Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Mile high, milestones

This afternoon, I successfully defended my dissertation prospectus. It was, in fact, a rather nice process, with suggestions ranging from the specific/technical to the broader implications. This is, in a strange way, exciting. Let's see how many pages this excitement lasts through.

Some of the excitement is also residual from SAM. SAM was my first conference, and it's still my favorite. It's surprisingly accessible, friendly, inclusive, and thought-provoking. The papers all-around were excellent (it makes getting rejected better), and I had ample time to catch up with friends, make some new ones, and even had a few substantive academic moments (like interviewing Wayne SHirley, who turned out to be in the original production of Mass! Crazy!) Add to that incredible weather, a mostly well-designed downtown (excellent transit, lots of places to go, walkable, but the dumbest idea for a city plan: a grid for the downtown pasted on another grid that runs 45-derees to the central grid), and finishing my grading on the flight over, and it's a perfect time. I even had some time to meet up with a high school friend for lunch in Boulder (mountains are amazing!) after the conference and check out the art museum before it. The museum has a marvelous collection of native American art, a rather small and uninspiring assortment of western art (save some good modern stuff, but the layout is unflattering and pointlessly categorized by type), and I simply ran out of energy to look at more paintings of the American West. It turns out that every painting of the prairies and canyons looks like every other painting of the prairies and canyons. Also, they had iPods at one point, but they weren't in any way connected to the exhibit. I'm baffled by this. What, you just incorporate something new and technologically savvy, and pretend that its presence is enough to merit praise?

In summation: success.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

High Class

I'm off to SAM tomorrow for what I am planning to be a fun, relaxing, conference.

Packing to commence now that I am back from the University Symphony Orchestra concert. Honestly, nothing really complements the springtime weather like the Ravel Piano Concerto in G.

I also wanted to take a moment to reflect on The Class, which I saw this recommend and cannot recommend highly enough. It's an enriching and insightful glimpse into a modern, urban French school (though the lessons are far and wide-ranging, even for the GSIs here in Michigan). The wonder of the film is in the details, the quiet moments of discovery and pleasure, the sincerity of the tensions that evolve organically from the characters and contexts, and the unforced performances that anchor every moment. I also love the way real world problems are neither denied, nor forced into any sort of pre-formed moral. The film, which tracks a year in a French class, is really about the politics of multiculturalism and the dynamics between teacher and students. But the answers are never fully resolved, the lessons are never beaten into your mind, and the happy endings are never smeared on with the sort of glee that some films (like recent Best Picture winners) resort too.

As I said, it's recommended across the board, but as a future academic, it's especially striking for me. While we all have particularly memorable teachers, and Hollywood occasionally sees fit for another entry in the inspirational teacher category, The Class offers something more. It recognizes the very real limitations of a teacher’s power. There are boundaries to a teacher’s authority. Sometimes we cross them when we shouldn’t, but even more enlightening are the moments where we do not. Often we get the teacher-as-hero motif, in which we can enact real-world change through our efforts. I think it’s true, and the film is a call of sorts to heed the problems that enter in from outside the classroom walls (it’s here the French title Entre les murs, or Between the Walls, seems especially pertinent, because it invites us to ask what the walls really contain). In this context, the successes of both teacher and student, modest as they may be, really shine. I love the way students grow apart and together over the year, participate and withdraw, succeed at a project unexpectedly, surprise us with knowledge, insight, and imagination, or with anger and conflict. It shows, I think, that the film is based on a real teacher’s experiences (and indeed stars the teacher himself, along with several non-actors), in part because it simply observes the problems, addresses them, but resists answering them. And it resonates, and even inspires- the teacher in the film challenges his students, engages them in some surprising dialogues, and comes to terms with politics, both local and global. This is intelligence brought to life the way I wish every class I’ve taken and taught could be.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Bonaparte blown apart.

Yet again, I went to go hear a new work only to have the program change at the last minute (this time, a piano quintet by Charles Wuorinen, whose music I don't know at all (and still don't)). That said, it was still a great concert thanks to the Brentano Quartet, who were also joined by Peter Serkin and Thomas Meglioranza for Schoenberg's Ode to Napoleon.

