Purely as an exercise, I’ve put together a ranked list of what is, in my not-informed-enough opinion (can anyone be?), the 25 pieces of music without which music today would be completely different. I had originally meant for this to be a hundred, then I got lazy. This list is designed so people will rip me to shreds and tell me that I have no idea what I’m talking about: perhaps because this is still entirely too classical (and Beethoven) heavy, perhaps because it's not classical-heavy enough. As impartial as lists like this are designed to be, they are also designed to be wrong. The explanations are only a few sentences long, though I suppose someone could write a book out of an idea like this...maybe even me.... But I also reserve the right to utterly rewrite, expand, and expound upon this list in a few days, weeks, months..... Finally, when I say ‘now,’ I mean now from the long view of history, in which what matters now will matter nearly as much or a little more in ten years. So NOBODY ASK WHERE’S LADY GAGA!!
1. Beethoven: Symphony no 9
Beethoven invented musical expression as we still know it today. No piece of music ever written expresses more passionately, more deeply, more universally.
2. Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro
Still the textbook definition of what form is supposed to do - form is the container in which the parts are shipped. No piece of music takes more thousands of disparate elements and fuses them with more perfect balance, it’s a three-and-a-half hour opera that has ten main characters, effortlessly glides between comedy and tragedy - form is never an end in itself, it’s what the form carries within it that matters.
3. Bach: Well-Tempered Clavier
The whole Western definition of harmony comes from this one (actually 96) piece(s). Now that the West means less and less, perhaps this piece will dwindle in influence too...but not yet...
4. Beatles: Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band (album)
The day it was released was the moment when the artistic possibilities of electronic music-making incontrovertibly surpassed acoustic.
5. Louis Armstrong: Studio Work from 1923-34
It was Satchmo in his early years who flipped the musical switch on the world - composition to improvisation, refinement to rawness, harmony to rhythm.
6. Machaut: Mass for Four Voices
Eight-hundred years later, we’re still figuring out the puzzle pieces Machaut assembled from his four-voice counterpoint.
7. Miles Davis: Kind of Blue
Far moreso than either Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde or Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet, this album represents a new way of thinking about harmony that can be mined for hundreds of years. If anything replaces Well-Tempered Clavier as music’s harmonic future, it will be Kind of Blue - which reemphasizes modal harmonies and liberally incorporates scales from all around the world. No longer does musical harmony have its routes in the church, it is a constantly developing invention to be interpolated from whatever chord progression of which you can think.
8. Beethoven: Symphony no 3 “Eroica”
The ninth expresses the emotions of all people. The third expresses the emotions of the individual.
9. Stravinsky: Rite of Spring
Rhythm, pure, animalistic, rhythm becomes music’s reason for being. The Rite wiped the palate clean for non-classical musicians to regrow something completely different.
10. Bizet: Carmen
Everything 20th century music doesn’t owe to Beethoven it owes to Carmen. Carmen was the first piece of music to posit seriously that perhaps we’re just a bundle of electro-chemical wiring which requires nothing more than pleasure to be satisfied. After Carmen, light music was serious.
11. Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited
Somewhere in this album, the melody, harmony, rhythm of songs became completely subservient to lyrics. As single tracks grow more important to the history of music, the influence of Dylan will probably grow still more exponentially the years/decades/centuries go on in ways we can’t yet imagine.
12. Monteverdi: L’Orfeo
The first truly successful test of the idea that theater and music can be combined into a whole. One of the first operas, yes, but every music theater junkie owes a prayer at night to Monteverdi.
12. Beethoven: Pathetique Sonata
All it takes is one person at a good instrument to express every emotion on the planet.
13. Arcadelt: Madrigals Book 1
With the first great madrigals, all it took was a working knowledge of sight reading for any person who can carry a tune to sing in harmony with friends in his or her own home.
14. Coltrane: A Love Supreme
A single tenor saxophonist defining what a free solo improvisation means. In eras for which electronic music is ascendent, actual instrumental prowess will become rarer and rarer.
15. Palestrina: Pope Marcellus Mass
Machaut set the world on the course for counterpoint, Palestrina kept us there. Without Palestrina, we might all be singing Gregorian Chant.
16. Bartok: String Quartet no. 2
Folk music has influenced ‘art music’ for millenia before Bartok, but Bartok was the first to view art music as something that could be improved by becoming more like low folk music, not the other way around.
17. Bach: A Musical Offering
If form becomes an end in itself, this is as far as it can ever go.
18. Mozart: Don Giovanni
The ph7 of pure musical expression. Is it comedy or tragedy or both simultaneously? One of the only pieces of music that expresses every emotion at the same time.
19. Chuck Berry: Chess Record Sessions
After Chuck Berry, it was definitive. A single electric guitar could be louder and more visceral than a 150 piece orchestra.
20. Michael Jackson: Thriller
After Thriller, music became almost inextricably linked to music videos for nearly an entire generation of music lovers. Not only was music more tied to the other arts than at any point since Wagner, but it also was thought possible for music to appeal to every demographic - white and black, male and female, old and young. We’re still living all Thriller’s implications today. For how much longer?...
21. Beethoven: Symphony no 5
A long musical composition can feel completely unified, but does not need to end in the same spirit in which it began. That is another Beethovenian contribution.
22. Afrika Bambaataa: Planet Rock
The moment Hip hop and Rap became more music than poetry and the new ‘Absolute Zero’ of music’s essential elements. Spoken words set to a beat with the barest suggestion of harmonies underneath. For seventy-five years, music underwent a process of wiping the pallate clean - there is a direct line from early Stravinsky to Afrika Bambaataa.
23. The Alan Lomax Collection
Without Lomax, interest in the folk music of America and well beyond would be something approaching nill. By obsessively recording every genre of American folk music we know today, Lomax took oral history to a level only possible in the age of electronic recording. Part of appreciating the music of the past is now to do so through hearing recordings, which allows for a whole new level of influence for the past upon new music.
24. Erich Korngold: The Adventures of Robin Hood (score)
It was with Korngold that movie scoring became an art in itself. Like in Wagner, musical motifs became a way to identify characters, things, ideas - each of which should help the audience feel a particular emotion synonymous with each. But unlike with Wagner, there isn’t the added help of connecting the score to voices. The dialogue and action of movies happens independently to the music, therefore movie music requires much more precise content than in opera, where all the elements can be controlled so that the music is the most important feature. And while we're on the subject of Wagner...
25. Wagner: Tristan und Isolde
The harmonic revolution which Tristan presaged turned out to be a failed one. Tonality did not break down, it merely changed course. But the effect Tristan had on the entire music world continues to be tremendous. Before Tristan, it was a given that music had a single harmonic function - with all roads leading back to the tonic chord. Tristan changed the harmonic, I’m tempted to say poetic, purpose of music. In Tristan, a chord doesn’t resolve for hours, perhaps the chord doesn’t have to resolve at all. No longer was music a heirarchy of notes, it was anything you wanted it to be - for years Tristan was supposed to be the presage of Modernism, it is now the presage of PoMo.
Absolutely friggin' magnificent. Barbirolli was always a fine Sibelian, but I'm not sure I've ever heard a reading of Sibelius 2 that understands the Sibelian soundworld so well as this 1946 reading with the New York Philharmonic. To my astonishment, every reviewer who comes across this performance seems to think badly of it - not only preferring Barbirolli's later, mellower recordings of this piece but also going out of their ways to denigrate this performance. I simply don't understand that. There are moments of immense drive and equal repose, and in each case, Barbirolli only responds to what the music demands. For once, the 'weather episodes' of Sibelius 2 feel like genuine weather, and for once, Sibelius 2 sounds like it's by the same composer who wrote the 6th and 7th symphonies. But added the 20th century naturalism which Sibelius was beginning to develop is the 19th century striving for metaphysical transcendence, a feeling that Sibelius would forsake in his later career for a much bleaker type of zen stasis. Except for Robert Kajanus's early 30's reading, I'm not sure I've ever heard a more perceptive performance of this symphony. But this performance has far better sound and playing than Kajanus's Sibelius recordings ever got.
It was around three o’clock in the morning after New Year’s Day (roughly, January 2nd) in Toms River, New Jersey. We had to leave the next afternoon, and we were all a little surprised by the going on-ness of things (or lack thereof). As often happens when we get together, the social lives of Der Schreiber, Il Giovine, and I had devolved into hour 4 of watching random YouTube clips while drinking scotch. I don’t remember many of the other clips we saw, but there’s one that resonates fiercely in my mind.
This video has 7.6 million views. There are only two things about this that need further explanation.
1. What parents would give their six year old girl a box of Wheat Thins as part of a present?
2. When I saw this, I got a lump in my throat. I’m an exceptionally jaded person, but like most cynics the frustrated idealist dwells right beneath the surface, so an emotional reaction is hardly atypical of me. Far more surprising was the reaction of Der Schreiber, whose emotions run from A to B, yet was very nearly weeping at the sight of this.
It’s all too easy to make fun of the sincerity of a video like this, and had we not watched it in the middle of the night after hours of copious scotch intake, I don’t doubt that’s exactly how we’d have reacted. On the other hand, when was the last time you cried from happiness? How many of us even remember crying from happiness as a child? Whether or not Disney was above your chiefest joys, we all had our own magic kingdom as a child that made us happier than we ever could be as adults. In my own childhood kingdom, I would conduct the New York Philharmonic in an incandescent performance of Brahms Third Symphony before sitting down to a dinner of pizza bagels with Papa Smurf, Bugs Bunny, Jean Valjean, and Hamlet, and playing Nintendo with my stuffed animals, a lion I named Ashley (even then I liked angry women) and two dogs named Japan and Little John...I was a simple boy.
