Thursday, February 4, 2016

Musical Explanation 2/4/16: American Crime Story - The People vs. O.J. Simpson

Let us cease for another day to give praise to music and give praise to the high music of great TV. Music is the most abstract, and perhaps therefore the highest, of all arts. But all great art is capable of rising to the quality of music in which the action is flows so inevitably that it can be described no other way except 'musical'; and that art which doesn't seem so inevitable to be particularly musical is often operatic.

Seinfeld is such pure music that it's practically Bach - even if Seinfeld is the opposite of spiritual, it has all the same equanimity and precision given to the four contrapuntal voices as though perfection is being conjured before our very eyes. The Simpsons, like Mozart, goes beyond perfection, and floats about in the air with an infinite array of permutations. If The Simpsons are Mozart, then Arrested Development is Haydn, an upper-class madhouse in which the most ridiculously surreal things are always possible. The Wire is a much more modern, nihlistic kind of music - closer perhaps to Schoenberg, trying to break free of systems beyond its control, yet only further entangling itself within it. Six Feet Under is Mahler, tragicomic, obsessed by death, with every emotion intermingling freely with one another so long as it's larger than life. And of course, then there's Louie - which is Beethoven himself. Two grand solipsists, the incorruptible artists, the self-dramatizing heroes who go on living in spite of a world that actively seems to plot against them.

Mad Men, on the other hand, is pure opera, and the heavy Wagnerian stuff too, in which the archetypes we all see in our dreams discourse slowly and at length about the metaphysics of their experiences. The Sopranos is pure Puccini, with all the same outsize emotions and lusts, and the same relish for cruelty and violence. Breaking Bad is Verdi, that special operatic realm where tragically noble figures are addicted to their weaknesses. If The Simpsons is Mozart in instrumental form, then Cheers is a Mozart opera, smiling through its tears, with a perfect blend of compassion and contempt for its characters.

So far, we've only seen one episode of American Crime Story, but that episode is pure operatic Richard Strauss - the Strauss of Salome and Elektra who so artfully deals with decadent archetypes in the sleazily exploitative manner they deserve. Like those two operas and Der Rosenkavalier, it deals with cluelessly wealthy people who dance upon a volcano, blithely unaware that their trivial world of easy wealth can collapse so easily. And like so many Strauss operas, the real subject is not its characters but its audience.

From the vantage point of 2016 America, the 2000's seems like a weird interregnum. We were so concerned with the authoritarianism of the Bush years that all the persistent problems of American life took a back seat. No doubt, there yet will be a decade when we have to reckon with the put-off sins of the Bush years, but now, twenty years after the fact, America is finally coming to terms with the sins of The Nineties, and there is no greater indictment of 90's America than the OJ trial.

I'm not quite as willing as people to my Left to indict the Nineties for the mass incarceration that finally lowered crime after a quarter-century of horrific urban decline. What else was America supposed to do? What other solution was there? But even if mass incarceration temporarily solved the issue of crime, it was a deal with the devil, and ensured that millions of families would never lift themselves from poverty - the overwhelming majority of which were black.

Bill Clinton, Rudy Giuliani, Martin O'Malley, and god knows how many dozens of other would-be-statesmen, saw that there was a tradeoff to be made. The choice was stark - economic prosperity and fiscal restraint, or an attempt at real social justice. The benefits of economic prosperity would be immediate and perhaps even a moderate Democrats like President Clinton thought that the economic benefits would trickle down to the impoverished.

As Der Fersko correctly pointed out to me last night, the OJ trial virtually made Clinton's decision for him. The trial probably set back the cause of criminal justice reform by decades. To every white person in America, it was obvious that OJ Simpson was guilty. The whole trial solidified the poisonous idea in the heads of White America that Black America in some ways deserved their misfortune. It gave us all moral cover to shut our eyes to the suffering happening right next door to us. If every murder trial was anything like OJ Simpson, then, so we unconsciously reasoned, obviously every black man standing trial was guilty.

OJ became an indictment of everything about race relations in America - a soul search from which we drew exactly the wrong conclusions. It's true, no reasonable person can believe that OJ was innocent. And yet, the real people trial was us, and we were at least as guilty as he was.  

Nineties America was the most prosperous and secure country in the history of the world, yet how did we spend the political capital of being the world's sole superpower? We spent it by devoting our lives to following trivial, naval-gazing celebrity scandals. We cared only about the rich and famous, and couldn't give a fig about the poor and anonymous. We looked at all those millions who didn't share in our prosperity and security, and we yawned. Human nature is such that perhaps we were never going to do anything else, but we should never forgive ourselves for it.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Musical Explanation 2/2/16: The Cheers Theme Song

A list of the 100 greatest jokes was released today by Vulture magazine. As far as lists go, it was superb and covered nearly all the important ones, and in case we took it for granted, it made us all sit up and realize just how much jokes have shaped everything about us. There were a few glaring omissions, but nothing from one TV show stood out above all the others, perhaps because it came from an era that was a TV wasteland.

If you hang out with people your own age, there are certain cultural references which we all have in common. Most people my age can trade Simpsons quotes for hours at a time, and often do. People my brothers' age can do the same with South Park. People ten years older than I don't seem to trade quotes from television so much as they can all sing the themesongs.

TV in the 80's was a sad place, so sad that the most memorable thing about the shows was the themesongs. In the entire decade, there were maybe half-a-dozen shows that hold up at all. The Golden Girls - in which four great veterans of Hollywood got to comically chew on each other like Joan Collins against Bette Davis. The Wonder Years, a comic nostalgia trip to the 60's in which the pathos feels at least partially earned. Night Court - a show about a whacky, loveable New York courthouse that stayed on the air much too long.  Married with Children, the ultimate 'fuck you' to American optimism. Moonlighting, a show that went off the air after three years. And then there was Cheers....

The rest was the canned laughter and cheap-shot pathos of shows like Family Ties and The Facts of Life, or it was action shows whose action seems comically lame today like The A Team and Miami Vice. But amidst all that crap, a revolution in TV was brewing, and it was all due to Cheers.

Diane leaves. Genuine pathos.

Cheers is the first modern show - completely serialized from its third season on. It was a laboratory in which every major development of the Golden Age of television was tried out in its inception. It was on for eleven years, and at its all too consistently achieved best, the writing and acting on Cheers was pure music. In its laboratory, highbrow and lowbrow humor intermingled freely. Realism and surrealism. Humor with genuine, not forced, pathos and poignance.

At its center, of course, was Sam. The comic chemistry for the first five years was perfect. Sam, the misogynist slimy lowbrow who was too smart for his own good, and Diane, the highbrow who was nowhere near as smart as she thought.

The nose grab. Darkly comic perfection.

Followed by the perfect fight.

Looking at the clips of Sam and Diane, some moments make for extremely uncomfortable viewing in 2016. The misogynist thread in Cheers was all too unmistakable. But Cheers was never anything but honest about what it was. Cheers was the archetypal bar, a hive of lowlives, and no women but ones with severe self-esteem issues would ever countenance staying in there for more than a few minutes.

Ear Nibble

Cliff on Ingenuity 

Whether they were high or lowbrow, Cheers was a below-ground den of losers who hated themselves and the world. What went on in Cheers could be all too true to life. Vulgar bar drunks have been a staple of world literature from The Canterbury Tales to The Iceman Cometh, and so has false male bravado, particularly toward women.

Norm and Cliff mac on women.

