Thursday, December 31, 2009

A New Year's Eve Announcement

Dear Collegium Singers and Friends,

We are so pleased to announce to you that two days ago we hired Emily James to be our new Executive Director. Emily comes to us with deep experience in everything from music to film to the visual arts. She is a graduate of Ithaca College and has worked with many august non-profits including the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the Towson Arts Collective, the Rockford Arts Foundation and Americans for the Arts. She will be of enormous help to us in the areas of singer recruitment, fund-raising, and publicity. With professional staff on board, we will move our organization far forward and raise our profile in this city, the choral capital of America.

All great things in 2010 for every one of you, your families, your loved ones, the Collegium and to every performing arts institution in Washington DC.

Best wishes,


Red Army Choir Sings God Bless America

(Go to 4:00)

Probably my last post of the year. A gut und feylekhen nay yahr zu alz!

Russian Easter Overture

Nothing says Cold like Russia. Always loved this piece and Stokowski was on its private hotline.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Kennedy Center Tribute to Mel: Part 3

In the words of a friend: Last night, Hitler lost.

Kennedy Center Tribute to Mel: Part II

Kennedy Center Tribute to Mel: Part 1

The last ten seconds must be seen to be believed, even by Mel Brooks standards.

Obama on Mel

I'm kvelling Mel. It's like we all got the Kennedy Center Honor tonight. I'm sorry to say I wasn't around to see it, but I'm hunting for the clip like a pack of hungry wolves and you can bet it will be posted here the very moment I find it.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Cat and Box

h/t Harris, and Molski for reminding me about it.

My Obama Bar

Just click on it. h/t Schreiber.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Music For Revolutions

(h/t Andrew Sullivan)

(This was a small bit I wrote for a music list serve I belonged to with a couple friends of mine over the summer. At the time I entitled this share 'Music for a Failed Revolution.' A title that seemed apropos in June doesn't seem quite so much today.)

Shostakovich wrote his 11th symphony in 1957, four years after the
death of Stalin and a year after the Imre Nagy's failed uprising against the Soviet authorities. It was also the work which Nikita Khrushchev used to rehabilitate Shostakovich. For the nine years previous, Shostakovich had been considered such a pariah that nearly all his music was banned throughout the Soviet domain. Every night, the composer slept in the hallway outside his apartment so that the KGB would not wake his family when they came for him.

(The second movement. The Asian Pacific Orchestra conducted, with a toothpick, by Valery Gergiev.)

Critical opinion has long been against this symphony for all the
reasons that it has long been against Shostakovich himself: the
construction is loose, the emotions are heart on sleeve, and there is
the vague suspicion that behind the music is nothing more substantial
than Soviet agitprop.

But critical opinion of Shostakovich began to turn roughly thirty
years ago. Shostakovich was barely in the ground when a Soviet
musicologist named Solomon Volkov published a book that purported to
be Shostakovich's memoirs. 'Testimony' told a very different story
than the one we were told to believed about Shostakovich. Rather than
a composer who set 'Das Kapital' to music over and over again,
Testimony tells of a composer whose every note was fraught with the
agony of being the only great artist left in the Soviet Union with the
ability to speak truth to power.

(The final movement)

Shostakovich's freedom as a composer was limited, but compared to the
scores of writers and artists killed for speaking their minds, it was
limitless. You can't say that a piece of music is about Soviet
oppression simply because it's in a minor key, or sounds angry. The
Soviet authorities used to append meanings to Shostakovich's music
that were commensurate with what they wanted to hear. But the Russian
people got very different messages.

The sub-heading of the eleventh symphony is "The Year, 1905." The
authorities were meant to believe that the symphony depicts the events
of the first, failed Communist Revolution. But being written as it
was only a year after the failed Hungarian Uprising of 1956, the
hidden meaning was probably quite clear.

(the conclusion)

...posts are getting too serious lately. Let us resolve to bring the new year in with silliness.
The point of this exercise is not to name the Top 10 pieces of classical music but to expose whoever is patient enough to read this to a burgeoning world of musical tradition that is still very much alive, perhaps moreso now than it has been at any point since before World War II. Classical music is finally making its peace with a changing world in which other traditions can take from and give to it with almost total freedom. So long as musical ideas exist people will want to write them down, and so long as people keep writing music down there will be a classical tradition to preserve. Here are some more of the very best efforts of the last ten years.

Síppal, dobbal, nádihegedüvel (With Pipes, Drums, Fiddles) by Gyorgy Ligeti:

(I used to scare a old roommate by randomly turning this piece on.)

I suppose that if I put one of the late master's pieces on this list I'm supposed to put the "Hamburg Concerto." And that's a wonderful work for the most part. But Ligeti was always a greater composer when he was more focused on having a good time than he was with Boulez-type intellectual point-making and unfortunately Ligeti the pedant is occasionally present in that piece. But this most fun of the avant-garde composers never seemed to have more fun than he did with this very-late-in-life song cycle based on nonsense poetry - the score calling for one mezzo-soprano and roughly 100 different percussion instruments (if you don't believe me go to its wikipedia page to see for yourself....) You'd think that such a battery would consistently overwhelm the singer, but Ligeti puts a lifetime of experience to use with the lightest, deftest percussion writing you could possibly imagine. But all the avant-garde instruments add up to a composite of something that sounds distinctly folkish. No doubt even Bartok is smiling. I'd have just liked to be in the room when Ligeti came up with the idea.

Afrikan Machinery by Lukas Ligeti:

(Ligeti the son performing Great Circle II from Afrikan Machinery. Needless to say, he's as fascinated by percussion as his father was, but his father would never have a section devoted to pure F-sharp major. It's as much Aphex Twin as Darmstadt.)

Gyorgy died in 2006, but his son Lukas is just getting warmed up. Now a composer based out of Brooklyn, Lukas writes music that is every bit as intelligent as his father's. It's hard not to view Lukas's music as the music his father would have written had he post-dated rather than pre-dated the 60's. But perhaps that's unfair to all involved. Lukas's voice is every bit as pinball-wizard-strange as his father's with all the same weird preoccupations with odd asymetrical rhythms and harmonies. But his music is as touched by mid-2000's Brooklyn hipsters as his father's was early 60's Darmstadt radicals. Both have the same prickly convictions and eclectic-in-the-extreme musical tastes - African drumming, Balinese Gamelan, acid jazz, electronica - but Lukas's music sounds like it has a slightly gentler temperament, probably born of living in more inviting surroundings.

Light In The Piazza by Adam Guettel:

(Light in the Piazza)

: It's gotta be very sad to be an elderly Broadway lover. It must mean that you probably grew up in a veritable paradise of musical popularity and quality only to watch as America's greatest musical tradition declined to irrelevance as glitz and scenery increasingly trumped substance (I got over my old fogeyness about classical music when I was twelve, but when conversation turns to Broadway I turn into Glenn Beck). To be honest, I'm not even certain that Light In the Piazza deserves to be on this list. The piece is a whole that is far greater than any part, with Adam Guettel (Richard Rodgers's grandson btw) serving up a not-all-that-memorable score and lyrics and an even less memorable book by Craig Lucas. But what it has so enormously is all the ambition and pathos that is so terribly absent from so much recent music theater. Within its modest confines, it contains a tragic story about love and family that is as affecting as anything on this list. In such a fallow era, a musical deserves credit for a successful attempt to give its audience a meaningful experience. I have no doubt that lurking beneath the marquee lights there are other contemporary musicals that do the same, but where the hell are they?

