Wednesday, February 29, 2012

800 Words: Chait vs. Perlstein, One on One for Your Nintendo Part 2

2A.

I can’t help feeling extremely glad that I waited a day to finish this post. Perhaps the best yet evidence of why Perlstein is more correct than Chait lies in the Michigan primary. Michigan’s laws specify an ‘open’ primary, which means that any voter can vote for any primary. With Santorum polling as high as five points ahead of Romney in the days leading up to the primary, it should have been widely expected that Santorum couldn’t lose.

Why is this? Because even if Romney voters turned out in higher than expected numbers, any number of Democrats could show up to vote for the highly unelectable Santorum. Yet few did.

Imagine, for a moment, that Barack Obama faced a strong primary challenge from a unelectable left-wing former senator like Russ Feingold. Republican operatives would smack their hands together with glee, send out millions of robocalls in every open primary state to urge Republicans to vote for Russ Feingold, and generally do everything they could to unseat Barack Obama with an unelectable rival. Yet the Democrats of Michigan seemed to care so little for whom Barack Obama faces that they went to the polls for Santorum at a trickle.

For at least the third time in seventy years, the Democratic party is faced with the prospect of a doughfaced progressivism overtaking liberalism. The first was in the late 40’s, when Henry Wallace promised an era of accommodation with the Soviet Union and completely equitable social welfare programs - its influence was stopped immediately by other Democrats who chose to live in reality. The second was in the late 60’s, when the Vietnam War and Civil Rights were raging around the country. The left wing of the party succeeded neither in halting the Vietnam War nor in further advancing the cause of Civil Rights. They did, however, help deliver the country to nearly a half-century of a Republican rule that grew more conservative every year. And now that Barack Obama seems finally poised to take the country out of this long conservative phase, many Progressives seem determined to keep us there.

From the time when Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Party kneecapped William Howard Taft’s re-election campaign in 1912, the term ‘Progressivism’ was justly equated with electoral suicide. The reason for this is all too simple: Progressives like to air grievances, Liberals like results. Progressives like lost causes, Liberals like compromise. Progressives like dreams, Liberals like facts. America had thirty-five years of mid-century liberalism because there were politicians like the Roosevelts and Hubert Humphrey, intellectuals like Reinhold Neibuhr, Arthur Schlesinger, and John Kenneth Galbraith, civil rights leaders like Bayard Rustin and Tom Kahn, and labor leaders like George Meany and Walter Reuther, all of whom knew that the left had firstly to be saved from itself in order to save America.

2B.

I read Chait’s article yesterday, and I couldn’t help agreeing with more than half of it - the two articles points of view, and those of the authors who wrote them, are not mutually exclusive. Chait’s point is that America’s demographics are trending away from Republicans. Just as by the 1970’s, it was demographically clear that a fundamentally Southern, White, Christian, Working Class, and Conservative Majority was emerging, it is becoming equally clear for the 2010’s that a fundamentally Urban, Multi-Cultural, Secular, Educated, Liberal Majority is emerging. And just as 1968’s Democrats responded to their country’s demographic shift with a cataclysmic all-or-nothing refusal to compromise their core beliefs, 2012’s Republicans seem to be responding with a similarly apocalyptic refusal to accommodate the realities of their time. As an irrefutable example, Chait cites the health care debate. Many liberals are still bitter about how much of health care’s comprehensive overhaul was scrapped, but it remains a miracle that comprehensive health reform passed at all. It could only have happened because Republicans refused to compromise, thereby pushing Arlen Spector into the Democratic party and giving Democrats the 60 votes necessary to block a filibuster. To Chait, the fight over health care is indicative of larger changes in the American landscape - rather than accommodate the decline of their base, Republicans doubled down on the fact that they can put the tide of progress in stasis.

It’s difficult to disagree with this analysis. But as always, the view depends upon the angle. Just as health care was indicative of the Republicans’ decline, it was also indicative of the Democrats doing everything they can to resist a rise. From the dithering (or hostage-taking) of the process by conservative Democratic senators like Max Baucus and Ben Nelson to the pressure of progressive pundits like Keith Olbermann and Jane Hamsher that there be no health care bill that isn’t precisely the one that does everything, a process that should have taken three months took a year and a half. Considering that there is neither a bona-fide guarantee that Health Care will reduce government costs, nor a guarantee that the Supreme Court will not strike it down altogether, the Health Care bill might still not have been worth the fight at all.


(Whatever else he does, is more incisive about diagnosing ideological movements in America)

In Perlstein’s article, he makes the point that the younger generation is not willing to make the contributions (and more importantly, the compromises) necessary to make a better country. Unfortunately, he’s exactly right. I disagree with a different point in his article - that somehow by Obama becoming a more boldly ideological president, Conservatives will accuse him less of being ideological, or that the accusations will matter less. This point has become an article of faith on the left, and is no more likely to be true than the Conservative idea that tax cuts for the rich will increase government revenues. But Perlstein’s main point is that the perfect is the enemy of the good. Current Democratic voters seem to be nearly as in thrall to the ‘all or nothing’ approach as Republicans.

But the Republicans, as always, are lucky, lucky bastards. Barack Obama inherited the worst recession in three-quarters of a century. And as of yesterday. the Republicans are fielding a candidate in whose sole recommendable quality is his electability. Right-wing Republicans did everything they could to stop him, they shipped themselves to Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, Hermann Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum. Yet none of these candidates could even compete in a primary that required only a barely competent Conservative to wrest the nomination from Mitt Romney.

Romney is a cipher, and like Bill Clinton, would govern according to electability rather than conviction. If his chances for re-election increase by appealinig to moderates, he will govern moderately. If his chances for re-election increase by appealing to a right-wing base, he will govern as yet another right-winger. The right-wing base came out in droves for Nixon (arguably a social liberal), Reagan (who rebranded himself a moderate for his second term), and George W. Bush (who ran as a moderate in his first election). Why would they not come out for Romney?

The very educatedness of white people in my generation provides a bubble that shields them from the likelihood of the worst problems coming to fruition. They were raised on high expectations for what life will give them, and then see the fact that the first truly liberal government of their lifetime can’t provide them with stable employment or end wars, and think to themselves: ‘Why try to improve things? They can’t get any worse.’ Yes. They. Can. 8% unemployment is much better than 20%. A war that cost 5,000 lives is much better than a war that costs 500,000. A looming 15 trillion dollar deficit is much better than a national credit default. Each of these happened before in American history, and sooner than we think, they can happen again.

But, as Perlstein notes, the true reason to be worried comes from the Hispanic community - neither as educated nor as affluent, they see the Democratic party as the status quo. While the Republicans urge ever greater oppression of immigrants, the Democrats only seek that there be no more oppression than there already is. Even under the Obama administration, 397,000 immigrants were deported last year - the largest annual total in history. They refuse to identify as Democrats not because they think things can’t get worse, but because even at their best, it’s still not good enough. We, the whites, have failed them. And they are justly deserting us.

The demographics are on liberalism’s side. But no movement does a better job of self-sabotage than liberals. As Jonathan Chait pointed out many times, conservatives by their very definition value collective unity over individual expression, liberals value the obverse. Liberals, as always, have to be saved from themselves. The Obama movement was supposed to be the historical moment when liberals from all walks of life reunited to save America. But save the Obama administration itself, nobody in the Obama coalition was willing to save liberals from themselves. We are still awaiting the day when a movement arises that gives liberals the kick in the collective ass we so desperately need to get our house in order. Only then will the new generation come together to see a better world than what we currently have.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

800 Words: Chait vs. Perlstein, One on One for Your Nintendo Part 1

In the last two days, there have been two heavy, almost oracular pronouncements from perhaps the two hottest left-leaning commentators in today’s America. Yesterday, Jonathan Chait pronounced in New York Magazine that theocratic Republicans are making their last stand in 2012, because they woke up one day to find history no longer on their side. Today, Rick Perlstein pronounced that the Democratic party will remain in the minority so long as its younger generation remains in 'all-or-nothing' apathy.

In many ways, Jonathan Chait and Rick Perlstein comprise the two divergent strands of the new Democratic party. Both are liberals in every sense, but the former errs on the moderate side, the latter on the progressive.


(Jonathan Chait intellectually bitchslapping a conservative...as he often does)

For nearly ten years, I’ve come close to idolizing Jonathan Chait. He’s a scarily articulate journalist in the manner of Michael Kinsley who always puts facts and substance before ideology and passion. Whereas many magazine analysts think that passion and commitment are the most important parts of articulating a point of view, Chait understands that politics is ultimately a very boring thing - primarily a matter of statistics and bureaucracy - but it is up to the journalist to make this extremely boring subject interesting for the readers. He is the ultimate in prudence, good sense, and not taking politics too seriously - but it also helps that he’s really, really funny. He was trained at The New Republic, the most wonkish, sensible magazine in America - often to a fault and well past it. But in many ways, Chait was the ‘runt’ of the bunch, condescended to as a bit of a clown while they were producing much more serious writers. Whereas TNR’s other ‘wonks’ went to top-flight schools, Chait came out of the University of Michigan. Whereas Peter Beinart would hammer points home by quoting ‘very serious’ older pundits like Arthur Schlesinger, Jonathan Chait would toss off points by quoting The Simpsons or Arrested Development. Whereas Michael Crowley would quote a dizzying array of facts and figures, Jonathan Chait would leaven the data overload with an incontrovertible historical or philosophical comparison that illuminated the issue perfectly. Whereas Ryan Lizza would plumb the depths of journalistic fact-finding on all sorts of political figures, Chait would deal fundamentally with how they fit into the larger scene. Chait’s writing may not have been as serious in the traditional journalistic ways, but he was a much, much more engaging writer than nearly all his peers. For politicos, reading most other TNR writers was a obbligation, but reading Chait was pure pleasure. His one book, ‘The Big Con’, tells the story of how the Republican Party of the 70’s came to be hoodwinked into believing crackpot economic theories like supply-side economics and the benefits of deficit spending. To my thinking, it’s a political masterpiece - absolutely necessary reading for anyone who cares about the direction in which the USA is heading.

