6/30/08

An American Symptom?

Puppies and kittens are amusing. Shiny things are amusing. Water-fountains are amusing. Automated phone messaging machines are amusing. But, editorials written by whiney, American symphony-goers are not amusing.

I have been a subscriber to the National Symphony Orchestra for more than 10 years, and I've been going to many other performances at the Kennedy Center ever since coming to Washington 44 years ago. But I am not going to renew our NSO subscription this year.

Why? Oh right, you’re going to tell us. Go on, then.

· No, it's not because the Music Center at Strathmore is more convenient by car and Metro.

What? You’d prefer there be a helicopter pad on the roof? A zip line from Bethesda?

· No, it's not because parking at the Kennedy Center costs $17.

Yikes.

· And no, it's not because the acoustics at the Kennedy Center are sub-par.

Well, why, then?

It's because of coughing.

Coughing...really? Coughing is the reason you no longer want to spend $507.50 per subscription, per year? Really?

Yes, coughing has become so pervasive at Kennedy Center performances that one wonders why people should even go out to listen to live music or theater.

Logic reduction alert!

Coughing at Kennedy Center => Don’t go to Carnegie Hall

Enough attention paid to hyperbole, already. Explain yourself!

It was so bad during the exquisitely soft and delicate final movement of Mahler's Third Symphony during an October 2007 concert that I wrote a letter of complaint to the NSO.

For the most part I am in favor of strong letters of complaint, but not in this case. That’s just insensitive. What if you had to cough? Would it be perfectly acceptable for someone tell you to leave--after all, you spent $507.50 for your premium seat?

I was not alone in voicing that concern: NSO music director Leonard Slatkin was so upset by the coughing that evening that he commented on it during the performance.

What a dick!

And the next day, Post critic Tim Page wrote about it in his review: "Alas, many in the audience coughed through much of the last movement last night."


But did the coughing stop him from enjoying the concert? Perhaps, only momentarily. Just saying, if you were a John Cage fan, you wouldn’t have a problem with coughing, or laughing, or noise beyond the doors, or even cellphones.

In my first letter I suggested that the NSO and the Kennedy Center do some research into the cause of this excessive, disruptive, mood-breaking hacking.

Again, just saying, but coughing is probably related to sickness or smoking or something. You really want them to research the matter, instead of providing you with the best music and performances possible, with your $507.50?

How have other concert halls dealt with this problem? Do they issue edicts? Do they make cough drops available in the lobby?

Vote “none of the above,” Brewster.

During a recent trip to Europe, I heard little if any coughing during symphonic concerts in the gilded, glittering concert halls of Prague, Vienna and Budapest.

That’s the equivalent of saying, “I went whale-watching three times and didn’t see any whales.”

Are Hungarians immune to the sniffles?

No. Are you?

Fun facts: In Hungary, there are 9,930,915 people and only 32 McDonald’s. This gives us a ratio of 1 Ronnie Mac per 310,341 Hungarians.

In the Untied States, there are 303,824,646 people and 13,381 McDonald’s. This gives us a ratio of 1 MacDo per 22,606 Americans.

What was that about the sniffles, again?

Do Austrians rarely have sinus problems?

Doubtful. But they do have a fairly comprehensive healthcare system.

Do Czechs check their coughs at the cloakroom?

You mean, like farting into a jar?

Hardly. It must be that those audiences are aware of the disrupting, incommoding effect of coughing on the tranquil mood created by the pianissimo passages of a composition.

That is, if they assume—remember what they say about people who assume things?—that all pianissimos are tranquil.*

The managers of concert halls and theaters have been inveighing for some time against the electronic and mechanical noisemakers of our age, including pagers, alarm watches and the most recent curse, cellphones.

If you mean by recent, “within the last 15 years,” here’s something even newer for you to expunge.

Why hasn't the Kennedy Center urged its patrons to silence the natural noisemakers all concertgoers carry to every concert: their larynxes?


While we’re at it, why don’t we staple everyone’s lips, plug noses with Crazy Glue and sew assholes shut with dental floss? And why stop there? Why don’t we cut off people’s hands (you don’t want spasmodic clapping)? Or how about restricting the types shoe soles that can be worn inside the hall? Ooh! I know! All program notes should be printed on cloth.

And because the NSO refuses to do any of this, you’re not going to plop-down $507.50 for a subscription anymore?

My wife and I will miss seeing the familiar faces of National Symphony Orchestra members who almost seem like family to us after all the years of harmony.

Oh sorry. $1015.

We will miss the exquisite musical moments we've heard so often in recent years under Maestro Slatkin. We will miss the exciting responsiveness of the orchestra that we heard when it was under the direction of its new principal conductor, Ivan Fischer.


“Hey, honey. Remember how the NSO was so responsive?”

“Yeah. It was exciting, the responsiveness. There was too much coughing, though.”

But we will not miss sitting in the Kennedy Center trying to listen to a concert through all the wheezing, hacking and, yes, coughing.

Isn’t hacking another word for coughing?

*I have an idea for my next composition: an opera about prison life, where inmates lovingly, but quietly, sing sweet nothings to each other at night.
-

Music As Lincoln Logs

Calvin Wilson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reviews a ballet for us. Well, it’s not so much a review as an interview with the artistic director of the St. Louis Ballet, a gentleman named Gen Horiuchi. As will be made plain shortly, my issues are less with Mr. Wilson than Mr. Horiuchi. Because, well…

A timeless fairy tale comes to life

I bet it does! Ballet! Right? Right!

Along with Cinderella and Snow White, the Sleeping Beauty is among the most popular females in fairy tales

Any stats to back that up? Some kind of Disney-aged princess poll? No? Just sayin’.

Not to be confused with the Beauty who became involved with the Beast

Good lord. I was totally confused before you clarified that for me.

(and who is high on the list of storybook favorites), the character whose slumber can only be ended by a prince's kiss has enchanted countless children.

Yes, we all know that.

So it's not surprising that the Sleeping Beauty would inspire a ballet by composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky,

“Would have inspired”? Just sayin’, again.

who may be best known among the younger set for "The Nutcracker."

Pander pander pander.

But really, that’s all fine. I was just having my fun. Here’s the problem:

In a recent interview, Gen Horiuchi, artistic director of St. Louis Ballet, talked about "The Sleeping Beauty," his approach to it and the appeal of its Tchaikovsky score.

Q: Why did you decide on "The Sleeping Beauty" as the latest presentation in your company's Master Works series?

A: Because of the music.

You decided to perform…a ballet…because of…the music? Seriously?

We'd done "The Nutcracker" and "Swan Lake," both with music by Tchaikovsky, and I've always loved his music for "The Sleeping Beauty." The rhythm of Tchaikovsky's music is very easy to count,

Uh, it’s a ballet. Hopefully that’s the case…

and the melody fits well with dance movement. At the end of a rehearsal, you're humming the melody over and over. And that's what's so special about Tchaikovsky.

Yes. Special. Most ballet composers utterly fail to write memorable melodies.

But worse still, and the real point of my little rant:

Q: Would you say that "The Sleeping Beauty" is one of the more challenging ballets?

A: Definitely. I was just at the Edison Theatre this morning, and we're absolutely using that theater to the max. "The Sleeping Beauty" is almost three hours long (if performed in its entirety), and nobody sits for three hours in the theater anymore. So it's always a challenge for me to cut unnecessary segments of the music, and speed up the music, and speed up the transitions from one scene to the next. But that's also the fun part.

No no no no no no no. To paraphrase:

“I really like Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony, but it’s just so gosh darn long! So I omitted the development and most of the recapitulation. Also the second movement; so unnecessary. And the finale? Forget it. Totally gone. I can just change the music any way I want! Wheee!”

Let's take the Mona Lisa, cut it into thirds, and paste the first and last thirds together! Totally the same work of art!

6/28/08

Loaded Language

There's a fine line between colorful description and loaded language (or images, please visit the fascinating blog sociological images for examples).

Linguistic examples abound as well. Old friend Charles Ward begins a review of a recent concert (don't click that yet!) with a loaded title. I'm going to omit the name of the violinist for point-making reasons. The title:

"Violinist ________ Seduces and Sizzles"

Let's play a game. Given the language, would you say that the violinist in question is Itzhak Perlman:


or Midori?


Yeeeeah. The sexism inherent in his title is compounded by the first sentence.

When an audience sighs happily after hearing tough music, an artist has conquered.

Yikes. Sexual imagery much?

In fairness, the balance of the article is well-written. But the lead-in, deliberately or not, sexualizes Midori merely because she is female. I can't think of a review which does the same to a male artist.

Language, people.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Review

I have nothing but angry, rage-filled, contemptuous, derogatory words for this pile of ignorance and self-righteousness, this loathsome, pea-brained, and (yes) uneducated attempt to...

