Thursday, August 09, 2007

2007: The Year of Orpheus

Last summer, when I attended a performance at the Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, NY, I saw that the opera's 2007 season featured four versions of the Orpheus myth: the greatest mortal musician who travels to the underworld to retrieve his beloved, Eurydice, only to make an error that banishes her from his side forever. The Glimmerglass selections come from four very different eras of music history: Monteverdi's L'Orfeo from the early 17th century, Gluck's 18th century Orfeo ed Euridice, Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld from the 19th, and Philip Glass' Orphee from 1993. The NY Times' Anthony Tommasini's wrap-up review covers performances of all four operas very nicely.

Before the Glimmerglass season began, though, I took note of the operatic adaptation of Salman Rushdie's "The Ground Beneath Her Feet," itself an adaptation of the Orpheus myth, at the Manchester Festival. The first review I read, by the LA Times' Mark Swed, was just short of scathing, but the idea of making Orpheus and Eurydice into international rock superstars fascinated me enough to find a copy of the novel—which I'd first encountered during a visit to a college to which I applied but did not attend—and promptly devour it. It's far-flung and perhaps over-long, but a colorful, elaborate work nonetheless. The operatic review wasn't the only thing that spurred me to read it; an article I discovered on ArtsJournal lamented the lack of a great rock-and-roll novel and brushed Rushdie off (rather unfairly, I thought) for failing to capture the spirit of the music in his book. His writing on concert performances seems a bit weak (where are the drum solos? the pyrotechnics?), but he captures the songwriting process especially well when Ormus Cama, the stand-in for Orpheus, must balance inspiration from beyond with the conventions of the verse-chorus-bridge formula.

Only weeks later, I discovered yet another Orpheus-themed operatic project, this one by one of my former teachers and musical mentors. William Duckworth, professor of music at Bucknell University and noted post-minimalist luminary, has created iOrpheus, a street opera to be performed in Brisbane, Australia using iPods, laptones, cell phones and other digital media. It's not clear to me how iOrpheus will tease out the myth, but the overall spirit of the performance seems to be one of collaboration, creativity, and seemingly boundless technological platforms (presences on MySpace, YouTube, Second Life, et al).

The continued attraction of this myth for composers and musicians both confuses and enthralls me, especially because the myth reinforces human fallibility and illustrates the ultimate failure of art, and specifically of music, to bring joy and happiness into its practitioners' lives. Perhaps the iOrpheus project might show that technology, advances devised by humans, are the way over the hump, the way of pushing music beyond our unenhanced, mortal offerings. In Duckworth's modern retelling, the outcome of the myth—Orpheus' fateful glance back and Eurydice's disappearance back into the void—might remain the same, but perhaps Orpheus might capture some essence of her on a camera phone before she departs from his side for good.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Awaking the slumbering blog

I recently had a very strange encounter with the works of an author whom I greatly respect. I didn't quite know what to do with this knowledge, so reactivating this long-dormant blog seemed the best course.

Alex Ross, the venerable music critic for the New Yorker, is releasing his first book, "The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century" in October. I await its arrival with bated breath. In the July 9 issue of the New Yorker, "Apparition in the Woods," his chapter on Jean Sibelius (and, more broadly, about the European "small-country" composers in the early 20th century), appeared. The following anecdote is the piece's final paragraph:

In 1984, the great American avant-garde composer Morton Feldman gave a lecture at the relentlessly up-to-date Summer Courses for New Music, in Darmstadt, Germany. “The people who you think are radicals might really be conservatives,” Feldman said on that occasion. “The people who you think are conservative might really be radical.” And he began to hum the Sibelius Fifth.

Below the link to this piece on the New Yorker's website (I confess that, unless I am at home, the Internet is the only format in which I read the magazine), a link to a piece from 1998 by Ross on the music of Sibelius was included. It's clear that some of the reporting for the earlier piece went into the book chapter -- no harm in that. But the same anecdote about Feldman's lecture appeared in the 1998 piece, with an unsettling discrepancy. The following quote comes from page 2 of the online version of "Prospero's Songs."

Morton Feldman modelled certain aspects of his hazily beautiful work on Sibelian effects. In a lecture at Darmstadt, the capital of the postwar avant-garde, Feldman proclaimed, “The people who you think are radicals might really be conservatives. The people who you think are conservative might really be radical.” He then began to sing the Sibelius Fourth.