Rick Perlstein also spent time at The New Republic and the University of Michigan, but Perlstein’s path is very different. Whereas Chait marshals concepts in the pursuit of supporting facts, Perlstein marshals facts in the pursuit of supporting concepts. Chait is primarily a journalist and pundit, Perlstein is primarily an historian and an activist. Chait’s journalistic calling is to be the lighter pundit in ‘very serious’ publications like The New Republic and New York Magazine. Perlstein’s journalistic calling is to be the ‘very serious pundit’ in lighter magazines like Rolling Stone and the Huffington Post. Perlstein is as scarily well-informed as Chait, so much so that reading his writing can be an exercise in statistical overload. Like far too many historians, Perlstein starts with a theory and then collects his facts to support it. His 600 page tome, Nixonland, has become an unlikely manifesto for liberals around the country. It is a book which argues that all the demagogic fears of the Bush administration has its origins in the political playbook of the Nixon administration. In the manner which Perlstein frames it, it’s difficult to disagree with his thesis. But Perlstein overlooks a few simple facts that nearly destroy his argument. He portrays the liberals of Nixon’s time in an almost Manichean light as the acme of progress and demonstrates no sympathy for the fact that many Americans felt alienated by an ‘elite’ that gradually forgot the white working class. Still more damaging was his ignorance of the Reagan Presidency’s importance. Nixon may have provided the Bush administration’s techniques, but the Reagan presidency - particularly the first year or two - provided Bush’s ideology. It was Reagan, not Nixon, who showed that it was possible to govern America as a Movement Conservative. Far more persuasive, in my humble opinion, is Sean Wilentz’s book, ‘The Age of Reagan,’ released almost contemporaneously to ‘Nixonland.’ Wilentz is a Princeton Professor, and a traditional liberal who hates the Bush administration no less than Perlstein. One of his most famous articles was a 2006 Rolling Stone piece about Bush called ‘The Worst President Ever?’

For Chait, the mendacity of Republicans lies in their stupidity. For Perlstein, the mendacity of Republicans lies in their deviousness. In case it isn’t abundantly clear, I find myself much closer to Chait’s worldview than Perlstein’s. If there is one thing which thousands of years of political junkies have observed, it is that there is no limit to the stupidity of lawmakers. The truth remains that very few politicians have anything but the best intentions at heart. Indeed, the best intentioned politicians are often the most dangerous, because the more fervently they believe in their goals, the less scruples they will have about the often terrible prices which must be paid to enact them.

Yet this time, perhaps just this time, I found myself much more in agreement with Perlstein than with Chait. Why and how did this happen? That’ll be for tomorrow.

Click here for part two

St John's Night on Bare Mountain



In whatever form, it is such an utterly brilliant fragment: scary, cinematic, evil-sounding. I don't understand how the Rimsky arrangement, fine as it is, continues to eclipse either Mussorgsky arrangement in popularity. Rimsky made a cute tone poem.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

800 Words: We Don't Love Billy Crystal Anymore

The Academy, a body with 2% membership under 40, wants a younger demographic to watch their award ceremony. They hire Eddie Murphy, because by younger they mean that they want people who remember 1983. Eddie Murphy backs out, so they go back to Old Faithful, Billy Crystal.

I remember being excited for a Billy Crystal telecast. In 1991, I was nine years old and even I found him hilarious. He was the only reason to watch the world’s most boring award show. Yet every year I seem to end up watching it...why? Because it’s on TV. It’s never because I enjoy watching it. I’m not sure anybody actually enjoys it.

Think of how odd it is to do a song-and-dance at the Oscars in 2012. Hugh Jackman did it back in 2009, but he could sing, and it was to parodies of pop songs released in the viewers’ lifetimes. But when Billy Crystal does it, it’s simply a bad singer singing parodies of the Great American Songbook, an institution appreciated by no one under the age of 55 who doesn’t make a point of listening to things their parents liked. He’s met with nary a peep.

Billy Crystal just messed up a joke, stunned silence. So he did a rewind imitation to come back. Let’s think about that, nobody has rewound with sound since the age when film and sound recording was still reel-to-reel - a medium that hasn’t been common since the 1970’s. Stone silence.

At the beginning of the show, Billy Crystal made a joke about how Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is how his family watches the show. It’s a Jewish joke, you either get it or you don’t get it. After the Cirque du Soleil show, he said ”We've got puppets, acrobats, we're a pony away from being a Bar Mitzvah.” Cricket...cricket...cricket...

The age difference between Billy Crystal and Jon Stewart is fourteen years. Jon Stewart is resolutely in 2012, Billy Crystal is stuck in 1955. In 1991, the world still found him hilarious. Billy Crystal may have fancied himself a movie star, but he was the best reminder of the ‘Golden Age of Television’ which we had. But now that we've experienced a true Golden Age of Television, what reason do we have to venerate Sid Caesar and Playhouse 90?

If Crystal understood his career, he would have followed Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show. No comedian would have better balanced the need to generate revenue with actually producing a good show. Billy Crystal is everything Jay Leno is; professional, personable, tasteful, obsequious....only he’s funny. For over half-a-century, Television, the most Jewish of all art-forms, lacked the one star that would cap all the early Jewish achievements in show business - a successful Jewish Tonight Show host.

Johnny Carson was a righteous gentile, perfectly able to hold his own with dozens of Jewish comedians. But so long as a kid from Nebraska was the host, The Tonight Show was the most goyish institution on television - full of psychic predictions, magic tricks, and hillbilly jokes. But he was the King, and the only way to anoint a successor was to give it over to someone who evokes nostalgia for a time when a King was necessary. There were only two comedians who could have ruled TV in the same way Johnny Carson did: Billy Crystal and Jerry Seinfeld. Billy Crystal was a ‘film star’ in the last era when film still had prohibitive cache for its stars to regularly be seen on TV, so he was thought to be unthinkable. But people forget that it was Jerry Seinfeld, not Letterman, whom NBC groomed as Carson’s probable heir throughout the late 80’s.

Thanks to Billy Crystal, our parents’ childhood memories of Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, George Burns, Jack Benny, Ernie Kovacs, and Henny Youngman had a living relic. Everything which those old comedians were: the willingness to try anything, the manic desire to entertain, the sense that nothing mattered more than pleasing the audience (not to mention the subtle Jewish in-jokes which we love and make the Goyim feel exotic), are sentiments almost utterly gone from contemporary comedy. Most of us not only find it unfunny, most of us aren’t even aware that people once found it funny. What a difference twenty years makes.

Billy Crystal wants to turn back the clock to Bob Hope, but the world moved on to Ricky Gervais. What use is Billy Crystal’s affectionate prodding in a time when Ricky Gervais can accuse award shows of corruption and stars of secret homosexuality to an audience of hundreds of millions, and be invited back? What matters in today’s comedy is that we believe what the comedian tells us. The more awkward, painful, and ‘real’ a comedian is, the more we laugh. We no longer want comedians who delight us. We know too many dark secrets about our society to merely be entertained. From Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce on, we’ve wanted comedians who defiantly proclaim how disgusted we are with the lives around us. From Sahl and Bruce, we get a natural line of succession to Woody Allen and Bill Cosby, to George Carlin and Richard Pryor, to Joan Rivers and Eddie Murphy, to Bill Hicks and Sam Kinison, to Mitch Hedberg and Chris Rock, to Jon Stewart and Dave Chappelle, to Louis CK and Ricky Gervais. If we get any more disgusted with our society, the great comedian of the next era will be Doug Stanhope.


(Doug Stanhope on Sarah Palin. Do not click on this unless you really, REALLY mean it)

But when Billy Crystal takes the stage, we can pretend that all this history no longer exists. Billy Crystal was funny when there was still a possibility to turn back the clock. But now that there isn’t, how is all this still funny?

Saturday, February 25, 2012

800 Words: Hamlet Rant

I think I’ve always preferred the comedies to the tragedies. What Shakespeare gained in depth, he also gained in longueurs and confusion. Shakespeare learned tragedy, but he was a born comedian. Whereas I love A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night in their totality and would not throw out a moment of them, I’ll take isolated scenes and passages from Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear and love them to death as so many others do. But the thought of watching any of the three uncut is enough to put me to sleep. Those plays need a production from a thoughtful, non-intrusive director who still realizes that Shakespeare needs a bit of help. The only one of the mature tragedies that retains all of Shakespeare’s most profound insights into human nature yet still has unstoppable momentum is Macb*th (yes, I’m always afraid to say it or spell it out, theater or no theater. I do not believe in superstition, yet so many odd things occurred while I was present when Macb*th came up that I don’t ever want to chance fate again). Earlier tragedies like Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet are great works too, and while they have all the unstoppable momentum which the later tragedies lack (ok,...maybe Julius Caesar doesn’t), even Romeo and Juliet falls short of the mature tragedies in their most magnificent scenes - and at least Hamlet doesn’t have Friar Laurence ...yech!