(Flying Song from Tan Dun's The Map

The Map by Tan Dun

Tan Dun has the dubious distinction of writing what is probably the biggest flop of the decade. His opera, The First Emperor, was supposed to launch the "New Met" as a serious artistic endeavor and Peter Gelb spared no expense for it from Ziang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) as its director to Placido Domingo as its star. As it happens, it was universally reported to have sucked (click here for rather indisputable evidence). But let's be generous to Tan Dun. He aimed as high as he always does and he happened to fail. Dun is often dismissed as a purveyor of eastern kitsch, and there is no denying a stratospherically kitschy element to much of his music. But who cares? Not only is a lot of it beautiful, but quite a bit of it is based out of real intelligence - no piece moreso than The Map. It's a piece for which Dun went into the Chinese countryside for a year to collect as many dying Chinese musical folk traditions as he could. He then filmed them or had live performers come to play this Chinese folk music against an enormous orchestra and a virtuoso cello soloist (that part originally written for Yo-Yo Ma). Dun's ear for color is as superb as his teacher's, the great Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu, and the resulting music is at once beautiful, strange and haunting.

L'Amour De Loin by Kaija Saariaho

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Tehran at night

h/t Andrew Sullivan. Music doesn't have to correspond to politics or history (thank god) but nor should we shy away from the big moments either. It's no coincidence that classical music was at its most appreciated when it was at its most engaged with the wider world. A better composer than I would know instantly how to make extraordinary music out of a small sample from this. I hope you're out there somewhere, we need you.

Music For Revolutions

(h/t Andrew Sullivan)

(This was a small bit I wrote for a music list serve I belonged to with a couple friends of mine over the summer. At the time I entitled this share 'Music for a Failed Revolution.' What seemed apropos in June doesn't seem quite so much today.)

Shostakovich wrote his 11th symphony in 1957, four years after the
death of Stalin and a year after the Imre Nagy's failed uprising against the Soviet authorities. It was also the work which Nikita Khrushchev used to rehabilitate Shostakovich. For the nine years previous, Shostakovich had been considered such a pariah that nearly all his music was banned throughout the Soviet domain. Every night, the composer slept in the hallway outside his apartment so that the KGB would not wake his family when they came for him.

(The second movement. The Asian Pacific Orchestra )

Critical opinion has long been against this symphony for all the
reasons that it has long been against Shostakovich himself: the
construction is loose, the emotions are heart on sleeve, and there is
the vague suspicion that behind the music is nothing more substantial
than Soviet agitprop.

But critical opinion of Shostakovich began to turn roughly thirty
years ago. Shostakovich was barely in the ground when a Soviet
musicologist named Solomon Volkov published a book that purported to
be Shostakovich's memoirs. 'Testimony' told a very different story
than the one we were told to believed about Shostakovich. Rather than
a composer who set 'Das Kapital' to music over and over again,
Testimony tells of a composer whose every note was fraught with the
agony of being the only great artist left in the Soviet Union with the
ability to speak truth to power.

(The final movement)

Shostakovich's freedom as a composer was limited, but compared to the
scores of writers and artists killed for speaking their minds, it was
limitless. You can't say that a piece of music is about Soviet
oppression simply because it's in a minor key, or sounds angry. The
Soviet authorities used to append meanings to Shostakovich's music
that were commensurate with what they wanted to hear. But the Russian
people got very different messages.

The sub-heading of the eleventh symphony is "The Year, 1905." The
authorities were meant to believe that the symphony depicts the events
of the first, failed Communist Revolution. But being written as it
was only a year after the failed Hungarian Uprising of 1956, the
hidden meaning was probably quite clear.

(the conclusion)

While following the new Iranian uprising, this piece has seared itself
into my head. I keep thinking of how Mstislav Rostropovich watched the pro-Soviet coup against Yeltsin in '91 on television, with the opening of Shostakovich 8 thundering in his head. He said it was though Dimitri Dimitriyevich was speaking to him from beyond the grave, saying that his place was inside the Kremlin at Yeltsin's side. Music may not mean anything at all, but it has the ability to suggest to people their own deepest fears and aspirations. This is why a revolution without music is not one worth having:)

...posts are getting too serious lately.

Tom Waits Press Conference

h/t Giovine. As it's occasionally been pointed out: is it possible that Heath Ledger prepared for playing The Joker by looking at Waits doing things like this?

Can't help myself....

The Buttcracker

And so it's now four on a Sunday morning, and here I am in Baltimore, holed up as usual trying to get lots of work done (and procrastinating from doing lots more). Stumbling upon late night Christmas television only to find the one thing I don't expect to find 28 hours after the end of Christmas: The Nutcracker. Not only The Nutcracker, but a stunning new production of it from the San Francisco Ballet.

(A couple wonderful snatches from the SF production. Especially moving is the very finale in which Clara awakens from her dreams. A fantastic and not often done touch.)

Now let's be honest here: I don't much care for ballet, and occasionally the aversion is much stronger than that. I'm pretty unmoved by any artist who goes for the empty technical display - that's neither art nor entertainment, that's bragging. Or maybe this has something to do with my aversion to a ballet-dancer's distant cousin - the mime. A beloved high-school drama teacher once admonished us that whenever we see a mime performing on the street we have a moral obbligation to beat him up - advice I've always tried to take to heart. Even so, if the ballet music is lacking I generally sit through ballets with narcoleptic disinterest. All I see is a bunch of ectomorphs who could probably jump higher if they ate something. But that being said, I do quite love it when the music is as great as I'm told the dancing always is, and if the dancing serves a real story I'm all eyes. If it's Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, or (sometimes) Prokofiev, I'm far more likely to enjoy it. And of course, when it comes to The Nutcracker you get chances to indulge that particular fix ad nauseum every December.

There are always certain traditions that go along with every holiday. Some make more sense than others. Personally, I don't think I'll ever understand Messiah's Christmastime popularity. Awesome as the work is, a piece about Death and Resurrection during the Christmas holiday makes me wonder if some people really do want every day of the year to be Good Friday (...sorry Catholics, I promise that's the most direct reference I'll make to this...for now:).

(Brain Donors....everyone should see this movie)

But then there's The Nutcracker. Anybody reading this has probably sat through at least one awful performance of The Buttcracker (as that same beloved high school drama teacher so eloquently referred to it) and knows just how depressingly awful an experience it can be. As a kid, everybody had a sister or a cousin a female friend whom your parents schlepped you to see because she was dancing the all-important role of Clara's cousin #13. Your parents were obviously thinking they were accruing brownie points with other parents and exposing their children to high culture in the offing. Three hours later the child version of you probably emerged swearing with the kind of earnestness only a nine-year-old can muster that so long as you live nobody could ever drag you to the ballet again. My sympathies.

But there is another side to The Nutcracker as well. For every terrible production which thousands of kids are made to sit through in a baptismal ritual that can turn millions off of culture for a lifetime, there are those occasional productions of The Nutcracker that can change your life forever. And as many times as I must have gone to see The Nutcracker as a kid (by now I honestly can't remember if I dragged my parents or if they dragged me) I would have given anything to have been able to see one of those life-sustaining experiences as a child when suddeenly the longings of your nine-year-old self are laid plain and prostrate before you on the stage. Igor Stravinsky never forgot his experience of Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty when he was nine at the Mariinsky (Kirov) Ballet, and for the rest of his life maintained that it was the defining artistic experience of his childhood - and perhaps it was what led him to choose the Ballet as his preferred form of musical experession. And thus no amount of whitewashing by the Boulez-Darmstadt crew can take away the fact that Stravinsky derived his greatest inspiration from soppy old Tchaikovsky. No amount of creeping homophobia against Piotr Illyich can change the fact that he served as the early and most important muse to the most vigorously heterosexual among great composers of the 20th century (lest that title be disputed, please remember that this is the man who lived with his wife and Coco Chanel AT THE SAME TIME). Whatever compositional weaknesses he has, Tchaikovsky is still a great composer who speaks with a universal voice, and no amount of condescension on the part of people who should know better will change that.