But at the same time, ...I feel like I’m inviting trouble by even saying this, there is something about this video that’s genuinely icky. Nobody, whether 6 or 60, should ever get this many wishes to come true at once. And if it’s a kid in this situation, no parents should broadcast their children getting them granted. Nothing is more guaranteed to cause an race among their friends for who can spoil their kids the fastest than to display how happy their family is so conspicuously. For the rest of her life, this poor girl will probably never feel so happy again. A week later, the Disney trip will be over, and it probably won’t be as fun as she thought it was going to be - too many long lines and monorail breakdowns, yet will the thrill of watching her granddaughter be the class valedictorian come anywhere near the joy she felt at going to Disneyland when she was six? So why does Disney need to spend hundreds of millions a year in advertising when America’s children are already so bought-and-paid-for that every six year old girl weeps at the thought of going to Disneyland? Yet you know that so long as there’s still an America, there will still be a Disney, and we will spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year to keep it thriving and they will put our hundreds of millions back into advertising so that we can spend still more hundreds of millions.
Now...I must admit, I have a gigantic ax to grind with Disney. I was innoculated against Disney’s spells when I was 5. 5 was the age when my parents tried to take me to Disneyworld, and on the way there it was discovered that I had chicken pox. I got one lousy day at Disneyworld before my skin had so broken out that there was no way I could sneak in for anything else. All my parents could do was drive me home from Florida. Aside from the It’s a Small World ride, my only memory of the trip is of my parents trying to shove me into an oatmeal bath at a hotel in North Carolina while I was screaming at the top of my lungs. Thanks Disney.
But even I’m not immune to Disney’s affect on us. It combines amaing drawing with an ability to see our fond wishes become reality. Does that make it art or vulgarity? I don’t know if Disney movies should be considered art, but Art is not an American aspiration, and there’s nothing more American than Disney.
Does Disney need us or do we need Disney? Does the distinction between us even mean anything? Would we even be the same country without the Walt Disney Disney Company? Without Disney, would seventy years of American children have grown up to be far better read than we are? Without Disney, would the film industry find adult themes much easier to deal with than they clearly do? Without Disney, would there be any insistence at all that every major Hollywood release have something in it that speaks to everyone - adult and child?
(Disney’s most racist moments...it’s a long video...)
A still more cynical person than I would ask if our umbilical chord to Disney is the partial cause for all sorts of meta-events: from the narcissism of the baby boomer generation to the ambivalence of generation-X - both products of a country in which we’re told from birth that our wildest dreams are possible. Perhaps a more misogynistic blogger than I would ask if Disney spoiled generations of American women into waiting for those perfectly strong yet sensitive princes with no ugly needs who exist in nearly every Disney movie - even if I’ve heard many men ask that before, I’m utterly above such crude condescension to women (I reserve it for their love of Jane Austen).
But the fact remains, Disney movies never spoke in any language but exactly the one in which Americans saw themselves. If Snow White’s happiness seemed to be the only purpose in life for all the animals and dwarves of the forest, how hard a leap of faith is that to believe in a country whose every product is assembled in other countries by factory workers in slave conditions? If the Aladdin and Jasmine were the only characters of their movie not portrayed as Arab stereotypes, why should it matter in a country that cared so little about what the Middle East thought of them? And if the crows in Dumbo seem like such fun and good natured black people, what’s the harm in including a little joke for the grown ups, like naming one of the crows Jim Crow.
Archetypes are eternal, said that Nazi collaborator Carl Jung, yet nothing seems to date quicker than an attempt to tidy up human nature by understanding what makes people similar to one another. Once you’ve boiled human nature down to the traits that make certain people similar, you begin to wonder who has the same traits you have, and then you begin to wonder who has different traits. And rather than view each human as a unique specimen to be viewed in balance, you view them through the lens of ‘same’ or ‘different.’ Yet even when these archetypes date, they never date. Human beings aren’t particularly thoughtful, and will always use archetypes as a subconscious way of distinguishing friendly traits from unfriendly. It’s just a shame that human beings are this way, and because we are what we are, archetypes will always be necessary.
And so, America has the archetypes of Disney - just as Germany has the archetypes of Wagner and the Grimms Brothers, France has LaFontaine and Perrault, Italy has Commedia Dell’arte, Rome had Ovid, Greece had Aesop, England has....a millenium of this literature. Each of these examples contains characters which are completely knowable to the audience for which they’re meant, and a reflection of the place and time in which they were written. Whereas the Grimms Brothers wrote fairy tales to warn children about the dangers that lie in store for them, Disney makes movies that promise the world to children on a silver platter.
But either way, the characters of these stories all contain traits which we recognize. In our best and worst moments, we resemble characters from each of these stories - the only part of human nature that’s missing in these myths is the people we are when type entries into a database or move furniture or take out the trash or read a fairy tale. I could expend another 2500 words to give you the details of how each archetype fits in within the characters of Disney fairy tales, but I neither want to write that nor do I think you’d want to read it. The only point worth making is that by watching any good movie, each of us undergoes a process, generally called mimesis, in which we’re called to identify with the protagonists in their quests to fulfill their desires. This ‘call’ casts a powerful bond on each of us, because when we feel that call, whatever happens to the hero(ine) happens to us as well, in a sense. It’s no different than how we would celebrate in a friend’s good fortune or feel for a friend’s bad fortune. In comedy we are the fools who get their just comeuppance, in tragedy we are the flawed heros who fall low, in irony we are the fools who are deservedly punished, and in romance, we are the heroes who are raised still higher by meeting our desired goal. For three quarters of a century, Disney provided the world with the ultimate American romances.
This is not romance in the contemporary sense, which is far too adult for anything Disney purveys. This is Romance, in the ancient sense of the word, for which bards told us tales of legendary knights with noble quests, in which they rescue their damsels in distress and perform deeds of valor and peril against their horrid villains. The knights are as close to absolute good as art allows, while the villains are as absolute evil. But it’s worth mentioning that in the Olden days, no one loved these Romantic tails as much as aristocrats - who were accustomed to thinking that their every desire could be satiated. When the knight attains his desire, so have the readers. And what are we Americans but the world’s aristocrats, accustomed to getting what we want when we want it?
And the power amplifies still further when we realize that just as Pinocchio can become a real boy, or Belle turn her beast into a handsome Prince, we might be able to achieve our dream job, or girl, or family. But unlike the heroes of Disney, we’re not figures of absolute good - and in our own quests to achieve what we want, we we might do some evil things along the way.
Disney never prepared us for that. In the world of Disney, there are no compromises necessary to achieve what we want, merely the happily ever after that we’re assured exists after the movie ends. No story ends merely because the movie does, we just have to abandon it. If Cinderella continued after the happily ever after, we might have to read about Cinderella’s obnoxious in-laws, her eating disorder, suicide attempts, affair with a rugby player, the son she might have born out of wedlock, and dying from an accident in a Parisian car tunnel.
And yet...when Disney rides at its highest, it edges ever closer to something real, only to back away from the truths just before it seems poised to cross over from popular entertainment to real art. It’s happened at least three times over Disney’s history, and it will probably happen again. Here are those three:
1. Bambi: Bambi is, to this day, the best Disney movie. Like everything else Disney ever made, it’s beyond ridiculous - containing a gorgeously hand-drawn forest with more natural detail than anything in the movies until the arrival of computerized special effects, and it’s put to the service of anthropomorphic animals cute enough to sell billions of dollars of merchandise and otherwise perfectly irritating. Bambi is a comically, perfectly annoying movie, except when it’s not. Suddenly, all the irritating cutesiness is stood upside down, and the world becomes a place full of shadows, hunters, carnivores, fires, loss, and even rape. And it’s through a process of enduring terrible tribulations that Bambi proves himself a mature adult, ready to care for a family and forest of his own. Disney had been edging closer to life-like darkness in every movie - turning bad kids into donkeys forever in Pinocchio, portraying animal extinction in Fantasia, locking up Dumbo’s mother. But for the hero him/herself, there was always reprieve. Not so in Bambi, Bambi’s mother dies, as all mothers eventually do - and she dies prematurely, as many mothers don’t. Suddenly, all that sugary pap seems to fit perfectly with the fabric of the movie, in which every scene is a part of the life cycle - with all its good and bad moments intact. With Bambi, Disney finally seemed ready to grow up, no Disney movie has ever given a better sense of life’s real flavor. But Disney never grew up, and the company’s been backing away from Bambi’s truths truths ever since. Many parents wrote to complain about the darkness of Bambi. After Bambi’s controversy, Walt Disney stopped green lighting any project that might court controversy by having anything too close to what life really is. Disney moved into family-friendly live action movies, with mixed success; and their cartoon movies became ever more crudely drawn with less compelling music, and themes more obviously geared towards children and merchandizing than any artistic pretensions. The decline continued for nearly a half-century until...