Like Beethoven’s 9th, only a great recreative mind can successfully interpret Hamlet, a play which can seem so confusing on the page. For years, there were so many passages in Hamlet I found confusing. If Hamlet goes mad, why do his insults seem so precisely aimed? Why does Gertrude seem completely sympathetic to Hamlet by the end of the bedroom scene, only to turn on Hamlet later and allege that he’s completely insane. Why does Polonius seem like such a blithering idiot in his dealings with everybody but Laertes? Why does Laertes so quickly buy the testimony from Claudius that Hamlet killed Laertes, and why does Laertes so quickly turn on Claudius and become sympathetic to Hamlet before he dies? And why does the Claudius/Laertes scene have thirty lines of talking about fencing celebrities???

Or at least, most of these were questions I still had until I lived in London and saw Trevor Nunn’s modern dress production of Hamlet at the Old Vic - one of the great revelations of my life. Finally, Hamlet was a play that made sense. Hamlet’s half-madness was no longer confusing, it was simply eccentricity - a method for a depressed twenty-something to gain self-respect. Gertrude might publicly tow Claudius’s line, but by Act IV she views Claudius with revulsion. Whereas Hamlet was a self-loathing adolescent, Laertes was a self-posessed jock - as prone to quick but stupid action as Hamlet is to over-hesitant prudence. I don’t doubt that there are many other valid ways to interpret Hamlet, but Nunn made a series of interpretive choice that clarified the text for me. Was it exactly what Shakespeare had in mind? Who cares.


(exhibit A as to why people should not direct themselves in Shakespeare)

We’ve all seen terrible Hamlets, Shakespeare’s invited bad actors and directors to murder him for 400 years. But occasionally we see the same terrible Hamlet. If Hamlet is difficult to bring off on stage, it’s nearly impossible to bring him off on screen. Unfortunately, most of the actors who’d possess the drive and ambition to bring their own Hamlet to the screen are automatically bad Hamlets, because they radiate far too much self-belief to be believable as considerate introverts. Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet has brilliant moments, yet it remains a disaster. Nobody wants to watch an uncut Hamlet, let alone a Hamlet that seems charismatic enough to be Henry V. Every one of that movie’s 241 minutes is so over-controlled that we cannot ever forget that we are watching Kenneth Branagh. It’s not Shakespeare, it’s four hours of watching ‘the Great Shakespearean Actor’ (emphasis on the ‘o’) Kenneth Branagh, interpret, and interpret, and interpret Shakespeare for us. In his review of the movie, the critic Stephen Hunter quipped that Hamlet should be renamed ‘Ken.’


(A Hamlet who knows how to act for the camera...)

As the “greatest play ever written” Hamlet attracts egomaniacs like magnet attracts metal. This is why it’s always nice to see a Hamlet in which the director doesn’t actually appear on screen. Even if he’s not my favorite among the ‘filmed’ Hamlets (that would be Nicol Williamson), the best of the movie ‘Hamlet’s is Mel Gibson. The movie which surrounds him isn’t very good at all, and Gibson is certainly an egomaniac, and he’s also insane enough to be a natural Hamlet. After watching Olivier, Burton, Kline, and Branagh put the ‘ham’ in Hamlet, it’s nice to see an actor that knows better than to preen about like an untamed gazelle. Mel Gibson is many things, but among them is also one of the most talented screen actors the world has ever seen. Along with Nicol Williamson and Derek Jacobi, he’s one of the few Hamlets I can watch on screen that don’t make me want to throw the television through my window.


(Scofield. Among the best...)

Even among the loose baggy monsters in Shakespeare, Hamlet is not my favorite. King Lear is simply a better play. It has far fewer dry passages, and in place of a single character through which the entire play filters, it has a dozen characters of roughly equal importance, any one of which is more interesting than any of Hamlet’s supporting players. Hamlet ends in a twenty minute fencing match gone awry, Lear ends with two hours of apocalyptic war. Even at Hamlet’s most profound, funniest, most entertaining, Lear is there to best Hamlet every time. So if monsterpieces are your cup of tea, why is Hamlet everybody’s favorite play when Lear is not just better, but bigger?


(Kozintsev Hamlet....easily the best)

In place of a dozen leads, Hamlet has two fascinating characters: Hamlet and Elsinore. Hamlet is an amazing character stuck in an almost completely cliched Shakespeare play. The only other true interest in the play besides Hamlet himself is how Hamlet came to be who he was: how did the court at Elsinore shape Hamlet? And conversely, how does Hamlet come to shape the court at Elsinore? In this way, the Branagh Hamlet scores much better on the Elsinore front than it does on the Hamlet front. But even Branagh must take a back seat to Grigory Kozintsev’s Hamlet - a mid-60’s Soviet film performance of Hamlet directed by Grigory Kozintsev, translated and adapted for the screen by Boris Pasternak and scored by Dimitri Shostakovich (talk about A-list talent...). Kozintsev’s movie is easily the best of the screen Hamlets which I’ve seen. Any movie Hamlet should realize that even the best Hamlet’s portrayal will be a pale shadow of the power he casts in the theater. A movie Hamlet rides upon how well Elsinore is filmed. Not the castle, but all the details of the court itself. Each of the supporting players must be competent, but they also must be directed with enormous detail. By a million miles, the Soviet Hamlet’s Elsinore is the most intricate, most decadent, most ruinous ever put to celluloid. In both Kozintsev’s Hamlet, Shakespeare perhaps became a coded statement about the nature of the Soviet Union and how easily such a burly edifice could crumble.


(The best...)

But then again, Kozintsev made a King Lear half a decade later, and I just watched it for the first time. If Kozintsev’s Hamlet is magnificently dark and tragic, then his Lear is positively cataclysmic. If the Kozintsev Hamlet is about how a corrupt society can can decay into ruin, then his Lear is about how a ruined society can come to dissolve into ash. It has all the bleak intimacy of the Paul Scofield King Lear, and all the bleak pageantry of Kurosawa’s Ran. I used to think the Kozintsev Hamlet was the best of the Shakespeare movies. Now I’m pretty sure, the Kozintsev King Lear is on another level entirely....

...until I see the Orson Welles Shakespeare movies again, or Throne of Blood, or the Zefferelli Romeo and Juliet, or the Ian McKellen Richard III, or the Olivier Henry V, or the Branagh Henry V, or Forbidden Planet, or ‘O’, or the Placido Domingo Otello, or the Trevor Nunn Twelfth Night, or the Anthony Hopkins/Bob Hoskins Othello, or the John Cleese Taming of the Shrew, or the Derek Jacobi Hamlet, or the Nicol Williamson Hamlet, or the Brando/Mason/Gielgud Julius Caesar, or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, or The Lion King, ...y’know there are a lot of good Shakespeare movies out there. There are just more that suck.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Friday Playlist #4

Vassar Clements & Del McCoury Band & fiddlin' army: Orange Blossom Special



Jascha Heifetz: Sarasate Carmen Fantasy



Stephane Grappelli: How High The Moon



Itzhak Perlman/Pinchas Zukerman: Handel/Halvorsen Passacaglia in g-minor



Slainte: Celtic Fiddle Set



Gypsy Devils:



Advanced Playlist:

Nigel Kennedy: Elgar Violin Concerto in b-minor, with the BBC Concert Orchestra Conducted by Paul Daniel



Just listen to this performance and try to tell me that this is not the greatest of all violin concertos.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

800 Words: Where's Osvaldo? A 'Lament'


(The beginning of La Pasion)

This isn’t a post to wring hands about watching Osvaldo Golijov, a personal hero of mine, be accused of plagarism. It’s simply to lament him. Golijov, like me, came from a Yiddish speaking immigrant family with many relatives who perished in the gas chambers, and with extensive family connections in Israel, America, and Argentina. He is ‘my composer.’ When I listen to Golijov’s music, I don’t hear anything exotic, I hear something that sounds like home.

When I first heard La Pasion Segun San Marcos, I genuinely concluded that this was the great composer of our era: my century’s Bach or Beethoven. This was a piece of music that completely changed the way I thought about music. Just to be sure that I wasn’t letting my personal tastes get in the way, over the years I’ve convinced at least half-a-dozen friends to listen to the work in its entirety. And in nearly every case, the reaction seemed as wildly enthusiastic as mine.

Finally, here was a piece of music that spoke with absolute directness to my life experience and worldview in a way that very little other music does. Much as I love both Mozart and James Brown, I listen to them and hear the soundtrack of somebody else’s life. Some music, like the music of Viennese Classicism or Motown Soul, feels like the music of people I might have liked, but it’s not my music. When I listen to Golijov, as only also happens when I also listen to some Mahler, some Janacek, some Bartok, a bit of Mussorgsky and Stravinsky, some Benny Goodman, a bit of Sinatra, a bit of Johnny Cash, a few Leonard Cohen songs (often if not sung by him), a bit of Heberw cantillation, some Black Spirituals, and a few songs by the gypsy band Taraf de Haidouks, I hear my own life reflected back and the reaction that is absolutely visceral. I can’t explain why this is. This is not a matter of taste, because taste would imply a critical reaction. It is a gut-level conviction that this music is absolutely right. Perhaps it helps that some these musicians are Jewish, but hardly all of them are (Mussorgsky was a genuine anti-semite) and there are plenty of Jewish musicians who don’t have this effect on me. But even among the rare few that do, I don’t know if there is any, not even Mahler, who have the same effect as Golijov.