(Pas de Deux. Tchaikovsky actually wrote this scene because of a bet he made that he couldn't write a superb piece of music based on a scale. Needless to say, he won. But I've always rather felt that this sounds a bit like it should be an Elvis song.)

Lest the point of this entry get away from me, it would appear that the San Francisco Ballet version of The Nutcracker is one of those once-in-a-lifetime versions of The Nutcracker, and I feel jealous of any kid with an over-active imagination who can see it at an age when such experiences mean so much. The Nutcracker is a show built on over-active imagination, the dreams of children who don't yet have to understand what the world is. Whatever great qualities Tchaikovsky had, and he has thousands, there is little getting around the fact that Piotr Ilyich never quite matured emotionally. I love his symphonies dearly, but those of you who know them can't tell me that the thought "Get over yourself" hasn't occasionally popped into your head at least occasionally. They're masterpieces of naval-gazing, like the drunk friend who doesn't realize that s/he'd be less depressed if he just went to 7-11 for a cup of coffee.

(Last movement of the Pathetique. OH THE HUMANITY! OKOK, yes it's still a superb piece of music. But don't listen to it every day, you'll start feeling like this.)

But then there are the ballets, which are so far removed from the the bombast of the symphonies that it's as though they're written by Dr. Jekyllyich and Mr. Hydekovsky. Tchaik paid for his ability to retain a child's view of the world with a lifetime of torment, but that doesn't change the very real universality of what he achieved in them. Yes the high camp of Adolphe Adam is still there in spades, but underlying it is the stark and very real terrors of his darker moments that make the elegance of the his more picturesque moments so hard-won and deserved. Behind every Tchaikovskian reverie lays a phantasmagorical nightmare. And nowhere are the nightmares more articulate than in the ballets.

(Francesca Da Rimini. One of the greatest of all Tchaikovskian nightmares and his take on Dante's Paolo and Francesca story. Something often forgotten is that Tchaikovsky was one of the most uncommonly literate of all composers. His music includes sonic representations of stories by Dante, Shakespeare, Pushkin, Byron, ETA Hoffman, Gogol, Schiller....and I'm sure quite a few others that I'm either forgetting or have never heard of. Compare this to Liszt's Dante Symphony: YECH!)

It's still fairly common to brush Tchaikovsky's achivements off, there were certainly years of my life in which I did. But I think I know what provoked the change in me. It happened when I started reading those loose baggy monsters by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (one day maybe I'll finish one...ADD poster child that I am). It made me realize that Tchaikovsky is yet another of those shadowy cultural figures with an artistic personality split directly down the middle: as much Ivan Karamazov as Anna Karenina - eagerly awaiting his Count Vronsky but praying that he doesn't get a Grushenka on his hands. Full of Pierre's longing to break free of privilege's confines but also filled with Sonia's serene acceptance of her tragic lot. One side of his personality - the Tolstoy side - the superbly articulate and elegant master of expression. Passions lurking beneath an immaculately rendered surface, but his elegance never divorced from expression and the expression all the more powerful for having been rendered so consumately. The other side - the Dostoevsky side - the master of animal dramatization. An underground man seeking out the light of day - longing for the ability to keep unbridaled passion controlled, but wiser for his intimate knowledge of suffering's contours.

(Walt Disney well understood the elemental power of Tchaikovsky's music when he wisely chose to set Sleeping Beauty to his animation.)

It's for these reasons that Sleeping Beauty is probably the highpoint of Tchaikovsky's career. It's the one work in which he arrives at as true a synthesis between darkness and light as he ever did. The nightmares are just all-consuming enough for you to wonder if the work will be overwhelmed by its shadows. But it never is, and the consumate elegance of his lighter side is so much more meaningful because it is snatched from defeat's jaws.

(Somebody had to have had the idea to do the Russian Dance by having the Cossaks leap out of Faberge eggs. Whoever that was should get their salary doubled.)

The Nutcracker is not like that - there's just one measly battle and it takes place because the Nutcracker refuses to call the Orkin Man. As far as Tchaikovskian nightmares go, giant rats are not very impressive. But it sets the stage magnificently for what follows. The Nutcracker is supposedly about the fantasies of a little girl, but could just as well represent the dreams of all children - female or male, burgeoningly gay or straight. The rats are standins for enemies and obstacles in life that are all-too-easily conquered, and all that happens later representing the all-too-false promises of greater and friendlier wonders to follow by the Drosselmeyers of our youths. All this rendered by a composer who knew all too well that life never works out quite as Uncle Drosselmeyer promised it would. It is a work full of mourning and regret by a composer who wished, as we all do, that life would unfold the way we always hoped it would.

If I had to describe the experience of starting a non-profit chorus in Washington DC from near-scratch....

I think I should like to be a gigantic Englishman so that people would think of me as the Basil Fawlty of conductors.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Chipmunks Slowed Down

Pretty self explanatory. h/t Gronowski.

Sir Patrick

I've never been a traditional Trekkie - though in another lifetime I suppose I easily could have been. Even when I was much younger I never went to a convention, I never read more than one or two Star Trek novels and it never occurred to me to seek out others who shared this weird passion of mine. Star Trek was never a cliched version of science fiction, with more concern for adolescent violence and gizmos with no concern for physics. Because for all the techno babble, it was always ideas which lay at the heart of the Trek series. And that is why, for all its moments of pseudoscience and extraordinarily awful acting, it will never grow old for me and I'm sure for so many others as well.

In any event, Captain Picard is going to be knighted on New Year's Day. Apparently this is a big deal. Being knighted is a great honor of you're into that sort of thing. So here's some of what I think his personal finest episode in which he was kidnapped and tortured by the Cardassians after being ordered to abandon his command of the Enterprise so that he could help destroy a Cardassian metagenic weapon that turned out to be a decoy because the Cardassians wanted to extract information from Picard about Starfleet's battle plans for the defense of Minos Korva which is a territory which the Cardassians have always viewed as their own territory....y'know it's probably just easier to watch it.

I remember having watching this episode on the edge of my seat when I was twelve, and I remember rarely having been so thrilled and disturbed by anything I'd ever seen in television, movies, books or even music. Serendipitously catching this on SyFy at 2:30 in the morning, I find that the thrill of watching is no less intense after fifteen years, but issues at stake deepen and broaden: The viability of torture, the ability to maintain one's mind against coercion, and the ability for decency to prevail against authoritarianism. Echoes of the arguments carried by Picard against his interlocutor can be found all through history. But what's truly amazing is the central argument: the interrogator shines bright lights in Picard's face and asks him how many he sees. Picard replies factually that there are four, but his tormenter replies that there are five. This cannot be anything but a direct reference to 1984, when Winston Smith is coerced through electroshock torture to admit that he sees five fingers when he only sees four.

But the best part comes right at the end. Picard, needless to say for the TV hero to out-tough all TV heroes, never cracks. But Jean-Luc Picard is not the rest of us, and he's meant to be quite as larger-than-life as he seems. But his most crucial admission comes to us at the last line of the episode when he confides to Counselor Troi not only that he was ready to tell his torturer 'anything at all', but also that he could see five lights.