...Whoa there!! Calm down, Empiricus.

(deep breath) You’re right. I was about to lose it. Thanks.

Don’t mention it.

-

Let’s start over. But this time, try to say something nice every time David Hurwitz makes you mad.

Sure, I’ll try to say something nice every time David Hurwitz pisses me off to the point where I very nearly jump up, run out to the shed and fire up the chainsaw so I can...

...Cool it, you!

(deep breath) Thanks again, Empiricus.

Let’s give this a try, shall we?

-

Schoenberg's 12-tone music...

Good work, so far, David!

Oh, now you’re just being silly. Just try to be nice. Okay?

Okay.

Schoenberg's 12-tone music has the undeserved reputation of being unusually difficult, at least to the extent that his tonal music is, if anything, just as knotty and uncompromising.

(pauses, thinks) Such things have been said before. (takes deep breath) Whether or not they're true...well. Good start, anyway.

Not bad, Empiricus. Keep going.

Even so...

That is synonymous with, “despite that fact.”

See, Empiricus? I haven’t said anything bad.

Good work.

I know. I'm cool like that.

Even so, the Violin Concerto is notorious for standing among the ugliest pieces of music ever conceived by the human mind...

(stares in disbelief) David has...(deep breath)...a right to...say things. (looks for stress ball)

Very good, Empiricus. Go on.

...but below the surface there's a lot of brilliant and (yes) expressive invention going on.

I might say that they’re also on the surface. Either way, that’s a kind of compliment, David.

How’d I do, Empiricus?

You’re doing well. Let’s see if you can keep it up!

I’ll try.

The only question is how hard you, the listener, feel like working, and how much the performance rewards your time and effort.

(Deep breath. Deep breath. Deep Breath)

Stay focused, Empiricus.

(Deep breath)

Let’s just move on. Shall we?

(Deep breath)

The first recording that "did it" for me was the Craft/Schulte version on Koch; but this one is even finer...

I’m glad you...liked the recording...?

...and not just because it knocks about four minutes off the overall timing of the piece.

Fff...!!

Hold it right there partner! Let’s take a breather. Go have a smoke.

Yeah. I need a smoke.

-

(5 minutes later)

If you're just taking the plunge, start with the finale.

Oh, come on you can’t seriously...

(sternly) Empiricus!

(sarcastically) I hope David tells us why we should start in the middle of the piece. I-am-all-ears.

That’s more like it, buster!

It contains several memorable tunes and motives that recur with relative frequency, in a clear march rhythm.

From what I have read of your stuff before, David (deep breath), these are things that make for good pieces. Thanks for clearing that up. I’ll (gulp) go straight to the final movement.

I’m impressed, Empiricus!

I’m still trying, anyway.

It's not just that Hahn has mastered the work technically, but she also uses her command of the notes to create feeling.

"She created feeling” sounds like...(rolls eyes)...a good assessment.

Calm. Remember to stay calm.

Mmm-hmm.

Thus, Schoenberg marks the opening of the slow movement "grazioso"...

Wait a goddamned minute! "Thus!" Thus! How on Earth does Schoenberg’s marking follow Hilary Hahn’s playing!

Time out, mister! Go have another smoke.

(pouts, mutters to self)

-

(5 minutes later)

Ready to try this again?

(pouting) Yes.

Thus, Schoenberg marks the opening of the slow movement "grazioso", and at first you think he must be kidding...

(long pause) Grazioso means “gracefully.”

...but Hahn and Salonen [the conductor] deliver the expressive goods.

(rolls eyes) I am glad they expressed feelings. (deep breath) That's a sign of a quality recording.

Very good, Empiricus. You’re making me proud.

I’m doing my very best.

I hesitated before giving this disc a top recommendation, if only because no matter how fine the performances are...

What the f...

Calm!

(deep breath) David, I’m sure you had a good reason to ignore your mandate. I can’t wait to hear it.

That’s not entirely nice, Empiricus.

It’s not entirely mean, either, Empiricus. Just calling it like I see it.

I hesitated before giving this disc a top recommendation, if only because no matter how fine the performances are, I don't want to give the misleading impression that on hearing the Schoenberg those resistant to the idiom will suddenly have some sort of 12-tone epiphany.

That’s fucking stupid ass-backw!!!


No! No! No! Stop! We’re done here. Go to your room.

Nothing more to see, folks. Good night! Go read this, instead. You'll enjoy yourself more.
-

6/27/08

Free Fertilizer if You Bring a Friend!

Just here for discussion.

Since I’m a cynic when it comes to greatest-hits shows, Bryant Manning addresses me directly:

Even if you're a cynic about a greatest-hits show, any initiative to bulk up classical audiences wins every time.

Who wins what, now? The initiative wins...? The performing organization wins, what, more audience? The audience wins...more of the same?

Seems to me that the only thing anyone wins from a greatest-hits show is a first-class ticket to Civil War Reenactment Land. To put it another way, whatever success a greatest-hits show may have (gains more audience, more money, etc.), the only thing that I see it winning is a self-perpetuating cycle of specialized programming geared toward those who devour greatest-hits. In other, other words, the performing organization becomes pigeonholed into an endless dependence on pandering to the lowest common denominator (That’s where the most profit is! Heh, heh). Thus, progress, newness, freshness, sustainability is lost.

Yes, I oversimplified. Okay? I don’t need dozens of scathing emails reiterating something I already know, like last time (such as “but that new money in turn commissions new works.” Pffft. Hardly.). Anyway, you know who you are. But I don’t think I’m that far off the mark.

As time progresses, and I’m told that it will, those greatest-hits will become distanced from relevance (How relevant is Monteverdi, these days?). They will become antiques, items of nostalgia, even more so than they already are (Gregorian Chant anyone?). Recycling them in an endless loop is like watching a Civil War reenactment. They’d be interesting in the way a fifteen-year-old, stained, sticky-paged, public school history textbook is interesting.

Okay, I’m becoming a little verklempt. Discuss among yourselves...
-

6/26/08

New: Detritus Hall (squee!)

These summer months are a bit slower than we’d like; the concert season has ended and people are tucked away at backwoods festivals or camps. And, naturally, the number of reviews has plummeted. So, if you’re feeling the itch to get your fill of the full-blown Detritus Review effect, we have created a little sister site, if you will: Detritus Hall.

There, we don’t talk so much as we play. Think of it as your own little concert hall stuffed with the music we vigorously defend. Mostly in video form, you can watch and listen to the wonders of musical modernism and beyond. We also provide links to free downloads and any other pertinent information that we think would help a successful musical immersion.

As usual, we invite good dialog. Additionally, if you don’t see something you like or want to see, please drop us a line and we’ll try to accommodate your request.

You can find us by clicking the link in our blogroll (More Detritus), or by visiting http://detritushall.blogspot.com.

However, Detritus Hall is not a replacement for The Detritus Review. We'll still be here and content will still be posted regularly. Snark will still flow.

Happy Listening!
-

This is not a Poisonous Spider

No schmaltzy introduction; let’s just get to it—Scott Foglesong’s post in the San Francisco Classical Music Examiner Blog (?).

I was having a schmooz with a good friend/colleague (who happens to be a well-known composer) not too long ago, and our conversation turned to the recent passing on of a vastly influential American composer, whom I shall identify as Joe Schmoe. My colleague had an idea about the proper obsequies for our departed American giant.

A warm-hearted commemoration is always a good outlet for grief.

His proposal: we organize a comprehensive festival in which every single work by Joe Schmoe is performed after intensive, careful rehearsal by first-rate artists. Every last jot and tittle gets played to the nines. At festival's close, we lead the audience out into a wide field, with the entire collection of Joe Schmoe music — published and in manuscript — in tow.

And there we burn it.

Seems like I saw this before, in a movie. An ancient Greek king is reassured by his Persian conquerers that they'll erase his memory from this world after he's dead, and they'll start by killing his children.

Thus we've done our duty: we've played it all very well. But that's the end, finis, kaput, pfffffffft.

I can well imagine any number of readers grinning and thinking: "Ooh, great idea!" and assembling a mental list of composers whose output would be immeasurably improved by such treatment. Others might contemplate the purchase of a poisonous spider to mail off to me as a birthday present. (Even if I'm just reporting somebody else's idea.)


Like my title suggests, this post is not a poisonous spider, but...

A lot of folks are irreparably damaged by certain trends in 20th century music, in which sophisticated organizational techniques produced music that reminds one of the sounds wafting up from medieval torture chambers.