And that is why I’m beginning to find the decline of Osvaldo Golijov heartbreaking. For years, I’d been holding out hope that Golijov will find his way back - surely, I reasoned, there would be more music to add to the soundtrack of my life. Declines like Osvaldo Golijov’s aren’t supposed to happen to musicians. Unlike poets or filmmakers, the ability for a composer to create one masterpiece is usually commensurate with the ability to create hundreds. Once you write your first masterpiece, you’re generally expected to carry on doing the same until you’re dead. Composition is an asocial, labor intensive activity, and history is littered with great composers who wrote their way into an early grave. Music lovers love to speculate about what great masterworks might have been written had Purcell, Mozart, Weber, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Bellini, Lili Boulanger, Gershwin, each lived to ripe old ages. It’s usually taken for granted that each would have bequeathed the world with three times as many masterpieces as they left us. It’s rarely mentioned as a possibility that their music might have gotten worse. And many of the ones who don’t decline simply stop writing music. While Rossini, Verdi, Elgar, Sibelius, Ravel, and Rachmaninov all lived to ripe old ages, they each spent decades of their golden years without releasing a note of new music. If they had something new to contribute, it must have been special indeed.

Most every film expert agrees that film is a young man’s medium: the list of directors whose later efforts pale in comparison to the earlier ones is endless: Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas are just the most famous in a list of contemporaries that has to include William Friedkin, Peter Bogdonavich, Oliver Stone, Jerry Lewis, Jonathan Demme (and that’s not including directors like Spielberg, Scorsese, Woody Allen and Godard whose later work has champions and enemies in equal measure. Most English professors would agree that Wordsworth, Whitman, Tennyson, Pound, Frost, and Auden all exhibited diminishing returns as they reached dotage. But how many clear cases are there of composers who similarly exhibited a similarly unambiguous decline? I can think of...William Walton, Leonard Bernstein...and now Golijov.

Of course, it may be far too soon to say. Golijov is only 51 and may yet have some of his greatest masterpieces ahead of him. But every year, it’s becoming harder and harder to believe it’s coming. First he pulls out of his Metropolitan Opera commission (in all fairness, his collaborator died), then he misses deadline after deadline, then each new piece becomes still more derivative of the piece that came before. One day, I’ll write something about the fact that Golijov’s approach music is much, much healthier than his accusers. But all this plagiarism accusation does is to hit home that it's increasingly unlikely.

The Evan Tucker Soundtrack (a snippet):

Mahler Symphony no 3: Scherzo -



Janacek: Cunning Little Vixen Finale



Mussorgsky: Song of the Flea



Bartok: Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion



Shostakovich: Symphony no. 13 (Humor)



Stravinsky: Petrouchka (Fourth Tableau)



Leonard Cohen: Who By Fire



Benny Goodman: Sing, Sing, Sing



Johnny Cash/Leonard Cohen: Like a Bird on a Wire



Leonard Bernstein: Candide (Make Our Garden Grow)



Frank Sinatra: One For My Baby



Nina Simone: Sinnerman



Yossele Rosenblatt: Shir HaMaalos



Taraf de Haidouks/Bartok: Romanian Folk Dances



Golijov: The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind

Monday, February 20, 2012

Sunday, February 19, 2012

800 Words: A Brief History of Film Music - John Williams - Culmination of the Silver Age


(The Planets. Whatever else it’s become, it’s a fantastic piece of music.)

Gustav Holst is the name you most often hear John Williams being accused of ripping off. Most of today’s music lovers remain dimly aware that a world of symphonic music exists beyond the two movements of it (Mars and Jupiter) they played in high school concert band. But since The Planets is a work heard by millions of people who barely know another note of classical music, it’s considered something approaching de rigeur to say that John Williams got his entire bag of tricks from that one piece. However, if you spend enough time among music snobs, you’ll hear accusations of Williams lifting from Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, Richard Wagner, Anton Bruckner, Erich Korngold, Miklos Rozsa, Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy, Antonin Dvorak, Gyorgy Ligeti, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Dimitri Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev, Paul Hindemith, Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Rachmaninov, Benjamin Britten, Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Jean Sibelius, Duke Ellington, John Philip Sousa, Elmer Bernstein, Leonard Bernstein, George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, .....eventually, you begin to think that the Williams ripoff list is nothing more than an honor roll of orchestral music.

Is John Williams a ripoff artist? Well, yes, yes he is. But that isn’t the right question. I look at the above list, and I can point to passages where most of these composers of ripped off other composers just as blatantly - and occasionally just as often. Plagiarism may not make for great scholarship, but it’s an under-regarded part of the creative process. Writers borrow heavily from other sources, and at their best they completely transform old material into something so different from the original as to be unrecognizable to any eye or ear that wasn’t searching for plagiarism in the first place. Many people say that this is a particularly fertile era for the transformation of old material, and give the process fancy academic names like ‘recontextualization’ or ‘intertextuality’ as though these are the latest revolutions to hit human thought. But what we now call recontextualization has been occurring since the first caveman performer described hunting a woolly mammoth. Reframing the context is one of the artist’s primary concerns, and if that process is ever mastered, it often takes a lifetime’s work to do.

So no, if John Williams is a ripoff artist, then so are Wagner, Mahler, and (especially) Stravinsky. John Williams’s music may sound like other people’s, but the way he uses other people’s music is totally original. Yet there’s another question, a perfectly legitimate one to ask, which doesn’t put John Williams in a very flattering light. Independently of the movies, can you listen to his music for pleasure, consolation, enlightenment?

Pleasure? Yes. I think so at least. But what kind of pleasure? Is it the high-minded pleasure one can derive from a Bach fugue or a Leonard Cohen song? Um...no. The pleasure of John Williams is the kind of pleasure one derives from drunkenly belting out Journey or The Eagles in a crowded bar. It’s overwrought, emotionally sappy, and simplistic for simplicity’s sake. If you’re looking for deeper meaning in John Williams, you’re just as dumb as you seem. And yet....

Rock fans can pretend to ironically listen to Journey thousands of times without ever admitting to each other that there's never been any irony there. In the exact same way I can listen to John Williams at least hundreds with that pretense to irony. But in an honest moment I have to reluctantly admit that in fact, there is something completely unironic about my response to this most unironic of composers.

Yes, by the standards of what we think of as concert music, the technique is threadbare, the music is not that inventive, and the emotions conveyed seem to have no ambiguity to them. Yet there is still something unmistakable in that small universe it conveys. It is a reminder of a world that you once thought uncomplicated by the insurmountable, a world before the banal was recognized as banal. It is music of penny-plain and cheap wisdom. But we all need to hear platitudes occasionally to be reminded of the truth that lies beneath them. It is music that reminds you of when you first discovered the rules of life that today seem so commonplace that you hardly think of them. But sometimes you need to hear those rules, if only to remember.

John Williams’s music is an important presence in the lives of every person who reads this post. There is not a single person among us untouched by Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, ET, Jaws, Close Encounters, Home Alone, Jurassic Park, etc. And no matter what we think of his music when taken out of the context of the movies, within the movies his music accomplishes exactly what it’s meant to, and does so brilliantly.

On the one hand, Williams is perhaps the most obvious throwback to 19th century romanticism among contemporary composers. In 2012, his orchestration still comes right out of Rimsky-Korsakov’s textbook, and he uses Wagner’s concept of the Leitmotif (think of the themes associated with all the different characters in Star Wars) more frequently and with greater skill than any composer since Wagner himself. On the other hand, there is a second Williams, far less commented upon, that reserves itself for smaller movies that strips itself of the Lucasian pomp and is replaced by moments of startling intimacy.


(Starts at 1:30)

To take just one example: remember the first futurist scene in A.I. (the one right after most people complained the movie should have ended)? The world has flashed forward 2000 years to a new ice age and watch as robots navigate a vessel through the ruins of New York so they might find David, Teddy, and their ship. To me, the power of this scene is overwhelming. I find this one of the most beautiful, disorienting, haunting scenes in all of Spielberg. As an audience member, we have no idea of where or what we are anymore, we can only sense that something terrible has happened and that we’re in for a shock.

Williams accompanies the scene with a wordless chorus that could have been lifted from Holst’s Neptune (the last movement of the Planets), singing harmonies that come almost straight from Holst’s Saturn. But it’s difficult to believe that more extraordinarily appropriate music could have been chosen for that scene. For a thousand years, the chorus has been the ideal vessel for music to address questions of eternity - questions that are both disturbing, illuminating, and strangely comforting. Whatever one’s opinion of A.I. (I like it), this scene contains as great a piece of film music as has ever been written, and a perfect example of ‘Silver Age’ film scoring in which composers use very unconventional methods to make better movies for a generation of unconventional moviemakers.

Williams was only one of a number of film composers to put us on a nostalgia trend - Marvin Hamlisch (think of The Sting’s Ragtime score) or Randy Newman (think of the Ragtime score for … Ragtime) but Williams is easily the greatest and most influential of them. He is the culmination of film music’s Silver Age in the same way that Bernard Hermann is the culmination of the Golden Age.