2. The Lion King: Obviously, the decline of Disney stopped when The Little Mermaid came out. But Disney, in its usual way, was ready to tidy up everything that might be considered in the least objectionable. Anyone familiar with the Hans Chrstian Anderson fairy tale knows that in the end, the mermaid commits suicide. Anyone familiar with the original novel Beauty and the Beast knows that Belle had two evil sisters who conspire to make the Beast eat her alive. Anyone familiar with the original Aladdin of The Arabian Nights knows that Jafar had an evil brother who tried to kill Aladdin in a vendetta (rent The Thief of Baghdad, you’ll be stunned by how much Disney plagiarized for Aladdin). But then comes The Lion King, which is, in many ways, the real successor to Bambi - dealing unflinchingly with so many of the same adult themes. But this was a Bambi for the 1990’s, and it was Disney’s first true attempt at giving Africa, and black culture, the dignity they denied for so long. The result is both deeply felt and deeply condescending. For songs that are so clearly supposed to have a black or African feel, it’s rather absurd to commission Elton John and Tim Rice. Why not Ashford and Simpson? Or Stevie Wonder? But who can deny that the music works extremely well, and that it fit with the general tone? We’re seeing an African jungle of White people’s imaginings, with lions, hyenas and mandrills who speak in insulting variants on Black patois - except for Scar, who sounds like Klaus von Bulow. For the second time in Disney history, we get a sense of grim darkness and dread that feels entirely real. Beyond Pride Rock is a land of death, where even a lion can be in terrible danger. For once, the creepy uncle turns out to be just as creepy as he looks, and not only manages murders the father, but betrays the son by convincing him that he’s responsible for his father’s death. This is the primal eldest curse, the stuff of Hamlet and Claudius, Cain and Abel, Eteocles and Polynices. The story is about a kid who spends more than half his life an orphan, and then must exact a vendetta against his father’s brother - this is not G-rated stuff, and only a company with too many lawyers could pass it off as such. True to form, Disney got complaints - this time from single mothers who said that their children began to blame themselves for their fathers’ deaths - and that’s a powerful, powerful scar (no pun intended) for a movie to leave. It was too powerful for Disney, and once again, the animated movies after The Lion King were progressively less interesting, less fully realized, less adult.
3. WALL-E: When Disney bought Pixar in 2006, that should have been the end for the studio as a maker of memorable movies. In some ways, Pixar and Disney were an ideal fit. They both had the unholy mix of artistry and business acumen which provides popular entertainments as annoying and sinister as they are sometimes enjoyable. But Pixar’s fifteen years produced a far more memorable track record than any fifteen years of Disney, and their far more bloodthirsty taste for darkness goes a long way to explaining that. Pixar’s distant relationship with Disney worked to everyone’s benefit, there were plenty of volatile disagreements along the way (if only there were a tape of the Steve Jobs/Michael Eisner meetings...), but Disney recognized that they no longer understood what made animation compelling in the age of computers. From Disney, Pixar got a distributor that was something of a kindred spirit, and the animators had Steve Jobs to protect them from Disney’s focus groups. But by 2006, Pixar’s clout became so large that when Disney bought Pixar wholesale, Steve Jobs became the single largest stock holder in Disney. Disney did not control Pixar, Pixar controlled Disney. For a brief moment, Disney was controlled by a popular entertainment that thought nothing of portraying a father clownfish whose hundreds of unborn children were killed by a barracuda, or of a plot in which a monster plans to kidnap a little girl and gain power from her screams. Pixar made all sorts of movies that were darker than the Disney pablum fair, but none is darker, or more magnificent, than WALL-E. So many people view WALL-E as the ultimate adorable machine, I’ve met a number of fully grown women who own WALL-E toys. But WALL-E is not about a can-do machine with a romantic streak, WALL-E is one of the darkest movies ever made, most of which is filmed in almost complete silence. It’s about nothing less than the end of life on Earth, the inability of humans to stop destroying themselves, and the black hole toward which America’s compulsion for spending is leading us. It’s one of the bleakest visions of a human future in the movies, made far more digestible by the fact that it all takes place in the background of a rather dull robot who idolizes human beings. When humans return to earth, they’re plainly unfit (pun intended) to repopulate, but maybe the future of humanity is in the artificial intelligence we’ve created, perhaps WALL-E and EVE can succeed where human beings have failed.
I haven’t heard any firestorm of complaints about WALL-E, Pixar had too much business sense to allow the real plot of the movie to be anything but background, and it’s highly probable that most parents didn’t get the message. The followup,..UP was interesting in a completely different way. It was not quite as dark as WALL-E, but it did bring up the dreaded question of old age - and it wasn’t a moment too soon for a Disney subsidiary to tackle it. The first generation of children raised on Disney is now in the nursing home. Perhaps the ‘wilderness explorers’ club was simply our grandparents, raised on Pinocchio and The Reluctant Dragon (everybody forgets about that movie...) and long since shown by life that they’re too old to believe in the Disney dreams. Here, finally, is Disney’s last promise to them, that they can still be as young as they were when they saw Song of the South. Perhaps UP will be remembered as Disney’s final great entertainment. Now that Steve Jobs is dead, Disney announced that Pixar will mostly devote itself to being a cash cow that makes sequels and given Disney’s track record, there’s no reason to believe that all those sequels will be as good as Toy Story 3.
(Getting some stunningly idiomatic Sibelius in 1971, in Japan!)
It sounds altogether odd to speak of a Sibelius revival. Sibelius is one of the facts of 20th century music, with great champions to play his music all through the century. If any composer didn't need a revival, it was Sibelius. Yet toward the mid-century marker, Sibelius's fortunes looked to be dipping in an altogether serious way. In the arid climate of postwar Europe, Sibelius was considered a sentimental nostalgist. It was only in the late century when Finland, a country of 5.4 million emerged as as a state which seemed to produce a greater number of amazing classical musicians than many countries ten times its size. Like Hungary in second quarter of the century, there was something in Finnish training that seemed to cement achievement in great talent. And just as all those Hungarians made sure Bartok got his due, all those Finns supported Sibelius. The very first conductor of the 'Finnish invasion' to emerge on the world stage was Paavo Berglund.
(Berglund in mid-70's Dresden. Making perhaps what's still the greatest non-Czech recording of Smetana's Ma Vlast.)
It doesn't do Berglund's talent much justice to claim that he was a mere Sibelius authority, though that will inevitably be how he's remembered - he recorded the Sibelius Symphonies 3 1/2 times and in 1970 made the first ever recording of Sibelius's only truly large-scale work, the Kullervo Symphony. But he will probably be remembered as much for how he played Sibelius as that he played him at all. Conductors as diverse as Eugene Ormandy, Colin Davis, Leonard Bernstein, and Herbert von Karajan played him in the grand manner of the Romantics, with almost Teutonic heaviness and Russian emotionalism. By today's standards, their tempos were quite broad and the phrases stretched to their breaking point. Berglund wiped the palate clean of all Romantic excess: the tempi on the whole much faster, dynamics far more understated, and phrasing far less flexible. This was a cooler, more concentrated Sibelius for a more understated era of music-making, perhaps it was also closer to how the composer saw his own music. Was Berglund the greatest of all Sibeleans? He's certainly in the running, but there are other approaches to the music that work equally well - I prefer mine fleet, but with a bit more romantic drama and flexibility, which you get especially well from classic giants like Koussevitzky, Kajanus, Stokowski, Beecham, and Barbirolli. Among the more contemporary names, it's a style probably best represented by Neeme Jarvi and Simon Rattle.
(The Seventh Symphony in London with the BBC Symphony. Berglund's way with Sibelius was particularly appropriate for this symphony.)
For all the specialty in Sibelius, Berglund was a general practitioner - making some legendary recordings of Shostakovich, Smetana, and Vaughan Williams in his day. His temperament was naturally reserved - with a large helping of volatility by all accounts, which perhaps goes a bit of the way to explaining the weird mix of restraint and explosion that his performances could inspire. One moment, a Berglund performance was the very definition of forbearance, the next moment it could explode in an awe-inspiring example of orchestral fireworks and passion (the fireworks never more on display than in his recording of Vaughan Williams's Fourth Symphony with the Royal Philharmonic).
(En Saga in Bournemouth, where he was a particularly beloved chief conductor.)
It is a shame that Berglund never achieved more fame in his time. Aside from in Britain, where he held a variety of posts, the major world centers of music never seemed to consider him in the front rank. He was part of a generation that seemed particularly attracted to flashy performers, and Berglund was the polar opposite of flash. But if the cool but consistent talents of Mackerras, Dohnanyi, Blomstedt, Haitink, and Zinman could be recognized on the international stage, however belatedly, why not Berglund?
(The Oceanides. Probably Sibelius's most underrated tone poem, I've never heard it done better than Berglund did it.)
One of the most striking things learned in the course of blogging is that I never know what I’m going to write about until I sit down to do it. I think every writer has this experience - over the course of a day you collect all sorts of ideas to write down, yet many of them prove arid and unmineable once you sit down to do the writing. Instead you simply write about whatever thought is nearest at hand, and these seemingly inconsequential thoughts prove far more fertile. It’s like visiting New York and finding any street-corner more interesting than the usual tourist traps - as you probably should.
At this point in history, we know what the novel is, we know what symphonies are, we even know what comic books and movies are. These are all artforms whose use to the world has reached their apogee, and there will be a steady decline in their influence before they are completely subsumed by other artforms more effective at speaking to people in a future era. But we have no idea yet what a blog is. It could still be something that resembles a book, or it could be utterly unrecognizable from anything the world has yet read. Artists have yet to arrive who can show us what a blog can do.
