Sunday, April 27, 2008

Pictures, Take II

Several folks out there have been blogging about why they blog. My sense is that for me it changes. In part, it's my own exercise, getting a chance to write more freely, a chance to start forcing myself to think through things and phrase themcoherently, something to do when you wake up as I have at 7:30 on a Sunday. But I think the main reason I blog is the same reason I read blogs, because it reminds me what I'm, passionate about. Especially in graduate school, it's easy to start to only focus on the short term goals (which I grant you are important), but all those interests and thoughts you end up sweeping aside (for now) merit some attention. And when I read about things, like Michael's post about music images it rekindles those, and it's so satisfying to feel like you have something to say. And even more satisfying is to rethink, since I had not spent much time thinking about how to visualize a piece of music in one take (the closest I think was marvelling at the score of Stravinsky's Requiem Canticles, all that white on the page perfectly captures that delicate, translucent sound somehow). And so I blog to engage with myself and with others. My thoughts may be poorly thought out, incomplete, or unwieldy, but it's nice to give them the attention I want, and to be reminded that musicology is something that can be shared, looked at in so many ways, just like that Degas.

Thinking about this stuff reminded me this morning of an New York Times article from Larry Kramer from about a year ago about museums. I'm a staunch fan of expanding the ideas of concerts, from clapping in between movements to innovative programming to encores. But something about Kramer's article bugged me at the time, and it still does, and I'm still not entirely sure what exactly. But something Michael said that distills the difference between music and image helped bring it more into focus: the viewer has much more freedom to decide in what directions to focus. There's no getting around that. In a concert, you can choose to focus on an instrument or a melody, harmony, percussive effect, the person next to you, your program notes, the architecture, the conductor, etc. But that seems peripheral, or at the very least doesn't get away from the fact above. And music only gives you the big picture after the whole thing is done, whereas an image allows it at any time. And I think what unsettled me about the Kramer article was precisely that, that as well as museums are doing, there's a limit to how much the concert can copy them. And I'm torn as to whether the concert hall should be taking its cues from the museum, or trying to figure out how the concert hall is unique and exploiting (for lack of a better term, though I don't want to sound like it's cheapening the process, quite the opposite) its own unique abilities for maximum effect. Several of the key points in the article are about individual freedom, the freedom to linger, to focus, and so on, all things that the image is far more suited to than music.

But I really like Kramer's overall goals, which seem to include a more inviting and flexible concert experience, as well as leading the listener in. Maybe it's not so much museums as museum tours we could think about, the act of leading a single group of people places, and giving them the tools and knowledge to come to the works and take something away as individuals through a collective experience. And I've long felt that there's a strong connection between museum exhibitions (another aspect of art that I feel gets too often neglected, that how art is placed among other pieces can drastically change the impression one takes away) and concert programming. At their best, both should offer up new and old in a way that fosters learning something about each. Familiar works should be given a fresh outlook in their new context, and the new introduced in a way that makes them more vital. A program or exhibition that simply relies on the starpower of the work itself, even if the work can handle the burden, leaves me without the desire to come back and revisit it the next time.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Picture this

I'm returning from self-imposed exile known as "no, seriously, you need to finish this paper." And I can happily report that the paper was, in fact, completed, and I may now return to avoiding studying for my special field exams through blogging and attending countless end-of-year barbecues. Mmm.

Anyway, there's a topic that's weighed on me ever since Michael Monroe brought it up a week ago, the relationship between visual art and music. I actualy started on this path initially in graduate school, arriving with BAs in both art history and music, and that desire to explore this n depth has never gone away. It will factor into my dissertation on collage, certainly gets involved in film music, and has crept in to various other side projects. But Michael's post is far more general and deserving of a serious inquiry. He writes:

There's a long history of comparing art to music, whether it's Debussy/Monet, Picasso/Stravinsky, Schoenberg/Munch, Duchamp/Cage, Rothko/Feldman, etc.. While these comparisons are useful, they're often presented in a way that glosses over an important difference: music is experienced as a series of events over time, while still images are taken in all at once. I'm not saying we can't still find lots of common undercurrents in such disparate media, but I guess I want tighter, more direct connections.

