Thursday, December 29, 2011

these are a few of my favorite things (this year)

Think of this more as a lazy reminder of things I wrote this year, rather than some kind of apotheosis of year-end greatness. It's me wanting to write a blog post but not really in the mood to say anything new or enlightening.

1. musikFabrik: Easily the most underrated new music ensemble in existence. They turned many of the best concerts I saw into events, not only mastering insanely-complicated music but then playing it while doing some crazy, crazy choreography. See: Rebecca Saunders' Chroma and Poppe/Heiniger's Tiere sitzen nicht at MaerzMusik; Stockhausen's Sonntag in Cologne; an awesome Musikfest concert (technically 2010). Take a glance at their 2012 schedule: all the music you want to hear in New York but never do (Jakob Lenz! new G.F. Haas!).
Somebody needs to bring them to America, asap.

2. Toshio Hosokawa's Matsukaze. I'm just going to go ahead and say that I think this is probably the best opera I've ever seen. I am hopelessly addicted to the unofficial recording I was lucky enough to obtain; the score is a dreamworld of fascinating, beautiful complexity; and Sasha Waltz's gorgeous choreography along with Barbara Hannigan's singing just sealed the deal. Needs to come to the U.S. (Lincoln Center Presents, I'm looking at you).

3. The Berlin Philharmonic. Kind of goes without saying. The best was, as expected, Simon Rattle's Mahler -- particularly the Second and Third, but the Second actually took place last fall so doesn't really fall into this year's best-of. I also recently took in a great concert led by Pablo Heras-Casado in the Digital Concert Hall.

4. Worms' Nibelungen Museum -- totally awesome, well worth a trip if you're trekking across the country.

5. The MaerzMusik festival. I have particularly fond memories of Justė Janulytė’s Sandglasses, Chroma, and Michael Vorfeld's Light Bulb Music

6. Lucia Ronchetti's haunting re-composition of Cavalli's Giasone: another transcendent Gesamtkunstwerk experience, this time on a small scale.

7. Anna Prohaska's breathes the air of another world, in Schoenberg's Second String Quartet: a major talent on the rise.

8. The Hamburger Bahnhof got run over by some reindeer: my numerous visits to Carsten Höller's Soma

That's all, folks. See you in 2012, the year classical music dies.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

end of line

The semester is, for all intents and purposes, over. Yes, I've got a French final on Monday, and I still need to print out and put a Haydn paper in a mailbox, but my first term in grad school is basically done.

What about all that juicy academic insider knowledge I promised you? I apologize for that one; turns out my time needed to be a bit more focused on learning that insider knowledge for myself before I could disseminate it to the rest of the internet crew. But I might as well try to let you know what I did the past four-ish months, so I'll at least have an alibi for not having blogged that much.

Things are a little bit different for me this year because I am actually not teaching -- due to the warm generosity of the Royster Society, for which I am eternally grateful -- so I can't give you the downlow on what it's like to be a TA. It also freed up my time a bit to take some extra things -- French 101 and a music theory independent study where I basically re-learned all the analysis skills I should have known in the first place (still on the docket: 18th century counterpoint, serial stuff). First-years in UNC's program take two seminars per semester as well as a year-long methodologies course. As I mentioned before, I took Afro-Latin music as well as the late instrumental music of Haydn. What that ended up being, research-wise, was two lengthy papers. Let's break it down, for those still paying attention:

1) Textural Networks in Haydn's Opus 76 Quartets

Take a listen. Hear that beginning, a cello solo? That's not normal -- it's actually the only Haydn quartet which starts with a solo that's not the first violin (did I just blow your mind?). Anyway, if you listen closely, you'll notice that Haydn seems to be going for a fugue, and then shies away. The voices enter in ascent -- cello, viola, violin 2, then violin 1 -- but we never get anything approaching a fugue. It's a weird joke, and to an extent one of texture, of how the instruments interact with each other. The bulk of my paper is tracing these textural oddities throughout this quartet, and then going on to expand that study beyond the G-major quartet to the entire Op. 76 set of six quartets. I ended up proposing the idea of a textural network, that Haydn considers texture as a primary structural element and weaves together textural elements so that they reference and play off of each other over the course of the six quartets. It's just another way of looking at what is a truly incredible opus.

The personal why of writing this paper was a deliberate attempt to do more of what I tend to shy away from: stick-to-the-music, note-y analysis. It's one of the skills I need to develop more, so this was a great opportunity to get to know some awesome music and write about it without getting into politics, gender, cultural capital, and all those other fun buzzwords I spend a whole lot of time normally talking about.

2) Dialogue and Stereotype in Hans Werner Henze's Cimarron.

So what does Henze have to do with Afro-Latin music? Not a bad question. Henze lived in Cuba for several months in the late '60s and wrote two pieces, with libretti by Hans Magnus Enzensberger -- El Cimarron and La Cubana, both based on documentary novels by Miguel Barnet. This paper was more of my regular style, using critical theory by Bakhtin and Homi Bhabha to unpack some of the problems -- but also acknowledge the strengths -- of music which appropriates the identity of an escaped Afro-Cuban slave for Henze's and Enzensberger's political purposes. I'm honestly not a huge Henze fan, but I think the Cimarron is a fantastic piece, and sits in a cultural moment that also gave us Peter Maxwell Davies' Eight Songs for a Mad King. However, there is some borderline racist stuff going on in there, and most people haven't addressed it. So I did.

So those were my seminar papers. The methodologies course was also awesome. It's divided into 2 or 3 week mini-units, within which the first-years learn a skill set or theoretical concept from a different member of the musicology faculty: bibliography, interrogating evidence, pop music ethnography, how to re-interpret Schubert like a badass, cultural transfer. Next semester we're doing a mega-unit on the Rite of Spring, and some stuff on new music to boot. Seminar-wise it'll be all about Copland and 15th century Italy (no, not together); and I'm also going to be doing an independent study on the Sacred Harp, during which I will dip into the astonishing resources of our very own Southern Folklife Collection.

I'll be in New York next week to work on some upcoming special projects as well as see My Brightest Diamond/yMusic/The National, Iestyn Davies, Contact! (hey, it's been almost two years since the last one I went to!), Stile Antico, and maybe more. I'll keep you informed, as always.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

truth thoughts

As I’ve delved deeper into the recent history of American music, I’ve become more and more fascinated about the shift—whether subtle or seismic—which occurred around 1980. I wrote about this briefly in my Time Curve Preludes liner notes; Nico Muhly has summed it up succinctly elsewhere. As a musicologist, I’ve been interrogating the concept of periodization, and can’t quite decide if it’s appropriate to declare a new period or style or something happening circa 1980, or whether that’s just a way of furthering a reductive narrative. The term postminimalism is now in the vocabulary, and I think it’s an appropriate one in order to help carve up the history of American music into chunks – I’m just not so sure how worth a task carving up history is.