Cliff's Electric Button

Cliff Goes on Jeopardy

Cliff's Theory on Beer

Cliff's Shiny Shoes

Norm loses his stool

The barflies were united in their fear of women, but what separated them was class. Cheers could never take place in any city but Boston - perhaps the only city in America in which class is still a more important problem than race. Boston is easily the most racially homogenous big city in America, where the biggest divide was between educated Anglo-Saxon Brahmins and the low-class drunken Irishmen with whom they've been forced to rub shoulders with every day for three-hundred years. Perhaps that Boston, the Boston of the Bulger brothers, doesn't quite exist anymore. But if it doesn't, then Cheers is its great cultural artifact.

The Irish Lullaby

Cliff's Big Mouth

Frasier and Carla on a plane

Norm, Cliff, Frasier, lollipop

Carla's Mother's Death Dream, It's Time to Go

Frasier and Woody play chess

Sam and Diane - Cheese Whiz

Kevin McHale

But it was in that intermingling between self-loathing men and self-loathing women that made Cheers so special and honest about relationships in ways that perhaps no shows after Cheers ever could be. At the same time that it was heir to O'Neill and Hemingway in talking about alcohol and toxic masculinity, and heir to the Marx Brothers and Chaplin in how it made fun of class, it was the heir to the romantic comedies of Golden Age Hollywood, in which the ambiguous mixture of attraction and loathing between the sexes creates an unresolvable tension.

Sam and Diane - Meditation or Sex

Lilith and Frasier - Talkshow

Frasier and Lilith argue about Freud

Woody and Kelly - the Lutheran Problem

Sam and Rebecca want a baby

Norm loves his country

From Cheers, it's a straight shot to everything else. Of course, many of the old creative team went on to do Frasier. Dan O'Shannon, however, went on to do Modern Family. David Isaacs went on to do Becker as a vehicle for Ted Danson, which in turn launched the career of Matthew Weiner, who went on to be the creator of Mad Men and one of the key writers on The Sopranos. Sam Simon went on to be the co-creator of The Simpsons and The Drew Carey Show. It was Simon who forced Matt Groening to branch out from The Simpsons' nuclear family into the wider world of Springfield. Whether comedy or drama, the sensibility that dominates us all began with Cheers.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Musical Explanation 2/1/16: Brahms Symphony no. 4

I missed the Baltimore Symphony in Brahms 4 this weekend so I could hear L'Orchestre National de France. I'm not sorry I did, since the resulting concert was pretty glorious and thrilling. Nevertheless, an opportunity to visit with Brahms 4 is like passing up a visit with an old friend - to be sure, a melancholy, sometimes dispiriting one that you sometimes avoid, but to imagine your life without this good and great friend would be a tragedy.

Tragedy is at the center of Brahms 4 - not a heroic tragedy in which a great man falls from a height, but the small and banal tragedy of living itself. I don't speak for anyone else in my view of this piece, but I view Brahms 4 as a kind of metaphor for daily life and all its piling up of stresses and frustrations, until the tragedy of its endless setbacks overwhelms us with the stark truth of what it means to live.

The very themes themselves of this symphony announce themselves in the most banal possible ways. Harmonically, the first movement is nothing more than a chain of thirds going down the scale (in varying octaves): B-G-E-C-A-F#-D#-B; and then back up the scale: E-G-B-D-F-A-C. Rhythmically, moves about in a foursquare manner so nondescript that we have to call it something between a dance and a trudge. I can't presume to know what Brahms meant by this design, but what a perfect musical metaphor for daily life! Do the same routines every day, endless drudgery and predictability, inevitable boredom. Every time we (or the music) tries to break out from our routines, the necessity of these routine reassert themselves.

In Brahms's own time, it was very easy to mistaken this metaphor for banality for banality itself. Another great composer, Hugo Wolf, wrote of Brahms's Fourth Symphony:

"He (Brahms) never could rise above the mediocre. But such nothingness, hollowness, such mousy obsequiousness as the e-minor Symphony has never yet been revealed so alarmingly in any of Brahms's works. The art of composing without ideas has decidedly found in Brahms one of its worthiest representatives. Like God Almighty, Brahms understands the trick of making something out of nothing. Enough of this hideous game!"

Just as in life, these banal routines provide the foundation for future growth. In the span of only a minute, the inventiveness Brahms can spin from these paltriest of musical material is as ornate as the Nave of a Cathedral, because Brahms's ability to create musical greenhouses from the least promising seeds is probably unmatched by any composer since Bach, and eventually breaking out in a weary, exhausting kind of dance. Leonard Bernstein called it an 'almost tango,' the kind of tango that exhausts us - like the experience of being at a party we don't want to go to. We have to pretend we're having fun, but we're getting no satisfaction out of it at all. It's as if we're denied even satisfaction from things which are supposed to be fun.

We're only two minutes into the symphony at this point. But inevitably, what do you do after you go to a party? You go to sleep, or at least you take a nap. For the first time, the breaks into a satisfying reverie, and you can almost hear in music the process of going to sleep. Until suddenly you're in dreamland, with its shadowy world of half-perceived figures, which suddenly erupt as a full-fledged reality, only for us to wake up and go back to our routine again.

When we go back to this routine the second time, the routine takes a different path. But it can't be mistaken for anything that isn't equally onerous. It grows in anger as though Brahms is saying "I'll do it, but I don't like it." And then, just as suddenly, Brahms enters the world of dreams again - but this time, it's quite sudden, like a daydream, only to shake himself out of it and frantically scramble around in double time (called diminution in musical circles) to fulfill all of his routines and responsibilities in haste to make up for all the time lost.

And then comes the masterstroke, the real sleep, perhaps the final sleep. Over the span of ninty seconds, you hear the life gradually ebbing from the music, is the music going to sleep, or is the music dying?

Perhaps Brahms provided a clue in this song of his: O Death, How Bitter Are You (linked below)

O Tod, O Tod - O Death, O Death. Those four syllables begin with the exact same chain of thirds with which the whole movement began, and which now is stated at one quarter the speed, the music is so unbelievably still, dreamlike, creepy, so deadly serious.

But then, back to routine yet again. The same threading the needle through that chain of thirds, the same boring party, the same nap and dream, but this time, something goes wrong with the routine. Perhaps because of the realization that all there is is the routine itself, until the routine ends. Or perhaps it's because exhaustion has now made the urgency of this routine too great. But whatever happens, this time, the routine misfires, and we're left with what sounds like devastating tragedy.

It's true, from these banal routines, Brahms creates musical edifices out of his small building blocks, but there are few composers who seem more to show the wear and tear of their herculean efforts to make music, we can almost hear his exhaustion from lifting the bricks and mortar.

I could go through the entire symphony like this with half-baked ideas for what the music describes. The second movement, with its glorying in the small consolations that get us through the day. The third movement, with its forced celebration that by the end becomes genuine, only to be much too short to be of any true consolation. And then that glorious and terrifying finale, which seems to express the futility of breaking out from this absurd, tragic, disappointing thing we call life. And yet, because we've undergone it, because we know we've carried ourselves as best we could in the circumstances, there's still something beautiful about it.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Musical Explanation 1/29/16: Zweden Conducts

If you play it loud enough, you could swear this clip from Tchaikovsky 4 was the Leningrad Philharmonic in their glory days. The skill is unmistakable, so is the virtuosity, the flash, the precision. It's not deep stuff, but the craft that goes into it is remarkable. To think that this level of virtuosity can be found in an orchestra not from Chicago or Philadelphia, but from Dallas, makes it doubly stunning. When you consider that this level of virtuosity was created in just 7 years, it begins a once-in-a-generation miracle.

