Thursday, August 31, 2006

In praise of music that breaks a sweat

I suffered a bout of musical whiplash yesterday evening. From 5 to 6:45, I attended the first class meeting of a music history seminar. In this course, I will be studying the works of Gyorgy Ligeti, a contemporary composer who just passed away this summer. Then, at 8, I went to the New York State Fair and caught a performance by punk-rocker Joan Jett, who played for free on the Chevrolet Court stage.

Some of Ligeti's music was featured (albeit without his permission) in Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey." Many of his other compositions have this same ethereal, formless feeling, filled with clustered chords and lacking the normal musical guideposts of rhythm, meter and conventional harmony. In the first class yesterday, though, we listened to a few examples of Ligeti's piano music and heard its complex rhythms and jumpy syncopations. The professor led us through discussion of Eastern European music and the rhythm of the Hungarian language itself, and the few piano pieces we heard are loaded with forward-surging, heavily-accented rhythms.

The professor described some of Ligeti's music as incredibly, sometimes willfully, difficult, especially in terms of the independence of individual parts and the layering of complex rhythms over one another. But part of the value, I'm beginning to see, in new music is the *effort* it requires of both the performer and the listener. Much of the enjoyment comes from the challenge - both the discipline of one's hands to play the right notes at the right time, and discipline of the ears to find something to grab onto in the music. The sung folk music we heard in class contained, in addition to unconventional tonalities and unfamiliar language, shouts, grunts and other uncategorizable sounds. Those elements show that the performers are working hard and exerting themselves, conveying intensity that comes through entirely apart from the language in which the song is sung.

Compare that with an hour-long set of roaring, brawny rock-and-roll, with guitars in place of pianos, English in place of Hungarian, and an up-tempo 4/4 grind in place of complicated isorhythms. The common ingredient in both musical experiences, though, was intensity. Jett and her lead guitarist hurled themselves around the stage, manhandling their guitars as they churned out steady, three-chord progressions (If the formula for country music is "three chords and the truth," the one for punk-rock from the '70s and '80s might be "three chords and a snarl"). When the guitarist and bassist came to the mike to deliver backing vocals, they seemed locked in place - eyes forward, mouths in position to sing, even on the relatively docile refrain of "Crimson and Clover." Jett encouraged the audience to do likewise, calling for more volume from the shouting chorus at the foot of the stage. She and her bandmates doubtlessly exerted themselves just playing simple, propulsive American rock music, stomping around the stage and brandishing electric guitars. I didn't know all the songs in the set, particularly the ones from the band's new album "Sinner," but they were delivered with the same weight and aggressive posture as the more familiar ones.

So here's to music that takes effort to play and to enjoy. Though you may never see a roadie drape a concert pianist in a cape after a performance a la James Brown, exertion and effort are a vital part of performance, whether it's "post-modern" or punk-rock.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Silly jokes, serious skills

Peter De Sotto, violinist/vocalist for the Quartetto Gelato, cracked quite a few jokes between numbers in his group's performance last night at the Skaneateles Festival. Some fell flat; others generated a lot of laughs. But De Sotto's silly on-stage demeanor took nothing away from an outstanding, wide-ranging set of songs.

Due to illness, the group had to perform without its oboe/English horn player and had to alter its printed program. Clarinetist Shalom Berg added a great deal of flourish to the group's unique combination of violin, cello and accordian. This exotic blend was showcased on many numbers not listed on the program, including "Meditango," "Rondo alla Zigeuner," "Sous Le Ciel De Paris" and "Besamo Mucho" (reclaiming the song forever from Leslie Nielsen's rendition in "The Naked Gun"). The group ably shifted from propulsive dance rhythms to smooth legato playing, moving and swaying and interacting with one another.

I don't know when clarinetist Bard joined the group -- his bio, inserted into the program, showed that he is an established musician in Toronto like the other three -- but his chemistry with the other players was even more impressive than his obvious technical skill.