But Satyagraha happened in 1980, and Satyagraha is a big deal. The Metropolitan Opera’s production, which I took in via an HD Broadcast last week, demonstrates this stunningly. From the very opening gesture, the music expresses, wondrously, what it is not. Listen to Einstein; listen to Music in Twelve Parts. The forcea driving the Glass of the ‘70s feel—and I don’t mean this at all disparagingly—mechanical, infused with a machine energy, driven and propelled forward in a kind of unstoppable onslaught.

Satyagraha is brittle; it is fragile; it is human. We begin with the human voice, a frozen melisma in Hindi, before the cellos begin to bellow their scales. It the voice of Gandhi, astonishingly personified by Richard Croft at the Met, in whose voice we hear immediately the frailty of the music and the message. In Act I, Gandhi is a mere learner, a lawyer in South Africa, and not yet the guide: “I see them here assembled, ready to fight, seeking to please the King’s sinful son by waging war.”

Einstein on the Beach begins with the drone of the organ, which plays a full iteration of its eternal, passacaglia bassline before the chorus of the Knee Play enters with their intoned numbers. Satyagraha’s vocal opening expresses all of the wonders of this subtle/seismic shift, from electric to acoustic, but also from abstract to not-quite-so-abstract. The audience may have no idea what Gandhi is saying, but there is a message.

The greatest strength of the Met’s production is that it powerfully navigates this balance of the abstract and referential, the timeless and the political. The directorial team, Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, unleash a wonderland of newspapers and giant puppets, all of which appear wholly organic – a stagecraft which feels more real than practically any other opera production I’ve seen. Despite being a lover of the music, I had never glanced at the libretto for Satyagraha before going to the movie theater; the images which McDermott and Crouch create, though, carve out a theatrical space which feels visually effortless and immediate while also seeming to allude to deeper relations to the text. The chorus, which sings as narrator and commentator, moves like an actual crowd of people, acting as a signifier for the actual bodies of the masses—inspiring and inspired by Gandhi—as well as the morals of the Bhagavad Gita, on which the libretto is based.

In an intermission interview, one of the directors mentioned the idea of corrugated iron and newspaper as symbols, or even relics, of the colonial era (one wonders how long the visual metaphor of newspapers will last; longer, we hope). Each of the three tableaux features a thematic figure, a sort of angel of history symbolizing the movement: Tolstoy in the first, Rabindrath Tagore in the second, Martin Luther King Jr. in the third. It is a tricky path between universalism and particularism, but the Met’s Satyagraha achieves it just as well as Beethoven’s Ninth. McDermott and Crouch fix the figure in the background for the entire act as a silent but active presence. In the final moments of the opera, MLK gesticulates slowly towards an unseen audience, as Gandhi repeats the same ascending scale over glassy strings: the perfect balance of the hypnotic and the political.

Which brings me to the one gaping problem of the performance I took in. The cast was spectacular, the chorus at its usual level of excellence, and the orchestra sounded superb under Dante Anzolini, though somewhat deadened by the movie theater’s lack of dynamic contrast. But the Met’s HD system is woefully inadequate for this production, and I never felt like I was really experiencing more than 70% of the events unfolding onstage (I was hoping to attend yesterday’s matinee in person but missed out). The problem is inherent in the broadcasting system, which is geared around focusing on singers for close-up shots, attempting to do filmic justice to opera. Sometimes this works: the last production I took in, Peter Grimes, actually looked better in HD than when I went afterwards in-person, because the giant Advent Calendar made it difficult to grasp the individual characters.

But Satyagraha, especially in this production, is a triptych, and like a painting, you want to be able to see the whole thing at once, always. The importance of those historical figures in the backdrop is that they are always present, like the mesmerizing music; cutting away to focus on Gandhi’s face or a swath of the chorus disrupts the hypnosis. McDermott and Crouch conceive of the stage in its whole, but the image was sacrificed for individual moments in an opera in which individuality is anathema. In Satyagraha, transformation does not occur in a single aria or dazzling moment; its beauty, like that of life, rests in gradual, imperceptible metamorphosis.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

another word from hans magnus

Tonight, Juilliard is performing Peter Maxwell Davies' celebration of student protests, Kommilitonen! In light of this, a fun little quote from Hans Magnus Enzensberger:

"A critical rhetoric which transposes the concept of revolution to esthetic categories was only possible at a time when breaking with the conventions of writing (painting, composing, etc.) could still be regarded as a challenge. This time is now over. Proclamations and manifestoes announcing "revolts," "revolutions" of language, syntax, metaphor sound hollow today. It is not by accident that they meet with well-meaning understanding from the ruling institutions and are correspondingly remunerated.

What does it take to be a...revolutionary? From our experience with thousands of applicants we know that not everyone is suited to be an independent salesman. But we also know that there are thousands of able men who don't have the opportunity to develop themselves because of the limitations of their present income.
The world-renowned Chase Group, one of whose by no means insignificant subsidiaries is the Securities Management Corporation, was founded in Boston in 1932. IT offers a solid, even conservative, solution for long-term investments to small as well as large investors. Scientific analysts of the first rank insure a sensible aggressiveness of capital grwoth.
If you are revolutionary enough to work exclusively on a commission basis and work particularly hard the first few months you will create for yourself a winning existence with a winner's income.--
Job offer in a German daily, summer 1968.
-Enzensberger, Commonplaces on the Newest Literature

Friday, November 4, 2011


WQXR has been doing, I'm going to go ahead and say it, a great job lately. Q2 is awesome. They've got a fancy new website. They've gone and hired some bonafide music journalists to write pieces for their site. I'm not happy about the quality of their signal (basically un-listenable in the area of New York I'm from), but I can't complain about much else (though the programming on their main station could be a bit better).

But then there's this.

As Lisa Hirsch raised yesterday: do we really, really need more Beethoven? The answer is, of course, yes: Beethoven is amazing, awe-inspiring, a constant source of new discoveries about life and music (full disclosure: my favorite composer). But do we really need more Beethoven awareness? And do we really want our dialogue about this to be: Obeythoven?

There is a strain of thought, that has been much parsed out in scholarship, about Beethoven; you might not know it if you're not a regular reader of musicology. The Beethoven Myth; The Beethoven Hero; the Cult of the German Genius. To simplify a bit: Beethoven dwarfs all other music, and in doing so, casts a shadow that not only pushes aside other composers but it makes us re-write all music history in relation to him. Huge swaths of great music become mere predecessors to him; other great composers who come after are defined entirely in relationship to him. For some reason, people seem to think they'll die after writing nine symphonies, because that's what Beethoven did (not really, though). Haydn becomes merely a father-figure, the step we had to take to get to the Greater Good of Ludwig.