There are philosopher-poet musicians who search for musical meaning, and then there are musicians who view music a bit like a military exercise. Of the conductors among this latter type, they create precision tooled instruments that inevitably seem a bit cold, but the standard and excitement of the playing are electrifying. I prefer the former, everybody should, but there's no shame in the latter - a kind of musician which always thrived in America.

America is not the land of classical music. We've had our share of imaginative European musicians who've thrived here, and there are obviously deep Americans musicians like Leonard Bernstein and Yehudi Menuhin and Charles Ives and Lorraine Hunt Liebersen, but our great philosopher-poet musicians were generally found in non-classical genres. What we've always had in this country in spades is musicians who treat classical music like showcases for their unbelievable work ethic. It may seem excessively shallow at times, but there is no shame in virtuosity. During the postwar years when Europe's culture was depleted by death, America did its best to preserve European musical traditions. Whether it was through the massive funding of the Marshall Plan or the fanatical work ethic of our classical musicians or the civic efforts Americans made to create great orchestras so we too could appreciate the world's greatest music, our country has, in our own way, done superbly well by classical music. In the best American traditions, classical music is a matter of civic pride - it's as much of a given as literacy itself that knowledge and study of absolute music will lead to a better life.

Jaap van Zweden is clearly a throwback to this postwar era - a relic who comes to us from the days of Toscanini, Reiner, Rodzinski, Szell, Ormandy, Dorati, Solti, Leinsdorf. Most of the great American orchestras became great because they had European trainers who ruled the orchestras like European dictators. Their word was law, and no dissent was brooked. A musician could be fired on the spot with no recourse. It must have been terrifying, but the results in performance speak for themselves. The explosiveness of these maestri's personalities was reflected in their performances - to this day, these are performances that may not bring you to tears, but they will leave you open mouthed with awe.

In recent weeks, it seemed almost a given that he would eventually be offered the New York Philharmonic - the worst possible orchestra you can create from the world's greatest musicians. When facing a true visionary like Leonard Bernstein or Dmitri Mitropoulos, the results could be transcendent. When facing anything less than that, the results can be too banal to merit description. To be the music director of an orchestra so cocky that they'd even run Mitropoulos and John Barbirolli out of town merits the description of an impossible job.

Their recent history has been a catalogue of missed opportunity after missed opportunity. Their current director, Alan Gilbert, was the child of two Philharmonic musicians. It was hoped that their days of hopping from one itinerant music director to the next were finally over. Gilbert is not a great conductor of mainstream repertoire, but he is a superlative one of modern repertoire who vastly expanded what they played.

The history of American music has yet to be written, and in our era when the lines between classical and popular music are increasingly blurred, Gilbert could have been an ideal figure to minister something like a merging of these two cultures that need each other so desperately. He is a fearless champion of the most complex scores, and for the first time since Pierre Boulez, the New York Philharmonic's events were noticed by people outside the bubble of their dying subscriber base; it should have been a Golden Era. Unfortunately, the conservatism of old was still powerful enough to win out.

Zweden comes to the New York Philharmonic as the ideal conjurer of the old America. New York could have done much worse, he will perform new music and ensure that this brilliant but lazy orchestra will never sleep through their performances. There is no question that he is an extraordinary musician - accepted at the Juilliard school when he was just sixteen, three years later the concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. His craft as a musician is beyond question. His dictatorial temperament is also beyond question, as explosive fights in Dallas have now gone public. There is simply no way that this famed 'conductor killer' among orchestras will not clash with this famously authoritarian figure. To be sure, there will be highlights in his tenure, but the real performance will be how he leaves.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Musical Explanation 1/27/16: Thunder Road and Jungleland by Bruce Springsteen

Baltimore doesn't have a Springsteen.  The closest, I suppose, is David Simon, but The Wire's clinical eye cannot possibly give us the encyclopedia of what it means to be from Baltimore which Born to Run or Darkness on the Edge of Town give to New Jerseyites. We're poorer for it, and God knows we need something like it here...

So much of rock is, at least to me, an empty experience. So much of it is more theater than it is music or poetry. No amount of loudness can cover up the fact that the vast majority of it glamorizes and sanitizes love, death, nature, sex, society, outlawdom... Classical music has all these problems too, but at least there's a much longer history from which you can draw the golden nuggets.

But there is no such sanitation at work in Springsteen. People from the same background as Springsteen seem to idolize him, but they do it in spite of the fact that his songs constantly shit on their state. Just about every song from Born to Run is about how Jersey is a hellhole from which everybody wants to get the fuck out. A friend (or was it a cousin) once described New Jersey to me as a Black Hole which sucks you in, and once you're in, there's no escape. Yet nearly every track on Born to Run is in one way or another about the longing to leave. I don't doubt anybody in Jersey experiences the longing to leave Jersey any more than a Baltimorean experiences the longing to leave Baltimore. But no matter where you are in every-rust-town, America, we all sometimes feel that longing to escape, but feeling utterly trapped by America has been part of the zeitgeist since America's industrial sector began to decline, which, perhaps not coincidentally, began right around that period when Springsteen broke out onto the national scene.

There's something in Thunder Road to which every 30-something has to relate. After 30, the first act is definitively over. The sense we once had, perhaps not that long ago, that our lives had infinite potential is gone. There's no sense in denying that our biographies are already being written. However secure we think we are, we're all putty in the hands of anyone who can conjure for us the idea that the life we dreamed of is possible. Anyone who'd convince us it's not too late to rewrite what's already been written could cut through our sturdiest defenses. And if we can't rewrite our lives, perhaps we can at least remember what it meant to feel that that our lives needed no rewriting. Most rock music is about youth, and yet here is a song about the impossibility of recovering lost youth for more than a few hours at a time. So much rock music is about ideal visions of the people we'll never be having the kind of sex that only ideal people have, and yet here's a vision of sex as something tawdry, pathetic, sad, between losers who will never be their ideal selves and further entangling themselves in their lives' small tragedies by becoming involved with one another, and yet the experience is more meaningful because it's cheap.

"The midnight gang's assembled
And picked a rendezvous for the night
They'll meet 'neath that giant Exxon sign
That brings this fair city light
Man, there's an opera out on the Turnpike
There's a ballet being fought out in the alley
Until the local cops, Cherry-Tops, rips this holy night
The street's alive as secret debts are paid
Contacts made, they flash unseen
Kids flash guitars just like switchblades
Hustling for the record machine
The hungry and the hunted
Explode into rock 'n' roll bands
That face off against each other out in the street
Down in Jungleland"

I never really cared much for the title track of Born to Run - it's a little too on-the-nose in what it's talking about, and seems to cover ground no different than Thunder Road. But Jungleland, on the other hand, offers the answer to the problems which Born to Run and Thunder Road pose. Even within these trapped, small lives, there can still be enjoyment, purpose, meaning. Clarence Clemens's sax solo, so earnest and technically unimpressive that it's almost impossible not to make fun of, is still absolutely perfect for what it expresses. It's as though through music, we get to imagine the Opera on the Turnpike, the Ballet fought out in the Alley.

Most music, most art of any genre, lies to us, and lets us imagine what it's like to be something completely different, and usually better - smarter, more powerful, better looking, more important than our seemingly meaningless selves. But in Jungleland, not only are we assured that our miserable little lives have some meaning and dignity, but also that we can claim some happiness within it as our right.