I want thos connections too, but I think part of it comes from what exactly we want to say. I find the practise of throwing a couple pictures into a powerpoint and just covering the general style rather unsatisfying. Yes, both Debussy and Monet like blurring of forms. But is that really all there is to say? I think the real root of the problem is the lack of skill musicologists have when it comes to dealing with paintings (the parallel that hits me is the use of classical music on audio tours, which too often simply acts like a marker of culture, but never offering something to the viewer/listener beyond pleasant background, like those benches you can sit down on an rest). Part of the power in understanding a painting, just as in music, comes from the use of and abuse of traditions. Just as when Jonathan Bellman writes about trying to communicate the edginess of Mozart, we have to communicate the edginess of Monet. There's a disconnest in using familiar images seen on calendars, tote bags, dorm room walls, and claiming they're like music that students find challenging (how modern art has attained an air of accessablility and familiarity is worthy of its own discussion).

But another part of the connection is knowing how we approach a painting. Michael is right in acknowledging the difference between hearing and viewing. The listener at a concert has the work laid out in a single line, whereas the viewer of a painting is free to linger as long as he or she likes, return to parts, etc. But even in the act of listening, one can focus on certain parts, or have a sngle impression after the piece has concluded. And in art, I think Michael and plenty of others are wrong in the assumption that a painting is taken in all at once. Look at this painting by Degas:

There are a number of ways in which to view the painting. For me, my eye goes first to the pink bow, emphasized by the vertical line of the wall right abover it and the way the arched back is echoed in the arch of the skirts directly above the bow. From therethe eye could o up to the yellow bow, then immediately to the foreground where the yellow is repeated, or to the yellow wall in the background, and follow the line of dancers to the foreground. It pauses in the lower right, amid the intense reds and pinks, and the dancers who face us more directly. And of course the staircase has its own self-contained world. But each of these parts of the painting are taken in on their own time, in the order the viewer chooses or is directed. Other paintings literally tell a narrative by directing your eye across the canvas from one scene to another. Pollock's paintings allow you to follow the process. I don't think it's just musicians who see movement within images. The point is that while it is easier to glean an overall sense (such as the triangular composition of the Rubens, the act of encountering a painting is more involved than a singular moment. The Rothko/Feldman comparison works because Rothko takes time. You get up close to the canvas and the complexities of shades, colors beneath colors start to come out slowly, the same way Feldman's music subsumes you into a soundscape, and the details become heightened in that stage. And for me there's something wonderful about the intricacies of the simplicity.

I'm not sure how best to translate this into teaching, aside from either teaching in a museum or doing a cross-disciplanary class (which I would love to do someday). But the effort may start with giving art a few more seconds, allowing the students to really look at the art, to see the art evolve alongside the music, or to realize that these works have their own stories. If you're going to use art (and I certainly encourage it), use it responsibly. Maybe students will learn something unexpected.

Friday, April 18, 2008

O Tod, wie wohl tust du!

And so Brahms has reached his end, and I have reached mine. Today I took what may in fact be the last final I shall ever take. 20 listening, and one essay on Brahms's late style (minor gripe: if you give us the essay topic in advance and tell us to choose any four pieces to write about, please do not change this and add restrictions in the actual test. My strategy was to ignore the restriction and argue my points as they were). But I want to take a moment to reflect on this class, the last of my requirement-fulfilling classes, because it was an odd way of teaching.

There were no readings. None. Not even suggested. Instead, we listened to a piece (or several songs/smaller pieces) each week, and the professor gave a detailed explanation of the music. This ranged everywhere from formal patterns to subtextual issues to stylistic comparisons to psychoanlaysis. On the one hand, I really did enjoy the depth of focus, getting to know music intimately. I remember Gerry Levinson's 20th century class at Swarthmore barely got beyond 1920, but I came out knowing Debussy and Stravinsky intensely well and developing an appreciation for it. But at this stage, I must be more cynical. I'll listen, I'll take notes, I'll even repeat it on the exam, but I know that this is not my professor's primary area, and I'd rather hold off my judgments until I read further about Brahms.

It's such a sharp turn away from the standard musicology course I expect. Readings to be synthesized and discussed, musical examples to supplement. I've come to the decision this course offers something important, a reversal to focus on the music most of all. Also, sometimes, you want to just soak up a senior faculty member's knowledge. In Judith Becker's world music class, the Indonesian sections were the best because she had all this information to impart. It may feel lazy at first, but it's valuable learning, and in the wake of Prof. Becker's retirement, you come to realize how lucky you are to have that wealth of information right there.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Words wouldn't come in an easy way

I'm reporting from a rather unspringly Ann Arbor, following a dissapointing withdrawal from a conference, due to American Airlines. So instead I spent the weekend grading and getting sick. But that's not the point I want to make (though sympathy is in short supply in grad school). I want to talk about my Sunday, the day that redeemed an otherwise crappy weekend.

