Wednesday, August 31, 2011

I see water and buildings

So the tenth anniversary of 9/11 is nigh, and classical music has gone into memorial mode in full force. Rather unfortunately, memorials are the only real political events which classical music institutions summon the power to address (I guess we had the Inauguration). I suppose that’s a given – with theaters owned by the Koch brothers, it’s not easy to find the funds to engage in much liberal activism – but museums of comparable size and scope to some of our orchestras do a much better job of making exhibits both political and controversial.

I’m going to throw out a bunch of ideas in this piece, and I’m sure you’ll disagree with some if not all of them. Bear with me – I understand that this might seem like a very critical, and perhaps insensitive way of approaching this subject, but there are issues which should be addressed. In a few years years I think they will be handled in academia, since the musicology world is currently very preoccupied with the political ramifications of classical music; but there’s things that should be said now, too.

There is a disappointing lack of focus, and perhaps savvy, in how our greatest orchestra has decided to memorialize 9/11. On 9/11, the New York Philharmonic will play a free concert of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony. Now, to be fair, the Phil doesn’t perform Mahler’s 2nd all that often – the last performance was in 2008, and this will be the first with Alan Gilbert – but the more I think about it, the more I think that this is the wrong piece with which to commemorate of the greatest tragedy in recent American history.

The arc of Mahler’s Second is ultimately one of triumph, even triumphalism – a narrative of resurrection. This is a piece with a fairly specific (and very, very beautiful) meaning. Commemoration should be about mourning and remembering, not resurrection. Even taken metaphorically, as a call for spiritual renewal, it does not jive with memorializing death. And before the otherworldly Urlicht and final call to Resurrection, there is almost an hour of phantasmagoria, music which tilts towards the horrific – it’s my favorite symphony, but it has little to do with a sense of mournful peace (better classical alternatives would be the spectacle-oriented Requiems, like those of Brahms or Faure).

The real problem here is the fact that, for our classical institutions, Mahler 2 means everything, and thus nothing. Mahler 2 opens seasons, it closes seasons, it marks moments of happiness and moments of tragedy. As James Oestreich pointed out in a review of a book, Bernstein conducted the “Resurrection” following the JFK assassination, but also led it many, many other times – to celebrate his 1,000th NY Phil concert. Classical music shouldn’t be this versatile; no art should. Yes, we can speak of absolute music without any “fixed meaning” (itself a dubious argument), but we’re talking about a piece with a text, with a narrative arc. There are many meanings to the “Resurrection,” but it does not have all meanings. It becomes not universal but meaningless.

Requiems function better than symphonies for this purpose, I think. And where is John Adams’ Transmigration of Souls? The orchestra commissioned and premiered it nine years ago; it won a Pulitzer Prize, and has been absent from their repertoire ever since (Oestreich has this one covered). We are remembering a distinctly American tragedy; we should be honoring it with distinctly American music.

That said, there are plenty of new commemorations to be performed elsewhere. The Times lists a new song cycle by Jake Heggie, a new opera by Christopher Theofanidis, William Basinski’s “Disintegration Loop 1.1,” and Kronos’ “Awakening” Project – they join the recent Steve Reich and Michael Gordon recordings as well as an upcoming Corigliano commission.

I haven’t heard Reich’s WTC 9/11 yet, but the controversy around its album cover just shows that this can, and should, be a topic to discuss. I’m less interested in the Too-Soon-isms of art making use of 9/11 (for me, it’s a matter of taste, not too soon or too late), but of composers and artists attempting to enter a theoretically neutral world of memorial without acknowledging the fact that they are also engaging in knotty world of music-as-politics.

I listened to Kronos’ great new recording of Gordon’s The Sad Park. What’s striking about the music is that it sounds like plenty of other music by Michael Gordon – and this raises important question for which I don't have answers. Does a composer need to do something new, something different with his musical language, in order to honor an event of such import? And what style of music is appropriate to commemorate recent death?

Theofanidis’ Heart of a Soldier opens next week in San Francisco, and tells the story of one of 9/11’s many heroes. You can listen to an audio excerpt (from an opera workshop) here. Go listen, and come back. It’s pretty confusing – I have no idea what the lines “I wish I could be more debonair/more Fred Astaire” doing in a 9/11 opera. I’m no fan of Theofanidis’ music, and I have a bad feeling about this.

