Monday, July 28, 2008

What's good?

The world seems to be abuzz with questions of who should assign quality and how. First, we had the stream of critiquing the critics. Sandow's latest post is about the question not of quality exactly, but the relevance of classical music. Fair enough. But for every Gilda and Butterfly, there's a Tosca too, a Rosina, etc. And part of the beauty of many of these works is they leave room for interpretation, not just for performers but for listeners too. And if Motown can still have a place for modern listeners, why not classical music. I do agree that we have to open ourselves up to new ways of listening, but it's not simply a relic to be admired (more on that in a second).

Next we have this excellent summary and cautionary tale about modern music from Kyle Gann, namely that the circles of good music and difficult music are neithger mutually exclusive, nor the same. Impressive, and well worth the read. I find that the biggest problem in modern music for me is finding a hook to latch on and follow. It can be melodic, it can orchestral color, it can be atmospheric, but the best pieces feel like they have something to follow, rather than a smattering of ideas thrown out at the listener.

Finally, I'll offer up this interesting article from the Times about reading. And reading this, I found my mind going in two directions. Fundamentally, I do think reading is important. In reading you learn language, expressiveness, history, character, fiction and nonfiction alike impart at least a basic lesson of the evocative power of words. And reading classics easily render history in vivid tones. Would integration be as fully understood without To Kill a Mockingbird? Victorian England without Hardy and Dickens?

But there's a tone that creeps into the arguments for print text, a tone that smacks of the same school that says your babies will be smarter because they listen to Mozart. The argument that reveres things just because they're old, or culturally valued, without understanding anything, just accepting that this is culture because it is. And just as these great books (and they are great) or pieces have something to say about the past, they can also say something about the present, whether it's through contrast or unexpected similarities. But we should be in touch with our own cultural landmarks, our own books, our pop music, our news, our lives. I thank Sandow for raising the consciousness about our pop landscape. But the voices of the classics also have something to say, voices which should neither be confined to the same dusty script, nor to a distant silence. Even if he's long-winded, hear Dickens and Gilda out.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Musicology for Art's Sake

Last weekend brought to Ann Arbor the annual Art Fair. For locals, it's an excuse to leave. For me, it was an excuse to take a different path to work, although Friday morning I took an alternate alternate path through the art fair, before the heat and crowds arrived. It was quite enjoyable. I always love looking at pottery and glassware, mobiles, and photographs. Paintings depend on the style; this year, I found myself drawn toward the sparsely abstract variety. But like when I go to museums, it rekindles the path I didn't take, the path where I would have gone into art history.

But as was reading through these books the other day on collage, I got even more absorbed, specifically by a collection of essays on Picasso's collages. I'd read at least two of them—the Robert Rosenblum and the Rosalind Krauss—in undergrad, and that memory brought back what fun those classes were, especially the modern art seminar. The joy of looking at something and unravelling it, and rereading these articles, it helps clarify my own work, that each of these isn't a right or wrong way to read the paintings, but another piece of the puzzle. The formalists argue that collage was meant to emphasize the flatness of the canvas while acknowledging precisely what was wrong with painting, that it could no longer pretend to be an illusion of something else. Rosenblum points out the puns in Picasso's stenciled letters, Patricia Leighten looks at the content of the newspapers clipped out (fascinating it took so long to pay attention to something right there), while Christine Poggi prefers to look at the newspapers more symbolically as the opposite of high culture, something interchangeable and disposable, unlike art. The infamous question of authorial intent inevitably creeps in. But when Poggi points to it as an attack on art, prefiguring the Dadaists, does it really matter if Picasso intended it? No. The Dadaists were inspired by it, perhaps, and began their own movement.

In music, I've always been amused by Schumann's role in the absolute music's camp, amidst the attention Anthony Newcomb and others have given him as someone interested in literary programs and theories of narrativity. Neither side invalidates the other, but each side has a point in that Schumann was an important man in both movements. To deny this is bad musicology.

