Thursday, January 26, 2012

a vicious cycle

You know it's the new year when Seated Ovation becomes the homepage for orchestral programming moanfests. Carnegie Hall announced their 2012-2013 season today, and it's a usual mix of awesome and ugh. A Carmina Burana CSO Muti opener is completely uninteresting to me, especially when followed by a classic Muti bizarro sandwich. The ACJW stuff looks good -- a Samuel Adams piece in the mix and some Missy Mazzoli too -- and this Gabriel Kahane concert just looks sensational. And I am 100% in favor of Spring for Music, though some of the programs aren't exactly things I'd want to hear.

I have mixed feelings about the Latin America festival. On the one hand, I admire Carnegie's interest in broadly taking on national musical cultures, which it's been doing for a while now. On the other, I am getting a little bit tired of the Dudamel/El Sistema celebration -- I have nothing against El Sistema per se, I just think there are a ton of great youth orchestras out there and I'd like to see them represented as well. (It would also be nice to see some classical/avant-garde voices from Cuba, like Leo Brouwer).

But the cycle, oh, the cycle. A year from now, Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra will be doing all nine Beethoven symphonies in four concerts. (Note that JGE's Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique is already doing one all-Beethoven concert in the fall.). We've got Numbers 1, 8, and 5 in one concert; 4 and 3 in another; 6 and 7 in a third; and to round it off, 2 and 9.

Symphony cycles, along with heaps of music by the same composer in one or a series of concerts, have become the norm in orchestra programming. In L.A., we've got The Mahler Project. In Pittsburgh, The Beethoven Project. In Pierre-Laurent Aimard, we've got The Liszt Project (okay, that one's a little different). The New York Phil will be doing their Modern Beethoven soon.

I object wholeheartedly (wholeheartedly!) to this trend.

For starters: it's boring. I can think of few things less creative than slapping together a bunch of symphonies by the same composer, and pretending it's some kind of ambitious project. Yes, the audience will make connections between early Beethoven and late Beethoven, or Mahler's First and Mahler's Ninth (every critic always mentions this when the cycle happens, as if it's crazy that the Eroica might resemble the Ninth Symphony).

That's not innovative at all. Innovative could be saying: what's going on with the Eroica? One could provide a directly historical context (who else wrote symphonies in 1804?), broader cultural resonances (what other works echo the revolutionary might of the Eroica?), resonances with the past (what other composers wrote antecedents to the Eroica? what other Beethoven works that maybe aren't symphonies lead up to the Eroica?), resonances with the future (what did the Eroica inspire?), or, my personal fave, resonances with the far future (what contemporary music jells nicely with the Eroica?). At least thinking about these questions helps a little bit.

That's not to mention the alarm bells which go off in my head, the more I think about the cycle concept from a critical-musicological perspective. The entire concept of a symphony cycle was invented by record labels and high-profile conductors to sell box sets (feel free to correct me on this) -- it's continued by orchestras eager to show off their wares and push in-house label complete sets. It's foreign to Mahler and Beethoven, but for the latter, to me, it seems particularly wrong-headed.

Traditional orchestral programming from the, say, 1950s to 1990s, consisted of something like those Muti sandwiches: your overture, your concerto, your symphony (before that, it was a mixed bag approach). These days, you still get some of that, but what conductors (and ESPECIALLY Music Directors) want to do is present A Big Piece: your Bruckner, Mahler, or Shostakovich evening-length symphony. It shows off the orchestra, it sells tickets, and it sells the inevitable albums which promote the orchestra internationally as one capable of making a big sound for seventy minutes. None of these things is necessarily bad -- I'm very guilty of wanting to attend Mahler concerts more than any other -- but it's unfortunately endemic. I'm almost glad Muti is around to provide some weird-ass rep for Chicago instead of just delivering Mahler after Bruckner after Mahler.

And Mahler is a composer whose symphonies, from Number 1, do span worlds. Putting them together in seven to nine nights is a moderately terrible thing to do, not allowing the music to breathe, but the grand gesture of it kind of makes sense -- creating a super-opus out of super opuses. But the Beethoven thing seems, to me, like attempting to turn a composer who wasn't a fin de siecle maximalist into one who was. Grafting together Nine Symphonies into one megathon is the equivalent of turning Beethoven into Mahler. When Beethoven started writing symphonies, no one was making any claims that they represented the world. Philosophically, Beethoven's First and Second are no different from the symphonies of Haydn or Mozart -- they don't lend themselves to a maximalist approach.

Take a look at Beethoven's 1808 marathon concert: Yes, you had the premieres of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, but you also got a piano concerto, mass movements, the Choral Fantasy, a concert aria, and some piano improv. Besides Lincoln Center's replication, where else will you get an event in that spirit?

Instead, we have the Beethoven symphonies as one mega-symphony, with all roads heading towards the Ninth. Can you imagine ending a Beethoven cycle on a symphony that wasn't the Ninth? At first it sounds crazy, but think about it: it might actually be more interesting to hear the Ninth first, and work your way backwards, having the sound of late Beethoven in your ears when you hear the earlier stuff. Or maybe take 3 Beethoven symphonies and pair them with music of his predecessors -- we don't always have to move forward, we can move backward too. Or do late Beethoven with late Mozart, or early Beethoven with late Haydn. Or something with Spohr! Think a little! It won't make your brain explode, I promise.