Accordianist Alexander Sevastian was, without question, the finest accordian player I have ever seen or heard. Before performing the Finale from von Weber's "Konzertstuck Opus 79," Sevastian took the microphone and said, "Since English is not my first language, I don't usually like to talk. But I do like to play fast notes." He then launched into the piece, which he adpated from a piano solo with orchestral accompaniment. Sevastian also provided the highlight of the first half of the concert, playing Bach's famous "Tocatta and Fugue" while De Sotto, Berg and cellist Elinor Frey took five. After he played the familiar opening passage, I said to myself, "I don't know how he's going to pull this off." But he did, tackling the piece's technical demands with furious fingerwork over the instrument's manuals.

The four musicians formed dynamic pairs throughout the evening - cello and accordian as a kind of basso continuo, violin and cello as smooth, evocative string section, violin and clarinet as nimble duettists egging each another one.
Their great skill and strong chemistry provided a greater connection to the audience than De Sotto's jokes and foot-stamping. His last comment, though, regarding the group's traditional closer "Danny Boy," hit home. He said that though the traditiona Irish song is widely performed in many different settings, "the piece always wins." But last night, it was just one in an entire set of winners.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

When Leno and Letterman just won't cut it...

I saw Roger Rosenblatt on Charlie Rose last night. I knew I recognized the name and the voice - he's an essayist who used to deliver thought-pieces at the end of the Newshour with Jim Lehrer, a program I was raised on. He was promoting his recently-released novel, and I was struck by how funny, how dead-pan and how self-deprecating he was. He was also especially insightful regarding the difference in composing an essay (a one-off, self-encapsulated, sometimes factually-based expression of opinion) from writing a novel (a work of fiction that follows a plot and develops characters, but which often bears no resemblance to real-life events and is not expected to).

But beyond that, I was surprised by his capacity for genre-hopping as a writer simply on a whim. He said he had written several plays, even written and starred in his own one-man show. "Lapham Rising" is his first novel, and he said he started it because he'd accomplished everything he could within the genre of the essay. He mentioned off-hand that a person could name 20 great novelists or 20 great playwrights or 20 great poets, but a list of great essayists would likely number about four.

I asked my mom, a far more attentive watcher of the Newshour than I was during my upbringing, what Rosenblatt's essays were about. She said pretty much anything, anything that caught his eye or his attention. And I thought, how wonderful, to be paid to do something like that. I don't know if I'll read Rosenblatt's novel, but I might check out a collection of his essays.

Since high school, I've really enjoyed Charlie Rose - the range of guests he has, his insightful questions, the way he can rein in even a large panel of very opinionated people (the discussions and predictions of the Oscars and Grammys particularly come to mind). Prior to Rosenblatt's appearance last night, he interviewed Congressman Rahm Emanuel live and former President Clinton by phone. They talked about politics, naturally, but Emanuel had a book ("The Plan" - something like "A Five-Point Vision for a Better Tomorrow") to promote, and Clinton had insights to offer about Democratic strategy and world efforts to combat AIDS. Then Charlie Rose switched gears and tackled cultural issues, materialism, humor and literary criticism with Rosenblatt.

Just recently, ESPN hired someone to review the network's interview strategies. I heard the guy interviewed, and he criticized, among others, Larry King and Barbara Walters for their poor strategies. I can't recall that he singled out any current newspeople for their work, but I think Charlie Rose offers a strong example of solid, insightful and well-articulated interview tactics.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Enough is enough! I have had it with these...oh, you know the rest

I went to see "Snakes on a Plane." I'm not ashamed to say it.

I'm not a fan of horror movies in general. I'm also not a fan of the allegedly scary movies, such as the "Scream" and "Final Destination" series, that people go to just to laugh at the bad dialogue, hugely improbable plot-twists and outlandish, contrived death scenes.

I was never a part of the huge groundswell of Internet-based activity that variously promoted, hyped and ridiculed "SoaP." To be honest, I almost feel shallow for even using that acronym. I had friends tell me about its existence, oh, last fall, maybe? I thought, "Oh, that's ridiculous. I doubt I'll see it." But then I saw the preview for it before "X3" and was somewhat titilated, especially because one of my best friends hadn't heard a thing about it.

