Monday, April 29, 2013

For Janos Starker (1924-2013)

I always found that there was far less to Janos Starker than met the eye - a perfect cello machine who never spared an opportunity to mute the expressive capability of whatever he played, and no doubt encouraged his students to do the same. Give me Rostropovich any day, hour, or minute over Starker. Rostropovich was all warmth and fire, whereas Starker was a perfectly formed icicle. Nevertheless, the technique was truly jaw-dropping, and when it came to works of great difficulty, he could put them over like the easiest thing in the world. He was not an artist to touch your heart, but he could make your hair stand up.

Kodaly Cello Sonata (it was said to be unplayable until he played it)

Friday, April 26, 2013

800 Words: St. Augustine - The Original Blogger?

There are large swaths of the Confessions of St. Augustine that are unreadable. I say this not as a Jew, but as a reader whom I’m sure would be equally bored with watching people kiss God’s ass if I pretended to believe in any other faith than the religion I choose to pretend to believe in. But for a few choice passages which I must find with a fine-toothed comb, The Confessions of St. Augustine sucks. There’s no promised place in heaven or hell which can make me finish this book.

But let’s be kind to poor Augustine. He was the pioneer of his genre, not the summit - though he was perhaps the summit of early Christian thought (and I’m far from qualified to pontificate in such matters). But as another overrated Christian writer once declared, “In my end is my beginning.” And T S Eliot’s maxim can apply, among many other things, to Early Christianity’s obliteration of paganism, and particularly of the material worldview which paganism provided - a materialism which probably ruled our species since the dawn of its sentience.

Augustine of Hippo was an almost exact contemporary of Emperor Theodosius, and converted to Christianity at precisely the same age that Theodosius was when he made Christianity the state-sponsored religion of the Roman Empire (incidentally, they were both 33... Christ’s age when he was put on the cross). Their generation was the founding generation of Christianity as the world’s dominant religion, the first generation for whom the entire world practiced Christianity with a universal standard as determined at the Council of Nicaea. And therefore, their perception of Christianity was unfettered from the existential threat which every previous generation of Christians lived with. The world they lived in was suddenly Christian, and because of that unfettered access to a world which shared their beliefs, Augustine was free to meditate upon existences’ mysteries in a manner which no Christian before him was able:

“And what is this? I asked the earth, and it answered me, "I am not He"; and whatsoever are in it confessed the same. I asked the sea and the deeps, and the living creeping things, and they answered, "We are not Your God, seek above us." I asked the moving air; and the whole air with his inhabitants answered, "Anaximenes was deceived, I am not God. " I asked the heavens, sun, moon, stars, "Nor (say they) are we the God whom You seek." And I replied unto all the things which encompass the door of my flesh: "Ye have told me of my God, that ye are not He; tell me something of Him." And they cried out with a loud voice, "He made us. " My questioning them, was my thoughts on them: and their form of beauty gave the answer. And I turned myself unto myself, and said to myself, "Who are You?" And I answered, "A man." And behold, in me there present themselves to me soul, and body, one without, the other within. By which of these ought I to seek my God? I had sought Him in the body from earth to heaven, so far as I could send messengers, the beams of mine eyes. But the better is the inner, for to it as presiding and judging, all the bodily messengers reported the answers of heaven and earth, and all things therein, who said, "We are not God, but He made us." These things did my inner man know by the ministry of the outer: I the inner knew them; I, the mind, through the senses of my body. I asked the whole frame of the world about my God; and it answered me, "I am not He, but He made me.”

(Book X)

This may seem like the most obvious Sunday School kindergarten pablum to us, but in the 4th century, this was absolutely revolutionary. The idea that not only is God invisible, but that he is also absolutely unknowable, is not a concept which comes from the Bible itself. The “Old Testament” abounds in passages full of divine intervention, and also of God as a character made flesh and blood. Read Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers; Yahweh is a character as real as every pagan god in Homer who presents himself in the lives of his subjects with the freest of hands. Ample evidence exists which even shows that the Israelites of the Davidic/Solomonic Court also worshipped a goddess whom they believed was Yahweh’s wife - Asherah, and that El is in fact not a second name for Yahweh but a god in his own right. It is only in the Seventh Century BC(E) in the era of the Prophets and Deuteronomy that monotheism became generally accepted as the correct interpretation -. Israel and Judea were not subjegated by Assyria and Babylon because Yahweh was a weaker God than Marduk or Ba’al, they were subjegated because the One True God used these Empires as a means to punish the Israelites for their iniquity. But even in the next millenium is full of examples of direct divine intervention - from the Book of Job to the Gospels themselves.

But it was only a thousand years after the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem (586 BC”E”), when Christianity finally became the religion which ruled the world, that Christians had to reconcile themselves to the fact that God does not appear to them, even if He appeared to generations past. The Christian “New Testament” would not be officially canonized for more than a century after Augustine’s death, but the New Testament’s contents were determined by meetings in Augustine’s hometown of Hippo which he himself attended called the Synod of Hippo Regius. Augustine embodied the moment when Christianity became itself.

With Augustine, we find the official end of the Age of Paganism, and with its completion, the end of belief in the divine as a substance of our own world. God may control the heavens, but human beings, finally, are masters of our own kingdom; and however trivial that kingdom seemed in relation to God’s kingdom, it was still a place ruled by an invisible force for which there was no definite accountability. Therefore Augustine signaled the dawn of individual as the world’s most important subject for study. Man was no longer the plaything of a god, he was his own master, an object worthy of his own study. It was a long-fought dawn for individualism, and the world of spirits and magic continued their influence over even the highest discourse until the High Renaissance and beyond. God may be in the heavens, but the remnants of his earthly kingdom cling resolutely to the ground.

And as the beginning of individualism as we today understand it, much of Augustine’s Confessions seem quite anti-individual, perhaps invidiously so. So much of the book is giving to “stirring” paeans to God that it’s very difficult to see the revolution taking place. But take place it does. Skip the Confessions themselves and go straight to Book X and Book XI of the Confessions, you immediately see a mention of the greatest problem of every generation that has occupied every great thinker from Augustine’s time to our own - memory.

Memory is the ultimate problem, and the ultimate definition, of the individual. And it’s difficult to believe that any writer has ever written more accurately of precisely what memory is than Augustine. And certainly no writer has been more hopelessly wrong at diagnosing what causes memory than he. Like all theologians, the end answer is simply God - a divine gift from a divine being, tied neatly in a bow and with no need for further examination. I can’t help but be reminded of Sarah Palin talking about her brother-in-law, saying that he’s an extremely knowledgeable amateur biologist who can tell all about the history of each species. I always imagined his conversations with Palin’s children going like this:

How old is this species?

Six Thousand Years Old.

How about this one?

Six Thousand Years Old.

And this one?

Six Thousand.

Augustine was the beginning of theology as we generally know it, but he was also the beginning of the mystery of the individual - a mystery that resounds through the ages in all sorts of soft sciences as to what makes each of us unique? The problem of the individual, and particularly of individual memory, is something which we gather from all sorts of pseudosciences: from theology, to phrenology, to theosophy and anthroposophy, to social Darwinism, to (yes) philosophy, and even to psychology. Psychology may yet be remembered as the final exhalation of the mystic, unknowable individual - the final ponderings an unknowable inner psyche which is not yet explained by carbon-fused wiring, and as crude a first attempt at a scientific explanation of the human mind as Augustine’s was a crude literary explanation. I wouldn’t bet on it, but perhaps we have, finally, moved past God, and investigations of the individual into a world of pure materialism in which all the world can be controlled by science and therefore we must have the added complex of analyzing ourselves as our own Gods. In the pagan era, we humans were merely the playthings of the world. In the monotheist era, we are the world’s inhabitants. In the scientific era, we are the world’s masters. Naturally, Augustine would warn against this advancement.

In using his personal self, his experience, and his observations, as the beginning of personal meditation, Augustine was the first memoirist. Does that therefore mean that he is also the beginning of the Blog? Well, if he is, then he’s not the Blog in the sense of Perez Hilton (though the earlier chapters are not as far off as you might imagine), but perhaps the blog as chronicler of history, of an era, of an ethos, of a culture, of a life, and of an eyewitness who attempts to view his own life with dispassionate equanimity. In all these regards, Augustine of Hippo was utterly without precedent, and therefore should probably be forgiven if he ended up viewing his life with the most messianic imaginable self-conceit.   

But we should cut him still more slack. Augustine’s chronicles were the first chapter in the book of an era that did not yet exist and an era that awaits - and has perhaps arrived at - its final chapter. It is the era into which you and I were born, and the era into which today’s children may not have been. It is the era of individual mystery. If science and DNA can eventually provide concrete explanations what makes individuals individual, then the mystery which Augustine presented is no longer a mystery at all. If personality one day becomes something with which we’re born, but something which we can change as we might a shirt, then how much less space will there be for personal observations?

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

800 Words: The Gym - The Most Depressing Place in America

I’ve not had access to my bike for the last two days. So in the midst of this rare health craze of mine, I’ve found myself returning to that place I hate more than any other, that place which is everything wrong with America made manifest, that place whose neurotic narcotics double our direly needed necessity for healthy living, a place where our addictions know no bounds, and a place which stultifies our health and stunts our spiritual growth into heart-diseased automatons who lose any ability to distinguish the joys of living from disgusting engorgement. It’s not the fast food restaurant, it’s the gym.

I hate the gym. I loathe the gym. I abhor, abominate, detest, despise, disgustize, rancorize, revulse, resent, scorn and spite everything about the gym. It is the black beast of my existence. It clinicizes physical activity and bludgeons the joy of being in shape into the most excrutiatingly mind-numbing, irritating, boring activity upon the face of the planet. It forces us to stay indoors when we should be using our primal urge for physical activity to put us back in touch with the natural world. It forces us to watch the spectacle of people more in shape than we will ever be show off their muscular physiques for their glory and our despair. It forces us to watch the equally sad spectacle of people so out of shape that they can never get back into it make futile attempts to prolong their short journey to the cemetery.

Runs and bikerides, even pool activity, give us the solitude and slowness we direly need in our too quickly run lives. But at the gym you’re at the mercy of whatever inane conversation goes on around you - and inevitably there’s some right-wing pontificator who shouts his opinions to a captive audience. Every attempt to read on the treadmill or the exercise bike comes to grief, every attempt to feel good about lifting weights comes to ruin when some know-it-all tells you you’re doing it wrong, and then shows you another completely wrong way of doing the same exercise. At least some people can wear earphones to drown out the noise, but for a musician like me who already has tinnitus, that’s impossible.

I started going to gyms when I was thirteen. I was even complimented on my newly burgeoning physique by my grade school gym teacher, a teacher who watched me cry many times after accidentally getting hit by a ball I was far too uncoordinated to follow. She said that by high school I was going to be more in shape than anybody I knew. She was both absolutely right and absolutely not.

I had no idea what I was doing, but I started to go more and more often to the Owings Mills JCC. I loved feeling pumped, I loved that a nerd who was lucky not to get picked last in gym class could feel athletic, and I loved that there were the kind of older teenage girls there which a horny younger teenager (and horny old men) loved to oggle. I used to fantasize about talking to them, for I was a simple boy with little knowledge of the world and its miracles.

When I was about fifteen, I stopped going and found myself gaining weight at an alarming rate. I’d been taking ADHD medications since I was eight, and was often told that I was in danger of serious weight gain. My mother had heard that a friend of hers got a trainer for her overweight son at the gym of the Pikesville Hilton who helped him lose quite a bit of weight. I went to the gym, and that’s where I met Kathleen.

Kathleen was twenty-one, a petite blonde shikse from Glen Burnie, whom for reasons I could not fathom worked at the Pikesville Hilton. She constantly wreaked of cigarette smoke and had a giant, multicolored tattoo on the small on her back. She was constantly telling me how much she couldn’t stand the other trainers. Half-hour sessions turned into two hours as she regaled me with stories of her ex-boyfriends and how much her girl-friends slept around. I was in love.

One of the most heartbreaking moments of my adolescence was when Kathleen told me she was leaving the Hilton for a better job. Going to the gym after Kathleen as gone was simply pointless. Not that it mattered. A few months later, I was at Hyde School in Connecticut, and I would be whipped into shape whether I liked it or not.

Physical activity was Hyde’s default solution. There was nothing in their minds which it could not solve. If a student needed to be disciplined, they’d be coerced into doing regimented, military-level workouts for three-quarters of an hour. If a student didn’t do their homework, they were made to run laps around the building. If a student was disobedient rules, they could be made to do physical activities for hours at a time - along with any other student unlucky enough to be around at that moment.

It was illegal for Hyde teachers to slap us or use canes, so they used the pain from physical activity as a form of torture - and it was most certainly torture, torture was precisely the point of what they administered. But even though it was torture, some people thrived on this routine, and developed a lifelong (and no doubt rather morbid) passion for physical activity. For a little while it appeared to many that I might have been one of them. I was a svelte (though not sexy) one-hundred thirty-five pounds, and the immense amount of sweat gave me an acne-pocked face like a pepperoni pizza. There were many times in wrestling we were coerced into doing a ‘six-minute drill.’ For those who don’t understand what a six minute drill is - it is a period of physical activity so intense that it approximates the physical exertion one must exhaust in a six-minute wrestling match. In itself, that is not terrible, and doubtless exactly what’s used for wrestling teams around America. But one day, as punishment for a few students arriving late, our coach required us to a ‘twenty-five minute drill.’ The equvalent of four full-length wrestling matches in a row. At the end of the drill, he put the latest kid in the middle of the room - a kid from Hyde’s abortive Middle School who couldn’t have been more than twelve or thirteen. We were ordered to look him dead in the eye, strike the floor with maximum force with our arms and yell out “Thank You Kevin” every five seconds. The poor kid stood in the middle of the wrestling room, sobbing as we all directed our exhausted hatred at this poor little boy. Shortly thereaftetr, he seemed to undergo a personality change, no longer a happy-go-lucky boy but one of the most rebellious teenagers in the school. I often wondered what happened to him, but I can’t imagine he ever got over that day, it’s probable that here was yet another soul Hyde set irrevocably on a poisonous path.

One of their favorite exercises was what they called the ‘block’. You keep your feet running in place at full speed, and then you dive into the floor with your hands being all that stops your head from hitting the ground while your feet remain the air until a half-second later. You’re then expected to get up from this - all in less than a second. One day, for our perceived inattentiveness, the entire wrestling team was made to do five-hundred of these in a row. If that doesn’t sound so bad, try doing twenty of them in a row and see how you feel. At the end of it, the captain of the Varsity Wrestling Team, still the most impressively muscular person I’d ever met, came up to me and said ‘Holy shit man, that was not right.’

Another technique of theirs was called the ‘wall-sit.’ A wall-sit in itself in no way terrible: physical therapists use it to help their patients stretch and build up endurance. However, fifteen minutes to an hour of wall sits without a break is most definitely is a form of torture, and bears an eerie though admittedly curtailed resemblance to the Bush Administration’s Guantanamo technique of not letting prisoners sit down for twelve hours at a time (at least they could stand comfortably if they liked).

If we were wrestlers, we were often expected to go on mid-winter runs at 5AM. If we were disobedient, we were expected to have 5:30 military level workouts - come winter come summer. Exposing prisoners to extra-cold temperatures has always been a favorite technique of authoritarian organizations.

But even now, I expect there are some people who will see all this and say ‘this is not so bad and certainly not torture.’ It’s not surprising, these techniques are designed for people like you to say exactly that - just as the Bush administrations techniques were designed to do and no doubt just as many, many organizations in charge of discipline design themselves around the ‘civilized world.’ Like those at Guantanamo, I suppose it’s possible that we deserved no better than we got, but people should still be aware of what transpires in their back yards, and I don’t think they are.  

I’ve gone over the next part before. I swore many times at Hyde that nobody could ever make me do physical activity ever again. And I stayed all too true to that vow. Six years after I left, I was a hundred pounds heavier than my wrestling weight. I suppose that one could argue that perhaps Hyde was a special case and not indicative of larger problems in the society that allowed it to exist, but I would argue that what went on at Hyde was simply a byproduct of a macho society grown fat with ill-gotten muscle on its own testosterone. We’re a culture that caters to sports - American industry may disappear tomorrow, but professional American sports leagues have enough money from overpriced tickets and merchandise to outlast the rest of America for a hundred years. And we’re bombarded with so many airbrushed bodies on television and the internet that many Americans assume it profits them nothing to get in shape if they can’t look like Arnold Schwartzenegger or Kate Moss. Our country’s turned into the physical equivalent of the Eloi and the Morlocks. It often seems as though everybody who doesn’t look beautiful topless looks like a living room sofa. Can you blame us fatties? What hope have we of getting in shape when we’re told that if we can’t work a miracle with our bodies, we might as well stuff our faces on Chipotle?

I don’t ever want to be in wrestling shape again. I don’t want to be an athlete. I have no physical ambitions beyond the ability to play senior-league softball in my mid-seventies should I so choose. I want a normal body. I want to weigh somewhere in the area of one-hundred sixty pounds, and I want to weigh that before I’m incontrovertibly bald.

Two summers ago, I lived in Bethany Beach Delaware. I was between places, and needed to move in with my parents. But my parents’ heavy plaster ceilings were caving in. We had to move to my parents’ beach house, and since I’m in the family business, I had no reason not to move with them. Not a single friend came to visit me that summer - and in the long run, that didn’t matter much. For the first time in ten years, I was physically active in a meaningful way.  We had two bikes, and I would ride them all over the Delaware Coast. To Ocean City, to Rehoboth, to Bethany Bay, to Georgetown, Milford, Delmar, and Millsboro. I felt as though I knew every streetcorner within ten miles of our beach house. After the ride, I’d come home and we’d eat fish every nigh - hardly a single land animal consumed for nearly the entire time I was there. I was suddenly thinner than I’d been since my year in Israel.

When I moved to Baltimore, I blanched at buying my own bike for months. The expense was simply staggering to me. Who is going to pay $9-1200 for a decent bike? Day after day, I would walk outside to find a gorgeous, endorphin releasing day, and mourn how easily this could be enjoyed with a bike. In June, I finally balked, and I found a halfway decent bike for $400. And it was on that very day when I took it out for my first ride that I bumped into my old friend D-------’s running group, thereby causing the chain reaction which caused the ever-increasing social life I now have in my new city. The riding season for beginners was practically over, and I swore I would do better this year. Unlike last year’s March, the weather was dingy, grey, and forever 40 degrees, a true Smarch if ever there was one. Finally, April came and the weather warmed, and I’ve been out virtually every day.  

Suddenly, the joy is rekindled. On that bike, I’m ten years old again, riding on the Gunpowder Trail in Hunt Valley at speeds faster than any ten year old should ever go. I have literally shouted for joy in crowded streets on that bike. In just three weeks, I’ve bonded to that bicycle to the point that it’s become like a symbol of freedom and hope to me. On Saturday, I biked across the city - a distance I thought impossible a mere day before. I’m outdoors, I’m mobile, I’m seeing Baltimore - truly seeing it - for the first time, and for the first time since I was sixteen, I’m enjoying physical activity. I don’t know if I’ll feel that way in early July, but come rain or shine, cold or hot, I want to be on that bike.

Monday, April 22, 2013

For Sir Colin Davis (1927-2013)

A Magic Flute that's pure joy. 

When Sir Charles Mackerras died, I was faced with an odd choice as a blogger. This was a conductor whose musicmaking simply had too much personal imprint upon my life to do a normal obituary. I'm determined not to make the same mistake with Sir Colin that I did with Sir Charles. But all the same, I can't simply give the details of Sir Colin's life without talking about the personal impact of his musicmaking on me.

Pure fire and brimstone - Mozart's "Great" C-Minor Mass

By any standard, Colin Davis was not my favorite conductor. But he was one of the conductors with whom I grew up, and one of the conductors whose best performances gave me the most joy. One of my early memories was when I was four years old, and seeing Davis conduct the New York Philharmonic in Brahms's 2nd Symphony and Beethoven's 4th piano concerto. To call me an unusual little kid would have been the century's understatement, and I had practically worn out my Bruno Walter tapes of Brahms 3rd and 4th symphonies already. But even at that age, I thrilled to my discovery of Brahms 2 the way an archaeologist would thrill to the discovery of Atlantis.

Berlioz Requiem -

Much as rhythm was the basis of Sir Charles Mackerras's music-making, sound was at the center of Sir Colin's approach - and he clearly loved making sounds as rich and full as any conductor since Leopold Stokowski. But unlike Stokowski, there was a stiff-upper-lip reserve that prevented him from exceeding the bounds of good taste. He conducted very little Mahler and claimed to loathe Mahler's 'vulgarity', yet had he let that magnificent shock of a silver mane down, he could have been a truly great Mahlerian (I grew up listening to his Mahler 1 and it was a wonderful, if unorthodox, performance), or equally great in more rough-hewn composers he generally avoided like Janacek, Bartok, and Mussorgsky. But he never could let himself go enough to get rid of his particularly English 'tastefulness'. Even in composers for whom his performances were justly world-renowned, like Berlioz and Stravinsky, his performances were full of passion, but they were passionate within an extremely constricting framework. It often felt as though Sir Colin had placed himself within an interpretive straightjacket which undercut all the momentum he worked so conscientiously to build. .

Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique (I’m not even sure a Colin Davis performance is in my top dozen choices for Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique - the piece is such an amazingly bizarre sonic kaleidoscope that most conductors know that they can cut loose in any way they like, and do so only to the music’s benefit. But Sir Colin was in such demand as a Berlioz conductor that he recorded the Symphonie Fantastique no less than four times. Most record lovers prefer his Concertgebouw recording from 1974, but while I’ve not heard his 1980’s version with the Vienna Philharmonic, I believe that his first with the London Symphony in 1963 is easily the best of the three I've heard. It can’t be denied that Davis was, in his manner, a truly great Berlioz conductor. But to me, Colin Davis’s Berlioz is overvalued. His evangelism on behalf of Berlioz cannot be overvalued, but he was able to evangelize for Berlioz because he brought out all the tasteful elegance of Berlioz, showing the world that Berlioz was no less classical than anything in Haydn - in Davis’s hands, Berlioz was a ‘normal’ composer. But the Berliozian bizarre which you get from Charles Munch or Leonard Bernstein or Pierre Monteux or John Eliot Gardiner is virtually nowhere to be found. Of the Davis SF’s, most people prefer his 1974 version with the Concertgebouw. But to me, that version is too long on elegance and too short on drama. Sadly, I’ve only heard one Davis performance of the Symphonie Fantastique that can thrill on the level of Munch’s, Bernstein’s, Dudamel’s, Gardiner’s, Monteux’s, Karajan’s, Ozawa’s, Muti’s, Celibidache’s, ... I’m sure I’ll think of more before long... and it was from long before Davis could be considered a 'mature master.')

And yet, there was a second side to Davis. Even in his genial old age, this conductor who appeared the personification of avuncularity could suddenly seem inflamed with the fire of a thousand angels and demons, and cause orchestras to play with the kind of fire which their training is supposed to drain out of them. Davis belonged to a line of conductors - like Bruno Walter and Carlo Maria Giulini and James Levine - who began their careers in blazes of fire and were known for giving performances of scorched earth intensity. But as age mellowed them and the fires cooled, they began to 'savor' the music and linger on every beautiful passage to milk it for maximum expressive potential. Sometimes the results were absolutely beautiful, sometimes the results were boring and maudlin. Nevertheless, in each of these cases, these conductors could occasionally summon the fire of old and stun their audiences with a blazing excitement which no 80 year old should ever be able to summon. In Sir Colin's case, he was able to summon the old passion seemingly on command in his beloved Berlioz and Britten and Sibelius even in his final years. But there was no better example of how the fire would return than in his recordings of the Nielsen symphonies. Sir Colin had never conducted these works that are known still to strike terror in the hearts of orchestral players for their difficulty until his 80's. With one exception, the results seem marginally a success with some awkward errors. But in Nielsen 4, still one of the most difficult pieces of music ever written for orchestra, Sir Colin and the London Symphony recorded perhaps the most scorched earth performance ever made of this terror written by lightening which takes the unambiguous heroism and necessity of visceral playing which one can only find elsewhere in Beethoven, and allies it to musical techniques that are fully of the twentieth century. Sir Colin's performance of Nielsen 4 with the London Symphony is a miracle.

Stravinsky - Oedipus Rex (Good as the linked version from Munich is, it’s still not as good as the scorched earth that inevitably resulted from Colin Davis’s Stravinsky from a quarter-century earlier. Colin Davis was an angry young man, and perhaps his performances of Oedipus at Stadler Wells (no the English Naitonal Opera) did more to establish him as a force with which to be reckoned than any other single accomplishment of his early years. Most conductors, not least Stravinsky himself, are unwilling to go with Stravinsky’s writing to the primal power of his dissonances to make them as ugly as possible. But Davis plunged as fully in as his 'English' reserve would ever allow. Davis is perhaps not up there with Pierre Monteux, Ernest Ansermet, Antal Dorati, Leonard Bernstein, Valery Gergiev, and Esa-Pekka Salonen as one of the very greatest of all Stravinsky conductors, but he's damn close.)

Many of the recordings of works he recorded with that amazing fire are nowhere to be found on youtube: Benvenuto Cellini, Dvorak 7, Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements. But there is one work above all others for which he will probably always be best known. Les Troyens, Berlioz's magnum opus, the crowning glory of his grandiosely glorious career, his Grand-with-a-capital-G rendering of Virgil's Aeneid, lay unheard by most music lovers, and rarely heard by even the most passionate classical music fans, who would have to travel halfway across the world for a revival, which seemed only to happen once every five years in a single city. But by now, Les Troyens is nearly as much a repertory item as The Ring Cycle, produced everywhere in spite of its expense. We could, if we like, pretend that it's due to the efforts of other musicians. But no, it is because of Colin Davis's tireless promotion that Les Troyens is no longer a rare item, and not just his promotion of Les Troyens, (though I believe his second recording sold 100,000 copies, a number which even Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma rarely equal). It is because of his ceaseless, tireless, championing of Berlioz throughout his fifty-year career. When Sir Colin began to undertake his holy cause of performing Berlioz throughout the world, Berlioz was still an under-regarded composer for a full century after his death. For championship like that, who cares if there were Berlioz conductors who made better performances?

Colin Davis was a bit of a walking (conducting?) contradiction. A voracious reader, he was among the most intellectual men to pick up a baton, and yet few if any conductors seemed more guided by their gut instincts. And yet he would leave his gut instincts at the edge of the cliff, and rarely if ever dived off of it if it meant giving interpretations that were too controversial. He was stubbornly, resolutely old-fashioned in 'classics' from Handel down to Mendelssohn, with sometimes stunning and just as often extremely boring results. And yet he publicly accused his friend John Eliot Gardiner in the press of being insufferably dogmatic, when Gardiner's sole crime was to be the mirror image of Davis's own dogma. There should be no doubt that he was a great conductor, but he could have, and should have, been still greater. 

Handel: Messiah

Verdi: Falstaff

Michael Tippett - A Knot Garden - a work he premiered

The Legendary Peter Grimes Performance

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

800 Words: 25 Things About Herbert Swamley

(a rerun from something I wrote for my 'fake name' during that '25 Things About Me' craze on facebook from roughly five years ago.)

1. On May 1st 1973, Herbert Swamley was born into a Communist family residing in Flatbush, Brooklyn. His parents names were Wayne and Lynn Swamley.
2. Herbert was the middle child. Lucius Swamley being his elder brother by two years and Karla Swamley his younger sister by three. 
3. On Herbert's ninth birthday, Wayne and Lynn Swamley had an explosive fight about Wayne's potential promotion to foreman of Brooklyn's largest longshoreman dock and proceeded to murder each other with a hammer and sickle.
4. Herbert's only surviving grandparent, Sidney Applebaum, was deemed an unfit caregiver on account of purchasing a magazine from Publisher's Clearing House. 
5. Custody was awarded to a band of coyotes.
6. Four years later the Swamley children were repossessed by social services after their foster father attempted to force them to follow a road runner off a cliff.
7. Ten years after their reintroduction to human society, Lucius Swamley graduated from Harvard summa cum laude. But shortly after the graduation ceremony, Lucius was to die in tragic circumstances. Upon seeing a red car, he chased it onto a highway and was flattened by a Mack Truck. 
8. At the age of 16, a voice spoke to Herbert, endowing him with the testament for polygamy and ordering him to move to rural Utah. Immediately upon his arrival he married Shiela Firkusny, Jeanette Cortot, and Joline Mitropoulos (nee Ratzenburger).
9. Three years and eight children later, he repented his paleo-Mormon choice of lifestyle and returned to the Communist fold, for which the National Politburo of America assigned him to agitate on the streets of East St. Louis.
10. The return to Communism lasted four days due to a brush with shoelace heiress Marcia Wigglesworth, herself in the midst of a three day crisis of liberal guilt. Six hours after meeting they eloped. A week later they opened a fur coat store on Fifth Avenue.
11. Immediately upon returning to New York, Herbert encountered his younger sister, Karla Birenbaum(nee Swamley), now self-appointed community agitator against Wigglesworth House of Fur. Karla, prematurely aged and pregnant, offered Herbert a reconciliation in exchange for crack money. 
12. Marcia agreed to the reconciliation and offered to support Karla's crack habit in perpetuity, but unbeknownst to Herbert and Marcia, Karla was also an FBI informant who named names.
13. In exchange for supporting the crack habit of both Karla and her unborn child, Karla cheerfully agreed to provide the FBI with a list of 754 communists. After an hour of writing down names, her list numbered 753. Not being able to remember another name, she put Herbert on the list.
14. Herbert was arrested and the reputation of Wigglesworth House of Fur tarnished forever. He was sentenced to 5 years, but the sentence was suspended on account of a plea bargain he made to turn informant on the Wigglesworth family.
15. Marcia's father, shoelace magnate William Wigglesworth, moonlighted as a KGB assassin. Seeing as how we are up to 1993, the KGB did not exist anymore, so William Wigglesworth then moonlighted as a mail frauder against the United States postal service, running a stamp counterfeit operation out of his bathtub. 
16. As an informant, Herbert reported directly to the Postmaster's General. He turned up evidence that William Wigglesworth is an alias for Mitch Paderakus, a disgruntled postal worker in Newark, Ohio who shot 12 customers on account of a missing hole puncher.
17. Upon Paderakus's arrest, Herbert had to testify against the father of the woman he loved, a fact for which he had extremely conflicted feelings. However, for the good of the United States Postal Service, he elected to do his duty and became the key witness in the government's successful effort to send the Newark Hole Puncher to the chair.
18. Marcia Wigglesworth, betrayed by her husband, left Herbert with their newborn son the evening after giving birth to him.
19. Herbert Swamley Jr. was left to only his father to raise, with no money or assistance in caregiving. Herbert Sr. attempted to leave the son on the doorstep of an orphanage, only to realize right after ringing the doorbell that Herbert Jr. would be a fantastic advantage for welfare fraud. When the doorbell was answered, rather than giving Herbert Jr. up he convinced the orphanage to print fifteen duplicate birth certificates to be mailed to relatives and friends as a sign of his devotion to his son.
20. Herbet Swamley Jr. then became the recipient of fifteen welfare checks a week, addressed to Herbert Swamleys Jr-XVI. 
21. For fifteen years, the Swamley's owned a ranch outside of Billings, Montana during which Herbert Sr. became the country's preeminent breeder of Bald Eagles. 
22. Swamley & Son's half-hour infomercial 'how to start your own Bald Eagle farm' infomercial can be seen at 3 AM on G4 every Saturday and Sunday.
23. Herbert and Shiela's son, Joe Firkusny saw the infomercial and quickly notified his three mothers, each remarried to (and divorced from) the same man.
24. Herbert Swamley was then brought to trial in the State of Montana on 17 counts of fraud including child support fraud, welfare fraud and bald eagle fraud. He was found guilty on all counts.
25. Sentence pending.

Friday, April 12, 2013

800 Words: Why I Haven't Composed - The Really Douchey Version

I am, officially, creatively blocked. I haven’t written a blogpost on a serious idea in three weeks, I haven’t been able to write music that exists beyond a marginal idea, and I haven’t been able to create more than the barest outline of ideas that exist well beyond where my creative weight can punch.

Let’s face it, the blog is the ideal outlet for me. Nobody in the world is better at instant gratification than I (take that how you will...). Nobody works better at the spontaneous combustion which comes from piggybacking an idea for a few hours which goes from idea to published piece. The end result may be sloppy, the end result may be intellectually ill-formed, but at least it’s interesting - or at least I think it is. But the problem is that I think I’m repeating myself. I have a couple basic ideas - usually related to the decline of this or that and finding an inappropriate way to shoehorn Hitler into it, that I feel like I’m repeating endlessly in these posts. So I’ve been trying to find ‘artistic salvation’ elsewhere, and thus far done a piss poor job of it.

Last night, in my inimitably manic fashion, I told some string players in a band I play with that I would have a string quartet written for them in three weeks - a statement I regretted making even as I said it... I then sat at my computer until 3AM, trying to create a germ for a piece of music that I wasn’t embarrassed to set down on paper - scrapping idea after idea after idea. The end result was, of course, pathetically inadequate. I simply know too much music not to see how lacking I am in comparison to the music I want to write. Once upon a time, I may have had the nerve in me to be a good composer, but even with that degree in musical composition, I am no composer, and whatever self-confidence that takes is something in which I utterly lack.

The reason I want to compose is simple - I think I’ve listened to too much music in my life. I’m saturated with it, and more and more I’m beginning to hear what pieces of music lack rather than appreciate what the music has. It’s probably the worst reason in the world to write music, but I have a sure idea of what I want music to sound like that corresponds, at least abstractly, to what I hear in my inner ear. And, for reasons that are both obvious and not, a colossal lack of ability to get that music down on the page.

It’s no secret that to my ears, music has gone wrong. Not as colossally wrong as it might have, but wrong nevertheless. I often think of that line from Bing Crosby when he declared that ‘Popular music... is one of the few things in this country that’s made giant strides in reverse.’ Lots of people (not least me) argue endlessly about when the Golden Age of Music and/or Culture was, and how the music world has been but a shadow of itself since Cobain’s suicide, or since the the advent of the CD, or since The Beatles broke up, or since the RIAA became the ‘dictator’ of the industry. I won’t pretend I’m above such closed-minded grouchiness, for as you know, I can out-snob you all on command.

I’m an even bigger stick in the mud than nearly any of you reading this. My simple truth, a truth I insist upon for no one but myself, is that the Golden Age of Music, and of Culture generally, ended around 1914 when Gavrilo Princip killed Archduke Franz-Ferdinand - and thus began a 75-year conflict on the world’s most developed continent which marked somewhere around 100 million Europeans to a grave before their time. The twentieth century as it should have happened was over nearly before it began. How many great composers, how many great musicians, how many great writers and painters and filmmakers and dancers and actors and photographers and producers and scientists and philosophers and inventors and statesmen and economists were among them of whose contribution we’ll never hear because we’ve been deprived of what they can contribute? How many extraordinary children and grandchildren of these hundred million were never born?

There were many other centuries of death before the Twentieth Century, but surely the Twentieth Century must be remembered as the most shocking. The decades before World War I are still the apex of civilization as it’s ever been experienced. From 1348, the year of the Black Death, until 1914, a civilization sprang up upon Europe which grew organically as a yogurt culture, and no war or revolution was large enough to derail its growth. Make no mistake, it was a civilization for the few and the aristocratic, but for those few noblemen with the education to take part in it, it must have been something resembling heaven itself. Great art, great literature, and great music proliferated nearly everywhere it was written, and over a period of nearly 600 years, it evolved to the point that it could give voice to the most complicated thoughts and emotions on the planet. To speak only of music, it had finally freed itself from the cliches of formula and form  - no longer did everything have to be done according to the rules of dry musical terms counterpoint and development - it could simply be pure expression. And because of that, the music of this era was not simply the most intelligent music ever written, it was music which could capture within it an entire popular culture. And it was at the very apex of this civilization that these civilized people killed all the very things they prize.

The reason it happened isn’t as complicated as all that. The privileged few could enjoy the fruits of this flower, but 99% of the world population couldn’t. Many of the poor were rightly pissed off about their suffering, and many of the rich felt guilty about enjoying themselves. Eventually, all great things turn to dust, and along comes people like the Nazis and the Communists who promise that you can destroy everything build and something greater in its place.

We may yet build something better in its place, but the 20th century totalitarians ensured that it won’t be a smooth transition. The age we live in is hardly a truly democratic age, but it’s far more democratic than anything which came before.  in which you needn’t have dozens of years of training in order to create something of lasting value. It is a fantastic, and very important development for the world. But it also means we must relearn everything we once knew.

War bifurcated the educated among us. The millions of immigrants lucky enough to get out of Europe between the 1830’s and the 1930’s were the fertilizer from which America grew from a provincial hinterland into Dictator of World Culture. But it was not until America got piles of Nazi-persecuted intellectuals eminent enough to be welcomed outside their own countries that America truly became the country we know today. These were the intellectuals who instructed generations of Americans in the cultural secrets of Europe so that our culture might build a greater culture of its own - some of them even made their significant contributions to American culture. Without the mass influx of intellectuals fleeing World War II, we’d have no Lubitsch and Billy Wilder, no Balanchine or Marlene Dietrich, no Gropius or Mies, no Mondrian or Max Ernst, no Max Steiner or Erich Korngold. But those European teachers couldn’t teach us enough. Eventually, the carefully prepared pop arrangement was replaced by the garage band, and the literate film script was replaced by a series of verbal cliches to accompany stunning visual effects.

Intellect and emotion came to be divided by a wall that grew ever taller and thicker, the realization occurring to preciously few people that the two experiences serve to intensify one another.  Europe became in thrall to modernism - creating a world of constantly expanding theory and dogma to which its art is ever in thrall and its loyalists exhibit cultish devotion - its very lack of ability to be understood is proof of its depth, and all expression which exhibit signs of a healthy emotional life are the ultimate proof of vapidity. Classical music was always a harmonic language above all else, but modernist composers became obsessed by it - and drove out any semblance of traditional tonal harmony in favor of unremitting dissonance. During Schoenberg’s lifetime, tonal harmony became ever more inventive, ever more progressively used. The harmonic possibilities which composers could utilize for its expression became almost infinite, and yet few viewed it as more than a simple intellectual exercise, and only a few jazz musicians and nearly no great rock musicians incorporated the coolest chords of Bartok, Debussy, Stravinsky, Ravel, Messiean, Prokofiev, Hindemith, and Martinu. By the time of Schoenberg’s death in 1951, he’d clearly won his war on tonality. Composers who stuck to tonality were coerced into explaining why, and not a few of them converted to creating music that was clearly an inferior product to the tonal music they’d written just a few years before. The modernists have created some toweringly great work, but in nowhere near the droves of it by which the 19th century composers created.

Whereas Europe became obsessed by harmony, America seemed to be unaware of it. Meanwhile, American music always took glee in showing up the pretentions of Europe, and if the European musical tradition was obsessively preserved, then American seemed to reveal a new trend every few months that would destroy any memory of what came before. Memory was what drove Modernism obsessively, but the amnesia of the Modern Age was the engine which made Modernists feel that need.

The result is a music in which you feel the need to create in one side or the other - and the graveyards of music are filled with laughable attempts to create a ‘middle ground’ between the two. That’s not to say that there hasn’t been all kinds of great music written in the twentieth century, but it’s simply not as great as it was a hundred years ago. Debussy, Stravinsky and Bartok all wrote great music, and but their music is so much drier than the music which great composers wrote a mere generation before. Shostakovich and Britten tried to reunite intellect and emotion, but it was too late - the larger world was caught up in popular music, and those two composers were still writing for an audience who lived in the 19th century. Some of today’s greatest composers - Adams, Reich, Ades - are making gestures to reuniting the classical and the popular, but it rarely sounds like more than a token novelty. In the ‘popular’ tradition, even the most sophisticated musical thinkers - Ellington... Mingus... Brubeck... John Lewis... Brian Wilson... Zappa... Eno... Bjork... Sufjan Stevens...? - create musical techniques that are like a child’s science fair experiment when you put them next to the most accomplished of the classical avant garde (Schnittke, Berio, Ligeti, Messiaen, Kurtag...). I can listen to jazz, rock, R&B, even occasionally house music and (very occasionally) rap, for many perfectly good reasons - it can move me emotionally, it can make me laugh, and it’s almost inevitably fun. But I find it very difficult to find music in ‘our’ tradition which stimulates me intellectually.

The music of our time is a house that seems hopelessly divided to extremes as everything else has in these unfortunate past hundred years, and just as I’m stuck in that hopelessly all-inclusive political middle between socialism and conservatism, the music I want to write is in that Death Valley of a Vital Center. There were many works written in our century that took that plunge into the sweet middle spot - both classical and popular, intellectual and emotional, bridging the old world with our new one - a state which so many composers for so many centuries seemed to do as second nature. But this attempt so seldomly done that you can name virtually all the successful ones. In music, we’ve abandoned harmony in favor of rhythm, those who haven’t abandoned the diminished chord in favor of atonal ones, and everybody seems to have abandoned old instrumental combinations in favor of wholly new mixes and matches. There are many signs that the old divides are falling, but it seems all too late for many generations that all these instrumental combinations can easily exist side by side. Will it be too late for me too?

Playlist of the Lost Hybrid Classical/Popular Old/New World that never was:

A. What We Can Be Relieved We Still Have

Kurt Weill - The Threepenny Opera

Carl Orff - Carmina Burana (under extreme protest...but Orff is an example of fusing popular with classical, and kept composing in the same idiom until the end of his career. So I can't ignore him, even if I hate, hate, hate x1000 Carmina Burana)

B. If only we’d listened... (some were killed, some were silenced, some were compelled to change their style before it reached its promised glory, some simply gave up and put the pen down, but all of them had moments from which composers today with more nerve than I can begin to build an arsenal.)

...this is the sort of music I want to write, not in their style, but in their aims. In a contemporary manner that would put the music I write in the context of the music we hear all around us rather than the music they heard in 1925. It is the tradition we need to revive, and when it is, we'll know that classical music has come back to full health.