Anyway, I'd also be remiss if I didn't at least mention his other great television role (no, not on American Dad). Back in the mid-70's when the BBC did a TV version of Robert Graves's I, Claudius in which he played Aelius Sejanus, Captain of the Praetorian Guard and the Roman Empire's answer to Heydrich, the slimiest of all Roman bureaucrats and brought within a hairsbreath of the crown. Everybody should see I, Claudius when they can. No doubt it will be the subject of an entry at some point here as well.

TDM Auto Sale

h/t Giovine. I had serious misgivings about putting this up, for the simple reason that it's well....a lot more than vaguely unPC, and as the world's most open-minded bigot it gave me considerable pause. But well...the guy put it up himself with obvious full knowledge of what he was doing and it's just too damn funny not to keep up. Extremely sincere apologies to anyone who might be offended by this but this ain't coming down. And besides, this is a great test to see if anybody's actually reading this because if they are somebody will have me kidnapped and put on a plane to hell.

If it helps I'll put up 15 clips of Jews exploiting their own stereotypes to sell things as's not hard to find trust me.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Judging by what's on cable tonight, the entire oeuvre of John Hughes has replaced It's A Wonderful Life as the preferred Christmas viewing for our generation.

That is all.

Top 10 Pieces of Classical Music in the 00's (part 5 of 6...maybe 7)

The Fifty State Project by Sufjan Stevens (please keep it going)

(The Seer's Tower)

No, it's not cheating. Not at all. There was some sort of fantastic madness in Sufjan Stevens's ambition to make an album about every state in America - a project that if ever completed would last at least three times longer than The Ring Cycle and probably require the combined forces of Sufjan Stevens accompanying himself on a couple dozen instruments roughly 7000 times over (a not-very-educated guess). It is the kind of ambition that drives composers into the madhouse, but also moves history and shows the world just how big music can be. It was a project worthy of any classical composer, but only achievable by one thoroughly embedded in the rock tradition.

(Sleeping Bear, Sault Saint Marie)

Perhaps Sufjan Stevens is our Mahler. Writing the final chapter in the story of American musical hegemony, under-appreciated by those who should love him best, and trying to bring together all the diffuse strands of his place of origin welded together in manners no one before him thought remotely possible. Whatever he is, he is a composer worthy of inclusion, and a very serious musician whom classical music dismisses at its own peril. Even if he fails to come even close to finishing it, he should do as much of it as possible. Because neither he or any other musician could come up with a better idea.

(Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head)

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Very Steve Martin Christmas

h/t Zucker.
Was just told by a good friend that if one of our mutual groups of friends was the cast of Night Court, I'd be Mel Torme. That made me happy.

.....because I'm not Dan Fielding.

Top 10 Pieces of Classical Music in the 00's (part 4 of 5)

- Tevot by Thomas Ades (2007, Berlin)

(Ecstasio. The Ades of old.)

It's been a slightly rough decade for this composer of Mozartian talent. His opera based on Shakespeare's The Tempest has extraordinary moments punctuating what sounds otherwise like a dutiful attempt to be a Great English Composer. The Piano Quintet feels like a series of completely disconnected ideas, and while the Violin Concerto is a fine work (albeit I haven't heard it since the premiere broadcast in 2005), it hasn't set the world on fire either. Now pushing 40, he's too old to be an enfant terrible. Music that shocked the public ten years ago can now be rendered tame. But it's been a necessary decade for Ades, and Tevot shows he's returned to form a stronger composer.

(Powder Her Face. Not only a shocking masterpiece of trashy camp - Almodovar and Douglas Sirk would be proud - which integrates jazz seemlessly into a classical fabric, but also probably the first opera in history to have an onscreen blow job. This is not that scene, but it's still not particularly SFW)

Tevot is a Hebrew word with a double meaning. On the one hand, it's the plural of the word 'ark,' on the other it is the Hebrew plural for the musical term 'measure.' Ades's idea of the piece is one of an ark that carries people to safety through a turbulent storm. Storm at sea is one of music's stock landscapes, and any list of the composers who endowed such scenes with excitement must include Debussy (La Mer), Sibelius (Oceanides), Mendelssohn (Hebrides), Britten (Peter Grimes), and especially Wagner in The Flying Dutchman. But what distinguishes Ades from the others is the sense that this storm is more internal than external (though one can make arguments for both Britten and Wagner). Perhaps it's the storm music Mahler never wrote. It is by turns frightening, exhilarating, and in the end triumphant. By the end of the piece, it's clear that Ades is the only composer who could write finest orchestral work of the decade and still be viewed as a disappointment. But I don't think there's much reason to be alarmed. Ades, who in his early years was a musical ironist par excellence in his early years looks to be finding sincerity a good fit. He will mature much further yet.

- Neruda Songs by Peter Lieberson (2005, Los Angeles)

( No estes lejos de mi un solo dia, porque como)

When the news spread of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's death, nothing in American music circles elicited similar mourning since the death of Leonard Bernstein. She was thought of as a patron saint to American music lovers. Her performances were written of like holy rites in which critics fell over themselves trying to describe what they obviously viewed as an experience of the divine. But just as Lorraine Hunt Lieberson reached her prime, she experienced a metastasized breast cancer that claimed her life just after she would be immortalized. Only six years earlier she halted her career to care for her sister when she died of the same illness. Perhaps unaware of the significance of what he was about to do, her husband Peter Lieberson composed a set of five songs to Neruda love poems. Shortly after Lorraine died, Peter developed serious cancer of his own from which he made a full recovery. In light of what was soon to happen, the texts are almost scary to read today. The final song of the set, is entitled "My Love, If I Die and You Don't."

(Amor mio, si muero)

It is impossible to speak of this music without speaking of its creation's circumstances. But that does not change the fact that compositionally, it is truly something wonderful. Romantic not only in the usual sense but also in the poetic and compositional. If Richard Strauss ever lived in Santa Fe, this is what he'd have written. Lush, but never overstated. Emotional, but never extravagant and always elegant. It picks up right where Strauss's Four Last Songs left off.

Darth Vader Opens Wall Street

Never ceases to be amazing how often satire takes care of itself.

The Merry Wives of Windsor

We're getting onto New Year's. Time to break out the Johann Strauss for his once-a-year airing. But more than anything by Strauss, this piece by Otto Nicolai is probably my all-time favorite piece of light classical music. Conducted by Carlos Kleiber, my candidate for the most gifted conductor who ever lived (which is different from saying the greatest). Only Thomas Beecham ever did this piece as well. I've always thought Kleiber's light music fetish would be a bit like Ian McKellen starring in a Judd Apatow movie (admit it, that would be AWESOME), but he really is just as fantastic at this as he is at Beethoven. If it doesn't put you in a good mood, nothing does.

...speaking of Ian McKellen....

Top 10 Pieces of Classical Music in the 00's (part 3 of 5)

- Little Match Girl Passion by David Lang (2007, New York)

Click here to listen to the work in its entirety.

If I had to pick one piece for the most purely beautiful and moving of the past decade, this would be it easily. The piece is based on Hans Christian Anderson's fable 'The Little Match Girl' about a little girl's final hours before she freezes to death. The compositional technique involved is staggering, but it feels artless. When was the last time music felt this unaffected and natural? Poulenc? Schubert? Bach? Maybe Bach is it...this is actually the second piece of this list to be based out of Bach's St. Matthew Passion. But the channeling of Bach is far more tangible than in Golijov's setting of St. Mark. Every composer who channels Bach invites a comparison. But most other composers channel Bach's unsurpassed compositional technique, which usually has the effect make Bach's materials sound overblown and distended. Instead, Lang might be the first composer in history to write an original work that successfully channels Bach's seemingly infinite humanity and compassion. Here is a modern composer who meets Bach on Bach's own terms and succeeds. So let it never be said that the greatest music is already written. At certain points, the music's intensity of feeling is almost unbearable. If you're a musical weeper (and I am, you probably are too, admit it...) you'll find it very hard to get through some parts of this piece while other people are in the room....I have absolutely no experience in this regard....none at all....