Beethoven's story is a great story -- the triumph over poverty, the triumph over deafness, the triumph over Napoleon, the triumph over music -- but it's obscured by myth and legend, and ends up distorting our history and, much worse, causing many people to have less appreciation for other wonderful art. He dominates the scene too much -- I imagine that "world premiere" in Chicago got more press than many world premieres of actually new pieces ever have in Chicago.

And here's the thing: there is a ton, a ton, more to say about Beethoven. Don't stop recording his music, don't stop writing about his music, because we haven't even begun to delve beneath the surface here. One of the (but not the only) reasons he ignited the cult of German genius was because he was a German genius. I'm excited for Jeremy Denk's chat tomorrow because he is exactly the kind of person who has new things to say about Beethoven.

But do we really need a 24/7 live stream of his music and a concentrated awareness effort? This could be a fascinating project if we used Beethoven as a prism -- if that live stream gave us contemporary music by Spohr or Haydn, traced performance practice from Furtwangler to Norrington (a cursory glance of their playlist list of performers indicates fairly mainstream, modern orchestra taste), or even gave us some responses to Beethoven, whether 19th or 20th or 21st century. If you want to go stream Beethoven, you can do it virtually anywhere. There's no loss of free recordings. So why not take that 24/7 stream and use it to construct a narrative, to say something about what Beethoven means in 2011? And in light of the anti-authoritarian times in which we seem to be currently living, should the narrative really be to obey? How about to rebel? How about to engage?

ON THE OTHER HAND: I can understand exactly why WQXR chose Beethoven. There is a very, very limited amount of space in the broader cultural sphere for classical music. If we want to squeeze room for something very, very complicated into the unfocused attention span of popular culture, we need an enduring symbol that people recognize. If anyone in classical music has become a symbol in the past few centuries, it's Beethoven. And they have done a pretty good job with this ad campaign (though I question the use of the Obama-Hope-style posters; isn't it possible to do ads these days without just ironically tweaking someone else's idea? And isn't the Shepard Fairey thing a little old now?). I like the idea of a Beethoven workout mix; this is pretty funny. I appreciate them taking the time to think that classical music is something worth giving a viral marketing campaign to.

I'm just curious how broadly this will reach -- if the choosing-Beethoven-because-he-has-mass-appeal will actually have mass appeal. Otherwise, it is not a worthwhile endeavour, and I would much rather see an Adams Awareness, a Monteverdi Awareness, a Josquin Awareness, a Messiaen Awareness, and Ives Awareness, a Stockhausen Awareness, even a Brahms Awareness. This seems to suggest that they're in it for keeps. I'm guessing we will never find out if the money they spent paid off, but I wish them the best. Next time, though, Occupy Beethoven; Obey Ruggles.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

a word from hans magnus

"The funeral procession leaves behind a dust cloud of theories, little of which is new. The literati are celebrating the end of literature. The poets prove to themselves and others the impossibility of making poetry. The critics extol the passing of criticism. The sculptors produce plastic coffins for their plastics. The event as a whole takes for itself the appellation "cultural revolution," but it has more the look of a country fair."

-Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Commonplaces on the Newest Literature (1968)

Monday, October 31, 2011

if it ain't baroque

Reviews! Yes, reviews. Those things that aren't quite the news. I saw two concerts last week, one pretty awesome and the other quite not so. Let's dive right in.

Apollo's Fire, a Cleveland-based Baroque band, kicked off an international tour with countertenor Philippe Jaroussky in an impressively mammoth concert on Wednesday at Duke. The ensemble, conducted compellingly by Jeannette Sorrell at the harpischord, played a mix of instrumental works and opera excerpts by Handel and Vivaldi. The instrumental pieces -- a couple concertos, a couple chaconnes -- sounded highly polished, with particularly searing performances of Vivaldi's flamboyant "La Folia" trio sonata (arranged by Sorrell for the full group) and his brusque, occasionally nutso double cello concerto.

And what of Jaroussky? It took him a little while to warm up -- his first aria had fireworks but not much power -- but by the later excerpts he sounded in full form, with a lovely, radiant tone. In Orpheus's song of loss, from Handel's Parnasso in festa, he summoned tremendous vocal forces to grieve, an aching meshing well with the ensemble's blooming accompaniment. His voice doesn't quite match the fullness of Andreas Scholl, my go-to countertenor, but Jaroussky has a certain appealing charisma and displayed a deft command of the striking ornamentation. His final two arias of the evening, from Vivaldi's Giustino and Tito Manlio (which were followed by several excellent encores) made a dramatic pair: the sagging lamento bass of "Vedro con mio diletto" with gleaming vocals, followed by the blazing coloratura of "Fra le procelle."


On Friday, we got a different kind of Baroque, with Gil Shaham's set of Bach solo works on the UNC campus. Initially, I was impressed: Shaham displayed enormous technical faculties from the outset in the Partita No. 3, with stunning pianissimos, and a continuous sense of line through each movement. But the sound was a little bland, with nothing to distinguish it besides its sheer perfection. More promising was the Sonata No. 3, in which Shaham turned inward, dwelling eerily on the obsessive minor see-saw of the opening, and nailing the uncannily dense fugue.

The program ended, after intermission, with the D-minor Partita, which culminates in one of those sums-of-all-Western-man-achievements, Bach's Chaconne. It was, to put it mildly, a musical disaster. The technique was all there, yes. But from the get-go, it felt rushed, lacking the absolutely necessary weight of such a lofty piece of music (yes, there are many ways to interpret a piece of music; no, you cannot make the Chaconne breezy). Shaham never probed into the music, never glanced at the form, and made no attempt to craft a narrative. No moments were felt; it was an exercise in empty virtuosity, with the only indicators of musical change being his somewhat strangely-placed dynamics (soft is not always profound!). That glorious major section--a kind of heavenly weeping--and its stately descent back down to gloomy earth completely lacked pathos. I didn't time it, but I imagine it must have been one of the quickest performances of the Chaconne on record. I actually wrote in my notes, "I HATE THIS."


Upon reflecting, I realized that the lack of musicality, the absence of insight, was probably present from the very beginning of the concert. I know and treasure the Chaconne, so I recognized when a musical crime was being committed. But, overall, Shaham's Bach lacked the basic musical necessities beyond superb technique.

So what happened?

This was the beginning of a four-city tour, which, by the looks of it, does not really hit any major landmarks for the classical music world. It looks like Shaham has done this program at Wigmore Hall and played the D-minor in San Diego already, but, as his website puts it, this is a "sneak preview." Is it right for top-tier musicians to use a paid event as a way to "try out" new repertoire? (A "sneak preview" is usually something that plays before the movie you pay to see.)

