Thursday, January 31, 2008

Catchup Post II: At the Met

No, not that Met. The other one. The art one.

A while back I was engrossed in reading about the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's retirement. Philippe de Montebello had served as the director for the met for 30 years, longer than any other. I can't say that I've exactly kept up with the details or issues facing modern museums, but reading through the articles brought several important things to mind (not least of which is that I need to get back there and see it again).

In the Verlyn Klinkenborg (which is a fantastic name for arts criticism, although he appears to be a non-fiction author) Appreciations column, he writes:

"It’s usual to see a nimbus of adjectives whenever Mr. de Montebello is described, words like “patrician” and “imperious” and “old world.” Those words say somewhat less about his personal and institutional manner than they do about a chronic American anxiety over the largely non-American cultural richness embodied in the Metropolitan Museum’s collections. It is really a historic uneasiness for Americans — we see ourselves as a new departure rather than as part of the diverse and ancient continuum that Mr. de Montebello so elegantly championed."

This raises the point of the question of what the Met should be, or not be. The museum, at least to me, should be something that has the potential to educate as broadly as possible. Certainly, American art is going to go back less far than, say, Italian. But shouldn't that be a cause for celebration of the fact that this museum is here? Furthermore, is there a way we can make that tradition feel relevant and present for the visitor-off-the-street? I hope so.

There's several comments in this article and elsewhere about Mr de Montebello's ease with words, and that's precisely the sort of direction I like to see. One article discusses a war (their word) between the curator-as-director and the administrator-as director, with Mr. de Montebello serving as an advocate of the former. The director should be more than comfortable in front of the art, but they should be equally comfortable in front of the crowds, or at least put them at ease before the art without watering it down. Museums aren't meant to be sideshows or spectacles of the same works viewed and re-viewed without something to be learned. When given the option of molding the museum or molding the crowd, it's more challenging but more rewarding to do the latter. When you return to the museum, and see a familiar work, it would be nice to see it in a new light, with the sense that it becomes unfamiliar, and then refamiliarized. The obvious musical parallel here is that there's always something to be learned from hearing an old favorite brought to life in a refreshing new take. Risks are what the arts thrive upon, and we should be working to take an active role in shaping and presenting music to the masses.

The article also applauds his work at refurbishing the museum space itself. That's vitally important as important as acoustics in the concert hall. It shapes our experience, and welcomes us in and invites us back. There's nothing like the feeling of entering a gorgeous museum, that initial thrill of space, even before you see any of the art.

The main article notes that Mr. de Montebello has been criticized for being slow to embrace modern music, a criticism that in some way echoes Mr. Klinkenborg's comments about anxieties. This is a difficult subject for me, in part because I love modern art and know it doesn't always get the support it needs. But there are other institutions that cater specifically to that elsewhere in the city. My thought on this matter is that the criticism could best be deflected by a vital effort: make the historical stuff speak to modern audiences. It's hard to make modernism play well to audiences unwilling to understand it, but there are ways in which you can present the classics that engage them in the same sort of light as modern art museums use to bring their art alive to the viewer. Art has stories- political stories, love stories, adventure stories, stories that can not only entertain, but also deepen the understanding and engagement. To know why Goya painted what he did, to know the importance of this portrait and the iconography, ll of this can be drawn to modern issues. And this can in turn help to make the most of your modern art. The tactic to educate audiences about modern art (or music--he parallels I hope are becoming clear) doesn't necessarily have to tie it to just the visuals (though they can and should). But the contextual comparisons can feel more imminent and, well, important to the viewer. Bring the outside in.

I've read a few things. Thomas Hoving's Art for Dummies (Hoving was de Montebello's predecessor) was our assigned reading for the first week of my art history senior seminar. It proved incredibly insightful and infuriating, given Hoving's penchant for hyper-romanitcized tales of art and his dismissal of politics and anything controversial. Art is controversial. It's made during controversy, and its reception often depends a lot more on what's outside the frame than what's in it. I also read Lawrence Kramer's editorial about making the concert hall more individualized like museums. I think they both have a lot to learn from each other, and it would be nice to take notice of one man's impressive accomplishments and realize how far their echoes can reach.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Catchup Post I

There were a few things I had meant to mention here earlier, but managed to get distracted by grading or Youtube or something of that sort. So, I'll try to reconstruct that. Also, I have a tentative plan to see TWBB on Sunday. I hope it works.

This past Monday was, as I'm sure you're all aware, Martin Luther King day. I'm used to celebrating this as the typically first day of classes at Swarthmore, but here at our little midwestern school, they declare it a holiday. And to mark the occasion, I attended a panel put on by the music school, which included two, count 'em, two musicologists. One was Jane Fulcher, whom we've recently hired on here, talking about Ravel, but emphasizing the importance of teaching music socially and politically. And while part of me worries about spin, or creating politics around pieces, or selecting music based on politics, she's right. The educational experience is diminished without this in several ways. Certainly part o learning about a piece is understanding how it was composed, received, and performed, and that knowledge just doesn't work without knowing about personalities, identities, cultures, and the political implications of all these. But there's more. I loved how attuned my Asian music professor here last year was to issues of contemporary global and intercultural politics. Music, in short, feels so much more relevant when you can use it to understand your own world, and this has been something I've been working to put into my own teaching practice. Second up was alum Guy Ramsey, who gave a very thoughtful examination on what diversity should mean and how if plays out. How diversity isn't just looking diverse, but recognizing differences, rather than trying to promote sameness through the promotion of equality. And an interesting counterpoint was offered by Aaron Dworkin, who remarked about African American and Latino members of orchestras. After some terrifyingly sad statistics, he pointed out that if orchestras want to include in their mission statements a need or community ties and outreach, then they need to reflect that in their make up. Classical music isn't seen as a young music or a black music, in part due to the lack of players, performers, or administrators. While I've heard some opinions about screening auditions, the fact that administrator jobs are not screened, but still reflect an almost absent black/latino voice in their outreach, education, programming, and artistic direction points to a larger trend. I think the most interesting part of the panel was a question about separate orchestras. Ramsey suggested this might be the way to go, that HBCs do wonderful things for creating diversity and developing leadership roles for students, and that all-minority orchestras might work similarly, while Dworkin elt the impact would be negligible, or furter entrench the current problems. I side more with Dworkin, in part because HBCs are not an end but a step towards some future, whereas minority orchestras might very well feel like the end of the road in the world.

It's nice to celebrate a holiday in a way that left me feeling informed, engaged, and hopeful. I can only hope Groundhog Day goes similarly.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Joie de vivre

Carol Oja came and, as expected, delivered a highly entertaining and thought-provoking paper on West Side Story and The Music Man. But something she emphasized while having lunch with the graduate students in our program really stuck, that it's important to have a life outside of graduate school. And I do, and I'm glad I do. Then, talking with her and Richard Crawford after the talk, she mentioned how much can be gained by getting distracted, by looking in the unexpected places.

Inspired by that, I'll give you a couple fun videos that have made their way into my attention.

Since, on the subject of my work and the recent talk, I'm in a musicals mood, here's a choreographed dog routine to You're The One That I Want from Grease. Frankly, as much as I think musicals should provoke some serious questions (and it's very heartening to see that field taking off), there's also a strong side of me that enjoys the pure fun aspect. That's why Hairspray and Enchanted were such a treats and were among the most energy-driven musicals in years.

And in honor of my ethnomusicology professor Christi-Anne Castro, and her unabiding love for the Patriots, I'll forward on this link of football fans singing an interminable 80's pop chorus. It's not endorsement; I'm rooting for apathy.

Finally, here's a nice antidote to all the postmodern theory talk: Bill Irwin. There are other clips too if you want, all taken from an excellent Vaudeville reconstructred routine called The Regard of Flight. If I can work this into my dissertation, all the better.

Now, on that note, I'm going to go read some Glen Watkins, have dinner, and head off to see the Moiseyev Folk Dance Troupe this evening. And that's my life outside of musicology.

Thursday, January 24, 2008


I cannot, CANNOT wait for tomorrow!

First, Carol Oja is coming. She's giving a talk on The Music Man and West Side Story. I love her, I love musicals, I cannot see how this will be anything other than enlightening and humming-inducing. Her paper at AMS on West Side Story was the best one I saw hands down. Thoroughly researched, entertainingly delivered, and made me want to go listen to it again (which is one of the most important parts, I think).

And as if that wasn't enough, There Will Be Blood opens here tomorrow. I have been looking forward to this movie for MONTHS. The trailer only feeds it. Seriously, it looks fantastic, as does the modernist score. For this, I can thank The Oscars people, for getting their auteur cinema asses in gear and lining the nominations with Coen Brothers, PT Anderson, and Julian Schnabel. I cannot express my joy at all this.

More to come on these after tomorrow!

That could be me.

Another movie review, with a different addendum.

The Savages (***1/2)
After watching Away From Her this year, Sarah Polley's understated and mature directorial debut, it seems hard to see a film that tackles a similar subject in a markedly different way, but with equal understanding of the subject at hand. That subject is aging, death, and losing someone to Alzheimers. It's a tough subject to swallow, and Polley's approach marches straightforwardly and gracefully into the pain. Tamara Jenkins (who I met at Swarthmore at some point, I realized when I saw he name) takes the more comic approach, which in some ways is the more honestly dishonest way that many of us would approach the subject. To be fair, it plays upon a number of the disfunctional family comedy traits that have oversaturated the market, but like the successful ones (Juno, for instance), it works in large part to the cast. Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffmann give two oustandingly nuanced and careful performances as a sister and brother who work surprisingly well together. She is controlling and anxious, struggling to get her arms around her own life, while Hoffman's character is yet another study in nuanced, evasive emotions. What sold me on the film is how carefully Jenkins seems to have written these characters, and how familiar they felt. In one scene, the man who has an affair with her tries to entice her with a filmic reference, only to have Linney correct him decisively and thoroughly. Before she did that, so did I in my mind. Hoffman is a college professor, one who buries himself in his work, seriously and rather joylessly. It's such a sharp portrayal of a man who catalogs his feelings away with as much caution as he shuffles piles of books. That could be me too, I thought, watching him know where every book went and then baffle as to what to do with an empty bowl, only to just set it back down. The film is a tragic one, yes, one that doesn't shy away from the pain and most of all the guilt, but finds the moments of humor, none more savagely funny than a movie night where they show The Jazz Singer, only to agonizingly bid good night to an all-black staff who clearly were put off by the final scene. The movie has its flaws--the ending is betrayingly sappy, the characters and situations occasionally lapse into awkwardly placed cliches, and the score is among the worst I've heard and ineptly wanders in and out like one of the nursing home patients, unaware of the surroundings (the song that rolls over the credits is spectacularly inappopriate to the mood)--but the film is so often pitch-perfect in both its humor and seriousness, the delicate balance is barely disturbed by them.

As I go through grad school, I'm becoming more and more aware of these depictions of professorial life, and this movie does it so well. I loved The Squid and the Whale, and the whole discomfort of watching failed liberal academics try to hold on to what they could (the connections between these films isn't just Laura Linney, although she's excellent in similar ways in both). And I loved both the book and movie of Wonder Boys. But what's different here is that Hoffmann's character isn't exactly failing. He's managing. A book is underway, he's teaching. But the details- the office, the house, how he goes about clearing the materials off the couch is also so meticulous that it felt very familiar to my own love of lists, systems, planning, and, well, avoidance of the actual writing. Nothing else really sticks for him--his girlfriend, his family, it's all tenuously attended to with whatever energy he has left over, and I wonder how true that will be for me. Also, that Jazz Singer scene was hilarious for all the right reasons. And we're talking squirmingly uncomfortable hilarious, made all the more by Hoffmann's comment directly following the incident. We've all had those moments in our classes or interactions, and this movie nails it.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Atonement (and a slight deviation)

I am sick. Sick enough to have to cancel section, stay in my pajamas, and do little more than read and watch Arrested Development. But I suppose I'm well enough to blog as well. So let's start with a movie

I recently saw Atonement (***1/2). I read this book over the summer, and loved it. It's constantly engrossing and manages to span not just decades but genres, a task director Joe Wright can't quite achieve. Still, even if he can't quite pull off the material with the subtle dexterity of McEwan, he crafts an energetic and frequently lavishly beautiful piece of cinema. Like last year's Pride and Prejudice, the movie has a fiery energy moving through it, which works well at capturing the heady passion of the love affair as well as Briony's imagination. Yet, he manages to combine it with beautifully haunting images, powerful silences, and a finale that's effective in its bare minimalism, thanks to a knockout performance of Vanessa Redgrave's. Certain scenes stick out for the emotional effectiveness, such as Briony's attending to a dying soldier, or Robbie's mother at the arrest. But others stick out because of their obvious conceit, including an elaborate and poorly used tracking shot on a wartorn beach that seems to meander without giving the audience anything substantive, or a shot involving a lighter that seems lifted from a Tarantino or Guy Ritchie film. As I said, not everything coheres into a solid narrative here, but it offers a certain intensity that many epics assume occur just from the material. Atonement recognizes the ample gifts of McEwan's writing and gives it a powerfully envigorating treatment, the energy of which matches the way I ripped through the novel breathlessly.

And now a halfway related tangent on film music...

Atonement also features a fascinatingly inventive score, one that makes use of diegetic sounds like typewriters and cars, and then carries them elsewhere into the film. It may sound gimmicky, and it's certainly obvious (or at least it was to me), but it's also effective percussion that helps drive the movie forward. The typewriter also works on a meta-level, as the film (or novel) show in time. Other movies I've seen lately with striking musical uses:

The New World. I started watching last night, got sick, finished today. I love Terrence Malick, and really the star of the film is nature and cinematography. The score is pretty minimal, but what stands out is the repeated use of the Mozart K. 488 concerto slow movement. As a love theme. Between an Englishman and a Native American. Now, I love this movement. It's haunting and continually evasive of the expected cadences without every feeling all that heavy. But what it was doing here I'm not certain. My first instinct was that it somehow connected to the Europeans, but it seemed to be something else. More like melded cultures or doomed romance? But it's just weird.

Lust, Caution. I had problems with this movie. But one of the more amusing was a play in which they are portraying Chinese nationalists. And what do they play? Elgar. Nimrod. I guess it's stirring, but it feels funny to someone who knows the piece. It's not nationalist, and if it is, it's certainly not Chinese (unless they're nostalgic for the British colonialists?). Am I being too picky? Or should they do a little more thinking about this?

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Music as a language

We all have heard that, and I know we all cringe. Even more if "language" is preceded by the word "universal." On last Thursday I went to a talk by David Pesetsky from MIT about the syntax of music and of language. It was a linguistics talk, and that was (for me) the most interesting part, learning about language. It's nice to reaffirm that there are many ways of looking at things, not to mention good to meet other people (not that I interacted with anyone beyond the enclave of us musicians in the back that much). And I don't want to criticize Dr. Pesetsky too much, working as he is from a layman's understanding of music theory (although I can't help but wince at the fact that all his musical definitions came from wikipedia). But the talk wasinteresting, if not always clear.

The gist was that language often gets rearranged ("I wonder [which person] Mary was talking to" as an example where the object of "to" is displaced) and the same syntactical possibilities are present in suspensions and appagiaturas. The largest gap, I think, in his theory is in his broadest application, viewing the fact that humans like consonance but listen to music that features dissonance as a paradox. And he's right that dissonance requires a syntax, but the connections he draws between whether a melody comes before or after (or both) a harmony change felt incomplete. Part of this was his wide array of linguistic examples, but only one musical example involving a melodic G-D-G-F-E against a V-I cadence. I would have loved to ask a question about whether more motion of elements was possible within the melody. For instance, E cannot go to F, but F and D could be switched. I do think he's on to something about layers of syntactic organization in plausible melodies, but I remain unsold that it's either as direct as he says (and he says they are exactly the same), or that this has as much to do with solving the "dissonance paradox" as he claims. Me, I like dissonance.

Actually, the most interesting part was a side tangent about the rhythms of lists, where each unit gets an equal beat, subdivided. So when you list "carrots, bread, cinnamon, yogurt, wine, watermelon..." each item gets a beat, subdivided into 2, 1, 3, 2, 1, 5. Similarly, if Peter and Susan are a couple, they will similarly fit into one beat when listing party invitees. A particularly telling moment was putting "and" between monosyllabic list elements, had been written as two even beats, but all of us independently turned it into a dotted eighth and sixteenth, and turned to each other. Funny what gets our attention.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Kicking it off

If this blog seems a little, well, unorganized, it's partly by design. My aim is to throw out my thoughts as I move through my grad school career, although I may save my more focused work for, well, school, and use this as a broader catch-all for whatever grabs my attention. If anything, it's good to get out and engage with the world outside.

So let's start with some musical experiences I've enjoyed lately. Probably the biggest of late is the Emerson Quartet performance I went to last Friday. The program was as follows:

Janacek's Quartet #2 "Intimite Letters"- I love the Janacek quartets, they're under-played in my opinion. This one is ripens quickly into lush lyrical phrases, but they always seem to sour before they finish. The movements all share these lucid textures that give off that crystalline sunny feeling, something like the air at dawn. But there's always a darkness lurking underneath, and it isn't long that the fluid melodies start to sour into more dissonant, muddied textures. The magic is in the renewal and balance between these two, but the whole work thrives off that with a sort of vibrant energy.

Saariaho's Terra Memoria- This new work enters imperceptibly, like a great craggy and icy coast that slowly emerges out of a gray, thick fog. But once it's there, it's solidly in place (until it eerily recedes again). The writing is densely packed, highly dissonant, and full of reaching semitonal gestures that never quite hold onto whatever they're clutching at. At times the music converges into unison writing, and it's these moments that are surprisingly gripping, charged with a sharp explosiveness rather than whatever stability you might think these moments have. As I said, the texture is unforgivingly rocky, but there's a lot of variation and fierceness to the individual points in the landscape.

Sheng's commission Quartet #5- This was the least successful of the pieces I thought. There are fragile moments of pure beauty when the quartet seems to dissolve in languid folk melodies in a sort of pastoral sense. But the rest of the time is filled with, well, filler--ostinatos, runs, and rather pat little rhythmic gestures that sink too quickly into patterns. It's a lot of noodling, which makes the melodic segments feel rather out of place, but certainly more welcome.

Bartok's Quartet #3- Undoubtedly they play this more than the others, and it shows. Very solid, with the most richly complex palette of sounds. Everything in this felt perfectly solid, but not immobile. Clean, brisk motions with that delicate blend of crunchy dissonances and lyrical melodies. It also feels the most structured of all the quartets here. As I said, solid.

The Quartet wasn't as polished as I had imagined, except in the Bartok, which I assume is due to their familiarity with it. But it wasn't exactly a negative quality, rather the roughness gave voice to the more dissonant elements of the Janacek, and injected a certain edgy energy to the music. For an encore, they switched it up, playing the fourth movement of Webern's op. 5, in an fiercely focused performance. The piece was quiet, introspective, and delicately structured between the four instruments, and they carried it off with effortless accuity. Additionally, it's nice to see a decidedly modern program, and one that doesn't try to sofften it with works that have nothing to do with the new pieces. Instead, the offer up the most accessible and the most familiar as bookends, and in the process, create something that speaks well about both the new pieces and the older ones. And the encore choice was an inspired change of directions, a spacious moment of breath and quiet after the rather thick music which preceded it.