A very different kind of nostalgia existed in pop soundtracks. If classical soundtracks were a kind of nostalgia for a Golden Age of an American culture that was still dominated by Europe, then Pop soundtracks evoked a kind of nostalgia for the familiar music of the present day. The classicism of previous generations used to be both comforting and challenging, but its increasing distance from contemporary life came to seem both stuffy and disturbing. A 100-piece orchestra seemed the ultimate in largess, particularly for a generation coming to terms with independent financing, in which many of the best quality films were made quite cheaply. The most influential of these pop soundtracks was Mean Streets. Spielberg had John Williams, Martin Scorsese had the entire world of American music.

Click here for the scene that changed film music forever.

Obviously, Mean Streets was not the first soundtrack to use existing pop music. The Graduate and Easy Rider are only the most famous to predate Mean Streets. But Mean Streets’ use of pop music is more influential. Easy Rider and The Graduate were major releases. Mean Streets was done on Hollywood’s fringes. After Scorsese did it, it was acceptable for small independent films to not write their own music - and therefore instead of paying for lots of musicians, they only had to pay for the rights to the music. In the battle to make films independently from Hollywood, the Mean Streets soundtrack was one of the most decisive victories.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

800 Words: A Brief History of Film Music - The Silver Age Part 3


(Accompaniment to a Film Scene by Schoenberg...the film was never made)

One of the most interesting phenomena of film music was the differing attitudes of the greatest composers to it. One would expect that most ‘highbrow’ composers would think of film music as something intolerably vulgar, but that attitude was not nearly as pervasive as it might seem. Composers loved movies as did every other profession, both Schoenberg and Stravinsky lived their Golden years in Hollywood and were friends of many film stars. It was generally not the lowbrowness which they abhorred, it was the relinquishing of control. There’s a famous story about how Stravinsky met with Sam Goldwyn about the possibility of writing a four-movement symphony that would be accompanied by a film score. Everything seemed signed and sealed, until Goldwyn let slip the condition that each movement had to be a minute long. Thus ended Stravinsky’s Hollywood career.

But outside of the most rarefied composition circles, the attitude of the great composers to film scores was by and large accomodating. Earning good money to write music is not something to be lightly dismissed, particularly when a composer was ordered to do so by his government. In communist Russia, both Sergei Prokofiev and Dimitri Shostakovich wrote film scores that stand with their finest music.


(The Battle of the Ice from Alexander Nevsky...the greatest thing Prokofiev ever did?)

Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky is not a particularly good movie, but it is a war epic made with incredible aesthetic sophistication. Neither Kurosawa nor Kubrick nor the grand technicolor epics of the 50's would be possible without Alexander Nevsky’s example (whether that’s a good thing is for another day). If Nevsky still retains a raw viscral power, it’s in large part thanks to Prokofiev’s score, which is so good that it allows us to forget so much of the film’s ridiculousness. Prokofiev’s music, like Eisenstein’s movies, is a monument to pure craft - with effects that can make your hair stand on end, even if you’re never particularly moved.


(Shakespeare and Shostakovich, almost a partnership of equals.)

How different Prokofiev is from his great rival Shostakovich, in film scoring as in every other genre in which they wrote. Whereas Prokofiev wrote film music that perfectly fit virtuoso display, Shostakovich wrote film music whose interior power can hold its own with Shakespeare. Prokofiev’s technique was perfect, and almost perfectly empty. Shostakovich’s technique was great, but could also be faulty because he put it to the service of a far more ambitious artistic mission. Shostakovich two most famous film scores are for Shakespeare adaptations. In the mid-60’s, the Russian director, Grigory Kozintsev, made cinematic versions of Hamlet and King Lear that must stand as among the greatest Shakespeare adaptations ever put to film For my money, his Hamlet is the very greatest of all Shakespeare movies. The movie is an incredible marriage of acting, cinematography, script (of course), and music. For source material like this, only the very greatest composers could meet Shakespeare on his own terms. And Shostakovich still does not get his due as the very greatest composer of the 20th century. Just watch the above scene, the Ghost scene. We never see any more of the ghost’s face than his eyes, we don’t need to. It’s all described in Shostakovich’s music, in which he finds the perfect tone to capture the eerie otherworldliness, the terror, and the lurid fascination of this apparition.



Toru Takemitsu was not only the dominant composer of late 20th century Japan, he was also the dominant film composer. His most famous score is also a Shakespeare score, Ran, Kurosawa’s adaptation of King Lear. Ran is the Japanese word for chaos, and chaos is probably as good a one-word description of King Lear as exists. But Takemitsu’s music is precisely the opposite of chaos. No composer, not even Debussy or Webern, approaches the extreme delicacy of Takemitsu’s music. Even the most dramatic passages of Ran are accompanied by extrarodinarily still music. Rather than literally imitate the action in sound, Takemitsu seems to offer a kind of poetic commentary on the action.


(Agincourt)

Perhaps it’s the effect Shakespeare’s prestige, but many of the greatest classical composers did their best work in Shakespeare movies. Another great composer who excelled in Shakespeare movies was William Walton - who scored the Olivier movies. Walton’s music is a perfect counterpart to Olivier’s Shakespeare: dramatically flamboyant, highly nuanced, and quite bombastic. Both of them found themselves a bit out of their depth for Hamlet’s complexities, but were perfect vessels for the tub-thumping extravagance of Henry V. Years later, Olivier found himself (wrongly) uncertain about the quality of his Henry V, but he had no such qualms about Walton’s score, which he thought the best thing about the movie.


(Symphonic Suite from On the Waterfront. Yet another chapter of unfulfilled promise in the story of the greatest should have been composer in American history.)

Many other great composers wrote memorable film scores, including Aaron Copland, Georges Auric, Malcolm Arnold, Leonard Bernstein (his one score, for On The Waterfront, can easily convince you that he could have found a natural home in Hollywood) and more recently John Corigliano and Philip Glass. Nor were the greatest film composers always relegated to the soundtrack - Erich Korngold, Miklos Rozsa, Franz Waxman, and Elmer Bernstein all wrote somewhat successful concert works. Even if Nino Rota was probably the only composer to achieve something approaching equal emminence in both fields, the dividing line between one type of composer and the other was never as bifurcated as people say it was.


(in all it’s glory......, its a nice theme though.)

But a completely different type of great composer is to be found in Vangelis Papathanassiou. Simply known as ‘Vangelis’ to most people, he is one of the first truly legendary composers of electronic music. And during the fifteen year period that Hollywood largely gave its movies to electronic scores, no film composer found himself more in demand. This is partially where I have to admit to some limits to my knowledge. It’s not that I don’t know enough about Vangelis, though I probably don’t. I’ve just never seen Blade Runner, which is both his most famous score and one of the most influential movies of the last half-century (you have fifteen seconds to hiss before moving to the next sentence). Vangelis’s other most famous contribution to film scoring is the much-loved, much-abused theme to Chariots of Fire, as heard in every soft-rock compilation album of the last thirty years.

Click here to redeem Vangelis a little bit.

Jurowski/Beethoven



Right on the metronome mark for nearly ten minutes, almost all the little details emerging with crystal clarity. No rubato, no 'artificial' excitement from accelerations or an overly fast tempo, only one unfortunate unmarked dip to piano for a crescendo. All that's left is an incredible amount of excitement, pure unadulterated Beethoven. I don't know if Jurowski will be the greatest conductor of his generation, but he has to be the most talented.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Friday Playlist #3

Otis Redding: Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay



(When I play this song, I do the Ocean noises.)

Romano Stilo Ensemble: Hrajte mi cig√°ni (Gypsy song)



Philip Glass: Floe



Gogol Bordello: Immigraniada



Doug Meek and Bobby Hicks: fiddlin'



Scott Joplin: Solace



Advanced Playlist: Bach - St. John Passion
Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Hall of Underrated Music #1 Grazyna Bacewicz



Somewhere between Bartok and Honnegger lies

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

800 Words: Ten Hours of My Life Spent Arguing With Philip Glass

Hour 1

Minute 1: This is really interesting. Nice chord progressions, nice rhythmic variations. He looks like he can really do something with this.

Minute 5: Wow, this is really fantastic, all the patterns are well-developed and keep morphing.

Minute 10: So that’s the whole point of the piece eh?

Minute 15: I hope I remembered to put the milk back in the refrigerator.

Minute 20: He really is still going with this...

Minute 25: What am I doing here?

Minute 30: Please God, smite me, smite me now. Whatever I did to deserve this, I’m sorry.

Minute 35: All I need is a toaster and a bathtub.

Minute 40: Wow, I get it! This is a Buddhist meditation on transitory consciousness, it doesn’t matter whether we listen fully or not. That’s brilliant!

Minute 45: Still Buddhist...

Minute 50: That guy with the long beard in the front row is really into this.

Minute 55: What am I?

Minute 60: CEGCEGCEGCEGCEGCEGCEGCEGCEGCEGCCGGCCGGCCGGCCGGEGAEGAEGAEGAEGAEGAGEGAGEGAGEGAGEGEAGEGAEGAECEGAGECEGAGECEGAGECEGAG

Hour 2:

Summer 2003. Philip Glass is coming to Columbia to give a recital of his music. My roommates are Glass fans of a fashion - they all know Einstein on the Beach and we entertain ourselves late into the night with impromptu musical recreations of its most memorable (I provide the music, they provide the poetry). We all plunk down $30 - a fortune for college underclassmen - pile into my purple Buick Century (The Purple People Eater) and go to Columbia.