In the book chapter, Feldman hums Sibelius' Fifth. In the 1998 article, he sings the Fourth. I don't know whether the oversight is the fault of Ross or his editors. I respect Ross tremendously, read his blog semi-religiously, and even worked with him in a writing workshop this past January. He's been somewhat of an idol to me since I chose to pursue music writing and criticism several years ago. But this disparity between two different versions of the same event has unnerved me. Why would the New Yorker's editors place a link to a story with an error alongside a newer, more polished work and invite this kind of confusion? Is the source that Ross consulted regarding Feldman's lecture in 1984 reliable? Though I have Ross' e-mail address, I didn't feel comfortable approaching him with this discovery. It might all be a simple matter or nothing more than a careless error. All the same, I felt compelled to report it.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Some much-needed context for the art of quotation

Louis Menand in the New Yorker, reviewing and reflecting on the "Yale Book of Quotations." An interesting review, and he doesn't even name the subject of his review until several quote-loaded grafs in.

My interest in memorable quotes began with "They Said It: 200 of the Funniest Sports Quips and Quotes," a book of great sports quotations released by Sports Illustrated in 1990 (reissued in 2000). In this book, I first encountered many of Yogi Berra's odd, contradictory sayings, a few of which Menand references in his review.

The last graf of the review contains the punchline to a much-loved joke, one I had not heard until my junior year of college, I believe (thank you, Dallas Mellott, if you should read this):

A man, raving to his psychiatrist: "I'm a teepee! I'm a wigwam! I'm a teepee! I'm a wigwam!"
The psychiatrist: "Relax, man. You're two tents."

Menand does not credit its author. He merely mentions its place among his own personal pantheon of treasured quotes.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Everything at once -- modern medleys

A string of popular Youtube offerings show performers poking fun at the facile, four-chord structure of popular music. The first video to catch my eye/ear featured a young Australian man stringing together more than twenty pop tunes to the chord progression of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" (I think I first saw the link on NewMusicBox's Friday Informer).

Another video, posted in November and now attracting the attention of amateur musicians via a Facebook group, features a rant about "one-hit wonder" Johann Pachelbel's ubiquitous Canon in D. Though it begins as a complaint about playing the eight-note cello part in a school orchestra, it turns into a recitation of tunes including Aerosmith's "Cryin'", the Beatles' "Let It Be" and Blues Traveler's "Hook" that loosely line up with the Canon's chord progression. The performer, comedian Rob Paravonian, goes off the deep end near the end, wildly heaping verses and choruses from Natalie Imbruglia (also featured in the "Don't Stop Believin'" medley), Bush and Green Day onto the Canon's chords.

As a fellow performer of an oft-neglected, bass-clef instrument, I can say I feel Paravonian's pain. But the way that his routine gives way to a pop music-pastiche speaks to the overall interchangeability of '90s pop music as a subject of humor --the message seems to be "Can you believe we listened to/bought this stuff?" These stitched-together medleys also reflect the musical and cultural phenomenon of the "mash-up," the combination of disparate tunes based on a shared musical feature (a rhythmic pattern or a melodic "hook"). The mash-up by DJ Danger Mouse that combined Jay-Z's "The Black Album" with the Beatles' "White Album" to form "The Grey Album" was one of the first entries of this venerated DJing trick into the musical mainstream. These two videos, and the imitators they will surely spawn, extend this fun-poking practice into a new medium.

Monday, January 22, 2007

On developing a critical eye

For my course in Arts Criticism, each student chose a single text of criticism in their field to present to the class. I selected a collection of essays by Edward Said called "On Late Style." I wasn't familiar with Said's work as a music critic, but I knew his name from his writings on Middle East affairs and on global politics in general. He was a music critic for The Nation and a professor at Columbia, and he was working on this book when he passed away from leukemia in 2003.

The essays, though not all of them address music, concern the element of "lateness" or "untimeliness" in works across many disciplines. He examines the sense of freedom and the breakdown of limitations that inhabit the works of composers, playwrights, artists and others as they near the end of their lives.

In last semester's class, we discussed the distinction between a "reviewer" and a "critic." A "reviewer," at the most basic level, merely evaluates a work (a movie, a play, a book, etc.) and states whether it's worth the price of admission. A "critic" places a work, or a series of works, within a larger context (the time of its creation, its subject matter or its historical setting) and makes statements that go beyond simple thumbs-up/thumbs-down. It's difficult to achieve in short-form writing, though the best writers today, e.g. many of the critics at The New Yorker, reach that level at less-than-book length.

In the essays in "On Late Style," Said seems as thorough a critic as I've ever read, informed by knowledge in philosophy, literature and the larger world of 20th century culture. The entirety of the book is grounded in the writings of Theodor Adorno, an influential critic and philosopher of an earlier era. When he discusses the late works of Beethoven or Strauss, he places them in history, in the space of the composer's career and in the realm of commentary by other critics. Though the passages from Adorno that he cites are often dense (I checked out a copy of Adorno's "Philosophy of New Music" as a companion piece), his own writing is graceful and sheds brilliant light on the words of Adorno and others.