It's a tough one to crack, because I was probably one of a few members of the very, very enthusiastic audience (multiple standing ovations) to be disappointed. What is the role of the critic in this situation? To be the guy who says, "Well, no, that's not the Bach Chaconne. Sorry folks, you shouldn't be enjoying yourselves"? The violinist wants to play Bach; the violinist has clearly spent a ton of time rehearsing Bach (the performances were mostly flawless); the violinist wants to practice performing Bach in public; the audience loves his performance; the lone critic says nay. We are not talking about Lang Lang here, a performer whose status is constantly questioned; Gil Shaham is, as far as I know, universally praised by critics (the Lang Lang comparison is particularly apt here, since he is someone who constantly feels the need, despite his superstar status, to claim himself as a student; thus his "new Schubert phase" inaugurated last weekend).

But the thing is, there was something very wrong on Friday. I can only think of a couple times I have been so remarkably disappointed -- Kent Nagano's bizarro Metamorphosen and the heartbreaking failure of Superman Returns come to mind. It was the kind of shock/anger that made me want to rush to the Interwebs to express it. There should be a higher standard than this -- or, at least, a different standard.

One of my tenets as a critic is that technical perfection is a ridiculous and unfortunate expectation, one created by a century of increasingly polished (and manipulated) recorded music. To an extent, I do expect "perfect" performances out of the Chicago Symphony, Berlin Phil, or New York Phil -- I've heard them do it before, and I'm confident they can do it again. But from soloists or chamber groups, I want to hear something new, something interesting, something daring, rather than something technically flawless. If I wanted to hear the "perfect performance," I would go home and pop on a CD (okay, I don't own any CDs anymore).

So that's why Friday was so infuriating: technique seemed to come at the price of everything else. Those gorgeous softs seemed to be his only real way to express any emotion, or convey the complexities of Bach's forms, and they came somewhat arbitrarily. But (and this is a big but): can you do anything else with solo string Bach? I talked this out with my cellist-in-residence, who agreed that the performance was a remarkable feat technically but lacking musically. Shaham memorized a full concert of fiendishly difficult music, and he was out on a somewhat-oversized stage all alone in front of hundreds of people. If you're playing an accompanied sonata or concerto, there is a certain amount of lee-way in terms of technique -- drop a note here, have a memory slip there, and your partner can pick up for you and keep you righted. With solo rep, and with Bach especially, there is no safety net: a missed note, or, even worse, a memory failure, can completely derail the music. I'm not really sure, in this repertoire, if there is a way to put the musicality in front of the technique; you have to have the technique easily ready, and learn the musicality alongside it, or add it on later (I recommend the former).

We can imagine this kind of scenario: Shaham practiced the repertoire alone (remember, solo rep means there's not necessarily anyone in the room to tell you to play it better, especially if you're a professional), and wanted try it out on a "regional" audience before heading to the big leagues in New York or L.A or the recording studio. Is that right? We can't demand that every performance a person gives is the best one of his life, but is it right to make a place like Chapel Hill your proving ground? On the other hand, the audience was pleased; it was the New Yorker and the professional cellist who were disappointed. It's an unfortunate reality that critics don't discuss very often -- that the New York Performance, for most musicians, is the pinnacle of achievement, that those NYT reviews can really make or break a career. Even if the Carnegie audience might also have loved Shaham's Bach, any discerning critic would have cried foul play.

At the end of the day, all we can say is: it should have been better. And, hopefully, it will get better. Bach deserves it.

Thursday, October 13, 2011


"[Stockhausen] sighed: 'One can't write like that any more today.'...I wondered whether this remarked portended some new doctrine. Were we again to be given guidelines? What did 'today' mean in questions of art? Who was meant by 'one'? And what did these hostilities portend? I would find out soon enough. It seemed to me strange, not to say absurd, that composers, as messengers of a higher spirituality, should want to make life difficult for one another in a way that now became quite common, taking away each other's livelihood, fighting each other like business managers and forming cliques and lobby groups. I found it repulsive, unethical and inartistic -- another reason for preferring to remain alone and refusing to conform. The new arbiters of German music, who were really no more than jumped-up officials and civil servants...were all people I found profoundly unsympathetic."
-Hans Werner Henze

That quote is from Henze's Bohemian Fifths, his insightful memoir (in the full quote, Henze is paraphrasing what Herbert Hubner told him about Stockhausen). I think it is important to remember, as a new generation of composers contextualizes themselves within and against the past, that the postwar period was not all abstract, scientific, or hypermodern. The Zero Hour did not sweep all of Europe -- not even all of Germany -- and the lyricism and subjectivity of today's contemporaries have plenty of antecedents.

Anyway, that was just a springboard to talk about how much awesome stuff is going on in places I'm not, and how much of that is, fortunately, streaming online. I've been using Spotify (the free kind) a ton recently to listen to Haydn (I hope FJH doesn't get mad about royalties). But NPR/WNYC/WQXR/Q2 are doing an awesome job of keeping up with what's going on in the post-Esterházy world. I've been listening quite a bit to the new My Brightest Diamond album -- streaming on NPR -- featuring the-best-thing-ever, aka yMusic. I wasn't familiar with her music before (besides Sarah Kirkland Snider's Penelope, written for her voice), but the songs have a spooky snappiness to them, enhanced by the delicate instrumental accompaniments. It's good stuff. For comparison, WNYC also has a New Sounds concert streaming from earlier this year, so you can see how it all sounds live. And if you're a Naxos Music Library member, you can stream yMusic's own album there, they've got the whole New Amsterdam catalog.

Q2 has been my soundtrack this week (cheating hint: since I lack a smartphone and like to listen to music detached from my computer, I use a stream ripper to download their shows after-the-fact). We've got two new Corey Dargel things -- an electric guitar quartet plus him piece from MATA and then a piece on last night's Brooklyn Phil concert, which I'm listening to now and is, as usual, great. I'll let you know how the Mos Def stuff sounds when I get to it (Sacred Harp! yay!).

Some more streaming things that should be awesome -- tonight, a preview event for Nico Muhly's upcoming Dark Sisters at LPR with the composer at the piano and plenty of really incredible stuff (when was the last time you heard Sibelius songs? Side note: the Dark Sisters website is how everyone should unveil a new piece of music; lots and lots of podcasts). And then on Sunday, the lethal combination of Les Arts Florissants, William Christie, and Cavalli's remarkable Didone on Medici TV. This Saturday, Simon Rattle and the Berlin Phil unveil Jonathan Harvey's Weltethos on the Digital Concert Hall; Pablo Heras-Casado makes his Phil debut the week after; and in early November, Rattle pairs Mahler's Ninth with Lachenmann's Tableau -- it's all here.