But why? I think it has something to do with a certain airiness to the music, a limpid lyric quality which is common among a group American composers – Danielpour, Theofanidis, to some extent Higdon and Gandolfi (mostly members of the "Atlanta School", if you go by that designation). So is this just my personal taste, or is there an appropriate musical language with which to tell what is probably the most contemporary story (besides Two Boys) we can put in on the operatic stage? I don’t know; when I think of the chaos and horror of 9/11, I think of the bleak terror of a Bernd Alois Zimmermann or the ferocious energy which Adams and Gordon summon in their works.

Among the 9/11 pieces, there are tropes that emerge. The use of the stories or voices of victims, or those related to victims, is almost universal. This has a two-fold effect. It ascribes a specificity of meaning to the music – not just bringing in the human voice, but the human voice intoning words which evoke exactly the events of 9/11 – which link the music inexorably to the event. This specificity means that, unlike Mahler 2 or Barber’s Adagio, the music really can’t be used for anything else – it is performed as a 9/11 commemoration or not at all (in theory).

But this is also a kind of rhetorical strategy. The composers are using voices to construct a musical narrative while setting a text which avoids poeticizing a tragedy – an attempt to, theoretically, present the victims’ voice “objectively.”

But there is no such thing as objectivity in a work of art. Let’s come back to The Sad Park. Gordon discusseed this ideal of objectivity in a piece he wrote for The Score a few years back, but he still hides under the illusion of objectivity. I’m don’t really want to demonize one of my favorite composers for holding very common beliefs – which come unfortunately close to Cold War-era composers’ claims of musical objectivity despite their art stinking of political influence – but they do deserve unpacking. Gordon holds the misconception that politics and music can avoid mixing, that music can be inherently abstract.

No, there is no political message in a Bach fugue, but one can certainly be ascribed to it. Gordon’s definition of music is the one which corresponds to the Schopenhauerian one that, “alongside world history there goes, guiltless and unstained by blood, the history of philosophy, science, and the arts.” (Taruskin argues this the best, in “Afterword: Nicht blutbefleckt?” an article in the Spring 2009 issue of Journal of Musicology.) It is a German Romantic ideal, that the score can exist outside the framework of political circumstance – that only when composers purposefully collide with political themes does their music acquire political resonance.

But if there are political ramifications to commemorating 9/11, then there are political implications of commemorating it with music. We cannot hide behind the veneer of classical music and scrub political meaning from what cannot not be a political event. The New York Philharmonic is a large institution, one with clout, and what it programs matters. Let’s not forget that the White House has issued guidelines about how to honor the anniversary, when, according to the Times, “the world’s attention will be focused on President Obama, his leadership team and his nation.” We shouldn’t pretend that the tenth anniversary of 9/11 can exist in a void of apolitical mourning, especially given the heated rhetoric which has surrounded 9/11 in the past decade (and the numerous ways in which it has been invoked for political posturing).

To go back to the music, I still think that Adams’ Transmigration is the best commemoration for 9/11. It came quickly, premiering on the first anniversary of the attacks. It also feels distinctly American: the situation of place within the piece, with the soundscape purposefully grounded in downtown New York; the dialogue with Ives, our musical founding father (whose Unanswered Question is my definitive piece of somber Americana); the specificity of invoking victims’ names without assigning too much value to any individual victim’s narrative. It feels both remote and close-at-hand, and the clouds of sound allow one to, as Adams wished, hover within a space of memory. It reminds me in many ways of the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, where you can lose yourself in the field of concrete spires, all of different heights – an opportunity to quickly disappear into a world of remembrance, in the center of the city.

And of all the classical commemoration events going on, Music After is the smartest, and most sensitive, treatment. Rather than dramatize or push a narrative, the marathon concert will simply attempt to present a part of New York as it was on September 11, 2001. How many other concerts will do that?