But still, the appeal is obvious. A symphony cycle creates a spectacle, an event around which to rally, and that is something that classical music always needs. I just wish that there were fewer projects, and more actual projects (like this one).

*Note: I am against the cycle as a concept, EXCEPT for this, which will be the best thing ever.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

shaping notes

This is turning into quite the American semester. (That's a better lead than "Sorry for not blogging.") Between a Copland seminar and a Sacred Harp independent study, I've got America on my mind. I meant to do a long thing at some point in the fall about Ives, Hilary Hahn's great CD, 9/11, and Occupy, but that somehow slipped away into the ether. But shape notes! Now that's something worth talking about.

Shape notes are quite the rage these days. The Brooklyn Youth Chorus sang Am I Born to Die at a New Sounds Live concert last October, followed by David T. Little's Am I Born, a remix of sorts (it looks like they're reprising it in March). On Friday, the Asphalt Orchestra is playing arrangements of shape note tunes in the Met Museum's new American Wing, apparently inspired by field recordings from the '40s-'60s (which ones?). The Brooklyn Youth Chorus and Brooklyn Phil are also sponsoring a shape note sing-a-long on February 26.

Unfortunately, the audio for the Brooklyn Youth concert is no longer online. Their Am I Born To Die was extremely polished; Little's piece is a gorgeous, percussive explosion of the tune. The BYC didn't "sing the shapes" for the former; I asked Little via Twitter whether he used shapes in his piece and he said "not using shapes, alas (though there's totally a sibelius plug-in!), but following the basic part writing rules, sound etc."

I'm curious about what those basic part writing rules and sound are.

Shape note music, and in particular, the Sacred Harp, has always been "discovered." Going back to George Pullen Jackson's description of the singing community as a "lost tonal tribe," the story told about Sacred Harp has been one of outsiders looking in. The stunning sound of the music can't help but be described as raw, primitive, a kind of rural mouthwash for its weary cosmopolitan discoverers. It's constantly viewed as historical Americana (and usually on the brink of extinction) -- the description of the New Sounds concert calls it "19th Century shape note singing," as if there wasn't a huge community of singers around the nation doing the music every week.

Am I Born To Die is actually an 1816 tune called "Idumea C.M," (songs were often named for places) by Ananias Davisson, with a text by the Charles Wesley. It first appeared as a three-part in Davisson's Kentucky Harmony, had an alto part added by William Walker in the 1867 Christian Harmony, and ended up in the Sacred Harp as well. So what was the BYC singing, and on what version did Little base his tune on?

I'm also curious about the February sing-a-long, which advertises itself as taking "one back in time to the Brooklyn of the 1820s, when the great tradition of American shape note singing was the rage in New York." My impression of the history so far (and please contradict me on this, I'm very curious) is that shape notes basically migrated down south and out west at the end of the 18th century, as the elitist "Better Music" movement replaced American harmonies with European techniques. Was there some kind of 1820s Brooklyn renaissance? (who was exporting the Southern books to Brooklyn?) Shape note singing is traditionally unaccompanied -- what's the orchestra going to be doing? (Edit: Nevermind: see comments. The "Better Music" movement was on the rise in the mid 19th century, so shape notes were apparently still going strong in the Northeast in the 1820s. I am curious what those communities were like, though.)

I don't mean to criticize any of this. The shape note tradition has long been flexible, and at least in its most modern iteration willing to accommodate all who are interested (Kiri Miller's Traveling Home handles this issue well) -- the battles fought in the 19th century about four shapes versus seven shapes, or whether gospel tunes should be allowed in the tunebooks, aren't exactly raging anymore. But if you're not singing the shapes and you're performing the music for an audience (shape note music is inherently communal and participatory), at what point are you still doing shape note singing?

I first discovered the Sacred Harp a few years ago when researching my undergrad thesis on Nico Muhly. If you listen at 0:40 here, you'll hear Amidon singing rather loudly.

In an interview, I found out that Muhly was drawing on Amidon's knowledge of Sacred Harp singing -- the loud drawl is characteristic of the Southern style. Amidon learned Sacred Harp via his parents, who sang in the Word of Mouth chorus, a group of '70s New England folk revivalists. I picked up their Nonesuch album and fell in love with the sound.

Go here and click on Kedron Watch this, too:

Kedron's an interesting case. David W. Music has traced it back to Amos Pilsbury's 1799 United States' Sacred Harmony, the earliest Southern tunebook. In that book, it was listed anonymous, and may be the one of the first American folk hymns -- an oral transcription of a genuine folk tune, set into four parts. Kedron made its way into multiple tunebooks (including the Sacred Harp) in different versions attributed to different authors.

Sam Amidon recorded it on I See the Sign. Here's a live version:

So we have a song that was originally a folk tune, transcribed and set into three-part shape-note harmony at the beginning of the 19th century, reprinted with an alto part in Walker's Southern Harmony, eventually reprinted in four voices in the Sacred Harp, picked up by a group of Northern revivalists who record it as concert music, and then passed down to a son who makes it stark folk song for solo voice and guitar, albeit with a touch of Nico Muhly organ, woodwinds, and strings (on the album, at least). This is fun, isn't it?