Scott, since you are a theorist, you should know better than anyone that organizational techniques are merely ways of limiting the materials. There is nothing inherently aesthetically bad about them in a vacuum. Thus, it would be more proper, then, to plainly say that “some 20th century music reminds one of the sounds wafting up from medieval torture chambers,” making sure to eliminate the bit about the techniques producing music, which is silly, because composers produce music and sometimes they employ organizational techniques. I mean, I could say that, “Beethoven’s fugues—fugue is an organizational technique—his fugues remind me of a Cro-Magnon's brain fart.” But, I couldn’t say that, “fugues, by their very nature, remind me of a Cro-Magnon's brain fart,” because it’s what was done with and within the fugal organization that determines its quality. See the difference?

Composers who visited audiences with such onslaughts deserve to be held properly accountable...

So should Beethoven and his fugues. Bad music is not a specific phenomenon of the 20th century.

...safe in their academic ivory towers they turned a deaf ear to the protests of performers and listeners alike...

Like Beethoven toward the end of his life. (It’s funny that his late string quartets are so wildly celebrated today, even though their initial reception was, well, very cold. How long did it take for them to be accepted into the repertoire, again? I forget.)

...and [they] cast a blind eye on their ever-dwindling audience numbers. Our Joe Schmoe guy was one such composer.

Well, Scott, you didn’t paint a beautiful picture of Joe Schmoe. Though, he reminds me a little of Beethoven.

But the baby tends to get thrown out with the bathwater. Once you decide that all composers writing after about 1945 don't have a doggone thing to offer, then you close your ears to the possibilities of hearing something truly worthwhile from a contemporary writer.

Now that’s beautiful. I couldn’t have said it any better. In fact, in our five months of dialog, this is exactly one of the major points we’ve been trying to get across: a critic’s preconceptions can negatively affect a review's fairness. And for this reason, reviews often sound malicious, stupid or whatever, which is why we like to poke fun at them.

Don’t get me wrong, though. We love our critics. We think that they serve valuable functions in the performing arts community, not the least of which as cultural associate professors. Sometimes, however, we think that the level of discourse could be higher. In many cases, we see a proclivity toward the irrational dismissal of most twentieth-century music, based on the preconception that, as you point out, nothing after 1945, or maybe even 1911, has “a doggone thing to offer.”

So, cheers, Scott.

But, I digress.

This past week the San Francisco Symphony performed Magnus Lindberg's Seht die Sonne, a beautiful and fascinating piece of music from a compelling modern Finnish composer. At least I was enthralled by it, anyway. But I heard two fellows nearby chatting during the break, agreeing that the Lindberg sounded like the orchestra tuning up for half an hour.

Well, no, it didn't, not at all. But I can understand the reaction.


Me too. Unfamiliarity, to a large degree, and inaccessibility, to a smaller degree, turns people off. I would liken that to the first time someone reads Shakespeare (for me that was in fifth grade)—it takes a while to become accustomed to that particular style of prose.

Morton Feldman eloquently put it like this (Give My Regards to Eighth Street, page 209 ):

Music seems to be understood best by its proximity to other music that is more familiar. We do not hear what we hear...only what we remember.

I’m not suggesting that repeated listening is the answer; to the contrary, some things are physically, i.e., cognitively, impossible to process. (I’ve only met two people who possess the ability to hear wrong notes in, say, Elliott Carter’s Clarinet Concerto. Very few can do that.) But, it seems, that one flocks to what one already knows and away from the unfamiliar. So, yes, I understand that reaction.

The modern world has produced an appalling amount of sonic hokum.

Yes, but...Scott?! Scott, Scott, Scott, Scott. Why? Oh, why?

We were doing so well. Let me reiterate: Bad or nonsensical music is not exclusive to the 20th century.

And, just so I get this right, based on what you wrote above, by “hokum” I assume you’re referring to music utilizing sophisticated organizational principles. Right? I sure hope not (cross my fingers).

This week the SF Symphony plays Mi-Parti by Witold Lutoslawski, a major European composer who died in 1994 and whose career spans the era from WWII onwards. To be sure it might be very easy to toss Lutoslawski into the same bin as a lot of hardcore academic avant-garde composers: he did employ some of those buzzword modernist techniques such as serialism (ordering pitches in predetermined patterns), aleatoric music (composer-controlled improvisation) and atonality (i.e., writing without a definite tonal center that provides the center of gravity for a work.)

(skeptically) Okay.

But Lutoslawski was not any kind of technical formalist...

(rubs eyes in saddened disbelief)

You said...he DID use some of these “formalist” techniques. Why the flip-flop? Unless...well, what was he, if not a technical formalist?

...he was a musician, a composer of exquisite sensibility who created soundscapes of breathtaking beauty and interest. [Italics mine]

So great...using sophisticated organizational techniques and being a musician is mutually exclusive? Awesome (see above).

His goals were always musical, never technical; he used whatever tools seemed appropriate for the task at hand.

But...but...

Schoenberg’s goal was no less than musical, right?
Xenakis’ goal was no less than musical.
Ligeti’s goal was no less than musical.
Cage’s goal was no less than musical.
Composer A’s goal was no less than musical.
Composer B’s goal was no less than musical.
Composer C’s goal was no less than musical.
Composer D’s goal was no less than musical.
Composer E’s goal was no less than musical.
Composer n’s goal was no less than musical.

By excluding from your “something truly worthwhile” pantheon those composers who utilized “sophisticated organizational techniques,” you closed your ears, threw the baby out with the bathwater. You contradicted yourself. You attended your composer friend’s music-burning party.

Remember: a critic’s preconceptions, or misconceptions, can negatively affect a review’s fairness. And for this reason, reviews often sound malicious, stupid or whatever, which is why we like to poke fun at them. Thus, I give you this non-poisonous spider—non-poisonous, because this review's merely near-sighted.
-

6/25/08

Dude, that chord was like so totally bright

Ah, the Netherlands. A place with mesmerizingly intricate dikes, tulips, head-to-toe orange-covered football fans, deliciously dank marijuana, heavenly hash...uh...Olivier Messiaen...and...huh?...Mark Swed?

Yes, that’s right, folks. We’re going to Amsterdam, where L.A. Times’ Mark Swed had the pleasure to take in some of Messiaen’s music in a city celebrating the synaesthete’s Catholic birdcalls.

There have been some things even the most dazed Dutch, hazy-headed from the legal hash and marijuana sold in "coffee shops," probably couldn't have missed this month in their teeming capital.

Really? Because, let’s face it, quenching the munchies is practically a full-time job.

This month at the Concertgebouw, the celebrated main concert hall, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra performed his first great orchestral work ("L'Ascension"), his last ("Éclairs sur l'Au-delà") and his most famous (the "Turangalîla" Symphony). The Radio Philharmonic took on the evening-long "La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ." Dutch pianist Ralph van Raat played "Vingt regards sur L'Enfant-Jésus." Messiaen's organ music was heard around town. And the Netherlands Opera produced his glorious epic opera, "Saint François d'Assise" -- gloriously.

Whoa. I see. There’s no way those drugged-out Nederlanders could have missed all that, even with a full-blown case of the munchies.

(sigh) I want to move to Amsterdam.

Why the Dutch have taken to this eccentric composer besotted by birds and mystical Catholicism is anyone's guess.

Hmmm. The way you set up your review (with your “hazy-headed” Dutch)...well, I might have a couple of guesses. Nice use of “besotted,” though.

But Amsterdam's enlightened accommodation of innovation and tradition, to say nothing of its acceptance of unconventionality, may have something to do with the city's fervent embrace of Messiaen.

Uh...interesting. But I wouldn’t have guessed that is why “hazy-headed” Dutch like Messiaen. Instead, I would have made this connection:

...synesthesia may arise through "disinhibited feedback" or a reduction in the amount of inhibition along feedback pathways. Normally, the balance of excitation and inhibition are maintained. However, if normal feedback were not adequately inhibited, then signals coming from later multi-sensory stages of processing might influence earlier stages of processing, such that tones would activate visual cortical areas in synesthetes more than in non-synesthetes. In this case, it might explain why some users of psychedelic drugs such as LSD or mescaline report synesthetic experiences while under the influence of the drug.

And pyschedelic drugs are generally known to mean: hallucinogens.

Marijuana and hashish, two substances derived from the hemp plant (Cannabis sativa), are also considered natural hallucinogens...

See?

Their effects include a feeling of relaxation, faster heart rate, the sensation that time is passing more slowly, and a greater sense of hearing...

Which brings me to Richard Cytowic:

...of course LSD and peyote and mescal and even marijuana can produce synesthesia, usually visual and auditory, so that sounds can become colours and shapes, and I think people are -- that's fairly common knowledge...

Is it any wonder that the potheads found their way to concerts of a synaesthete’s music? Ever hear of the saying, “It takes one to know one?”

Just so happens that, dudes, this totally blows my mind:

The Dutch enjoy a special relationship with this opera [Saint François d’Assise], which is more than five hours long and has next to no action. The central scene is St. Francis preaching, for some 45 minutes, to the birds -- and that comes at the end of a two-hour second act. It takes him an additional hour to die in the last act.