So I was going to Baltimore and saw that there was a 10 o'clock show and I knew one of my friends would be interested, so we went. We arrived a little late, missing the initial appearance of the serpentine logo and the first flash of Bad-ass Extraordinaire Samuel L. Jackson's name on the screen. What a shame.

I won't run down the plot or anything like that. I'll admit I read some reviews beforehand and knew much of what was to come. In short, it's a dreadful movie. Many patches of awful dialogue, many gruesome, contrived deaths, many plot twists that require a herculean suspense of disbelief. It's an utterly laughable movie -- David Koechner of "Anchorman" recycling his womanizing sportscaster from that film, a group of passengers that rivals "Airplane!" (itself a parody of an earlier film, "Airport") in its kitschy, cliched "diversity" -- and laugh I did. Uproariously, and more often than not at a shot of someone being bit in the face or butt or genitals. I'd like to think I have more highbrow taste than that, but the facts guffaw for themselves.

Chuck Klosterman has an article in the August issue of Esquire that looks at the phenomenolgy behind the mere existence of this film. It's a well-written piece, with plently of Klosterman's usual snarkiness, and it laments that the large, irony-driven fanbase that pushed "SoaP" to unforeseen levels of fame indicates a sad, disturbing trend in Hollywood filmmaking.

Maybe the Internet following the movie acquired is unprecedented, but a movie that is aware of and celebrates its own low quality is hardly a first. If moviegoers were supposed to hold writers, directors, actors and the rest of the filmmaking world to a higher standard, they should have done it during the 1980's during the glut of "Nightmare on Elm Street" and "Friday the 13th" movies before the advent of "Scream" and the rest of those genre-skewering movies.

"SoaP" isn't any less mindless or purposeless than any other "horror" movie out there. As long as the average audience finds diversion or delight in bad dialogue and poorly drawn characters meeting gruesome deaths, moviemakers will continue to give them what they want. I was marginally thrilled, marginally disgusted and I laughed a hell of a lot.

To try to counter the influence of this unbelievable (in this case, used pejoratively) piece of cinema, I tuned into a classical radio station broadcast playing a Suite for Two Pianos by Rachmaninoff on my drive home. But after it was over, I found a country station playing Johnny Cash's "A Boy Named Sue" and listened with delight. Before this entry branches into my musically-schizophrenic tastes, I'll sign off.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

on rocking and recording like it's 1999

I didn't take very many of my CDs with me when I moved to Syracuse. I figured that all the ones I listened to regularly were on my computer and iPod. But upon coming back home and finding my collection in a new bookshelf, I took the opportunity to pull a few of the more obscure, less listened-to ones off the shelf for revisiting.

The one that has taken me most by surprise, both for how much I remember the lyrics and for how long it's been since I'd listened to it, is "Hey! Album" by Marvelous 3. It came out in '99, with the big single "Freak of the Week." (chorus: "Can you make me a promise?/To stop it before we begin/Will you hold onto my hand/If I ever lose it again?") I *loved* this album back in the day, and as soon as I put in my car stereo, I found I still knew all the words, was still singing harmony in the same places.

The joy I felt in rediscovering a former musical love, though, is kind of outweighed by the musical ear I've developed in the years since I bought it. It's not a great album. A lot of the lyrics are really schlocky with really cheesy, obvious rhymes. A lot of the instrumentation (keyboards and synthesizers) and the guitar tones bites off of '80's bands like the Cars. Singer/guitarist Butch Walker overemotes and draws out vowels in an annoying fashion. There are bizarre spoken word samples at the beginning and stuck after the seventh or eighth tracks, and even stranger story read by Walker (I think) after the end of the last song. It's a late '90s pop record that sounds more like a late '80s or early '90s pop record, and it's far from a masterpiece.