What follows is the biggest musical letdown imaginable. Glass goes to his piano, plays through an hour of generic pieces with arpeggiated triplets in the right hand against a duplet bass-line. Every piece sounds as though it could just as easily bewritten by Enya or a high school beginner. My friends slump further and further into their seats, every one of them asleep by the end. After my horror subsides, so does my ability to stay alert, and I fall asleep too. At intermission, we consider...for the second half? Five minutes later, we’re all back in my car with AC/DC blasting from my stereo.

Hour 3:



Fall 2000: I’m on the bus for a Hyde cross country meet. My friend ‘Dov’ is very into Philip Glass. I tell him I’ve been trying to listen to Glass since I was a kid. I still don’t get it. He gives me the Glassworks CD - six easily digestible tracks of Philip Glass designed to put him squarely into the David Bowie market - not a single track over eight minutes long and hardly any developed in the usually inimitable Glass fashion. To my astonishment, I have never enjoyed a Glass piece more than this one, before or since. This is a piece designed for pleasure, nothing more, and certainly nothing less.

Hour 4:

Knock Knock

Who’s There?

Philip Glass. Knock Knock....

Hour 5.

Some composers treat compositional rigor as a nice byproduct - far more important to them is melody, harmonic originality, and rhythmic variety. But then there are those composers for whom the form of the piece is the thing in itself. Bach was such a composer, so were Beethoven, Wagner, Brahms, Schoenberg, Sibelius, Glass and Reich. Handel was not, neither were Schubert, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Stravinsky, Messiaen and Berio. Mozart wasn’t either, but he happened to have a perfect sense of rigor inborn.


(da da da daaaaaaaa)

From the era of Haydn and Beethoven, we have what’s called motivic development. Motivic development is the idea that a piece of music can be developed from a single cell, all that’s required are half a dozen notes or less to gather an infinite number of potential permutations. Think of the da-da-da-daa from Beethoven’s 5th, repeated (if memory serves) 512 times over the course of the movement - each time a little bit differently. After Beethoven, the meaning of motivic development went in two different directions. In Wagner, it became leitmotivic development - every small cell became connected to an extra-musical idea that represented a character, object, emotion, or idea from one of his operas. Thanks to Wagner, music then became something that could explain absolutely anything. And since music was thought able to explain absolutely anything, it became a Rorschach test for the desires of whoever explained the music - programs were appended which had nothing to do with the piece but everything to do with the person who wrote the program.


(a chain of thirds is all it takes to build Brahms 4)

In Brahms, motivic development became developing variation. Like Beethoven with motivic development, Brahms did not invent developing variation, but he did perfect it. Thanks to Brahms, we still believe that one tiny musical cell with a little bit of harmony underneath is all it takes to provide all the material necessary for an hour’s worth of music. It provides all the material necessary for logic, continuity, contrast and variety - and can therefore be emotionally expressive without expressing anything concrete. Thanks to Brahms, the 19th century question of whether or not music needs to express extra-musical things to express anything at all is a resounding ‘No!’ The form of the music carries is its own expression, and needs no extra-musical description to tell us what it expresses. After Brahms, the meaning of developing variation went in two different directions.

In Schoenberg, who coined the phrase ‘developing variation’, this process became ‘serial theory’ (you got a better definition?). Schoenberg took the principle of developing variation to such an extreme that musical theory became as much science as music - creating all sorts of mathematical formulas to explain new possibilities of music which previous generations of musical geniuses had to search for unconsciously. But as with Wagner’s leitmotifs, the process Schoenbeg created was of its time, not for all time. It created music of baffling complexity, yet the pleasure of the listener was of secondary importance. If Wagner’s influence lead music to too many questions of what music can express, Schoenberg’s influence lead music to too few.


(Sibelius transitions effortlessly, merging all four movements of a symphony into 1)

If in Brahms, development was a constantly occurring process, then in Sibelius, development became the entire point of the composition. I’d never heard this term before, but Kenneth Woods brilliantly termed it ‘transitional development,’ in the case of Sibelius, the themes are constantly transitioning into one another - in a process so effortless that you barely notice it. Thanks to Sibelius, the artificial, rather arbitarary boundaries of classical form are no longer necessary. Symmetry and a sense of completion were now less important than what one finds along the journey. For the first time in modern musical history, composers did not need a sense of symmetry in order for a piece to feel organically developed. In at least one sense, Sibelius took the training wheels off form.

Hour 6:

Perhaps I’m missing a generation between Sibelius and Glass, but I’d be hard-pressed to name the figure that links between them. After Sibelius, development became the most fruitful pursuit in musical form. In his best work, Glass did away with the next arbitrary barrier. Sibelius, even at his most concentrated kept the constructs of traditional symphonic works - even in the seventh symphony, there are passages resembling an opening movement, scherzo, slow movement, and finale. But there is no such transition in Blass. The development never arrives anywhere, it is development and only development.

Glass is best known for repetition, and at his least rigorous, his music is mere repetition. At his most rigorous, it’s a kaleidoscopic panoply of development. No two seconds of music are the same, with music that constantly changes. the technique on display is dazzling, but after a while is it anything more than technique?

Like Wagner and Schoenberg before him, Glass is an end in himself. After this sort of harmonic stasis is achieved, where does the music go? How many hours of this stasis do we listen to after we get the point? You either find this stasis brilliant, or you don't. It’s this reason that, like Wagner and Schoenberg, Glass’s music tends to divide people into the believers and the infidels.

Just as Wagner had his antipode in Brahms and Schoenbeg had his in Sibelius, Glass has an antipode. But his is far less remote, it’s his former collaborator Steve Reich. If Glass’s music can be defined by the absence of event, then Reich’s music puts events back into music. In Reich, there is just as much kaleidoscopic development, but it’s development with a difference. In Reich, development once again has and ending goal. The end goal is usually simple, perhaps a key change from B-Flat to E-flat and back again, but because it’s so simple, it seems absolutely momentous - all it takes after that incredible technical sophistication is one little harmonic event to make all the difference.

Glass is probably the most influential composer for the newest generation of American composers. But his musical style is exactly what it was in 1976, whereas Reich grows ever more inventive, ever more profound, as he reaches old age. The present belongs to Glass, the future belongs to Reich.

Lots of musicians - never geniuses but very talented ones - mine the same idea for their entire careers. It's not in them to adapt to new times or new styles. Music meant exactly the same thing for them in 1965 as it does in 2012. They hang on to a set idea of what great music must be and they think any divergence from that idea somehow cheapens the art. And because their idea of music never changes, they see music not as an infinite series of possibilities but as a 2-D model that can be mastered. So whenever they encounter genius, the same story ensues: the genius takes their musical contribution, assimilates it into his/her musical vocabulary, and then moves on to soak up different influences, and then the mere talent cries bloody murder. This is the mindset of Wynton Marsalis to Miles Davis, the mindset of Pete Seeger to Dylan, the mindset of Boulez to Messiaen, and one day we might find out that the reason for the quarrel between Glass and Reich was precisely this. Glass is a composer of destruction, Reich of creation.

Hour 7:



Thanks to Kyle’s Mom’s usual ability to inflame people’s moral righteousness, South Park Elementary has to strip the Christmas pageant of all Christian overtones. The result is the Happy Non-Offensive Non-Denominational Christmas Play with Music and Lyrics by New York Minimalist Composer Philip Glass.

As usual, South Park’s aim was 100% accurate. Try and tell me that Glass’s music is not the ultimate in blandly non-offensive music for the politically correct. On the one hand, it is an amazing achievement - with a concentration of technique and beautiful sounds that can last for hours on end. On the other hand, it is completely empty - divested of meaning, expressing no emotion deeper than its own patterns. It is music both formidably great and stupefyingly empty.

Hour 8:

“When righteousness withers away and evil rules the land, we come into being, age after age, and take visible shape, and move, a man among men, for the protection of good, thrusting back evil and setting virtue on her seat again.”

These are the final lines of Philip Glass’s opera, Satyagraha. They were the words with which Philip Glass chose to address the crowd at Occupy Wall Street’s Lincoln Center Protest after the final performance of his opera: Satyagraha. True to form, he repeated it three times. It’s a statement with all the crypticness of a Papal Blessing. Within it lay an empty gesture of resistance and hypocrisy from a very wealthy man. A perfect display of radical chic over liberal substance - more concerned with the appearance of resistance than affecting any change.

Yet what do these lines mean in plain English? Is it to say that the world is a sick place? Well, yes, of course it is. That we’re forged by terrible times to make the good among us take a stand for righteousness? Perhaps, I hope so. But it’s the ‘away’ that bothers me. Is the opera then saying that there is no righteousness? That the world is so sick and beyond redemption that we have to take all the existing models down and rebuilt the world from scratch? I feel like I’ve heard this before. Wasn’t this the message of the Ring Cycle, in which the old world is destroyed and a new, pristine world emerges in its place, reborn by the power of love? I feel like we’ve all seen this opera before, and it didn’t end well for anybody....

Hour 9:



Music for Changing Parts - Gorgeous, dazzling, the definition of virtuosity. Boring, boring, boring. Repeat for forty-five minutes.