I've been inspired by Said's authority as a critic to re-visit an analogy I first heard as a sophomore in college, regarding the two-fold analysis and explication of a single work of art (at the time, a poem). The work, the object, is a gem, and the critic holds a loupe, a jeweler's lens. First, hold the lens up to the gem and look through it. Note its internal structure, how it is organized, how many facets it has, how it compares to others like it you've seen. True criticism begins here, but some "reviewing" never reaches this level at all. The second step is the level at which Said writes: to hold the gem itself up to your eye and look at the world through it. How does it change or comment upon what you see? How do its facets line up with the elements of everyday life?

Said posits a model of this mode of analysis: "I think it is right... to see Adorno's extremely intense lifelong fixation on third-period Beethoven as the carefully maintained choice of a critical model, a construction made for the benefit of his own actuality as a philosopher and culture critic in an enforced exile from the society that made him possible. " - Said, pp. 21-22 (italics mine)

More tk on Said and "On Late Style." By the time my turn comes to present (two weeks from this Wednesday, I believe), I hope to be looking at things through the lens of this book.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Indie-rock: As advertised?

While watching the college football National Championship last week (a sad affair for my family -- my dad was born in Cleveland and grew up near Columbus), I was stunned to hear the outro from "The Bleeding-Heart Show" by the New Pornographers in a television ad. The advertisement was for the University of Phoenix, the online purveyor of higher education that bought the naming rights to the stadium in Arizona that hosted the championship game. This song is one I truly love by a band I've enjoyed since 2003, when I first heard the ebullient, gleefully-incomprehensible single "The Electric Version" on my college radio station. I was so surprised to hear it on television because the band has avoided much of the sources of mainstream exposure: no contributions to movie soundtracks, no performances on late-night TV (at least none that I'd seen or heard of), and staying on Matador, a respected independent label.

Another ad that debuted during bowl season featured the intro to "Such Great Heights" by The Postal Service. This ad was for UPS, and the backing track fades out before Ben Gibbard's vocals come in. But I wasn't at shocked to hear this song in this setting. A version by Iron and Wine on the soundtrack for "Garden State" moved the song from 'sweet indie sleeper' to 'ubiquitous quote in away messages and Myspace profiles.' It's still a good song, but one already widely recognized.

So the UPS ad has warranted the attention of Pitchfork, complete with added link from the UPS site. But I haven't been able to track down any comments on the University of Phoenix ad. I can't say I'm utterly disgusted or shocked by it, but I think it speaks to the gradual de-indie-fication of 'indie-rock.' So many bands that are defined as 'indie' are getting more and more press attention or are signing to bigger record labels. At this point, 'indie' is pegged more as a sound than as an approach to recording and distributing music: rough, unpolished vocals; lo-fi production; poetic, often introspective lyrics (when they're intelligible).

None of the Pornographers' great lyrics appear in the ad; only the sung "hey-na, hey-na-na" of the outro. I was surprised to read on the band's site that the song is influenced by South Africa isicathamiya singing, the style of groups like Ladysmith Black Mambazo that I studied in my "Music and Politics" class last semester. So what we have here is a Canadian band with African influences lending their music to an American pseudo-college. Pretty wild.

Starstruck syndrome

I visited New York City for the first time during my freshman year in college. My classmates who had grown up going there all the time couldn't believe it. What could I say? Central Pennsylvania was the closest I'd ever lived to it, having grown up in Maryland, Virginia and South Korea.

The first visit or two were based largely in Times Square, and with each successive visit I've tried to expand my experience of the city into new neighborhoods and different concert/theatre venues. I've been there enough times now that I don't look like a greenhorn trying to navigate the subways and streets, but there's still the Broadway glint and this feeling of centrality (being at the heart of America's, and perhaps the world's, cultural and arts scene) that threatens to widen my eyes a little every time I go back.

I'll be there a lot this semester -- interning for NewMusicBox, a webzine associated with American Music Center. Several days every week. I'll chase away that wide-eyed feeling yet.

The same feeling can often accompany meeting celebrities, or seeing them in unexpected places. Several of my friends saw Dr. Ruth Westheimer in NYC; all of us had a close encounter of the comedic kind with Jon Stewart (he was in the room and addressed everyone in our group, but no one "met" him or shook his hand or anything); we all saw actor Ethan Hawke on stage in Tom Stoppard's "The Coast of Utopia." What follows is the review I wrote of "Voyage," the first play in Stoppard's trilogy, for the third workshop of the immersion.