At the same time, it's only been seven years since this album came out and I felt like I was dusting off something from much, much longer ago. A friend of mine mused about dredging up '90s pop albums in 30 or 40 years. Apart from the limitations of compact disc recordings (they'll end up decomposing sooner or later), I think that's the "classics" from this area that will end up being preserved for posterity, not minor hitmakers like Butch Walker or the Marvelous 3. We might have the same audio whiplash at hearing something from so far back, but music junkies, even as we age, will end up missing the ones that haven't survived -- the remnants of the music underground, of "unpopular culture," if you will.

Walker has gone on to have a solo recording career, and I think he's produced some albums as well, and the persona he has crafted as a songwriter seems completely at odds with the success of his musical endeavors. Don't you have to go platinum or attain a similar level of fame before acting like a debauched rockstar, writing about trashing hotel rooms and having this snotty, entitled attitude (see the M3 song "Sugarbuzz")? I dunno. I haven't bought any of his other albums and probably never will. But all the same, I've loaded "Hey! Album" onto my iPod and I will continue to sing along with gusto to those non-hits that spoke to me in '99 and still do, all shlock aside, albeit in different tongues.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Czech it out

I saw Glimmerglass Opera's production of Leos Janacek's "Jenufa" on Friday. I had previously seen only one full-length opera before, performed by undergrad college's opera company. In watching a DVD recording of a performance of "Jenufa" at Glyndebourne in England, I dimly recalled having heard a selection from the opera in one of the Company's revue performances. The DVD performances left something to be desired (mismatches between cast and their characters, lack of emotion, the general problems of a fixed-camera recording of live theater), but nevertheless I was excited to see the performance at Glimmerglass.

In short, it was truly outstanding. The principal female characters (Jenufa, her step-mother Kostelnicka and her grandmother Burjya) carried the performance, with capable performances from the prinicipal males. As Jenufa, Maria Kanyova had just the right body type and mannerisms to play the frail, put-upon lead. As the Kostelnicka, a stern, devoutly religious woman, Elizabeth Byrne showed excellent emotional range, initially assertive and domineering, then devious and self-doubting, and finally crippled and haunted by the nearly unspeakable crime she commits. Both had excellent soprano voices, equally skilled in both smooth, lyrical passages and more rhythmic, quasi-recitative sections.

From the third row of the 900-or-so seat auditorium, the orchestra occasionally proved too powerful in accompanying the singers as they played a dense, rhythmically-complex score. All of the singers had a moment or two or being drowned out by the orchestra, most notably tenor Roger Honeywell, who played the lowly, lovelorn mill worker Laca, who was covered up even during his some of his most intense moments during the first act. Honeywell came on strong during the more emotionally-understated second act, overshadowing the other male lead, Scott Piper. Piper was flat and largely uninteresting as the puffed-up mill owner Steva, keeping his hands in his pockets for much of the production, even during the tumultuous accusations of the third act. Both had fine voices, but Honeywell brought much more character and expression to his role.

The setting of the opera by director Jonathan Miller in the American Midwest of the early 20th century brought just the right atmosphere of desperation to the proceedings. Simple, sometimes dingy costumes; a spare, rickety-looking front porch; stained and faded wallpaper on the house's interior -- all of these staging elements underscored the drama's hard-bitten emotional core. All of the principal characters are looking for something *more*, whether in love, escape, the hope of a new child, or spiritual transcendence. And it just isn't there. Solace can't be found in the landscape; in one of her supplicant prayer, Jenufa calls her home "the valley of tears." The characters cling to whatever they can, and ultimately end up smothering their hopes. Though Jenufa and Laca are in love and together at the opera's end (here I'll omit the familiar but, in this production, newly unsettling entanglements of the plot), they are in tears and clutching one another hands desperately. Neither has what they sought the way they hoped to have it, and that idea is at the heart of the work's tragedy.

A few minor quibbles with expression and with balance between singers and the orchestra, but overall Glimmerglass' "Jenufa" was a delight, though difficult, and a triumph, though tragic.