debut / possible demise, but it seems that the event is sold out, with the exception of some $150 VIP tickets. If you don't know what I'm talking about, here is an explanation.