NOTE: Review edited, in light of anonymous comment. The female *roles* in "Voyage" are not reprised in the second play, but all of the actresses will appear in different roles in "Shipwreck."

History doesn’t move to a martial drumbeat in “Voyage,” the first play in Tom Stoppard’s trilogy “The Coast of Utopia,” currently playing at Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center. Instead, the tale of 19th-century Russian thinkers bubbles with humor and energy that outweigh some uneven acting.

These real-life historical figures, led by Vissarion Belinsky and Michael Bakunin, lament the provinciality of their homeland, and they counter this isolation by reading philosophy and blithely questioning reality. Stoppard imparts a light touch to cerebral matters, and Jack O’Brien’s direction steers the actors through breezy discussions of heavy topics.

As the youths make strides toward self-discovery, the old guard, represented by Michael’s father Alexander and his rural estate Premukhino, are forced to make way. Richard Easton plays Alexander with graceful wisdom, as he slowly realizes how the world has passed him by while he was tsar over his own small domain.

As Michael, Ethan Hawke is too loud and harsh, and his wide, over-broad performance diminished the puerile joy of Michael’s discovery of new worldviews. With each new philosophical breakthrough, Michael remarks, “Now I know where I was going wrong.” Hawke stands in need of a similar revelation.

Billy Crudup’s performance as Vissarion, though, redeems the notion of Hollywood actors on the dramatic stage. Crudup doesn’t mistake lungpower for expressiveness. At first awkwardly mousy, he shows Vissarion’s passion for writing and dissatisfaction with the Tsarist regime in short, believable bursts.

The play feels male-dominated, despite the multiplicity of female roles. Alexander’s four daughters seem to serve only as plot devices, as sources of distraction to the men’s high-minded pursuits. Among the women in “Voyage,” the mother Varvara, played with poise with Amy Irving, has the greatest presence.

Visible through scrims behind the beautifully spare Victorian-era sets, shabby crowds of serfs (some of them mannequins) represent the revolution to come. In a play driven by words and by characters discovering their power, the on-looking laborers stand out by their silence.

Monday, January 15, 2007

The Hold Steady's stellar storyteller

I had a Barnes and Noble gift card burning a hole in my wallet while I was in NYC, so I decided to pick up a CD to review for one of my workshops. I picked out "Boys and Girls in America" by The Hold Steady, a record I'd heard good things about but had never actually heard. Word count kept me from saying more about the instrumentals (they're not *really* that boring, just less impressive than the lyrics and the singing), but here's a brushed-off version of the review I turned in for workshop.

Two literary allusions in the span of one song might peg a band as bookish. But on “Stuck Between Stations,” the lead track to The Hold Steady’s album “Boys and Girls in America,” lines about novelist Jack Kerouac and poet John Berryman set the stage for an artful, intriguing album. It makes many references to the depressants that fueled those writers’ lives and works, but the record, the third from this Brooklyn-based, Minneapolis-bred quintet, is far from a downer.

The band’s high-volume mix of guitars, keyboards and drums grinds away steadily, but the frantic mix of punk and blues that won raves for “Separation Sunday” (2005) sounds duller and less forceful. Neat piano flourishes, played by Franz Nicolay, occasionally emerge, but other added instruments – a horn section, a few string players – feel gimmicky, and the acoustic songs sacrifice punch for twang.

Singer Craig Finn’s lyrics, though, stand out above the unremarkable instrumentals. He grounds his songwriting in a lament from Kerouac’s “On the Road” that “boys and girls in America have such a sad time together.” Though Finn’s delivery works best at high speed, the grit he imparts to his stories of losing inhibition and ending up heartsick or hospitalized sounds great throughout. In his hearty croak, a dead-ringer for Bruce Springsteen, Finn fully inhabits every giddy youngster and sorrowful drunk. Even his sermonizing sounds like “The Boss,” cleverly mixing the language of faith and doubt with the fast cars and loose women of Kerouac: “It’s hard to feel holy when you can’t get clean…it’s hard to slow down when you’re picking up speed.”

The reference to Berryman adds doomed gravity to the excess. Berryman killed himself in Minneapolis in 1972, a victim of “all the drawn-out winters,” as Finn says. The shifting identities, sharp wit and unrequited love of Berryman’s poems “The Dream Songs” color the album’s lyrics.

After so many songs devoted to self-deception and self-medication, the album closes brilliantly with a final twist of perspective. Finn, a remarkably flexible raconteur, sticks up for fidelity: “Southtown girls may not knock you out / but you know they’ll stay.”

