Saturday, July 16, 2011

Words on words and music

I'm here in New York for the summer, chipping away at the dissertation and enjoying the panoply of free cultural events the city has to offer (a sampling: outdoor screening of Manhattan in Brooklyn Bridge Park, Brooklyn Rider's eclectic and invigorating concert of classical, Brazilian, bluegrass, Japanese, and Roma music, and dreamy atmospheric rock of Radio Dept. at sunset at the Seaport). Farmers markets have bountifully overfed me.

Life is good, so good in fact that I'm going to complain just for a change of mood. I haven't seen any Broadway yet (except Kelli O'Hara and Matthew Morrison's great performance at the Capitol Fourth concert (yeah, I know they had the cast of Million Dollar Quartet too, but that doesn't cut it at the moment)).

A few days ago, I came across this article in the Times, asking one of the perennial favorite musical quirky questions: what's the difference between musicals and opera? For my money, I'm still partial to Sondheim's distinction: if it's on stage by an opera company and the audience goes in expecting to see an opera, it's an opera. In other words, nothing is inherent in the work, it's all about expectations. Nevertheless, I think we all can identify common tropes in both the work and performance style, and so I looked forward to this take. For the record, I don't think a satifying single definition will ever be found—in fact, I don't think one even needs to be articulated—but as with any marker of genre, they can be useful.

Tommasini doesn't start well with a title asking us to "respect the difference." To me, this suggests snobbery from the start, and an implicit critique of ones that purport to borrow from or assimilate to the other. He begins by noting the common word "opera" appearing all over the place, and indeed suggesting that so manny efforts to cross the boundary are unsatisfying. He makes a few points I contest. For instance, I wouldn't peg Pagliacci as unrivaled in crowd-pleasing, and most importantly I wouldn't follow the conclusion he draws from A Minister's Wife, where, after praising the score insists it must be "pretentious musical theater or tame quasi-opera." I think there's space for a work like that, or if not we should make space.

Tomassini quickly dismisses highbrow/lowbrow, complexity, and spoken dialogue, all things that do not yield a strong division, but I think might be more fruitfully considered at length. Instead, he writes, "Here’s the difference: Both genres seek to combine words and music in dynamic, felicitous and, to invoke that all-purpose term, artistic ways. But in opera, music is the driving force; in musical theater, words come first."

There's something to this, performance-wise. The bain of crossover singers from opera doing showtunes is that the words get garbled, but I don't think that's the issue. I mean, I can recite the text by heart, but hearing Kiri Te Kanawa try a cockney accent in My Fair Lady is no match for Julie Andrews. There's a great bit too on José Carreras singing West Side Story where Bernstein continually stops rehearsal because he cannot sing "still" properly. Jerry Hadley has fared a little better with a brighter more natural sound. Dawn Upshaw, with her clarity comes close. (Renee Fleming surprised me, although her most recent crossover album of indie rock loses the operatic quality altogether but never really finds something to replace it and the result sounds just empty, boring). For my money, the only true cross-over artist is Audra MacDonald. I think there is something vital to not just the words, but how they're sung, their placement and clarity, their ease and naturalness. Musical theater does not, as opera does, repeat lines at least not verbatim. Although they do take more time to ease out their sentiments than a normal conversation.

But as his reasoning went on, I grew more skeptical of his theory. He draws on Cole Porter's lyrics to "Anything Goes," but says nothing about their setting. For opera, he turns to Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti. But this example is surely flawed, right, since the entire second act is lifted from a Broadway show, and the surrounding material is so self-consciously Serious Opera that it hardly illuminates anything. I'm not an expert on libretti, so perhaps someone could speak to how important the text is in opera studies, but I hesitate to put the music in the backseat when it comes to musicals. I think, "in olden days," the melody, the standalone work carried just as much importance as the text. And with a variety of scores inching toward the operatic- Bernstein's Candide and West Side Story, Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, Guettel's Light in the Piazza, the score carries the words more often than not. Now Tommasini grants that all these works are musically strong but that the words "do most of the heavy lifting." I'm not sure what that means. Does it mean that the music tells the story more effectively in opera? Because I don't think that's true—I think viewers rely on the action and/or the text just as much, and plenty of moments in musical theater tell a story through music. Does it mean that the story is more important to the musical? I think just the opposite is true, given the equally common practice of excerpting a tune from Broadway show and an aria from an opera and the interpolation of new songs into early musical theater (and Baroque opera).

In the end, I'm disappointed largely because the distinction feels unnuanced and ill-thought out. For instance, he attributes the importance of melody to opera, not musical theater. But also because Tommasini never provides a good reason why this distinction he's drawing matters and to whom. He writes that theatergoing audiences may not care about the divide. Well, if that's true, then why is this article being written? I think audiences do care, returning to Sondheim. When going to see the Glimmerglass production of Annie Get Your Gun, what will make the work a success? For those going because they love Deborah Voigt, their definitions will vary from those whose first love is Berlin's tunes (and lyrics).

When thinking about the differences—yes, I think it has to be plural—between these two, at the forefront should be our understanding of to whom and why. For listeners, words play a big part, performance style, production values, choreography, maybe even subject matter. For composers, it would look different. There's something interesting: why compose an opera or a musical theater piece. There, money, advertising, subject matter (again), prestige (probably again, though I didn't initially list it and now think twice), all matter there. We might also gain something out of the overlap. The opera-ness of many rock operas derives in part from near continuous underscoring. This is also what makes them often worse for the wear, because they lack any distinctness. So I'll end with a beginning of my own definition as an avid listener. Musical theater thrives on distinctness of moments: a choreographed number, a set number, even in the shows like Sweeney Todd's second act or Next to Normal (the best rock opera to date in my opinion). Opera produces a more fluid (not unified, necessarily) product that divides into longer scenes. Operatic excerpts always feel to me a little arbitrary and incomplete in the way they begin and end, perhaps because of this. But such a distinction alone is not satisfactory enough, it's just one piece of a complex question whose answers is a lot further than Tommasini would have us believe.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

On (not) writing

I took last summer off for a little perspective in terms, and also to refocus energies elsewhere. And coming back, I'm not sure either of those panned out in the ways I thought. There were several times I started writing something, but couldn't quite get it out in a way that made sense for me, or that I wanted to write something but just got busy. And these I suspect will be continuing problems for me, but for the mean time I'm back largely in part to a) my missing this and b) the feeling that it's worthwhile beyond me.

There's been a lot of discussion lately on the AMS listserv (and echoed nicely over at amusicology about the place of blogs. I don't imagine I get much draw outside of people I already know, but it's a way of disseminating even in small steps some thoughts. I could also be a better self-promoter, I suppose. But modest aims are fine, I think, for where I am. It's nice, honestly, to feel like I'm communicating more with these folks more than the once-or-twice-a-year conference or trip.

Instead, I think the broader goal for me is pedagogical, self and otherwise. Taking this teaching writing seminar underscored how much I value that sort of daily, low-stakes writing (an added bonus of where the free time went, I did more fiction reading, and intend to continue this trend!). It's hard to square the publicness with the lack of a really public readership, meaning that ideas occupy this nebulous space of inquisitive working through and digested and eloquent. I'm the kind of writer who likes a space to sort of see it on paper or hear myself talk it out, hence I'm back. But I've also seen a lot about blogs in the classroom. We had listening blogs in one class, but the class was too large (in my opinion) to really make it a space for much discussion to erupt and, in a fitting parallel to Ryan's post students managed to spread the rumor that they didn't need to actually do it and it was a losing battle. I like the idea of blogs though, as a space for working out ideas, sharing perspectives, continuing exchanges and collaboration beyond the classroom, and I expect to continue this in the fall when I teach freshman writing. Blogs are good for just practicing writing, doing it daily, letting students get feedback on their ideas, learn how to make and support arguments, how to provide commentary, and to realize that their ideas participate in a broader conversation.

All of this is to say that if we want to make musicology active in the public domain, keeping that in mind in the classroom is a good idea. We encounter students who will become musicians, medical researchers, administrators, psychologists, whatever- the people who will become potential readers of our words. But if the classroom is just a place to learn about musical form, concerts attended just so they can write 3 pages rehashing it, music and its teachers seemingly cut off from the modern world, they won't go into the world expecting to see musicologists playing an active role. They may very well appreciate what they learned, they may remember us fondly, but they won't see us as a missing part after they get their diploma. Which would be a shame, because what I love about my work and my colleagues is how they make me feel connected to a larger world, and hope that my presence in it will be of use to someone.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


So, somehow my summer vacation away from blogging turned into a year. I've had a lot happen in the interim, but nothing terribly earth shattering. Some dissertation got written as well as a couple conference papers and a side project article that's in final editing before submitting it, I got to try my hand at teaching film, took a job applying prep seminar, and I think the biggest was taking a seminar on how to teach writing. This summer we're getting ready to teach freshman writing in the fall, and the new assignment is SYLLABUS. It's getting scarily concrete.

I'll write more on that and a few other topics that have been brewing (some, like this one, in response to AMS listserve activity). But I want to launch back into this on a more gut level topic, specifically being stirred by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's season-closing performance of Mahler 9. They were great about providing me with an apology pair of comp tickets after last year's concert replaced Nielsen 5 with Rachmaninov's 2nd symphony (which I'd just heard two weeks prior) without my being notified. I was disappointed (as a friend and I agreed, it's like being promised a ride in juiced up rare car only to get a ride in a really big minivan).

The concert was absolutely amazing. Bernard Haitink had a perfect rapport with all the musicians, who were actively into it, and just nuanced control of all the disparate parts. I'll also put this forward: Mahler 9 is my vote for favorite/best symphony. Here's some musings on what grabs me.

The first movement starts out in little fragments, a note here, a rocking motive in the harp that recalls immediately the adagietto of Mahler 5 (and less immediately "Beautiful" from Sunday in the Park With George), and ultimately reaches this lovely three-note motive that never resolves to the tonic. It just hangs there, but somehow inflects a gentler yearning than what I'd expect. Like it's content to rest there on the second degree, and so are we. It's hard to summarize this movement most of all; it's like reading a novel that covers so much territory without getting lost. The orchestra kicks into high gear with the brass charging forward in a heroic effort that again doesn't get resolved, the mood darkens, then sweetens as the opening motive comes back, building back up again. And here's the thing: this movement struggles on and on, it's quixotic, it's weird. The melodies end abruptly, the orchestration turns on a dime, the harmonies are muddy and indistinct. The concert sold out, but maybe it's the name because late Mahler isn't really an audience pleaser. 90 minutes of this without intermission. Anyway, the first movement has the most marvelous ending- everything sort of peters out into a sweet chamber music moment built around that opening motive that hangs on the second scale degree until a harp and flute resolve it in the upper register. It's like magic, really, not just fulfilling that which you've been striving for for so long, but exceeding it with sheer simplicity of that one note that feels both attained (at last!) and unearthly, out of reach. Perfection, held just long enough to stop your breath.

The second is just the opposite: silly, earthly, bizarre. A folk dance burbles up through the orchestra but only for so long. Soon another dance tune intercuts it, then another and another, like a comic traffic pile-up. Then Mahler has fun with this wealth of ideas: the tunes get chopped up. They start answering each other in wrong keys, sliding around like dizzying musical banter, or maybe even like a cream pie fight. And since I work on collage, that's what this is: a collage of these various dance tunes, remixed in ever-changing ways and positions. I find it interesting that the folk dance movement provides the impetus for Mahler's release like this- maybe there's something to the physicalness of dance that allows this sort of musical embodiment of spinning out of control, fumbling around. And intercut with the dances are moments of rest, these echoes of that first movement motive. And then it ends like the first movement, hanging unresolved, then resolving in this cute little ripple of notes- different effect, similar means. I half-stifled my giggle.

The third movement is something of a march that can't quite decide on its character. A little overly self-serious at times, chipperly dysfunctional at others. Haitink caught, I think, the perfect tempo- there's a danger of letting it run away with itself, which undercuts the pomposity of it. The middle section is another statement of what will become the opening 4th movement theme, presented at first half-formed, harmonized in and out of tune, starting to blossom into the tenderest moment yet once the strings take it up, but that thought is left hanging, and the theme simply asserts itself again inquisitively, plays around a bit, before the clarinet takes it up in a mocking tone a la Till Eulenspiegel and the march theme inserts itself in playful counterpoint. This is something I love- the themes get treated in practically every way. They're comic, they're sweet, they're bombastic, and Mahler nails every mood just right.

I love the fourth movement most of all. It's the only one that doesn't feel like it's fighting against itself. It's the most harmonically triadic and grounded. Also, we've been introduced to the themes in more parodic fashion in the third and second movements; what's surprising is how straightforward it is and how effective it is just to let them unfold. The tone is incredibly hard to pin down. It's happy, but in a sad, irrevocably lost way, or maybe it's sad in a warm, accepting sort of way. It yearns but it doesn't feel directional or unfulfilled. More like it's about yearning than it isyearning. There's a climactic moment where the tension builds until the opening unison string gesture bursts in and the horns solidly affirm the main motive. But then the ending enriches it by reducing the orchestra to just a few instruments, in quiet, uncertain, dark counterpoint. The two different impulses are never really resolved; what we get is a rich but intimate string texture at rest, very fragile stability: a tonic chord, but with oscillations up and down in the violas that threaten to break it at any moment but by the end haven't.

If I seem overly anthropomorphic here, it's only because I want to emphasize how this symphony feels natural. Music seems to unfold in a logical but free way. It makes sense in ways that make sense when you hear it. And you should hear it (live, if possible).

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Too fool for school

I hope today's weather is not a prank, because let me tell you, I don't want more snow after the beautiful t-shirt weather sunny day we've had. Plans to hold some of class outside were put aside because nobody did the reading, so I went outside for 15 minutes while they all read. Maybe sections tomorrow will go better.

There's a lot I've missed posting about—SAM certainly merits some attention, and our double-bill of speakers Tom Turino on Peircian semiotics and David Huron on musical emotion also left me reeling with ideas. But I can't really be bothered with that on a blissful day like today, so instead I'll share a brief observation: there's very little less satisfying to me than finding the perfect music to fit the weather and mood of a day. Today, serendipitously talking about film with my Australian friend, we turned to Picnic at Hanging Rock. And while the day was much hotter, and the clothes much stiffer, there, the slow movement of Beethoven's Emperor concerto winds its way through the suffocating heat like a hint of a cool breeze. It's almost palpable. And putting that on as I headed back to the library (ugh), dawdling outside until the concerto ended, made for a perfect diversion.

Enjoy yourselves.

PS: for another, uh, diversion, and appropriately for today enjoy this not-a-joke cover.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Best of 2009: Cinema

Well, it's Oscar night day, and my mind is already looking forward to the baked brie I'll be making and enjoying the uncertainty of a number of my predictions. So it's a good day to talk about the best 2009 had to offer.

Let's start with what I'm hoping wins BP: The Hurt Locker. I just saw it a second time, and loved it even more. There's a lot to be said for its construction- 2.5 hours of grueling tension which almost never lets up. But a second viewing led me to pay much more attention to the nuances of character, the way they feel actually complex to the viewer. Twice one character considers killing another, but we're never sure of the reasons. The characters remain enigmatic to us the way they remain just as enigmatic to each other, and probably to themselves. I also caught more of a character arc in the main character, the way his defenses subtly break down over the course of the film. This was actually only one of several Iraq movies to emerge this year, including the equally unsettling, complex study of war's effects The Messenger, and the disarmingly sharp satire In the Loop. In both of those, the war is off-camera but strongly felt nonetheless.

On a related note, 2009 was a year of powerful violence at the cinema. Steve McQueen's Hunger, a visually rapturous, gut-wrenching film about the hunger strike of Bobby Sands is one of the more remarkable exercises in pure filmmaking but never feels overdone. Equally beautiful in its depictions of violence is Michael Haneke's austerely creepy The White Ribbon, in which a German town clings to tradition, order, and naivete as a number of unexplained acts of cruelty are unleashed. Haneke still proves the master of taut psychological suspense, but does so with increasingly subtle overtones here.

There were a few welcome romantic diversions. I prefered the looseness and performances of the under-appreciated Away We Go, with award worthy comic performances by the leads John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph, to the overly quirky but smartly observant 500 Days of Summer, both good doses of summer love with a sharp aftertaste. And the platonic romance between Maria, the camera, and the camera store owner in Everlasting Moments, one of the year's most beautifully crafted films, was perfect and small. And the first third of Up captured the year's best romance, one whose absence provides the balloon-buoyant film with its necessary heft. But the bulk of this year's best relationships were shared between two men. Goodbye Solo, a quiet, charming film slowly spins a tale of finely-etched friendship between a cab driver and a suicidal man. Humpday and Funny People, both with their flaws, worked their best because of the way easy camaraderie between two men resulted in honest, soulful revelations. Moon, an impeccable science fiction movie, mused on a friendship between two clones, with funny and very human results. The Hurt Locker and The Messenger also fit this bill quite well.

Family loss was at the center of two excellent foreign films. STill Walking, a Japanese film riffing on Ozu's Tokyo Story but finding very much its own voice as a family struggles with the loss of a brother many years earlier. And Summer Hours, a smart French film about the loss of a family's heritage and unity in a globalized world. Political and smart without hammering a moral across, and ending on the perfect grace note. That similar sense of loss is what anchored Spike Jonze's sober and virtuosic adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are.

There was fun to be had at Star Trek and Up and Harvard Beats Yale 29-29, but none moreso than at Tarantino's uproarious rewriting of history in Inglourious Basterds. But the year's best comedy was a tart-edged throwback to Preston Sturges, where social realism and commentary mixed with screwball humor. This, of course, was Up in the Air, a film of immaculate comic timing, three incomparable leads and a stellar supporting cast, the flim rises above its topicality to be the best American comedy since Lost in Translation.

And that leaves us with what I have sometimes called the year's best film, certainly its most underrated. In such a crowded field, Sugar has gone almost unnoticed, which is fitting. Whereas Avatar, The Blind Side, and Precious all deal with race in an ultimately glossy and unsatisfying way, Sugar nails the complexity of being an immigrant in America with pathos and a richness lacked by anything else this year. And the ending is a perfect mix of uplift and heartbreak. Rent it.

Top 10 of 2009:
10. Away We Go
9. Summer Hours
8. In the Loop
7. Inglourious Basterds
6. Hunger
5. The White Ribbon
4. The Messenger
Threeway tie for first at the moment
Up in the Air/The Hurt Locker/Sugar

In short, I'm rooting tonight for The Hurt Locker, Wallace and Gromit, and a probably misguided hope for Meryl Streep (although that category rightfully belongs to Carey Mulligan, just as Actor belongs to Colin Firth, but I am aware of reality).

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Best of 2009: Music

Less organized, but here are some of the better new albums, new songs, and rediscoveries.

Grizzly Bear: album, Veckatimest; song, Two Weeks
Marvelous blend of warmth and cold across their songs, vocal harmonies are lush but the backgrounds can be marvelously spare. Two Weeks has enough of a pop edge to keep it immediately catchy but its subtle in how it unfolds.

Avett Brothers: album, I and Love and You; song Heart Like a Kickdrum
Pure adrenaline in that song, but there's a wonderful immediacy to the music, being half bluegrass folk roots and simplicity, half screaming punky energy. Their album is full of its share of perfect, heartbreaking tender moments too.

Animal Collective: song, My Girls.
Catchy in a way that seems so weird to work, but it does.

Bon Iver: album, Blood Bank.
4 songs, rich and focused. I need to listen more to get under them, but it's been rewarding so far.

Various artists: song, Mashup from Glee: It's My Life/Confessions.
Pure power pop hooks, immaculately assembled.

Various Artists: album, Dark Was the Night
It doesn't quite hang together as an album for me, but the parts themselves are some of the best offerings from a variety of sources- Grizzly Bear, The Books covering Nick Drake, Beirut, Sufjan Stevens, a marvelous small gem of a song from Iron and Wine, and a long but meticulous song from the Decemberists. And more.

And the best song of the year, Phoenix: album, Woldgang Amadeus Phoenix; song, 1901.
The video for this song is hypnotic, a light show, and what's more it is fit so musically with the song itself. The song grows out of a sparse, electronic texture into a fairly masterful dance hit. Vocals, guitar riffs add in. Then around a minute in, it bursts into a high-octane version, sunnier in its orchestration and with adrenaline-filled sense of slow build. Then at 1:15 or so, it manages to build even higher with a siren, until the chorus erupts: a few fleeting moments of full gratification. But here's the kicker- that moment is backed by that initial soundscape, setting up a second cycle perfectly, never dropping you for a second.

And since rediscoveries are so great, here are five recommendations of CDs that languished too long until this year:

Gil Shaham, Barber and Korngold violin concertos
Neeme Jarvi, Nielsen Symphonies
Europa Galanta, Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione
Dawn Upshaw, I Wish It So
Radiohead, The Bends

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Best of 2009: Performances

Time for a late catch-up of favorites, in several parts. No time like the sick-on-the-couch present.

Best live performances of 2009.

10. Next to Normal. A tuneful rock musical, anchored by marvelous performances and a gut-wrenching story.

9. International Contemporary Ensemble's production of John Adams. Vibrant reminder of just how good Adams's music is and how many ways it's good, from the shimmering textures of Shaker Loops to the quirky humor and sweet nostalgia of his Gnarly Buttons, played with precision.

8. Finian's Rainbow. Marvelous score, one of the best, in a no-frills, consummate performance.

7. Andras Schiff, The last Beethoven sonatas. One of the more compelling renditions of Beethoven, unmatched in the intensity of the quietest moments. The silence that hung in the audience after the last sonata's gentle conclusion was perfect.

6. West Side Story, Broadway. This revival not only gives a powerful reminder of just how good that score is, but also manages to nail the awkward pain of young love perfectly.

5. Grizzly Bear. Thrilling new indie band in a low-key, high-quality, intimate stage performance. Being something of an ignorant fan, it was like confirmation of their promise, even if the format of a classical-style concert was odd.

4. Stile Antico. One of the most stunningly clear, intimate vocal ensembles, in a marvelous program of simple Tallis and extravagant Byrd.

3. St. Louis Symphony. A marvelous program (luminous Wagner, Adams's dark, compelling Guide to Strange Places, Zimmerman's hypnotically spare Canto di Speranza, soaring rendition of Sibelius 5), conducted with vitality by Robertson.

2. Newport Music Festival. Marvelous performances, from the intimate music of The Low Anthem and Iron and Wine to the sheer joy and tunefulness of The Decemberists to the unmissable singalong with Pete Seeger. Next time, bring sunblock.

1. Our Town, Off-Broadway. Rarely is theater this compelling, this emotional. David Cromer's minimalist reworking of Wilder's classic feels fresh, its nostalgic aspects retain all their power, particularly in the stage manager's simple, direct delivery makes it feel honest rather than applied, but the intimacy of the characters is so engrossing and human. Marvelous.