When someone (possibly me) writes the history of our chapter in music, it should be as much about the institutions that have granted these fertile, crossgenre (or no-genre) musical possibilities. People like John Schaefer, Jane Moss at Lincoln Center, Deborah Borda in L.A., Le Poisson Rouge, and Q2 are shaping 21st century music as much as any of our very talented musicians. Old histories of music placed the major shifts of the past fully within the powers of the god-like composers. It was Beethoven who paved the road for Romanticism, for the composer as autonomous, freelance agent, servant to no one. In reality the picture is a bit muddier -- the breakdown of the court system and the rise of individual patronage helped ignite the embers of the autonomous musical work as much as any individual composer did. We then move away from wishy-washy ideas of Zeitgeist and begin to talk about how music and musical styles were disseminated as much by institutions -- the churches, the courts, the aristocracy -- as by individual geniuses. We assume that every good young composer is doing this indie-rock alt-classical fusion thing, that this is becoming the dominant style of how music is composed today. Of course it's not. But the institutions programming music, performing music, and spreading music are (rightfully so) supporting this new movement and shaping today's narrative. Their role should not be ignored.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

oh no!

Say it with me: I will not abandon the blog for Twitter I will not abandon the blog for Twitter I will not abandon the blog for Twitter I will not abandon the blog for Twitter

If it looks like I abandoned the blog for Twitter, think again, because here I am writing a blog post. I always intended for Twitter to be a fun side thing, a way to market my blog, publicize my thoughts, and get the people who I wanted to read me reading me. (Did it work?) But then I went from school-taking-up-a-lot-of-time to school-taking-up-a-LOT-of-time so if I'm not spending my free time reading Haydn quartets or being a non-music person then I'm not spending my free time too wisely.

So what was the point of this post again? Oh, that's right -- catching up on what's been going on. Last week, I started a meme! Okay it's not LOLCats but it did take off pretty well. On Wendesday I tweeted ""Haydn the Temptress: Sex, Drugs, and the Op. 76 Quartets" ". Various people jumped in the game (major props to Robinson Meyer for being #2) and once alexrossmusic picked it up ("Teenage Wasteland: The Arpeggiation of Adolescent Boredom in Mozart's Later Salzburg Period" ) it went pretty viral pretty quickly, with musicologists, critics, composers, and randos joining in the game. I wish I had the time to go back and read them all -- you can still see everything if you search on Twitter (be sure to click "All" to view everything), and everybody's favorite musicology blogger MMMusing has cataloged much of it here; NewMusicBox picked up the story and SoundNotion (everyone's favorite new music TV show) discussed it on air and read one of my less-clever ones (is "Ovation Inflation" supposed to refer to me?).

Anyway, of what I read, some of the earliest were the best. I love:
@kylelion "Du cristal: The Influence of Hip-Hop Culture on Kaija Saariaho"
@stravinskyite "Haydn Sikh: Legitimate Indian Classical Tradition or Children's Game?"
@ionarts "The (F)art of Fugue: Hidden Evocations of Gastric Distress in the Chromatic Inflections of Bach's Late Contrapuntal Works"

I am particularly proud of one of mine, "Central Park in the Dark: Ives and Cruising in Gay Subculture."

This will probably be the most fame I reach ever, so I will continue to wallow in it -- the tweets have mostly trickled out, though the real AMS is still talking about it.


If you're in the area, things to see that I unfortunately won't be:
-Tune-Yards is at Cat's Cradle tonight -- I need to get to know her music a lot better, because apparently she's one of those things that new music people love.
-The Cloud Dance Theater is performing on the UNC campus; I have no idea if they're any good, but they're dancing to Toshio Hosokawa (alas, recorded Hosokawa), so they get some streets cred with me.
-That's it for the next couple weeks. Note to all musical things that I love (that means you, everything on New Amsterdam or Bedroom Community or people repped by Amanda Ameer): come tour to the Triangle area. There will be at least 2 happy people and 2 terrified cats in the audience.


Let's talk a bit about Haydn, here. The elephant in the room*. I've been reading David Wyn Jones' concise biography to get a brief overview of the life and timeline of the man, and there is some pretty hilarious stuff. I had no idea that Haydn was a ladies' man, for starters (I guess in perspective, he really only had a wife, a mistress, and another lady lover, but still). There's this choice quote, from a 1790 letter, about his displeasure about having to return to Ersterhaza after a stay in Vienna:

"Here in Esterhaza nobody asks me 'Would you like chocolate, with or without milk, do you take coffee, black or with cream? What can I offer you dear Haydn? Would you like a vanilla or strawberry ice?' If only I had a good piece of Parmesan cheese, especially in Lent, so that I could swallow those black dumplings more easily."

"If only I had a good piece of Parmesan cheese" would be a great title for a killer Bang on a Can remix of Haydn themes.

A few years earlier, when Britain was Lady Gaga at the idea of Haydn coming to visit (he was rumored to be concertizing in London for many years before he actually arrived), the Gazetteer & New Daily Advertiser expressed their dismay at his absence:

"There is something very distressing to a liberal mind in the history of Haydn. This wonderful man, who is the Shakespeare of music, and the triumph of the age in which we live, is doomed to reside in the court of a miserable German Prince, who is at once incapable of rewinding him, and unworthy the honor. Haydn, the simplest as well as the greatest of men, is resigned to this condition, and in devoting his life to the rites and ceremonies of the Roman Catholic Church, which he carries even to superstition, is content to live immured in a place little better than a dungeon, subject to the domineering spirit of a petty Lord, and the clamorous temper of a scolding wife. Would it not be an achievement equal to a pilgrimage, for some aspiring youths to rescue him from his fortune and transplant him to Great Britain, the country for which his music seems to be made?"

Apparently Haydn was not great fan of his wife, but discussing her that way in a public forum is just, well, Lebrechtian. I can also imagine a really awesome Guy Ritchie heist movie where a rag-tag group of Brits infiltrate a castle to whisk away the Shakespeare of music.


Listen to this:

It might sound a bit prosaic; most Haydn, at first, does. But it goes, as most Haydn does, in interesting directions. The fake-out fugue, the insistent unisons, that scholarly counterpoint towards the middle of the first movement; the gorgeous adagio; the weird plucking in the minuet; the bizarre harmony shifts in the finale, with its stormy introduction, which culminate in an uncanny return to the original key of the piece. (I wish there were a better full recording on YouTube than the Budapests; they sound great, but it is very much a "classical" performance and misses some of the brutality of the music. They also skip the repeats, making it a bit less monumental.)

