Sunday, February 28, 2016

Musical Explanation 2/27/16: The Name of the Rose - Movie Version

For reasons I by definition cannot grasp, I have always had an irrational fear of the Middle Ages. What could possibly be scary about a whole millennium when ignorance was enforced draconianly, a new omen of the apocalypse seemed to present itself every week, instruments of torture were a fetish, violence was an ecstatic public spectacle while a single lapse into sexual intercourse could earn you an eternity of hellfire?

I mean, Jesus Christ (pun 75% not intended...), how is everybody not terrified when thinking about the Dark Ages? I doubt there are many eras in human history when life was much worth living, but there is something about the Middle Ages which seems particularly grisly, as though it strove to make virtues out of the human monster's worst excesses.  

Even as a Jewish kid, the Christian idea of Hell seemed horrible and real to me, far more vivid than anything in the comparatively hyper-rational faith of my forefathers. When you combine that with the grisly stories we young Jews were inevitably told about the tortures and burnings of Jews, and you begin to wonder if you're the only Jewish kid who had this thought. What if the Christians were right? If Jews are right, the punishment for not heeding Judaism would be a lot more tolerable than the punishment for not heeding Christianity. 

I suppose it then stands to reason that any movie that depicted the acute horrors of the Middle Ages would earn a special place in my nightmares. When I was fourteen, the movie adaptation of Umberto Eco's famous novel, The Name of the Rose, was one of the most disturbing things I had ever seen in my life - a collection of Medieval gargoyles come to life and an illustration of the world as it once seemed to be; a vast shitheap of death whose bodies we had to climb in the ascent to civilization. I've always been too squeamish for horror movies, but there was something about this movie, the violence, the perversion, the sense of an apocalyptic world where everything was fear and cruelty, that was far more horrible than anything in Hellraiser III. It was a dystopian vision far more powerful to me than anything in The Terminator because it was real. It was the ultimate totalitarian dystopia - a nasty, brutish, and short sojourn in this hideous temporal waiting room which only exists to remind you that you are under the control of this dystopia for all eternity. 

And this movie set its scene in the most learned place - a monastery of learned monks who came to study at one of the largest libraries in Christendom. A place where knowledge was only given to the select few who had to pass through terrible ideological rigors merely in order to be permitted access to a few of its books. The library itself is a labyrinth designed to make its knowledge as difficult as possible to obtain. And if that wasn't enough to dissuade the accumulation of knowledge, it was only permitted to be passed through by its two librarians. Of these two, the assistant librarian was a pedophile, while the chief librarian was a fanatic so intense that he wishes to banish laughter from the world, and would sooner burn the entire library to cinder rather than to disclose that it houses the only remaining copy of the missing volume of Aristotle's Poetics about Comedy.  

Twenty years later, in the wake of Umberto Eco's death, I'm finally reading the book. The book is something entirely different from the movie. This is the kind of book that makes Americans want to scream because it shouts its erudition from every page. Every page seems to have at least half a dozen references to various medieval and classical scholars whom only a dozen people have read in the last twenty-five years. Nevertheless, it paints a lighter portrait of the Middle Ages. If you were a monastic scholar, it almost seems like a pleasant place to live where you can while away your days with esoteric texts and erudite conversation. It doesn't seem like a bad way to live your life, but unless you could live in a civilization other than a European one, it would be much better to be a cloistered monk than just about any other profession in those years. 

Reading the book made me want to go back the movie again. Even at thirty-three, there's something about it that's chills my bones. In addition to the clear influence of so much Bosch and Bruegel, it's principal influence is clearly Carl Theodor Dreyer's silent movie, The Passion of Joan of Arc. Joan herself, in a (literally) iconic performance by Maria Falconetti, is a beautiful woman perpetually posing with a creepily ecstatic visage. But the tribunal of judges who condemn her seems to be made of a group of priests who are half demons, so grotesque are the faces of the actors Dreyer found. If the actors in Dreyer's movie are grotesque to illustrate the grotesquerie of their deed, then The Name of the Rose takes medieval grotesquerie to an entirely new level. The grotesquerie of their faces and bodies seems to coalesce with the grotesquerie residing within their souls. The Name of the Rose is not a masterpiece of a movie - it needs at least another hour to cover the material it presents. But it is a magnificently disturbing one that's all too forgotten. Hopefully Eco's death will prompt people to revisit it. 

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Musical Explanation 2/25/16: Rachmaninov Prelude in B Minor

(Sviatoslav Richter. One of the marks of a great piece of music is that in every great performer's hand, it sounds like different but equally great piece.)

When you hear the simple humanity present in so much Rachmaninov, it's impossible not to allow him his rightful place in the pantheon. Rachmaninov can't be held responsible for how orchestras and pianists, particularly American ones, have exploited him so mercilessly to make him sound like a purveyor of trivially sentimental movie soundtracks with their coitus-like swells and cliched emotional cues. More even than Tchaikovsky, a concert with a Rachmaninov piece is the way to attract a sellout crowd who like their classical music with no challenge to either their emotions or their intelligence.

To be sure, Rachmaninov is not free of that sentimentality. There is an element in his music of soft-core eroticism that seems to describe a banal person's idea of love and heartbreak. But the real Rachmaninov, even the Rachmaninov of his most sentimental passages, is so much more complicated than that.

(Gina Bachauer)

He probably shares, along with his exact contemporary and childhood friend Scriabin, the moniker of the Russian Piano Composer par excellence. But Scriabin and Rachmaninov are precise opposites, as different as Liszt and Chopin, or Kanye and Jay Z. Scriabin is all mania and abandon, an eruption of strange ideas who vomits on the page without regard to whether the music works or doesn't. If Scriabin is all abandon, then Rachmaninov is all control - the precise opposite of the overtly emotional Russian he's often portrayed to be. His music works not because of overstatement but understatement. No matter what Rachmaninov composed, his command of every major element of music - form, harmony, melody, orchestration, rhythm - was absolutely perfect, as though it arrives to us like an aural illustration from a textbook.

Rachmaninov was the most understated of men, perhaps because he could not fail to be noticed. He was a full six and a half feet tall and an honored member of an ancient aristocratic Russian family. His family was so noble and perhaps so inbred that he married his first cousin and few people thought much of it.

(Vladimir Horowitz)

Since Rachmaninov was at very least as great a pianist than composer, his perfection as a pianist and interpreter was no less formidable than as a composer. And after this Russian aristocrat was forced to leave his homeland forever in 1917, he was able to earn a very wealthy living as the most legendary pianist of his time (or at least one of the two, the other being his best friend, Josef Hofmann).

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to think that even at the height of fame, a Russian aristocrat like Rachmaninov would ever have been comfortable anywhere but in his homeland, on his own property. He was clearly a melancholy man long before he left Russia, and after the 5-foot-3 Stravinsky met Rachmaninov, he memorably described the taller composer as 'Six-feet-six of Russian gloom."

(Alexis Weissenberg)

Stravinsky, who was quite influenced by Scriabin, was in his different way as polar opposite to Rachmaninov as Scriabin was. Perhaps Stravinsky's most famous quote is his stated belief that there is no such thing as feeling in music. For Rachmaninov, as though one needed to be told, there was only feeling in music. He once wrote that "I compose music because I must give expression to my feelings, just as I talk because I must give utterance to my thoughts." He also wrote "What is music? How do you define it? Music is a calm moonlit night, the rustle of leaves in Summer. Music is the far off peal of bells at dusk! Music comes straight from the heart and talks only from the heart: it is Love! Music is the Sister of Poetry, and her Mother is sorrow!"

(Idil Biret) 

The purple quasi-poetry of this passage bespeaks a romantic mentality that is a universe away from the quasi-scientific manner of Stravinsky. Nevertheless, look at those pictures of Rachmaninov. This was not a man attempting to be anything resembling a Byronic hero, he looks like he could easily have been a military officer. Rather than Byronic curls he kept his full head of hair cropped like an army private. Rather than a Tennysonesque beard, he always kept his face clean-shaven. Rachmaninov may have hailed from a Romantic era and ethos, but within that ethos, he was as anti-romantic as a composer can become. It is the tension between the innate romanticism of his worldview and the innate stoicism of his temperament that gives his music so much emotional control - he not only writes for and plays the piano like only a handful of masters, he's also able to play the audience like a piano, with whom he can communicate so directly because the discipline with which he expresses is in its way as militant as Stravinsky's or Schoenberg's.

(Benno Moisewitsch)

Rachmaninov wrote this unbelievably beautiful and moving B-Minor prelude in 1910. I think, rather than my trying to explain it, I'll have one of his great artistic heirs - Benno Moiseiwitch, which is in itself an unbelievably moving document.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Musical Explanation 2/23/16: Schumann Fantasie in C

Resounding through all the notes
In the earth's colorful dream
There sounds a faint long-drawn note
For the one who listens in secret.
- Friedrich Schlegel. 
- Quote at the top of Schumann's Fantasie in C's score. 

The unconscious is a dangerous place. It is everything beautiful and sublime, in no small part because it's also the force that can tear us all to shreds from the inside. There are no words for the danger involved in peering beneath the lid. It is a journey from which you may never return - just as Schumann did not.

Schumann, in addition to being the Patron Saint of the Manic among us, is also Bard of the Unconscious. The vast majority of his music exists is the world of dreams. You cannot understand his music on the objective terms of Beethoven and Mozart, and when viewed through their lenses, his music invariably comes up short. Everything about it is a bit clumsy - it is not as well-constructed, not as well-arranged, and any performance that views Schumann with classical objectivity will invariably point up Schumann's weaknesses rather than his strengths. Yet I think Schumann alone, among the generation that also includes Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Liszt, Verdi, and Wagner, is the sole composer of his epoch who can be considered the full equal in profundity and value to the titans immediately preceding them like Schubert, Beethoven, and Mozart. Among his generation of gigantic geniuses, Schumann is the only one I'm willing to put in the absolute center of the pantheon - among composers whose musical powers were absolutely cosmic.

The beautiful grandeur of this Schumann Fantasie comes in no small part from its near-absolute lack of structure; one idea floating into the next with utter freedom and utter continuity, just as our thoughts do - coming unbidden into our heads for seemingly no reason from a place we will never understand. In these decades before Wagner came up with his concept of the 'unending melody', Schumann clearly found the way to create it, and he did so simply by mimicking the way we all think and converse.

But mimicking the way we think alone would be like stream of consciousness with fully cognizant thoughts as Berio did with his Sinfonia more than a century later, and as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce did forty years before Berio got there. Schumann plunges far deeper, deep enough to get to places literature can't possibly reach. He plunges us into the stream of unconsciousness, where thoughts are first formed from a place so irrational that we have no means of forming them into coherence. Philosophy can describe it, but only music can convey it. Perhaps we can form vague pictorial flashes in our minds of what Schumann describes here in music, or perhaps we can form brief one-or-two word descriptions, but no more than that. In order to convey them in words, perhaps we'd have to switch to those vague German philosophical compound words like transfiguration and sense-experience.

But what are we sense-experiencing? What is being transfigured from or into?

On the face of it, it's an extremely difficult question, unless you hear the music, which communicates as directly as any music ever composed. What is communicated in this C-Major fantasy is so clearly beauty, hope, or perhaps something still deeper: perhaps even the elemental will to life. What's communicated is pure beauty in its primordial, pristine state, before the world can sully it with its complex inhibitions and unclean hands. It's music that tells us that however destructive it is for us finite and imperfect life of ours to look into this blinding energy and sunlight as Schumann always did, our motives in this complex world are still pure, our intentions good. Whatever demons are released from looking into something so primeval, we only meant well.

(One more version... purely for the love of it.)

Monday, February 22, 2016

Musical Explanation 2/22/16: A Briefish Ode to the Piano

(Sviatoslav Richter, as far as I'm concerned, the Emperor. The poet, the thunderer, the philosopher, the natural force of music, all rolled into one.)

Oh how I wish I played piano instead of violin. I'll always love the violin dearly, but I chose the violin as a precocious little shit not because I loved the violin but because it was the king instrument of the orchestra. I never cared about playing the melody. I love the whole sound of a reverberating harmony with all its rich overtones and complete resounding through the room and through the self. Every improvised violin solo I take seems to be an endless series of double stops, every piece I compose seems to make the string player work triple and quadruple duty as they have to compensate for their paltry harmonic limitations.

Alfred Cortot - the ultimate poet of piano

No instrument, not the violin, not the organ, not even the voice itself, not even the orchestra, has the richness and depth of the piano's repertoire. To this date, the piano and the organ are the only self-sufficient instruments that require no accompanying instrument to feel utterly complete. But the grandness of organ precludes nearly any intimacy at all. Only the piano can take you from the grandest thunder of Liszt to the most intimate confessions of Chopin.

(Rubinstein - pure charisma)

In our new era of specialists and mechanization, we the general public no longer need use our hands for anything but...  The piano was the ultimate musical achievement in the days when we built our own houses, grew our own food, fashioned our own tools. We can put on piano recordings to listen to the greatest players ever known to man at the click of button, and yet few of us ever do. When we cease to practice music, we've lost the crucial third dimension of what music is: not just an aphrodisiac used to make us feel a certain way, but a tactile experience that literally becomes a part of our identity, our confidence, our achievements in our brief period on earth. An experience that not only articulates our primary emotions, but explores every emotional nuance and crevice in the complexity of our emotional selves. But what need have we of complicated music when we don't take up the challenge of mastering it?

(Claudio Arrau - Philosopher King)

Many of us memorize songs and play them on the guitar, and they usually require us to remember how to position our hands in five chords. The guitar, at least in the way it's usually played, can remain untouched for years and we'll still sound fine when we play it. The piano, on the other hand, is the instrument of responsibility and middle-class striving. To remember how to play a piece of piano requires daily maintenance and work. The guitar, rather, is the ultimate instrument of middle-class rebellion - for all the would-be Hendrixes and Claptons who accomplish amazing things on the guitar, for most of its players, playing the guitar is to announce to the world that tells us we needn't work so hard to play great music. Are they right? In a sense they absolutely are. Something important was undeniably gained by making music simpler. Music is no longer the purview of emotional obsessives but expresses the primary emotions again of common lives. But something amazing was lost when we abandoned the ways of the piano - a striving not only for something everyday, but something too transcendent to be expressed in simple chords and simple words.

(Vladimir Horowitz - manic extremes)

I feel sorry for those who will never understand what it means to play, however badly, a great piece of music by the old masters. The experience is utterly unlike listening to it in your house or even hearing it live. For those of us who struggle with religion, it is the closest we'll ever get. It gets every one of us who's been called to by this music to a super-articulate truth that you can't express with mere words - a sense that there are more things in the heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

(Glenn Gould, pure intellect)

But as a violinist, I can generally only do it with chamber music, and require other people to feel this way. As a pianist, I could go there whenever I want. Whether your passion is Bach or Monk, Brahms or Brubeck, the communion with wordless, absolute music is something we in America have lost over the last fifty years. In our age, now that articulate ideas separate one America from the other, we desperately need something like this superarticulate metaphysical truth to bring us back together. If we had it, it would be difficult to believe that finding common ground between all of us wouldn't be easier.

(Emil Gilels, perfection and emotion together.)

But if you do nothing else, at least try to sample what it's like to hear the great pianists. Listen to the infinite imagination of Sviatoslav Richter, the poetry of Alfred Cortot, the sheer charisma of Arthur Rubinstein, the philosophical depth of Claudio Arrau, the elegance of Alicia DeLarrocha, the emotional extremes of Vladimir Horowitz, the intellectual leaps and bounds of Glenn Gould, the perfection of Emil Gilels, the seductive sounds of Walter Gieseking, the catharsis of Wanda Landowska (OK, not technically a pianist...), the multi-faceted genius of John Ogdon, the ageless poetry and fire of Shura Cherkassky. And so... so many others.

(Walter Gieseking. A voluptuary of seductive sound.)

What is the piano today, in its reduced state? It is not what it was. That's for sure. The last generation of the 'old school' pianists who have both brains and charisma are dying out - who speak the piano like a first language. The great Latin Americans like Daniel Barenboim, Martha Argerich, Nelson Friere are all around seventy. Russians like Grigory Sokolov and Andre Gavrilov are in their sixties, and Yefim Bronfman is nearly their age. Vladimir Ashkenazy is nearly eighty and has long since done little but conduct, and both Sokolov and Bronfman are morbidly obese and look like they're about to keel over at every moment they're not next to a piano. Stephen Kovacevich is already seventy-five. Krystian Zimmerman is pushing sixty, and he, like Sokolov, refuses to play in America. We have a few fifty-somethings who seem to have that now elusive combination of a brain, ten working fingers, and charisma: we've got Stephen Hough in England, Marc-Andre Hamelin in Canada, here in America, perhaps Garrick Ohlsson gets to their level, but while Ohlsson shows no signs of slowing down, he's also nearly seventy. Helene Grimaud is generally wonderful, so is Arcadi Volodos, and now that Yevgeny Kissin's over forty, his mind seems to have finally grown into his fingers. Mikhail Pletnev at least has original ideas, however bizarre they are. The little I've heard of Alexei Volodin excites me, but half the world thinks he's Arcadi Volodos anyway. We'll basically never know what Jean-Yves Thibaudet sounds like outside of his narrow French specialty. Stewart Goodyear is just getting started on the major circuit, and he looks to be fantastic. Zoltan Kocsis was great, but nobody's talked about him for twenty years. Maurizio Pollini's also over seventy, and while nobody disputes his mastery, he's always been equally boring and interesting from one piece to the next.

(Alicia De Larrocha - elegance, elegance, elegance)

What have we instead? We have pianists with brains but no charisma, and charisma but no brains. After the model of High German 'kunstlerpianisten' like Artur Schnabel and Wilhelm Kempff and Rudolf Serkin and Alfred Brendel, we have the multiplying model of the pianist as high priest. "Isn't this music wonderful?" they seem to say, while their recitals are monuments to high art with all the excitement of an Anglican Sabbath. Their playing is wonderfully delicate, so delicate that the subtleties are often lost in a large concert hall. They perform  nearly the exact same repertoire, and their performances often seem interchangeable because they're not willing to cross the bounds of good taste. Andras Schiff (whom, ironically, I'm seeing on Wednesday...), Richard Goode, Murray Perahia, Maria Joao Pires, Radu Lupu, Rudolf Buchbinder, Mitsuko Uchida, Manny Ax, Peter Serkin, Angela Hewitt, . They're all in their sixties and seventies - they have replacements: Lars Vogt, Leif Ove Andsnes (and half the music world thinks they're the same pianist too), Jonathan Biss, Paul Lewis, Piotr Anderczewski, Till Fellner. these are players for whom the word 'exquisite' was invented, with its revulsion of demotic popularity as pellucidly clear as day. I'm perfectly happy to worship at the temple of Beethoven and Schubert, but surely there are other, more rewarding, ways to approach music. Theirs doesn't even do full justice to their chosen repertoire. We also have pianists of brainless fingers like Lang Lang and Yundi Li and Denis Matsuev and Daniil Trifonov, who hopefully will grow minds into their fingers, and excite the public without giving them any money's worth but their thrills. The senses thrill to their assaults, but the heart is not warmed, the tear ducts not opened. Yuja Wang shows intelligence and technique, but she doesn't exhibit much yet in the way of personality.

(John Ogdon - the heir to Richter, cruelly cut short)

All these lacking soloists show us Age of the Piano is long since over, but surely its popularity didn't have to disappear so suddenly. Orchestral recitals are a dying animal, but piano recitals? Forget it. It's practically already dead. The dwindling crowds who come to hear these people have no idea how the public used to thrill to Horowitz and Rubinstein (which in themselves were nothing compared to how they used to thrill to Liszt and Paderewski). The Piano is the ultimate mechanical achievement of a pre-mechanical age. It reminds us of all the extraordinary transcendental things we can do again when we master our new technology. We now live in an age when the technology itself is much more interesting than the products they produce. One day, let's hope one day soon, we'll have it the other way round again.

(Shura Cherkassky - poetry and fire)

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Musical Explanation 2/12/16: The New York Philharmonic - Why It Sucks

(When the New York Philharmonic doesn't suck, they can shake the earth.)

Last week, I went to one of the most disappointing concerts of my life. I heard Semyon Bychkov conduct the New York Philharmonic in Mahler's Sixth Symphony and got a textbook lesson (as if I needed it) as to why the New York Philharmonic is the most disappointing orchestra in the world. I went because, five years ago, I heard a broadcast of Bychkov doing Mahler Six with the BBC Symphony that was one of the greatest performances I've ever heard of anything in my life. It was a logical, lyrical, almost Brahmsian conception of Mahler - fully rooted in German romanticism.

In this performance, the quiet moments were so beautiful that they were truly up to the standard of that BBC performance. But the New York brass blasted their way through Bychkov's delicately old-world conception with no regard for how they're upsetting those delicate gossamer textures. I have no doubt that assertive brass would work very well in a more flamboyant, Bernstein-like conception of Mahler. But every time the New York brass reared their ugly embouchures, it was as though another orchestra took over that was completely out of keeping with the interpretation. Before long, Mahler seemed again like the overlong bombastic composer everybody used to accuse him of being. Seemingly nobody, not even a conductor as great as Semyon Bychkov, can rein in these assholes. Everybody in the musical world knows: the New York Philharmonic is not an orchestra, it's a collection of egos. The Schumann 4 I heard from the Baltimore Symphony the week before was a hundred times more rewarding, and I didn't have to leave my back yard to hear it.

This is the orchestra that eats great conductors alive. They arguably sent Dmitri Mitropoulos, one of the greatest and still most underrated conductors who ever lived, to an early grave. They made John Barbirolli so miserable that he risked a submarine convoy to return to England during World War II to take over the Halle Orchestra in Manchester - at the time a third-rate orchestra. On Barbirolli's return trip, nearly half the submarines in the convoy sank.

Player for player, it is difficult to believe that the New York Philharmonic does not have the most talented orchestral musicians of any orchestra. It is practically a feeder orchestra for the most gifted graduates of the Juilliard school across the street from their concert hall at Lincoln Center. But the very talent of New York Philharmonic musicians breeds complacency. When the musician is arguably more gifted than the conductor, they don't feel they need to comply with the conductor's instruction. The result is more than just laziness, it's chaos. My guess is that there are ten second-tier American orchestras that consistently give more rewarding performances week by week than the Philharmonic does, because they're willing to work far harder at being an orchestra.

(When you compare the Toscanini of the pre-NBC years to the elderly Toscanini, it's like listening to a completely different conductor. The latter is a caricature of the conductor he clearly used to be.)

And yet, the tragedy of it is that when the New York Philharmonic is willing to work - as they were under Bernstein and Toscanini, and sometimes under Boulez and Gilbert, they can indeed sound like the world's greatest orchestra. They had a chance, yet again, under Alan Gilbert, to become something more than the mediocre ne'er-do-well House Band of the world's capital city. And they blew it. Gilbert is not a distinguished conductor of standard repertoire - who cares? That's what guest conductors are for. He was a planner of amazing musical events, the type that make classical music, that make art itself, a contemporary phenomenon rather than a dinosaur fossil. He was even the son of  two New York Philharmonic violinists - he was one of their own, and they still couldn't manage to keep him for more than seven years!

The story of the New York Philharmonic is, in many ways, the story of classical music in America. Blessed by more talent than anybody knew what to do with, and yet never passing up an opportunity to pass up an opportunity. Every step forward in gaining a foothold on American life is followed by two steps back. Too much focus on virtuosity for its own sake and too little on the meaning of music. Occasionally, a visionary figure like Leonard Bernstein comes along and reminds everyone what music is capable of doing, but usually, the concerts have all the specialness of another day at a white collar office for overpaid gigging musicians.

(Just extraordinary)

Friday, February 19, 2016

Musical Explanation 2/18/16: Triumph's Presidential Election Special

(Triumph visits the Star Wars Ep. 2 premiere. The Zenith of Conan, and the only great thing to ever come out of the Prequel Trilogy.)

Around this time last week I was in Toms River, New Jersey watching Triumph the Insult Comic Dog's special. Il Giovine and I's barks of excited laughter quickly turned into howls of disappointment.
For those of you who were not keyed into the currents of pop (poop?) culture of fifteen years ago, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog was one of the greatest things on television. In the late nineties, the Golden Age of Conan O'Brien - after he bombed for his first five years and before Jon Stewart changed the face of late night TV forever - Late Night with Conan O'Brien was the only thing on Late Night TV guaranteed to make anyone laugh. Leno completed his transformation from the great mainstream comic of the 80's to 90's Hack of the Decade. Letterman was clearly past his prime - a caricature of the ticks and randomness which made him so crucial in the 80's. Bill Maher had a very promising beginning when he hosted Politically Incorrect on ABC, but the signs of egomania that would take over his persona were present from the very beginning. Howard Stern would broadcast his radio show on TV but nobody wanted to watch late at night what they could hear on the radio during their commute. Craig Kilborn kept defecting from show to show before he accumulated a substantial following. Tom Snyder's combover ruled the Late Late Show, an interview show for those who thought Nightline too substantial, Charlie Rose too softball, Larry King too fluff. It was supposed to be a kind of successor to Dick Cavett, but Snyder had neither Cavett's self-effacing charisma (not necessarily a contradiction in terms, Jon Stewart has it too) nor Cavett's live audience to up the energy of the discussion. In its place, all anybody remembers of Snyder is his weirdly booming laugh.
Conan was the King of those years. He wasn't a great standup (and still isn't), his interviews were pretty lame, and his schtick has always been stupid in a watered-down Letterman kind of way. Andy Richter was funny, so were Joel Godard and Max Weinberg, but they couldn't make up for the essential problem of making a born writer into a comic talk show host.
What made Conan so fantastic was the ten minutes in between the two guests when he'd inevitably have a comedy skit, no doubt culled from rejected ideas during his years as Saturday Night Live's head writer. The stuff that appeared on Conan was too bizarre, too esoteric, too strange for Saturday Night Live.
My god, they were incredible: the Masturbating Bear, Pimpbot 5000, Vomitting Kermit, the Coked-Up Werewolf, Robot on the Toilet, Artie Kendall the Singing Ghost, Mick Ferguson the Man with Bulletproof Legs, Preparation-H Raymond, Hannigan the Salesman, In the Year 2000 (which he continued after 2000). This was stuff too strange even for David Letterman. Letterman's anarchy was utterly spontaneous, but Conan's took real effort and rebellion. Every one of those skits was designed to be as shocking and risky as network television ever got. It took real knowledge, not just of where the boundaries were of contemporary popular culture, but of the entire history of popular culture. Pimpbot 5000 could only be done by someone who not only has knowledge of Sci-Fi B movies from the 50's, but also of 70's blaxploitation. Artie Kendall the Singing Ghost was a dead-on Bing Crosby parody that sent up the reactionary attitudes of his most devoted listeners - which are shockingly offensive to modern ears and nearly all of whom were very much still alive in the 90's, and had already been in bed for three hours. If that point was made too subtly, there was also Hannigan the Traveling Salesman, who was basically your racist, sexist, grandfather personified and everything you don't want to acknowledge about what he believed. But none of these skits and characters, none at all, could top the amazingly provocative offensiveness of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.
Insult Comedy seems too mean to be anything but a recent comic tradition. It isn't. It goes back at least to the Friars Club Roasts of the 1950's, long before George Carlin said the Seven Dirty Words you can't say on Television. The Friars Club was and is a private New York club on East 55th Street in Manhattan between Park and Madison Avenues. From the very beginning, only the cream of American Theater were invited to belong. At the roast, the entertainment public, no doubt tired of saying pleasing things to a public that demanded good spirits, permitted a comic to say all those antisocial things which you couldn't say in front of a general audience. . Insult comedy was comedy with the lid of the id taken off. It was mean, it was dirty, the only limitation was to be as crass and crude and hurtful as the comedian's imagination could take him. Comics, whose very job is to seek approval from an audience, are by nature a jealous species, and probably all too happy for an opportunity to insult famous people in front of other famous people. Within a few years, Don Rickles started making an entire career out of the insult comedy which, until him, you could only hear at the Friars Club. In the eyes of the general public, Rickles was the pioneer of the style, but the truth is that older comics privately spoke to each other in that way for a long time before that. Within a quarter-century, insult comedy was taken to the zenith of raunch and meanness by Andrew Dice Clay.
When you see Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, he is clearly supposed to be a comedian from another age - perhaps an age even before the Friar's Club Roasts.The bowtie is clearly reminiscent of Stan Laurel of Laurel and Hardy. The cigar of Groucho Marx. In the 1990s, Triumph was already supposed to be a relic from a bygone era. In 2016, Triumph almost seems like a visitor from another solar system.

Twenty years later, seeing Triumph let loose upon a college campus is as close to comic perfection as Thalia will ever allow us (wow, I actually brought up the Greek Muse of Comedy...). Part of the reason the skit was so cathartic was because Triumph fits so badly into our era that he almost fits well. The meanness of Triumph (and in Robert Smigel's expert hand he was as mean as any comic has ever been) was on the level of Andrew Dice Clay. But the actual character is redolent of an era when comics could make fun of the disadvantaged from a point of superiority. He combines the casual raunch and mercilessness of an 80's comic like Dice or Eddie Murphy with the casual misogyny of the Rat Pack. It was like watching a rooster let loose in the henhouse. Yes, if you find this kind of comedy offensive, then you'll absolutely be offended. But as every vaudevillian can tell you from the late 19th century onward: "If it don't hurt, it ain't funny." An enormous quotient of comedy is based on the idea that you can get away with things you shouldn't get away with. In the era of trigger warnings and privilege checking, an era when more constraints have been placed on humor than at any point since the production code lifted fifty years ago, the idea that someone like Triumph can get away with insulting all the notions we're not supposed to insult anymore is all the funnier. Triumph is just a dog puppet, how can you possibly view what this puppet does with any seriousness?
And yet, what worked so well in a ten minute sketch was stretched to ninety minutes, and by the end of those ninety minutes, I was rubbed raw. I wasn't offended, I just felt extremely unpleasant, as though I needed a shower. Every skit was meaner than the last. It takes a lot to make me feel sorry for Donald Trump supporters, but Triumph managed it. These poor dupes took Triumph's beratings with surprisingly good humor - better in fact than did the Democrats. By the time the Great and Still Underrated Tim Meadows came to impersonate Ben Carson to unsuspecting Iowans, I could barely watch. An hour and a half with Triumph is like a visit from the spirit of comedy past, and even I don't necessarily like what I saw, or what such a visit says about me.
Comedy, like everything else in America, seems to have reached a peak of debasement. The Diceman might have been the peak of insult comedy, but the insults kept getting broader, meaner, raunchier, more uncomfortable, and to ever-diminishing returns: Jeffrey Ross, Daniel Tosh, Lisa Lampanelli, Doug Stanhope, Kathy Griffin... These are just some of the big name comedians who fundamentally made their names from groans, not laughs. Nearly the whole point of their comedy is not to draw out laughter, but to bring out the kind of uncomfortable guffaw that comes from being more shocked than amused.
You can draw a direct line of the great comics from the 1950's onward - every decade, comics got dirtier and meaner. But there's nastiness which serves a larger point - the way it does in Louis CK or even Jon Stewart's Daily Show comedy, this is, probably, comedy's best weapon. And then there's nastiness for the sheer petty joy of nastiness. We all enjoy being mean occasionally, but nastiness for its own sake is something dangerous to indulge in too often. If we're nasty too often, then being nasty loses its fun, but we're still left hating ourselves in the morning.
I am as much a believer in political incorrectness as a self-avowed liberal will ever allow himself to be. Perhaps chief among its many thousands of sins, I believe that political correctness is turning Donald Trump into a martyr in the eyes of a large part of the American populace, and could yet make him President. But just as when Political Correctness made its first viral assault on American life in the decade when Triumph became a runaway success, the over-correction of the 2010s has its roots in the excessive meanness and degradation of the preceding decade. I could try to draw up a long list of exactly how it happened, but so can you. After the Bush years, an over-correction is only natural. It's amazing it hasn't been larger than it is.
No matter how this Presidential election turns out, I wonder if we'll look back at 2015 and 2016 as a kind of cultural revolution. In the last two years, America seems turned upside down as perhaps it hasn't since 1967 and 68. By the late Sixties, America was finally ready to launch a sustained campaign for both Women's Rights and Civil Rights for African-Americans. In the mid 2010s, America, or at least half of America, finally seems somewhat ready to wage the bulk of that campaign. If the price of it is that we have to be more circumspect in what we say, it would be churlish and - dare I say, ungrateful of the privilege to which I was born, to attempt to stand in its way. But, may I say from my privileged white male standpoint, if we're giving up those benefits our privileges afford us, we bloody well better be sure that this tactic will make the lives of the disadvantaged better and not worse.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Musical Explanation 2/10/16 Part 2: Pagliacci

In the famous Verismo double bill, nobody remembers Cavalleria Rusticana after they go home. They remember Pagliacci, and no wonder: it is one of those few perfect works of art that show you more infinity than you ever thought you'd see of the heaven and the earth - every note and word matters, adding up to an examination of what life is beyond what you ever thought you could see.

Seeing the climactic scene of Pagliacci at the Met was worth the entire price of admission. I'd never heard of the tenor playing Canio/Pagliaccio, I bought the ticket because I thought Roberto Alagna was advertised, but the tenor we heard - Marco Berti - was probably better than Alagna would have been. He was the only singer who had no trouble being heard all night, and he emoted the famous Vesti la Giuba to heartrending effect. We watch Canio's heart breaking as he puts on his clown makeup, transforming before our eyes from a figure of real life to a figure of our dreams. If the rest of David MacVicar's ideas sucked, the way he staged Vesti la Giuba made up for the entire night. In this production, Canio sings his famous aria in front of the curtain, but after he finishes putting on his makeup, he gradually disappears into the curtain, until all you see of him is his face, which then disappears like everything else of him. It seems to imply that when the curtain lifts again, everything about this staging will exist in our unconscious. These figures of reality have fully become an archetypes of our dreams, their personae just as willing to transform our dream life into nightmares as to delight us.

I suspect that, in this long delayed age of women's liberation, we can no longer view Canio with the sympathy we once did. Beppe, the character who's the only bastion of sanity throughout the opera, assures the town and the audience that Canio is a good man even if his anger seems terrifying. In all decades past, I don't doubt that audiences found it much easier to identify with Canio, a terribly depressed man trying his best to put on a brave face, but who snaps under the pressure of having to appear happy so often. But in 2016, Canio gives the unmistakable impression of a domestic abuser. Nedda, his wife, refers to his towering rages. How many beloved celebrities, from OJ Simpson to Mel Gibson, have concealed a terrible dark side beneath their public high spirits? Sometimes, in the case of OJ or Phil Spector, the dark side reigned unchecked until it was too late, and their abuse became so great that they killed their victims. It's a mistake to judge people of previous eras by the morals of our own, but the morals of our own day give us an opportunity to shed further light on a character who already was a terribly complex antihero.

The Verismo operas aim to portray real life in all facets, and no opera, not even one by Mozart, ever succeeded in portraying life with all its light and dark as Pagliacci does. There is no character in it above contempt or beneath sympathy. All which remains is life as it is, with all its grisly ugliness and moments of beautiful redemption.

Ruggiero Leoncavallo, in thrall as much to Wagner rather than Verdi, was another in the spate of late 19th century opera composers who wrote his own texts. The text (libretto) of Pagliacci is so ingenious that you can't help wondering of Leoncavallo was a better writer than he was a composer. So amazing is it (as amazing as the text of Cavalleria sucks) that the score is always given short shrift. I don't think anybody would call Leoncavallo one of the truly great composers - the few opera lovers truly familiar with his other work find his other operas full of over-orchestrated Richard Strauss-like bombast without Strauss's individual voice. Close familiarity with Pagliacci's score bares the unmistakable imprint of a composer so beholden to Verdi's Rigoletto that at times it almost seems like plagiarism. Nevertheless, the effectiveness of Pagliacci's score can't ever be denied. The archetypal image of all Italian opera - a fat tenor in clown makeup, comes from Pagliacci. It cannot exist without a tremendously effective score. Perhaps it's time to seriously dust off all those other Leoncavallo operas and see if any of them can measure something even close to Pagliacci. Even if it comes up to Pagliacci's ankles, it would be worth seeing.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Musical Explanation: 2/10/16 Cavalleria Rusticana

Michael Corleone: Where are all the men?
Fabrizio: They're all dead from vendettas.

Think about that extraordinary moment in The Godfather. It's the late 1940's, the men in the Sicilian town of Corleone are all dead: not from World War II, not from execution by the Fascists, they're all dead because the mafia killed them, killed each other, and killed themselves. The Sicilian scenes both The Godfather and Godfather II are absolutely impossible without Cavalleria Rusticana, Nino Rota's score is impossible without Cavalleria Rusticana. Sadly, Coppola used Godfather III pay enormous homage to that overwhelming debt. Not only does the climax hinge around a staging in Palermo of Cavalleria, but the very climax of Godfather III uses the famous Intermezzo of Cavalleria to show the devastation of Michael Corleone's descent into evil. It did this great opera no favors. Perhaps it's better to remember Cavalleria in the other great homage paid to it, at the beginning of Raging Bull, when Martin Scorsese uses the same intermezzo to invoke the tortured but unmistakable grandeur of his prize fighter, Jake LaMotta.

Cavalleria Rusticana is not an opera, it is a tone poem with voices about the spirit of Sicily. I often think it would work better in the concert hall than it ever could on stage. Everything which Southern Italy is known for being: the overwhelming lust for both flesh and blood, the overwhelming, almost pagan veneration of Catholicism with all its mysticism and iconography, the longing for vengeance and domination and the shadow self of religious guilt which accompany such selfish aspirations, the possessive love and loyalty between parents and children, the overwhelming, dare we say, operatic, passion for all aspects of life, including and perhaps particularly death. All of which takes place against the backdrop of what should be a Mediterranean paradise.

And because Cavalleria Rusticana is such a testament to the values of Sicily and European peasant life, it also marks an important chapter in American music. Thirty years after Martin Scorsese made Raging Bull, he directed the pilot of the HBO show about the dawn of the American Mafia, Boardwalk Empire. All throughout the series, these new American gangsters are represented in the soundtrack by the new genre of music that accompanied this new American outlaw spirit: Jazz. But toward the end of the first episode, when the screenplay demands, as history did, the assassination of the famed Chicago Boss from Calabria in Southern Italy, Big Jim Colosimo, the whole montage is accompanied by a wax recording Colosimo puts on - a recording of Enrico Caruso singing the famous siciliana at the beginning of Cavalleria Rusticana - O Lola. Italian opera - Verdi, Puccini, Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Giordano, Cilea - and particularly the operas of the 'verismo' movement, which aimed to mirror the harsh realities of its audiences' lives, was the soundtrack with which Italian-American immigrants got through their hard lives, filled as they were with frustration and toil.

Very little actually happens in Cavalleria Rusticana. As a piece of theater, the action is plotted so awkwardly that it's almost incompetent. Fortunately, the spoken text is kept to a bare minimum - it's left almost completely to this miraculous score to tell this all too banal tale of infidelity and revenge. The music seems to make no claims on the extraordinariness of its characters, it seems to state baldly - 'this is a normal tragedy that could happen to any of us.'  When the climactic act of violence happens, it happens offstage. As pure theater, that's an act of pure incompetence and robs the climax of the excitement which it deserves. And yet, when it comes time for Pietro Mascagni, this otherwise little-performed composer, to set it to music, he finds the exact right tones to convey searingly tragic news. When we hear of the climactic murder, we get a taste of what it must feel like to get news over the phone of a loved one's senseless death - an experience which every European peasant, and every poor European immigrant to America, must have had multiple times over the course of their lives.

I don't claim any rhyme or reason to my love of Cavalleria Rusticana, but this piece of Sicillian trash is tattooed on my heart, and it broke my heart that my first live production of it exhibited so little understanding of what makes it so wonderful. The orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera was of course very good - their amazing string section practically sobbed through the music. And yet the brass had such a muzzle placed on them that they might as well have gone home for how little they were needed. Even with the muzzle placed upon the brass, it was much too hard to hear the singers, all of whom were eaten alive by the Metropolitan Opera's 3800 seat house, whose acoustic is so dead that birds would fall down dead before we'd ever hear their chirps. The conductor, Fabio Luisi, seems about as good a conductor as you can be without being a great one. He does all the right things: he never misses a cue to the singers, and he gets the orchestra to sing the music with enormous warmth. When it comes, however, to the more imaginative aspects of conducting, he seems completely lost. It's a rare time that I find myself longing for Riccardo Muti's presence, but Muti, for all his dictatorial properties as an opera conductor, shapes Italian Opera with incredible imagination, and knows exactly how to wring every moment for excitement and passion. He would know exactly where to rein the brass in, and exactly when to take their muzzle off.

If only the production had anything recommendable about it, the problems in the music would have been solved. Instead of the vibrant, gorgeous Mediterranean world of Sicily, we experienced a production all in black - with an ascetically bare and black theatrical et and monochromatically black costumes. Clearly, the Scottish theatrical director, David MacVicar, had no feeling for the spirit of this piece, and saw in its slowness a kind of slow ritual enactment similar to Parsifal. Everything about the staging - right down to the lighting effects, seemed meant to be redolent of Wieland Wagner's famous revisionist staging of his grandfather's final work. But there is nothing farther from the high-minded sanctity (some might say sanctimoniousness) of Parsifal than this deliberately banal tale of vengeance, obsession, guilt, lust, and love. Parsifal seeks to dwell upon the highest spiritual plane, Cavalleria Rusticana seeks to grind our noses in the shit of what everyday life can be.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Musical Explanation 2/9/16: Patton

George S. Patton was not a man with evil in his soul, he was much more dangerous than that - a man addicted to war the way so many Americans of 1970 were addicted to drugs. Were America a more authoritarian place, he could have become a butcher so heinous as to rival Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. Only in a a place like America, with its trivial political concerns and regard for the small man as the equal of the great, could a force of nature like Patton be prevented from stomping his boots on the face of millions.
The true danger of the 20th century was not the villain who pleasures in harming others, but the idealist who believes in the glorious cause of selflessness with his whole soul, willing to risk the souls of millions to impress his stamp upon the world. Even Shakespeare was inadequate to describe the grandeur of men like Patton - "Macbeth's self-justifications were feeble - and his conscience devoured him. Yes, even Iago was a little lamb too." So wrote Alexandr Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago. "The imagination and the spiritual strength of Shakespeare's evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology." It was only in the twentieth century that writers like Solzhenitsyn, Orwell, Kafka, Conrad, Koestler, Huxley, Pasternak, were able to comprehend how some men could perpetrate destruction on a scale so vast. Patton was from California, but his worldview would have had a much more comfortable home in Berlin. It was only luck that put a man like Patton on the side of the democrats rather than in his true home with the fascists. The vast destruction of war catapulted him to very near the center of power, but it was only the trivial concerns of democracy which kept him from achieving the center.
I've just seen the 1970 biopic of Patton all the way through for the first time. It is, without question, one of the greatest movies ever made in this country. It does not judge Patton, it simply presents him as he was: both the myth, and the man carefully sculpting himself to match his myth. It was left for Americans of 1970 to decide what they had just seen. Conservatives saw this movie and saw the glorification of war, honor, and a great man. Liberals saw this movie as a cautionary tale. They thanked their lucky stars that simple bureaucracy justly kept a man this jingoistic and arrogant from the reigns of power. Sixties radicals saw this movie and saw one of their own - an outcast and rebel, prevented by 'the man' and 'the system' from achieving his true self. It was perhaps unpredictable that radicals saw so much of themselves in Patton. But there were clearly points of similarity. When Patton tours with Omar Bradley the sight of a famous Carthaginian battle against three Roman legions, he says "I was there." with absolute literalism. He truly believed that he was a soldier in ages past, reincarnated in every age like the very spirit of war itself.
Did General Patton have any ideology except war? Probably not, he probably never thought about any problem in his life except war, but the ideology of fascism was already so connected to the glorification of war that in all too many ways, the two are identical. Just think of these lines from Patton's famous opening monologue:
"Now, an army is a team. It lives, eats, sleeps, fights as a team. This individuality stuff is a bunch of crap. The billious bastards who wrote that stuff about individuality for the Saturday Evening Post don't know anything more about real battle than they do about fornicating."
Just as he was for Hitler and Mussolini, the Common Man is nothing to Patton but a small gear in the larger machine; a vassal awaiting death into which the state can pour its propaganda about the glories for which he sacrifices. It's important to the movie's success that we never see war from the ordinary soldier's vantage, only his - a game for talented rich boys to play with their toy soldiers, whose victories are then celebrated by tribute parades a mile long - with garlanded roses and myrtle wreaths. In such a parade, a general can imagine himself the descendent of Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great, a god of war who by right of his superior military acumen should rule the world. By watching war through the filter of Patton's delusional eyes, we become complicit in his view of it. We actively begin to root for Patton to set a torch to all of Europe. We feel none of the horror of war and all of the excitement. Even the carnage in Patton is glorified - not a stinking pile of horror but a ecstatic tableau. This is war on the mythic terms of Homer and Thucydides.
After Truman, it was almost a given that the next President would be a World War II general. In spite of contemporary America's military dominance, the modern American General is little more than a cog in a larger machine. In today's America, true power resides with big business. But in Postwar America, true power resided with the famous generals of the World War II. The postwar era was the era of the Five Star Generals, who maintained the peace around the world as military governors with powers so far reaching as to be little different than dictators. When Douglas MacArthur was relieved from command of the Pacific Armies by President Truman in 1951, the Senate launched two separate investigative committees to determine Truman even had the constitutional authority to do so. Fortunately, Patton could never be President. He was dead within six months of World War II, twelve days after injuring his head on some glass in a car accident. It seems so trivial that one's tempted to ask if he could not live without war.
The question nevertheless remained, which type of general would rule postwar America. Would it be a reluctant soldier like Eisenhower or George Marshall or Omar Bradley, who loved peace more than war and would work to sustain the new American prosperity? Or would it be a joyful soldier who gloried in conquest like Douglas MacArthur or Curtis LeMay, so accustomed to viewing other countries as the enemy that they would embroil us in a Third World War to conquer the Soviets. When President Truman fired General MacArthur for insubordination in 1951, MacArthur immediately was invited by Republicans to address congress, and then went about giving stump speeches around the country. Rumors abounded that he would seek the Republican nominee for President in 1952, and if he wanted it, there was little question that he'd get it. Other quotes privately circulated that MacArthur was so concerned by the loss of China to the Communists that to remove Mao from China, a nuclear weapon would have to be used. Not just one or two atomic bombs, but dozens.
Today, fifty-five years after President Eisenhower's speech about the Military-Industrial Complex, the true threat is not from the generals of war, but the generals of finance and industry, few of whom can more refrain from conquest than a scorpion can from stinging. We live in the era shaped by Ayn Rand; an era when the Orwellian fanatic of the 20th century has crossbred with the traditional Shakespearean villain, the result is that selfishness is no longer viewed as a vice, but as a religion.
When General Patton declares in his opening speech, "Americans love a winner, and will not tolerate a loser." it is not possible from the vantage of 2016 not to hear a pre-echo of Donald Trump. For all we know, Trump consciously cribbed his line from this movie. Even if Trump is not our next President, it's only a short matter of time before our President will be a business mogul. Will it be a deranged billionaire after the image of Trump or the Koch Brothers or Sheldon Adelson who releases the worst effects of business amuck on the world? Or will it be a moderate in the image of Michael Bloomberg or Howard Schultz or Warren Buffett, who, like Eisenhower, will maintain the status quo and - more importantly - protect us from the most harmful effects of the profession which let them prosper so greatly because they know just how dangerous people within it can be?

Monday, February 8, 2016

Musical Explanation 2/8/16: Stephen Fry reads Onegin

Russian was a language we heard all around us growing up in Jewish Baltimore. The Soviet Jews started pouring into Baltimore in the late 80s, and by the time I was ten there were at least as many thousands of Russian speaking Jews peppering Pikesville as there were Yiddish speakers during my early childhood before they started to die off. Tucker family events were always a polyglot experience when relatives descended upon our dinner tables and you could hear simultaneous conversations in English, Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian, and Spanish. Occasionally, when people decided to speak in their second languages, you could also hear German, French, Italian, and Polish.
It's a source of genuine shame that this stupid and spoiled American never truly mastered any language but English, briefly trying studies of most of the aforementioned languages before growing bored with them all. Speaking foreign languages badly is as much a Tucker family tradition as speaking them well. My Bubbie and Zaydie Tucker never mastered English, my other Bubbie forgot all her German and never mastered the Russian her father spoke so eloquently, my other Zaydie never mastered French or German, my Mom never mastered French or German or Hebrew, my uncle never mastered five languages in addition to the four he speaks fluently. The only true polyglot in my family is my Dad, whom while he claims to speak them all terribly, seems to speak English, Hebrew, Yiddish, Romanian, French, German, and Italian with terrifying fluency.
As I've written many times here, my brother Jordan and I've often commented about the fact that our family doesn't quite feel American, or not at least like Americans of our own time. Whether organic or artificial, the fact that we came off the boat so much later and after so much more trauma than most other Jews we know puts us with one foot still in the European Jewish experience. It was not that long ago when my Bubbie was going to the Enoch Pratt library, checking out whatever Russian books she could for her father, Avraham Katz, my Hebrew namesake. I wonder if I could go down there and find the records of what she took out...
We Americans publish books with an ease unknown in any country in history. There are untold thousands of small publishers, and even if none of them accepts you, you can self-publish. Over the last half century, it would surprise me if the nearest rival to America in quantity of books published has even half the same number. Every creative class big shot in their field has two dozen books to their name which are read by the smaller paeans in their industry looking to break in. Every would-be big shot has some kind of book they write that is read by nobody. Every B-list journalist eventually gets a multi-book deal to cater to the interests of older upper middle class empty nesters who have the leisure time to read. Sadly, this makes journalistic non-fiction the closest our country has to a literary scene of consequence.
Everybody writes in America, yet nobody reads. We have low fiction, airport novels, read by the millions. But they're all interchangeable, read quickly to pass a bit of time and forgotten immediately thereafter. We have plenty of genre fiction here of various types, and some of it's pretty good - that doesn't even count our amazing graphic novels - but it's fruitless to pretend that more than a few tens of thousands care more about genre fiction than what's on TV or in the movie theaters. As for traditional realist fiction, forget it. It's a non-starter. The same goes for poetry that isn't in the form of song lyrics. Neither has a devoted public that's more than a couple thousand people. And that's not even counting their more modernist incarnations... The American intelligentsia can still talk a good game with books, but we're all talk, we could probably go through our entire lives knowing how much good stuff there is to read and remain completely untouched by all of it - never knowing how much more meaningful our lives could be unless we made the effort to read it all. There's too much good TV out there, too many good bands, too many movie adaptations of the books we wish we had the attention span to read.
We all sat through High School English, we have vague memories of Gatsby and Atticus, Whitman and Dickinson, Frost and Eliot, and if we're unlucky, Moby fuckin' Dick. But how many people go back to this stuff later in life? Fiction in America was always too small, too slow, too White and WASP to cover the explosive dynamism of the American experience. We needed movies here, because a camera is the only aesthetic technology that can keep up with the speed of life in this country. The high fiction stories of our generation's American lives were made by Kubrick and Scorsese and Coppola and David Lynch, our populist fiction by Spielberg and Lucas and Cameron. Nobody in my generation can recite Whitman or Dickinson, but even music ignoramii can quote at least half-a-dozen verses from Dylan and The Beatles. People like me can sing Michael Jackson and Madonna even if we can't stand them. Nobody can remember more than a line or two from Death of a Salesman or A Streetcar Named Desire, but everybody can quote The Simpsons, South Park, Seinfeld, The Sopranos, and Breaking Bad ad libitum (and now, Game of Thrones...). The most educated among us can even do the same with Classic Hollywood and older popular songs. For better or worse, these populist genres comprise our true literature. They are our scripture, soul food, our spiritual medicine. They are the North Stars we look to for guidance and wisdom.
But whereas more of America's empty space is filled every day, the vast majority of Russia will always remain empty. Life in America will always be lived at top speed, but at least until the Putin years, Russia was a place defined by its slowness. Stalin tried as best he could to change it with the kind of force that kills millions, but not even Stalin could change the nature of Russia, where the way of life in so many places remains unchanged, century by century. The history of Russia is the history of autocrat after autocrat trying to control this vastest of the globe's expanses, and failing utterly.
We Americans are defined by our hunger for action. Russians are defined by their contemplation, the examination of the soul is their daily bread. Even when we have time to sit down and slowly contemplate the world, there will always be a nagging voice in our head telling us that this is a terrible waste of our resources. Literary fiction is not meant for Americans, but the traditional Russian way of life was made to fondle every detail of stories, about which they're so passionate that the stories could last forever, and Russians would still beg for more.
We Americans are sustained by our movies and TV, which show us the diverse and dynamic carnival of life in America - which has so many facets that only a new type of electronic art shifts quickly and flexibly enough to capture our essence. Russia, moreso even than England or France, has literary fiction. The camera captures all those quick changes in exterior life which make life in America so interesting, and also perhaps so superficial. Only literary fiction can capture those subtle shifts in our souls which Americans do everything to avoid feeling. America's arts love the infinite permutations of exterior life, Russia's arts love the infinitesimal but no less infinite gradations of the changes within our souls.
It all begins in Russia with their novel in verse, Eugene Onegin. For Russians, it's the mouth of their literary river; just one long poem that means as much to them as the entirety of Shakespeare does to us. For history, it's publishing between 1825 and 1832 marks the beginning of what's generally regarded as The Novel's Long Golden Age. For me, it's a novel in poetry so meaningful that it does what neither the novel nor poetry can do on their own.
Every Russian says the same thing. You can't possibly understand why Eugene Onegin is so amazing in any language but Russian. I've never tried to learn Russian, and at this point I probably never will. But I don't care what Russians say, this is a work that can move you so far beyond what either most poetry or fiction can do without each other's help.
Among other literary works I know, only certain late Shakespeare plays like The Tempest and Winter's Tale can do something similar to what you get here. If you wanted to look past words, I suppose you can feel similar strings plucked from your soul by Mozart or Rembrandt. Not just every emotion is present in this poem but every emotional nuance within every emotion. Not for Pushkin the extreme emotional hammers of Dostoevsky or Shakespearean tragedy. Rather, it has all the sad comedy of Tolstoy and Chekhov. but unlike either Tolstoy or Chekhov, Pushkin can perform the kind of dynamic feats of language you get from Shakespeare and Sondheim. The poetry effortlessly floats between life exterior and the soul interior. If the tone ever becomes too close to the story's emotional ugliness to let our spirits down, Pushkin immediately moves our mental cameras further back from the action with diversions from everyday life, from his own life, from history. Sometimes the stories are funny, but you'll rarely laugh out loud because he wants no more to bring you to the extreme of laughter than the extreme of tears. A visceral reaction is too exhibitionistic, too vulgar, too American, for the spirit of this work. The delicate, Mozartian balance, the intermingling of these two emotional poles, is Pushkin's prime responsibility. He seems to make you think that if the story were told slightly differently, you could easily be brought to either.
I doubt that most Americans would hear the interior soaring of the soul which this poem can draw out from so many Russians. There is no way that a person who too values exterior life can understand the gift Pushkin gives. The American pursuit of extremes wouldn't know what to do with Pushkin except be bored by it. There are worse things than to drown out life's emptiness with a series of thrills, and if anything, American life proves that to a certain extent, it can be done. I often think to myself that the worst thing any American can do is to slow down and examine their lives, because if they did, they'd be so depressed by the empty hypocrisy of it that they'd jump out windows. But what a loss it is that we live in a place that drowns out these emotional intonations. It's a deep flaw in the American character that we're not taught to live with our unhappiness. There's a terrible contradiction in human existence that life in America brings out even more: the pursuit of happiness is a right for all, the harder we chase it, the more elusive it can become. What Russians traditionally understood, and we never did, is that life does not exist for us to enjoy it. Hopefully, can get through our lives with beauty, love, acceptance, and wisdom. Perhaps if we have those, happiness is not necessary.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Musical Explanation 2/6/16: A Tribute to Mario Venzago

(wait 30 seconds...)

The difference between star conductors and the B-and-C list is so negligible that you have to wonder if the difference between the conductors of the Baltimore Symphony and the Chicago Symphony is non-existent. Even in Baltimore, are three truly great conductors who regularly come to the BSO. We're extremely lucky to have Marin Alsop here, but I don't think anybody is mistaking her for greatness. She's exactly what American orchestras of today require, the more unusual the music, the more interesting she becomes. When the piece is the usual Beethoven or Mozart, Alsop sounds like she would rather be anywhere else in the world. If we want to save classical music in America, we need musicians who can build a stronger American identity within it. This country's had more great performances of European music than it's ever known what to do with. We need American musicians who can rebuild American classical music in America's image.

Fortunately, we have three masterful and underrated European conductors who come through town regularly. To single them out is not to denegrate the ever-reliable Gunter Herbig who can give us music making that's echt-German to the marrow. Or the flamboyantly virtuosic even if slightly slick Hannu Lintu, who conducts as though he can make any orchestra operate like a sportscar that can easily turn the most excitingly dangerous corners. Or the extremely un-German sounding German, Jun Markl, whose performances are so light on their feet that he can even make Brahms dance.

But I would stake that there are three true masters who come to Baltimore whom I want to hear everything they do. The first is the Spaniard, Juanjo Mena,  a wizard of color. Whether it's virtuoso Tchaikovsky and Ravel, or the heaviest Beethoven and Bruckner, every performance seems like an ever shifting kaleidoscope of sound that can move with seemingly infinite control over the entire dynamic spectrum.

If Juanjo Mena seems like a painter, then Markus Stenz seems like a novelist. The German Stenz is one of the few conductors in any generation who can seem like a genius of the profession. He has a conducting technique that is almost Carlos Kleiber-like in its sophistication, and like Kleiber, Stenz literally seems to be using his body language to tell a story through the music. Like a great novelist, he uses his amazing technique to strike a balance between the grand sweep of the music while pointing up thousands of subtle details without drawing attention to them.

There is no art concealing art in Mario Venzago's music making. The poetry Venzago discovers is more valuable even than what a conductor of genius can do. He conducts like a master musician who happened to choose conducting as his means to express music. His understanding of the music is so utterly innate that he can do all sorts of spontaneous and bizarre sounding things to the music, and make them sound even more innate and natural than had the orchestra played it through with no inflection at all. A great conductor like Stenz can give you the performance you've heard in your head but despaired of ever hearing live, but a poet-musician like Venzago can give you a performing experience you never dreamed of having, as though every moment of the music takes on a new meaning you could never discover on your own.

Now that he's in his late 60's, the fact that Venzago never became Music Director of one of the world's great orchestras is a tragedy for music, but the fact that he never became music director of the Baltimore Symphony is a tragedy for us. It's the very explosion of his charisma that prevented him from having a large career. Nobody important took a chance on Venzago because he is so un-Maestro like. He's very much a performer, and a highly charismatic one, but to watch him bounce around onstage or in interviews is a bit like looking at Robin Williams. I'm sure many people reasoned that a musician this funny and clownish could not possibly be a deep musician. But it's the very charismatic eccentricity of his persona that should announce to everybody what a brilliant musician he is. This incredibly convivial, warm, funny, and popular musician would have suffused whatever good orchestra took a chance on him with greatness.

From Venzago I've heard what I expect to be the greatest Franck Symphony of my life, I've heard what's still one of the two greatest Beethoven 5's, I've heard among the best Mozart, Wagner, Schubert, and Verdi, I ever expect to hear. Venzago is precisely the sort of joyful, spontaneous, forgotten more than we'll ever know, musician that I wish I could have been. According to an old article from the Baltimore Sun, his two favorite conductors are Toscanini AND Furtwangler. Here, finally, is a conductor who neither shortchanges Toscanini's vitality or Furtwangler's vision. All that matters under Venzago is the vividness of the experience. Under his baton, music is more than a great experience, it is a living, pulsating thing - alive with vision and intimacy.

Vision and intimacy were the two words that kept occurring to me tonight as I heard a Schumann 4 utterly unlike any I've ever heard. So many musicians plow right through the weird byways and indentations of Schumann's music - no doubt thinking of them as structural flaws that show how inadequate Schumann was to the task of making a symphony sound like Beethoven. But what if Schumann meant for this music to sound utterly different than Beethoven?

In Venzago's Schumann, no alleyway was unexplored. Every 'structural flaw' was played so far out that one began to think that these so-called 'flaws' are the most important part of Schumann's music. Tonight, orchestral Schumann was not merely a second-hand copy of Beethoven, he was his own composer, pursuing a unique vision utterly unlike anyone's. A Schumann who entered a whole new universe of poetic meaning which often never occurs to even the best musicians. I wish I could ever hear a Schumann symphony performed again like it was tonight, but I fear it will not.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Musical Explanation 2/4/16: American Crime Story - The People vs. O.J. Simpson

Let us cease for another day to give praise to music and give praise to the high music of great TV. Music is the most abstract, and perhaps therefore the highest, of all arts. But all great art is capable of rising to the quality of music in which the action is flows so inevitably that it can be described no other way except 'musical'; and that art which doesn't seem so inevitable to be particularly musical is often operatic.

Seinfeld is such pure music that it's practically Bach - even if Seinfeld is the opposite of spiritual, it has all the same equanimity and precision given to the four contrapuntal voices as though perfection is being conjured before our very eyes. The Simpsons, like Mozart, goes beyond perfection, and floats about in the air with an infinite array of permutations. If The Simpsons are Mozart, then Arrested Development is Haydn, an upper-class madhouse in which the most ridiculously surreal things are always possible. The Wire is a much more modern, nihlistic kind of music - closer perhaps to Schoenberg, trying to break free of systems beyond its control, yet only further entangling itself within it. Six Feet Under is Mahler, tragicomic, obsessed by death, with every emotion intermingling freely with one another so long as it's larger than life. And of course, then there's Louie - which is Beethoven himself. Two grand solipsists, the incorruptible artists, the self-dramatizing heroes who go on living in spite of a world that actively seems to plot against them.

Mad Men, on the other hand, is pure opera, and the heavy Wagnerian stuff too, in which the archetypes we all see in our dreams discourse slowly and at length about the metaphysics of their experiences. The Sopranos is pure Puccini, with all the same outsize emotions and lusts, and the same relish for cruelty and violence. Breaking Bad is Verdi, that special operatic realm where tragically noble figures are addicted to their weaknesses. If The Simpsons is Mozart in instrumental form, then Cheers is a Mozart opera, smiling through its tears, with a perfect blend of compassion and contempt for its characters.

So far, we've only seen one episode of American Crime Story, but that episode is pure operatic Richard Strauss - the Strauss of Salome and Elektra who so artfully deals with decadent archetypes in the sleazily exploitative manner they deserve. Like those two operas and Der Rosenkavalier, it deals with cluelessly wealthy people who dance upon a volcano, blithely unaware that their trivial world of easy wealth can collapse so easily. And like so many Strauss operas, the real subject is not its characters but its audience.

From the vantage point of 2016 America, the 2000's seems like a weird interregnum. We were so concerned with the authoritarianism of the Bush years that all the persistent problems of American life took a back seat. No doubt, there yet will be a decade when we have to reckon with the put-off sins of the Bush years, but now, twenty years after the fact, America is finally coming to terms with the sins of The Nineties, and there is no greater indictment of 90's America than the OJ trial.

I'm not quite as willing as people to my Left to indict the Nineties for the mass incarceration that finally lowered crime after a quarter-century of horrific urban decline. What else was America supposed to do? What other solution was there? But even if mass incarceration temporarily solved the issue of crime, it was a deal with the devil, and ensured that millions of families would never lift themselves from poverty - the overwhelming majority of which were black.

Bill Clinton, Rudy Giuliani, Martin O'Malley, and god knows how many dozens of other would-be-statesmen, saw that there was a tradeoff to be made. The choice was stark - economic prosperity and fiscal restraint, or an attempt at real social justice. The benefits of economic prosperity would be immediate and perhaps even a moderate Democrats like President Clinton thought that the economic benefits would trickle down to the impoverished.

As Der Fersko correctly pointed out to me last night, the OJ trial virtually made Clinton's decision for him. The trial probably set back the cause of criminal justice reform by decades. To every white person in America, it was obvious that OJ Simpson was guilty. The whole trial solidified the poisonous idea in the heads of White America that Black America in some ways deserved their misfortune. It gave us all moral cover to shut our eyes to the suffering happening right next door to us. If every murder trial was anything like OJ Simpson, then, so we unconsciously reasoned, obviously every black man standing trial was guilty.

OJ became an indictment of everything about race relations in America - a soul search from which we drew exactly the wrong conclusions. It's true, no reasonable person can believe that OJ was innocent. And yet, the real people trial was us, and we were at least as guilty as he was.  

Nineties America was the most prosperous and secure country in the history of the world, yet how did we spend the political capital of being the world's sole superpower? We spent it by devoting our lives to following trivial, naval-gazing celebrity scandals. We cared only about the rich and famous, and couldn't give a fig about the poor and anonymous. We looked at all those millions who didn't share in our prosperity and security, and we yawned. Human nature is such that perhaps we were never going to do anything else, but we should never forgive ourselves for it.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Musical Explanation 2/2/16: The Cheers Theme Song

A list of the 100 greatest jokes was released today by Vulture magazine. As far as lists go, it was superb and covered nearly all the important ones, and in case we took it for granted, it made us all sit up and realize just how much jokes have shaped everything about us. There were a few glaring omissions, but nothing from one TV show stood out above all the others, perhaps because it came from an era that was a TV wasteland.

If you hang out with people your own age, there are certain cultural references which we all have in common. Most people my age can trade Simpsons quotes for hours at a time, and often do. People my brothers' age can do the same with South Park. People ten years older than I don't seem to trade quotes from television so much as they can all sing the themesongs.

TV in the 80's was a sad place, so sad that the most memorable thing about the shows was the themesongs. In the entire decade, there were maybe half-a-dozen shows that hold up at all. The Golden Girls - in which four great veterans of Hollywood got to comically chew on each other like Joan Collins against Bette Davis. The Wonder Years, a comic nostalgia trip to the 60's in which the pathos feels at least partially earned. Night Court - a show about a whacky, loveable New York courthouse that stayed on the air much too long.  Married with Children, the ultimate 'fuck you' to American optimism. Moonlighting, a show that went off the air after three years. And then there was Cheers....

The rest was the canned laughter and cheap-shot pathos of shows like Family Ties and The Facts of Life, or it was action shows whose action seems comically lame today like The A Team and Miami Vice. But amidst all that crap, a revolution in TV was brewing, and it was all due to Cheers.

Diane leaves. Genuine pathos.

Cheers is the first modern show - completely serialized from its third season on. It was a laboratory in which every major development of the Golden Age of television was tried out in its inception. It was on for eleven years, and at its all too consistently achieved best, the writing and acting on Cheers was pure music. In its laboratory, highbrow and lowbrow humor intermingled freely. Realism and surrealism. Humor with genuine, not forced, pathos and poignance.

At its center, of course, was Sam. The comic chemistry for the first five years was perfect. Sam, the misogynist slimy lowbrow who was too smart for his own good, and Diane, the highbrow who was nowhere near as smart as she thought.

The nose grab. Darkly comic perfection.

Followed by the perfect fight.

Looking at the clips of Sam and Diane, some moments make for extremely uncomfortable viewing in 2016. The misogynist thread in Cheers was all too unmistakable. But Cheers was never anything but honest about what it was. Cheers was the archetypal bar, a hive of lowlives, and no women but ones with severe self-esteem issues would ever countenance staying in there for more than a few minutes.

Ear Nibble

Cliff on Ingenuity 

Whether they were high or lowbrow, Cheers was a below-ground den of losers who hated themselves and the world. What went on in Cheers could be all too true to life. Vulgar bar drunks have been a staple of world literature from The Canterbury Tales to The Iceman Cometh, and so has false male bravado, particularly toward women.

Norm and Cliff mac on women.

Cliff's Electric Button

Cliff Goes on Jeopardy

Cliff's Theory on Beer

Cliff's Shiny Shoes

Norm loses his stool

The barflies were united in their fear of women, but what separated them was class. Cheers could never take place in any city but Boston - perhaps the only city in America in which class is still a more important problem than race. Boston is easily the most racially homogenous big city in America, where the biggest divide was between educated Anglo-Saxon Brahmins and the low-class drunken Irishmen with whom they've been forced to rub shoulders with every day for three-hundred years. Perhaps that Boston, the Boston of the Bulger brothers, doesn't quite exist anymore. But if it doesn't, then Cheers is its great cultural artifact.

The Irish Lullaby

Cliff's Big Mouth

Frasier and Carla on a plane

Norm, Cliff, Frasier, lollipop

Carla's Mother's Death Dream, It's Time to Go

Frasier and Woody play chess

Sam and Diane - Cheese Whiz

Kevin McHale

But it was in that intermingling between self-loathing men and self-loathing women that made Cheers so special and honest about relationships in ways that perhaps no shows after Cheers ever could be. At the same time that it was heir to O'Neill and Hemingway in talking about alcohol and toxic masculinity, and heir to the Marx Brothers and Chaplin in how it made fun of class, it was the heir to the romantic comedies of Golden Age Hollywood, in which the ambiguous mixture of attraction and loathing between the sexes creates an unresolvable tension.

Sam and Diane - Meditation or Sex

Lilith and Frasier - Talkshow

Frasier and Lilith argue about Freud

Woody and Kelly - the Lutheran Problem

Sam and Rebecca want a baby

Norm loves his country

From Cheers, it's a straight shot to everything else. Of course, many of the old creative team went on to do Frasier. Dan O'Shannon, however, went on to do Modern Family. David Isaacs went on to do Becker as a vehicle for Ted Danson, which in turn launched the career of Matthew Weiner, who went on to be the creator of Mad Men and one of the key writers on The Sopranos. Sam Simon went on to be the co-creator of The Simpsons and The Drew Carey Show. It was Simon who forced Matt Groening to branch out from The Simpsons' nuclear family into the wider world of Springfield. Whether comedy or drama, the sensibility that dominates us all began with Cheers.