Whoa. Dudes.

[Sorry, science-minded people. I no longer have access to Pub Med.]
-

6/21/08

Bizarro World: England!

Why, what do you think would happen if some enterprising, clever publication (The Guardian UK) sent their arts critics to review sport [British sic] and their sport critics to review arts?

This.


Scroll down to the fourth one, the golf writer Lawrence Donegan on a Brahms concert he attended.

The prose is great, and he totally didn't get it, or like it, which is fine. Refreshing, in fact.

The problem, at least to my cloth ears, is the music. Brahms' Piano Concerto No1 in D minor, the centrepiece of an evening devoted to the composer, has come to be seen as a masterpiece. But as it is longer than three minutes and not as immediately catchy as, say, Be My Baby by the Ronettes, it failed to hold my attention.

Awesome. Conclusion?

[The Pianist-ed.] Yefim Bronfman is a genius, no doubt, but he didn't write his own script - Brahms did - and the ending hasn't changed in the last 150 years, and won't for another 150. Tiger Woods, on the other hand, writes a new concerto every day, each one better than the last.

What an analogy. Go Guardian!

6/20/08

Composer of the Day!

Today’s Composer of the Day is Avner Dorman.

(b. 1975)

Israeli composer Avner Dorman is also a physicist! More to the point, however, he graduated with a doctorate from Julliard, where he studied with John Corigliano.

Alongside the usual smattering of awards, he’s been performed by prominent people and ensembles, too.

Allan Kozinn is a qualified voice to describe Avner’s music:

Mr. Dorman [...] writes in an eclectic, essentially neo-Romantic style that combines striking melodies, free dissonance and occasional effects (tapping on the instruments for example) to create picturesque textures.

To back that up, you should check out his fantastic and strikingly comprehensive website, where you can listen to a lot of his music. (clicks over, listens) Allan is right! See?

Allan also writes of Dorman’s Second String Quartet (which you can listen to):

The outer movements of his String Quartet No. 2, "Mirage" (2004), evoke the Israeli desert, with a "Prayer for the Innocents" as the haunting slow movement between them. The score's most arresting moments are in its finale, "Ruchot," in which hard-driven counterpoint and rapid bowing, offset by calmer moments, describe the changeable desert winds.

You hear that aspiring composers? Hard-driven counterpoint + rapid bowing + calmer moments = arresting description of the changeable desert winds.

Humorously, Avner’s bio (pdf) relates the good news that his

...two percussion concerti are quickly becoming staples of the repertoire.

Again, you can listen to the more recent concerto, Spices, Perfumes, Toxins!, at his website. It’s lovely. Perhaps his bio isn't that far off the mark, after all.

Also, Alfred Schnittke is one of his friends on MySpace.

You should listen to his music!

PS: I don’t know who to credit for the photo.

-

Edit: Empiricus (6-24-08)

I am pleased to announce that Avner's non-U.S. press agent sent an email to inform me that the photo was taken by Dan Zeltzer; also, to give me a PDF of his upcoming performances (there are a lot, 'cause his stuff's becoming a staple of the repertoire). If you want a list for yourself, go to Avner's website, go to "Contact," then contact.
-

6/19/08

Fuck You for Making Me Wash Your Underwear, Again

Critic Paul Horsley’s position at the Kansas City Star, which is owned by McClatchy Co., has been terminated. This sucks.

“I’m sorry this requires the painful announcement we are making today, but we’re taking this action to help ensure a healthy future for our company.”

Who needs culture, anyway, right?

Or: Way to anticipate the future of your market, idiots. Preemptive media integration, perhaps...? Nope. After-the-fact media integration. “Sounds good boys. Now for the next item on the docket. What’ll we do about yesterday, tomorrow?”

Sorry, Paul. We rarely had the opportunity to take apart your stuff, which means we like your writing. Good luck in the future and hope to see you in the papers or on the web soon!

Because of idiots, I get to put up this lovely painting again.



















(painting by Jana Bartouskova)
-

6/18/08

Phoning It In, Again

I wasn’t familiar with Elgar’s Piano Quintet, Op. 84, until I spent a few minutes (only about fifteen) on the widetubenets, digging up all kinds of information. For instance, his Opus 84 was completed in 1919, but begun before his String Quartet, Opus 83. The piece that followed both of those was his beaten-dead, but famous, “warhorse,” the Cello Concerto, made famouser by preeminent recordings with Pablo Casals, Paul Tortelier, Jaqueline du Pré and Yo-Yo Ma. The quintet in A minor is the longest of Elgar’s chamber pieces, coming in at about 35 minutes long, and was composed at his home in Brinkwells, Sussex. Lady Alice Elgar suggested that the piece may be programmatic; she noted in her diary that the first movement may represent a group of trees in Flexham Park, near Brinkwells.

According to legend, these trees comprised the remains of Spanish monks who had engaged in sacrilegious ceremonies in the park. In correspondence, Elgar too had described the first movement as "ghostly stuff". Doubt has been cast on the legend, focusing on the lack of record of any Spanish religious settlement in the area. But this obscures the point that, whatever the factual basis for the legend (and what legend contains more than a grain of truth), Elgar appears again to have drawn his inspiration from the natural beauty of the area surrounding the cottage at Brinkwells.

Interestingly, Op. 84 was dedicated to music critic Ernest Newman, who wrote for many publications including the, then, Manchester Guardian, which is now, simply, the Guardian. He was also the author of the gargantuan, four-volume “The Life of Richard Wagner.” Unfortunately, the only writing sample I found is a paraphrase taken from a 1911 New York Times review:

The old argument averred that the writer of poetic or pictorial music is like the child who adds to his rude drawing of an animal the words: “This is a dog,” writes Ernest Newman in the London Nation.




















(Ernest Herman)

Fun stuff. I wonder if this viewpoint had anything to do with Elgar’s supposed “tree legend” program. A joke, perhaps?

I found nearly twenty recordings of the Quintet made within the past fifteen, or so, years, over at Amazon. I also found a number of recent performances, though not as many as, say, his Enigma Variations or the Cello Concerto.

Lastly, there is only one video of Op. 84 on YouTube, only about four minutes of the 13-minute first movement, Moderato-Allegro. It’s a really cool-sounding clip. I wish there was more, because the piece seemed cool as well. But, if you’re interested, there are many available recordings to download at iTunes, or Naxos.

Pow! Only fifteen minutes of research. One quarter of an hour. The piece is...how long again? 35 minutes? My research took half, half the time that it would have taken to listen to the piece.

-

Now consider this:

The evening ended with a big-boned, big-hearted performance of Elgar's Piano Quintet, with Judith Gordon as the sensitive guest pianist. This unusually textured three-movement work is somewhat of a rarity on concert programs, but these players were equal to its demands, both in its surging stormy passages and its many moments of swelling, sighing lyricism.


1) “Unusually textured?” How was it unusual? Did you listen to it? I only heard four minutes, but couldn’t find one unusual texture. Maybe the problem is in our contradictory definitions of what constitutes an unusual texture. Mind you, by 1919, I am also used to this, and this and this and this and this and this. To what unusual textures were you referring?

2) I would like to rephrase your “but” phrase: “...but these players were equal to its demanding surging stormy passages and its demanding moments of swelling, sighing lyricism.” I just wanted to highlight that you’re emphasizing that the piece was demanding and that the performers handled themselves well. But here’s my problem: Did “stormy passages” and “swelling, sighing lyricism” describe the piece adequately? Hmmm. Sounds like you phoned it in on that one. I mean, your descriptors could apply to practically any piece ever (see above and below “this and this and this and this and this and this”).

The work was completed just after World War I, yet there is something poignant in the way the music seems to cling to an older tradition of 19th-century Romantic chamber music, as if the world that tradition described could live forever, as if it had not already disappeared.


I know that this was your impression, but...the tradition had already disappeared? In 1919? To the contrary: this and this and this and this and this and this and this and this and this. That’s why it was sad? Come on. You’re better than this.

Sorry, but you phoned it in! No question about it. I found a ton of pertinent, fun information about Op. 84 in only fifteen minutes. How long did you spend with it? The time it takes to pop some microwave popcorn? Since it was the last piece on the long program, did you just...leave? Were you tired? Long drive home? Were you fed up with the “Beat L.A.” chants during intermission? Was your nose bleeding? Did you simply not like the piece and didn’t want to investigate it further? That’s something you usually do well. What happened, man?
-

6/16/08

Texas-Sized Decision

Y’all decide. Is Scott Cantrell calling Arthur Kampela’s Nosturnos a piece of shit, with all kinds of undigested thingies in it? Or is he calling Arthur Kampela’s Nosturnos a breakfast inside a dog that’s been eaten?