Also, I want to run with my friend's idea to start an ice cream store called 'Tenth Avenue Freezeout.'

Musical Explanation 1/26/16: Faust Symphony by Liszt

Liszt lived out Faust's life in reverse. He experienced the life of pure being and whirlwind excitement in its proper beginning, and then retired humbly to ascetic contemplation. All throughout, he composed volume after volume of music with the ease that the rest of us eat lunch. When Leslie Howard recorded the complete piano music of Liszt (which is nowhere close to his entire output), it was a project that eventually stretched to 99 CD's.

If composing can be said to have a 'Greatest Generation', it was probably Liszt's - a generation that also includes Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Chopin, Verdi, Wagner, Gounod, and Offenbach. 

Liszt was perhaps the greatest musical genius of all those illustrious names - able to compose, arrange, conduct, play piano, and was said to play any music perfectly as he was looking at it for the first time. Was Liszt as great a composer as his gift allowed? Well.... who cares?

Liszt is an inescapable composer with whose music we all have yet to come to terms. Without him, no Wagner, no Bruckner, no Smetana, no Tchaikovsky, no Mahler or Strauss. Without more ascetic, nearly atonal, late music, the entire twentieth century would take a very different course. Even so, it's very difficult to escape a sinking feeling that there's something a little too facile and slick about Liszt. Short of Berlioz, concert music does not get more fun than his. The excitement bursts from the seams of his staff paper, yet what does it express?

In many ways, the Faust Symphony was supposed to be his answer to those who thought the slam-bang virtuosity and embarrassingly gorgeous melodies of his music was shallow excitement and beauty without any meaning. Instead, he simply doubled the helpings of both, and his music remained an empty emotional experience. There is something a little childish about this level of programmatic content: "this beautiful melody represents this beautiful woman," "these creepy chords represent the devil and these fast string figures represent the lacerations of hellfire." The fact that it's an innovative way to present music can't be denied, but the composer doth protest too much. If an artist is striving this hard to seem deep, it's probably because there wasn't that much depth to begin with. As Woody Allen would phrase it in a different context, the Faust Symphony is an empty experience, but as far as empty experiences go, it's one of the best..

It was also a Faust Symphony, thirteen years ago, that counts as the greatest regret of my musical life. Thirteen years ago, I heard Ivan Fischer conduct the Budapest Festival Orchestra in A Faust Symphony - it was one for the ages. To this day, I have never heard another orchestra sound quite like that. In a fit of pique, I wrote a letter to the webmaster Ivan Fischer's webpage, thinking there'd be no harm done if no one ever responded, and I asked for him to ask Fischer how he achieved certain effects with his orchestra. A month went by with no response, but suddenly I got a response saying that if I want to learn how to do that, I should apply to Fischer's apprentice conducting program. 

I nearly fell out of my chair when I read it. I thought to myself that that would be amazing, but even at the time, it was a non-starter. I wasn't even a declared music major yet at a third-tier music school with hardly any piano ability. A year later, I heard from the conductor at my school that Fischer's program was actually easy to get into because it was considered tantamount to slave labor. I don't know if I could have lasted more than a week, but nevertheless, I absolutely wanted to apply, but when I got to his website, the link was down, and in those days of AOL and CompuServe before every email was autosaved, the email link had long since disappeared. Thus, my contact with Ivan Fischer was over before it even began. 

Monday, January 25, 2016

Musical Explanations 1/24/16: Frank Martin Mass

This may seem like an obvious statement, but it's less obvious than you might think: It's tougher to write something timeless than something for the here and now. This may seem obvious, and it's hard enough to write something for the here and now, but it's an infinity number of times to write something timeless because timeless art has to seem like it's of the here and now every time it's viewed.

Nothing dates like the cutting edge. There is no guarantee that creating art in an older style will be of any more worth than creating in a newer one. It's also true that most creators who are obsessed by style are obsessed by finding new styles in which to create rather than old ones, and there is, sadly, a near-guarantee that if a creator's fundamental concern is the style in which he writes, he will create something of no worth outside of its style. By definition, previous eras are where we can find the preponderance of eternal art. Posterity has not yet subjected our own era to its merciless tests. We can guess as to who or what makes the eternal work of our era, but we have no way of judging properly. The only people who can judge what's worthwhile to posterity are people who stand outside the cultural milieu in which the work's created. The closer we are to the era, the background, the epoch, the more bias we have in judging its value. Furthermore, an artist who is only interested in the new will have ignored millennia's worth of quality work, and while his work would suffer enormously if he neglects to embrace the new, it will suffer exponentially more enormously if he neglects to embrace the old. If you want to understand what it truly means to create great art, look to older models.

Frank Martin's Mass for Double Choir was written in the early 1920's, and it sounds like the music of an ethnically French composer who was heavily influenced by Debussy and Ravel. Yet at the same time, it also sounds like it could just as easily have been written 350 years earlier by Palestrina or Lassus or Victoria. It creates its effect by fusing the styles of two eras to a seamless extent that only a genius can.

In the early 20th century, Switzerland had three composers who remain sleeping giants among music lovers. One, Artur Honegger, gets at least a bit of the recognition he deserved, though nowhere near enough. Another, Ernest Bloch, used to get a bit of the recognition he deserved, but even at his most famous, it was nowhere near enough. The third, Frank Martin, never got anywhere near the recognition he deserved for anything but this piece.

Martin wrote like a man of the sixteenth century because, in many ways, he was one: a Swiss from Geneva, descended from Huguenots, and the always devout son of a Calvinist pastor. He was perfectly aware of the great developments of music in the countries surrounding him, and being Swiss, it was particularly easy for him to move in the worlds of French, German, and Italian music - living as he did at different times in Zurich, Paris, Rome, and retiring to Amsterdam. He became, at different points, interested in Bulgarian music, in Hindi music, even in jazz. He was, however, formed in the timelessness European landscape which perhaps only a Swiss youth could enjoy in the early 20th century. His formative influences were Bach, and the even earlier music of the Lutheran hymnal. He was fully a composer of the 20th century, perhaps even of the 21st, but the greatness of his music lies in the tension between the broad outside world of which he was very much aware, and pastoral, timeless environment in which he was formed.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Musical Explanations 1/23/16: King Lear

Hamlet and Othello were just the dress rehearsals. The real show came during those 14 months between 1605 and 1606 when Shakespeare made the climax and central trilogy of his entire output: King Lear, Macb*th, and Antony and Cleopatra. Among the three Shakespeare monster pieces, King Lear is simply a better play than either Hamlet or Othello. It has far fewer dry passages, and in place of a single character (or two) though which the entire play filters, it has a dozen characters of roughly equal importance, any one of which is more interesting than any of Hamlet or Othello's supporting players. Hamlet ends in a twenty minute fencing match gone awry, Lear ends with two hours of apocalyptic war. Nobody with a brain would think to call Hamlet anything but a towering work, but even at Hamlet's most profound, funniest, most entertaining, Lear is there to best Hamlet every time. So if monsterpieces are your cup of tea, why is Hamlet everybody's favorite play when Lear is not just better, but bigger?

You may like other Shakespeare better (I generally prefer the comedies and histories), but these three: not Hamlet, not Romeo and Juliet, not Othello, not Richard III, not Midsummer, not the Henriad or the Tempest, are the summit of literary art. Never before and never again was Shakespeare so overwhelming, so poetic, so sublime, so human, so expressive, so musical.
Music, even moreso than drama and cinema, has the great advantage (or disadvantage) of vividness. It is an artform in which the practitioner sinks or swims: it is nothing if it does not affect you at the most visceral possible level. If music does not shake you in your intestines, it's not great music, and it's probably not even good. It has to haunt your dreams, or nothing worth.