In the meantime, the time when blogs can be used as a tool to express hard certainties has passed. The echo chamber of blogspin now feels as tired and relentless as the spin we’ve heard for decades on Television. For the Age of Bush, when certainties about America’s place in the world seemed to change every day, blogs were perfect. One day soon, inquisitive readers will look at the hard certainties of Michelle Malkin and Glenn Greenwald and marvel that rational Americans could be in thrall to such uninquisitive certainty. They’ll also look at the musings of Andrew Sullivan or Matthew Yglesias and wonder how smart people could so quickly change one set of hard certainties for another. They’ll look at Huffington Post and be dumbfounded that we could care so much what actors think about political issues, and then they’ll look at PerezHilton and wonder how we could be so influenced by celebrities whose every flaw we knew in such detail. Finally, they’ll read sites like Daily Kos, TPM Cafe, and Atrios, and wonder how a Left Wing that appeared so solidly organized could have so little influence on contemporary American discourse.
It’s most certainly time for a new kind of blogger - one less prone to certainty, less willing to cast the first stone, less in love with brevity, but more in love with doubt, and therefore willing to write outside his/her specialization. This kind of blogger would have less agenda, and would write about a wider array of subjects. This blogger would be more willing to take in all of life’s experience instead of the small sliver in which he or she specializes and interprets through the narrow prism of the blogger’s pre-formed sensibility. The subject which this new blogger covers must be life itself, and to get the full scope of life’s flavor, the writing must necessarily be of much longer dimensions. This new kind of blogger must be more like Roger Ebert.
Here is something I wrote about Roger Ebert at the end of 2010 which seems entirely appropos now:
It amazes me how often we hear this same story: so many people of our generation didn’t come to reading Roger Ebert through developing a passion for movies. They developed a passion for movies through reading Roger Ebert. There was a period in the early-to-mid-90’s when every middle-class household seemed to have an Ebert movie guide. Soon thereafter, every one of his movie reviews and articles got posted on CompuServe, and soon after that he started his own website. For all those decades when Ebert was so omnipresent, it has been fashionable to rag on him for being too generous to mediocre movies and dumbing down criticism with the TV show "Siskel and Ebert" (would that most of today's TV critics could discuss movies on their level...). But what they (at times ‘we’) all missed was that Ebert’s zealous passion for all aspects of his job was clearly just a facet of his larger zeal for life: for food and drink (obviously), for books, for art, for women (and apparently they loved him right back..), for friends, for family, and anything else that enriched. But it was not until Ebert was so debilitated that he found a metier through which we could perceive his life for everything it is.
And with his Pulitzer for Criticism now thirty-five years in the past, Ebert may have only reached the peak of his influence in the past year. Horribly disfigured by thyroid cancer and left without the ability to eat, drink or speak, Ebert has taken to the age of blogging and twitter with a naturalness stunning for anyone in their late 60’s. But there’s simply no adjective to describe the stunning ease with which a person in his condition took to an entirely new technology. Perhaps he understands things about how to use the internet that younger, more fit people never could. Roger Ebert’s blog is simply like nothing else on the internet. Like clockwork, a fully formed essay arrives every week on topics ranging from loneliness to alcoholism to politics to illness. Ebert delves into the most personal crevasses of his experience, and perhaps for the first time in my experience of the blogosphere, the result is wisdom instead of TMI. Self revelation rarely results in deeper appreciation, but Ebert has a humanity that few people are capable of allowing themselves, and through his emotional generosity he’s created a community of ‘the neglected.’ The comments section is filled with posts from all sorts of people who for the first time in their lives feel confident that there is a place where they can share the most personal parts of their lives, openly and without judgement or prejudice. Go to any Ebert blogpost and you find hundreds of extraordinarily well-written essays in of themselves which seem to be written by a confluence of hundreds of articulate, lonely teenagers looking to find a place where people like them belong, unwell people who are desperate to remember how they functioned in their illness’s remission, unhappy people who never got the chance they should have for life to hear their voices. These are all people who thought the world was divided into those who are broken and those who are not, but through each other they all seem to have realize that there is no such division....Or at least there should never be..
It is through Ebert’s example that so many of them found the courage to tell stories of their own: lives torn apart by tragedy, by mental illness, by the unfairness of circumstance. And yet through Roger Ebert each of them has discovered that they have a story to tell and a public who will listen. Only a man of very deep good will could have created something so consoling, so unique and so unforseen that (I don’t use this word lightly) it has enriched the lives of so many whose lives desperately needed enrichment. Had Roger Ebert died on the operating table, life would have been far the poorer for what all these people would have lost.
Roger Ebert’s blog is the best example I know of how the Internet can unite people rather than divide them. Instead of providing ready-made answers for life’s manifold questions, he asks questions of his own. In his willingness to post deeply considered essays about his experiences, he completely re-framed what a blog is capable of doing. Rather than telling people what to think, he asks them to help him better understand what to think. He does this not with the phony blogism: ‘Readers, what do you think?’ But by inspiring them with the depth of his introspection to match his. The result is one of the few comment boards in which people go to feel close to one another rather than berate each other. I can’t help thinking that given the difficulties of his current state, this kind of communal catharsis was his objective from the very beginning.
If the Bush era was one of crumbling certainties, then we’ve now arrived at an age of uncertainty. Barack Obama was elected with a mandate to change virtually everything about America. we may yet find out that he’s steered the country back on course, or that he hasn’t changed America’s direction at all. For the first time in living memory, America seems on the point of precipitous decline, and its debts seem insurmountable. The EU - America’s greatest natural ally - on the verge of collapse. Many of America’s authoritarian allies in the Middle East were overthrown by democratic movements that want new democracies fundamentally different from America’s, and those movements may give way to Islamic autocracies which swear absolute enmity to America. If America never recovers from the recession, China may take America’s place as the world’s dominant nation, or it may collapse into the same financial ruin. With the growing instability in Pakistan, nuclear stockpiles have never been less secure. The Great Recession may have already ended, or it may go on another twenty years.
This is an era with no certainties about our future, only certainties about our past. Today’s blogger needs an eye toward history which yesterday’s never needed - political history, scientific history, and perhaps most importantly, cultural history. The Brave New World of the Internet is turning into something very different from what we once thought it would be. In order to understand it, really understand it, we need precedents. We need people who know the history of film, literature, art, music, mathematics, physics, biology, and politics - and who can draw parallels for today’s developments with previous ones. We need figures online who can consider all of the questions of the present from the vantage point of the past. We don’t need specialists who can inflame us by boiling a few pieces of information down to a single point of view in 300 words. We need Renaissance Men who can bore the crap out of us by considering every piece of information from every point of view, no matter how long it takes.
We arrived in this era by reducing public discourse to a soundbite - in doing so, we virtually obliterated our patience for nuance. There are more educated people today than at any point in world history, yet has there ever been an era when standards for what constitutes ‘education’ has been lower? And as the general public grows less and less interested in ideas, the educated public of academics grows less solicitous of them. The idea that academics should write for a general public is considered a ludicrous dream of the past. Over and over again, we hear that only specialists can understand the latest developments in cosmology, abstract algebra, literary theory, and music composition. Once upon a time, the word for this development was Medievalism.
That’s not to say that the world is about to retread to the era of the Black Death and Crusades. But if we’d like to avoid the possibility of that development, perhaps it’s time to turn back the clock to some very 18th century ideas - that a person can have no higher aim than the accumulation of knowledge in all subjects of life’s experience, that a cultured person has thoughts worth expressing on any subject on which he or she is enthusiastic; that seriousness and humor should never be mutually exclusive, that uniqueness is something we should neither ignore nor berate nor be afraid to mock; that we should be able to see the truth (or falsehood) in grandiose ideas from very small occurrences, or see the nature of a group within an individual, or the nature of an individual within a group. Even if history has proven that most, perhaps all, of these sentiments are not always true, they are certainly more true than they seem to most people in our era. We’re all thinkers and observers, whether we write treatises on Schopenhauer or spend 6 hours a day watching ESPN.
Hopefully, by indulging in these sentiments on a blog, we can shake up the worldview of those tens of thousands or couple dozen who read us. We may often not do it well, but at least we can try. The results, hopefully, do what any other art does - among other things, to converse with the reader, to provoke him and shake up her perceptions, to give ourselves a space away from our lives that still may make us understand our lives better, and to use the order which a confined space gives us to evoke our lives in all their messiness. Like any other art, a blog should resemble life, without all the boring parts....or at least we'll take the boring stuff out when we remember how to do nuance again.
I am not a huge fan of Reiner. He is probably the most tyrannical podium presence in music history, and the coldness of his performances can bespeak that. But is there, will there ever be, a greater performance of Scheherazade in existence?
I had to nap this evening during time I'd otherwise spend writing. So here's another rerun from back during the VoW days.
(The difference between the real McLaughlin Group and the Saturday Night Live one is that the real one is infinitely more ridiculous)
Eusebius: What are we doing here?
Florestan: I think Tucker needs us to be part of some project.
Euseblius: Who's Tucker?
Florestan: Some guy I met at a party a couple years ago.
Eusebius: A couple years ago?