Now, here’s your context:

A 1993/2003 Nosturnos by the Brazilian-American composer Arthur Kampela made quite a show of virtuoso fireworks, including glissandos and two-arm clusters. But it was also an undigested dog's breakfast of Philip Glass, Barber, Scriabin, Messiaen and goodness knows what else.

And some research:

Well, no; no research. There’s not much to look at on the intertubes. A Google search for “undigested dog’s breakfast” (with quotation marks) yielded two results. The first was a link to Scott’s article. The second, to this, another music review (2005), which used the phrase in a very similar way. (And I suppose once this post is published, this will be the third.)

On the other hand, a Google search without quotation marks lead me to this picture on this site (disturbing; may not be kid safe):
















And this, from the Philippines:



















So I’ll ask again: which is it? A piece of shit with corn or a breakfast inside an eaten dog?

-

And Scott, just a thought, but a euphemism for “shitty hodgepodge” might be more effective if it is a little...subtler and less awkwardly phrased. Besides, it would have been much more hip to use “brunch,” instead of “breakfast.” Oooo! How about, “It was also the late-evening dregs of an expired brunch comprised of Glass...?” I like that one—you can use it if you want.

-

Also, you should check out Arthur Kampela’s music. It’s pretty cool! It’s not shit with undigested thingies in it.
-

6/12/08

Composer of the Day!


Today's Composer of the Day! is Kurt Schwitters.

(1887-1948)

Schwitters was a Dadaist/Surrealist painter, sculptor, poet, and sound artist ("composer"). He experimented with, well, lots of different things, especially collage. He invented his own school of collage-based art called "Merz".

Here are some things that he made:


That is fun to look at, no? How about this one, it's called "Murder Machine":

Hm. Perhaps marginally less fun to look at, but still full of Bauhaus-y goodness!

Anyway. Here are lots more things to look at...er, at which to look.

Schwitters was a pioneer in sound art, taking advantage of emerging recording technologies to design recorded nonsense poetry. The most famous example is the Ursonate (link to score).

I know, right? How freaking cool is that? But here is a link to Schwitters performing the piece:

A Link to Schwitters Perorming Ursonate.

Awesome. You should listen to his music.

Phoning It In: A Who's Who and What's What

Unsurprisingly, we weren’t invited to the party in Denver this week. But on the bright side, being all by my lonesome gives me an opportunity to explain one of my pet peeves in great, long, drawn-out, excruciating, saddle-sore inducing, “telling” detail. No one will be safe! And I will have my revenge!



















Okay, I’ll admit that I often scribble-up a number of these posts rather quickly. Not because I think I have the Midas touch, writing perfect, crystalline exercises of logic that no mortal can shatter. Instead, it’s because I would like to trick myself into thinking that I’m working under the pressure of a deadline.

Why?

It’s all too easy to forget that our dear critics burn the midnight oil, racing from the concert hall to the computer—in some cases, to the Selectric typewriter—just to get the review in on time, often with only a few hours to wittily opine, with a cup of coffee in hand and an ancient dictionary by their side. If that’s not enough, there’s this quirky little blog that’ll tear ‘em a new one if they say the wrong things. Scary, I know.

Sometimes, however, I think that critics just can’t resist the lure of sleep after a long day, despite their desire to write beautiful, lasting prose. Sometimes you have to give in and reset. So they shut it down, wrap it up, phone it in.

What do I mean?

Of course, there’s the Urban Dictionary’s definition:

phone it in: Perform an act in a perfunctory, uncommitted fashion, as if it didn’t matter.

But our definition requires a little more detailed explanation, because phoning it in can take many forms. Take for example Daniel Ginsberg’s little poopcicle:

[Steadiness] gives the reading a granitic strength that firmly places beautiful passages into a sweeping architecture.

WTF? Was that really necessary? Did that add anything to the discussion? What the hell is sweeping architecture? And how does steadiness firmly place passages in said architecture?

Whatever it was he was trying to say, it failed; it meant nothing. Thus, he phoned it in.

Or take for instance, Richard Scheinin’s non sequitor:

Sometimes each note was delivered cleanly, like a pushpin.

Huh? Pushpins are delivered cleanly? Pushpins? Then again, it’s not terrible. But he goes on to say even less:

Sometimes Bach's flourishes, which have a metallic ring on the harpsichord, landed like ripples in a pond [...].

Ripples land? On ponds? So do Bach's flourishes? What?

Similes can be powerful tools, but, here, Richard’s imagery failed hard. His is a kind of Dada criticism. Meaning has exited the building.

What about Edward Ortiz on Morton Feldman and his...impossible paintbrush?

It's akin to Jackson Pollock putting away his drippy paintbrushes for a set of standard brushes made for painting within rigid outlines.

What on Earth are “drippy paintbrushes?” Perhaps he meant, “dripping paintbrushes,” instead? Or a paint-dripping stick, or other objects Pollock regularly utilized when painting? But rigid outlines? Feldman composed by numbers? Sorry. Nope. Wrong.

And then there’s Tyler Zimmer:

There were countless moments during Fantastique when the orchestra sounded at its best, not in small part due to Slatkin, who is finishing his penultimate year as music adviser with the Nashville Symphony.

It’s hard not to picture Tyler in the audience with his pencil and notepad frantically making tick-marks every time the orchestra “sounded at its best.” Only, he failed, because he couldn’t count them all.

And also Andrew Drukenbrod:

This music is going to hurt, but you will be the better for it, like watching "Schindler's List."

Wow! Now that’s positive criticism coupled with over-baked imagery! Sheesh.

Check this one out. It’s from the Seattle Times:



(cricket, cricket, cricket)...



Whew. That was fun! Wasn't it?



















Then there’s Paul Horsley from the Kansas City Star:

Among details I might quibble with were the upward-arpeggiated chords in the finale, which sounded more like broken chords than melodic line.

Um...unless I’m missing something, aren’t upward-arpeggiated chords synonymous with broken chords?

Or how about the ever-popular prefabricated stock-sentence:

The rest of the program was devoted to [enter composer here]’s [adj.] [piece], where the orchestra’s playing was [adj.] and [adj.], and the solos were [adj.] and [adj.].

Oh, and by the way, the final adjective was the ever-empty “interesting.” Again, just more examples of “phoning it in.”

And...(drumroll)...David Partick Stearns on Tchaikovsky:

Harmonic dissonances made intrusions more pointed than usual, almost like a depressive episode, establishing a darker undertone that never quite left and giving the music a dimension that suggested this piece is, in its way, the equal of his symphonies.

To reword: Unusually pointed intrusions, made by harmonic dissonances, suggested...??? That the piece was better than it actually was? I don’t get it. Kostka and Payne never covered that, did they?

And...(bigger drumroll)...here’s Matthew Guerrieri:

The elegiac fourth movement is built around the piano, collecting rhapsodic fragments into resonant clouds casting shadows over allusions to the previous movements.

Well, I take this one back. Sorry. Matthew is doing the opposite of phoning it in. In fact, this little nugget is quite complex, forcing me to cast reverse-shadows of metaphoric doubt over rhapsodic insinuations of the previous “phoning it in-ers.” So...nevermind. My apologies.

But, then there’s this:

The Mass is written for five choirs, and its most telling moments come from the composer's manipulation of their separate sounds.

That very well may be true. However, what was the significance of these moments? How did the composer manipulate “their separate sounds?”

I mean, I could say that “this meta-critique is significant.” But without telling you how it is significant, I’d be phoning it in, calling it a day, giving up. Without explaining my definition of “phoning it in,” I’d be lazy. Thus, I’d be phoning it in. If I made up long, drawn-out generalizations that didn’t say anything only to fill out my word count, I’d be phoning it in. If I simply made things up because they sounded good, I’d...



















Have fun in Denver!

(thanks to Chris at Chris's Invincible Super-Blog for the pics)
-

6/10/08

Backwards in Branibor

Hooray! I’m learning to “pick and choose [my] way though the immense musical legacy that is our classical music culture.” In other words, whatever David Hurwitz says, I do the opposite.

Not because I inherently dismiss what he writes; I do give his reviews a fair chance (most of his baroque, classical or romantic reviews are stellar). And not because I dislike his grammar (apparently, I can’t conjugate verbs, too; so, there goes that). And not because I think he has a strong, dismissive hatred of “atonal” music, i.e., anything written after 1912 with, Gods forbid, a “system.” No. I do the opposite, because I’m not sure if I trust his ears.

But, that’s okay. He’s not asking me to trust him. He’s just asking me to listen to him. Only, after I listen, I immediately try to forget what he had to say. Most of the time, though, I dismiss his assessments, because he completely ignores Classicstoday.com’s review philosophy, which, I think, is very well-reasoned. Dogmatic adherence to the philosophy would greatly improve the quality and consistency of the reviews, in my opinion.