- A Scotch Bestiary by James MacMillan (2004, Los Angeles)

(St. John Passion. Nobody can say this isn't a great work of its type. However dumb parts of the staging look. Like Mahler's Symphony of a Thousand or Bruckner's Fifth Symphony it's incredibly powerful stuff so long as the performers provide some contrast. "Visionary Dreariness" is how Deryck Cooke, the famous musicologist, described works like these. Also worth it to hear MacMillan try to pronounce Gesamtkunstwerk in a Scottish burr.)

It was a tough call with Scotland's finest. Duty says that one should pick his 'great statement,' the St. John Passion which premiered last year in London. But I gotta go with my gut on this one and pick the piece I loved the most - A Scotch Bestiary. There are composers who make incredible intellectual demands (not to mention composers who pretend to), and there are composers who make incredible emotional demands. Like only a select few before him (Beethoven, Schumann, Mahler, Shostakovich, a few more...) the simple act of listening to MacMillan's music stretches your emotional capability. Everything is there from the highest humor to the lowest despair and all that lies between. He's the closest our age has to a Mahler.

(Soweetan Spring. This gives the feeling of MacMillan at his most compelling. Born almost exactly a century after Mahler, he gives the exact same feeling of letting every sound he hears around him into his musical landscape.)

But like in Mahler, he's perhaps easier to love when he's in a lighter mood (note to any Mahlerians reading this, I'm the Ayatollah of the Mahler fanclub. Every note is holy text. So there...), and nothing brings his lighter moods out like nature. The program notes for the piece contain all sorts of grandiose desciptions of MacMillan's musical depiction of animals, but the composer admitted that he was most inspired to write the piece by the music from Tom & Jerry. To be sure, there's darkness aplenty, but it's always offset by an uncannily deft touch. In fact, this piece may have my single favorite musical moment of the past ten years: a full-throated choral incantation of a IV-II-III Amen, immediately followed by muted trombones going waaa-waaa-waaa-waaaaaaaah (V-TT-IV-III).

(from Seven Last Words On The Cross. It would be an interesting program - albeit too long and sacerdotal - to do both the Haydn and the MacMillan in one sitting.)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

There's something truly cathartic about writing for yourself (when you have the technique to do it...that is). No concessions to feasibility, no concern about whether or not a player can easily manage what you're writing. The only worry is whether it sounds good to your own ears (and frankly...that's a big enough worry for anybody).

Psalm 2: Lamah Rageshu Goyim. A 10-voice bitonal choral setting of a psalm already made famous in settings by Handel and Leonard Bernstein. So intimidating to compare to that I put off setting it for six months (what am I going to do when I get to Psalm 23?) Hopefully this one will be wrapped up by Christmas Day. 2 down, 148 to go.

Top 10 Pieces of Classical Music in the 00's (part 2 of 5)

- The Daniel Variations by Steve Reich (2006, London)

(My Name Is Daniel Pearl)

I have to say, I've never been a knee-jerk Steve Reich fan the way so many other classical musicians are. But then I'm a hard person to please. It's never been enough for me that Reich showed the way for classical composers back to engagement with popular audiences in a way that brooked no compromise with intellectual content. My problem was that Reich's music always seemed like ingeniously designed toys. Behind the incredibly sophisticated designs was something that sounded to me like emotional vapidity.

(BBC interview with Steve Reich about the piece)

Then I discovered his later music, or to be perfectly frank, his Jewish music. As a young man, Reich (seemingly like every other great musician of his generation) did his time in ashrams and drum circles. But sometime in the 80's he found a way back into Judaism (sometimes a deathknell for creativity, as a lot of Dylan fans contend), and eventually to Orthodox Judaism. And suddenly his music was transformed. A musician content for so long with shimmering beautiful surfaces plunged headfirst into music full of anguish and contrast. The Daniel Variations is his darkest music yet. Commissioned to commemorate the death of Daniel Pearl by his father, Judah, it is music that seems to have a hotline to our volatile times just as special as Doctor Atomic. In the first movement of the piece, singers endlessly repeat the famous quote from the book of Daniel "I saw a dream. Images upon my bed and visions in my head frightened me." Anyone captivated by the story of Daniel Pearl will find that the music captures its essence all too painfully.

- Jatekok by Gyorgy Kurtag (ongoing)

(Quarrel. Played by the composer and his wife.)

In some ways, this is cheating. Jatekok was a project started by Hungarian composer Gyorgy Kurtag in 1970, and it continues to the present day and now numbers 7 volumes. Kurtag is like the Siamese twin of his conservatory friend, Gyorgy Ligeti. Ligeti managed to escape after the '56 revolution, Kurtag was not so lucky. A man of ill-health, Ligeti experienced his great years in middle age and made avant-garde music of awesomely theatrical power. Kurtag, now a spry-looking 83, is enjoying his golden period in old age. His music is every bit as intellectually demanding as Ligeti's, but far more intimate and at times, far more personal.

(Perpetuum Mobile, played by the composer)

Jatekok (or "Games" in English) is in so many ways as seminal a work as our time has. It plays like the intimate diary written of an infinite musical mind. Every work was written with Kurtag having either himself or his wife, Marta, in mind as a pianist. Sometimes with them both in mind for 4-hand piano. Almost every piece has a subjective title, and none is more than a few minutes. Often with just a few notes, Kurtag is able to suggest all the different facets of a life as it is lived. It just might be the greatest collection of piano music in our time.

(The beginning of an hour's worth of selections posted to youtube. The entirety of Jatekok so far still remains to be recorded.)

Irish Parliament

Ever get the feeling C-Span is a lot more fun over there?

Top 10 Pieces of Classical Music in the 00's (part 1 of 5)

(J. Robert Oppenheimer, alone with the bomb, recites the poem he was said to be obsessed with during it's creation. Holy Sonnet XIV by John Donne.)

(Two notes:
1. It's a personal list. Only 1 and 2 are ranked. I make no claims to have exhaustively heard anywhere near all the new classical music to make any proper judgement. At this point in history, I think only a paid critic can do that. If anybody reading has suggestions for music to hear, I'm all ears.
2. In music school we're always taught about the terrible dangers of talking about music as though it means something extra-musical. Point taken, but the irrelevance of classical music to so many people bespeaks the dangers of NOT talking about music as though it means anything extra-musical.)

1. Doctor Atomic by John Adams. (2005, San Francisco)

(The Countdown. Yes, the staging is hilariously awful, but it'll get a better staging before long. Even so, the power of the music is inescapable.)

It's the decade of John Adams. We were just privileged to be there. His achievements in this decade number a Christmas oratorio to rival Handel's Messiah, the classical music statement on 9/11, a tribute to Charles Ives that in some ways improves on the original, the first great concerto for electric violin, a companion opera to The Magic Flute, and the most entertaining autobiography by a composer since Berlioz.

But above all this, and above all other music this decade, must stand Doctor Atomic - Adams's opera about Robert Oppenheimer in the leadup to the initial atomic bomb test.
Adams has always been a devoutly political composer of leftist conviction, but I defy anyone - liberal or conservative - to name a work of art in any genre that speaks so clearly to the fears of people from every creed, background and class during the post-9/11 era. The libretto (text) is pared down to transcripts of primary documents and poetry quotations (Oppenheimer was a scarily erudite man). This is the definition of music that shows rather than tells. Through the power of pure music, we feel as though all the debates of the Bush years are carried out in sound alone. As much as any artist in any genre, Adams got to the heart of what it meant to be an American in our era.