Florestan: Yeah he kind of disappeared about a year and a half ago. Nobody hears much from him anymore, but he now has a blog that he basically uses to remind the world that he still exists.
Eusebius: Do people read it?
Florestan: Fuck if I know.
Eusebius: Couldn't he just shut his mouth and do the hermit thing the right way?
Florestan: I guess that would make a lot more sense. But he never was particularly good at keeping his mouth shut.
Eusebius: So,...this is the kind of guy who thinks that he can just appropriate characters from Robert Schumann's diaries and that the three people in the world who'd get it won't laugh at him for being the world's most pretentious blogger?
Florestan: I think he's kind of resigned himself to that.
Eusebius: So what are we doing for him?
Florestan: I think he wants us to debate something or other with the usual roles.
Eusebius: You don't mean?...
Florestan: Yeah, those. Sorry, but you gotta do the depressed artist thing again.
Eusebius: And you get to be that jock who pretends to play the guitar and every girl thinks is the hottest thing since John Mayer.
Florestan: Hellz yeah.
Eusebius: Where's this Tucker guy in all this?
Florestan: He was that guy who randomly came up to me at a Tilden House party and smashed my guitar against the wall.
Eusebius: Oh yeah. I liked him.
Tucker: Oh there you guys are. How are we today?
Eusebius: Fuck my life!
Eusebius: What are we here for again?
Tucker: I'm here to watch the two of you go at each other like rabid dogs. And to make this more interteresting to any DC types who I make read this i brought a couple famous DC figures too.
Arnold Schwartzenegger: WHO'SYA DADDY AND WHAT DOES HE DO?!?
Tucker: Arnold, we promised you could stay here if you didn't say anything. Here's the rest of the panel: From the neoconservative right we have Charles Krauthammer who once talked to my grandmother at the opera.
Charles Krauthammer: I meet many fine old Jewish ladies at the opera.
Pat Buchanan: And you're the son they all wish they had right?
Tucker: Actually it was Richard Perle who my grandmother met. And this fine fellow is Pat Buchanan, representing the more traditional right-wing. As usual, he's here because we couldn't get Bob Novak. Novak is currently indisposed on a long vacation with a return date Christopher Hitchens deems 'unlikely.'
Christopher Hitchens: Amen and L'Chaim to that you opus dei sellout.
Gore Vidal: Please Christopher, we can't all go turncoat with such preternatural elegance, --- is that Maker's Mark's excrement I see in your hand?
Christopher Hitchens: Is that excrement I see in your hand? .
Eusebius (to Florestan): Being a witty drunk looks like fun.
Florestan: I'd rather just be drunk.
Tucker: These classy men are our representatives from the left. Representing ex-Trotskyist anti-authoritarian hawks the world over we have Christopher Hitchens.
Charles Krauthammer: You forgot the self-hating Jew part.
Christohper Hitchens: Hey Mein Fuhrer, I can walk!
Tucker: And representing isolationist left-wing pascifism we have Gore Vidal.
Gore Vidal: Let's get this done with, I plan on dying as soon as this show is over.
Charles Krauthammer: Who are those two?
Tucker: They're the two sides of Robert Schumann's personality.
Pat Buchanan: Who the hell is Robert Schumann and why am I here?
Tucker: He's one of the great composers of the early Romantic era, and wrote some of the greatest piano music and lieder ever written.
Pat Buchanan: Another panel with homos eh?
Gore Vidal: Ugly ones too!
Christopher Hitchens: Another drink please?
Tucker: Well, I hope everybody's comfortable because now we can begin our discussion. The topic is, as you probably guessed, music. We're going to do this McLaughlin Group style, or at least the Saturday Night Live spoof of it. I will pick the topic, then cut you off whenever I feel like it. After I've heard my peace from each of you, I'm going to state my own opinion as though it's a fact and make it seem as though none of you have anything interesting to say.
Gore Vidal: Buckley wasn't available?
Tucker: Issue 1 - Why is most choral music more boring than watching a dishwasher? FLORESTAN!
Florestan: Choral music isn't boring. You're just not listening to it correctly. It's music that's written to express emotions people feel together. And when they come together they can make music that's more profound than anything they can do apart.
Tucker: WRONG! EUSEBIUS!
Eusebius: Most choral music? Try everything save a couple madrigals by Monteverdi! Florestan's right, this is community music. But like all community music it's written to be so tasteful, so unlikely to offend anybody's sensibilities, that only bland people can possibly be drawn to it.
Tucker: WRONG! PAT BUCHANAN!
Pat Buchanan: Is Choral Music like the stuff they play around Christmas?
Tucker: Some of it.
Pat Buchanan: I like that stuff. But I think those music types should stop trying to force it down our throats. Music has its place but everybody has to know what that is and not get all bent out of shape if we don't think its as important as they do.
Tucker: WRONG! CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER!
Charles Krauthammer: I love it. It's a wonderful resource that molds its singers into fine citizens. The problem is that most people are disgracefully unworthy of choral music. No matter how much money you throw at choruses, most people just won't get what's great in it.
Tucker: WRONG! CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS!
Christopher Hitchens: I detest choral music. Look into any choral singer's eyes, it's like gazing into the piggy-eyes of fascism. Choruses are for people who have a sublimated wish to be told what to do and how. One day you'll see the Hallelujah Chorus done with goose stepping and you'll see just how right I am!
Tucker: WRONG! GORE VIDAL!
Gore Vidal: Well it's no less banal than any other type of amateur music making. There is something truly sad about a person who has deluded himself into thinking that he can make wonderful music without schooling or practice. Unfortunately choral music gives sanction to these practices on a level no other music does.
Tucker: WRONG! Choral music is the tits.
Issue 2 - Why is Classical Music only enjoyed by Old People? CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER!
Charles Krauthammer: It is one of the telltale signs of our country's unremitting decline. Beethoven and Bach didn't uplift the human spirit by talking about bitches and icing your neighbors. Today's music has lost its moral compass and our society only has its own decadence to thank for that.
Tucker: WRONG! PAT BUCHANAN!
Pat Buchanan: I've been on television every hour since the civil war and I can't tell Bach and Brahms from Booz Allen Hamilton. Why should any American listen to it? It's flowery music for people too weak to find fulfilment in stuff made by Americans.
Tucker: WRONG! GORE VIDAL!
Gore Vidal: I don't see what's wrong with that. My generation was simply better than yours.
Tucker: WRONG! CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS!
Christopher Hitchens: Classical Music is soundtrack of Empire and Great Power Politics. It is music which older generations use to remind themselves of an era in which they were less reminded of how morally culpable they are to mass murder..can we get some Wagner playing in here?
Tucker: WRONG! EUSEBIUS!
Eusebius: Old people have more time, more lesiure, more life experience. It's only natural that they'd embrace music that's more contemplative.
Tucker: WRONG! FLORESTAN!
Florestan: Old people love music that confirms their sense of what life is. They've lost their sense of adventure and discovery, and so they only want to hear music they've heard throughout their lives in an environment that won't challenge them with anything unfamiliar.
Tucker: WRONG! People who listen to classical music deserve weekly beatings, but they're not necessarily old.
Issue 3 - Why do classical and popular genres view each other with such hostility? PATTY-CAKE PATTY-CAKE BAKERS BUCHANAN!
Pat Buchanan: Because these classical guys are so uppity. They continually act like their music is better than ours and making us support it with our money even if we don't like it.
Tucker: WRONG! YOU CAN GET MORE WITH GORE GORE VIDAL!
Gore Vidal: Because classical music IS better, and the rest of the world views genuine quality with hostility. Nothing in the Beatles can compare to the exquisiteness of a Debussy prelude.
Tucker: WRONG! EUSEBIUS MANDYCZEWSKI!
Eusebius: Because nobody in the popular world understands that music needs melos and innigkeit. They truly believe in Vox Populi, Vox Dei and they don't believe in an objective universal criteria by which all art can be judged. As such, classical music has retreated to a hermetic language that we happy few may understand, and those who don't content themselves with a miasmal abyss of mediocrity and decadence.
Pat Buchanan (to Krauthammer): I see what this guy means about weekly beatings.
Tucker: WRONG! O NAMENLOSE FREUDE FLORESTAN!
Florestan: Becuase classical music has lost its desire to speak to the masses. In the era of Wagner and Verdi the greatest ambition of composers was to uplift the masses with a sublime musical language everyone could understand. In the era of Boulez and Stockhausen the greatest ambition is to keep the masses as far away from their music as possible.
Tucker: WRONG! CHRISTOPHER CHRISTOPHER BO-BISTOPHER BANANA-FANA-FO-FISTOPHER HITCHENS!
Christopher Hitchens: Hundreds of years of mistrust and bigotry leads to nothing but blinding hatred generated by one stupid camp of idealogues for another. The solvability of these issues is so obvious. But it's blocked by leadership in both camps that acts in narrow self-interests and a populace too stupid to realize that they're being led into pointless slaughter.
He looked like a Calvinist minister. The stern gaze of this intense white-haired eagle-beaked man radiated absolute seriousness of purpose. The austerity of his playing could certainly match it. But Leonhardt's playing could belay his reputation completely. Leonhardt's playing was stern and dull, except when it wasn't. A member of the original period instrument generation and trained in the era when Toscanini and Schnabel were thought the great musical models, his commitment to the Urtext in comparison to his successors was nearly fanatical. Ornamentation was sparing, and rubato judicious and usually the micro-level - rubato in the truest sense of the word. His musicmaking was the precise opposite of the ostentatious ebulliance one finds in a successor like Ton Koopman - his commitment to seriousness was absolute.