However, this is why today is special. I’m not taking apart one of his reviews of a newer-music recording and calling him on his disregard of the review philosophy. Rather, I’m going to David's home turf to quibble: Herr Bach.

But let me say this, first: David doesn’t write anything like, “the Brandenburg Concertos are terrible pieces”; that would be against the review philosophy (you’re not supposed to judge the quality of the music)—and, just guessing, but that would receive some terrible blog’s ill-conjugated snark. So, good start, right? Hell yes!

This ghastly set can be summed up very easily: fast and crude.

Sure. Fine. No problem. There’s lots of recordings of the Brandenburgs. Besides, it’s an opinion. However...

Tempos are frantic, precluding anything resembling stylish or expressive phrasing.

Ugh. David, apparently, is the arbiter of style and expression. I’ll just ignore that, because that’s a really stupid thing to assert. Besides, if he could justify that an unusually fast tempo actually, in real-lifes, seriously with all seriousness precludes style and expressive phrasing, then this whole spiel would be unnecessary. And besides, besides, as we’ll see the tempos aren’t terribly fast. Moving on.

The Polonaise from the First concerto sounds particularly ridiculous, but the strings-only Third and Sixth concertos are also, to put it kindly, a "hot mess". Solo instruments surface intermittently for a blaring note or two at the climax of a phrase like trained seals leaping for a fish, only to return once again to the blurry depths--consider the horns in the First concerto, or the trumpet in the Second. There's no need to go any further; competition in this music is far too fierce for there to be any need to give this release a moment's consideration.

And that’s it.

-

Well, no. We’re hardly done! Check out his rating...

3 for Artistic Quality and 9 for Sound Quality.

1) We’ll talk about this some more, but David doesn’t mention the sound quality once. Not once! Yet it receives a score of 9. And this leads us to...

2) The artistic quality, which receives a score of 3. According to this review, the artistic quality is nearly absent. It’s too fast and crude. It’s frantic. It’s a “hot mess.” Solo instruments, humorously, are like seals leaping for fish. Thus, only a 3.

Sounds artfully awful. Doesn’t it?

Before we get going, however, I have to acknowledge that we wouldn’t exist without the inter-tube-net-webs; we’re a blog, after all. But the internet gives us a powerful perspective (probably the same as yourself, because you’re here, reading us, for better or worse). As web aficionados, we all understand that the world-wide-tubes is a valuable resource—information is everywhere. So when I Googled “Bach and Musica Flora (the performing group) and Supraphon (the record label),” I found this, a link to the reviewed recording and a bunch of sound clips. (It’s best if you open it now in a new window or tab, because I’m going to refer to it a lot.)

At the time I searched the recording, my only goal was to find some sound clips, not to find material for a snarky post. I took David at his word, but wanted to hear what he was talking about (or “about what he was talking,” if you prefer). And this is what I found:

Listening to the clips proved telling (Sorry for this sentence. I couldn’t refuse the opportunity to make fun of critics who say, “the performance was telling,” then don’t elaborate upon their assessment. What did the performance tell? Who knows? I, however, will show and tell what the clips tellingly told).

So click over to the link to the Supraphon website and the recoding in question. Also, make sure your speakers are cranked up or your headphones securely fastened.

The first thing you’ll notice reading the promo fluff is that Musica Florea is a Czech group that specializes in informed Baroque performance practice, which should give us some expectations about what we’re going to hear.

1) The tuning will be slightly lower.
2) The period instruments will sound a tad more fickle to play, they will be less predictable, thus balances will be more difficult to achieve.
3) The performance (i.e., the ornamentation, tempi, vibrato, etc.) will be based on a ton of research.

-

Fun Facts! In the Czech Republic, Brandenburg translates to Branibor. And hudba means “music (by).”

-

So, let’s listen to a clip of Musica Florea on order to acclimatize ourselves with Baroque performance practice. Go down to Branibor 2, movement 1, click it and listen to the trumpet in particular. Did you do it? Good.

Nothing seems out-of-kilter with our expectations. In fact, it sounds much like other informed Baroque ensembles, like this one. Indeed in fact, in fact, this other ensemble plays it faster. However, before we get ahead of ourselves, this is just one movement. Musica Florea really puts the pedal to the metal in Branibor 1, movement 3, sort of. (Listen) Now compare that to another ensemble, click here.

See? David is sort of right. Musica Florea’s performance is sort of unusually fast. But that’s where he loses me, because he says:

Solo instruments surface intermittently for a blaring note or two at the climax of a phrase like trained seals leaping for a fish, only to return once again to the blurry depths--consider the horns in the First concerto, or the trumpet in the Second.

Listen to the horns in Branbor 1, movement 1.

Sure the horns stick out; I’ll give David that point. But then again, we kind of expect it (see above Baroque-y things to expect). More than that, however (listen to Branibor 1, movement 1, once more), where are the lower strings (violas and cellos)? I can barely hear them even with the volume pumped up so loud that Mrs. Empiricus is threatening a long, drawn-out divorce. I would say that the lower strings are “muddy.” I mean, I can clearly hear the double bass and the violins. And certainly the horns. But...

Hmmm...

Where are the violas and cellos?

This seems particular to this set of Branibors. Now, take some time to really listen for the cellos and the violas in all of these: Branibor 1/movement 2, 1/4, 2/2, 2/3, 4/1, 4/2, 5/1, 5/2, and, finally, 5/3. For the most part, aside from the soloists, all I hear are the violins, harpsichord and the double bass (I know they’re doubling the cellos, but still, I mostly hear the DB). Aren’t you left Dionysianly longing for the lower strings? No worries. David to the rescue!

...the strings-only Third and Sixth concertos are also, to put it kindly, a "hot mess".

Listen to Branibor 6, movement 1, the all low-string Branibor. Was it difficult to distinguish between all the voices? I bet it was. Hmmm...

Could it be... that the sound quality is horribly F-ed up? Let’s consider our facts.

1) The solo instruments are blaringly loud.
2) The double bass, as well as the harpsichord is also quite loud.
3) The upper-strings are easy to distinguish.
4) The violas and cellos are almost inaudible.

I would say that these are indicative of poor microphone placement (during the recording) or poor mixing (post-recording microphone/track balance) or some combination of the two.

It’s easy to over-mix recordings. Take another listen to how much mixing actually went on, post-recording (e.g., Branibor 6, movement 1). Notice how the continuo part, the harpsichord, bass and cellos (the pedal figure), begins hard-panned on the left speaker. As the movement progresses it slowly makes its way to the center, and then back. Little things like that are abundant in our twelve little sound clips. Or notice how awkwardly heavy the bass is on Branibor 3, movement 2; it contributes to an overall muddiness. Or how distant the solo violin is in Branibor 2, movement 3; it’s barely audible!

In this recording’s case, I think it was clearly over-mixed and poorly recorded, which obfuscated the quality of the performance.

It is, thus, my opinion that David’s ears are confusing his ratings categories. Remember how David gave the recording a 3 for artistic quality? Well, if we look again at his critiques...

1) It’s too fast.
2) It’s crude, i.e., the string are a “hot mess” and the horns and trumpet are “blaring...like trained seals.”

It seems to me that only number one is a valid critique toward artistic quality. Whether or not being too fast is enough to merit the super-low score of 3... who knows? But, then again, who knows if its fastness really precluded style (I would argue the opposite) or expression (which is horribly subjective. I thought the clips were very expressive, particularly of a scholarly idea.)?

On the other hand, number two CAN be attributed to sound quality. And David gave the sound quality a 9!

-

I lied. I said I wouldn’t talk about the review philosophy. Here’s how David mangled the review philosophy this time:

Nor do we believe that a superb modern performance should be penalized unduly because it is not self-evidently an "audiophile" product.

Which it is not, as I’ve hopefully established. But David let the sound quality interfere with the score for artistic quality—that is, if he wasn’t dumb enough to assert himself as the sole arbiter of style and expression, which I hope, for his sake, is the case. Even if my ears are failing me, that means that David flat-out dislikes aspects of period practice, those which we can expect, leading him to poorly score this period recording’s scholarly interpretation (artistic quality) out-of-hand, or without ears. So...

You should feel no compulsion to agree with our critics; in fact, disagreeing is equally important, because the ultimate purpose of ClassicsToday.com is to enable you to find the music and recordings that suit your personal taste. You do this by taking the advice of the critics you find sympathetic, and by ignoring the advice of the ones whose perspective leaves you cold.

Or I could just do my own research.

Either way, you learn how to pick and choose your way through the immense musical legacy that is our classical music culture.

I sure do.
-

6/9/08

1, 2, 3, 4, I Delcare An Opera War!