Carousel. There aren't too many musicals greater than this one. Not only does it grapple with issues like economic status and domestic abuse, but the music is fantastically bittersweet, moreso than any other musical from the time. When people try to award West Side Story as the musical that changed the face of Broadway and made it an art, I always wonder if they had seen Carousel and why that didn't register.
-The overture. A whole tableau plays out before the audience, set to waltzes that are too pungent to really be realistically carousel tunes. The opening bars are disjunctly out of tune; right from the start, you know something's not right. And while the sweeping, swirling music enraptures you, it has a way of pulling back just before it carries you too far.
-"If I Loved You," one of the finest love songs of all time. The lyrics are so tentative, but the music says it all. This is love, and it's hard. But just as it reaches its peak, it pulls back, and suddenly the love becomes conditional, fictional, and all the sweetness evaporates. Even worse is the way the song reprises in the second act, as if their shyness was to blame for all the tragedy to come.
-Soliloquy. A long musing in which Billy starts fantasizing about his son (and later daughter) he's going to have. It shouldn't really work as a set—it's stream of consciousness, there's no action, and as an end to the first act it defies pretty much all the rules. But it's so powerful thanks to the music that matches every turn. And it's this moment that ends the first act so well; a first act that glides on fantasy and planning, the second deals with reality in brutal terms.
-I love dance, and all the choreographed choruses made me grin. But the ballet in the second act is so stirring for the way it melds humor and fear into the daughter's life. I can't stand it when they cut the ballet out of this and Oklahoma! because you lose the inner workings of the characters.
-The ending. Sure "You'll Never Walk Alone" is a crowd pleaser. But the ending's not about the song, it's about the actions behind it. Here Billy finally makes good, and how does he do it? Simply by speaking some positive words about believing to his daughter and saying "I love you" to his wife. It's not actions here, it's words, and it;s the simplest words that have been so lacking. Fantasy is restored, but now as a goal, rather than as an illusion.

And following that, I went to see Sunrise with live accompaniment. It's a grand film, and I'm astonished at a) how beautiful and inventive it is, and how it hasn't dated a bit, and b) how much Murnau packs in there. The first third is gothically frightening. The second is a sparkling romantic comedy. The final third is epic tragedy. But Murnau is a master at pacing, allowing things to build in their own way. The impending crime of the first third builds so tensely, and the love story rediscovered in the middle is so human, tentative, and vulnerable. And then the events come swiftly and suddenly toward the end with such a fury, it's dizzying. Boundlessly entertaining, in every way imaginable.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Ann Arbor, Spring of 2008

It has become that time of evening the semester when people sit on there porches, but really ought to be sitting inside with their laptops writing.

The weather this weekend has been unproductivemaking. And I am pleased. And while papers are nearing deadlines and losing interest, and grading grows increasingly tiresome, I turn to springtime frolicking. (On the upside, I've been on a power-reading kick ever since starting Michael Broyles's book on American mavericks, which proved inspirational and has sent me looking at things for dissertation readings, research projects, and the like. That's something to commend myself on.)

This weekend, the frolicking took the route of reading outside in the sun and overloads of concerts.

Friday: Brad Mehldau trio. They're amazing, and there's something about live performances of great jazz that make it come alive, the leave you wanting to savor every little moment and gesture, note every interaction, and marvel at the rarity of the experience that only comes that once. The highlight was a painstakingly, hauntingly soft performance of My Ship, though I also liked an untitled one that seemed to start off like John Adams, minimalist gestures, pulsing harmonies in arresting rhythms, and growing into a broader statement by the end. Followed by a party at which I ran into 3 people who went to my undergrad.

Saturday: Detroit Symphony (ticket gotten last minute at Brad Mehldau from a friend). Berlioz Roman Carnival, super-snappy, and the effervescent Mendelssohn Italian Symphony in the first half. I was also pleased that the first movement of the Mendelssohn got a healthy round of applause. It's buoyant enough to merit it, and the orchestra gave it not just energy but attitude. Most memorable though was the UM band joining the orchestra for John Corigliano's Circus Maximus, a jubilant (and by jubilant I mean INCREDIBLY LOUD) work for musicians on stage, in the audience, in the aisles, and a marching band thrown in for good measure. The loud parts are pure visceral energy, but the quieter moments are also quite exquisite to balance. The first night music episode evokes a desert, with evocative coyote howls in the french horns, but also the low brass and sparse bells and piano texture hovering above it is just as powerful as the loudest parts, creating a mood of vast darkness and delicate infinity. The work is concertgoing to the extreme, sheer theatricality excess, at times savage and others radiant. No middle ground here, only the sublime extremities. I came back to an experimental music concert which was hilarious, but sometimes quite moving to my surprise.