There's something almost mystical about the fact that in 1605, the very year King Lear was premiered, was the same year that Miguel de Cervantes released what we generally now think of as the first novel: Don Quixote. What does it say about the power of the novel that many people still think that the greatest novel was the first? About ten years ago, a Norwegian magazine polled 100 of the world's greatest authors from fifty-four countries. The question: what are the world's greatest books. Among the polled were Salman Rushdie, Milan Kundera, Dorris Lessing, John Irving, Seamus Heaney, Carlos Fuentes, and Nadine Gordimer. The polled were the heavyweights among heavyweights, and not only did Don Quixote come out on top, but Don Quixote got 50% more votes than the next book.

In this slightly mystical sense, King Lear is not only the summit of Shakespeare or British Literature or even World Drama. It is the very summit of Oral Literature. After King Lear, literature became so complicated that it could only be fit on a page. And since 1605, we hear literature spoken less and less and our bodily connection to literature has gradually disappeared. We ow think of literary art as something incorporeal, taking place entirely in our minds and felt nowhere else within ourselves. Perhaps consequently, literature seems to have meant less and less to us. In three-hundred years, the importance of literature itself might be said to have been supplanted by Cinema and TV.

Seeing it again, this is, by some distance, the best production of Shakespeare's King Lear I've ever seen or heard. Better even than the Kozintsev movie. I could have done with more comedy in this production (though Ian McKellen is very funny in the later acts), but this is the sole production I've seen that comes within striking distance of capturing its thousands upon thousands of nuances. Trevor Nunn is, quite simply, a million miles more sophisticated than any Shakespeare director whose work I've ever seen. I saw his production of Hamlet at the Old Vic when I lived in London in 2004, and whether it's Lear or Macb*th or Twelfth Night, the quality of his Shakespeare movies speak for themselves. As Lear, Ian McKellen is so far beyond the staginess of Olivier and the stodginess of 90-year-old John Gielgud (some actors become too old even for Lear) that as far as I'm concerned, there's no other performer who understands the role nearly so well. Regan and Goneril are no longer an indistinguishable female version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, in this production, it becomes impossible to confuse their diametrically opposite approaches to evil that Shakespeare clearly intended. Edgar, an almost incomprehensible role in the hands of most actors, has such a clearly solid moral sense that his self-debasement almost makes sense here, as does the quickness with which both Edgar and Gloucester swallow the mental poison of Edmund, because in this production, neither of them quite believes Edmund, but Edmund commits to his actions with such manic alacrity that he seems almost clinically insane. You can't argue with that kind of crazy, and before either of his family members know what's happened, Edmund's turned the wheels of fate against them.

Above all else which Trevor Nunn brings to Shakespeare, he manages as no other director can to find a moral center in Shakespeare. The Hamlet of Act V, so clearly changed in the text from the rest of the play, became something truly miraculous onstage - a fully developed human being who cleansed himself from the crisis of his soul, and therefore was ready for his fate, whatever may be. The Edgar of this production, so clearly full of kindness, becomes a model not only of self-abasement but of tolerance and mercy. The difference between the King of France and Duke of Burgundy is memorable with just two minutes to make its impression: Burgundy is a playboy whom Cordelia clearly falls for and prefers, while France is a much plainer guy and doesn't seem as though he cuts much of a figure as a General or as a King at Court. I can't think of a single characterization in this production that isn't deserving of special mention: the Fool (whose exit from the play finally makes sense), Gloucester (an old man too pompous not to be easily manipulated), Kent (whose double characterization is flawless), Cornwall is unbelievably menacing, and hell, even Oswald, the disgustingly sycophantic secondary villain nobody cares about, is memorably loathsome. Like all the greatest Shakespeare plays, the text of King Lear - no doubt somewhat bowdlerized from Shakespeare's original as all his plays are - still has too many holes to make perfect sense, but Trevor Nunn and his cast bring us so much closer than we were before that it's undeniably Shakespeare for the ages.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Musical Explanations: 1/22/16 - Symphony no. 1 by Tchaikovsky: Winter Dreams

I have a dirty little secret. I'm the only person in the world who thinks Tchaikovsky's greatest symphony is his first.

The 'Big Three', symphonies, Four through Six, are of course magnificent, even though they've been overplayed for literally a hundred years. If you've gone to more than half-a-dozen orchestral concerts in your life, I guarantee you've heard one of the three. Great as those three works are, there's something about them that's too unsubtle, too imbalanced, too bombastic. The right to express things so frank should feel more earned than Tchaikovsky makes it.

Some creators like Mozart and Beethoven, or Shakespeare and Tolstoy, have so many facets that it's as though the entire world speaks through them. There aren't too many people who would say that Tchaikovsky's genius, incontrovertible as it is, is quite on that infinite level. Usually, the compulsion to create art (or anything else really...) comes from creators who never quite feel whole. The paradox of this problem is that the greatest art usually comes from creators who manage to complete their sense of selves in their art. Nevertheless, at his best, Tchaikovsky gets to the level of his idols: Mendelssohn, Schumann, and especially Mozart... Perhaps it's odd to think that a composer who so prized the balance of music like Mozart and Mendelssohn so utterly unlike theirs. Nevertheless, the few moments when Tchaikovsky reconciles those two sides of himself: like in the three Ballets (Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker), certain of his operas which are still too seldom performed, and the First Symphony, he writes things that would make Mozart himself proud to call his own.

Russia is the land of the novel, so let's call these two sides of Tchaikovsky's personality 'Turgenev' and 'Dostoevsky.'  The 'Turgenev' side is the Europhile, the lover of pretty sounds and beautiful melodies, the aristocratic Russian conservative deeply entrenched and comfortable with the establishment. Perhaps it goes a little too far into triviality, but it's thoroughly enjoyable. You can hear this Tchaikovsky in his chamber music, the piano music, the orchestral suites and serenades. But then there is the 'Dostoevsky' side to Tchaikovsky: the wounded animal, tortured soul who must confess his sins; the creature of excess, pathologically attracted to danger, the Russian who finds so much German music wooden and inexpressive. This is the Tchaikovsky that could never reconcile his homosexuality with the demands of the society in which he moved, and was clearly tortured by it. Even in our day, Vladimir Putin's Culture Minister denies the overwhelming evidence that this national icon was gay.

Tchaikovsky's First Symphony, subtitled 'Winter Dreams', is the only time in the symphonic sphere that Tchaikovsky truly reined in his inner demons. Even in the Second, the Slavophile runs rampant everywhere even if the manic depressive doesn't, and whereas there's a beautiful melody everywhere you turn in the First Symphony, there's only one beautiful melody at the beginning of the Second. In 4, 5, and 6, everything turns into excess. The beautiful melodies abound, so does the tension, but rather than trying to delight or move the listeners, Tchaikovsky overwhelms them.