NYC immersion, pt. 1

Goldring NYC Immersion was an arts-and-culture-laden whirlwind. I was busy most nights, mostly writing reviews for morning workshops with professional critics, so the blogging fell by the wayside. Highlights of the trip that I didn't review:

-Museum of Modern Art (esp. the Brice Marden exhibit)
-Bobby Watson and Horizon @ Jazz at Lincoln Center
-NY Philharmonic, Zubin Mehta conducting, performing "The Rite of Spring" and the Beethoven Violin Concerto
-attending a taping of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, followed by...
-dinner at Taboon (773 10th Ave. in Hell's Kitchen)

Here is the first of the reviews I wrote during the Immersion. I've tweaked it slightly from the version that I workshopped with Eric Grode (SU alum and theatre critic for the NY Sun).

For many Broadway fans, adoration and obsession go hand in hand. Theater nuts study scripts, hound stars for autographs and hoard original cast recordings. This lifestyle may seem unhealthy, but in “The Drowsy Chaperone,” writer Bob Martin celebrates the obsessive fan with the character Man in Chair. The role and the book won Tonys for Martin, but in the Jan. 2 performance at the Marquis Theatre, understudy Jay Douglas capably filled the nerdy theaterphile’s slippers.

Douglas was a wide-eyed, believably obsessed fanboy. As the recording of a “forgotten treasure” from the 1920’s, also called “The Drowsy Chaperone,” plays, the characters come to life inside his apartment, and Man in Chair retreats into giddy reverie, giving up the despair and distraction of the present day for the romantic, predictable past.

Frequent pauses in the meta-musical allow him to show off the strange depths of his knowledge, and Douglas gleams as he rattles off names of cast members and their other “famous” roles. All of the stock characters – the slick agent, the ditzy chorus girl, even Sutton Foster’s high-kicking, attention-seeking starlet – take a back seat to Douglas’ dumpy loner.

These breaks also reveal the wit of Martin’s book. Commenting on the obvious racism of the stereotypical Latin lover Adolpho, Man in Chair quips, “Leave that to Disney.” In reading the phrase “gay wedding” on the album liner, he says that it “meant something else back then.” Douglas delivers these lines, and the rest of his comic interjections, with a self-aware smirk.

The show’s songs don’t have the same pop as Martin’s book, though. Man in Chair longs for a time when theatergoers left the theatre humming tunes, but the musical that he celebrates lacks memorable melodies. The spoken dialogue, filled with idol worship and self-deprecating humor, makes the musical work. Though Douglas dances around the edges in the first act as the record plays, his immersion in the musical’s fantasy world is complete by the second act, when he sings a duet with Foster. The tune might be forgettable, but Douglas’ adoration is naively note-perfect.

Monday, January 01, 2007

fall semester wrap-up and the Baltimore alt-press

After immersing myself in the life and works of Gyorgy Ligeti all semester, I was delighted to read this tribute to him in the Baltimore City Paper. With the title "People Who Died" and a faux-cherubic cartoon cover, I thought the Paper's year-end obits and tributes would be catty or tongue-in-cheek, but this write-up for Ligeti is one of the better ones I've read. I was also surprised to see that Naim June Paik also died this year; his name came up during my Ligeti seminar as a member of the Fluxus "art happening" group, with whom Ligeti had a brief affiliation. I can't recall if Prof. Waggoner mentioned that Paik, too, had died in 2006.

I actually double-dipped in Ligeti in my final papers. For a class in Music and Politics, I did a kind of political analysis of his opera Le grand macabre and examined how it reflected and satirized the affairs of Cold War politics (big comet coming to bring an end to the world seems like dropping the Big One, doesn't it?). This music-in-social-context paper was a good companion to and welcome distraction from my paper for the actual Ligeti seminar: a complete (or as complete as I could muster) tonal analysis of the choral piece Lux aeterna, made famous (entirely without Ligeti's permission, as you can read in the City Paper's tribute) in "2001: A Space Odyssey."

Also, over my holiday break at home in Maryland, I picked up a copy of Urbanite magazine, another Baltimore City publication. The December issue had some truly admirable features: eye-catching layout, some interesting story topics and submissions by readers reflecting on life in Charm City. Those last writing were sort of reminiscent of Life as Haiku, a feature run in the Washington Post Sunday Style that I've greatly enjoyed reading for the last few years.

Finally, happy 2007! I kicked off the New Year with a six-hour drive from home in Maryland to Syracuse. Tomorrow I embark upon the "NYC Immersion" with the other Goldring-ers. Lots of shows and concerts, writing reviews, workshopping with professional critics (including Alex Ross of the New Yorker!) and, if I'm really on the ball, copious blogging about the whole lot.