Friday, January 29, 2016

Musical Explanation 1/29/16: Zweden Conducts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 25, 2016

Musical Explanations 1/24/16: Frank Martin Mass

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Musical Explanations 1/23/16: King Lear

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 22, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 18, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 17, 2016

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

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

Friday, January 15, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 14, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Musical Explanation 1/13/16: A Lincoln Portrait by Aaron Copland

"The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so must we think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country."

There's been much comparison these last seven years between Obama and Lincoln. It says much that Obama, the only President representing Illinois since Lincoln and Grant, has always draped himself in Lincolnian mythos rather than mythos surrounding the Founding Fathers or Franklin Roosevelt. To be sure, Obama and Lincoln were very different presidents - in some ways diametrically opposed in their governing philosophies. Nevertheless, there is at least one sense in which Lincoln and Obama stand together - they both arose out of necessity. In times of American crisis, both Presidents arose quickly from obscurity to become the Presidents our country required in a time when our country required a great leader to rewrite what our country is because anything less than that would have put the country in terrible peril.

There are few truly transformative presidents like that. Is Obama truly a member of the elect along with Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt? Probably not - as the crisis of our era was not quite as gripping as those crises of former days, Obama has not transformed the country to the same extent. Nevertheless, he will always be the Northern Star for my generation - the proof that America, for all its hypocrisy and mendacious demons, is still an idea very much worth fighting for. In a time of troubles, a great leader arose who did so much to right the ship of American democracy before this original experiment among the modern democracies could sink into history's mire. In 2008, the Bush administration's economic ignorance came so very close to a depression that could have exceeded The Great Depression - to say nothing of the international damage. Even now, in 2016, our recovery seems tenuous - as though the entire scenario could replay itself within a generation. For every gain, there is an equivalent loss. As the identity of the country is once again rewritten, the voices who wish to prevent that rewriting grow louder and louder - in the cases of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz they use bullhorns.

America has always had history and luck on its side. Perhaps our luck is running out. The America of 2016, institutionally unsound, systemically decaying, does not now seem like the machine of endless reinvention it has always seemed to be. Obama has righted our ship on policy, but at the price that the political system is more fraught and gridlocked than ever before. At the end of the Obama presidency, the machine that lets some Americans prosper on the backs of others is finally laid absolutely bare and stark naked. And in this moment when racial issues seem finally within striking distance of a beginning of redress, the old America, the America as unapologetically racist as ever before, appears willing to move Heaven and Earth to keep America as it was.

As Lincoln said: "It is the eternal struggle between two principles: right and wrong, throughout the world. It is the same spirit that says: You toil and work and earn bread, and I'll eat it. No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle."

America could yet become everything the world fears, but we're not there yet, and even if it turns back the clock on tyranny, the awesome dream of what it means to be an American - reinvention, self-improvement, opportunity, freedom tempered by community and trust, should serve as an inspiration in countries that in the future might embody the sublime American spirit better than we do.

That American sublimity is what A Lincoln Portrait is about. It's far from Copland's most intricate score, but in its simple fragments, it speaks to those spiritual places where every American yearns to go.

From the earliest age, Copland's music sounded American to me, as it does to everybody else. I don't have the secret of Aaron Copland, but I do have a theory. America, nearly as large by itself as the entire European continent, is a land of open space. Except perhaps for a Russian, no European can possibly understand what such open spaces feel like unless they come to America to see them for themselves. Even now, the plurality of American land lies unpopulated, untouched and rife with opportunity for settlement.

Copland's music, with its endless stream of open chords, is like a projection of American space in our ears. The tonalities of Europe are a monarchy, with the tonic note serving as king, the dominant his viceroy, and the third being the nobles and gentry who administer over the other notes, the plebes. Dodecaphonic music and atonal music are merely a subversions of the old monarchy, and however much a few individual composers have achieved within it, it's merely a rebellion against the old system with no plans for the future. Whatever American music is, it has yet to be determined. Even to this day when America begins to show its age, American music is Copland's open field, full of the rhythm and vigor of youth, and waiting to be settled.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Erotic Fan Fiction in place of Musical Explanation 1/12/16: Shostakovich Symphony no. 10

(combines a musical explanation with a little something I've written for a friend's event: Erotic Fan Fiction involving people from history...)

It was early in the morning of March 5th 1953, and Dmitri Shostakovich was dozing off in his study. Every day, he rose up before dawn to begin work on music, but there was no point in working too hard these days. Ever since his denunciation five years ago, he was person non grata in the Soviet Union. He was even sacked from all his teaching jobs so he had nowhere to go in the morning. For seventeen years, ever since the last round of denunciations, Mitya slept in his apartment building's hallway rather than in his bed. In case KGB came to take him away to Siberia or to be shot like nearly every one of his artist friends, he didn't want to wake his family up. Next to the staff paper on his desk was yet another half-cleared bottle of vodka, just his first of the day, and a carton of cigarettes, his fourth in a week.

It would be an unseasonably warm day, roughly 2 degrees centigrade, and it was early March. In a few weeks would come the beginning of that part of the Russian year when it's cold but not too cold to snow, it lasts seven months. Nevertheless, in spite of this massive heat wave, a gust of wind blew open the shutters and sprinkled cold rain upon Mitya's Harry Potter-like visage. Wetting his hair and fogging his thick bifocals.

Shostakovich thought to close the shutters so as not to wake up his children, but this damp, grey rain season was so pleasant to the touch and sight that he simply wanted to enjoy that above freezing heat for thirty seconds.

And then came the miracle. A suspension of belief in the heavens and the earth so profound and so miraculous that all things in the world must be true and false... Yet here, I must digress for a moment to tell you that the Soviets had outlawed miracles according to the Fifteenth Bi-Annual Commissar Conference of the Second Politburo Comerades of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in September 1927. Lenin's two closest former assistants gave contradictory interpretations of Marx's diktats on miracles. Comerade Kamaniev ruled that miracles were outlawed by Marx in article 17 paragraph 2 sentence 131 of Das Kapital Volume 3 Book 4: entitled Conversion of Commodity Capital and Money Capital into Commercial Capital and Money-Dealing Capital (Merchant's Capital). Meanwhile, while Comerade Zinoviev agreed with Comerade Kamaniev in principal, he nevertheless testified to the fact that Dear Comerade Lenin had performed many miracles which would not be made manifest until such time as the Worker's Paradise be brought to the Earth, as while he personally had not seen Comerade Lenin perform them, they would be made manifest as according to article 15 paragraph 51 sentence 32 of Das Kapital Volume 2 Book 3: The Reproduction and Circulation of Aggregate Social Capital. Comerade Stalin was later to rule that the idea of miracles was a Jewish-Trotskyist conspiracy, and accordingly had Comerade Zinoviev and all his associates shot. He then suspected Comerade Kamaniev of being in league with Western Powers for not believing the Soviet Leader capable of miracles, and accordingly had Comerade Kamaniev and all his associates shot.

And yet it was at this very moment, this unseasonably warm, 2 degree centigrade morning of March 5th 1953, that Comerade Stalin definitively proved Comerade Kamaniev wrong, and as if upon wings, flew through the window of Mitya's study with a majestic gust of wind so forceful that entire piles of music flew through the air in a fit of disarray. The greatest composer of the 20th century was immediately despondent that five years of unperformed work was in a state of irreparable disorder, but he did not dare upbraid the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics for his impertinence.

"Dobrye Ootro Dimitri Dimitrievich!" The despot, settling mid-air at five-and-a-half feet above ground,  greeted his once favored composer with the beneficent friendliness he was renowned for bestowing continually upon all Mother Russia.

"Comrade Stalin!?"

"Yes, it is I. Rat tibya veedet." which means nice to see you.

"Comrade Stalin. It... It... It..." Dmitri Dmitrievich was fumbling for lack of confidence. Seeing the man who inscribed life or death for him every day for the last thirty years, levitate in the midst of his study did not do much for self confidence."

"Daaaaa????" Stalin answered with the same small hint of mischief that let his underlings know that they were to starve eight million Ukrainians to death.

"Please forgive me for asking something so importunately..."

"Dear Comrade Shostakovich," Comrade Stalin respnded with utmost sincerity, "when have I ever begrudged another comrade for being importunate?"

"Comrade Stalin..." Mitya Shostakovich could barely look his heroic leader in the face. "Are you flying?"

"That I am Dmitri Dmitrievich. I have come to bid you a final goodbye."

"A... final...?"

"Yes, a final goodbye. For I am dead."

"You are dead...." Shostakovich tried as best he could to suppress his smile, and yet he could not.

"This makes you happy Comrade?" Stalin said, with indifferent irony.

"No, it does not." Shostakovich protested in a raised voice. The mere possibility of Stalin's death sent shockwaves of glee through Shostakovich, yet he was seeing Comrade Stalin with his own eyes, as solidly flesh as could be. Like billions worldwide, he wanted this desperately to be true, but could not believe in the death of someone he sees with his own eyes, mid-air or grounded.

"Comrade, we had a wonderful relationship over these years did we not?"

"Yes Comrade Stalin. Of course!"

"We must have one last conversation before we go."

"What do you want to say to me Comrade Stalin?"

"Pull your pants down."


"I said pull your pants down." The General Secretary said with icy matter of factness.

"You want to have a conversation with my pants down?"

"Pull your pants down and bend over!"


"You heard me."

At the command of the leader of the enslaved world, Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich pulled his pants down and was ready to submit to one final act of humiliation from him.

And yet, in a gust of sound as majestic as Comrade Stalin's entrance had been a few minutes earlier, he heard the bells and sirens ring around Moscow as they never rang before. The Czar was definitively, decisively, determinately, dead, deader than Dostoevsky, deader than Gogol's Dead Souls, deader than the House of the Dead.

"No comrade, I will not."


"Comrade Stalin is dead. He cannot tell me what to do any longer."

"You are mistaken. I have ascended to godhead. I am more powerful than ever before. The universe bows to my command. The world is a face, and I am the jackboot!"

"You're just a flying Yurodivye now."

"How dare you Comrade! Is this any way to treat a leader who's been so generous to Mother Russia?"

"I will not submit" And at that moment, Shostakovich found courage welling up within him he had not known since he was a student composer at the Leningrad Conservatory, and he grabbed at the feet of Comrade Stalin."

"What are you doing Comrade?"

He uttered again, this time almost spitting it out with vehement vengeance, "I will not submit!" and lunged upon Comrade Stalin's feet and grabbed hold. Stalin was beginning to get nervous and tried to dart away, but Shostakovich's grip was too strong from years of holding pencils and writing on composition paper.

Comrade Stalin flew out of the apartment and up through the sky over the streets of Moscow. Shostakovich climbed up the body of the General Secretary, loosened the belt buckle of his uniform, and while Comrade Stalin made every evasion through the air, Shostakovich would not let go.

And suddenly, Comrade Stalin found that he was wearing no pants, and as Shostakovich entered Comrade Stalin's Trotshole, he shouted "Your business is rejoicing!" over and over again.

A few streets over, Sergei Prokofiev was at his samovar, preparing a strong cup of his morning tea.

He was about to take a his first sip when his second wife called to him, his first wife having been sent to Siberia a few days before.

"Milaya Moya! I think you'd better come to the window."

"Not now Mira, I'm drinking tea."

"Bozhe Moy, I think you'll want to see this!"

"Not now!" said Sergei Sergeyevich with his customary irritation. "Comrade Stalin is dead and soon I'll be performed again and can collect my profits from the West. There's a lot of work to do!"

"Actually, he's alive."

"What?" Sergei said as he took a large sip of piping hot chai.

"Comrade Stalin is flying through the air right now! And he's being sodomized by Shostakovich."

And at that moment, the tea went down the wrong whole, Prokofiev choked on his tea and within forty-five seconds he was dead.

And Shostakovich rode through the air, triumphantly stuffing the deceased Stalin like a Chicken Kiev, and as he did, he cried out for all Moscow to hear: "NOSTROVIA MOTHERFUCKER!"

Monday, January 11, 2016

Musical Explanation 1/11/16: Space Oddity by David Bowie

I don't claim to be either an expert or even a lover of David Bowie's music. In my limited knowledge of him, I'll try to write something about his music today. I do, though, think he was deserving of enormous respect. Compared to Eno, he wasn't much of a musician (few people are). His costumes always changed, but the music remained fundamentally the same throughout his career - the same incomprehensible lyrics, the same arrangements that sounded like 1950's rock'n roll through a funhouse mirror that were inevitably done by somebody else. Where he was truly talented was in the realm of harmony - Bowie's key changes were not as moving as Neil Young or (shut up) Randy Newman's, but they thrilled because they took you to a harmonic place that was completely unexpected. When you compare him to a lot of the three-chord structures from the decades that followed, Bowie sounded like a downright musical genius, which he assuredly wasn't. His music, however, comes to life when you see him perform it in a way it never can on spotify. The electricity, and sophistication, of his performance, more than makes up for what he lacks in talent as a composer or lyricist. He was more magician than musician.

Had Bowie been five years older, he'd probably have been a completely different musician who may never have distinguished himself among the tens of thousands of other rock musicians trying to get record contracts. He was, however, the perfect musician for the early 70's, who saw the authenticity and humanity of the 60's curdle into Nixonian conservatism and paranoia. Perhaps the zeitgeist in those years decided that it was better to conceal your true self rather than reveal it.

The Beatles shaped the Sixties, but Bowie was a formed by the Sixties, and probably due to that he had an enormous lifelong interest in occult and spiritualism that the generations immediately following him did not share. He was, rightly, a political icon for all sorts of reasons, but I doubt he had much real interest in politics. What makes Bowie particularly interesting, and also his greatest limitation, is his interest in the world's spiritual side. His songs did not have much in the way of human themes. Instead, he was interested in all things mystical, transcendent, out-of-body.

This partially meant that a lot of Bowie's songs were a load of crap. But it also meant that when Bowie was good, he was almost inevitably great. Again, when you compare the gender-bending overtly sexual Bowie to so much of the neutered, socially conscious indy rock of our generation, Bowie begins to seem like a miracle. Perhaps it's no more complex that Bowie understood metaphysics - that weird nexus of philosophy, religion, eroticism, and insanity. Our generation doesn't think much about metaphysics. We either take our spirituality so literally that we pile into megachurches; where we're fed literal readings of the Bible and worship God like He's a rockstar. Or we don't think about the next world at all. Instead, we think about nothing more than the world as our two eyes see it, and then we pack ourselves into stadiums where we worship rockstars like Gods.

It shouldn't be too surprising that he spent a few of his most productive years in Germany, the land of metaphysics. In Space Oddity, a seemingly rare place in his output where magician and musician become one, what are those bizarre guitar, electronic, and string harmonic sounds that become increasingly common as the song goes on? Are they the sounds of Major Tom's Death? Are they the sounds of the space shuttle blowing up? Are they the sounds of outer space? Or are they the sounds of some transfiguration among the heavenly bodies so mystical that we can't possibly describe them with human words?

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Musical Explanation 1/9/16: Bluebeard's Castle by Bartok

 Bela Bartok was a fiercely private man. Possibly autistic, he was a man so obsessed by his work that the idea of human relationships filled him with a kind of terror. Bluebeard's Castle is an opera about secrets. Shortly before Bartok began work on it, he married a woman he'd later divorce. In 'just' one hour his new wife learns the seven terrible secrets of Bluebeard's soul, which lie behind the seven doors locked doors of his castle. Behind the seventh door lies his final, terrible secret,  that he murdered his first three wives.... Or did he?

Is Bluebeard simply a murderer, or is he tragic figure? One famous Hungarian conductor, Istvan Kertesz, speculated that Bluebeard was in fact the hero of the opera, a tragic figure in horrendous pain, and his wife Judith was a sadistic harpy determined to extract Bluebeard's secrets regardless of his emotions, and therefore practically deserved to be murdered. That's more than a bit extreme - anyone should be able to understand why a wife might be vigilant in discovering whether or not her husband might kill her. And yet, there is still an unmistakeable tragic grandeur about Bluebeard. However perverse it may be to feel sympathy for him, the music shows that he is clearly a man in terrible anguish. He may be psychotic, he may be a misogynist, he may be a sadist, but damnit, he still has feelings...

This kind of many-layered irony is the key to this opera, which is shorter than almost every Mahler symphony. We're told that every possession behind every door in Bluebeard's castle is stained with blood, but whose blood is it: his victims, or his own? Judith is understandably perplexed and anxious about what is in the castle, but she still comes across as rather manipulative, and one wonders if a more (though probably impossibly) forgiving wife might have assuaged Bluebeard's dark side..., at least for a time. The music paints a picture of anguish. Bartok wrote this opera on the cusp of World War One, and he was not quite the fiercely dissonant composer he'd be in ten years. He was a composer in thrall to the airy textures of Debussy and the 'realistic' musical effects of Richard Strauss. The result, musically, is somewhere between a Strauss tone poem and Debussy's opera Pelleas et Melisande (which is really more of a cantata).

Where it differs is in the thirty-year-old Bartok's knowledge of folk music, which was already stupendous. With its Arabic and Russian influences, Balkan folk music is far more dissonant and flavorful than most folk music to its north-east, which has the diatonicism of most classical music without the complexity. More than any composer short of Mahler and Janacek, Bartok used dissonance to highlight chords that crystalized the experience of searing emotional agony as no composer yet has equalled. After Bluebeard, Bartok moved in a different, much less subjective direction. In so many ways, his later work is wonderful, even titanic, but it was never again quite as personal as this. Just as trauma victims do, after World War I, Bartok backed away from the emotionalism of an earlier era, seeing it as the remnants of a different time when sentimental attachments were more easily affordable.

This performance is unfortunately at a bit of a low level, but it is the greatest performance I've ever heard: Christoph von Dohnanyi conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra. I remember hearing the relay of this performance when it first happened, and it floored me. Years later, I would listen to the video of this concert performance and check it against the score. To my astonishment, it followed this incredibly detailed score almost exactly, tempo for tempo, dynamic for dynamic.

Musically, Bluebeard is full of events and almost ceaselessly hyperactive. Theatrically, the opera almost stationary and impossible to stage. The music is so graphic and vivid that nothing on stage can possibly equal it for description. Bluebeard's Castle is the perfect opera to perform in concert, because the music does all the heavy lifting, there's almost nothing which a performance in the theater can add. Nevertheless, eight or nine years ago, Ben Giovine and I were fortunate enough to see a production of Bluebeard directed by William Friedkin, better known as the director of The Exorcist. It was perfect, with ghost puppetry and the most chilling denoument that's possible to extract. It was an experience that I will never forget, and if Bluebeard was already a work very close to my heart, the became an indelible life experience that night.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Musical Explanations: 1/8/16 Shir Hamaalos by Yossele Rosenblatt

My father blindsided me last night, in the middle of the New Music Gathering at Peabody where I have a chance to meet more musicians into modern music than I've ever seen in my life - there are probably 300 composers at Peabody right now, most my age or younger. But my father is turning seventy, and not only did he want me for dinner, he also wanted me at Beth Tfiloh, my ...favorite... place, for Kabbalas Shabbes.
Once I came, I realized I was glad I went, because the culture shock was, as always, utterly overwhelming. To go from hours upon hours of recitals among hipsters making atonal blips and beeps to a group of Orthodox Jews who were singing and dancing, some with truly incredible Kavoneh (fervor), was the biggest culture shock of them all.
The difference between Pikesville and Smalltimore was summed up this afternoon. Both places are like families in which you either buy in totally, or you don't. In Smalltimore, there is lots of curiosity, lots of experimentation, lots of social consciousness. But there's no metaphysics, no real sense that anything matters except the here and the now. In Pikesville, there's always lots of warmth, lots of hospitality, (relatively) lots of tolerance for unbelievers and differing opinions, and a sense that was completely lacking at Peabody today that there were things which mattered past immediate concerns. Short of sex, religion is the greatest theater ever conceived. My rational self will never believe in religion, but the sense of awe, of communication with the primal mystery it hits, is something much, much deeper. I don't have much in the way of faith, but there is something in my gut (kishkes) that tells me that we all need a way to feel in touch with these eternal, spiritual questions, even if it's through doubt rather than belief. It's a theater deeper than any Shakespeare, and I have the sense that many people don't have any connection with it at all.
There's a great literary critic and novelist, J. B. Priestly, who writes that it's this divided self, the tormented sense of self-conflict, the urgency that not feeling like you belong anywhere brings, that gives an artist a burning desire to communicate something that sears itself into the memory. Without that urgency, it's entertainment. Both places don't know how desperately they need to be more like each other. At Peabody, I watched as hundreds of people listened in respectful attention while hours of music were played that nobody had any real reason to remember after the performance. It wasn't bad, some of it was very good, some of it was ingenious, but where was the urgency? Where was the sense that music and art is nothing less than a matter of life and death? In Pikesville, I listened and participated as seventy-five people sang melodies hundreds of years old at the top of their lungs. After which they will retire to their homes for a fantastic meal and forget completely about the immeasurable suffering that goes on five miles away from them.
It is this sense of divided suffering that Yossele Rosenblatt brought to both music and religion. Yossele Rosenblatt was the most famous of all cantors who was in demand to sing around the world, he was offered more money than any cantor has ever been offered. He got offers to sing both on Broadway and the Metropolitan Opera. But he turned them all down and would only sing Jewish music and never give concerts on Shabbos. The temptation must have been overwhelming for a man who grew up amongst Russian pogroms. And yet he redoubled his commitment to religion, and even if his music announces his faith to the world, its deep sadness screams his doubts and fears from the mountaintops.
His setting of Shir Hamaalos became so famous that it nearly became the Israeli National Anthem. It speaks to a primordial longing we all have. Here is the text:
"When the Lord returned the captives of Zion, we were like people in a dream. Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with exultation: then said they among the nations, The Lord has done great things for them. The Lord has done great things for us; so we rejoiced! Bring back our captives, O Lord, as the streams in the south. They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. Though he goes on his way weeping, bearing the store of seed, he shall come back with joy, bearing his sheaves."
Whether or not one believes in the State of Israel's legitimacy, the longing to return to Zion and Jerusalem has been one of the fundamental themes of Western poetry for thousands of years. It is the longing to return home, the longing to belong, the longing for purpose, the longing for love, the longing that if an artist does not tap into, he will not reach into the guts of the audience.
Few pieces have ever hit me deeper in my guts than Shir Hamaalos. In the summer of 2009, when I was virtually homeless and penniless and briefly even cut myself off from my family in Pikesville, with hardly any connection to home or the religion, I was fortunate enough to stay on the couch of friends, and far more than once I would shut myself in a friends bedroom, listen to this recording of this prayer, and weep.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Musical Explanation 1/7/16: Berio Sinfonia

Berio, conducted by Boulez - irony duly noted.

Against the figure of Pierre Boulez, one should consider the figure of Luciano Berio. Modern classical music, even atonal classical music, can be a wonderful, fascinating thing, and Berio is the proof. There is nothing at all wrong with modernism or even atonality, so long as they are not only present for their own sakes. Music is, must be, about more than its syntax.

Berio was all the correct things to European modernism: Darmstadt-certified, almost fanatically Marxist, in every sense a musical progressive. Where Berio differed from so many modernist colleagues is that would have no truck with self-mutilating cant. He was as absolutely comfortable with tonality as he was with atonality, and managed to combine them in ways that even Boulez admitted were impressive.

In many ways, Berio's Sinfonia is the masterpiece of the 20th century's second half. It is as earth-shaking as The Rite of Spring was to the first half. Within its musical universe (and really, it's a universe), it is as though we're listening to the very stream of consciousness.

I may not care for many of the thoughts Berio espouses in this piece. The first movement is an homage to Claude Levi-Strauss, one of the gods of critical theory and the founder of Structural Anthropology. The idea of an homage to Levi-Strauss holds not much more appeal to me than an homage to Boulez, but the beliefs themselves are not important. What's important is how he manages to create a mental space within the piece, as though he is exploring the ideas of Levi-Strauss in a musical language and precisely what his brain hears when he process Levi-Strauss's thoughts.

The singers sing only six words in the second movement: O King O Martin Luther King. This may be the most abstract musical elegy Martin Luther King ever got, but it's still haunting.

The part everybody knows, the towering masterpiece within the masterpiece, is the third movement, which is a musical collage laid over the third movement of Mahler's Resurrection Symphony. It's overlaid, sometimes interrupted, by bits of Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Berlioz, Richard Strauss, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Brahms, Hindemith, Pousseur, Stockhausen, and Berio himself. The singers sing quotes from Beckett, Joyce, and graffiti. It's almost like Berio is recording all his thoughts while listening to Mahler. At the end of the movement, the singers introduce themselves along with the composer, the orchestra, and the conductor, all by name. The first time I heard this movement, I was so bowled over that I had to stop the recording and not listen to anything for the rest of the day. Even if you don't know the source material, this is the kind of music that blows minds and shakes up everything you ever thought you knew about what music was capable of doing.

The fourth movement takes us back to the Martin Luther King incantations, but instead of intoning Martin Luther King's name, it intones six words that are supposed to be reminiscent of the fourth movement of Mahler's Resurrection Symphony, when the alto intones the poem Mahler wrote himself for it: "O Red Rose." It's as though Berio was mourning in the second movement about things of the here and now, while in this movement, he's mourning eternal, universal things.

I suppose I've always been a bit puzzled by the fifth movement. It's supposed to be a summation of everything that came before - snippets from each movement, more Levi-Strauss text... Perhaps it provides a further layer of self-awareness, as though Berio is now thinking about his own previous thoughts. I suppose it's best to think of it as a palatte cleanser.

Regardless, this is the music of which musical revolutions are made. More simple, more 'popular' forms of music can express all sorts of wonderful, necessary things. But they cannot hope to approach this depth of thought, and because the thoughts are more complex, so, probably at least, are the feelings. It is as though we're listening to one of those rare musical works that not only translates music into sound, but ideas too. It takes a combination of genius and fearlessness to pull off. Long after future generations tire of both the Stones and Boulez, they'll be pouring over Berio for ever new meanings, insights, and catharsis.

It is not anti-modernism to dislike Boulez, even if such dislike includes the sin of vituperation. To my thinking, it is perhaps anti-modernism to believe too strongly in Boulez's theories. That is their right to do, and I suppose it's better than the mindless conservatism of much of a concert audience, but while most concertgoers are stuck in 1910, many who fancy themselves modernists are stuck in 1955. The miniscule part of the musical world that is modern classical music moved on from Darmstadt more than half a century ago. Since then it's experienced the developments of aleatoricism, minimalism, holy minimalism, post-Soviet maximalism, and internationalization. Composers can and do borrow from each of these and add to them an entire world's worth of musical developments from outside the infinitesimal sphere that is contemporary classical music. It is only a small coterie within this tiny world who truly love his music and to this day guard it from criticism rather viciously because to admit that there's even a 1% chance that Boulez's music might be unlikeable is roughly the same as admitting that the entire ideology surrounding it is gossamer. The majority of them also buy into the self-parodying ideology that musical progress is inhibited by market forces and most of the Frankfurt School bullshit that goes along with it.

Boulez will in some sense be remembered, but I'm far from convinced that it will be for his music. I could be wrong, which is more than Boulez's accolytes could ever admit. The music of Berio, on the other hand, will live forever.