This is the first truly Russian symphony. Whereas Brahms and Beethoven create a symphony by taking a few notes and put it through every conceivable permutation, Tchaikovsky creates his by working fully-fledged melodies into his structures. Some find this conception of the symphony to trivialize it, but approachability is not a sin, and it created a parallel symphonic tradition in Russia that distinguished it from the German model. As soon as the symphony begins, you feel what must be the chill of the Russian landscape and the snow that glistens on the windowsill. Your mind can't help but form similar wintry pictures in the other movements, where the vast Russian expanse is felt with all its snow and permafrost and cold air. Within a minute, you hear both the beautiful melodies and manic desire to explode from them held in perfect balance. A balance sustained magnificently through the whole of the symphony. You could never guess that Tchaikovsky nearly had a nervous breakdown while writing it. It's nothing less than a Russian Beethoven's Fifth.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Musical Explanation 1/20/16: Bartok's 44 Violin Duets

We're still catching up to Bartok. To play Bartok, either on the piano or on strings, is to enter a completely new universe of harmony - no rule is broken, but every rule is bent so far that rules no longer seem like rules.

Richard Feynman always liked to say that there are two types of genius: one is the type which seems like us, if only we were hundreds of times smarter than we are. If you look at the scores of some early 20th century composers like Mahler, or Schoenberg, or Ives, or Prokofiev, or Debussy, or Sibelius, or Shostakovich, you can almost hear their thought processes in your head - 'what would happen if I turn this music upside down?', 'what would it sound like if I combined this chord with that one?', 'what would happen if I included a folk tune here?', 'what would happen if I compress the form to its minimal function?'. Then there's the second type, the rarer type: like Bartok, or Janacek, or Stravinsky, or Messiaen, whose ideas are so fecund and so far beyond what we conceive that they seem to thinking beyond any plane we can understand. There is no way we will ever understand how they came up with the ideas they had. They simply hear sounds in their heads that change the curvature of the earth. In the music of composers like this, there are more things in the heavens and the earth than were dreamt of by composers who came by their modernism more self-consciously.

Then again, if you spent decades of your life obsessively collecting folk music, almost to the detriment of your composing, you'd have a completely unique perspective too. To an exponential level beyond any composer before him (and nearly any after), Bartok simply seems to be operating in a different frame of reference. There's no mistaking his music for anything but tonality (with a very few exceptions...), but the normal rules of tonal harmony do not apply here. In order to do what Bartok does, you need vast experience with alternate scales, alternate tunings, alternate rhythms, exactly the sort of training that hardly any classical musician gets. Generally speaking, if you play outside the realm of classical music, you're still playing jazz and rock music, which still operates in the world of Western harmony and rhythm. Bartok, on the other hand, was learning the music of the Balkans and their surrounding environes, a musical landscape dominated by the world of the Roma (or Gypsies as they're more commonly known). The Romani people originally hailed from Northern India, and it's impossible not to hear vague echoes of Indian ragas. Along the way to Eastern Europe, they had to pass through Arab countries and Caliphates, through the Ottoman Empire, to live for many centuries next to Jews, to migrate through Northern Africa and Spain. The larger Western World, with all its alternate perspectives, is bound up in the Romani experience, and therefore in its music.

Bookending the story of German music was Bach at the beginning, who coined the very harmonic language which we generally still use today. At the end comes the Second Viennese School: Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, who took Bach's monarchical organization of twelve notes and dethroned them so that no note means more to the music than any other.

In the shadow of Schoenberg's black hole, many musicians tried to restore light: the aforementioned four of Stravinsky, Janacek, Messiaen, and Bartok all had their solutions. So did Ives, and Hindemith, and Vaughan Williams, and Prokofiev, and Harry Partch, and Britten, and Miles Davis, and Thelonius Monk, and John Coltrane.

Of all these many names, only two truly made attempts to systematize them (not counting Kodaly, who unfortunately operated in Bartok's shadow). One was Hindemith, who was a kind of professional systematizer among composers. It says something not quite complimentary about the greatness of his music that he was as great a theorist as he was a composer. His music often sounds like schematics to prove his theories.

There is no such schematic in Bartok, the other composer who created a system. For both the piano and the violin, Bartok created a series of pieces for students, every piece increasingly complex  than the last, increasingly difficult to play, increasingly impressive in how it suspends the normal rules of how music is composed.

Bach had his Well-Tempered Clavier, probably also written for student use, and which defined music for two-hundred years after its writing, and to this day defines the harmonic rules of music we generally use. But the history of music since Schoenberg has yet to be written. Perhaps it will come to be seen that with Bartok's 44 Duets for Violins, and even moreso his Mikrokosmos for piano, music begins anew even more than it does with Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. In the case of the violin pieces, 44 duets, none more than two-and-a-half minutes long, and some are over in thirty seconds. You could learn to play violin simply by playing these pieces, which I'm sure was the point of writing them. But more importantly, if you learned music theory from these pieces, you would have a completely different and more nuanced conception of harmony and counterpoint than you would if you learned it from Bach. At this new beginning for music, no longer is tonality a monarchy with the tonic as king and the dominant note as his viceroy. In Bartok, and to a lesser extent in a number of his peers, tonality becomes a democracy, with an infinitely greater number of harmonic permutations possible to contribute in every series of chords.

Musical Explanation 1/19/16: Tateh Siser by Abe Elenkrig

The name of this Klezmer song is apparently 'Tateh Siser.' In Yiddish, Tateh means father. Not that my Yiddish has been particularly good in the last twenty-seven or so years, but the best I can guess for what's meant by 'siser' is either 'zitser', which literally means 'sitter', or 'tsiter', which means a trembler. "The Sitting Father" doesn't make much sense as a name, though I doubt the tunes' names had to make sense, but if the name of the song is actually 'The Trembling Father', it would make some amount of sense in an onomatopoetic way - as this piece is little but fast sixteenth notes.

Its composer, Abe Elenkrig, is listed on wikipedia as a 'trumpeter, barber, and bandleader.' Like so many Klezmer musicians, it's almost impossible to find any further information about him on the internet. What distinguishes him from the great Klezmorim who came before him is that we have any record of him at all.

Like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, we have no idea how the presence of a microphone changes what we hear. I suppose we can only speculate that the number of musicians in the studio was far larger than would generally be present in most Klezmer performances. I would imagine that there are three reasons for this: it was an honor to be recorded, an early recording device required more sheer volume, and to be a success America, then as now, required novelty. To impress an American audience, it was not simply enough to have a few Jewish wedding musicians, you needed enough musicians to call yourself an 'orchestra.' Furthermore, as there are probably far more musicians in this recording than would generally play this type of music in the old country, I would imagine that the tempos are quite a bit slower than Klezmer musicians would play their dance music, and the sheer bulk of instruments requires the players to be quite a bit more circumspect in how they improvise around the music.

Nevertheless, the Elenkrig recordings are a glory of music - perhaps the most accurate and authentic rendering we have of what pre-modern Jewish music sounded like.

For good measure, here's 'Lebedeg' which I think is just a bad spelling of 'Lebedik', meaning 'lively.' There is no way that Klezmer musicians today can recapture this flavor. Folk recordings like this were only possible in the early days of the gramophone, when we could capture musicians whose development was completely uninfluenced by the presence of microphone or other recordings.

Lastly, let's listen to Makhutonim Zum Tish, perhaps the most exciting of all Elenkrig's tracks. The Tish takes place before every traditional Jewish wedding, at which the groom is toasted (and sometimes roasted) by the male guests. 'Makhutonim' means the in-laws, therefore it stands to reason that the meaning of this piece is the "father-in-law's toast."

Monday, January 18, 2016

Musical Explanation 1/18/16: Pot Pourri des Rabbis and Tire l'aiguille by the Sirba Octet

You would think that the clarinet was invented to play klezmer music. There is no genre of music for which it is better equipped. Here, with pitch bends galore, it intones a shofar with near-perfect intonation in all its tropes: tekiyah, shevarim, truah, and tekiyah gedolah.