Goodness gracious! Is there a war brewing at the Times?

Mr. Kozinn is writing about the new Alice in Wonderland opera by Peter Westergaard:

Mr. Westergaard, meanwhile, has finished a seventh [opera], “The Always Present Present.” You have to admire and wonder at his tenacity, given that contemporary opera is a futile pursuit.

Futile? Wow! Strong language.

Listeners who care about opera clamor for new ones, but with few exceptions — works by John Adams and Philip Glass mainly — when they are produced, they please neither audiences, critics nor singers and are rarely seen again.

I guess making exceptions to your own staments proves your point?

Companies may be balancing their books by showing 19th- and early-20th-century favorites, but as a developing form, opera’s EKG is flatlining.

Flatlining, yikes. That sounds dire! What say you, Anthony Tommasini? Mr. Tommasini is writing about the new season of the New York City Opera:

A season focused on formidable 20th-century works will excite many opera lovers, including me.

Oh, snap! Take that, Kozinn!

The programming makes a statement that a people’s opera does not have to play it safe and be afraid to challenge audiences.

Quite so, sir. Flatlined, pfft!

Besides, over the last couple of seasons at the City Opera, disappointing box-office receipts for standard fare have indicated that the company cannot rely on appealing productions of “Carmen” to keep the lights on.

Challenge the people and they shall come.

I encourage readers to read (uh, what?) the entirety of both articles.

Composer of the Day!

Today’s Composer of the Day is Chinary Ung!

(b. 1942)

Chinary Ung was born in Cambodia in 1942. He is an expert in traditional Khmer music and a master of the roneat-ek, a xylophone-like instrument (this is what it sounds like). He came to the United States in 1964, subsequently studying with Mario Davidovsky and George Crumb. He currently teaches composition at U.C., San Diego.

Not surprisingly, his compositions are a kind of fusion of Eastern and Western music. This is how he describes his music:


I believe that imagination, expressivity, and emotion evoke a sense of Eastern romanticism in my music that parallels some of the music-making in numerous lands of Asia. Above all, in metaphor, if the Asian aesthetic is represented by the color yellow, and the Western aesthetic is represented by the color blue, then my music is a mixture -- or the color green.


This is a recent review of his music by Allan Kozinn:

The main attraction of Chinary Ung’s “Spiral I” (1987), scored for cello, piano and percussion, is the seamlessness with which it blends contemporary Western harmonic conventions and Asian melodic influences. Asian timbres are approximated as well, with the cello line, played by André Emelianoff, sometimes sliding between pitches.

And here is a middle-school masterclass given by Chinary and his wife, Susan. If only more middle-schools had a music program like this one...

Lastly, this is a link to Art of the States, where you can listen to a really, really cool piece for percussion and cello (with both of them singing at points). It’s called Grand Alap: A Window in the Sky, written in 1996. You can also find the program notes there.

You should listen to his Asian-Euro-American-flavored music!

6/5/08

Fugue State Lake, where the melodies are borrowed and the young artists have personality flaws

In the void left by Melinda Bargreen at the Seattle Times, I had assumed that there was a mass exodus of classical musicians to other nearby cultural hotbeds, like Spokane or Tacoma. In fact, I thought I had seen a satellite image of their migration, leaving gigantic, slimy trails of a yellowish mixture consisting of rosin, spit and reed shavings. This, as we all know, is clearly visible from outer space. But, I was horribly wrong. Apparently, Seattle still has classical music after all!

The thing is, you never get to read about it. Or, more accurately, when you do, you become so horrifyingly distressed it feels like you no longer know yourself, like you forgot your past.

[Violinist Stefan] Jackiw is a wonder, one of those young artists who immediately launches into a passionate, warm perfectionism, equally comfortable with the soaring neo-Romanticism and the pyrotechnic flashes of speed.

Oh boy (sigh). How many times must I say this? Word choice! Word choice! Word choice! Know what your specific combination of words imply! It’s not difficult to look up definitions these days, what with the on-web-line sites and their free “dictionaries” and web-robots. However, it seems quite difficult for many critics, which is why this post, this blog, has a life and will continue to have a life, for ever and ever and ever. AND EVER!

Not to say that this excerpt is particularly egregious—its meaning is kind of understood—but, come on man, its subtle awkwardness leads me to further inquiry (as I hope it does for any semi-literate reader) and, thus, John Sutherland receives a Royal Detritus Review.

-

Awkward phraseology number one:

...passionate, warm perfectionism...

I get “perfectionism,” I swear: the refusal to accept any standard short of perfection (OAD). However, unless, passionate is used synonymously with fervent, i.e. intense, how can perfectionism be passionate? Okay, fine. Jackiw is intensely determined to be perfect. But what about warm? How can perfectionism be warm? Is warm sincere? That’s an awkward way to say that, but acceptible. Though, why not say “intense, sincere perfectionism,” instead? That is certainly clearer and not befuddled by alternate definitions.

Whew! We worked through that mine-field alright. Now--and this is where it gets fun--what happens when we reread the sentence with our new, clearer, sense of perfectionism?

[Violinist Stefan] Jackiw is a wonder, one of those young artists who immediately launches into [an intense, sincere perfectionism], equally comfortable with the soaring neo-Romanticism and the pyrotechnic flashes of speed.

Awkward phraseology number two:

How does one “immediately launch” into perfectionism? Unless...oh shit. Really? No way. But just in case, let’s skip ahead to number three, just so I can get a better perspective.

Awkward phraseology number three:

[Violinist Stefan] Jackiw is a wonder...

Which definition of “wonder” are we using, Mr. Sutherland? I’ve got two plausible definitions, again from my trusty OAD:

1) [noun] The quality of a person or thing that causes [a feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar or inexplicable.

2) [noun] A strange or remarkable person, thing or event.

Since the first definition is a quality someone possesses, it’s unlikely the correct sense of “wonder.” Thus, we’re left with the second definition, “a strange or remarkable person.” So, like before, let’s insert that into the original sentence.

[Violinist Stefan] Jackiw is a [strange/remarkable person], one of those young artists who immediately launches into [an intense, sincere perfectionism], equally comfortable with the soaring neo-Romanticism and the pyrotechnic flashes of speed.

Awkward phraseology number four:

...equally comfortable with the soaring neo-Romanticism and the pyrotechnic flashes of speed.


For brevity’s sake, this implies that Jackiw easily acclimatizes himself to contrasting moods; he adapts well. And again...

[Violinist Stefan] Jackiw is a [strange/remarkable person], one of those young artists who immediately launches into [an intense, sincere perfectionism], [adapting easily to contrasting moods].

Awkward phraseology number five:

...one of those young artists...

He fits into a unique category of young artists.

[Violinist Stefan] Jackiw is a [strange/remarkable person], [similar to other young, unique artists] who immediately launches into [an intense, sincere perfectionism], [adapting easily to contrasting moods].

-

A small diversion for relief and a different, abstract color.

When reviewing “The Genesis Suite,” by several composers including Schoenberg and Stravinsky, John puts on his critic-goggles:

The visuals by Dale Chihuly, abstract colors projected onto metal mesh cylinders, stay properly in the background.

John, don’t you mean the visuals were abstract? Apparently no. Colors are abstract. Wow, I didn’t know that. You heard it here first, Detritusites!

-

Awkward phraseology number two, redux:

...immediately launches into [an intense, sincere perfectionism]...

Like I asked before, how does one “immediately launch” into perfectionism? Perhaps, it’s like flipping a light switch. But, more importantly, “immediately launch” from what, into perfectionism? I don’t know, but it must be a contrasting mannerism, such as being slobbish or lazy.

So finally...

[Violinist Stefan] Jackiw is a [strange/remarkable person], [similar to other young, unique artists] who [like a light switch, flip from slobbish(ism)] into [intense, sincere perfectionism], [adapting easily to contrasting moods].

(wipes sweat from brow) Whew! Sorry, folks. I know it took a while, but I had to show my work, as it were. I also had to be sure that I wasn’t going down an impossible path—remember the “oh shit. Really? No way,” from before? Well, oh shit! Really? No freakin’ way!

I thought that “perfectionism” sounded familiar, but couldn’t remember from where; I couldn’t place the term, until...

Wikipedia to the rescue!

Wikipedia delightfully reminded me that I last heard “perfectionism” in a psychology book. This is what the all-knowing Wiki had to say about Perfectionism:

Perfectionism, in psychology, is a belief that perfection can and should be attained. In its pathological form, perfectionism is a belief that work or output that is anything less than perfect is unacceptable. At such levels, this is considered an unhealthy belief, and psychologists typically refer to such individuals as maladaptive perfectionists.