I've spent a lot of time listening to and looking at the op. 76 quartets, and I am thoroughly convinced that they are some of the best quartets out there. As someone who thought of himself as not particularly in love with that genre and not particularly in love with Haydn (I was in definite like with Haydn), this came as a bit of a surprise. But there they are: tours de force of what could be called the classical style at its finest, emotionally wrenching, beautifully wrought.

We've probably moved past the idea of Haydn as the benevolent "Papa," but we absolutely have not moved to the point where we can embrace him in the same way as we do Mozart and Beethoven. It is difficult to wrap our heads around the idea that someone can write 104 symphonies that actually don't all sound the same (they don't! I promise you. Bruckner's 9 sound a helluva lot more the same than Haydn's 104). It's one of the many silly ideas that we clung to from when Romanticism trickled into modernism; can you believe that so many people are still hung up on the idea that you should stop at Nine? Just because Beethoven did it doesn't mean you all have to.

The later Haydn, who so enraptured London as Handel did before him, is a keen and commanding musician. Professor Bonds pointed out recently in class that it is ridiculous that people somehow think that early Beethoven -- the first piano sonatas and op. 18 quartets -- can somehow be on the same level as the mature Haydn, a master at the height of his powers. But we cling to the notion that Haydn somehow transferred his power to Beethoven, that the Classical Style evolved into the Romantic Period, so that Beethoven picks up where Haydn left off, and scrubs off the jokes in the process. Let's leave that behind. I am starting to think of Haydn like Gandalf: formidable, wizardly, and partial to the occasional pipe weed.

*I have no idea what that means.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

bombs and conferences

So that was a long time to go without blogging! Sorry folks. My last post stirred up a debate with, of all people, Alan Gilbert. So much for remaining below the radar. When it comes down to it, of course, these are issues to be debated in the blogosphere and maybe the academic world -- by all accounts, the New York Phil gave a stunning performance and did a service to the victims and those who survive them. I doubt anyone thought, in the middle of the glorious final moments, that it wasn't the right piece for the time.

Anyway, onwards and upwards. Last weekend I went to a conference. An academic conference! And it was pretty awesome. My friend Emily Richmond Pollock, who's writing what should be a fascinating dissertation on postwar German opera, organized a Berkeley summit of scholars to talk about Music in Divided Germany (aka music in Germany from 1945 to 1989 -- though sometimes a little before and sometimes a little after). There were three days of papers, some gripping discussions, and only a mild amount of snark. You can take a look at the schedule here.

I gave the spiel I've been rehearsing for months now about Bernd Alois Zimmermann and the atomic bomb. The short of it is, BAZ wrote at the end of his Soldaten score that an atomic mushroom cloud should be visible on stage; a few years earlier, he also wrote a similar nuclear explosion into the end of his failed opera attempt Les Rondeaux, which never got beyond the libretto phase. I traced the origins of those endings in conjunction with the history of the bomb in Germany -- it wasn't until the late '50s and early '60s (when these operas were written) that Germans began engaging critically with the bomb and the world opened its eyes to what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In light of these historical connections, I compared Soldaten to similarly bleak theories of the philosopher Gunter Anders.

But enough about me, here are some things I learned last weekend:

*What's the most performed German opera written after World War II?

It's Udo Zimmermann's Weisse Rose, which has had over 1000(!) performances since 1967. Boris van Haken, who unveiled the Eggebrecht horrors last year, spoke about the opera's Dresden premiere and its reworking into a version acceptable for West Germany -- he'll also apparently be behind the upcoming Wagner & Jews & Bayreuth & Hitler exhibit coming to Wahnfried in summer 2012.

*Denazification was tricky business. Pamela Potter and Toby Thacker both gave papers addressing issues of denazification -- in Potter's case, the problem of the Third Reich being off-limits to a generation of musicologists because their professors had participated in it and retained their positions following the war. Thacker, who is working on a Goebbels bio now, discussed various aspects of denazification, distancing himself from the common notion that it was a complete and total failure. Musically, it's pretty easy to see how many ex-Nazis went on to have successful careers; but as Thacker pointed out, full-scale denazification would not have been possible hand-in-hand with a continuation of society. American officials were charged with reviving high-level German culture, and the feat of creating full-size orchestras contradicted directly with rigorous denazification. The Zero Hour, like the decade which preceded it, was gray-on-gray.

*Furtwangler wasn't the only one to conduct Beethoven 9 in 1950s Bayreuth. This was a shocker -- I had no idea that Hindemith, in 1953, led the Festspielorchester in Beethoven's final symphony. Everyone knows the famous Furtwangler recording, probably the best ever of the piece.

But for whatever reason (we won't know until the Bayreuth archives are fully cracked), the Wagner brothers invited Hindemith after Furtwangler. Neil Gregor attempted to parse out some of the issues behind it, and the criticism of the performance -- more cerebral than spirited, more classical than Romantic -- is not far from what Boulez would receive a couple decades later when he led his Ring. The question that Gregor raised, which is an interesting one, is how much this had to do with Hindemith's Weimar modernist past, or even his Mathis der Maler days. I'd love to hear a recording, but apparently none exists.

*Stasi was everywhere. So this was pretty obvious, but I had no idea the extent to which the East German state police had infiltrated many, many musical organizations. In the awesome keynote by Amy Beal, Joy Calico, and Anne Shreffler, Calico raised the issue that there still needs to be much research done into what relationship Stasi informants had to GDR musical life.

*Boris Blacher wrote some pretty good music. Emily gave an excellent paper on his Abstrakte Oper Nr. 1, a weird surreal thing, which unfortunately doesn't have a commercial recording. Andrew Oster also presented on Blacher's Die Flut, the first opera written in Berlin after the war (1946) -- a radio opera, which has much in common with the Trummerliteratur being written at the time.

The Brechtian chorus which starts at 3:55 turns outwards, painfully:
"O friends,
Treat this play as a mere soap bubble.
Dream about the colorful spheres,
floating upwards towards the blue sky
only to burst before they reach it."

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:

Sunday, July 31, 2011

thoughts on an experiment

So I definitely made the right choice on Friday. Not only were there five different concerts all worth seeing, as mentioned, but they were also all one-offs: the Poul Ruders opera, the Burgundy Stain session, etc.

Anyway, I went to Gabriel Kahane's and Alisa Weilerstein's concert at Caramoor and I am very glad I did. Full disclosure: I used to work in the Caramoor box office. So I'm not really going to review the concert--Weilerstein's Bach suites, as expected, were excellent, and I love Kahane's songs--but since not much ink has been spilled about their collaborative piece, which received its New York premiere on Friday, I thought it would be worth talking a bit about that.