The soul of Klezmer, like the Romani music which inspired so much of it, exists in the dissonant blue notes between the piano keys - endowing music with a pickled tension you will never hear in the much more hierarchical world of classical music, where consonance and dissonance are set up as opposites to contrast. The whole point of Eastern European folk music is that consonance and dissonance exist together in a kind of musical goulash in which every chord has its own tonal ambiguity. When a Romani musician plays a scale, he usually starts on what we Western-trained musicians would consider the dominant note. In a sense, Eastern European music is a music where the dominant is tonic and and the tonic is plagal. Does that make the super-tonic the dominant? Well... in Eastern European music the fifth degree of the scale is much weaker. It still often has a dominant function, but nowhere near as often, so it's just one among many weapons in the Roma's endlessly fertile harmonic arsenal.

The nexus of Klezmer Music was in North-Eastern Europe, whereas the nexus of Gypsy Music was in South-Eastern Europe. Klezmer music was, therefore, much more influenced by proper notions of of what music should be. It is still hundreds of times more 'badly behaved' than most any dance music in the classical tradition until Bartok, but still, the Western influences make it a genre more proper, more prim, and perhaps less interesting, than that of its gypsy forbearers.

Folk music is usually prized for its simplicity. But simplicity is the least of its virtues. The greatest of its virtues is its perfection. It is music distilled to its essence, and from its essence, a musician can grow a musical forest's worth of possibilities. Folk tunes shouldn't just be prized for what they are in their unvarnished state, but the inspiration they can give to musicians who can interpolate the origins into something infinite.

It's just a shame that classical musicians, the very musicians who could make folk music into something still more unrestrained, usually place it further into the straightjacket - something which perhaps I did as well in the first incarnation of Schmuck. It's the ultimate form of cultural appropriation: take music that evolved in closed communities for millennia, then insinuate yourselves into those communities - learn their tunes and create exact copies of what other people have already done. But whereas these communities have lived with this music for centuries, for which it provided the entire soundtrack of their lives, we now have classically trained folk musicians that play this music with the inability to understand any of its context.

I don't think we should turn back the clock on music, but I'm sure some people would interpret what I'm about to write as that:

In the early 20th century, composers had a proper understanding of how to use folk music. We should not pretend that more educated people like us can have anything like the understanding which people who were born to this music have. Nevertheless, except perhaps to certain pop songs, we rootless cosmopolitans will never have a connection to folk music the way others do. The proper relationship to folk music is to put it in more complex contexts - the way that Bartok did, the way Stravinsky did, the way it was utilized by Ives, Ravel, Vaughan Williams, Copland, de Falla, Albeniz, Sibelius, Mussorgsky. We need to do as they did, but we need to bring the music a hundred years further still into the future.

If you're going to use folk music, don't pretend that you're a folk musician. Apply the entire arsenal of modern techniques, sounds, harmonies, rhythms. Human interest is fickle, so we need to ensure that this music exists as something other than a novelty in which people will lose interest. We need to preserve this music so that we can never forget our roots, but roots exist so that something can grow from them.

This is why I love the Sirba Octet. These are playing Klezmer music, but they realize that they could never be Klezmer musicians. They're using the entire gamut of instrumental techniques. Their treatment of the source material is quite respectful of the original sounds (far more respectful than I will be when I arrange some of the same songs), but this is Folk Music updated for an audience that's already heard what classical music sounds like. It exists as something more than just a novelty - it's a modern attempt to engage with something pre-modern.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Musical Explanation 1/17/16: Academic Festival Overture by Brahms

This is where it all began: watching Leonard Bernstein conduct Brahms's Academic Festival Overture when I was all of three years old at my Bubbie and Zaydie's house - to this day I remember it. From then on, I was a kid obsessed.
Thirty years later, last night was the first time I've ever in my life seen this piece live - conducted by Lenny's final protege, Marin Alsop. It wasn't a great concert, but this ten minute piece was as thrilling to me now as it was when I was a precocious little shit.
Brahms is the master of tone: even his darkest and most serious pieces have light and humor, and even his lightest pieces have seriousness and drama. It doesn't get much lighter than the Academic Festival Overture - material from which was pilfered for college comedies as diverse as Tiny Toons and Animal House.
"Academic" might suggest something dry, but it is anything but. In 1880 Brahms received an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Breslau, with the expectation that he'd provide them a piece for the occasion. No doubt, they expected a Symphony, or at least a blousily bombastic choral work befitting the supposed solemnity of the occasion. Brahms provided them with an overture of a tone like that written by an operetta composer like Offenbach or Franz von Suppe.
Brahms begins with a fake-out. It sounds like it will be an incredibly solemn, dramatic piece. It begins with a very dark, solemn march which is actually a subtle parody of Berlioz's Rakoczy March. Suddenly, in the most Lutheran tones, Brahms has the brass very slowly intone a solemn chorale, which is actually an old fraternity drinking song: "We have built a stately house." Later, he goes into a parody of "The Fox", which is a song that 19th century students used to haze Freshmen.
And yet, even through all this, Brahms manages to work in a quiet moment so dark and brooding that it seems to come straight from the most evil-sounding music in Wagner's Ring Cycle, then followed by a chromatic passage so violent that it seems like the apocalyptic music from the sixth movement of Brahms's German Requiem. And then suddenly, when all seems dark comes the most luminous return of C-Major light. there is no composer in history who did recaps better Brahms.
I often think I have to go to concerts alone because I never know when I'm not going to be able to hold it together. When I heard that passage last night, I suddenly dissolved in tears as I felt myself relive my whole life in an instant. To me, that music is exactly what hope sounds like.
Compositionally, I can't deny that the final two minutes of the piece are terribly awkward. It's a tacked-on climax, and yet it works because of the song it uses: Gaudeamus Igitur - "Let us therefore rejoice while we are young. After the pleasures of youth and the trouble of age, the Earth will claim us." It's a message to us all, whether young or old, that almost seems to come from beyond the grave. It's later than we all think, but we can still rejoice while there is time. It's trademark Brahms, bittersweet, even morbid, but determined to keep smiling through the unhappiness.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Musical Explanations 1/15/16: Sibelius Symphony no. 5

Sibelius's Fifth Symphony is perfect. Every single note in every single chord leads perfectly into the next note, the next chord, the next phrase, the next section, the next movement. Even the smallest, most impressionistically hazy notes matter.

Perfection is not the greatest of all virtues. There are plenty of other composers for large orchestra, towering ones like Handel, Berlioz, Mahler, Strauss, Elgar, Shostakovich, Messiaen, who extravagantly throw their notes around by the fistful. They are masters of inclusion - everything they can think of goes in. All of them lived the vast majority of their lives in great, ethnically diverse metropolitan centers. One might almost hear a reflection of the extraneous noise and people with whom they'll never come into contact in their music.

Sibelius, on the other hand, was one of the great excluders - like Bach, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Bartok,  Debussy, and arguably Bruckner. All of them certainly spent their time in great metropoles, but usually not the biggest or most diverse. The genius of this latter group comes from leaving out everything extraneous from the essence of the work. Every note has a formal relationship to every other note: at their considerable best, their music is put together with the veracity of a mathematical proof.

When Sibelius began, he was a big splashy Romantic - taking at liberty from Wagner, and Tchaikovsky, and Bruckner, and even his contemporary Richard Strauss. But starting in 1904, Sibelius became an entirely different, perhaps far deeper, composer. 1904 was the year that Sibelius moved into his estate: Ainola, purchased for him by the Finnish government. Before 1904, Sibelius was a 19th century romantic. After 1904, he was a 20th-century neoclassicist.