(Just a month before he died. Bach's b-minor suite "Fur dans Lautenwerk." Masterly to the end.)
It was in the Postwar Vienna of Harry Lime that the bourgeois Dutch Leonhardt, then a conducting student, met a Viennese aristocrat of roughly the same age named Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Harnoncourt was a cellist who would not conduct in a traditional manner for nearly another twenty years. They began to perform together and when Harnoncourt founded the Concentus Musicus Wein, Leonhardt was his keyboardist. But Leonhardt clearly differed from Harnoncourt in his philosophy and the differences became more pronounced as they got older. Harnoncourt was that of an extraverted performer who believed that research into old styles should be used as a conduit to inform more effective performances in both old and new styles. Leonhardt's approach was that of an introvert and historian, he wanted to recapture the pure style of old music and keep it as a private world, utterly separate from the goings on of other musical styles. By 1955, Leonhardt had moved back to Amsterdam and with him began the fruition of an entire Dutch school of early music with the founding of the Leonhardt Consort: Ton Koopman, Franz Bruggen, and all three Kuijken brothers were either conducted or taught by him. He even had an important effect on the English early music scene by being one of the principal keyboard teachers of Christopher Hogwood and a favored conductor for the English countertenor - Alfred Deller. His principal achievement as a conductor was to come later in of the most momentous recording projects in music history. Together with Nikolaus Harnoncourt, he recorded the complete cantatas of Bach. It began in 1971, and took them until 1990!
(Leonhardt conducting the opening chorus of the St. Matthew Passion in 1967. Dressed as Bach...an eerie, eerie clip)
Like most period specialists, he made a particular specialty of Bach, whose music he conducted and played on both the harpsichord and organ. He was particularly at home in the Renaissance Baroque work of Northern Europe - Bach predecessors and contemporaries like Telemann, Purcell, Buxtehude, Biber, Byrd, Froberger and his compatriot Sweelinck were all important composers to him. However, he did reserve an intense dislike for Handel, whom he regarded as a panderer to mass tastes. He performed works of the French Baroque, but the greater flash demanded in these works did not suit the austerity of his temperament particularly well, and Leonhardt said as much in interviews, deriding them as 'superficial.' He had a similar attitude towards popular music, which he claimed was based entirely on 300 year old musical developments. Leonhardt was an artist who made war with frivolity. The results could be dry, they could also be life changing.
My blog will not go dark today. It’s not because I find SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act) or PIPA (Protect IP Act) anything but dangerously neanderthalic. But I’m not going to take part for three reasons.
1. I think it's much more effective to talk about it than to go dark.
2. The arguments bandied about are weirdly schizophrenic. On the one hand, these bills are supposed to be completely ineffective because the internet is so quick to adopt to any changes. On the other, these bills will completely destroy the internet. Which one is it?
2. I simply don’t think it will pass. Certainly SOPA will at least have a difficult time of it. And even if both bills do pass, President Obama indicated that he’d veto them. The White House is far too close to Google - and far too beholden to Google’s most devoted users - to alienate them by signing this bill. There may be the votes to pass, but there can’t possibly be enough votes to override his veto.
But even if SOPA and PIPA don’t pass this time, the day is surely coming when a bill like it does. A country so resolved to remain in the 20th century will stay there while the world passes it by. Hundred year old multinationals cannot simply be expected to sign their death warrants, even if they’ve long since outlived their usefulness. We reap what we sow, and like the turn of the 20th century, the turn of the 21st is an era when government is expected to kowtow to the interests of big business. Just as in the former era, there will be intermittent progressive attempts to curb big business influence - in the former case from the Teddy Roosevelt, Taft and Wilson administrations. But ultimately, the attempts to stop business from controlling our every transaction will be feeble until business itself fails. The only thing that will ultimately stops the growing influence of people with too much money is their own stupidity. From 1901 to 1921, all sorts of attempts were made to stop corporations from accumulating more power. At best, these attempts only slowed their growth and led businessmen to elect Harding and Coolidge - two presidents who basically allowed big business to run the country. And just like that period of history, the only thing that could stop the growth of big business is a complete economic disaster like the Great Depression. So please realize, the failure of these businesses often have worse consequences than their success. And during the Great Depression, a third of the country was sent to breadlines - exactly the sort of situation President Obama and Chairman Bernancke stopped from occurring during the first year of the Obama presidency... so more power to them, there are some things more important than curbing big business.
I probably take a different tack on the whole issue from others. Generally speaking, I don’t like file-sharing as an activity. Like any self-respecting hypocrite I’ve certainly done it, but I find the whole idea that we shouldn’t pay for the music and movies we love to be wretchedly ungrateful. But on the other hand, there’s a significant difference between remuneration and robbery. When the Beatles recorded Sgt. Pepper, it cost 25,000 pounds to make. It has now sold 32 million copies and probably made EMI close to half-a-billion dollars. Not every album sells so exorbitantly (only 14 have sold more), but once an album sells past a certain point, it has reached the ultimate redundancy. There is no justification for either selling Sgt. Pepper at a high price, or for buying it. People can simply copy one another’s CD’s, or share files with one another of the album. An album so ubiquitous and well known is the ultimate defninition of the public domain. To prosecute people for unlawful distribution of something 2% as ubiquitous as Sgt. Pepper would be incredibly stupid. You’d have to indict us all. One has to remember that every CD which you buy for 16 dollars generally costs a dime to manufacture - a 3,000% markup. The initial result of this was a seventeen year long cultural dark age from which we only awakened because of the advent of file sharing. Lest that seem hyperbolic even for me, let me elaborate.
The problem is not just the executives from record companies or movie studios, the problem is their publicists, their artists, and their artists’ public - us. For the moment, let’s just focus on the example of music. The raw material from which CD’s are made cost 15 cents at most - the case and booklet together cost a whopping 30 cents. There are three small royalty fees which every CD manufacturer must pay to Philips, Thompson, and Discovision for patenting different parts of the manufacturing process, but the additional overhead is minimal. Furthermore, most of the big record companies own their own manufacturing plants, so they don’t even have to buy the CD’s wholesale. The true expenses of an album come from the need to cover marketing, promotion, artist fees, and royalties. Once those factors are tabulated into cost, there is an additional markup to however much the companies think they can charge without dissuading people from buying. In other words...if people weren’t stupid enough to buy music just because it’s heavily marketed, CD’s wouldn’t cost so much in the first place.
And if this weren’t enough, there is the additional factor that music labels know that most of their CD’s will lose money. No matter how much publicity they put into their albums, they know that at least 4 out of every 5 will not sell at the level they hope. Therefore, the albums must be still more expensive to recoup the losses of all the albums that lose money.
The result of this was fifteen years of a market in which stupid people were told what stupid movies and music to like by stupid corporations. Corporations run by people no smarter than us practically dictated our tastes to us - far more even than in the heyday of the Studio System and RIAA. You may not have liked certain genres of music or movies in the 60’s or 70’s, but at least you had a choice. In the 1980’s, we saw a new phenomenon which has yet to completely leave us - focus grouped art. Thanks in large part to the generational divisions of the 60’s, both American movies and music bifurcated into all sorts of subcultural tastes. The older generation liked big bands and Westerns, the younger generation liked rock bands and gangster movies. The Left liked folk music and Easy Rider, the Right liked country music and Dirty Harry. Blacks liked American R&B and blaxploitation, whites liked British R&B and B-movies. The American arts had lost their mass appeal, and so many corporate executives longed for a way to create art that appealed to every demographic.
Depending upon how you look at it, the results were either a badly needed remergence of mass appeal, or a kind of synthetic tyranny. It can’t be argued that much of this new mass art, particularly in the early years, was done with enormous intelligence. Surely a movement that includes Star Wars, ET, Back to the Future, the Indiana Jones Movies, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the early movies of the Disney revival, Bruce Springsteen, U2, MJ, Madonna, Prince, and Billy Joel (yes, Billy Joel), can’t be all bad. Just because you can’t run the risk of offending a certain demographic doesn’t mean that you have to divest yourself of all intelligence.
But the problem remains, what happens to artists who can’t fit in with what’s asked of them? Good craftsmen with no identifiable style of their own flourished during this period. There were all sorts of intelligent artisans with no distinctive traits of their own like R.E.M. and movie director, Ridley Scott, who found these limitations enabling rather than restricting - their very lack of style became a style in itself. Furthermore, there were all sorts of emotionally distant artists like David Bowie and Brian de Palma who could simply reinvent themselves to suit the tastes of the period. But what about artists like Bob Dylan and Francis Ford Coppola whose entire identity, philosophy, creative process was completely at odds with the limitations of the period? During this decade and a half, most truly individual artists seemed hopelessly adrift. Any artist who values challenge, truth telling, and emotional openness over entertainment value would find 80’s America to be an arid, barren era for creativity, as would their public. It should come as no surprise that the most important artistic innovation of the 80’s America - hip-hop - came from the South Bronx. In the poorest of America’s poor areas, no one even has enough money to be a consumer, and therefore they have to develop an art that has nothing to do with what the rest of the country consumes.