(Red Alert)

2. La Pasion Segun San Marcos by Osvaldo Golijov (2000, Stuttgart)

This was the piece that made me realize I could never leave music. If Adams showed us our present through the recent past, then Osvaldo Golijov showed us our future through the distant past. People who tell you why Golijov - and particularly this piece of his - is bad are legion. But in listing the reasons why, all they managed to articulate was exactly why this piece - and its composer - is incredible. Here is an Argentinian-Jewish classical composer living in Boston who set the Gospel According to St. Mark to music utilizing a veritable encyclopedia of Latin American popular music traditions. This piece is everything classical music is not supposed to be: vibrant, sexy, partially improvised, and stylistically diverse.

(The Pascal Lamb)

It articulates the Gospel as though Christ were a martyred liberation theologist at home on the poorest streets of Santiago. It embraces every part of the music that Jesus would have heard on those streets - from the Tango to the Samba to the Habanera to the Rumba to Bossa Nova. It displays in sound what City of God does in images - the plight and the spirit of the world's most rapidly evolving continent with pinpoint accuracy, and in the process becomes the greatest and most transformative work of choral music since Stravinsky's Les Noces.

(Lua Descolorida...this could work for unaccompanied chorus too....though Golijov may have made his own choral version already. He certainly has a voice/piano version. Good man.)

Golijov was supposed to write an opera based on the Deadalus legend with a libretto by Anthony Minghella. But Minghella died a year into the project and Golijov has yet to find something equivalent to stimulate his imagination (and yes by the way, it's "English Patient" Anthony Minghella). His time off is well spent. He is now the house composer for Francis Ford Coppola as Coppola plots his gradual comeback into film. No doubt, there are few better teachers of what it means to have artistic vision. So mark my words, Golijov will be back and just as great as he ever was.

(The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind. Golijov's incredible tribute to Jewish music from 1998. In this part, the ensemble intones the High Holiday prayer 'Oonetanah Tokef' as it has never been.)

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Twenty Years After

It's an experience I will never forget. Twenty years ago my parents sat glued to Frontline and seemed to be completely unaware of my two-year-old brother screaming his head off. I asked them what was happening, and they said that an evil dictator was about to be killed on television. I was seven years old, and I didn't understand much about it except that I was watching an old married couple who looked vaguely like friends of my grandparents were begging for their lives in the moment before they would be slaughtered. I ran out of the room in something approaching horror before I had to see the inevitable.

As it turned out, Caucescu was not executed on television but one can hear the gunshots anyway.

Dreidel That Plays Wagner

God I wish I was the person to think of this. h/t Charles Downey and Soho the Dog. Go here for an explanation.

One More Thought On Being Mentioned In The Post

(note: this is in no way an endorsement of Mike Gravel or anything he believes.)

Thoughts on Being Mentioned In The Post: Or A Two-Month Appraisal

Well, it's official now. The Washington Collegium, or Voice of Washington, or whatever we're going to call this thing, is now an indisputable presence in this city. Anne Midgette, one of the preeminent and most influential music critics of the English language, gave us a not-unconsiderable berth in one of her columns, especially so considering that we are still not-much-known even to DC's choral afficianados. Being mentioned by her means that we are now a genuine (albeit slight) presence not only in the DC area, but also a very slight (let's get real here, infantesimal) presence on the national music scene.

We are now like all those young other organizations always mentioned by critics like Alex Ross, Kyle Gann and Greg Sandow. Yet another example of a young burgeoning organization that - with enough patience, dedication, and luck above all else - signifies the future of music in the city and country in which we live in its brightest possible future. But reality, as ever, means creating something great out of situations that are not. I hope I have the dedication and patience to make this happen, I pray we have the luck. But I'm sustained by the idea that luck comes to those who work to earn it. I've seen enough musicians work hard to no avail to know the potential terrors in store, but I've never seen a musician hit the big time through coasting.

It's possible that the enormity of what I've undertaken had not quite hit me until I read the article. The Washington Collegium was an ensemble that could have easily gone by the wayside after our old conductor left. But for the chance to inherit it, I might have fulfilled some errant dreams of moving to London or New York a good eighteen months ago. I've have tried my hand at being a musician/writer living by the pen, and chances are that losing weight would have been a lot easier. But I inherited a chorus in the city in which I've built a life for myself since 2001 and another chorus 40 miles away in the town where I grew up. Most of my friends are still in Washington, my family is in Baltimore. There's no good reason now to be anywhere but here.

But what is clearer now than ever before is the enormity of what lies ahead. We've been mentioned in the Post, but that doesn't change the fact that our organization is still at the stage of being an obscenely loveable rag-tag band of singers. We are sustained by the heart of those committed to us, even if they can't show it all the time, and our ability to command loyalty from those who know what we're capable of is the most exciting reason a person like me can have to get out of bed.

But I think it would be wrong to be anything but direct with anyone who reads this as to what we've achieved thus far. The truth remains that the composition of our group seems to change into a different permutation from week to week. Out of a surfeit of enthusiasm, many singers overestimate the time they have to commit, and many of them have little choice but to recuse themselves after promising the moon. You can't blame them, they wanted to dedicate whatever time they had but they discovered they just didn't have it. Even so, the consequence remains that every week still feels like a race to make sure we have enough singers to cover every part, and there is no guarantee of the chorus accumulating knowledge from week to week.

In our first rehearsal after reconvening we didn't have a single soprano. We've had rehearsals in which the number of altos was twice the number of male singers, and we've also had rehearsals in which almost the entirety of our seemingly Morman Tabernacle sized alto section couldn't make it. We've had nearly as many rehearsals in which a male part was covered by one singer as there were rehearsals with more than two male singers. I've even had one singer refuse spare me the fact that he was leaving because he thought I wasn't a good conductor. Old singers, many of whom I used to sing and sometimes drink with after rehearsal, are almost all quite as over committed as Washingtonians are so known for being. Their ability to commit to a rehearsal is completely dependent on their ability to fulfill real responsibilities in the perpetually overworked lives of capital city dwellers. Our budget can still be charitably described as negligable and we are straining to find ways to raise money in a country where arts organizations feel the crunch of a recession before nearly any other organization. Week after week, I tell my singers to find their singing friends and bring them to us, by gunpoint if necessary. But as Donald Rumsfeld would say, you go to rehearsal with the singers you have. I was quoted as saying that 'there are always more people from whom you can draw,' but it's no secret that the problem for us remains how to find them. One day, somebody's going to hit upon a formula that will bring the 'young people' back to classical music in droves. I hope they share it with us.

This is our reality. Realizing that we had to start from scratch was in many ways a heartbreaking experience, not just because of the blow to the ego or even occasional gnawing doubts as to why people were actually leaving, but also because as a conductor one genuinely misses many of the people who used to sing with us. You spend an entire rehearsal looking at your musicians, gauging their reactions and trying to get inside each of their minds to figure out how one can elicit the best possible performance. You quickly begin to feel as though you know them disproportionately well, even if you don't know them well at all. When they tell you they have to leave, it's difficult not to feel in many ways rejected and inadequate. But if you can't teach yourself to swallow rejection whole and then bounce back to keep asking them back knowing fully well that the same result may occur time and again, don't be a conductor.