Since Jackiw’s perfectionism is “intense and sincere,” It’s easy to think that the level of his perfectionism might be unhealthy. Thus, Wiki on Maladaptation:

A maladaptive behavior is a behavior or trait that is not adaptive — it is counterproductive to the individual. Maladaptivity is frequently used as an indicator of abnormality or mental dysfunction, since its assessment is relatively free from subjectivity.

However, Jackiw, as John notes, is also adept at switching on and off his behavior. Wiki on Dissociative Identity Disorder:

Dissociative Identity Disorder, as defined by the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), is a psychiatric diagnosis that describes a condition in which a single person displays multiple distinct identities or personalities, each with its own pattern of perceiving and interacting with the environment.

But these aren’t the only things associated with perfectionism.

Perfectionism is a risk factor for obsessive-compulsive disorder, eating disorders, and clinical depression.

And we all know where clinical depression leads:

Depersonalisation

Depersonalization (or depersonalisation) is an 'alteration' in the perception or experience of the self so that one feels 'detached' from, and as if one is an 'outside' observer of, one's mental processes or body. It can be considered desirable, such as in the use of recreational drugs, but it usually refers to the severe form found in anxiety and, in the most intense case, panic attacks.

Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder is not a single disorder, but a category of mood disorders defined by the presence of one or more episodes of abnormally elevated mood, clinically referred to as mania. Individuals who experience manic episodes also commonly experience depressive episodes or symptoms, or mixed episodes in which features of both mania and depression are present.

Or even Suicide

Studies show a high incidence of psychiatric disorders in suicide victims at the time of their death with the total figure ranging from 98% to 87.3% with mood disorders and substance abuse being the two most common. [...] Suicide among people suffering from bipolar disorder is often an impulse, which is due to the sufferer's extreme mood swings (one of the main symptoms of bipolar disorder), or also possibly an outcome of delusions occurring during an episode of mania or psychotic depression. Severe depression is considered a terminal illness due to the likelihood of suicide when left untreated.

Sheesh!

But Jackiw isn’t the only one with this potential behavioral abnormality, according to John, he’s just one in a group of “those young artists.” And suddenly it all becomes clear. Classical music is not dead, it’s dying, because our young artists are offing themselves.

And here is what Fugue State means.
-

6/4/08

Snotty and Insufferable?

Disclaimer: Clearly, this is a humorous column, or at least an attempt at one. I am, I hope, not without a sense of humor. However, I do not take kindly to ignorance and stereotyping. So after much thought, I’ve decided to…

How to be a classic snob

Um. Thanks for interrupting, Joel Stein of the LA Times. And I think you mean “classical snob,” unless that’s some sort of attempt at a pun.

Learning the tricks behind having a snotty attitude about orchestral music

Snotty? Nice. It says over here in your biography that you’re starved for attention. Is that true?

A few years ago, I began working toward my retirement goal of being an intolerable old man.

I must say, that’s an admirable goal.

I'm way ahead of schedule on knowing enough about wine to bore anyone,

Hey, me too! Because, you know, I’ve studied and stuff.

but classical music has proved much more difficult, largely because no matter how much you listen, it does not get you drunk.

No, because you haven’t studied it. You think it’s okay to be “snotty” about wine because you know a lot about wine, but you want the shortcut to being “snotty” about classic [sic] music? Boo, sir. Boo.

But because my cultural 401(k)

Okay, that’s funny.

depends on being able to cite conductors, orchestras and recording years,

“Recording years” is pretty awkward. Simplify, man! I’d go with “dates”.

I called David Moore, a bassist for the L.A. Philharmonic, and asked him to get me on the road to insufferability.

You’re already on that road, my friend.

Moore met me at the Walt Disney Concert Hall and said that, like me, he got into classical music late -- in his case at USC, where he started out majoring in jazz, which he discovered by getting into guitar solos in Rush and Iron Maiden songs.

He discovered jazz by…listening to Iron Maiden?

New York is the center of high culture because its orchestra members keep these kinds of things secret.

Zing! Also, because people take the time to educate themselves, unlike (apparently) in LA, where any shortcut to cultural currency is welcome. Those stupid East coast idiots, learning about stuff!

His first tip was to tell me not to bother buying a lot of CDs because, unlike with rock bands, the live experience is far more important. "The Varese piece had 16 percussion instruments, and you can't capture that in two ear buds," he explained. I'm not exactly sure what his point was, but I longed to say things like, "The Varese piece had 16 percussion instruments."

Wow. Look it up, Einstein. And it’s “Varèse.” Plus, I don’t have to “long to say” facts that I already know, because I know them.

When I accused him of just saying this to get me to buy concert tickets, he told me that he never listens to classical recordings at home unless it's for work. Again, the New York guys would keep that quiet.

Zing!

Moore kept giving me advice on appreciating music, but I didn't care about that. I wanted to know how to express snobbishness about it.

Great. That’s great.

"Knowing Sibelius is Finnish and influenced by natural surroundings can deepen the experience, but you don't need to know it's cold and dark in Finland to appreciate it," he said. Yes, I do. This was great advice. A quick Wikipedia read is always the first step to intolerability.

Oh, right, I took my eyes off your prize. Intolerable, insufferable. Without working. I get it.

Sensing my excitement, Moore started to get what I was looking for. "If you can refer to recordings or conductors, then you can be elitist and mock me for not knowing that stuff," he said. Check. "Also, pronounce composers in their language of origin." Got it. BAY-toe-fen.

Jesus.

And if people applaud between movements during a concert, I should stare, loudly shush and shake my head in disapproval.

Um. What? Everyone knows that, because…

The musicians don't mind the clapping,

What? I’m pretty sure they do. Ever get stared down by the conductor? Oh, wait…obviously not.

but snotty audience members love to assert their knowledge of classical music etiquette.

Yes. “Snotty.” Etiquette is so snotty. Hey, Mr. Stein? Would you like a ham and cheese sandwich?

When I'm old enough to have really gotten the hang of this, I'm sure I'll be able to use my phone to excoriate the clappers on an online social network inhabited only by the snotty, old and self-obsessed. It would still be called Facebook.

Hey! America? It’s common to not clap between movements of a work at a “classical” concert. Clear? Clear. Not too hard, right? Full of tiny, intricate, inviolable rules? No? No. See?

After banging out some classical licks on a piano that did seem pretty memorable, Moore invited me to the orchestra's performance of Mahler's Sixth, with guest conductor Christoph Eschenbach. Not only was this supposed to be a great performance, but more important, I could tell people, "I saw Eschenbach do Mahler's Sixth." Moore was starting to understand my needs.

I think your needs are clear.

But before I went, Moore suggested -- against his earlier advice -- that I actually get the disc and listen to it once or twice. This could help with my most serious hurdle to remembering any piece I hear live: staying awake.

Good Lord.

"The familiarity of a piece is like a return drive," he said. "It doesn't feel as long because you recognize the landmarks along the way." Also, during the performance, I could focus on a particular section -- say, the bassists -- to give me something to do with my eyes besides close them. That's when I got the awesome idea for Solid Gold Philharmonic Dancers.

That is totally an awesome idea, brah! How about "Orchestral Babes Gone Wild!"?

When I got home, I downloaded Leonard Bernstein's version of Mahler's Sixth and read the Wikipedia entry about the symphony. This turned out to be really smart because I found out the symphony not only requires a triangle, a glockenspiel and, awesomely, cowbells,

Cowbells are, admittedly, awesome.

but, according to Mahler, a hammer that was to be pounded "breif and mighty, but dull in resonance and with a nonmetallic character (like the fall of an axe)." Somewhere, a child-prodigy percussionist is being yelled at for not pounding a wooden hammer dully enough.

I’ll give you that one.

That night, I did a lot of staring at the hammer guy, who, to my delight, was also the triangle and cowbell guy. And his hammer was this gigantic, Wile E. Coyote-sized mallet that he slammed maybe five times onto this enormous wood chopping block on wheels. I couldn't decide if I was more delighted by the notion of Eschenbach, who conducts this symphony all over the world, trying to persuade airport security to let him board with his carry-on giant hammer, or the idea that the Philharmonic keeps a giant hammer and table in storage just for Mahler's Sixth. Or that, for the rest of my life, I can talk about the sublime dullness of the hammer, which gets lost on recordings, as soon as Mahler's Sixth comes up in conversation. Which it will. Because I will bring it up.

Yes, yes you will. Because you saw it, and bothered to learn something about it.

See how that works? Just like wine. In the end, did you learn this? No?

Sigh. Again, I know it’s a humor column. Touting ignorance, snotty-ness, and ridiculing things you know nothing about is hilarious. I almost didn’t do this post. And it is, after all, funny. However, the point (easy cultural legitimacy) is undermined by the fact that the author actually did some research, listened to the piece, and went to the concert.

So what was the point again?