Maybe it's due to McClary's lecture, but I was acutely aware of the bodily engagement of both Mr. Serkin, who opened the evening with 4 transcriptions of Renaissance pieces) and the Quartet. All things are not equal, as it turns out. I don't know why, but the I found the stomping, half-singing, and face shaking at odds with a good performance. I've thrilled to see other pianists engage similarly, and the recordings of Glenn Gould singing along I find sort of charming. But here, the music didn't really seem suited to that much gestural action. Perhaps more to the point, I left those pieces with the sense not so much that the music was passionate, but simply that the pianist was. And there's a difference between them, where the expressions on Mr. Serkin's face told me more than the music did about how I was supposed to feel. It's almost like a movie where the acting style and dialogue are out of synch with each other. The Schoenberg came off quite effectively, satirical with just the right amount of bitter and sweet. Listening to that piece, while the baritone oration is wonderful (and the baritone brought every word to life), the real star of the composition is the instruments, employing a shimmering array of textures and ideas. It's a piece that leaves me both satisfied by the performance and luring me to know it better.

The second half—Haydn and Beethoven—may have been nothing distinct on paper, but the quartet really made both pieces absolutely riveting. The Haydn Quartet (Op. 76, no. 5) engages in the typical Haydn wit, veering off from expected cadences, revelling in those rich string harmonies, and zipping away through some rather buoyant themes. And Beethoven's Grosse Fuge is one of those towering pieces, dense and exhausting despite its small size, both in terms of length and quartetness. But as I watched, the quartet's near-perfect blending and razor-sharp rhythms brought to my mind, at least, the idea that what I was watching was not merely a concert, but bordering on a drama unfolding. The Haydn made me think of Tom Stoppard, actually- the unexpected witty diversions from what should be a straight-forward plot, sometimes touching on the darker side but never dwelling. The fourth movement in particular has some nice musical clashes between conflicting pedals and keys. If Haydn resembles sharp, intelligent comedy, the Grosse Fuge felt like an evening of David Mamet in its bitter intensity (far more than Schonberg, in fact). This is the mutual result of a often dissonant and unrelenting work played with more bodily energy and edgy sound than I've ever encountered before. The performers stomped and bent over assertively. The fugal theme sizzles and shrieks as lunges from instrument to instrument, yet despite the density, every rhythm and syllable was delivered with stinging exactness. The brawl between instruments is fun to watch, but even better were the quieter moments, which were even more intense and unsettling with a sort of mock-sweetness while all the unresolved tension just raised are left thickly hanging overhead while "niceness" takes hold briefly. I fidgeted a lot, but not out of the usual culprit (boredom). Rather, I was enjoying every uncomfortable, sweaty minute of the musical mêlée unfolding before me.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Rites and Exhibitions

Sunday marks an end to our festive weekend of hosting the prospective students for next year. I remember being in that place four years ago, the difficulty to maintain conversations (not to mention unflappable enthusiasm), which is why I'm impressed at how well so many of the students I meet from this side seem to carry it off. It's also one of the few times the entire department is together for a lecture, so it affords everyone a chance to check in as well as meet all the new students. This year, Susan McClary gave a rather beautifully wide-reaching discussion of music and the human body, though I've always felt that the lecture (given it's for a recruitment weekend) ought to be given by alums or something (to be fair, McClary has a surprisingly vast connection to our department, and it was great to get so many people beyond our department in attendance). Also this year, I was very happy the theorists joined us for the student party. It's a sign of health in the school.

This weekend also brought some other visitors to campus: The New York Philharmonic, who gave two concerts. Both felt oddly similar: somewhat disappointingly played favorite opener, inconsequential orchestral work, giant powerhouse in the second half. Last night they opened with a surprisingly not-together Midsummer Night's Dream overture, while tonight was a relatively restrained Roman Carnival Overture. Sad, because the RCO actually benefits from exuberance at the expense of clean lines. I like both pieces, and I'd forgotten how sweet the end of the Mendelssohn is, but neither performance was really revelatory. Last night, they followed with Schumann 4, tonight by Tchaikovsky's Suite #3. The Schumann was fluid and energetic, but it doesn't account for the fact that the composition sucks. Both pieces have a variety of ideas, but the Schumann makes you appreciate the details of composition. It's got some nice ideas, but it's so mechanical: theme, restate theme in a surprising key, accelerate, percussion, theme, etc. There's no architecture to the symphony, and as a result it just goes through its agitated motions. The Tchaikovsky, on the other hand, is quite nice, especially the diverse variations in the last minute- by turns magically shimmering, elegaic and schmaltzy, exuberant- one was a thrilling march with bizarre interjections of the Dies Irae (like a jokey omen of Rachmaninov), another brilliant fake baroque counterpoint. Tchaikovsky, like Schumann, is not a composer I really get into, but the performance of the Tchaikovsky really brought this little confection to life. As far as the powerhouses, tonight we got Rite of Spring, last night Pictures at an Exhibition. Rite was, uh, funny. I'm not quite sure what I thought of it- it all came across rather uniformly gritty, dark, heavy. It's effective at times, but it's wearing overall, and the effect is that those churning ostinato passages get layered on like thick swaths of paint. That said, the winds and brass are amazing in this orchestra, as is the timpanist, so the fault isn't in a lack of clarity of lines but in the overall direction. But all is forgiven by the brilliance that was last night's Pictures at an Exhibition. Clear and vibrant, especially in the wind-dominated passages. Inevitably I tear up in the last movement, but the rendition offered has to be among the more visceral reactions. In particular, the orchestra had a number of dramatic pauses that helped register the full effect of the orchestral grandeur, aided by the precision timing and balance of the group. Stunning.