I'm far more an instrumentalist and composer by training, but it didn't take long for me to realize that I love working with singers. They are a different breed from all other musicians - far more akin to actors with all the strengths and foibles that such a comparison implies. They are far more willing to work, far less susceptible to auto-pilot, far more willing to make mistakes and expect to bare the brunt of personal (but fair) criticism in ways that we instrumentalists will never have to handle. They also guard their egos like hawks, because underlying the natural vanity is insecurity that can potentially be overwhelming. The work that they do opens them to a level of psychological vulnerability that no other musician but a composer has. Their instrument is their person, and that makes it far more important to establish trust with their director than it is for any instrumentalist. Instrumentalists often feel that they can anonymously hop from prestigious gig to gig and phone it in every time. But I have yet to meet a singer who feels that way.

I'm sure every conductor envisions an ivory ideal in their head of what they hope their ensemble will be. And the ability to envision what a group should be is every bit as important as dealing with realities. But realities are always tough, and rarely fair. Real leadership requires grace under pressure. I've never thought of myself as someone who had a great gift for that, but I've found myself flabbergasted at my ability to remain totally calm in the hot seat even in the most dire of circumstances. Unflappability is what it takes to succeed, even if it doesn't guarantee success. And if you're hungry enough for success, you will grow the stomach to do things you never thought you had the cajones to do in a former life.

We are small. We are growing. One day this chorus, or one like it, will be an institution. I hope it's us, and I'm going to do everything to make sure it is. But we need the help of every person reading this to make it happen.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Veljo Tormis!

Where you been all my life?


Top 10 Pieces of Classical Music in the 00's

- L'Amour de Loin by Kaija Saariaho (2000, Salzburg)

Doctor Atomic is as perfect an example as exists of an opera conceived 'in the arena.' It expresses the Zeitgeist and seems to engage the thoughts, conscious and unconscious, of our era. But L'Amour de Loin is its polar opposite. An opera conceived completely out of step with any temporal concern and with a gaze planted firmly on the other-worldly. Saariaho may claim inspiration from Messiaen, but the guiding spirits seem as much Monteverdi and Gluck (and even Wagner in his way). This is opera as it was first practiced - with characters too larger than life to feel emotions the way we do. The characters plant themselves firmly in the middle of the stage, and they sing the kind of allusive poetry that either captivates or bores the shit out of you.

I should know, because I didn't understand the big deal with Kaija Saariaho for the longest time. Her music always struck me as a kind of exotic kitsch. Lots of clanging bells, lots of held notes, lots of aboriginal instruments, but no sense that this music expresses anything at all beside your typical college dorm sentiment "haven't we lost something in all this progress?" (usually uttered right before the person tries to convince you that you haven't lived until you've tried LSD).

I only 'got' L'Amour De Loin on the 5th try. I've never read the libretto, and my French is pretty hilarious. But the music tells one everything which the story contains. Like Wagner, it does so by wearing down your resistance. But unlike Wagner, there is no spiritual coercion. This is no assault on the senses, it is merely a seduction. The sentiments it expresses are quite untrue (and perhaps somewhat dangerous), but it appeals to everybody's longing for a different kind of world in which their remote ideals, appealing only because they are remote, come true. But unlike Wagner, there is no sense that we should try to make this world happen on planet earth. The only sentiment remaining is that we should wear our distant aspirations on our sleeves specifically because of their remoteness, and perhaps let them remain as remote as possible.

Bad Sex Awards Shortlist

The Humbling by Philip Roth (Jonathan Cape, £12.99)

"He had let Pegeen appoint herself ringmaster and would not participate until summoned. He would watch without interfering. First Pegeen stepped into the contraption, adjusted and secured the leather straps, and affixed the dildo so that it jutted straight out. Then she crouched above Tracy, brushing Tracy's lips and nipples with her mouth and fondling her breasts, and then she slid down a ways and gently penetrated Tracy with the dildo. Pegeen did not have to force her open. She did not have to say a word – he imagined that if either one of them did begin to speak, it would be in a language unrecognizable to him. The green cock plunged in and out of the abundant naked body sprawled beneath it, slow at first, then faster and harder, then harder still, and all of Tracy's curves and hollows moved in unison with it. This was not soft porn. This was no longer two unclothed women caressing and kissing on a bed. There was something primitive about it now, this woman-on-woman violence, as though, in the room filled with shadows, Pegeen were a magical composite of shaman, acrobat, and animal. It was as if she were wearing a mask on her genitals, a weird totem mask, that made her into what she was not and was not supposed to be. She could as well have been a crow or a coyote, while simultaneously Pegeen Mike. There was something dangerous about it. His heart thumped with excitement – the god Pan looking on from a distance with his spying, lascivious gaze.

"It was English that Pegeen spoke when she looked over from where she was, now resting on her back beside Tracy, combing the little black cat-o'-nine-tails through Tracy's long hair, and, with that kid-like smile that showed her two front teeth, said to him softly, "Your turn. Defile her." She took Tracy by one shoulder, whispered "Time to change masters," and gently rolled the stranger's large, warm body toward his. "Three children got together," he said, "and decided to put on a play," whereupon his performance began."

The Infinities by John Banville (Picador, £14.99)

"Alba has stepped out of her dress in one flowing, stylised movement, like a torero, the object of all eyes, trailing his cape in the dust before the baffled bull; underneath, she is naked. She looks to the side, downwards; her eyelids are so shinily pale and fine that Adam can see clearly all the tiny veins in them, blue as lapis. He takes a floating step forward until his chest is barely touching the tips of her nipples, behind which he senses all the gravid tremulousness of her breasts. She puts her hands flat against his chest and leans into him in a simulacrum of a swoon, making a mewling sound. Her hips are goosefleshed and he can feel all the tiny hairs erect on her forearms. When he kisses her hot, soft mouth, which is bruised a little at one corner, he knows at once that she has been with another man, and recently – faint as it is there is no mistaking that tang of fish-slime and sawdust – for he has no doubt that this is the mouth of a busy working girl. He does not mind.

"They conduct there, on that white bed, under the rubied iron cross, a fair imitation of a passionate dalliance, a repeated toing and froing on the edge of a precipice beyond which can be glimpsed a dark-green distance in a reeking mist and something shining out at them, a pulsing point of light, peremptory and intense. His heart rattles in its cage, a vein beats at his temple like a slow tom-tom. When they are spent at last, and that beacon in the jungle has been turned low again, they lie together contentedly in a tangle of arms and legs and talk of this and that, in their own languages, each understanding hardly a word of what the other says."

Rhyming Life and Death by Amos Oz (Chatto & Windus, £12.99)

"Almost in an instant his desire rises to a level where the pressure to reach a climax stalls and gives way to a sort of sensitive physical alertness, pleased with its own sexual generosity, that gets a kick out of giving her thrill after thrill and postponing his own satisfaction, feeling to see how he can give her more and more pleasure, until she cannot take any more. And so, in complete self-denial – in every sense – with his fingers, now experienced and even inspired, he starts to steer her enjoyment like a ship towards its home port, to the deepest anchorage, right to the core of her pleasure.

"Attentive to the very faintest of signals, like some piece of sonar equipment that can detect sounds in the deep imperceptible to the human ear, he registers the flow of tiny moans that rise from inside her as he continues to excite her, receiving and unconsciously classifying the fine nuances that differentiate one moan from another, in his skin rather than in his ears he feels the minute variations in her breathing, he feels the ripples in her skin, as though he has been transformed into a delicate seismograph that intercepts and instantly deciphers her body's reactions, translating what he has discovered into skilful, precise navigation, anticipating and cautiously avoiding every sandbank, steering clear of each underwater reef, smoothing any roughness except that slow roughness that comes and goes and comes and turns and goes and comes and strokes and goes and makes her whole body quiver. Meanwhile her moaning has turned into little sobs and sighs and cries of surprise, and suddenly his lips tell him that her cheeks are covered in tears. Every sound, every breath or shudder, every wave passing over her skin, helps his fingers on their artful way to steer her home."