Music in Twelve Parts - Like the Ring Cycle and Brahms 1, one of the founding pillars of the new era with Music for 18 Musicians. Maybe you have to go further back, a new Well-Tempered Clavier? Brian Eno’s sober brother? Arvo Part on vicodin? Art Blakey for the John Tesh crowd? A delirious haze of cloudy textures, demanding you conform yourself to its pace before you snap out of it screaming for mercy only so it can ease you back in again. Then the changes between sections come on like a mixture of roller coaster and Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. Is it a good trip or a bad trip? Either way the Green Mile can seem so long...



Akhnaten: It’s certainly stylized enough to be Grand Opera. Like everything else, staggering one minute, agonizing the next.



Koyaanisqatsi - At least there’s something to look at. With images, it seems to mean something. I’m not entirely sure what but I’m entertained.



Einstein on the Beach - An American myth, the Ring Cycle in one night. Mesmerizing, maddening, life-changing and banal all at once. The perfect musical reply to Andy Warhol. Sculpting art from the bullshit banalities of everyday life. Is it pure world-altering genius, a morally repulsive repudiation of everything we hold dear in art, or just dumb as hell? I have no idea.

Hour 10:

Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, Bill Evans, Charles Mingus, Coleman Hawkins, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, Max Roach, Oscar Peterson, Freddie Hubbard, Ron Carter, Dexter Gordon, Herbie Hancock, Clifford Brown, Paul Chambers, Elvin Jones, Wes Montgomery, Allen Toussaint, Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, Paul Simon, Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Randy Newman, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Bill Haley, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Lou Reed, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Lieber & Stoller, Johnny Cash, George Jones, Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette, Ralph Stanley, Earle Scruggs, Phil Spector, Carl Perkins, Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Loretta Williams, Eartha Kitt, Al Green, James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, Isaac Hayes, Ashford & Simpson, Bock & Harnack, Kander & Ebb, and Stephen Sondheim.

These are some of the most important pre-boomers of American music. Perhaps a greatest generation of American musicians? When the dust clears and all these musicians are long gone, will Glass and Reich be anything more in this hall of fame but the least important?

Monday, February 13, 2012

800 Words: A Brief History of Film Music - The Silver Age Part 2


(The ghost of Alban Berg presides over these California teenagers)

The first of the ‘silver age’ composers was probably Leonard Rosenman. The same year he did the score for The Cobwebb he also scored two James Dean movies, Rebel Without a Cause and East of Eden. Rebel Without a Cause is one of the first film scores in which jazz and atonal composition screams from out the soundtrack into the mainstream of musical discourse. There was jazz and atonality before Rosenman, not least in the scores of Bernard Hermann, but the presence of these more modern styles was always rather incidental and sanitized, more Tin Pan Alley than Jazz, more Salome than Schoenberg. Rebel Without a Cause was one of the first movies to address the theme of American teen angst, and a new generation required new music. But one of the ironies of Rebel Without a Cause was that this was a movie about young people made for an older generation. In order to explain the youth of their day, the movie required the music of an older generation. The result was a thorough melange of Schoenberg and Ellington for score about a thoroughly Rock’n Roll generation.

It should follow that once the model for how to compose film music was broken, there would be lots of new models for how to write it. And since there was no longer set way to compose music, composers from around the world could create new models, far more personal than what came before.



The most traditional of the new composers hailed from Western Europe. All one has to think of is how David Lean used the swelling strings of Maurice Jarre’s Lawrence of Arabia score, or the thumping martial rhythms of Malcolm Arnold’s score for The Bridge Over the River Kwai, to see that the traditional film score of Rosza and Waxmann was very much alive. And yet, even from Britain came John Barry. Like Jarre or Elmer Bernstein, Barry could write extremely facilely in the Korngold model. But he combined that with a Mancini-like appetite for hard driving rhythm and dissonant jazz chords from blaring brass. When one hears the Goldfinger soundtrack, a person of our generation immediately thinks of Austin Powers. Yet it was John Barry who provided the strings + big band combination of old world elegance and new world brashness that immediately makes us think of James Bond.



But perhaps the most memorable of the new model film composers hailed from Italy. If the ‘spaghetti westerns’ of Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood have a truly American feel, it is in large part due to Morricone’s contribution. Morricone had (has) a better feel for what makes music sound American than nearly any American film composer. Whereas the Western scores of yesteryear made a curt nod in the direction of American folk music, Morricone’s spare scoring virtually forwent the European orchestra in favor of the insturmental combos one generally finds in America, writing melodies for them that sound as much a part of the American West as sarsaparilla.


(The Bouzouki theme to Zorba the Greek. Both the movie and this theme are huge, largely forgotten hits of the 60’s.)

A similarly uncanny, though very different, folk sensibility is found in the music of Mikis Theodorakis. Whereas Ennio Morricone had a chameleon-like ability to channel other parts of the world, Theodorakis’s music is utterly rooted in his native Greece - where he is considered a legendary composer and leftist political figure. Even in his score for the Al Pacino movie, Serpico, he has the electric guitar imitating the constant thrum of the Bouzouki, the Greek equivalent to a mandolin.


(the phrase is at 1 minute)

Before Italy gave the world Morricone, there was the not at all film-confined Nino Rota. Rota’s most important contribution to film music will always be as the preferred composer of Frederico Fellini, whose name Rota will always be as synonymous as Morricone’s is to Sergio Leone. But American audiences know Rota best as the composer of The Godfather. Like everything else about The Godfather, the score is absolutely extraordinary. To take just one example, listen to the music of what I think is the movie’s most extraordinary scene, when Michael visits his ailing father in the hospital after Vito was shot. When it dawns on Michael that there are no guards, and his father is vulnerable to a second assassination attempt, there is a brief brass chorale that is one of the most moving moments of film music I know. It’s just an eight-bar phrase, yet it strikes an almost impossible balance so many conflicting emotions, perfectly depicting them all. Yet what’s still more amazing is how Rota the second half of this phrase recurs after Michael shoots Sollozzo and Officer McCluskey in the Italian restaurant. What was once muted and mournful becomes a fortissimo outburst, blaring and unmistakeably tragic - as though Michael's tragic destiny was formed at the phrase's first occurrence and sealed at the next. But it’s part of The Godfather, just another extraordinary moment in that extraordinary movie.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

800 Words: A Brief History of Film Music - The Silver Age Part 1

John Williams got me on a tangent. I’m deliberately working through the history of film music backwards. The reason for doing this in reverse order is that film music, perhaps more than any other type of music, has to work in familiar tropes. A composer who controls his own work can innovate everything he wishes from form to harmony to rhythm to color. But the art of the film composer is beholden to everything that’s already within the film. Film music is supposed to call associations to our mind that help explain plot, or characters, or ideas within the movie. As such, we already need the music which the score recalls within our head. If the Imperial March from Star Wars sounds particularly threatening to us, it’s in part because its sound was lodged within our heads from a hundred years before. Whether or not we realize it, those blaring six-three chords with insistent martial rhythms and menacing brass dissonances recall Hagen’s summoning of the Gibichungs from Wagner’s Gotterdammerung. 99% of the people who see Star Wars have never heard of Gotterdammerung. But by 1977, the nature of what that music means, first heard in 1876, is so lodged within our minds that when we hear that blaring dissonant brass and insistent rhythm, and we immediately think of something both martial and particularly evil (no army actually marches to dissonant music). You would think that the meaning is absolutely primal, but it isn't. We had to get that association from somewhere, and we probably get it from Wagner.


(give it 40 seconds)

As an older generation gave way to a new one, so did their music. Whereas Jazz was still something new and shocking in the 1930’s, it was perfectly familiar music to the 1950’s and 60’s. Jazz was the music with which our grandparents came of age, and each jazz standard had a lifetime’s worth of memories which could be recalled by hearing one particular song. As with all eras since the invention of film music, no artist is in a better position to exploit those memories than the film composer. In the next two entries, I will talk about the different composers of this era and how they responded to the challenge of finding that new/’old’ music for a new but now old generation.

The indispensible Pierro Scaruffi points to Leonard Rosemann’s score for Vicente Minelli’s The Cobwebb (1955) as the inauguarating the new Age of film scoring. Having neither seen nor heard the movie, I’m in no position to judge. But it's difficult to ignore the fact that something in the music began changing around 1955. Whereas Golden Age film composers like Korngold and Waxmann gathered inspiration from elephantine turn of the century scores by Mahler and Strauss, the Silver Age gathered inspiration from the musical developments of roughly 20 years later. When writing in a classical style, it was as likely to be derived from the pared-down, dissonant innovations of Schoenberg and Webern as not. But the scores were as likely to be drawn from the developments of jazz and Tin Pan Alley as from classical sources. Whereas the orchestra once contained the entire world of expression within it, the world now expressed itself with new instruments, new forms, and new genres. Film music had to move on accordingly.


(Huge orchestra or not, there is nothing as American as the theme to The Magnificent Seven)

To distinguish one from the other, Elmer Bernstein was often called Bernstein West while Leonard Bernstein was called Bernstein East. They were roughly the same age, looked alike, came from similar backgrounds, had similar brushes with radical politics, had a similar reluctance to devote themselves to concert composition, and had a similar universal talent for anything to which they applied themselves. Before he became a composer, Elmer Bernstein was a child actor and dancer who played Caliban in a Broadway production of The Tempest. Of his era’s great film composers, Bernstein was probably the most traditional. Bernstein loved huge orchestras as much as any golden age film composer. But whereas Korngold’s diatonic lushness puts us as much in mind of 1900’s Vienna as 1930’s LA, Bernstein’s open chords and syncopation's give his music a completely American feeling missing in Korngold. The instrumentation might not have been American, but rhythms, the harmonies and melodies, the general exuberance of his music absolutely was. Perhaps his music bears the same relationship to Korngold which Aaron Copland’s concert music bore to Gustav Mahler’s. As his career progressed, his appetite for largeness became such an anachronism that it worked best in comedies, where his larger-than-life music could be cued up to screen histrionics.


(You know...)

Whenever a film composer uses a combination of big band and cool jazz to suggest something louche and decadent, he channels Henry Mancini. Mancini is most famous for three things: 1. The Pink Panther Theme, 2. The melody to Moon River, 3. The Theme to Peter Gunn, a TV show that nobody’s heard of anymore, yet nearly everybody knows its guitar and saxaphone riff. While he was fully trained in classical music (he studied with Ernst Krenek), Mancini was truly the musician who brought jazz to Hollywood. Mancini was also one of the only film composers to be as successful outside of film as he was within it. In addition to his movie work, Mancini was a composer and arranger of pop music who had eight gold records. For many years, he was synonymous with a kind of easy listening music that is supposed to be tasteful but defines kitsch - a shame, because at his best Mancini brought a gritty edge to Hollywood music that gave films a newer sound than any other composer of his time.


(Chinatown)

My favorite among this generation of Hollywood composers was Jerry Goldsmith, whose scores I can listen to independently with pleasure. Goldsmith brought a very different jazz sensibility to film music. Mancini’s jazz sound was brashly, almost shockingly, new to the film world, whereas Goldsmith’s sensibility was subtly integrated into a much wider panoply of sound. Whereas Mancini branched out from film music, Goldsmith never seemed to want anything more than film - starting his career in the CBS mailroom and working his way to the top of his profession. When required, Goldsmith could out-Korngold Korngold. His music can have lushness to equal anything in a Golden era score, but with far more variety than any of theirs’. Goldsmith could turn out an incredible horror score like those for Planet of the Apes or Alien that channels the most Boulezian avant-garde, yet write scores that are pure Korngold for Star Trek films in their gigantic sweep and almost cartoonish depictions of exotic characters. But then, there is Chinatown. Goldsmith’s Chinatown score balances the line between so many elements so deftly that it has to be regarded as a true original in American composition. Unlike so much film music, which is supposed to derivative so that it calls associations to our mind that help explain the plot, the music in Chinatown is an equal, almost superior character to any within the script. Perhaps there is no Hollywood movie, not even from Hitchcock, in which a composer is so required to speak with his own voice. The score from Chinatown is one of the greatest pieces of music ever written in America.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Friday Playlist #2

John Williams: Cowboys Overture


This music means a lot more to good high school band players than it ever would to the jobbing musicians John Williams conducts. And the quality of the performanc just might surprise you.

Bill Monroe and Vassar Clements: Blue Moon of Kentucky



Elmer Bernstein - Magnificent Seven Opening



Earl Scruggs: Foggy Mountain Breakdown



click here to hear FMB played by 59 banjos

Ennio Morricone: For a Few Dollars More Theme



Old and In The Way: Midnight Moonlight



Advanced Playlist:

Mozart: Don Giovanni - Prague National Opera dir. by Sir Charles Mackerras

Thursday, February 9, 2012

800 Words: A Brief History of Film Music - The Bronze Age

Yesterday, I boldly pronounced that John Williams might be remembered as the last of the great film composers. Even as I wrote that, I knew it couldn’t possibly be true. There are plenty of great film composers working today, even if, to my thinking, most of them don’t quite compare to the best of generations past - not yet at least. To a large extent, it’s not their fault. It’s not the standard of Hollywood music that declined, it’s the standards of Hollywood generally. In the age of the studio system, there were simply more movies to practice the craft upon, and it was almost a given that film music was another important part of a movie that should enhance a product for which quality of writing, editing and cinematography must all meet a standard. In an age when nearly every Hollywood release is focus tested to pander to a particular demographic, it becomes harder to write good movie music. It’s not impossible to write good music for dull movies, but it’s a lot easier if the movie is good. The more imaginative the film, the more possibility for imaginative music to accompany it.


(Batman Theme. Yes, the theme is pure Hindemith. But it's what he does with it.)

But it would probably shed some light on this issue if we talked about a few of the most famous among today’s Hollywood composers. Let’s start with the most obvious. Excerpting John Williams, if most movie buffs were asked to name the most distinctive among living Hollywood composers, they would unhesitatingly choose Tim Burton’s preferred composer, Danny Elfman. Elfman writes fantastically eerie music in a broad array of style that is often better than the movies he’s hired to set - nobody thinks much of the Burton Batman movies, but everybody remember’s Elfman’s scores. There is no doubt, Elfman sets movies with an imagination that is on the Bernard Hermann level. But unfortunately, there has to be a question mark next to his music - is it entirely his? Elfman is fundamentally self-taught, and has always needed reams of help in orchestration. Hollywood orchestrators are not uncommon, many of the best composers like Jerry Goldsmith and Miklos Rozsa partnered with trusted orchestrators. But a story I've heard about Elfman's lack of awareness of the capabilities of some instruments - at least during his early career - is kind of shocking. How many of his effects he thinks of are his own, and how many of them are his orchestrator's? Furthermore, what Elfman generally does is little different than most Broadway composers who farm their orchestrations out to a professional orchestrator. Elfman probably has far more input on his scores than any Broadway composer, but Broadway composers don’t live and die by their ear for instrumental sound, whereas an knowledge of instrumental timbre and color is arguably the most fundamental part of a film composer’s arsenal.


(Whose music?)

A still bigger question mark needs to be put next to James Horner. Horner can write music of stupefying gorgeousness. His score for Field of Dreams is one of the greatest film scores ever written, period. But while every successful film composer eventually has to deal with charges of plagiarism, in Horner’s case, it’s largely deserved. Time and again, Horner writes scores that seem to change around a bare minimum of notes from the original music of great composers.

Many of the best film composers can’t even be called film composers. Michael Giacchino writes as much for video games and television as he does for movies, and his most lauded work was done for Lost (imagine how lame many of that show’s scares would be without the music).


(Glass in The Truman Show)

A different kind of great film composition comes from composers like Philip Glass and Michael Nyman. Both composers are commonly called ‘minimalists,’ meaning that they take small motifs - half a dozen notes at most - and repeat/develop them incessantly. The unvarying sameness of minimalist music works extraordinarily well in movies with great formal cohesion. Philip Glass’s score for The Hours made it into a great movie, each third of the triptych gained enormous cumulative impact by the similarity of music between scenes. But in movies whose structure sprawls, their lack of variation would be stifling. Bernard Hermann could have scored The Truman Show, Philip Glass could not have scored Citizen Kane.

But Glass and Nyman are not the way forward for film music. Both are primarily concert composers, and as such are already part of a dying breed. Orchestral music was once the unquestioned standard manner in which movies were scored, it is currently one of many. Many new releases have soundtracks to existing music, and many original scores are done mostly by computer. To question if electronic music is an inherently inferior method to classical scoring is completely ridiculous. There are already dozens of great original electronic scores like Peter Gabriel’s score for Last Temptation of Christ, or Trent Reznor’s for The Social Network.


(Peter Gabriel’s Crucifixion)

Nevertheless, there is good reason to view the gradual disappearance of classical scores as a tragedy. Every orchestral/choral score secures steady jobs for hundreds of musicians who would otherwise be employed inconsistently during their peak earning years. A rock/electronic score needs far fewer musicians and occasionally only a composer and a computer. Such is evolution at work, but evolution can be a cruel process.


(Gladiator. Um Khulthum, Wagner, Vangelis, and Bjork, simultaneously.)

There’s no doubt, electronics are here to stay. Perhaps the best of today’s film composers are the ones who’ve made their peace with electronics and find ways to integrate them into traditional scoring.Of those who negotiate that middle ground, most would probably agree that the best is Hans Zimmer. The versatility of Zimmer’s scores is staggering, combining the most far-flung musical styles into a cohesive whole. Let’s take the perhaps most obvious example, Gladiator. I think Gladiator is a terrible movie - a travesty of history, clumsy action sequences, and bad writing. But if people remember this movie as better than it is, it’s probably because of Zimmer’s score, which seems to combine the whole world of music into a single movie.


(though it’s kind of ridiculous that Mr. Holland would work his entire career on a three minute symphony....)

If the film industry has a future to employ lots of musicians, it is through the hybrid experiments of composers like Zimmer and Michael Kamen which integrate popular genres and classical music into each other’s frameworks. Even if Kamen’s “American Symphony” from Mr. Holland’s Opus isn’t a particularly good piece of music, it’s difficult not to hear the innovation within it as a challenge. Here, finally, is a piece of American music that genuinely tries to integrate all the developments of a hundred years of popular music into the classical tradition. Was there ever a symphony for the concert hall meant to recall both Aaron Copland and Chuck Berry? If classical music ever goes in that direction, our children might hear Mr. Holland’s Opus with ears we don’t have.