Oh, and two things I love. Friday's weather was perfect, and combined with residual glee from Tati's Mon Oncle, I was positively giddy all day. Second, I just love encore pieces- 2 Hungarian Dances, Lohengrin Prelude to Act III, and Bizet's L'Arlessienne suite. It's nice to see these get played. I wish the previous use of these works as legitimate concert fare was still applicable.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Scholarship reactivated

One of my favorite bits about finishing up my dissertation prospectus was just before the last meeting I had with my brilliant co-chairs, I attended a number of talks all of which started sending my mental gears whirring. Philip Auslander gave a talk about Benjamin's concept of reactivation, that a reproduction reactivates the original. And Auslander's comments about how recordings unfold simultaneously as an artifact of the inaccessible past and as a present event of hearing that music now perfectly captured something I'd been treading mostly around rather than into. (Matthew Guerriere has a similar post which propels the argument nicely into the effects of recordings. Also, we have been talking about digitizing of film archives in my historiography- more to add to the sea of ideas).

Right after Auslander, we hosted a graduate conference. I'm very pleased with how it turned out simply because so many of the papers had such fascinating implications across disciplines (a memorable paper on Second Life raised questions of online fieldwork methods, for instance). But many of the papers offered further thoughts- my friend Bryan Parkhurst gave a thoughtful examination of ontological versus phenomenological accounts of music akin, while Bertold Hoeckner's keynote address on film music talked about film (and music)-as-archive for memory, how music gains associations and triggers them, and film's impact on music history.

All of this is wonderful, if maddening to sort out on a timeline. Working through the very muddy waters of musical collage for the dissertation prospectus, it's encouraging to note that these broader issues are important. In a way, it feels like it's not just reproductions that reactivate originals, but the way my own scholarly interests get reactivated every time I read something, or hear an issue in a certain perspective. The original idea I had is still there, but it's like someone has been messing with the controls. The various reasons I like my topic, the examples, the broader issues, sort of ebb and flow. It's something I'm becoming more attuned to, and while it makes setting the ideas down on paper slightly harder (e.g. cutting something because it doesn't really fit even though it's supercool to you right now), I like it. I've always loved the part of research where you go to the library and open a bunch of books and just see, long before the ideas are fixed. It's like staying in a partial, perpetual state of initial research, always with something new to discover, even as you're committing words to page, committing yourself to those exact words.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

I Break for Spring

Man, spring break is great but the whole ending it with three days of nonstop dancing seems somewhat unwise. This past weekend was the Ann Arbor Dawn Dance, a favorite yearly event for me. This year, my friend Nora came, jammed with my friend Susie while I made pumpkin pancakes on Saturday morning (this is the other thing I love about break, getting to indulge my culinary domestic side). And of course, the dancing was fantastic, even if it meant I was left with a pile of homework, sore legs, and an exhausted mind. One of the reasons this year was so exciting was the music. This year, we had The Latter Day Lizards, a band whose strength is the versatility they employ in their sets, moving from an old-timey banjo and fiddle sound to a moody, slow jam, to my favorite- the jazzy, free-swinging sets. It's good to get out of the academic, brainy enthusiasm, and just throw the whole body into the music...until it's Sunday night and the muscles start to stiffen. These events make me wish I played music better, or more, or maybe just more socially. On the other hand, I love having talented friends to listen to while I cook or dance or just sit and listen.

I've got more to say about academic affairs, some good things I've read and thought about, but Ratatouille is over and I have class to teach tomorrow. I'll spare you my rapturous love of this movie (I've blogged about it before I know), and spare myself getting involved in anything academic, and instead bid you a good night.