The Naked Name of Love by Sanjida O'Connell (John Murray, £12.99)

"This time her body felt real to him, not fragments from a dream, or a surreal hallucination, but there was a certain clumsiness, an awkwardness on his part as if it were the first time for him now that he was bereft of the herb that made him feel how she felt. They were not in tune and it was as if he were splashing about helplessly on the shore of some great ocean, waiting for a current, or the right swimming stroke to sweep him effortlessly out to sea. He felt they were lacking some vital ingredient; she was only partly engaged, the building explosion of sensation that had made her unfurl like a flower, a morning glory greeting the sun, was missing. He stopped.

"What is it? she asked.

"You, he said. I've lost you, he whispered.

"She smiled, wide-eyed, lithe as a cat, she twisted her body, took his hand and showed him what to do; he felt her breath hot against his throat, her pulse quicken, limbs grow taut. He was hanging in deep green water, waves breaking against him, the clean sweep of the shore attainable in a few slow strokes."

A Dead Hand: A Crime in Calcutta by Paul Theroux (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99)

"'Baby.' She took my head in both hands and guided it downward, between her fragrant thighs. 'Yoni puja – pray, pray at my portal.'

"She was holding my head, murmuring 'Pray,' and I did so, beseeching her with my mouth and tongue, my licking a primitive form of language in a simple prayer. It had always worked before, a language she had taught me herself, the warm muffled tongue."

The Death of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave (Canongate, £16.99)

"He slips his hands under her cotton vest and her body spasms and slackens and he cups her small, cold breasts in his hands and feels the hard pearls of her nipples, like tiny secrets, against the barked palms of his hands. He feels the gradual winding down of her dying heart and can see a bluish tinge blossoming on the skin of her skull through her thin, ironed hair.

"'Oh, my dear Avril,' he says.

"He puts his hands under her knees and manoeuvres her carefully so that her bottom rests on the edge of the settee. He slips his fingers underneath the worn elastic of her panties that are strung across the points of her hips, slips them to her ankles and softly draws apart her knees and feels again a watery ardour in his eyes as he negotiates a button and a zipper. It is exactly as he imagined it – the hair, the lips, the hole – and he slips his hands under her wasted buttocks and enters her like a fucking pile driver."

The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell (Chatto & Windus, £20)

"Una had stretched out on the bed of the guillotine; I lifted the lunette, made her put her head through it, and closed it on her long neck, after carefully lifting her heavy hair. She was panting. I tied her hands behind her back with my belt, then raised her skirt. I didn't even bother to lower her panties, just pushed the lace to one side and spread her buttocks with both hands: in the slit, nestling in hair, her anus gently contracted. I spit on it. 'No,' she protested. I took out my penis, lay on top of her, and thrust it in. She gave a long stifled cry. I was crushing her with all my weight; because of the awkward position – my trousers were hindering my legs – I could only move in little jerks. Leaning over the lunette, my own neck beneath the blade, I whispered to her: 'I'm going to pull the lever, I'm going to let the blade drop.' She begged me: 'Please, fuck my pussy.' – 'No.' I came suddenly, a jolt that emptied my head like a spoon scraping the inside of a soft-boiled egg.

The Rescue Man by Anthony Quinn (Jonathan Cape, £12.99)

"'What are you thinking?'

"'I'm thinking … of all the things I'd like to do to you.'

"Pressing her down so that she lay lengthways on the sofa, he unbuttoned her coat, but didn't remove it. He felt her body's warmth through the layers of clothes; slowly, he unbuttoned the woollen cardigan she was wearing; he kissed her stomach through the silk blouse underneath, and the sweet embroidered vest beneath that. Then he pushed these back too so that he could taste the pale skin, and felt her trembling against his mouth. His hands caressed the sharp jut of her hip bones, and fingered the buttons at the side of her skirt which he anticipated trouble with, unless … He had the sensation of journeying through veils, of a headlong descent towards disclosure, and the prospect of pausing to fiddle with more buttons was not to be borne. Her breathing had become shallower, and her face was turned distractedly to one side. His head had drawn level with her lap, and as he lifted up her skirt he recalled an image of Bella at Slater Street casually flipping back the dark hood from her camera and removing the plate. Feeling the snaps and entanglements of her underclothes as a delay to his progress, he placed a kiss, quite reverently, on the ivory-coloured sheath of her pants; through the material he traced smooth skin, then the wiry tussock below. The thin silk felt like water purling through his fingers. His hands squirmed beneath the cool curve of her buttocks and stroked the dimple at the base of her spine. Then he dipped his head lower until his mouth grazed the tip of the inverted white triangle that ended between her legs; he brought a hand around and, parting her legs slightly wider, allowed his finger to draw back the pouched silk. It felt to him as if he were tending a delicate weeping wound, and as he probed it with his tongue he heard her moan quietly. Excited by the oysterish intricacy of her he sucked and licked the salty folds until they became sweet, and slowly she arched her back to heighten the angle of provocation. As her gasps grew more urgent he glanced upwards and saw her face almost angrily flushed and straining, his mouth now breathing in the wetness of her until, with an agonised cry, she stiffened and shuddered down the length of her torso."

Love Begins in Winter by Simon Van Booy (Beautiful Books, £7.99)

"My mouth lingered on hers; I tasted her. I felt for her tongue with mine. I felt the blood surging through my body. We pressed against one another.

"Impossibly close.

"She gripped my arms. Her nails tore into me. Soon we both were burning.
"Sweat pooled in the ridge of my back as I moved like a tide determined to crash against those ancient rocks.

"Then – a moment before – inside, I kept very still. Our bodies moved of their own accord. Hannah's body was swallowing, digesting all that was mine to give. For those final moments, we existed seamlessly – all memory negated by a desire that both belonged to us and controlled us.
After, we kept very still, like the only two roots of the forest."

Ten Storey Love Song by Richard Milward (Faber & Faber, £10.99)

"Let's have sex, they think simultaneously, couples having strange mind-reading powers after months and months of trying to figure each other out. Panting, Georgie starts rubbing her hands round Bobby's biological erogenous zones, turning his trousers into a tent with lots of rude organs camping underneath. Bobby sucks all the freckles and moles off her chest, pulling the GD bib wheeeeeeeeeee over her head and flicking Georgie's turquoise bra off her shoulders then kissing her tits, and he's got so much energy – plus he's very impatient – Bobby tugs off his sweaty sweater himself and gives Georgie a helping hand with his zip. Then comes the enormous anticipation of someone putting their mitts on your cock and balls. Georgie smiles to herself and keeps him hanging on for a bit, which in a way is even better though it makes the Artist want to explode and after one or two tugs he moans 'whoah' then screams 'whoah!' and Georgie lets go giggling, then suddenly her face is all serious and Bobby pulls her polished pine legs apart and slithers a hand up her skirt where her fanny's got a bit of five o'clock shadow like a pin cushion but her lips are nice and slippy, and he slides some lubricunt round and round, mixing clockwise with anticlockwise with figure 8 until Georgie's shagging the air with pleasure bashing her feet about. Then, Bobby starts scrabbling frantically across the carpet for Mr Condom, sending five or six multicolour Durexes flying through the air, and he struggles getting the packet open and Georgie has to roll Mr Condom down Mr Penis for him and she has to help insert him into Mrs Vagina."