I was born in March 1982, five months before the production of the first CD - “The Visitors” by ABBA in case anyone wonders. Awaiting me a few years later was the first age in which sound recording evolved to the level that one could hear a virtual reproduction of exactly what you hear in a concert. I remember the first CD my parents ever bought (Sir Georg Solti conducting Brahms 2nd symphony) and I equally remember wondering where the tape hiss was. I was both lucky and unlucky enough to grow up in a cultural world of my own - classical music, Shakespeare plays, art museums...and if that wasn’t enough to make me weird, when I reached adolescence older I moved onto foreign films and classic literature. All those scary highbrow things which kids are not supposed to be interested in are precisely what I took to like a fish to water. But in this regard, I was almost completely on my own, and there was hardly anybody my age who understood those madcap passions of mine. Particularly as an otherwise learning disabled kid who had little to do with honors students, I learned to appreciated all these things in a state of almost complete isolation. Whatever I liked on my own time, I had better be ready to talk about the Orioles or Green Day if I didn’t want bullies to smell blood.
But something in the air began to change around the time I arrived at my second high school (a boarding school) in 1998. Rather than play chamber music with older kids as I had with my violin from the time I was six, I began to fiddle with various peers of mine who played the guitar. They didn’t necessarily seem more curious about different kinds of music than anyone else I’d known before them, but they did know more of it. How did they know more? Well, there were probably all sorts of reasons...but by my second year, file sharing was one of them. We weren’t allowed to download music at school, but when we went home, we certainly downloaded en masse and brought the results back with us. I’d go back and forth between the aspiring metal guitarist, the hippie jam-band guitarist, the southern roots guitarist, and they’d all want to learn each other’s songs, sometimes they already knew one another’s songs - sometimes very obscure ones.. In its way, it’s hard not to see it as a microcosm of precisely what happened all across American music in the early 00’s.
Thanks to the movies and music industries, the country developed a synthetic sense of cultural unity. We can all quote Star Wars and sing Thriller, but we were in fact more divided than ever because whenever we wanted to pursue any passion outside the cultural mainstream, we were made to think ourselves freaks who had to do so in isolation. Tastes that were meant to unite people divided us more than ever. It is only when people became free to openly pursue their passions for Italian Horror or Swedish Gothic Metal and allowed freely to share the things close to our hearts with others without fear of humiliation that music truly became a social activity again rather than a social obbligation. We may not share each other’s tastes, but at least we feel entitled to disagree as equals.
But all good things must come to an end, usually sooner rather than later. To human history, the presence of the Internet is so far the length of an eyeblink. It is inevitable that its explosive potential will be tamed and bridled, used for all sorts of evil purposes which we can’t yet even imagine. If corporations like Polygram and the NBA don’t manage to harness the internet for nefarious purposes, it’s entirely possible that Google and Facebook will, and to far more evil ends than the old giants ever thought of. And by the time we wrest ourselves free from them, the internet might be considered as stodgy and wasteful as automobiles are today. Some new invention will come into the public eye that revolutionizes human potential, and powerful people will always try to control it.
So this reckoning is coming, and one of the surest signs that we are headed toward a country-changing disaster is when bills to allow big business to control Internet content finally pass. As happens in all periods of history, an old guard on artificial life support tries to prevent the spread of anything new. The more these bloated giants succeed in stifling progress, the more destructive the disaster which occurs when they fall.
While it's certain that if there were ever a B-Movie version made of Wagner's Ring libretto, Christopher Lee would have played Hagen, this is not going to replace Greindl, Frick or Salminen in haunted parts of anyone's imagination. This sounds like a decent but rusty singer had a few drinks and sang something from memory at a bar, which I suppose is a large part of the point of this. On the other hand, let's also realize that Lee was already in his mid-70's when he sang this. In his defense, it does sound like perfect B-movie horror - not particularly scary, but comically macabre. The sloppy, ok....really bad.... execution is entirely intentional. It makes me wonder, could the Ring Cycle be done successfully as a sort of melodramatic folk opera (not that it isn't already..)? Heavily cut, lighter voices (perhaps not even operatic), and an orchestra as electronic as it is acoustic. It would have to be rethought from the very ground up and require the audacity of a director who goes against a century and a half of established tradition. But I can't help thinking that if any work of art needs a facelift....
Andrew Sullivan likes to say that the great strength of blogging is the impermanence of thought it requires. On blogs, thoughts and facts are reinterpreted every day, and constantly reinterpreted through a process of merciless criticism - both from others and from oneself. To his thinking, blogs are the best catalogue of which we humans have yet thought to record what we feel at any moment. That way, when enough ephemeral moments go recorded, a composite picture of lasting truth comes into focus. To be a good blogger, at least according to the Sullivan worldview, would require a process of merciless introspection simultaneously to possessing an endless reservoir of self-righteousness. It requires a blogger to have a desire to seek out his/her own faults as burning as it is to find fault in others. It requires a rare combination of theorist and streetfighter who views ideas as something to be debated rather than developed. It requires a limitless vitality that enables the writer to be constantly confident, even if (s)he knows that what appears 100% true at the moment might be 100% false in an hour. It requires the ability to post an endless series of speculations that might seem ridiculous, pretentious, and downright offensive within a few minutes, and to do so without shame.
From the moment I started reading Sullivan’s blog, I had two reactions to it:
1. What an idiot.
2. Sign me the f-ck up.
Now let’s be clear, in his way Andrew Sullivan is nothing short of a genius. This is the person who invented blogging as we currently know it. But like many geniuses, he also is yet another in the world’s endless variety of brilliant idiots. As a political thinker, Sullivan was always second-rate; he’s never found an extreme he couldn’t endorse at some point, yet he never seems to arrive at that extreme a second before conventional wisdom blows there first. In 2002 he was lock-step with the Bush administration, by 2009 he was lock-step with the Obamas, yet in both years he found himself in the exact mainstream of the ‘zeitgeist.’ Whether the issue was gay marriage, health care, or torture, he’s always had an uncanny ability to wait until the most risk-free moment to endorse a principled stand, yet he’s still lauded as courageous in each instance. You simply can’t change opinions so quickly on so many issues as Sullivan has without either being a toady to figures of authority, which he criticizes far too often to ever be considered; or having a screw loose, which he clearly does.
I’m hard on Sullivan, yet over the same seven years, I had a similarly screwy leftward journey. Mine was milder, yet it was still weirder than his. I arrived in college just in time for 9/11: upon leaving high school I considered myself a lock-step leftist, yet within fourteen months of college I’d convinced myself that the Iraq War was absolutely necessary, that the Israeli Palestinian conflict could never be solved by negotiation, and that the Iraqi Invasion was simply a necessary first layover in a larger plan to reconstruct the Middle East according to a more Western image. It wasn’t until late 2006 in which I came to realize that only a lunatic could believe all of this. Believe it or not, I still considered myself left-of-center all the way through these years, and I still think I was correct to do so. But if I was, what was I but just another delusional leftist who had dreams far too big of what the world can achieve? Whether the dream is a social democracy or a worker’s paradise, it can never be done without lots of means that some people are going to consider imperialist. In order to make an omlette...
Perhaps this thinking is exactly as crazy as it probably seems to most people who read this. But then again, I’m not claiming to be a great thinker. I’m not held to as high a standard as Andrew Sullivan, nor should I be. Andrew Sullivan is an extremely successful person, and therefore is obbligated to be held to a higher standard. So far, I’m a failure as a musician, writer, actor, journalist, music critic, international affairs student, and tipper. In the six months I’ve done these 800-Word things, I’m read by 50 people on a good day. Not a single entry of mine ever got more than 216 pageviews, and that was for a playlist. I know that my thinking is second-rate at best. If there were ever any points in my life in which I had delusions of being smarter than I am, life showed me otherwise far too many times to not accept it. I know my track record, so I have no doubt I’ll entertain such delusions again in the not-too-distant future, and if there is one thing about life in which I retain no doubt, it is that life will put my hubris in place just as it always has.
And therein lies the problem for today’s bloggers. There is still no mechanism to punish hubris like mine. Just because the internet lets me state anything with complete certainty does not mean that I should. And yet I often do. And once a piece of false information is committed to print, it cannot be rescinded - some people will think it's true, and will not be around to read the (hopefully) inevitable self-correction that follows. One day, a famous blogger will get sued for something (s)he wrote, and that will change blogging forever.
