Saturday, December 24, 2005

More memerie

These memes are really just questionaires of the sort played in parlors in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Musicians played them back then, too. Debussy, for example. The best know questionaires are the two answered by Proust, including such zingers as " What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?", "What is your idea of earthly happiness?" or "To what faults do you feel most indulgent?." The meme going around these days asks for foursomes, so here goes:

Four jobs you've had in your life
: paperboy, dishwasher, silk screener, instrument repairman
Four movies you could watch over and over: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (Houston), The Devil, Probably (Bresson), Repo Man (Cox), The Spanish Prisoner (Mamet)
Four places you've lived: Mt. Baldy, CA, Middletown, CT, Frankfurt-am-Main, Budapest
Four TV shows you love to watch: Ernie Kovacs, The Prisoner, Firefly, You Bet Your Life
Four places you've been on vacation: Chaco Canyon, Cappoquin, Yogyakarta, Delos
Four websites you visit daily: Crooks and Liars, Der Spiegel Online, New Music ReBlog, The Pyongyang Metro
Four of your favorite foods: Birria de Chivo, Larb, Frankfurter Gruene Sosse mit Oxenbrust, Gan Pung Chicken at the Omei in Santa Cruz ca. 1982.
Four places you'd rather be: Dungarvan, Pahrump, Morro Bay, Hortobagy

Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Mozart Year Ahead of Us

The reputation of J.S. Bach took an interesting turn over the course of the "Bach Year" of 1985: he went into the year as the timeless universal musical genius and came out of it as a more parochial and specialized figure of his time, but also a more complex one. It was very useful to hear the church music again as the center of his work (as opposed, especially, to the late speculative instrumental works), but best of all, the quality of performances received a net benefit from the complex picture, happily (for me, at least) resolved into the thousand blooming flowers of performance practice we are likely to hear today.

I am very curious about the upcoming Mozart year. There have already been some serious shots at the bow of the current popular image of Mozart. (Norman Lebrecht's shot is so peculiar, that that it must be parody. Nothing could be more false than when Lebrecht identifies Mozart's music as "dissonance free" (if there is any single characteristic to identify Mozart's music, it's in his unique ability to maximize the dissonance-to-consonance ratio)).

That popular image does deserve some renewal, but it turns on some real subtleties, and I'm not terribly optimistic that those subtleties will be widely taken in. The Peter Schaffer play (and the Milos Foreman film) Amadeus has, for example, taken a central place in the image-making process, but this is due to the fundamental confusion that the play (and film) were biography. Amadeus was not a biography of Mozart; it was quite literally a study in the "love of God" (hence the name) and the creator's apparently arbitrary assignations of gifts on this planet. (It was also a great chance to show off Prague, but that's another case of arbitrarily assigned gifts!)

There are many Mozart's to choose from: the child prodigy, the court musician, or the freelance professional, the virtuoso or the master of simplicity, the provincial Salzberger or the urbane Viennese, the church and court organist or the freemason. Similarly, contemporary performance practice for Mozart's music is anything but the product of a consensus. I have no idea how well Mozart's music and reputation will survive the next year, but I expect that the question of Mozart's balancing between complexity and clarity will play a central role in the discussions to come.

Friday, December 16, 2005

First Annual

For what it's worth, I've now been posting for a year. The original intention was to do a group blog, but the rest of the group never got at it, and that's regrettable. As a solo effort by someone who writes uneasily at best, has children underfoot, has been through an international move in the past year, and usually is supposed to be composing for a living instead of blogging, I haven't been able to offer posts with either the eloquence or the frequency that really invites visitors to come back at regular intervals. My apologies, but also my thanks for stopping by in spite of these deficits.

(I'm still interested in doing a group effort. It could be a good vehicle for promoting new music and the world around it. But it would have to be a group of five to seven composers who are each equally committed to posting at least once a week in order to insure that the readers keep coming back at a regular rhythm. Anyone else?)

Among the musicians in the blogoplan* that I've encountered in the past year, it's possible that I most enjoy reading Fred Himbaugh of the Fredösphere. Now, given our differences in musical taste, religion, politics, etc., I would guest that if he and I were in the same room, it's possible that we'd either turn into pillars of salt or disappear into the interdimensional void in an act of spontaneous and total cancellation. But nevermind, for one of the joys of the blogoplan is never having to be in the same room, and that gives one the luxury of reading with as much or as little distance and passion as one wants. Fred Himbaugh really is a musician who likes to write about music more than himself, and does so always with good humor. That's plain decent.

Moreover, he likes dirigibles and cooking, two interest that are infinitely recommendable in my books.

*blogoplan: the set of blogs known to flat-earthers.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Too busy to post something new so here's that meme I forgot to post in March

You're stuck inside Fahrenheit 451, which book do you want to be?

Gravity's Rainbow. So I can happily quote Proverbs for Paranoids ("You hide, they seek") and tell my kids goodnight stories about Byron the Bulb, gauchos in the Alps, and explain the difference between Rossini and Beethoven.

Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?

Could be. Among her names, my daughter has both Emma and Miranda.

What are you currently reading?

The Parmenides poem, The Winters Tale.

The last book you bought is:

A guide to the archaological sites on Delos.

The last book you read:

Iron Council by China Meliville.