Sunday: Pops. I love the pops here. They may not hit the right notes always, but they completely sweep you into the concert experience, from the conductors dueling on light sabers to the sheer aural pleasure of music from the James Bond films, I was never less than entertained and happy to be right where I was.

Today: Daniel Bernard Romain attended class and gave a fantastic lecture to the students on making a career in music. Throw in some shimmering examples of virtuoso violin playing, a recital that included Debussy's Baudelaire songs and Dichterliebe, and the game, and you have yourself an excellent reason to put off grading until tomorrow.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Listening, Talking, and the Comfort Zone

One of the things that has been attracting my attention is balancing your comfort zone with everything else. This semester I'm right at home teaching American music, but it lacks the spark of when I was teaching the world music last semester. That was great because of its challenge for me as well as for the students. I had to work harder to master things, but I also felt more comfortable not knowing things. I could draw connections to more familiar things, placing emphasis on the concepts and encouraging everyone to approach music with curiosity. This semester, it's harder for all the unexpected reasons.

This past weekend I presented some research I've done on Weezer (yes, Weezer) at the midwest Ethnomusicology meeting. I was certainly among the few historical musicologists there, but I didn't feel as much like an impostor as I'd thought. Several papers were fantastic and compelling, and it was fairly easy to find common ground to talk about. I tried to mix musical analysis with some theory, and I think it came of successfully, although it's not hard to feel like a success when you show music videos with adorable animals. But most of all, I enjoyed the experience of opening up the doors of research, of getting to explore different nuances of the same work. In many departments (ourselves included at times), there's a rift between historical musicology and ethnomusicology. It's nice to know how easy and welcome crossing that line is. And maybe the lines between performance and musicology and theory are similarly easily crossed, if only I could figure out a way to get it out of the classroom and into the coffee shop.

Having finished up that talk (I'll be re-doing it in Austin, but on the upside I don't think I need to change all that much!), I need to start on the talk I'm giving tomorrow here. Ostensibly I'm talking about my dissertation to come, but at this stage I know nothing. But my hope is that in not just listening outside my comfort zone but by having to talk about things I may not know, I'll think more about what I want to know. Maybe someone else will know something useful. Maybe I'll even realise I do know something. I like to think of my dissertation as a comfort zone I'm breaking in, slowly, safely at this stage, feeling around for the perfect spots.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Movie Musicals

There's a trend these days, a trend to make movies into musicals. I've only seen three, but it already makes it clear the problem in this.

Tarzan...uh, let;s not go there. Ever.

Legally Blonde I saw on MTV. I must say I loved this movie, but the musical failed it on several levels. It replaced the subtle charm of the film with a less subtle sugar rush, which makes everything less convincing. The songs also don't really add any depth or character, just sort of serve to keep perking up the mood, which only goes so far.

But the one that really baffles me is the one I saw the other week. I really enjoyed this movie, and the musical has a lot of the same charm. The problem is that the charm doesn't feel any different than the movie. The film also supplies a fairly convincing level of emotion, which is precisely what's missing here. In fact, the attempt to infuse it here feels awkward. too indebted to the film, and too unwilling to deviate. There are scenes in which incredible emotional heft is short-changed. Case in point, one scene where two characters almost kiss, then discover that one's grandmother is dead. The scene takes about 45 seconds, and is somewhat carelessly dropped into the middle of the story with no lead up or follow up. And that's the show's problem. In a film, cuts are easy and unobtrusive. On the stage, though, cuts are distracting because of the dead time while the scene changes, and to have a scene enter and leave within the span of a minute feels just plain silly. The emotions are injected in almost formulaicly, but there's been a sever miscalculation, turning a finely nuanced movie into a sitcom-ish attempt for serious issues. The show also does a nice job of showing the pros and cons of a pop score. it works well during the crowd-pleasing numbers, of which there are several (the big ass rock song and Life With Harold come immediately to mind). But the pop score also can't quite carry the more emotional parts of the film.

Perhaps the biggest problem of all with these movie musicals is just that it saps the inspiration process out of it. Musicals like Nine and A Little Night Music use the movie as a launch point, crafting ingenious scores that add so much depth to the movie—a pastiche in the former, a suite in the latter. But here, it's like a bad DVD transfer where everything becomes jumpier, more washed out, and leaves you with the sneaking suspicion that maybe the movie wasn't as funny as you remembered. Don't worry, it was.