Kahane wrote Little Sleep's Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight last year as a commission from a couple of patrons--Stuart and Linda Nelson--who asked him to write a piece for Weilerstein. Kahane and Weilerstein have toured around a bit, doing the Bach/Songs/Bach/Sleep's Head thing in a few different cities before making what seemed to be the last stop in Katonah. It's a good idea for a program, though it would also have been interesting to hear them team up on a Brahms or Beethoven sonata (the encore, an arrangement of Kahane's Meritt Parkway for the two of them, made me really want to hear all of his songs arranged for cello and piano).

Sleep's Head is settled uncomfortably--and intriguingly--between song cycle and something else, and it's hard to tell what that something else is. It sets a rather beautiful, somewhat surreal multi-part poem by Galway Kinnel. The cycle alternates between straight songs for Kahane's voice and piano, with cello thrown in, and extended interludes for the two instruments. Everything feels quite fluid, but not without a sense of compositional rigor--the instrumental sections are couched in classical forms (Kahane mentioned to me after the concert the idea of "inadvertent neo-classicism"). The musical language reminded me of the Ives of the Concord Sonata, at once languid and austere. There are some great cello effects, and a couple awesome moments where it's just Kahane's voice and Weilerstein's pizzicato -- including a passacaglia where the pizz lays down the bass and Kahane floats wonderfully on top.

It definitely feels like the first step towards something, a leap into the dark. What I'm interested in--and what interests me about this generation of composers--is how these leaps were made. It's pretty clear that the reason that this piece exists is not out of some genre precedent. Last night I heard a spectacular account of the Brahms Double Concerto, courtesy of Pablo Heras-Casado, Jennifer Koh, Weilerstein, and the Orch of St. Luke's. It is a similarly beguiling idea as Sleep's Head -- a concerto for two instruments? -- but Brahms had as examples the Baroque concerto grosso, the Sinfonia Concertante of Mozart, the Triple Concerto of Beethoven. As one of the first self-consciously classicists, Brahms knew his models. Even if the genesis for the piece spun out of more personal matters (an attempt to reconcile his relationship with Joseph Joachim), it's hard to believe that he also wasn't interested in the piece as a neo-classical project/experiment as well.

If there are precedents for the combination of two instruments and voice in Sleep's Head, you'd have to seek them out, and the links they bear to this work are fleeting at best. The only one that comes to mind are Brahms' Op. 91 songs for alto, viola, and piano, and that's still a wholly different kind of work from Kahane's (and, oddly enough, another spinning-out of Joachim relations).

So even though this isn't spectral or atonal or electronic, it's still experimental, still breaking ground. Kahane is experimenting in the literal sense, delving into a for-the-most-part-unprecedented form, drawing on his training and the artistry of Weilerstein to craft a new piece of music. People who have accepted the false, Hegelian Romantic/Modernist view of musical history--that there's some kind of line of musical progress, where Stockhausen is more progressive than Britten and where serialism is somehow more advanced than tonality--would accept that experimental music only encompasses things that surpass Lachenmann and Sciarrino in hyper-notated effects and hyper-mathematicized forms. That is one road of experiment, but it is not the only one.

Oddly enough, though, the big experiment -- the idea of a piece for voice, cello, and piano -- isn't really the part that lays entirely in Kahane's hands. Those two patrons proposed the idea, and Kahane ran with it. (Not quite, apparently: according to Gabriel, the patrons suggested a sonata and then he came up with the idea for the hybrid) As I've been writing this, I've been listening to Timothy Andres' recomposition of Mozart's Coronation Concerto. It's brilliant and audacious and seems to be the definition of how today's composers approach classicism -- but, as Andres notes, someone else gave him the idea.

I often wonder about where the inspiration comes from, and it's a big musicology question. Bernd Zimmermann developed an extremely complex idea of musical time by reading Ezra Pound and James Joyce, but in his writing it's never entirely clear whether he was truly inspired to create these ideas by Pound's conception of time, or whether he had these ideas brewing and found Pound a convenient justification for his new direction. It's usually a mutual process. The classic example of this is Schoenberg, who takes the notion of Brahms being a kind of secret progressive, the underground progenitor for atonality. In reality, yes, Brahms was a forward-thinking composer, but Schoenberg is really just using Brahms to justify his own stylistic leaps in a classical past.

Who are the people who created the set of circumstances whereby we can hear a version of Mozart's Coronation Concerto that is so faithfully irreverent, or a strange pop song cycle/sonata
hybrid? One big answer, I think -- and one that is fairly obvious but not often discussed -- is teachers. Kahane mentions in an interview in the Caramoor program book that the musicologist Rose Subotnik suggested that he apply postmodern literary criticism to music. Subotnik is one of the many great academics who have helped explode the primacy of the Germanic musical canon in recent decades. It's not insignificant that Kahane learned about musical history from a New Musicologist, or that Nico Muhly has written about Edward Said. The composers who Andres or Judd Greenstein studied with at Yale are not the kind of composers who preach a fidelity to a specific style or set of compositional techniques (feel free to prove me wrong). I imagine that, unlike composers going to school in the '60s or '70s, this generation did not learn that musical or global history is something fixed and canonized. They probably learned that it shouldn't always be viewed with a Western eye, too.

And probably one of the main reasons they hate to put terms on what they're doing -- Olivia Giovetti's The New Canon on Q2 is a noble attempt to lock down what's going on out there -- is that they never had to. Stockhausen came up with a million names for his music partly as a defensive mechanism, the same reason why Schoenberg made such a big deal out of twelve-tone music. They wanted to show themselves as both rebels and adherents to a greatness of the past, but also to justify to critics and their predecessors that what they were doing was important, that it could stand with Beethoven in the annals of history. I can't imagine that Kahane had to defend why he wanted to write a musical and not a string quartet; I can't imagine Greenstein having to defend his love for hip-hop. I think we're beyond that ego trip at this point, and polemics have faded away when there's no one left to polemicize against. *Side note: the lack of something to rage against doesn't make music any worse. Most music before Beethoven wasn't about composers fighting stylistic battles or warring against their forefathers.*

So if we're going to throw around a term for what these people are doing, I would suggest (and only suggest! you don't need to use it, I probably won't) postclassic or postclassical. Alt-classical, besides being an abomination on the ears and minds, implies that there is one way of doing classical music, and this is the alternative. That's never been true; even when classical music performance seemed at its most codified, from let's say the 1930s to 1970s, there were many ways to present a concert. Classical music is a set of practices encompassing hundreds of years and tens of thousands of composers. It's not that that new guys are staking out a place that is an alternative to the Avery Fisher or Carnegie, because many of them have or will play there. It's that the way that they approach Classical Music is inherently not-classical -- it is not overly reverent, not worshipful, not dogmatic. They love the stuff, but they don't love it in the scary way that Schoenberg does. They present it as something living, not something that exists in the ether: friends to hang out with, not gods to pay heed to.

