Facing Budget Cuts, New York Times Enacts Dire Cutbacks on Diacritical Marks

Anthony Tommasini has a piece in the Times about the American Composers Orchestra. Sadly, even the Arts page is suffering the effects of the economic downturn; as the dollar continues to slip against world currencies, the costly, exotic diacritical marks used in some foreign alphabets are the latest casualty.

And other issues. To wit:

The American Composers Orchestra practices truth in advertising.

I think you mean "truth in autonomenclature" (not the kind about handguns, though).

As its name implies, its mission is to perform new, recent and neglected works by American composers.

Its name also implies, importantly, that it's an orchestra.

On Friday night at Zankel Hall it offered a program of premieres by Lukas Ligeti and Derek Bermel and the New York premiere of the Guitar Concerto by Robert Beaser.

Makes sense, I guess.

Obviously "premiere" has long been Anglicized (or Anglicised, if you prefer); the term became so prevalent that we obliterated its erstwhile accent grave to demonstrate our linguistic superiority over the French.

See? American Composers Orchestra.

A piece from 2007 by the Austrian composer Thomas Larcher was slipped in, proving that this open-minded orchestra is willing to reach beyond America for a worthy piece now and then.

Ooh. Although we approve of this programming, it does in fact set this paragraph at odds with itself, as it were. Ah, well. We can't have all of the supporting sentences, uh...supporting the topic sentence, now can we? That could be construed as gauche.

But the other purpose of the evening was to honor artistic leaders who have been crucial to the orchestra’s success: Mr. Beaser, its artistic director; Mr. Bermel, just finishing his tenure as composer in residence; and Dennis Russell Davies, the conductor laureate, who founded the orchestra 32 years ago and looked elated to be back.

Perhaps they should have called it the "American Composers, Conductors, and Artistic Directors Orchestra," but that hardly rolls off the tongue, does it?

Mr. Bermel’s work, “A shout, a whisper, and a trace,” was particularly effective and often exhilarating.

I've always thought "effective" was an odd descriptor of concert music. Effective as...music? Diversion? Intellectual fodder? Thirst quencher? Floor cleaner? Dessert topping?

Mr. Bermel draws from myriad genres: jazz, rock, gospel, cerebral modernism, you name it.

You already named it, and its name is Inherent Bias.

Jazz: Not Cerebral. Rock: Not Cerebral. Modernism: Cerebral.

Argument: There are lots of kinds of modernism; the qualifier merely indicates the particular cerebral kind of modernism alluded to in the piece reviewed here. You're being hypersensitive (again). Give it up.

Rebuttal: There is cerebral rock, and also cerebral jazz, one could argue. (Cererbral gospel is not familiar to this author; however this could constitute a deficiency or ignorance on my own part. (I suspect not. But it could.)) Qualifying modernism, and only modernism, in this description sets the "thinky" music appart from the "feely" music (rock, jazz, gospel).

Moreover, the construction of the sentence amplifies this effect. It's not "rocky rock, swingy jazz, goddy gospel, and cerebral modernism;" and the inclusion of the modified "modernism" at the end of the list only further sets off the distinction.

"Cerebral" is code for "thinky." You'll recognize the other influences, sure, but be careful! there's also some of that awful modernism.

That his interests are so wide-ranging could prevent him from forging a distinctive voice were his ear not so keen and his technique so assured.

Translation: There's some thinky music, but you'll still like it. Becuase, you know, rock and jazz! It's like two great tastes that taste great together! It's thinky on the outside, with a creamy, accessable center.

Figure 1: An early, successful attempt at modernist collage techniques. If conisdered today somewhat simplistic and naïve in its dualism, this classic example of early modernism is echoed now in less strictly dialectical efforts such as Snickers' Ice Cream Bar with Almonds.

Mr. Bermel says that this 20-minute piece was inspired by his reflection on Bartok’s final five years, as a transplant to New York. Though relieved to have left Hungary, his homeland, under the Nazis, Bartok maintained a personal connection to his musical roots.

His name, however, and the alphabet of his youth were abandoned at Ellis Island, corrupted by the influence of the New World.

NY Times: I'm sorry, Mr Bartók, we're going to have to go with an unadorned "o". Going to have to be "Bartok" for now. Frightfully sorry old chap. [adjusts monocle; money flies everywhere]

BB: But, sirs, please, it's my name...it's a different alphabet...

NY Times: Sorry, sir. Diacritical marks are just too expensive. Economy and all that.

BB: I see...

NY Times: Well, off with you, then.

BB: But I read the Sports section today! I saw...

NY Times: Well, yes. But you know, the arts and all, we can't afford to give them the same consideration as South American cities. Or baseball players. The Latin American market is very important.

BB: That sucks.


Fred said...

Messiaen wrote cerebral gospel music.

Also Bartók Bela lost the order of his names as well.

Sator Arepo said...


Yes, the normal Hungarian name order almost always gets reversed in English spellings, as you must know.

Also, do Messiaen's spiritual and/or choral music, while often cerebral, really qualify as "gospel"? If so, I misconstrued the good Mr Tommasini's prose.


Empiricus said...

Sorry Sator,

I think Messiaen is more gospel (feely [really, it's just religiousy]) than cerebral (thinky). See, he often gets a bad rap for some of his earlier pieces, like Modes de Valeurs, because they utilize techniques found in his treatises. I think his earlier, more justifiable pieces (via strict/rational techniques) were merely compensating for a need to fall near accepted historical practices. Later, he began to trust his synaesthesia and preoccupation with goddy things and birdies.

Eh. Just speculation.

Sator Arepo said...

I guess "gospel" is a relative term. I was thinking of H.T. Burleigh or something.

Fred said...

OK so that comment was mostly in jest. Messiaen will never be confused with Burleigh or the Golden Gate Quartet or the Staples Singers. I was merely siding with you against the separation of "cerebral modernism" from more immediately visceral and uncerebral jazz, rock and gospel by citing an example of someone who uses "cerebral techniques" while often expressing an uncomplicated devotion to God.

Sator Arepo said...

Well put. I stand by my Peanut Butter Cup analysis/analogy, though. Or, at least, it still makes me laugh.

AnthonyS said...

Peanut butter cups are outstanding.