Five books you would take to a deserted island:

Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon
The Recognitions by William Gaddis
The Tempest (I assume that it's no fair to take a complete works!)
The Venture of Islam by Marshall G.S. Hodgson
Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin by Lawrence Wechsler

Saturday, December 03, 2005


Adam Baratz has a nice item about Randy Newman. His comparison with Stravinsky is interesting, although with Newman, it's the names of Schumann, Ives, and Brecht/Weill that first come into my mind, all of them song composers who are able maintain yet simultaneously move seamlessly outside the receieved framework and conventions of the song genre, allowing comment on the genre itself. I agree with Baratz's characterization of Newman as a meta-songwriter, and I'll even go one further. Sail Away (1973) , Good Old Boys (1974) , and Little Criminals (1977) are the finest song cycles of our time, and perhaps the best ever in American English. With a technique that is close to Schumannesque, these cycles allow Newman to combine the everyday riffs and jetsam of low musical cultural into a whole that is smart and startling. Further, his songs are political yet without the usual ephemeral and local qualities of political song. Both Ives and Brecht/Weill are precents and among contemporaries, Chico Buarque (try Buarque's Construcao) is perhaps the only colleague to match Newman's craft and imagination.

Why not the best?

This week, Robert Gable at Aworks is asking:
is Igor Stravinsky America's greatest composer?
I say no. There are real wonders among Stravinsky's American pieces (The Rake's Progress, Agon, Requiem Canticles, The Owl and the Pussycat), but you really want to have pieces from throughout Stravinsky's careet, and a passport can't make them all retroactively American. In my opinion, Charles Ives wins handily (and Cage comes in second, but that's for another post). Here are some pieces that make the case:

The Second Orchestral Set
Second, Third, and Fourth Symphonies
The Piano Sonatas
Orchestral Set Nr. 1 ("Three Places in New England")
Variations on "America" for organ
The Two String Quartets
Set for String Quartet, Bass, and Piano
"Country Band" March
The Unanswered Question
Songs (Afterglow, Ann Street, At the River, The Cage, Charlie Rutlage, The Circus Band, Evening, General William Booth Enters into Heaven, The Greatest Man, Immortality...) and Sets for Chamber Ensembles based on Songs

The Second Orchestral Set is the Ives work which astounds me the most as a composition. Mind, heart, body: all are present. The Fourth Symphony is a work with a strange power; for Americans, a good performance of the Fourth is the equivalent of a good performance of Beethoven's Ninth for Europeans. And the little setting of At the River has everything.

Thursday, December 01, 2005


There seems to be an awful lot of worry out there about the place of serious music in the world, it's getting a lot of bloggish chatter, and some of that is coming from people -- unlike myself -- who really know how to write about music.

I can't agree more with these words from New Yorker critic Alex Ross:
classical music, for all its elite trappings, is actually a radical, disruptive force in American culture, whereas most popular culture, for all its rebellious trappings, is intensely conservative.
A few minutes after reading Ross, I came across an article by composer Cary Boyce at the Sequenza 21 Composers Forum full of reasonable marketing advice to composers, summed up perhaps best by his command: Package yourself well.

At first, Boyce's advice went into my head without registering any serious objections. Some of it I have said myself (e.g. why do so many composers begin their web pages or bios with lists of academic degrees and prizes instead of saying anything about their music?). However, the suspicion began nagging me this morning and has continued to nag at me for the rest of the day that this is probably just about the worst way to think about and care for our music. I believe that treating serious composers as brand names and pieces of serious music as market commodities both economically senseless and musically insensitive.

I believe that in the US a seriously wrong idea about how one goes about making serious music popular has been widespread -- call it the-Leonard-Bernstein-explains-it-all-to-the-kids-model -- although that idea depended largely on a large local audience still close to a recent European emmigrant experience. With that experience edging evermore into the past, Americans are at an interesting juncture now with regard to their European cultural inheritance. It's more of an elective affinity rather than a birthright. Perhaps that's one reason why performers coming out of places like CalArts or Mills are often more exciting interpreters than the cookie-cutter virtuosi turned out by the big conservatories. (Don't get me started on the suitability of the name "conservatory"!)

Ultimately, all I'm interested in are great pieces of music, and I'd like to encounter that music on its own terms. I'll confess to being interested in composers' biographies, but that's from a general interest in intellectual or creative biography, or maybe even vicarious living on my part, but not from any sense that the biography will reliably explain the work.* And even though a composer's worklist gets handled as a kind of track record for commissions and the like, I'm bound to be disappointed if the worklist is the only reason for recommending a new work. I'm more interested in repertoires than in catalogues of individual composers, and more interested in particular pieces than in repertoires, and maybe more interested in my favorite places in pieces than in whole pieces. (There is a series of tutti chords in the first movement of Harold in Italy that are dynamite; too bad you have to sit through the rest of Harold in Italy to hear them).

These are very rough ideas and I've said nothing concretely prescriptive. I've put Marcel Mauss's Essay on the Gift and Hermann Broch's Hugo von Hofmannsthal and his Time on my desk, perhaps they'll bring some clarity to the topic.

* Okay, I'll grant you that knowing that Berlioz had an overwhelming infatuation and then disappointing marriage might help with the Symphonie Fantastique, or knowing that Nancarrow liked good coffee is one way of getting into some of the Studies. But that kind of information is (a) more impressionistic than concrete, (b) may be misleading, possibly getting in the way of your own images, and (c) you can probably get a good handle on the music without any of it, anyway.