Muhly makes an analogy that I can't locate right now -- a version of it is here -- that genre can be seen like a citizenship or nationality. Classical music is where he's "from," but he travels to other places, lives in other places, has a summer home in some places and a winter home in others. This makes perfect sense for a composer who has actually lived in a ton of places, speaks multiple languages, and studied postcolonialism. It also makes sense for a generation of composers who aren't interested in style so much as styles, where the meeting points between classical and whatever else are ambiguous and impermanent.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

judgment day

So: July 29th is cursed. Yes, you heard me, cursed.

About a month ago, I started looking into concerts that were going on in New York when I would be in town. New opera by Poul Ruders at Lincoln Center?

Sounds promising (although what is up with that libretto?).

Ooh, Gabriel Kahane and Alisa Weilerstein at Caramoor, too?

Awesome. Probably the two best-looking things in the NY area for the second half of July.

Aaand, they're on the same night.

But that isn't all! As I investigated other venues -- in search of other potentially-interesting things to fill out the evenings that aren't July 29th -- I began to detect an eerie pattern.

Thomas Bartlett, aka Doveman, at Le Poisson Rouge, doing one of his Burgundy Stain Sessions? As in, this kind of thing?

Oh, it's July 29th.

Well, at least there's the International Keyboard Festival in town -- what's the best thing they've got going on this summer? Marc-Andre Hamelin, recipient of an NY Times profile this weekend, doing not just Liszt, but Berg and Stockhausen? This guy?

Well, it's a two-week festival, I'm sure it's not... wait. It's July 29th.

At least there's some interesting stuff going on at the Stone, even if they don't have AC. New Albion is in residence? Pauline Oliveros is doing a concert, and it's on the 28th? Phew. And Sarah Cahill's giving a recital? Her of the pianistic brilliance?

With a new Paul Dresher piece -- that sounds even better!

But ah, of course: July 29.

Finally, I check Q2's new New Music Calendar, a compendium of all the new stuff going on in New York. Nothing too interesting, except, what's this? Ted Hearne, the guy who did such a heck of a job on those Katrina Balads?

The July 29th phantom creeps up again, but this time he is defeated! Q2 lists it as the 29th, but apparently it is actually tonight (if only I knew about it sooner, and it weren't 95 degrees).

So, to conclude: five concerts on July 29th along with one that pretended to be on July 29th. Please, New York institutions, try to spread it out next time.

Monday, July 18, 2011

"klassische musik"

A picture of the Air Berlin flight magazine's listing for their classical channel. An undiscovered Britten manuscript, perhaps? (a Billy Budd medley?)

Saturday, July 16, 2011

some departing thoughts

So: today is my last day in Berlin. Here are some slightly random departing thoughts; I'll probably have some more.

What The Classical U.S. Can Learn From Germany:

I can't be sure how much of a difference it makes to have young, attractive ushers working at concert halls and opera houses. But it makes a difference; not being hounded by elderly volunteers, like in the States, is great. And it automatically makes the concert-going experience feel youthful and lively. Of course, when you have young people, you have to pay them; and Germany charges 2 Euro for a program, so I imagine that's where they make up the difference. I'm not sure this isn't a bad idea (though I think we would have a very tough time convincing Americans to suddenly start paying for program books)--it would encourage people to spend less of their concert-going time reading instead of listening.

What The Classical U.S. Probably Can't Learn From Germany:
*The Infrastructure

My mind is constantly boggled by the sheer amount of stuff devoted to classical music here. I would estimate that around a third of the many posters filling the U-Bahn and train stations advertise classical music—sometimes the sketchier “Prague Chamber Orchestra of the Republic of Prague”-type stuff, but often the radio orchestras, opera companies, and occasional new music festival. Several times I’ve actually found out about a concert from seeing a poster and gone to it (something which never happens in the U.S.). And at every concert I go to at the Philharmonie or Konzerthaus, there are at least five or six people handing out fliers or brochures for other venues and concert series. Who are these people? Who pays for this? It’s a bit stupefying (and useful, too: one of the things handed out free, a small magazine whose name escapes me, lists all the concerts in Berlin in a given month and actually has interesting interviews and criticism).

I really don’t know anything about how funding works here, how much of each orchestra or organization’s budget comes from the state, so I have no idea how much of this startling infrastructure is because of a government commitment to the arts. But it all seems to guarantee that even the more outlandish concerts are close to sold-out. I’ve yet to see a Berlin Phil concert with the hall less than 5/6 or 7/8 full; every single concert with their music director sells out far ahead of time, even when he’s conducting Boulez. New music festivals draw a large and diverse audience; chamber concerts filled with mostly Schoenberg works, the kind of evenings that, if attended, would be coughed out of existence in New York, often sell out (and are filled with the older people who hate this kind of thing in America). Nothing really seems to get the crazy marketing push that the New York Phil will do when they’re programming Lindberg or Ligeti. People show up for world premieres and seem to genuinely enjoy them.

So I’m not sure if there’s a “lesson” to be gained from all that. You can’t shift a musical culture to that degree. The sense to which Germans feel that Germany is the home of classical music—the omnipresent statues of composers, the monolithic concert halls integrated into Berlin’s cityscape, the common knowledge of random tidbits of new music trivia—is something totally unique. I’m not sure if the interest in the new exists outside of a progressive city like Berlin, but it does seem that Germany does not have as much of a high culture crisis (or an invented high culture crisis) as the U.S. Yes, the German media occasionally laments the lack of youth interest in classical music, but it’s mostly hot wind in comparison to the much more tangible problems in America (they also lament the incapacities of a government much more functional than ours).

I’ve talked about it before, but I think the key demographic which we lost in the U.S. was the 30-to-45 crowd. We can now market the New York Phil to young people hip to Ligeti; it might be too late to attract subscribers from the generation who grew up listening to ACDC, with The Beatles as high culture (the oldest generation, who still swear by classical music and make up that graying audience, grew up listening to jazz, with Toscanini as high culture; and I’m not attempting to make a highbrow-lowbrow dichotomy here, I’m just riffing on listening habits). I get the feeling that young, wealthy American parents—the people who would be the subscriber and donor base in the future—don’t see classical music as an essential part of their cultural diet.

Germany, or Berlin at least, doesn’t really seem to have this problem. There is a full gradient of ages, from the students to the young-wealthy-and-hip to the not-quite-middle-aged up through the very, very old (who do a very impressive job of not coughing); no demographic really seems missing. Again, I think this is an age-old infrastructure thing: the audience will renew itself.