So, these art history articles have gotten me fired up about my work, but rather than fire up my what ifs, they've fired up my current path. It may have taken me a while to figure this out as clearly as I have now, but what I learned in art history can and should influence my work as a musicologist. I should read more art history, I should keep up with current happenings. If Schumann and Picasso can be read and understood in multiple ways without contradicting, it's time I understand myself that way. To quote my man Sondheim:

And without any guide,
You know what your decision is,
Which is not to decide.
You'll leave him a clue:
For example, a shoe

Note to self: include shoe in dissertation.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Do not go gentle into that Dark Knight

Christopher Nolan's follow up to his Batman Begins is confirmation that his is the smartest and most darkly prescient. The action sequences are fewer than one might expect, but rewarding, and something of a miracle these days, the scenes in between are almost as electrifying. The first Batman film was a moral quandary on justice, revenge, and fear, but of a highly personal sort. The Darl Knight tackles the same themes but on a richer plane, and crafts a film that is deeper, scarier, and in many ways far subtler. Batman's task of cleaning up Gotham is well underway at the start, with the addition of Aaron Eckhart's smarmy political crusader who complicates Batman's night job, if not his day job as playboy. Enter Heath Ledger as the joker, a villain of such brilliant comic grotesquery, a pantomime of neurotic ticks and anarchistic fantasy. The sides are murky: the Joker is one step ahead of the various other crime kingpins in the city, but it's not about money or even power, but some sadistically twisted need for disorder. Batman, Gary Oldman's indie cop, and Eckhart's by-the-books DA battle each other while battling crime. But the real clincher is the public, whether in terms of opinion, vigilante justice, or in an inspiredly tense scene involving two groups on boats, the power of the public voice is where the heart of the film's message and discomfort lies. The story is a complex battle of egos and fists, fighting crime and the clock, with enough wit and cleverness in the characters to keep it snappy and reassuring. The cast is impeccable; aside from Ledger's psychosis, Bale proves himself impressively versatile once again, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman exude wit and class, Eckhart and Oldham are perfect in their vintage roles, and Maggie Gyllenhall does her best with the thankless task of the girlfriend, but improves much over Katie Holmes (no wonder). More than just your summer blockbuster, The Dark Knight provides darkly glittering entertainment, and an escape into the problems of the modern world, rather than away from it.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Pixar Wisdom

On the heels of my last post, two points and quotations to offer.

Alex Ross, among others, tells of more art criticism cuts. And amidst the furor over at Greg Sandow's page on pop/classical criticism, it's perhaps time to think about the function of critics in general. It seems to me the most important role is to engender an interest in the arts in society at large, not to flaunt one's educated position, but to use that to educate in the most sincere way. Every critic will have their own opinions, they will disagree with each other, with artists, with the general populace (one need only compare the Box office and Rotten Tomatoes if you don't believe me). Is the box office success of a critically panned CD or movie going to kill the arts? Hardly.

So what how does a critic straddle this divide? If you praise it without believing it, there's no point. If you pan it in a way that only makes people believe you're attacking them for seeing it, there's not much point there either. You're certainly not going to win over readers. And there's no point in saying what the audience already knows. Perhaps the solution is less product-driven? That is, don't just throw out reviews of individual products, heap praise on a work that many would pass off as meaningless, because your words aren't going to bring society around by themselves, most likely. I'd like to see more critics tackle not just the work they're reviewing, but broader issues in which that work figures. Movie genres, concert series, events, civic awareness, all that might draw in readers and get them thinking.

I don't really know, and it's frustrating. But maybe Pixar has the answer. The end of Ratatouille is perhaps the best defense of a critic's role, while the film itself finds the artistry in the everyday, blending the popular and the artistic in the best ways. I quote:

In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations, the new needs friends. Last night, I experienced something new, an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions about fine cooking is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core. In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau's famous motto: Anyone can cook. But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere. It is difficult to imagine more humble origins than those of the genius now cooking at Gusteau's, who is, in this critic's opinion, nothing less than the finest chef in France. I will be returning to Gusteau's soon, hungry for more.

My second bit of Pixar is a quote from Leonard Bernstein, who wraps up precisely the issue subtly under the heart of WALL-E, the necessity of art. It factors into the need for intelligent arts criticism, people who can write not just about the art that matters to them, but why it matters to everyone.

I’m pretty sure that if a complete evolution were possible, and every problem were solved, and man found ways of rectifying everything that was wrong—of supplying all his needs by varying capsules and rays and electronic means—that he might very well not need art anymore. Can you conceive of what a world that would be? Is that a world you’d like to live in? Doesn’t it sound rather sterile?


[EDIT: This is, of course, not to say I don't love reading reviews. I love it, both as a researcher of reception history, and as a general audience member. I especially love scathing reviews.]

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Define Hoedown

Pixar's latest entry, WALL-E, only further cements their status as the most reliable and smartly entertaining filmmakers around. Like last year's superb Ratatouille, this film succeeds particularly in both its new levels of cinematic animation and visual astonishment and its nuanced depths of story telling. The nuance is not in its social critique, a frighteningly grim portrayal of an Earth devoid of life. The excesses of megacorporations have taken their toll, humans have been living on a roboticized space ship for centuries, and the only thing left on Earth is WALL-E a trash compacting robot, and his cockroach friend. WALL-E is a robot, but humanized through a particularly affecting form of curiosity which feels to the audience like nostalgia. Various artifacts are dutifully collected and marvelled at by him, none moreso than a copy of Hello Dolly. But none of these matter in comparison with Eve, a robot searching for life, and finds in WALL-E if not life, then love. Eve and WALL-E collect a plant, return to the spaceship, which is then set for a showdown between the captain who wants to return, and the robots who control the ship.

If this sounds like a rehash of 2001, it is an homage, from the dialogueless opening, to this plot, to a well-timed use of Richard Strauss. It touches on a variety of other cultural landmarks as well, but always with a keen knowledge of what the film is doing. Pixar is a master of detail, crafting a love story out of two creatures who can cumulatively only speak three words, two names and "directive." Other robots have personalities, while the humans have been lulled into a subservient, brainless life of virtual reality, one which is fissured by the end of the film.

While there is no disputing the comic genius and cleverness, the sweet and difficult romance than left me teary more than once, or the visual sweep of the film, what struck me was the lasting impact of its earnest message. On its surface, the film seems to be another eco-parable, but under it lies a recognition of the value of art. The waste discarded on earth becomes art through WALL-E's touch, from trash skyscrapers, to the individual items he plucks from the junkpiles, finding the beauty in everyday objects. The music he listens to, Hello Dolly and Louis Armstrong is like rediscovering a forgotten favorite album. Hello Dolly is a fascinating choice, since the film practically ruined Hollywood (opening the door for indie directors) and thus is pointedly complex in its point about big industry, that they can falter, but they can also produce things of beauty. And the ending credits demonstrate the rebirth of the planet not through technology or people, but through the history of art, implying that art is what makes our planet inhabitable (technicalities aside). Alongside Ratatouille, another film that so persuasively and tenderly argued for realizing the power of art and the artist (and the critic), Pixar makes its case for how it makes the world a better place. The arts are not for escaping the real world, they are for building it.

Monday, July 7, 2008

America the Musicful

The 4th seems to inspire in several of my friends an amount of personal self-searching about nationalism and what it means to be American and patriotic. For me this year it was a little different; I've wondered what it means for me to be an Americanist.

I don't put a whole lot of stock in labels. I don't consider myself fixed into historical musicology, finding ethnomusicology has a lot to offer my work and experience. I don't limit my musical experience to just American music. That would be silly. And yet I do readily consider my primary interest to be American music, in a way that strikes me as similar to my identifying as an American. There's a part that finds it pure chance. I grew up here, with this music, and that's just what happens to grab my interest most. But it goes beyond that. My main investment in these categories is one of duty. Both are collective groups of which I am a part, and feel that I should contribute my opinions and actions toward their improvement. Both can provoke healthy, enlightening debates. And that is what I choose to celebrate.

All this comes on the heels of an intriguing post at Dial M and my own dissertation digging on the subject of nationalism. Locke's post raises an interesting conundrum. Taruskin's article does indeed call the bluff on the claim of German universalism, but the Florida case does an even greater service by noting how fraught with divisiveness any attempt and nationalism is. The act of musical performance is especially intriguing, as the meaning can shift depending on context: composition, performance, and reception all factor in, and it's rare that all three will coalesce into the perfect union one might conjure up from the word "nationalism." There's too much assumption these days in the word that it means unity, when it can also mean power imbalances, struggles, change. And Locke is absolutely right in guessing that our pop music says something about us and in hoping that we can have these discussions. And I will add my hopes: that my own work and voice will contribute something to not just to my discipline, but to the public at large. Responsible citizenship is an essential part of responsible musicology, or at least it is for me.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Concert Season Finale

So what does a midwestern boy do when he makes it to the big city? That's right. He gets himself some culture.

First, the Broadway sort. Failing to procure tickets to South Pacific and Gypsy, I lucked out getting the second to last available lottery ticket to In the Heights. Which I can, without qualification, say that I loved. This show and Spring Awakening have given me hope that the vernacular music of today can, in fact, be used to craft a dramatically satisfying show, rather than just try to capitalize on popularity and leave the show behind. The reviews have uniformly praised the star, who is phenomenal, and I think probably makes the show. But they've also hammered the book as airbrushed, comfortable, and unrealistic portrayal of life in Washington Heights. Perhaps. But when's the last time we demanded realism from Broadway? Oklahoma certainly didn't portray the grueling life of farming. And that's what I particularly like here. The music is modern, but the show itself is on par with the films of Frank Capra. Every Christmas I endure litanies of complaints whenever I seek company to watch It's a Wonderful Life. But the naysayers don't interfere with my loving every popcorn filled minute of it.

I also have been to two modern music concerts, and they offer some interesting points of discussion. In NYC, I went to hear the American Symphony Orchetsra perform a variety of seldom-heard works. Takemitsu's Cassiopeia and Panufnik's Sinfonia di sfere. Both of these offer examples of what I find lacking in a lot of more contemporary music, which is to say cohesion. The Takemitsu is one of his less engaging works, a litany of percussion against a orchestra that has little to do but noodle in the background. The Panufnik offered some nice dialogic exchanges between orchestral sections, but they stand out against a sea of nondescript orchestral writing. The Langgaard Music of the Spheres came closer, though it's overlong and strays a little too much into overly bland romanticism. But there's a freshness of sonority in some parts, echoes of Beethoven 6 in a watercolor, delicate and sweet and ethereal. The highlight were the Ligeti selections: Appartitions a spirited, brief was of fragmented ideas swirling around the stage, and the marvelously effective Atmosphères, diffuse and grand. I can't hear it without thinking of 2001.

The second concert was in Detroit: Rachmaninoff's Paganini Variations and Messaien's Turangalila Symphony (I'll give you one guess what the draw was for me). Both were well-played, the Rachmaninoff slightly muddy to start, but warming to a rich, athletic performance. The Messaien kaleidoscopic, but always vivid and enchanting. But this concert failed in the more important sense. The audience steadily trickled out over the course of the Messaien (entirely older folks), and the first 12 people to stand at the end of the concert were probably under 35. What went wrong?

-This was a long concert. They gave extensive talky intros to the pieces, and we're already looking at a 75 minute work tacked on after a sizable piece and intermission. Maybe they were tired. The NYC concert, on the other hand, was an array of shorter works, more easily digested.

-There were no program notes. The NYC concert had extensive, fascinating, and quite explanative notes in a large booklet (easier to read).

-The on stage intro was thoroughly unhelpful. There was an extensive talk about Paganini before the Rhapsody, and several examples, which were nice but not necessary (especially given the long concert). The Messaien was preceeded by amusing tales of Messaien's synesthesia and religiosity, and a ten minute explanation/demonstration of the ondes martinot. Ten minutes? Really? Informative, yes. Helpful for understanding the piece? Well, maybe, but not on its own terms. And yes, the piece is about love, but when you say that to an audience, it does not prepare them for what's coming. The examples they played were brief melodic/harmonic fragments to point out the cyclical nature of the themes. Not a word about orchestral color, dance rhythms, or any of the lushness which is the primary appeal. Botstein in NYC wasn't the best speaker, but he had a sincerity, not to mention a knack for getting to the point about a piece.

-The pairing strikes me as bizarre, except that they're both exercises in contrast. The Messaien is equally complicated for the pianist, but less theatrically so. The Rachmaninoff is perfunctory whereas the Messaien is vast. Most bizarre of all, the endings. The Rachmaninoff ends with the orchestra working itself into a fury with the dies irae, only to shrug it off with a simple cadence at the end. The Messaien builds and builds, unleashing the full force in a shimmering F# major chord that makes Mahler look subtle by comparison.

I'm thrilled to experience this piece live, but I see why it's done so infrequently, because I can see the next board meeting. "You see? We tried to program something challenging. We even talked beforehand to help them into it, and they still walked out. Let's face it. People just don't want to hear this music."

This is why when I got an email asking about the concert, I decided not to fill out their form, and not to delete it, but to send them a letter thanking them for offering it, and expressing my concerns. I hope they stick around to listen.