But for the moment, the blogging world we know is in many ways a world of whomever has the audacity to commit the most flagrant misinformation to print. Sometimes the medium becomes your message, and the inflammatory invariably rises above the well-considered. And because of that, there is something about the flat simplicity about the world as Sullivan would have us blog it that can never allow for the truly composite picture which blogs are supposed to capture. Where is the room in this for doubt? If you read a blog, how often do you read “I wonder if...” or “I still can’t make up my mind...”? Surely, statements of that nature can be found anywhere in a place as large as the internets, but you and I both know the awful truth....:
Nuance is either on blogs we don’t read, or in the posts we skip over. In order to be read by a wide public while thinking out loud, bloggers require an absolute surety of conviction that their first thoughts are worth preserving. And these thoughts have to be uncomplicated enough that people can read them in far less time than it takes to read an essay. Whatever the subject, how else can you articulate a coherent view of it in less than 500 words? Many bloggers would rebut that they allow for nuance by hyperlinking to other sources. But even if we allow for the possibility that these hyperlinks are any more complex than the original text, how many people actually read the hyperlinks? After a certain point, an old fashioned coherent essay that is cogently argued will teach you much more than a discombobulated series of simple links that take the same amount of time to read. So let’s face it, blogs as we currently know them are designed for intellectual second-raters like me who can fulminate to their heart’s content and weigh in with opinions more entertaining than they are substantial. The internet is supposed to make us more connected than ever before, and for a truly inquisitive mind, that’s exactly what it is. By its very meaning, the Internet can let us soak up more information from more sources than any library. But most minds are not inquisitive most of the time, and most of us simply want to read their own opinions confirmed most of the time. And with the internet, the echo chamber we crave like chocolate is louder than ever. A victory like Barack Obama’s could not have been possible before the Internet Age, but neither could the Birther movement. Unlike the age of television news in which the majority of people received world information from the same three sources, we can now receive our information from whomever we like to have our every opinion confirmed, and if somebody writes something with which we disagree, we can simply ignore them. There used to be a famous saying from a New York Senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “People are entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts.” How very 20th century that now sounds. Even if the facts which newspapers reported were wrong, they were accepted as correct - and to diverge from them was considered a conspiracy theory. But conspiracy theories are the lingua franca of contemporary discourse - be they birther conspiracies or election-tampering conspiracies, they involve the assumption that a group of people colluded to withhold the truth from the public. Perhaps some of these conspiracies are correct. Hell, perhaps all of them are. But assuming that others conspire to withhold the truth from us is the de facto bedrock of what many Americans now believe, and this trait only shows signs of growing.
It’s official. Thomas Quasthoff has not only cancelled all future concert engagements, he’s also officially retired from the stage due to persistent laryngitis - and he's only 52. And thus ends one of the most remarkable careers in music history. For any dyed-in-the-wool classical vocal fan, this should be an event nearly equivalent to the breakup of The Beatles or Cobain’s suicide. Even in his fifties, it still felt as though Quasthoff was only wrapping up the first act of his career - too many opera roles left to tackle, too much repertoire still unexplored, and far too few people having heard of him. Has there ever been a classical performer who has bridged the gap to do justice to non-classical genres so successfully? Has there ever been a performer whose on-stage persona was as welcoming? It’s just not fair, not to Quasthoff, not to us. If the world were a fair place, Thomas Quasthoff would be as famous as Andrea Bocelli, and Andrea Bocelli as famous as Thomas Quasthoff. Then again, if the world were a fair place, neither would be handicapped.
(Bach with the Staatskapelle Dresden and Vladimir Jurowski)
Millions of people go to see Andrea Bocelli concerts because they think it amazing that a handsome blind man can be a decent singer. But classical music fans have annoyed all these millions by pointing out that Andrea Bocelli is not an actual opera singer. Few, even in the classical world, would doubt that Bocelli’s actual voice is pleasing. The problem is not that Bocelli doesn’t sing nicely. The problem is that Bocelli doesn’t sing opera. Bocelli posesses a fundamentally untutored, undeveloped, quasi-pop voice that bears only a superficial resemblance to actual opera singing. Bocelli’s voice could never be heard without a microphone. He clearly never mastered any technique and like all talented but undeveloped singers has a only a few notes which ring out and many more which sound ennervated and pinched. He then puts this untutored voice to the service of a ‘greatest hits’ vision of opera so bland and boring that only boring people could enjoy it. This is focus group opera, guaranteed to offend nobody and therefore offensive to everyone. What he sings is not even light opera or opera light, his singing is semi-opera, quasi-opera, pseudo-opera, popera. It combines all the most boring qualities of pop and opera into a package that only people who hate life can enjoy. I know, I know, Pavarotti did it too. And as someone who’s sat through many more Pavarotti and Friends PBS telecasts than you have, let me assure you. It was just as boring when Pavarotti did it.
(Beatboxing and scatting with Bobby McFerrin)
But then there’s Quasthoff - a person so remarkable that the story of how he became the world’s most acclaimed classical singer has to be told in detail to do it any justice. The story begins before his birth. Quasthoff is what Billy Joel would call one of the Children of Thalidomyde. Before his birth in 1959, his mother would take the drug Thalidomyde as a way to combat morning sickness. It was only a few years later that the results of pregnant women taking Thalidomyde was published - of which Quasthoff is a typical result. He suffers from phocolemia of the upper extremities - which in plain English means that he has no arms. Rather, he has hands which are connected to his shoulders with the faintest nub in between. His lower body possesses shortened legs which cause him to stand at no more than 4’4. For her troubles, the German government paid Quasthoff’s mother 25,000 Deutsche Marks.
During his young years, he was forced to undergo surgery after painful surgery to make adjustments to his growing limbs. He was born with one of his feet backwards, and he spent a year and a half in bed with a permanent cast. The German authorities, not knowing what else to do with him, committed him first to a pediatric ward, then to a home for sufferers of Cerebral Palsy. It was only at the age of ten that he began to experience any sort of normalcy when his father took him to see a vocal teacher who proclaimed an extraordinary gift. Unfortunately, regardless of his talent, he could never be accepted to music college. Due to the fact that he basically has no arms, it’s rendered him unable to take the required piano courses, and was told by the Music School in Detmold that he could never attend music college - a college at which he's now a full professor.
(Crooning Moon River)
And so Quasthoff studied music in Hanover, privately and intensively, with cult favorite soprano Charlotte Lehman for seventeen years, and did so without the benefit of any official higher musical education. In his spare time, he went to university to study law. After college, he worked at a bank for six years. For extra money, he sang in cabarets and jazz clubs. The combined stress of being a bank teller and music studies saddled him with a serious illness which made him bedridden yet again and forced him to give up the bank job completely. When he was sufficiently well again, he went to work as a radio presenter, and achieved some eminence in that field - not only for his voice or physical condition, but also for his erudition. He was often used on air not only to introduce the music but also to recite poetry on air. It was during these years as a radio presenter that Quasthoff finally achieved some notoriety as a singer. In 1988, still not yet 30, he won recognition at a vocal competition in Munich for which 315 people entered, and was praised by no less than the greatest Baritone (perhaps singer) of the 20th century, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, as having a beautiful voice. When the chief of the jury presented him with first prize, he said: 'You can be absolutely sure you didn't win the competition because of your disability. If you hadn't earned it, that would be a much bigger problem for you.'
(Quasthoff easily sailing over an entire orchestra, playing four different characters, and almost making you think that orchestrating Schubert lieder is a good idea.)
It took Quasthoff another eight years to establish a full-time music career. It would seem that he appeared on the classical music scene one day, fully formed - giving regular recitals in Carnagie Hall, Wigmore Hall, the Concertgebouw, the Musikvereinsaal or La Scala. He seemed to become the favoured Baritone of Berlin’s ‘big three’ conductors - Claudio Abbado, Daniel Barenboim, and Simon Rattle - who almost seemed in competition with one another for who could engage his services most often. His recital programs were filled with the standard Schubert, Bach, Brahms, and Strauss. But just as often you were as likely to hear a late 20th century work - and the contemporary work was as likely to be by The Beatles or from the Great American Songbook as it was by Penderecki or Reimann.
(Singing Georgia, On My Mind)
It goes without saying that Quasthoff has a wonderful, almost infinitely malleable voice - nearly as comfortable in English as German (though not quite...), and far larger than average for a full-size singer but particularly enormous considering that it emanates from a 4 ft. body. It’s lower-lying than most baritones, yet with a ringing quality that has all the sharp overtones of a tenor yet also capable of summoning all the stentorian chest power of a basso profundo (there used to be a video on youtube of him singing a tenor aria, then a baritone, then a bass). Is it more beautiful (or even as beautiful) as Terfel, Fischer-Dieskau, Hrovotovsky? Probably not, though at his vocal best he can recall all the great singers of days past. But like all truly great singers, one tends to forget the beauty of the voice after a few minutes. All that remains is that communicative quality, the ability to draw a listener into a personal world of the music from which you never leave you so long as you’re still able to remember what you’ve heard. Whether it’s the spiritual darkness of late Schubert, the hearty joy of Bach Cantatas, or the brash breeziness of Harold Arlen, Quasthoff sets the mood of the piece more perfectly than perhaps any singer of our lifetime. It’s a quality that takes a number of talents in itself - not just the intelligence to meaningfully shape a phrase but also the stage presence put that shape into action. Very few opera singers possessed that quality to Quasthoff’s extent - doubly a shame, since Quasthoff rarely performed opera.
(A more than usual German-accented Copland. Believe me, it’s worth it...)
It’s often been commented that we’re living in a particularly good era for baritones. It used to be that Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau dominated the baritone repertoire (and everyone else’s too) , and he was such a reliable recreative genius that no other Baritone on the recital circuit ever stood a chance. But if DFD was a King with no equal, then Quasthoff was a chairman of the board. Even after Quasthoff goes, we still have Bryn Terfel, Thomas Hampson, Dimitri Hrovotovsky, Sergei Leiferkus, Simon Keenlyside, Gerald Finley, and Rod Gilfry. Most of them probably have a good fifteen years left in them. But it can’t be denied, we’ve lost the giant among them. This is a singer whose disabilities caused him to operate at a higher, not lower, level. The way we thought about music was never the same before him, and it will never be the same afterward.
...I’m very happy I’ve resisted the temptation to link to his rendition of ‘Short People’ by Randy Newman.