Sunday, March 23, 2008

Campaign trailing, campaign teaching

Two things about me: I try to keep up with politics, and I'm fairly stoic in my disposition. It surprises people, I think, when I have strong opinions because I'm not the overly vocal type. In fact, Im usually torn between promoting my stance and feeling like I shouldn't foist opinions on other people.

In the classroom, it becomes harder, because of the power dynamic. But I think it's important. Two of my favorite professors here have successfully brought politics into the class. In Chuck Garrett's course this semester on U.S. music and national identity, we looked at Obama's speech (I was surprised I was the only one who'd watched it in the class-the general readership here is encouraged to find it and read it) and talked about his vision of national identity. And Christi-Anne Castro's music of Asia class last year regularly looked at these cultures from a contemporary politics/world events in a way that was both enriching and fascinating.

This week, I tried to talk about race and music in response to white rock and roll covers, and last week's day on the Harlem Renaissance. I can't tell if it was successful or not, but I hope it raised some issues. And next week the GSI union (GEO) is preparing for a two-day work stoppage. I brought it up, I welcome student support, but again I don't want to abuse my position of authority by encouraging students to join us too strongly.

I've always been impressed with professors who engage in politics and other touchy subjects in ways that provoke discussion, but don't divulge too much about their views. And I've always been impressed by students who take an active interest and follow up these things. At this stage in the game, I'm finding it not only hard to be both, but necessary.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Weekend concert wrap up

Most smile inducing: Michael Tilson Thomas. The SFS came to Ann Arbor with a hefty concert of Sibelius 7 and Beethoven 3. The first smile was the most sincere--MTT gave a fantastic talk before the Sibelius about thinking of it as a study of time, ever-shifting tempos, music that seems to move backwards, forwards, or just hover. It's very gratifying to see conductors who have a skill at explaining music in an engaging way that is both accessible and useful for the listener, any listener. And he was right. It's a gorgeous, fluid piece. I always think of Sibelius as a man of contrasting sonorities: chorale-like brass, hazy, scurrying strings, and more dance-like winds. But the symphony in one movement has a certain fluidity and structure he brought out nicely. Beethoven 3 needed no introduction, and it had a wonderful energy, especially the charming third movement coming after the very moderate tempo he took the second movement at. I'm also amazed at his ability to get two separate sounds from the orchestra for the two pieces. And the final smile of the night, two encores. A graceful, quiet Schubert piece from Rosemunde, and then a rousing version of Hail to the Victors (I don't know the words, but I adapted "Hail, Michael Tilson Thomas.")

Most intimate: my friend Jeanine's recital dress rehearsal directly after the concert. She sounded great, especially on the Harrison concerto. It's guite amazing how well he creates a lush, melodic sound out of a percussion ensemble, in a way that really complements the virtuosic but subtly so violin writing. Reich's Violin Phase, I have to say, requires more patience than I have at 1 am.

Most nautical: The Met broadcast of Peter Grimes. I'm still reveling over this. I love this opera, it's one of my all time favorites. The performances were spectacular, especially Patricia Recette's sensitive Ellen. Anthony Dean Griffey's Peter is appropriately moody, but also surprisingly tender in the more lyrical moments. And the crowd scenes, especially the Act 3 one were positively terrifying (I can only imagine it live). But the real winner here was the orchestra, which was appropriately terrifying in its sterner moments, but also beautifully create that shimmering quality in Britten's writing perfectly. My favorite of the interludes, Moonlight, was particularly good becuase of the long pauses between phrases, making what typically sounds simply radiant feel eerily darker. I'm torn on Doyle's production with the big wall of windows. It's highly effective at many points, such as the opening where everyone literally looks down on Peter, and the quartet for Ellen, Auntie, and the nieces, where each are in their little window. But the wall when it's closed is drab and unappealing, and not the eerie blue light behind the silhouettes is a brilliant contrast but not enough to excuse for me the long stretches of action in front of a big wooden wall. The end, in which the walls recede to create an empty, backlit stage is visually arresting, but too sharp a shift (although it's the perfect image for the way Britten ends the opera with an unsettling dawn).

Most nautical, unexpected: The carillon's playing Sloop John B. Thanks for that.

Most inexplicable programming: the UPO concert. My friend Abby's piece was being premiered. it's a good piece, tripartite with a gorgeous wind-dominated rhapsodic slow middle bound by energetic rippling figurations, that chrystalize in the end to a terrifying rhythmic unison pounding away. It opened the second half. The first half was also opened by a recent work, Michael Abels's Global Warming, a throwaway type piece that left me rather uninspired. It's purportedly about warming between cultures, but the effect is a sort of buffet style, with a large helping of celtic melody, with some samplings of African and Indian rhythms and Arabic modal violin music. The portions are off-balance and decidedly avoid mixing, which results in an audience-friendly, lively , and melodic piece I don't need seconds of. The first half ended with the by contrast weighty Elgar cello concerto. It's a great piece, and well played beyond some intonation issues. I especially like the way in which the first movement ends inconclusively and the introspective, somber theme returns echoed in pizzicatto strokes in the cello, interrupted with little scherzo figures. Its shadow haunts the movement, which is short and frantic, followed by a third movement which is rapturous, but still clearly under the spell of the first movement. And the final movement, a rousing rally whose climax is a reprise of the third movement and then the opening, finally resolved and released. The concert ended inexplicably with a Potslavian Dance from Prince Igor. It's one of those pieces I can happily add to my list of pieces I really don't care to hear again loud and bombastic, which seems to serve as a substitute for having anything of melodic interest to say. But what grabbed me about the concert is the programming, which didn't make any sense to me. Ending the first half with a weighty, serious piece and the second half with a pops-style, short and flashy piece, makes no sense to me, and neither fit at all with the Abels (Abby's probably wasn't done early enough to have much bearing).

Saturday, March 15, 2008


Phil's comment on the last post made me think about video instillations in museums. As it happens, I have two sort of viewpoints on these.

1. Museums occasionally hold film nights, the way they hold concerts. But is there a way in which museums can further integrate things like film into their holdings? I've been pleased by recent exhibitions of things, like graphic design at the SF MOMA last spring, things that succeed in both challenging notions of art and the everyday, but without any chilly distance or irony of dadaist works. Maybe Phil's on to something here.

2. Museums can't handle video installiations. They're awkwardly in dark rooms off to the side, there's frequently no place to sit (sometimes, it's hard to figure out where to stand even), and they prevent any sort of invitation to engage with the rest of the museum. One aspect I like about museums is the layout, which pieces are paired along a wall. The best are non-obvious, but intuitive and informative. Films, on the other hand, close off the rest of the museum to focus on the work, and the transition in and out never feels right for me. I'd like to see museum design take this into account, and video artists think about this when they work.

Enough pontificating. I have a concert to attend.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Recommended? Yes?

Usually it's it's easy to recommend something or not, even with qualifications. But I'm now stuck with a movie I have no idea what to with. That movie is The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

The rather cumbersome title sort of gives it away, but you won't want to watch this movie for the actions that happen. You won't even want to watch it for the characters, who are pretty opaque and it's often kind of confusing what's going on. In fact, we can go ahead and rule out the dialogue which wanders far too frequently from the poetic to the pretentiously absurd.

But the cinematography is incredibly gorgeous. Light, time, and color all infuse the frame with a certain nostalgic glow more effective at mood crafting than any film since Northfork (a film I highly recommend). The music is a hypnotic, austere minimalist score (cowritten by Nick Cave, which I didn't know until the credits), and augments without distracting that feeling of emptiness and beauty.

But is pure aesthetics enough to recommend a movie (especially one at over two and a half hours)? The things we recommend just on aesthetics often are small- a painting, a poem, a miniature piece by Webern. This requires time, but I think it's time amply rewarded if you pay attention. It's a haunting film, one that left me thinking about its beauty and its flaws. The last fifteen minutes or so, a post-assassination look at Robert Ford's future is certainly the strongest part of the film and ends up refracting the empty landscapes and bleak winter light into a his life.

Everything you read about this film is probably true, good and bad. But for anyone who has thought that something beautiful was over all too quickly, here's your wish.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Behold the future today!

We've just finished our admitted students weekend. I'll give you the leading up events before I threw myself into the department.

Wednesday night I went to a chamber music concert, David Krakauer and the Orion Quartet. Haydn and Beethoven, performed the the dirt-kicking energy that I find rather invigorating. Two new-ish works, a Golijov piece, suprisingly modest with its static, plaintive harmonies and wailing clarinet figures, and a Del Tredici work that underscored the fine line between cleverness and blandly derivitive by freely crossing it throughout. It's funny how modernist music can sound just as derivitive or uninspired as quotations, and that Beethoven can sound fresh when played with a certain disregard for the chamber aesthetic. The Del Tredici also had some of the most lush writing for quartet I've heard.

Thursday afternoon I went to a talk in the English department about Wicked and queer relationships and girl bonding. Interesting, and often very persuasive. I also enjoyed the chance to be of genuine use, when I pointed out that the ending of the show is taken directly from West Side Story, which scored me a nice little chat with the presenter afterwards. Her first words were, "So I take it you're a musicologist." Apparently it shows, and apparently it has purpose outside our department

Friday afternoon was the opening event, a lecture given by Bonnie Wade on contemporary Japanese composing, which I will say is one of the best talks I've ever attended. Not only is she bright and engaging, but her work was not just fascinating, but relevant on so many levels. It spoke to issues of whether Western music is Japanese (it is, she says, since they grow up with it), to whether traditional can be modern (it can), to intersections of industry, politics, and music in funding, in short, the perfect way to open a weekend about musicology and ethnomusicolgy (I was glad to see a couple composer friends of mine in the audience too).

Now, on to the weekend. It's always a bizarre sort of thing. I remember distinctly the almost surreal string of trying to answer the same questions in subtly different ways, of trying to mark myself off as engaging, bright, grounded, serious, personable, and unique-but-not-in-a-bad-way. It's hard. And the fact that the weekend is so centered around their future, interests, and the same old questions makes me wonder how much of the real them I'm starting to see, and how much of a school trying to sell itself they're getting. That said, when we had the Friday night, post-lecture grad student party, I was immensely happy. We joked, laughed, shouted at each other, and gave what may be the most real moment. The unguarded camaraderie is one of the strengths of the students here, the fact that I really do feel like we bond well, enjoy each other, laugh, and get to know people outside of class. It struck me as bizarrely real in the middle of a cautiously crafted weekend (on both sides). Thinking back to my own time, I remember my best moments were with the other recruits, talking about non-music things. We weren't impressing or being impressed, we were just talking. That's what I try to keep in mind at conferences, in class, around campus, that musicology is what we all do, but it's not all we do, or all of who we are. And when it becomes everything, it gets strangely impersonal and uninvolving.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

I Break For Music

Last week was our spring break (for the record, we're getting lots of snow today, so something is wrong here). Some of my colleagues enjoyed trips here and there, and several went to the Society for American Music meaning down in San Antonio, I stuck it out in wintry Ann Arbor, prepping for my special field exam. What this means is I spent hours upon hours in the music library, with CDs and the Grove Dictionary of Music. I learned that Leonard Bernstein, at the tender age of 27, conducted the premiere of Peter Grimes. I heard music I've meant to hear but have somehow avoided until now (like Roger Sessions).

But I learned something else about music, or at least was reminded. By the end of the week, it was easy to start feeling like this was just a rote exercise: listen for the general details, remember a few things, and move on. Friday night I came home from the week, and went off to the Dawn Dance, Ann Arbor's annual folk dance weekend. And the music was fantastic, the sort that makes an entire room simultaneously wake up. Sitting around, listening to this music on headphones and trying to take notes in a certain way is just missing the music, the cliff-notes version. It's the same reason I hate reading on a schedule; you miss the words in the search for the point. And so I closed the week re-remembering what I may have forgotten. The reason I'm doing this is those moments where the music takes over, and there's nothing else to take away from it. You can't even relive it, the only option is to keep listening for that next moment.