Sunday, August 28, 2011

lurking behind taruskin

Coco questions the merits of reception theory

Saturday, August 20, 2011


First off: apologies for the recent blog silence. In the past month-ish, I have returned from Berlin to New York, then moved from New York down to North Carolina. I'm starting a PhD in musicology here at UNC Chapel Hill, home to all of these great professors and all of these great grad students. It should prove to be an interesting transition, and the hunkering down to do some hardcore study will probably necessitate, alas, fewer posts. I'm also not exactly sure what direction this blog will take. I started it almost two years ago in San Francisco, at the time when I was applying for grad schools. The initial idea was to do reviews plus something else -- whether that something else was snarky editorials, comments on the scene, or quasi-musicological speculation. I wanted to view Chicago through the New York lens, and then I went over to Berlin and took a look at that from an outsider's eye as well.

I'm at a weird position where I started doing music criticism after I started doing musicology -- and never had the intention of becoming a full-time music critic. The blog started off as a fun project (and, I'm not going to lie, a way to get tickets) and then I had the very, very fortunate experience of doing professional work for truly excellent publications. Now that I am devoting so much time to academia, we'll see what this becomes. I can promise you now that this will never be one of those whiny-grad-student-blogs. I also have little interest in publishing my research in this format -- there's a whole different world for that, one that I am keen to be a part of. However, I will talk occasionally about interesting things in my classes, cool stuff coming up at the university, and might even try to demystify what goes on behind the walls of a musicology institution.

The Triangle Area, as it's called, probably does not have quite as vibrant a musical scene as Berlin, but what does? So you'll see fewer reviews here and probably more responses to the classical news -- one of the things I started the blog to do and have strayed a bit from. If you are musician or presenter in the area, feel free to let me know what you're doing. There are some very interesting things coming up at the university as well as at Duke, and I'll keep you informed of things that catch my eye (and ear).

For now, I'll tell you that I'm taking two seminars this semester (along with a methodology class and probably French) -- Professor Evan Bonds's course on Haydn and Professor Garcia's course on Afro-Latin music. You can read descriptions of the program's offerings, including those classes, here. In September, I'm presenting a paper on Bernd Alois Zimmermann and the atomic bomb at UC Berkeley's Music In Divided Germany conference, which will be attended by some terrifyingly distinguished colleagues (read their and my abstracts here).

I will leave you with a picture of the two new additions to the new household -- Coco & Igor

photo copyright

Sunday, August 7, 2011

matsukaze postgame

"Haunting Unpredictability" -- on Toshio Hosokawa's Matsukaze

This was my second article for the Times and my first written in my then home, Berlin (I'm in Carrboro, NC for the next five years or so -- more on that soon!). I should just say that it was a fantastic experience. I was lucky enough to get an unofficial recording from Mr. Hosokawa, and I really cannot stop listening to the piece -- I would wager it is one of the best opera scores of this century. I'm very grateful to all those I interviewed -- Mr. Hosokawa himself, Barbara Hannigan (simply amazing), choreographer Sasha Waltz, dramaturge Ilka Seifert, stage designer Pia Maier Schriever, and Pablo Heras-Casado. Heras-Casado, who led all the performances in all four cities (with four different orchestras! not an easy feat), is conducting ICE in Mostly Mozart on Monday -- he is the real deal, and conducted a spectacular Brahms Double Concerto at Caramoor recently. Go if you're in town.

If you're interested in exploring Noh further, I would recommend Eric Rath's The Ethos of Noh , an in-depth, revisionist history of the form. You can read an English translation of Matsukaze the play here (Hannah Dubgen's libretto is a poetic but fidelitous rendition); oddly enough, of all people, the legendary Paul Griffiths writes his own interpretations of Noh plays--Tomoakira is his latest. Many thanks to Ken Ueno for suggesting preparatory reading, including Takemitsu's must-own Confronting Silence (Peter Burt's Takemitsu biography was also helpful). As far as secondary literature goes for Hosokawa, there's not much -- you can read an interesting lecture he gave in German here.

I hope someone's making a Matsukaze recording (I'm also hoping that someone's considering bringing the Sasha Waltz production Stateside); in the meantime, here's Schott's discography. The Berlin Phil recently premiered his Horn Concerto, which I saw but did not review -- it was great, and you can see it on their Digital Concert Hall (watch the whole concert, it's got some killer Schubert). This, too, is a fine piece: