Thursday, April 26, 2012

year 1: almost done

It may seem strange to be coming to the end of the school year in April, but that's the way it is over here.  What with my earlier promises to give you all an insider's view into graduate school, I thought I might at least let you know what I worked on this semester, in case you might be interested.  But first, important business:

1. Thank you all for voting in the Spring for Music contest.  We almost won!  Hopefully some people reading this have newly discovered the blog from the contest.  Many of the contestants have completely awesome blogs, and it was disappointing to see some of my favorites weeded out when they should have easily taken the cake.  Major kudos to Neo Antennae, one of the finalists, whose blog I didn't know and who is apparently only sixteen!  If I could write that well when I was in high school, I would be some Alex Ross-Justin Davidson-Michael Kimmelman critic fusion-monster by now.

2. Do you live in the Triangle area? Do you know what that is? If you do, will you be there this coming Monday, or the Sunday after that? If not, would you be willing to?

Either way, you should come to: New Music Raleigh!  At CAM Raleigh and Motorco!  I'm playing sax (for the first real gig since, well, I graduated in 2010) on Louis Andriessen's Worker's Union, David Stock's Keep the Change, and, in the second show, the premiere of Duke composer David Kirkland Garner's the machine without horses.  The rest of the crew will also provide Judd Greenstein's Be There, Scott Lindroth's Bell Plates, and John Supko's Into the Night.  Details for both shows here.

3. This is going to be awesome, trust me.  Get ready.

And moving on:

My two big projects this semester brought me to opposite ends of the American musical spectrum: sacred music circa 1790-1844, and secular music circa 1950-1963.  I've never really thought of myself as an "Americanist," but that's certainly the direction I'm headed in.  One came out of an awesome seminar on Copland: an examination of the context of, and circumstances behind, the premiere of his Connotations at the opening of Philharmonic Hall, and Lincoln Center, in '61.  Let's take a listen:

Not exactly Appalachian Spring, right?  So why be so audacious to an audience which included Jackie Kennedy, the Secretary of State, the UN Secretary General, Henry Cowell, Isaac Stern, and a slew of Vanderbilts and Rockefellers?  I wish I had some footage from the CBS live broadcast (it's housed at the Paley Center), where you get to see Jackie chatting up Bernstein and Copland at intermission.  It's a fascinating historical moment, and I was surprised to see no one had written a dissertation about it already.

Anyway, the case I made in the paper basically boiled down to: Copland expressed much concern about orchestral programming in several lectures/essays in the 1950s, and writing a deliberately hostile, serial piece for a New York Philharmonic gala audience was an attempt to advocate for the programming of more difficult music.  Basically, he was doing what I whine about all the time on this blog, but in musical form.  Here's what he said about NY Phil programming in 1956:

"Under such conditions we composers are strongly tempted to ask: What are you doing to our audiences?  Frankly, we have very little confidence when we bring our pieces before such audiences.  Often we sense that the audience that listens to us is not the right audience for our music.  Why?  Because they have not been musically nurtured and fed properly, with a resultant vitamin lack of musical understanding."

What's the solution?

"Every concert should deliberately have an element challenging to an audience, so as to counteract conventional attitudes in music response."

So that's what Connotations is about -- Copland was dismayed by  major American orchestras abandoning younger composers, and by younger composers thus abandoning the orchestra (and the broader public).  In staking out a claim for a style of music popular among his contemporaries and younger colleagues -- serialism was, in many different forms, omnipresent in the late '50s/early '60s -- Copland hoped to incite change.  Unfortunately, it didn't really work (the change, that is; I think the piece itself is pretty great).

And, paper no. 2:

This one's a bit harder to explain.  I initially launched an independent study on The Sacred Harp, a tunebook I've written about here in the past, and in an attempt to find a way "in" to a book which contains over five hundred pieces of music, I decided to focus on two oddities.  Pleyel's Hymn (First) and Pleyel's Hymn (Second) are the only two tunes in the Sacred Harp with the same name; the only two which have a composer's name in their title; the only tunes by Ignce Pleyel, a pupil of Haydn who was actually the most popular European composer in America in the late 18th century; and the only instance of more than 1 tune by a non-American composer in the Sacred Harp, a notoriously American musical tradition.

And that's not all!  I ended up tracing the origins of both Pleyel's Hymns -- they were transformed in Britain from instrumental works into hymn melodies in the 1790s (by composers who were not Pleyel), made their way over to America in the first decade of the 1800s, and slowly weavedthrough traditional hymnals before arriving in the shape-note tradition in editions of The Easy Instructor in the 1810s.  They go through many of the major shape-note tunebooks before finally arriving in the first edition of The Sacred Harp together in 1844.  It's a complicated, twisted history, which I'm not going to get into here.  

The gist of the paper has to do with American conceptions of European psalmody, and how Pleyel's hymns intersect with a big shift in American sacred music in the early 19th century -- the "Ancient Music" movement -- where reformers attempted to eradicate the nativist musical tradition derived from Billings and replace it with simpler (perhaps "blander"), classic European hymns.  Pleyel became a kind of weapon in this reform movement. 

Here's Pleyel's Hymn (originally Pleyel's First; there's some confusion in the recent Sacred Harp revision)

And Pleyel's Second (here incorrectly called the First)

Fairly simple tunes, and very conventional harmonic writing, compared to other Sacred Harp fare:

What's really interesting is that it then hung on into The Sacred Harp, which we usually think of as the quintessential Southern, American tunebook.  That both tunes endured through numerous revisions of The Sacred Harp, and are still in the latest 1991 edition, confound some of our notions about the American exceptionalism of the shape-note tradition.  It's a really complicated story, and one that I'll delve into more in a Master's Thesis next year.


Following a pretty busy school year, I've actually got a pretty busy summer.  At the end of May, I'm off to Vienna for two weeks for the Arnold Schoenberg Center's Summer Academy, with lectures, archival work, concerts, and hopefully hanging with composer-in-residence Helmut Lachenmann.  I'll be giving a paper there (which I'll be writing in the coming weeks) on Schoenberg's band Variations. Many thanks to UNC's music department and graduate school for assisting with funding.

Then we're off to Washington D.C. for eight weeks. I am very fortunate and grateful to have received the music department's Pruett Fellowship, which allows for two months of research and work at the Library of Congress.  I'll be splitting my time between working for the library's special collections and doing my own research -- continuing both the Copland and Pleyel projects.  I'm looking forward to checking out the D.C. musical scene for the first time, and meeting up with all those cool bloggers.

Hopefully this will lead to more frequent blogging -- we shall see.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

What is it, Lassie? Did The Arts fall down a well?

As you all probably know, the contest has ended -- thanks so much for voting!

*This is the final entry in the Spring for Music Blogging Fest. If you like what you see, please vote here.*
"Save the arts? Really? Why do so many people think the arts need saving?
Do we need to save the arts, and if so, what does 'saving' them mean?"

There are three questions here, so let’s address them one by one.

Question No. 1: Why do so many people think the arts need saving?

The “Arts-In-Danger” shtick is a catch-all for a whole slew of problems, from the defunding of education programs to the bankruptcy of the Philadelphia Orchestra to the dangers of pop culture to the avant-garde’s alienation of the broader public. I’m going to speak mostly about classical music here, because 1) it’s what I know and 2) it’s what people are often talking about when they’re having these discussions.

Those who preach The Danger seriously fall into two camps: the sky-is-falling folks like Norman Lebrecht, whose style of apocalyptic tabloid journalism works perfectly with the idea that classical music dies a bit more every week; and people like Greg Sandow, whose attempts to make classical music “relevant” end up taking an extremely narrow view of what art can be in order to find ways in which it can be fixed.

Both branches of this unholy non-alliance miss the point. One ossifies the art form into a kernel of itself, romanticizing a small period of music to encompass the whole thing (the death of a subsection of the recording industry = the death of classical music) and wrapping it up in shouting, Daily Mail-style declinist oratory. The other indicts an entire history and culture of listening because it doesn’t conform to today’s pop culture, blaming classical music itself for its problems. (Like when he claims that the classical music’s irrelevance originated in the 18th century, even though it was perhaps the most relevant form of art in the 19th.)

But is anything actually dying? When we talk about saving, we’re usually talking about one specific thing: the institutions. Carnegie Hall, Deutsche Grammophon, your local orchestra and opera house, if you still have one. The Detroit Symphony clawed its way out of oblivion last year; Opera Boston is over. But if the Louisville Symphony dies, art doesn’t die, right?

Question No. 2: Do we need to save the arts…

So, let’s talk about this need for saving. The arts aren’t about to fall down a well, or get hunted to extinction by Japanese fishermen, or end up in any other situation in which they might require saving. The phrase itself is disingenuous: it’s talking about one specific kind of art in one specific kind of place. A single example never represents the whole – that Joshua Bell subway debacle, to which I refuse to link, only proved that people sometimes need to get to work.

Preservation isn’t exactly a streak that runs deep in our history. Sometimes we preserve; sometimes we don’t. Today, we are shocked to find that tens of civilizations layered their own buildings right on top of Roman ruins. How could you destroy such a monumental chapter in world history to build your houses? But they did. (Take a class on pre-1700 music and you’ll find out just how many manuscripts of masterpieces were copied over with accounting records.) And sometimes, in excavating straight to the Roman “originals,” we risk destroying other parts of our past, digging for one “authentic” truth while ignoring the others. (Try digging through this craziness.)

Mozart and Haydn weren’t classical until long after their deaths. Let’s not forget what Tinctoris said: “There is no composition written over forty years ago which is thought by the learned as worthy of performance.” The musical repertory is a nineteenth-century invention, codified in the twentieth. Go back to the American classical scene in the 1800s, and you’ll find a listening culture that resembles the circus more than it does the symphony – as Daniel Cavicchi writes in a new study, “Leopold de Meyer played fantasies for the left hand while he ate vanilla ice-cream with his right; Wehli played a military piece; when he wished to imitate the cannons, he sat down on the keys in the lowest bass.”

“Saving” can be stultifying, even dangerous. We can end up freezing things in time instead of allowing them to grow. Certainly this happened with the orchestral tradition. Constructing a canon made sense: it justified the orchestra’s existence as a keeper and reviver of historical treasures, guaranteeing its importance.

Now, though, it traps us. In “classicizing” a large swath of our musical heritage, we cut it off from today’s present and the past’s present, cauterizing it from interacting with important components in our society – the very components it interacted with before it became “classical.” Music that was once political, was once humorous, was once dangerous, is now only contemplated; all secular music, no matter how bawdy or irreverent, becomes sacred. A friend of mine was recently shushed for laughing during a Haydn symphony; evidently, the lady next to him felt a sense of superiority about what she was listening to without even realizing that it was a joke.

We could try to “save” some things, not let them “die out.” That might also mean not letting them change, not letting them grow, not letting them morph into more effective, more purposeful, more useful. The separation of the composer and performer was an historical aberration, one we are correcting today. Blow up the opera houses, in the words of '60s-era Boulez, and the ones that replace them might be better suited to the 21st century.

But; and this is a very big BUT: death isn’t always a good thing. The circle of life isn’t the best metaphor for a commerce-driven cultural market, where corporate tycoons can complain that the Grammys are out of touch because the competitor that sold the most albums didn’t take home the prize. Blow up the opera houses, and there is a very good chance that we won't build new ones.

Pure cultural Darwinism—orchestras as for-profit corporations, competing for funds—could give us more cost-efficient, driven, relevance-minded institutions. It might also give us no orchestras at all, if they cannot afford to employ musicians for forty-week seasons and pay for large concert halls. I’m all in favor of a future model of non-classical, touring chamber ensembles that provide a variety of music in a variety of concert settings. But then how will we hear our Mahler? There is about ninety years of music—stretching from Beethoven’s Ninth to Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder—which demands the orchestra that we have constructed for it today (a similar situation exists for 19th century opera; it’s not easy to do without a big house). Yes, a pick-up group can make its way through Beethoven 9, but I’m not sure if I’d want to hear a “Resurrection” Symphony done by freelancers.

And that ninety-year span is a period that we cannot forsake. If we lose Mahler, we endanger erasing a vital part of our cultural memory, a sublime piece of fin de siècle artistic truth. This music is like the Passions, or the story of Passover: we need to tell these stories, relive these stories. Yes, those stories have changed remarkably over the years; but listen to Mengelberg and then listen to Boulez, and you'll realize that Mahler has too. Every couple years, wherever you may live, there should be an opportunity for you to hear this:

Or this:

Question No. 3: …what does "saving" them mean?"

This is the really tough one, and the one that I had to hash out in a long discussion with @haliefrancesca. We want to save the arts; but we don’t want to be elitist, and the ones that need “saving” are the ones which are usually acquired tastes. We want to preserve our great cultural institutions; but we don’t want to artificially respirate things many people don’t like or care about. If the public doesn’t care about classical music, why should we agonize over saving it? And how should we save it without forcing it on people, or re-packaging it as something it’s not?

The answer – or at least my/haliefrancesca’s answer – is the too-obvious one: education. We need better arts education so badly. I’m not even talking about making sure every kid knows how to read music or can name four great Renaissance painters. (Though: a couple months ago I heard a college student--at a good college--ask if it was Picasso or Shakespeare who painted the Mona Lisa.) I’m talking about fostering a sense of artistic experience, giving people hands-on connections to all of music history, local and global – Bach and pipa and Josquin and Ives and Coltrane and Björk and shape-notes. Actually, Björk’s model is a great one: hands-on musical education via iPads and composing, cutting to the heart of the creative experience instead of teaching note-reading and Minuet in G.

And we need to continue to foster that education—without moralizing or dumbing down (that’s the tricky part)—until kids reach the age of independent cultural consumption (it’s earlier every year). We need to train our country to be educated consumers of culture, just how we need to train our country to be educated consumers of food or gasoline.

That is not about forcing them towards a classical path: we need to show everyone all the options, so that when it comes time to make that decision, and find that passion, they make it knowing what choices are available. Democracy is great; we should all be able to vote. But it would be even better if everyone knew why he or she was voting, and what the implications were. Same goes for the arts. If everyone understands what’s going on in all facets of the arts, then we won’t need to artificially revive symphony orchestras or museums – people will go to them, I guarantee it. This looks like a good move; El Sistema is also a great idea.

Today, the problem isn’t that nobody cares about classical music. It’s that many people aren’t even given the choice to care about classical music. So let’s tell them all about it, and find out what they think.


Edit: People have requested the return of Coco and Igor. As a strict populist, I can only satisfy their demands.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

art for all, but none for art

*This is an entry in the semifinals of the Spring for Music Arts Blogger Face-Off. I strongly encourage you to follow this link and vote for Seated Ovation on the right. Thanks!*

Many countries have ministries of culture. Does America need a Secretary
of Culture or Secretary of the Arts? Why or why not?

In theory: absolutely.

Igor volunteers for the position.

I can’t think of anything better, and less controversial, than appointing a Secretary of the Arts.

Imagine a world where the Bang on a Can All-Stars play every year at the White House; where Richard Serra gives lectures at the House of Representatives; where the Wooster Group stages a reenactment of the signing of the Declaration of Independence on the steps of the Capitol Building every July 4th.

Appointing a Cabinet-level position for the arts would demonstrate an astounding level of government commitment. Certainly its creation would mean that it had to be both effective and ambitious in its early years, funding projects across the cultural spectrum with a vast budget, adding a Composer Laureate, Artist Laureate, and Director Laureate to our measly Poet Laureate. Orchestras would have the financial backbone to experiment to a degree previously unprecedented; opera houses across the country could integrate new works into their repertory.

In a decade, we would be Europe, a cultural paradise, with Regietheater and new music festivals in every city. I witnessed a subsidized culture last year in Germany, and it is an experience not to be forgotten. The State Opera of Cologne mounted the premiere of Stockhausen’s Sonntag, constructing two theaters within a massive convention center. Eighteen state museums in Berlin alone covered all of the arts, over and over – an entire, gigantic museum devoted to post-war art alone. A new-music festival spread fifty pieces over twenty-five well-attended events, only ten of which were written before 2000 (11 world premieres, 10 German premieres, 8 festival commissions) One time I saw the President at Fidelio; the Prime Minister trekked out to the middle of nowhere for the opening of an Anselm Kiefer exhibit of cows. When the Queen of the Netherlands came to town, her entourage included the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.

I’m not one of those people who think Europe is the be-all-and-end-all, and a lot of their cultural presence has little or nothing to do with state support. Britain is in a quagmire with regards to government arts funding, and budgets are being cut all over the continent. But an American Arts Czar (Czart?) would be awesome. Really, look at all those departments. Surely we’ve got room for some arts.

And surely we need a Secretary. To have someone with the clout of a Cabinet minister fighting for the NEA, unveiling new initiatives with not only a massive budget but also the public eye, would do a great service to art. The symbolism of the position would send a strong message to American artists that the country cared about what they were doing.

Certainly there was a time in our history when the government paid a bit more attention to the arts, and it wasn’t all that long ago. As Alex Ross recently noted, Harry Truman, who spearheaded the initial idea for the construction of the Kennedy Center, brought scores with him when he attended classical performances. A big portion of the Cold War was about cultural prestige, and that included funding, propagandizing, and proselytizing for American art. It didn’t always happen stateside: we tended to focus on Europe, funding the Darmstadt Summer Courses and Congress for Cultural Freedom to promote anti-Soviet aesthetics. But the Lincoln Center complex itself is a testament to our government’s commitment to the arts in a culture war, a set of living monuments to a society that spent millions on classical music.

But we are living a different kind of culture war today, and it’s not the kind that ends up with $142 million for Lincoln Center. So,

In practice:

Coco says no.

I can’t think of anything worse, and more controversial, than appointing a Secretary of Culture.

It was just a year ago that a certain Study Committee attempted to defund the National Endowment for the Arts entirely. Mitt Romney is campaigning with the promise of cutting the NEA, along with public broadcasting and the NEH. The real battles between legislature and the NEA took place in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but it’s still bundled together with NPR as an enemy of the American people.

Any attempt to create a position at the level of Secretary of Arts/Culture would be a political debacle. Let’s say we somehow actually get the position approved (can you imagine the nightmare of congressional hearings?), and The Secretary drafts an agenda of goals: revitalizing the Kennedy Center; funding an exhibition of American multicultural art which would tour the country and the globe (remember when we used to have arts ambassadors?); appointing a composer laureate; pushing for better arts education in the schools. Pretty modest, right?

Cultural warriors take to their radio shows:

“Obama is trying to force-feed us liberal propaganda paintings.”

“Walt Whitman was a socialist fascist.”

“Liberals want to give $500 million of your tax money to mime troupes and artists who paint with their feces.”

“Composer laureate Steve Reich: more like Third Reich.”

“You know who else was a painter?”

We couldn’t even get America’s nicest rapper to read poetry at the White House without stirring up crazy.

The problem isn’t that we shouldn’t be having a productive national debate about what the arts mean in American culture – the problem is that we can’t have a productive national debate about anything right now, least of all something as complex as art. If it’s hard to argue for throwing money at universal health care, it’s going to be much, much harder to argue for throwing money at a 75-year-old man who likes the marimba. Take a look at this article. It’s absolutely crazy, and it’s probably one of the more in-depth, thoughtful responses to a controversial issue in the arts. Take a complicated subject like that to television, and you’re screwed. (Remember Glenn Beck, art critic?)

Let’s say, hypothetically, the Czart manages to convince the country that Steve Reich, Richard Serra, and Peter Sellars aren’t political liabilities. Then you’ll still have to reckon with the changes of elitism—why is my tax money going to something that most Americans can’t even understand?

There aren’t too many President Bartlets hanging around Washington these days. And there are many, many Governor Ritchies.

It’s not that I’m nostalgic for the past, either – that came with its own set of complications. The construction of Lincoln Center, our cultural mecca, bulldozed seventeen blocks of ethnic neighborhoods and drove 7,000 families out of tenement housing.

And I don’t mean to suggest that just because we might lose a battle, we shouldn’t fight it. If we conceded to conservative ideas about what to spend money on, there wouldn’t be an NEA, Planned Parenthood, or oops I forgot the third one. In theory, we shouldn’t have to fight for the arts – they seem like the least controversial thing in the world. But the reality of today’s toxic political climate is that those things that seem beyond controversy – birth control, UNESCO -- are the ones that we have to spend much too much time fighting for.

Right now, an Arts Secretary would be useless, and thus not necessary. Maybe we would end up with someone with a lot of political clout, but I’m guessing as soon as the entire Fox News crew came running after our Czart, he/she wouldn’t stand a chance (remember this?). Secretary after Secretary would be forced to resign under pressure from various non-existent “scandals.” The attention given to artists wouldn’t be the kind they wanted – suddenly people who had been successful for decades would find themselves “controversial” in the eyes of America.

There are other ways for the government to fund the arts. But, at least right now, a position on the public scale of a Secretary would be a waste of time. I would love to see the Obamas take on the arts a bit more than they have – things looked promising with Karaoke Simple Gifts Inauguration, and they’ve hosted some cultural events, but I want a bit more ambition (they’re trying to raise the NEA budget, but not by very much).

Oddly enough, the best shot at more governmental support for music might be…*dun dun dun* President Newt.

Believe it or not, but Callista Gingrich is a pianist, French horn player* and singer—she majored in music at Luther College in Iowa—and as first lady, would make music education a top priority. So there you have it: vote Newt, and we’ll get not only a colony on the moon, but Space Arts Ambassadors to spread the Maple Leaf Rag around the galaxy.

In conclusion: Yes, we need one. It’s a battle we should fight. But for now, let’s see if we can fix the other parts of our government before adding new ones, and quietly double the budget of the NEA every year.

And, rub my belly.

*Someone please watch that video and explain to me where she gets that syllable accent on French horn, I have never heard that before.

Sunday, April 1, 2012


**This is an entry in the Spring for Music Great Arts Blogger Challenge. If you like what you read, please vote for me here.**

We live in an aggressively visual age; images dominate the popular
culture. But which art form has the most to say about contemporary culture, and why?

Coco says music.*

We may live in a visual age – more appropriately, we probably live in a digital age – but music is still the most consumed art form (besides the Hunger Games and Twilight, of course). Yes, this includes Rihanna, Taylor Swift, Lost in the Trees, and the Arcade Fire, all of which speak to contemporary attitudes and resonate with today’s daily life. But I’d like to hone in on a subset of a subset – the living composer, who writes works that address, critique, and engage with modern living.

Speaking about contemporary society can take on many forms. Artists can hold forth on their political beliefs; they can comment more obliquely on what place art has in today’s society; they can use art to give a history lesson, showing us how we got to where we are today; or they can carve out a space of tranquility, commenting on the relentlessness of daily life by creating a respite from it.

In the spirit of edification, let’s listen to some music and talk a bit about what perspectives it can offer.

First up: music as politics. Agit-prop is an effective political tool, and music has had an important role to play as political commentary – from Marc Blitzstein’s Cradle Will Rock to Britten's War Requiem. Ted Hearne’s 2007 Katrina Ballads acts as both poignant memorial and biting political scrutiny. Each movement of the chamber work sets the words of different figures involved in the disastrous hurricane, from survivors to presidents. In some moments, it gives voice to the victims, casting eye-witness accounts in eerie chiaroscuro -- click ahead to Hardy Jackson, who describes in agonizing detail the loss of his wife:

In others, the work takes on a deliberate political edge. Here, Hearne viciously spins Bush’s famous “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job” into a hiccuping, furious mantra:

This is a work that captures the horror at the senseless destruction of a city, but also the rage at governmental incompetence in saving lives. Plenty of music mourns the dead, but only rarely does a piece engage with the anger of those left behind, or cast blame on those responsible.

Example No. 2: art as release, but also reminder. Music can often act as a kind of narcotic, allowing escape from the burden of real life. John Luther Adams’ sonic landscapes allow one to bliss out for hours at a time, but they aren’t merely escapist: in conveying the vast expanses of Alaska and the brutally slow power of nature, Adams reminds the listener that there are spaces in the world that are fading.

Adams’ In the White Silence, like many of his works, builds massive arcs of sound sustained over Wagnerian lengths. The surface is gorgeous, with hushed, Feldman-esque strings, pealing bells, and plinking harp; underneath, complex mathematical structures lurk, driving the narrative.

Adams once wrote: “Much of Alaska is still filled with silence, and one of the most persuasive arguments for the preservation of the original landscape here may be its spiritual value as a great reservoir of silence.” In works like this, Adams replicates that great reservoir. If climate change and drilling eradicate the Alaskan stillness, his music may be the only thing we have left – a sonic artifact from a disappearing land.

A third thing : Art as history. All artists are obsessed with history in some way, regardless of how heavily they feel the burden of their forefathers weighing down. Some musicians takes on this historical bent head-on, making works which re-create the art of the past in a way that speaks to the present. Revisionist opera directors do this all the time, providing a contemporary note to Don Giovanni or Parsifal. Composers do it as well, arranging Renaissance madrigals or 18th-century string quartets for new forces, treating the past as a playground.

Reinbert de Leeuw’s Im wunderschönen Monat Mai is one of these. Leeuw is better known as a conductor (run, do not walk, to the store to pick up his Messiaen and Andriessen recordings), but this re-imagining of Schubert and Schumann lieder is a masterpiece. Leeuw conflates two of the greatest song cycles of the 19th century – Dichterliebe and Winterreise – and mixes in other classics like the Erlkönig. Composing for actress Barbara Sukowa and the Schoenberg Ensemble, he radically re-writes the past, transforming the 19th century into the early 20th: Romantic art song filtered through the snarl of Brechtian cabaret. Here’s Gretchen am Spinnrade:

I see Leeuw’s piece as one of a vast number of post-1945 works which reckon with the German canon – attempting to grab a chunk of incredible music and liberate (or maybe redeem?) it from what happened to to the whole of Germanic art after 1933. In drawing a bridge between the worlds of Schubert and Kurt Weill, Leeuw re-conceives of the non-political Romantics as participating in the same kind of liberal project of the Weimar Republic as the Threepenny Opera. To be honest, I’m not sure exactly what specifically that tells us about contemporary culture – German or American – but it speaks powerfully. I couldn’t help but include it.

And finally: Music as an alternate perspective. This is hugely important. In the grand narrative of art, certain stories are told again and again: the myth of Orpheus, the lechery of Don Juan, the return of Odysseus. And, though they are re-conceived in different eras and for different purposes, the point of view is almost always the same: the male. We have our central male protagonists, and their marginalized wives, girlfriends, mistresses. That's not to say that any of that art is inherently bad – but there is certainly room for seeing the classic stories from a different viewpoint.

And that’s where Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Penelope comes in. Originally a monodrama by Ellen McLaughlin (it's coming to Chapel Hill soon!), Penelope was transformed into a song cycle by Snider. It tells the story of the wife of a damaged, amnesiac veteran who returns home; to help him remember, she reads to him from the Odyssey, the ultimate story of homecoming.

Conceiving of a Homeric classic from the female perspective has its own lineage – Christa Wolf’s incredible Cassandra tells the tale of the Trojan War through the eyes of its prophet – and Penelope is a truly contemporary retelling. We are situated in an abstract but very real space, one in which the Island of Calypso and the Iraq War coexist. “The story, his story,” McLaughlin’s lyrics read, and Shara Worden breathlessly intones. But the work's title is Penelope, not Odysseus: it is her story. These issues are all too relevant – a huge debate is currently taking place on NewMusicBox about the role of the female composer (to which Snider had one of the best things to contribute). Looking to the national scale, the effects of a male-dominated political discourse are obvious, and inconceivably dangerous.

Too often does great art (and, in particular, great classical music) gaze upon the female. Here, the female gazes back.**

*Yes, starting my post with one of our adorable cats is, in fact, a way of getting votes. I am shameless. And that is the score of one of Peter Lieberson's Rilke Songs. Here's Igor with Reich's Music for Eighteen.

**Please call me out if any of that sounded in any way misogynistic.