But Sibelius's neo-classicism has little if anything to do with the Francofied neo-classicism of Poulenc and Stravinsky. Sibelius writes the beautiful nature he sees on his estate. He strips the most Teutonic of all forms: Sonata/Allegro, down to its essence. The form of the Fifth Symphony is all too simple: A opening movement that starts slow and gets faster, then a charming interlude, then a finale that starts fast and gets slower.

How does he do it? With the effects of nature.  All throughout, you hear the sounds of stillness, wind, rain, thunder, lightening, animals, and sunshine. Sibelius's effects of nature are unmistakably vivid and onomatopoetic. It begins with a still sunshine, and describes a storm stretching over the horizon. The second movement sounds unmistakably like the beauty of a wet landscape right after the storm - you hear plucking strings all throughout like rainwater dripping from tree leaves. The final movement begins with more rain, and ends with what can only be described as a blaze of sunshine.

Two things about the finale should remain with the listener forever. One is 'The Swan Hymn.' A repeated three-note horn call that's understated but unmistakable - I'll allow Sibelius to describe his experience of sixteen swans flying in formation over him:

"One of my greatest experiences! Lord God, that beauty! They circled over me for a long time. Disappeared into the solar haze like a gleaming, silver ribbon... That this should have happened to me, who have so long been the outsider... The swans are always in my thoughts and give splendor to [my] life. [It's] strange to learn that nothing in the whole world affects me - nothing in art, literature, or music - in the same way as do these swans and cranes and wild geese. Their voices and being"

The other is the final measures, with long pauses in between - like great shouts of joy to a landscape which you hope hears you.

There are three great performances of Sibelius 5 of which I know. This, by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, may still be the greatest, more than sixty years after it was set down.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Musical Explanation 1/14/16: Paradise Lost Book 1 by John Milton

The English had a wonderfully musical twentieth century. But historically, they are not a particularly musical people. They didn't need to be. Their poetry was all the art music they required. A nearly unbroken six hundred year tradition: Chaucer, Wyatt, Spencer, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Jonson, Herbert, Marvell, Cowley, Donne, Herrick, Milton, Crashaw, Dryden, Raleigh, Sidney, Pope, Gay, Smart, Addison, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Byron, Clare, Tennyson, the Brownings, Meredith, Swinburne, Gilbert, Arnold, Hopkins, Carroll, Hardy, the Rosettis, Kipling, Houseman, Owen, Rosenberg, Sassoon, Graves, Auden, Hughes, Larkin, Hill. If one then counts the oral poems of earlier centuries like Beowulf and Sir Gawain and King Arthur, and then the anonymous religious poems and carols of the Middle Ages; and then poets from the other countries of Great Britain like Yeats, Wilde, McNeice, Heaney, Thomas, Burns, Scott; and then American poets like Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, Stevens, Eliot, Crane, Hayden, cummings, Poe, Silverstein, Angelou, Plath, Longfellow, Pound, Bishop, Ashberry, Bradstreet, Lowell, Warren, Rich, Merrill, and Warren, to say nothing of the oral beat poets and the American-Anglo popular music poets and the lyricists of Tin Pan Alley and Broadway musicals. And then you have colonial and post-colonial English poets, Walcott, Atwood, Soylinka.... And then one has to appreciate the poetic qualities of the nearly-as-long prose tradition in English.

When you consider all this together, the English poetic tradition begins to look like the single most glorious cultural achievement in world history. English is now the lingua franca of the world - no doubt it's due in part to England's imperial rule (and then America's), and the endless font of scientific discovery and technological inventions of both countries, and their long traditions of free inquiry and open discourse. But both countries were able to be endlessly inventive in part because of the endlessly fecund evolution of their language. While both Northern and Southern countries on the European continent stayed true to the Latin and Saxon roots their languages, England, a territory apart from Europe, allowed for a free intermingling of the two cultures as nowhere else, and thus developed a language that combined the richness of both linguistic families. The glories of the English language have to be part of what makes those who speak them so open to new ideas. A reader fortunate enough to bear witness to such imaginative flights allows his own imagination to take flight, and expands what her mind thinks possible.

It's an incontrovertible fact that one of its greatest glories is Milton, and particularly Paradise Lost. And yet I've struggled with Paradise Lost since college, never actually finishing it. Its greatness is there for anybody who puts their eye to Milton's pages, but the work is just too high-flown, grandiloquent, bombastic, ambitious. I think it's impossible to not hold the power of this extraordinary epic in awe, I also wonder if it's impossible to love.

The sheer grandeur of Milton's vision is unlike anything you will ever otherwise read. You get all the brimstone and seraphicus of Dante, all the fantasy of Homer, all the musical beauty of Shakespeare, but coupled with action scenes of such proto-cinematic splendor that hardly anything in cinema can equal their vividness; and all the more powerful for taking place in the unlimited realm of one's imagination. I'm amazed that so few directors have approached Paradise Lost as a potential epic - in this age of computer animation of infinite possibility, it cries out for a director of sublime visual imagination.

But for god's sake, where is the humor? The humanity? The occasional relief from this obdurate heaviness? Everything is so existentially important and spine-chillingly thrilling that there is no room to be moved. The ultimate difference between Shakespeare and Milton is not in their capacity for greatness, but in their capacity for smallness. Shakespeare scales down so beautifully that he can portray the human as easily as the sublime. In Milton, there is only sublimity, and unvarying grandeur doesn't seem that grand after a while.

Milton, like Dante and Dostoevsky, are the respective poets representing their Christian sects. In the Divine Comedy, Dante the Catholic presents us with a fixed hierarchy of sin and virtue for all time. Dostoevsky was no poet, his prose isn't even particularly poetic, but as a devout follower of the Orthodox church (in its Russian incarnation), he believes that this world means nothing without mystical communion with the next, and submission to tradition - which is more important than any authority. Dostoevsky meant for The Brothers Karamazov to be just the first volume of a two volume work: The Life of a Great Sinner,  and in the second half there shouldn't be much doubt that he'd have detailed the mystical eschatology of his Orthodox belief.

If Dostoevsky and Dante represent Orthodoxy and Catholicism, then Milton is THE Protestant among poets. He's so Protestant that his vision is heretical even to Protestants. Even more than Dante, Milton clearly meant for his epic to be a kind of Third Testament. It is an epic about the dawn of time itself and how all things come to be the way they are, much of it perhaps takes place even before Genesis.

When you hear this poetry, you immediately realize that this is nearly as much music as poetry. When the poetry of hip-hop claims itself as music, how can we argue with them when good poetry itself has so much musical quality?  When this poetry seems so arch and dramatic, so like music, what point is there to add music? To set it to music is almost beside the point. At the end of his life, Haydn wanted to set Paradise Lost as an Oratorio. Even if a great composer could, Haydn would have been utterly the wrong composer for this material. Haydn, that supreme portrayer of the human and small, could never have adopted to Milton's scale. The composer Milton cried out for was Wagner.

The speaker here, Anthony Quayle, was certainly a great actor. But Paradise Lost calls out for still greater. Quayle has great moments, and is as good as you'll find online, but he's is not sensitive enough to the nuance: this poetry requires an actor whose phrasing has all the subtleties of a great musician: it demands nothing less than Gielgud, Olivier, McKellan, Hopkins, James Earl Jones...