Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Exemplar of Tucker's Law of Musical Performance #2: Rattle's Vixen - 96 years


Here is my favorite 20th century work as we have never, ever, EVER heard it - idiomatically played and sung with security, freshness, and freedom as it never even has by any Czech forces, and only thus far approximated only by Rattle's own earlier recording in English. There will never be a greater performance of this eternal work (audio, that doesn't count Walter Felsenstein's visual miracle). Just the very act of putting on the new recording by the conductor of my old favorite recorded performance breaks the obvious Wagner fever I've had for the past month since watching Kirill Petrenko's new Tristan.
My Wagner obsession is is a diseased fascination with a musical black hole. I can't imagine that Wagner is not the world's vastest creative genius, bar none. His art is far too sublime to ignore, but far too loveless to love. I claim this for none but myself, but Wagner's is a sublimity which gifts me neither joy nor tears, merely awe. But Janacek, rather, is always a seven letter word for joy and grants instant 'black dog relief.'
And I don't give a shit what anybody else thinks, I know a maestro when I hear one and however flawed he is, maestro has no meaning if Simon Rattle is not just that. Like Leonard Bernstein before him, he is of a different and newer worldview than many of his peers; one much more in keeping with the globalized direction of today's world in which breath of repertoire and programming from concert to concert matters more than any one interpretation.
It's not that Rattle hasn't achieved lots of amazing performances, he most certainly has, but they're not usually in the 'standard' repertoire in which conductors are most judged. Like Bernstein but to an even greater extent, if you're to judge Rattle by his Beethoven symphonies he seems above average but nothing extraordinary and the attention he garners is surely maddening if those are the recordings upon which people focus... But whereas we find Bernstein's greatness in larger-than-life environs of Mahler and similarly extravagant works, Rattle's greatness is generally to be found on a slightly more human scale. Like Bernstein, he does 'the giant stuff' magnificently. The only Mahler symphony he doesn't do wonderfully is 2, the one he's famous for... but otherwise, his true fach is 'modern classics': Jeux, Sibelius 5 and 7, Schoenberg's Five Pieces and Pierrot, L'Enfant et les sortileges and Mother Goose, Symphonies of Wind Instruments and Apollo, King Roger, etc... he has so internalized the world of 20th century repertoire that he brings to it a gloriously romantic, 19th century freedom, and a lot of people don't know how to deal with that kind of weird hybridization. Surely, if people can appreciate the Wagnerized Mozart of Beecham and Davis, they can appreciate the Wagnerized Ravel of Sir Simon. Rattle's great gift is finding the 19th century within the 20th century.
Obviously though, what matters as much as the conductor is the orchestra. Vixen is so full of pauses with no singing, and Rattle's LSO matches Mackerras in Vienna character for character, oddity for oddity. Mackerras, being Mackerras, will of course be more incisive and tidy. He will make more of the odd sounds, but Mackerras's strict classicism never permits him an indulgent enough hand to lay into the aching poignance of Janacek's melodies and harmonies the way Rattle or Kubelik do. No one will ever excel Mackerras in Kata or the Glagolitic Mass, but Vixen now belongs to Rattle forever.
Obviously, Lucy Crowe is not going to be able to keep up with the virtuosity and native phonetics of Licia Popp, but the Vixen is in many ways more a master of ceremonies (or a maitre d'...) than a star turn. It's a thankless part, whose singer has to convincingly act like an animal far more than she ever gets to sing. Both the gamekeeper and the poacher get to strut their stuff far more than the Vixen or fox ever do, and of course, Gerald Finley doesn't disappoint. But listen to all the character singers around her: listen to the comic relish with which Peter Hoare tears into the Rooster or Jan Martinik into the Badger - that is the kind of singing that truly makes this opera come alive.
Why, why, oh why, is Rattle leaving the LSO? This is the best thing he's done since... I don't know if he's ever done anything on this level. The Berlin Philharmonic would never be satisfied with anything but a Furtwangler zombie (maybe they should have voted Danny...), and it is extraordinary how close-to-well it worked out considering the odds against Rattle there. Now he's going to Munich, where he will be similarly pummeled for the tragedy of not being Mariss Jansons. I understand Brexit is a nightmare, but having heard them live, the LSO commit to Rattle as orchestras allow themselves just a few times every generation. It is yet another would be golden age over before it began in the sad history of orchestral performance.
Perhaps golden ages, in arts, politics, science, or sports, are great because they are rare, but it does not make their paucity any less sad. Recordings like this one come to us as a reminder of how wonderful life could be, and yet, look at the subject matter of Vixen - we would not know what to do with a life better than the ones we have. Life is meant to be bittersweet, and moments like this one arrive to remind us of how beautiful life can be amid its sadness.

Monday, August 30, 2021

Performers as "Major Artists"

 I obviously think of Edward Said as a political thinker with searing contempt, but as a cultural thinker he is extremely different from 'his children' who clearly use his ideology as a cudgel to dismiss the entire canon with no love or even knowledge of it. His ideas about literature were genuinely destructive, but one cannot deny that he formulated them out of extraordinarily deep knowledge and love of the canon and the not entirely mistake conceit that there was no place in it for people with little Western bloodline. And as a classical music critic, he was better still, and his writings in The Nation are nearly without parallel in my lifetime (UCM's dear and valued Tim Page being one of his major rivals and equals of course).

One great insight Said had is when he spoke about how certain performers are 'major artists'. Whatever they play, you look forward to hearing it because you know that they will have unforgettable and unpredictable insights that add to the storehouse of what you know about a piece of music. Obviously, his list is quite different from mine. I acknowledge the general brilliance of guys like Pollini and Barenboim and Gould, and each of them have staggering achievements, but I think their approach is brought to music rather than individual composers and pieces.
Like Said himself, they have a generalized, perhaps even ideological, approach which they bring to everything they do. So once you've heard a few performances by them, you can pretty well guess how they'll play everything, and therefore, when one hears them, one is really hearing the performer rather than the music - and ths goes for far more literalist performers like Toscanini and Boulez who are supposedly far more self-effacing. There is, of course, genuine value in what they all do, but that value is sometimes destructive.
On the other hand, there are certain artists in every generation whom one turns to because their insights, however subtler, are never predictable, and unique from composer to work to performance. Everybody's list of 'major artists' would be different, but I'm thinking obsessively about mine: conductors, pianists, singers, violinists, and other.... The 'list' is 'life':

Friday, August 27, 2021

Underrated Classical Musicians: Anatole Klein

 Courtesy of the Piano Files FB group comes more great Chopin from that interwar period when great Polish Jewish pianists were like fruit growing on the trees who somehow played Chopin as though it was natural as breathing.

Gramophone had a relatively recent list of the top 10 Chopin pianists, and I realize that the industry has to promote new product that sells, but it's a tragedy to not introduce readers to the truly great Chopin out there. Sviatoslav Richter may be the greatest pianist of the 20th century, but he was a terrible Chopin player who distended Chopin's natural elegance to Busonian proportions. Pollini's metalic tone and rigid phrasing manages to make Chopin sound like Prokofiev, and when thinking of Murray Perahia I'm always reminded of TS Eliot's line about Henry James: 'a mind so fine no idea has ever invaded it.'
It's not just Rubinstein who does Chopin like second nature, wonderful as he is: it's Josef Hoffman, Ignaz Friedman, Raoul Koczalski, Mieszyslaw Horszowski, Moritz Rosenthal - I'm sure there are plenty I'm not remembering, but put any of them on and listen to the freedom with which they play this music - freedom of expression, fingers, time and space. Their understanding of Chopin is so innate that they're making it up as they go along. The rubato is so casual and natural that you know in your bones that they do it differently each time and they're barely even aware of it as they do it. It is pianism unlike any on earth.


Thursday, August 26, 2021

Jochum vs. Furtwangler


Long as (the royal) we are going though another bout of Wagner fever, let me just sing the praises for a moment of another musical figure who is only relatively underrated.

Eugen Jochum is a better conductor than Wilhelm Furtwangler. Period. I'll stay on this hill however many decades I have to until the opinion of the dozen remaining people who care comes around to me. Furtwangler's music making is without light or joy, without fun or good humor. Music under Furtwangler is a thing of awe, often revelatory, often spiritual, but anti-humanist. It is music making for those who want music imposed upon them so they can worship at its altar, not for those who view music as something here to be partaken by us on earth to increase the quality of our lives.
Like Furtwangler, Jochum is full of the sublimity of German romanticism, but it is 'lower-case r' romanticism. A romanticism for humans like us rather than gods. Jochum is nearly everything Furtwangler is, but along with storming the heavens comes the beauties of life on earth. All the same rubato and imposing dynamism, in all the same places, but not as excessive, and with room left over for other qualities than metaphyisical vision: beauty, fun, serenity.
To take perhaps the most obvious example to my mind: In an opera like The Marriage of Figaro, Furtwangler's performance is an embarrassment - Teutonic banging in a table full of delicate classical antiques. Jochum, on the other hand, gave us one of the very great Cosi fan Tutte's, not just beautiful like Böhm but fun, funny, and unafraid to be indelicate where appropriate.
Furtwangler's Ring is magnificent, particularly in La Scala, but I have always found that famous Tristan to be one of the most infuriatingly overvalued recordings of all time. Perhaps the problem is me, but the problem's very simple: Furtwangler takes Tristan so much more seriously than I do. It's just an opera... It has a masterpiece of a score, but as philosophy it is garbage, and evil garbage to boot - even when talking about love, Wagner advocates a philosophy that is totalitarian to the marrow in which love can only be proven through the worship of death. When a conductor lingers on every single note of Tristan for maximum ethereality and pomp, you know this musician believes in its philosophy very very deeply.
Is Jochum's Tristan one of the greatest Tristan readings? I have no idea... Being a Tristan skeptic, I suppose I don't even have much right to declare what a great Tristan is, but on its own terms it is a thing of true beauty. Like Furtwangler, Jochum takes an approach that is certainly romantic and metaphysical; he lingers on every diminished chord with hushed, reverent pianissimos, but then, to an extent Furtwangler does not in the studio, he presses forward with enormous energy expended in the extraverted noise between verklarungs. Because Jochum is not so married to the great metaphysics of Tristan's odious ideas about love, he makes me believe in the opera's mystical qualities to an extent Furtwangler never could.

Monday, August 23, 2021

Underrated Classical Musicians: Michael Morgan

 Michael Morgan was probably the first conductor I ever saw live, at a BSO 'tiny tots' concert for kids aged 4-6 when he was an assistant either in Baltimore or Washington - I forget which. To this day I remember him very well. But all the sudden, he was gone. Georg Solti seemed to call him up the big time and he became assistant conductor at the Chicago Symphony for seven years. It was the highest profile job he was ever to have.

He did not become a celebrity musician, but he became a kind of legend in the Bay Area, conducing the Oakland Symphony for thirty-five years and doing all the things conductors should be doing - community outreach, conducting the youth orchestra as well as the professional, and the Gateway Music Festival, sitting on boards of other musical orgaizations, featuring a full symphony orchestra comprised entirely of professional black musicians.
Like any field, the best musicians don't think of themselves. They think of the community and how they can assist, and perhaps I'm a sentimentalist in this regard but I think the decency comes out in their music making.
Morgan was finally being taken with sufficient seriousness and going to make his subscription debut at the San Francisco Symphony this year. It's nothing short of a tragedy that at the moment African-American musicians are finally given a real profile, the highest profile African-American classical musician of the mature generation dies, completely unexpectedly.
Here's him performing the Negro Folk Symphony of William Dawson, a masterpiece of American music already featured here and much beloved of me. Let him be remembered as the pioneer he shouldn't have had to be.


Sunday, August 22, 2021

Wagner: Asahina vs. Fischer

 Somebody posted an Asahina Ring Cycle. After the first hour of Götterdämerung, it is as to be expected. It's slow, but the orchestra seems exemplary if perhaps a little small, and even the singing - however small-voiced is wonderful by the cow-mooed standards already in place by the 1980s. You will never hear chording, blending, and balance this skillfully applied. Every moment is full of overtones.

Asahina's Ring Cycle is a miracle in its way, but it's not 'my' Wagner. It glows as few if any versions ever have, but Wagner flows more than he glows, and there is something a little bit creepy about such a loving approach that makes every detail of Wagner glow with affection.
I've always had a particular interest in what Jewish conductors make of Wagner and if one can detect any difference in approach to our forbidden fruit (objectively unlikely I know).
Purely as conducting, Adam Fischer's Bayreuth run in 2002 has become my favorite (the BrĂĽnnhilde and Siegfried are just plain not good, the Wotan is not much better...). I can't explain the difference to any other version except to say that the drama is all there without the bombast, the beauty is all there without over-refinement, the paragraphs are long and winding with plenty of rubato but never excessive. It flows as no other conductor has ever made it in a river of apposite darkness. For all the beautiful orchestration, Wagner's glow is entirely superficial... at the level of the soul Wagner is as dark as pitch. Not even Keilberth understands it this well. Fischer makes Wagner sound like a composer without pretension - Wagner suddenly sounds inclusive and all-embracing like Brahms and Mahler.

Asahina: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZUGp0gxLLh4

Fischer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b1RkhxxY56o&list=PLoasmABcHZdHuVcV0NnAQ6UB1JxPqOAzJ&index=7

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Exemplar of Tucker's Law of Musical Performance #1: The Keilberth Ring - 79 years

(note: this is a game-like speculation, not in any way to be construed as hard-and-fast truth).
Truly great works require a full lifetime to understand - technically, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, historically, and philosophically. The greatest performances of the greatest music are generally somewhere between 60-90 years after the premiere. After a lifetime of performance in which performers try everything from extreme excess to the severest self-effacement, there arrives a golden mean somewhere between 39 and 61% intervention which brings out the work's best qualities. But then, the works become overfamiliar and performances verge into decadent concepts as interpretations are imposed that have little to do with the music.
The Keilberth Ring is the finale in the first generation flowering of Neue Bayreuth, when Germany finally glimpsed the full destructive power of Wagner's works in sets that looked designed by Albert Speer and vocal actors rather than merely great singers, which could not help but remind Germany of their past - both its cover of glory and the inner psyche who led them to such horrific ignominy. After '55, there was a gradual replacement as Knappertsbusch and Böhm oversaw the new complacency in excessively slow and fast tempi that stayed extraordinarily metric in Wagner's constantly shifting harmonic motion, Hotter lost his voice, Nilsson gradually became a trumpet (Kedem Frühling Horowitz Berger is right, it's true...), Windgassen yo-yo'd between greatness and boredom, and Wieland Wagner passed away all too early to be replaced by his unimaginative musical politician of a brother.
Oh to have heard the front-line Germans at Bayreuth, but those who were there: the K's - Karajan, Keilberth, Krauss (sorry Kedem but it's true), perhaps Kempe, and I guess occasionally that other one... brought out what was truly great in the music in an orchestra who played with a Wagnerian idiomaticity which no orchestra has equalled before or since. There are other ways to play Wagner greatly, but when I'm being honest with myself, there's no more meaningful Wagner than this.
Three years after Keilberth comes decadence - Solti's sonic spectacular. It's not bad, especially compared to the moo-like singing that comes later (we won't mention any names), but it's nowhere near what people say it is, and it chooses shallow visceral effects over meaning.
So much later Wagner no longer Wagner, it is either something added on top of Wagner, or boringly unadulterated. There are later high moments: much as I dislike them both generally, Boulez and Barenboim have the intellectual heft to 'get' the Ring, and Adam Fischer is just such a magnificent and underrated musician. All three add something particularly worthwhile, and the singing isn't all that bad - at least for the two B's... But then....
...So here it is, the Ring we probably have to listen to if we truly want to understand the Ring. I'm not a Wagner fan, and yet I listen to him constantly. If you want to understand how the 20th century happened as it did, you have to listen to Wagner as much as you have to read Nietzsche, Darwin, and Marx.

Friday, August 20, 2021

Why I Oppose The Withdrawal

So here's what bothers me about the Afghanistan withdrawal. It would be justifiable if it's a decent political move, but even by the standards of conducting American policy realistically, this is such colossally terrible political strategy - even if I'm the only person who sees it, I know what I see. It is literally giving the Republicans all the ammunition they need in 2024. This is not Benghazi (BENGHAZI!!!!!!!!!!!... sorry...), this is about to be real case of mass murder and possibly genocide/democide, that will probably lead to a civil war that dwarfs whatever happened during our involvement. Republicans will use it to trump a false charge of mass neglect, and the world will hemorrhage footage of these grisly murders just like in Rwanda, and Republicans will manipulate it to seem as though Democrats, not they, are the real threat to world peace. Meanwhile, what was previously unthinkable has happened: Iran and the Taliban have now achieved an alliance while the Taliban has all sorts of American equipment and economic stimulus, and Iran is apparently weeks away from developing the "bomb," (according to Israeli intelligence, which admittedly may be an Israeli exaggeration) Whether or not Iran uses it, this is a bargaining chip that both Iran and Afghanistan can use to extract all kinds of funding. However much they hate each other, this is too good an opportunity for them both. and Putin and Xi can use it too, who are dancing with delight right now at their new ability to sponsor still more chaos. This is an issue Obama understood that Biden didn't. Whatever Biden thinks, I doubt Biden would have made this a high priority if he didn't want an easy accomplishment he can point to that will satisfy the Left while congress whittles down his domestic ambitions. And all the while he's negotiating with congress about domestic policy, but now that Biden is politically radioactive, our entire domestic agenda is in jeopardy. We're all so bloody sick of Afghanistan, but we've been in Korea for seventy years, Germany and Japan for seventy-five. You don't achieve peace by letting things fall as they may, because if you don't interfere, some other power world ambitions will, and they do it by more war and murder, not less. You achieve peace with vigilance and ONLY with vigilance. 3,500 troops, even 15,000, is not that high a price to pay for soldiers for a mission that at this point is little different from UN peacekeeping troops. It's not forever war, it prevents forever war.
We may have rehabilitated Carter just in time to relive the Carter years....

Thursday, August 19, 2021

An Outright 'Statement' About Afghanistan

I just can't keep my arms folded here... I want to but I can't... Maybe it's a crisis of political conscience or maybe I'm having a political nervous breakdown, but this is my red line. The Jewish people were not butchered in dictatorship after war just to stay silent when it's 99% likely to happen, even to people who hate us. Nobody needs to care what I think and probably shouldn't, but if solidarity means anything at all, then what you're justifying right now in the name of anti-colonialism will be remembered forever as an abomination.
Crimea 1918-22. Khronstadt 1921. Holomodor 1932-33. Moscow and Siberia 1936-38 and again in '48 and '52. Beijing 1948, and again in '58-'62. Budapest, 1956. Prague, 1968. Beirut 1975-90. Tehran, 1979. Kurdistan, 1991. Aleppo 2011 and Damascus 2008-????, Pyongyang 1949-god alone knows and so many dozens of times in Africa that it would be impossible to list. And you just blamed it all on Western imperialism in a single sentence and never thought about it again. How many millions of innocents died for your dogmas? How many thousands were forced into heroism and died a senseless martyr's death that to this day, you've never recognized?
Human rights has never been the Left's concern. Just like right-wing Christians (which is how so many of them were raised...), the only real concern was the way of life they wish to impose on an unwilling world - the very sort of imperialism it claims to squelch, and the vanity which comes from believing they've solved the question of human ethics.
Yes, it's true, modern liberalism has sometimes wished to impose democracy on unwilling peoples - but those projects are the exception, and for better or worse, there will always be inevitable clashes of imposition between people who see the world differently. But in progressivism, socialism, intersectionality, imposition of their worldview on the rest of humanity is the whole point, and what they want is a much more demanding system than mere democracy. And to their astonishment, it causes a billion dangerously immature and entitled conservatives to retrench into their outmoded value systems and grow ever more dangerous. The left dream of human projects that are literally impossible and causes the very escalation of reactionary tyranny they mean to overthrow. The end result of this eternal escalation may in a few decades may be a civil war at the very moment when the world is literally burning and we have to rescue billions, but no American liberal 'calls them out' for what they are.
If there is not a third way between ersatz conservatism and ersatz progressivism, at least 20% of the planet is doomed.
Kabul, 2021.

Hofmann and Petrenko

I just keep going back to this recital, over and over again. It is the most extraordinary examplar of instrumental musicianship I've ever heard. Abram Chasins said that this recording is an abomination of what he was just a few year previously that never should have been released what must he have been at his absolute prime?!? Hofmann distrusted recordings deeply, so we have just a small piece of his repertoire. I so wish we had more examples of Hofmann's superhuman musicianship, of which I wonder if there's any equivalent on any instrument at all. Until recently...
When I hear Kirill Petrenko, there is such deep thought and meaning, control over the orchestra, expressive sincerity, that I wonder if there is no equivalent figure in podium history and you have to think of Josef Hofmann to find any performing musician in any capacity at all. Petrenko is not yet fifty, and is now facing the most overrated, difficult, unconductable orchestra on earth whose self-regard ruined a large part of the gifts of Abbado and Rattle. When they rebel from his rigor, and they will... there is plenty of time for his gifts to curdle into insincere mannerisms, but for the moment, there is no equivalent in conducting history. Like Hofmann, he is a musical singularity.
PS: I linked to the wrong Hofmann recital.... because of course I did. meant the Golden Jubilee Met Opera recital. Like Joe Biden I have unfathomable gaffes.
Shows you how much I know what I'm talking about.





Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Yet Another Brief Comment on Afghanistan

This is a political crisis so far beyond what we're prepared for. Even if it's not Biden's fault, we just gave Republicans a battle cry for 2024 that sounds completely rational and legitimate, even if their claim about a botched leaving isn't true (and no matter what those bloodhounds yell, the fact is, maybe we should have just stayed...). The shock that America is narcissistic about foreign affairs is something progressives are always completely unprepared for. Lo and behold, there are places around the world, many of them, which suffer in ways we can't possibly fathom. One day, maybe relatively soon, we may get a taste of what that's like, and we'll get it because we didn't have the stomach to concentrate on anything but the small potatoes issues you have when you live as a superpower, all the while there's a whole world at your doorstep of 7 1/2 billion people, soon to be 9 billion, all of whom, for whatever reason, are jealous of us.
So my dear fellow liberals, if you haven't figured it out yet, I will spell it out:
This is exactly what happens when liberalism gets so far into bed with social justice that they start believing social justice rhetoric, and it is far far from the first time in history this happened. Withdrawal from forever war became such a high priority that even Joe Biden, the 'foreign policy Senator,' forgot how easily foreign affairs dissolve into chaos. So congratulations are due to all my SJW friends. You so convinced Joe Biden, for half a century a moderate's moderate, that peace and justice are the way we can run the world that he clearly started to believe our country could live in the world without keeping our hands dirty. Well, now instead of dirt we're about to get more blood on our hands in the next year than we have in the last twenty.
And even the lives of a hundred thousand innocents would be worthwhile if it spares billions. But the Republican party is literally the most dangerous political movement on earth. Not even the Chinese Central Committee has the power to wreak the havoc an authoritarian Republican administration can over the entire planet. If they are in power when it comes time to react to Global Warming, there will be a century of ramifications, just like after World War I. Only this time, it will be truly global, and with a world population that is 4 times what it was a century ago.
So even if Republicans' current reaction to our withdrawal is completely irrational, we have just given them the most rational battle cry for 2024 they could ever dream of having. If we play it right, it will only be a million moderates who just went over to Republicans for the next four years. If 3,500 troops actually and truly prevented a Taliban takeover, it honestly wasn't that high a price to pay...
The lesson here is not that we should never have been in Afghanistan. Imagine 9/11 going unanswered, we'd have seen January 6th twenty years sooner, probably much worse.
We should and could have killed bin Laden by 2003 and gotten out, but the Bush administration found it useful to keep him alive in Pakistan as a way of justifying the Iraq invasion, so Pervez Musharraf gave him asylum the whole time and the Bush administration pretended not to know.
Afghanistan was never going to be a democracy, and 90% of Americans knew it, including the Bush administration. What we hoped for is that we could find a corrupt kleptocrat like Karzai who would at least be competent - like Hosni Mubarak was in Egypt, or, believe it or not... Tayyip Erdogan is in Turkey (remember when he was a US ally?), who could glove varying degrees of liberal tolerance over a fist of blood and iron. Whatever the future of Afghanistan or 100 other countries in the world, that is still the very best they can ever hope for in my lifetime.
There is only one lesson here: if Biden or any Democrat wants to win in 2024, we're probably going back into Afghanistan by the end of the year, and possibly with ten times the number of troops or more. America is a very broken place. It may be different by next week, but it seems right now as though Biden will probably have to admit he made a colossal mistake and put the troops back in. And a lot of people on the left are going to be furious. If we give them some version of a Green New Deal and revamp Obamacare, they should be ameliorated for now.
But how... how are we going to get 9 billion people on earth to live together on a burning planet without billions getting killed?

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Musical Ideals: Flow and Glow

A nebulous musical post indeed... Perhaps this is synesthetic...
There are two ideals I think for music. I could use pretentious Greek or Kabbalistic terminology, but it comes down to two qualities: flow and glow.
People are going to be what they're going to be. You can't force a disorganized type of person to be fastidious any more than you can compel a fastidious person to let out of place things go, and ultimately, when it comes to problem solving, you're either the kind of person whose instinct is to take care of it or the type to move on.
But you can note those who turn their personality type into a religion, and cannot tolerate the idea of letting people be what they are. If they are type A, they can either be the type who creates spaces that let people be themselves, or the repressive type who aims to form people into little automatons who carry out their wishes. I don't claim to know what people are personally, just in art. And when I hear the military-lke organization of a Wagner's musical religion or Prokofiev musical gymnastics, the terrified orchestral precision of Toscanini or Reiner, the mechanical tension of a Michelangeli's porcelain or Pollini's bronze, I know an authoritarian personality when I hear it... These composers are more interested in assaulting the ear than in communicating with it, and these performers repress in the name of self-effacement. They are mechanics, not musicians.
Similarly, among the type B's are the types who either become their surroundings, and appreciate the ebb and flow of life, or insist on bending life's entire experience to their personalities. When I hear the hollow effects disguised as intellectual pretension of Liszt and Richard Strauss, the faux-deep narcissism of Celibidache and pomposity of Barenboim, the neurotic inability of Horowitz not let a musical phrase pass without exaggerations that are strangely pedantic for an artist known for his visceral excitement, I know that there's something deeply inauthentic about their approach. So often this approach is shallowness disguising itself as depth, a pose that has nothing to do with real self-expression in an approach which should do nothing better than enabling an authentic self to emerge. There is neither glow or flow to be found here, just hollow posing.
Exaggeration does have it's virtues. When you hear a Capital S search, it certainly has its virtues, but it does not have that special flow. Gesualdo, Schoenberg, Richter, Gilels, Sokolov, Furtwängler, Scherchen.... These are astonishingly truthful artists in their various ways, but they do not communicate a love of life equal to its pain. They flow, but they're not rivers, they're whirlpools. You cannot listen to them without being pulled into a musical event horizon where the truths are too dark to be life's whole story. Where there could be hope and flow/glow, all is darkness: it can be wonderful, but it also sounds a bit like musical nihilism. When you hear the self-effacing understatement of Haitink or Backhaus, that's real self-effacement, even if the level of unadorned musical logic is almost oppressive, there's real musical truth there. Bernstein and Rattle, for all their exaggerations, still have the flow. They accelerate as often as they slow down, Bernstein has the incision of precise rhythm whenever the music calls for it, and Rattle has accelerandi which can sound like nothing short of tsunamis. Tennstedt, for all his variability of tempo, still has that glow. In fact perhaps he has it more than any conductor save Jansons and Klemperer - that sense that every note every player plays is important and valued. Arrau has a similar luminosity among pianists, but his deep burnish from within is obviously a very different, almost opposite sort of glow from the very light proportions of a Casadesus - which is almost more of a glitter (ditto Ravel...). On the other hand, both Solomon and Curzon generally quite consistent in their tempi, yet no one flowed better, each note melting into the next like a wave. There are musicians whose perfection and severity, like Haitink and Backhaus, borders at times upon the impersonal and mechanical (I'm thinking mostly of Dohnanyi and E. Kleiber, which in the past I called an ideal but now I wonder...), but there are still moments of such magic that the 'glow' is something you can't deny them. There are similarly 'flow' artists who go into all kinds of excess that verges on the too dark for life (Mitropoulos, Hess). They flow, but they overflow the banks quite often. And then there are the 'glow' artists which glow in a way that is more sensuous than warm and reassuring (Haydn, Beecham, Rubinstein). There are other conductors whom I thought including in 'flow', like de Sabata and Kondrashn, but if they flow, they flow continuously like rapids.
And then you have the artists who are so talented that it's simply too much for their own good - so much technique and intelligence that they can't help but become mannered in a way that's divorced from real expresson: Carlos Kleiber is the most obvious example. Koscis and Levit are like that on the piano. It is much more difficult to say that of a composer - genius is genius, but if there were one or two of whom it could be said, I suppose it would be Stravinsky and Hindemith, whose chameleon ability to write in any style disguised their true identities their whole careers long.
If I can define "Glow" more generally, I suppose it means the ability to let things stand on their own with trust and security. It is usually achieved by seeing music from the outside in - letting the music's perfection of form come through. The glow can be many things - a warm suntan in the heat like Verdi and Faure, a pure immersion in a place where light and dark are clearly defined like Bach, or a sunset against a grey sky like Brahms. It often depends on the security of knowing that every voice will get a space to speak what it has to say, but glow can also be achieved by simply letting the music speak of itself. I doubt anyone would call Vaughan Williams one of form's greatest masters, but in Vaughan Williams, but what other composers achieve by formal security, Vaughan Williams achieves by the simple humanity of letting every detail register.
And if Vaughan Williams was not quite a master of form, Ives is in the bottom third... And yet his music, even at its most hyperactive, is stationary, tied to very specific places as all the motion moves around it. It glows with everything from New England midst to the most chaotic brassy iridescence, but it always stays put, and the beauty comes to the place rather than searching for the beauty.
Debussy on the other hand, is one of form's ultimate masters. Not a note out of place, and yet everything flow. Whether gentle or darting quickly, everything is motion. Perhaps Debussy is, like Mozart, one of the only masters who has mastered both flow and glow, but surely Mozart deserves a spot by himself, glowing from the top of the mountain even as he eases down it by rivulet.
"Flow", rather, is the delight that comes from unpredictability. It's a different, and perhaps more difficult kind of light to generate, because it generally depends on a kind of risk taking the 'glowers' generally don't take to find things in music which are not integrated into the form. It generates security and trust, but does so with unpredictability. If the 'glow-ers' seem to emulate life as it would be lived ideally, the 'flow-ers' emulate life as it is, an ebb and flow. 'Life is what happens when you're making other plans', but the flowers show us that even if life works out differently, it can still be lived with all the same security, humanity, warmth, and compassion.
...Maybe you all understand what I'm talking about because I sure as hell don't....
20 Flow Composers:
Late Beethoven
Schubert (the co-ultimate flow-er)
Mussorgsky (the co-ultimate flow-er)
Dvorak (the co-ultimate flow-er)
20 Glow Composers:
Middle Beethoven
Brahms (the co-ultimate glow-er)
Sibelius (the co-ultimate glow-er)
Vaughan Williams
...Mozart is all things.... Debussy, Chopin, Schubert, and Bartok all have many properties of both.
15 Flow Conductors:
Barbirolli (co 2nd place)
Jochum (co 2nd place)
Kubelik (the ultimate flow-er)
15 Glow Conductors:
Klemperer (co-second place)
E. Kleiber
Tennstedt (co-second place)
Jansons (the ultimate glow-er)
I. Fischer
...Monteux is all things.... So nearly were Walter and Fricsay and Ivan Fischer today. We will see about Kirill Petrenko... who may well be a Monteux but could ultimately also be a Carlos Kleiber... talk about blessing with faint criticism...
15 Flow Pianists:
Gieseking (the co-ultimate flow-er)
Solomon (the co-ultimate flow-er)
de Larrocha
15 Glow Pianists:
Kempff (the ultimate glow-er)
Lipatti (honorable mention)
...Hofmann and Rachmaninov are all things.... de Larrocha, Curzon, Firkusny, and Badura-Skoda too have that dual magic ability.

A Briefer Comment on Afghanistan

 I don't agree (for the moment) with putting this on Biden. You cant put something on someone in office for eight months after three Presidents spent their whole tenures doubling down on making withdrawal as awful as possible. But I do agree with putting this on absolutely everybody else. You didn't care. If you're a Democrat you bought the old Soviet lie that all Western foreign policy is imperialism without even the Soviet Union to feed it to you. If you're a Republican, there wasn't a single malpractice you weren't willing to excuse in the name of a fight for freedom abroad that you did everything in your power to stop within in your own country. Before 9/11 was even five years ago, you'd all forgotten that the rest of the world exists. Why? Because we're Amurrikans damnit and even the ones of you who are ultra-critical of America don't give a shit about anywhere else. An Arab Spring couldn't make you look elsewhere, neither could a ten year war in Syria with three million refugees that involved the very people who interfered in our election. Global warming certainly can't do it, and the only people who cared about the world economy opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership and put 5 trillion dollars into the Chinese dictatorship's pocket. Hell, even Russian interference in an election can't make you think about anything but whatever side you take in a futile battle to change masculinity..., even a virus from halfway across the world that's going to kill more than a million of us can't make you stop thinking about whatever side you take in a futile battle to change law enforcement.... In the bubble of your privilege you got to pretend small issues were large, you read slogans and political memes when you should be reading policy briefs. And now, the chess pieces are all in place for war everywhere, genocide everywhere, dictatorship everywhere, and all it takes is one natural disaster to light the whole world on fire. So now we all get to watch a genocide for which we are responsible, a genocide which may well be a pre-echo of what's coming for billions - including us. Billions of dollars of equipment and economic stimulus get to benefit the very people who sponsored 9/11. If you're feeling sick right now, good. Don't get angry, get nauseous. Whatever you see in Afghanistan, that could be us.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

A Brief Comment on Afghanistan

I want to write extensively about Afghanistan, but oh my god it's so exhausting to think about.
All I'll say for now is that foreign affairs really, really, REALLY matter and people don't think about them. Rock ribbed liberals on American politics turn into libertarians abroad, and behold, the results. If only Republicans have actionable ideas about how to solve problems abroad, you don't get to complain when their solutions become predictable disasters. If you don't want foreign affairs to become domestic affairs, you get involved abroad before millions of refugees show up on your doorstep, and if you let them die before they get here, why would anybody else help us when it's our turn on the chopping block? And clearly, it may be our turn sooner than we know.
We are put on earth to help each other. Multilateral coalitions work, they're the ONLY thing that works. Nation-building is not imperialism, it's the only option and the problem of Afghanistan was that we went in alone with a small patina of international cooperation because the Bush Administration was convinced that American conservatives could run the world by themselves and the human rights concerns of other nations are destructively naĂŻve. That IS imperialism, the results were predictable, and once the Bush administration screwed it up, there was no way to make things right without a forever presence because what other country in a position to help would ever trust our ability to collaborate on it?
The Taliban is totalitarianism, the thing we do everything to avoid; hell on earth as you count your days until you watch your loved ones die. The current American right-wing is really and truly advancing in that direction, and so is the right wing in every Western country, but everything we fear about how trends the leadership of authoritarians like Trump, Putin, Orban, Balsonaro, the Taliban already is. The Taliban really is Hitler, Stalin, Mao...
To this day, this is on Bush, and Republicans have no moral right to demand investigations and impeachments about an invasion they're solely responsible for screwing up, but everything Republicans are at home, Democrats have turned into abroad, and the results are fundamentalist religious takeovers all over the world, both Islamic and Christian. The Taliban is the most misogynistic movement on Earth, even Isil and Boko Haram take a back seat, and people who claim intersectional feminism turn into everything they claim to loathe just because it's Islam abroad, and pretend to be blind to the sufferings of women who endure trials so far beyond trials that woke feminism ever comprehends - and they could comprehend it, but they choose to ignore it because it's inconvenient to their beliefs. The woke claim to be concerned about the plight of people of color, yet they also claim we have no right to speak ou about what happens when injustice is perpetrated by people of color on themselves - but when you're murdered, it doesn't matter whether the person who killed you is white.
Some country is always going to lead the world, and if you think China or Russia would be better leaders than us, what the fuck did you go to college for to be that ignorant? The America-lead world is falling apart. It's a failure of the entirety of America, Republican and Democrat, right and left. If God calls us all to account for what we've done to the world, there is no one in the US who has a sufficient excuse to object.

Saturday, August 14, 2021

"The Speech" in St. Paul, MN tomorrow - Cut & Highly Edited


So I suppose my name's still Evan Tucker: a self-hating nice Jewish boy from Baltimore, Pisces, five-foot four, he/him, and a not particularly professional composer, violinist, singer, writer, and journalist. I don't make money from music, I lose money, and any chance to recoup costs will be well into my dotage and perhaps well thereafter. This is my fourth NMG, third panel, and second presentation.
As is the LD way, I've put off writing this for months only to encounter writer's block, and therefore crammed the writing into a 72 hour coffee marathon which set my hairline an inch back. It was torture of an entirely different form than the even more tortuous process of last year's speech, before which I was six-foot three.
Last year I knew exactly what I wanted to say, and all I needed to do was take dictation from a text that seemed read into my mind by someone else. The torture last year was the vulnerability of giving the speech. I was an emotional wreck for two weeks before and a week afterward. I have a video of that speech which if anybody asks for it I can post to my website: evantucker.bandcamp.com, run by my invaluable engineer, Mat Lefler-Schulman, without whom I'd still just be hearing musical shadows on a wall.
But the result of last year's presentation was that the great Sarah Bob, guardian angel to un-performed composers everywhere, was in the audience, immediately went about hearing my music, and responded so enthusiastically that she immediately programmed it. I feel a bit like Conan O'Brien after he was plucked from obscurity to host Late Night. I have no idea how it happened, I just know my life has changed immeasurably for the better by her championship.
Last year's experience was yet another example of the New Music Gathering being one of my life's great blessings, and I'm sure there are hundreds who'd say that. Without NMG I can almost guarantee that hardly a single composer would even be aware of my existence. 5 1/2 years ago, I stumbled upon NMG in Baltimore on the very week I resolved to be a composer again, it seemed like fate, and I resolved that NMG will have my lifelong loyalty as long as they'll have me.
I'd really prefer to speak about anything else. Unfortunately, my debilitations are a large part of why I'm here, so the subject is annoyingly unavoidable. So I regretfully must give a bullet-point version of what I said last year: extreme intellectual facility from the earliest age, even more severe learning disabilities in late childhood, calamitous emotional infirmity by early adolescence, deception into a cult disguised as a boarding school in my late teens, leading to a lifetime of cognitive delusions. It is only through obsessive consumption of culture that my Mach 3 delusive spirals ever slow down.
When it comes to the most basic tasks, like figuring out how to use music notation software, how not to lose sheet music or files; how to remember the actual terms of harmony, counterpoint, formal analysis which my musical memory lets me understand implicitly; how not to arrive anywhere an hour late, how to deposit a rent check, clean a house and not to hoard, I have the same ability to manage tasks I had as a child and can only fulfill them with the most severe anxiety, depression, tics, even delusions. I needn't tell you, this renders jobs and romantic attachments nearly impossible, and I've certainly tried. And even were a relationship successful, I must abandon hope of raising a family or even pets... And yet just in music, I have perfect pitch so absolute that I can identify the missing note in an eleven-note chord, I can write out a plurality of standard rep in full score by memory, and can write out any recorded avant-garde improv. My life would be much easier without useless abilities like these. But Voltaire said that God is a comedian playing to an audience too scared to laugh. So here I am, coerced by fate to laugh as best I can, every day of my life.
It finally occurred to me on Thursday why writing this presentation was difficult: as a profoundly learning disabled person, I am the very last person able to give advice on this subject. By definition, the community of severe learning disability is hamstrung in its capacity for self-advocacy. We can't even explain how we're organizationally challenged, because if we understood the problems, we could master them. So how can I tell you what to do to help? There is no way for the severely learning disabled to band together in advocacy as others understand it - not even because of organizational difficulties, though those obviously would be hard... but because, whatever ancillary gifts in our brains, the nature of learning disabilities is that we're incapable of understanding what's happening to us, even after living with these difficulties our entire lives, and because we are incapable of understanding them, so too is everybody. There are literally billions of people who relate to the learning disabled in the worst conceivable faith, and believe that our deficiencies are an absence of character rather than neurons - which then, of course, depletes people like us of morale and convinces millions of us that even the attempt to make something worthwhile of ourselves is guaranteed to result in still more humiliation. .
I can't speak to what it would take to make a profoundly LD composer into someone with a chance of making a living in the currently constituted field of classical composition. I could barely explain the forms of help I received, and I obviously haven't made any living in it. But, rather than bring LD students to the music, is it possible to bring the music to LD students?
I here submit a dual thesis:
1. As grateful as the LD students are for extra help, equal footing in classical music is unattainable to people in the LD community because the very way classical music has always been made rewards traditional learners, particularly in a university setting.
2. Classical music has made exponentially more use of electronics as a delivery system for acoustical music than for its true potential as an artistic medium, and I submit that Learning Disabled musicians are the perfect types of people to discover the full potential of electronic music.
'What is composition?' is not only a complicated, loaded question, it's also a very different question now than it's ever been before, a question with so many different answers from what it ever was in 1900. All those twentieth century answers would have been to the better except that almost all the new answers trended in the direction of more organization, more preparation, more repetitive skill, more academic training. However small the windows before World War I for classical musicians to be creatures of the moment rather than of planning, those windows shut down.
And as classical music grew ever more planned, the new presence of electronic recording allowed the improvisatory music of untrained musicians to be etched permanently without need for any printed music at all - so what used to be ephemeral music for a folk community of a hundred became popular music for a consumer audience of millions. And classical music became ever more subsumed by erudition and training during the very era when spontaneity was more required to hold the attention and love of its audience.
We are 120 years into the age of musical recording, and thus far, 99% of everything classical music ever did with recording has been a reaction to the record rather than an embrace of it. We thought of the 20th century as a revolutionary century, but it increasingly seems as though we were the arch-conservatives. We burrowed ever deeper into traditional forms, and even revolutions like atonality, 12-tonality, polyrhythms, were only revolutions if you already knew the musical tradition being revolutionized. All the while, we've been staring at the biggest revolution of all and doing everything in our power to ignore it. This whole time, we've been writing basically acoustical music for concerts when when we could literally be recreating the experience of music itself from the very root, and the tool which we, with classical training, could do the most with.
Whatever the systemic problems are now, the system is likely about to be uprooted as it has not been since living memory was in its childhood. If COVID is just the first in a long series of world tragedies, and it may be, the system we've always known is about to disappear, and there will sadly never be concerts in the lifetime of many people here as we've ever understood them before. Every genre will have to rethink what music is both in creation and performance, because soon there may not be gatherings for us to perform at for much longer than a year. And yet at the same time, there will be more need for musical community than ever before.
I've reluctantly come to believe that the answer to all these problems lies in electronic, reproductive music. Electronic reproduction already revolutionized everything else about the world except for classical music.... But here it is: an almost completely unwritten field in which the rules of composition can change as they have not since Machaut showed what could be done with four-voice polyphony. Meanwhile, we're still discussing musical analysis in the same way Debussy did at the Paris Conservatoire. Classical composers are beginning to awaken to electronic possibilities as so much more than an interesting diversion, and much of the new electronic music, like Sam and Tis, is extraordinarily good, but virtually all genres of music still think in traditional, linear terms - rhythm, counterpoint, form, but we are now face-to-face with a colossus, a whole new order of musical technology.
A neurotypical person thinks in linear terms, in which thoughts are followed unidirectionally to a logical conclusion that makes sense on its own terms and needn't relate to anything else - 'This is therefore that.' And to this day music is almost always composed in manners that either make sense as worlds unto themselves, or in relation to lyrics in a way that makes the form even more linear - just a verse, chorus, and bridge. But I'd venture that most learning disabled people think in quantum terms. They associate not by logic but by metaphor - 'this is like that,' and hold their entire storehouse of knowledge in their heads at all times and cannot dissociate one subject from the totality of what they know, and so they make completely disparate connections between seemingly unrelated fields that would never occur to neurotypical people.
So rather than thinking of music terms of linear, cellular, syntactical terms, the incorporation of different sorts of learners involves a wholesale embrace of conceptual, interconnected, semantic thinking. In electronics, music can now be organized entirely by extra-musical themes, collage, juxtaposition; the very fabric of ideas themselves that previously seemed to have nothing to do with music can now express themselves musically. In electronics, all things become music, of this world, the next, and every other. Electronic music operates not by the exquisite order of four-voice polyphony, but the beautifully diverse chaos of a thousand voices. It is a wholly new music for a new millennium.
Classical music always dances around embracing the conceptual and electronic. But now, in an age of infinite sounds, there is no limitation to what instruments produce. Classical composition and performance has a golden opportunity to get in on what is still the ground floor of what the whole field might eventually have to embrace anyway - committing to electronic music for consumption elsewhere than a performance, and commit to it as an equal partner to acoustic and instrumental, written with a bare minimum of traditional notation. Such a music would not only include the learning disabled, but people of every unprivileged demographic who did not have the opportunity to learn how to master classical music from the cradle.
Arnold Schoenberg used to say that he was not a modernist - he was an arch-conservative forced to become a revolutionary. I'm probably the only person at this conference who'd say he has simple, uncomplicated love for the classical canon. I've listened to more contemporary classical music than I could ever know what to do with, but my daily bread is Schubert. It's because I love this music dearly that I advocate we need to blow the whole thing up in order to save it. The inclusive progress we seek in classical music will only be made if we create an entire track that does away with the very fundaments of music as we've thus far thought of it with much more funding allocated to electronic music from its current totals. Traditional classical musicians can still learn by traditional models, but electronic music need to be fully incorporated into classical music rather than a small sideshow, with an entirely different set of curriculum requirements so they and we may be taught anew how to write music. Paradoxical as it sounds, people of musical ability but non-traditional background need to learn just the technology of how to compose in a way that doesn't involve traditional harmony, form, and counterpoint, because with such a revolutionary technology, musical rules completely rewrite themselves, and learning disabled musicians may be the ideal people to figure out what the new rules are.
I thank you for your time, your ears, and your generous presence. Please try out my music at evantucker.bandcamp.com, that's evantucker.bandcamp.com, and let me end with a very brief prayer that may we all be able to listen to each other in person next year and that whatever music is in the future, we all make it there together, in one piece, able to find appreciative producers, performers, audiences, and able to make livings from our music.