Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Musicology nice

I've been thinking about Phil's recent post on the subject of politeness and the lack thereof in our field.

A lot of what he writes I don't doubt its veracity, but I haven't seen it. I'm thankfully a couple years and a dissertation away from being on the job market. I've gotten turned down a lot for conferences, but I'm not vindictive about it, just resigned to keep trying. There are some people whose papers I find not terribly well-delivered or clear or maybe I just disagree with the premise. There are some I disagree with politically. There are some who, frankly, annoy me. But that doesn't mean I can't chat with them in the book room or that I won't listen to what they have to say, or solicit or offer advise when it's desired. There's room.

And I expect the same, not because I'm a musicologist, but actually because I was born in the midwest. I think a lot of it is a cultural thing. Midwesterners, I've found, do put on a veneer of niceness and politeness at all costs, and it's hard to break that expectation. I like to think that in most occasions it is deeper than that though.

One thing Phil talks a lot about is the high-small-stakes competitiveness. I'm not very competitive. And one of the big reasons I chose Michigan over the other school I was accepted to was because of the student interaction (not that the other school was competitive per se, but because I didn't get a community sense). I like the idea that you're part of a larger community of scholars and friends and mentors, and that there's room for disagreements of all sorts, but that doesn't mean we don't care. Or at least that I don't. And over the years, I've been witnessed some tackier moments from friends. Once someone responded to someone's paper by asking what conference it was from, and upon learning said, "Oh, you mean the one I got rejected from?" Please. That's not getting your paper in, and that's not helping the other student. At the same time, my silence probably wasn't helping either, but neither would severing ties. This is actually part of why I like community- when someone makes a bad comment, you can feel slightly better that it's not ill-intended.

And I like Phil's suggestions. We should be willing to listen, to rethink, to question ourselves and each other. That's not beneath anyone. And I'll add one more- make sure whatever you do is helpful. Promoting fear isn't helpful. Pointing out weaknesses can be, but in order for it to be, you have to know that the person means well. That's where niceness, real niceness, goes a long way. There's no denying the arguments get heated because we care enough to actually do this for years and years. But we're people first, scholars second, and there's a difference between calling someone's work idiotic and getting personal. So the midwesterner in me says keep it nice, and the scholar in me says keep it honest. I don't think that's contradictory.

Thursday, April 16, 2009


I've always been really bad at taking photos. I get too caught up in actually experiencing the moment to step back and want to preserve it. And as much as I like looking through photos which call to mind wonderful memories of a summer at dance camp, a house I used to live in, a pet I loved, a friend who moved away, a joke I shared with someone, there's also something captivating about looking at a stranger's photos. I do the thing at other people's houses where you look at their books (and music and movies) and judge them, but every now and then it's not half as attention-arresting as a candid photo. Oddly enough, photography exhibits intrigue me only to a certain point. No, there's a certain intimacy in photographs- personal memories that I think gets lost in most public photography.

This comes to mind, because I went to see Everlasting Moments last night. It's a wonderfully intimate film, anchored by an indelible performance by Maria Heiskanen, but I especially admire how well the film captures the alluring beauty of a photograph, equal parts affect and aesthetics. The movie is a sort of family history tale, of a family in Sweden at the turn of the century, of the father's love and drunken anger over work, infidelities hidden and assumed, the aspiriations of their children, but mostly about the mother and her discovery of a camera and what her forays into photography give her. The cinematography is lovely, spare, striking in its beautiful plainness, and the score is utterly effective, a fragile array of roughly-played strings and piano, as if Webern or Ligeti had arranged Hans Zimmer. Actually, if you know the O Albion movement from Thomas Adès's Arcadiana, it's similar to that.

I also really prefer the original title: Maria Larsson's Everlasting Moments. It really is her film, and these moments truly are hers, and the film respects that sort of intimacy and allows us to steal a peak at them. Broader themes impinge upon the story (the abusive husband, socialism, gender issues), but these scenes almost feel out of place when they threaten to tip the balance too much from the heart of the story, which is simply Maria's self-discoveries, small, quiet, but never insignificant.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

There are two seasons in Michigan: winter and concert.

The joy of this time of year (aside from the meteorological surprises- warm! snow! in April! warm!) is all the music that happens. The downside is all the work happens now too- in the next couple days I need to knock out a draft of this paper on the reception of Nashville, a project that gets more and more intriguing with every letter to the editor, article, and rewatching of the film. But I'm not slowing down my concertgoing.

At the beginning of the month (back when it was warm), I went to see the St. Louis Symphony. The NYTimes has a similarly glowing report and story, but I must say I found it riveting. Wagner's Good Friday music is straightforwardly soaring, but the high point was John Adams's work Guide to Strange Places. It's a sonic adventure, from its shimmering, churning beginning, peppered moments of sweetness, before things begin turning grotesque, ending with these outbursts of percussion punctuated by low brass growls. And the symphony played the hell out of it, nonstop fascination. I wish there was a recording out there (aside from the bootleg I acquired for my pre-concert talk). The second half had Zimmermann's hypnotic Canto di Speranza, a work that felt flat, but live acquired a certain quiet desperation that really succeeded in drawing me into to its little timbral, pointillist world. And then, as the NYT says, a brilliant SIbelius 5, soaring horns perfectly melded with translucent string parts (think Mendelssohn here, and actually it works quite well with Adams's orchestrations). And of course, Robertson was the perfect host, talking a little about the Adams, and even singing happy birthday to an audience member.

The talk itself was quite a lot of fun. About 30 high school students came, I talked about some ways to hear the music that you might not think of- the way time sort of blossoms in Sibelius 5, especially in the second movement where everything melts at its own pace, and the orchestrational marvels of the last movement; Adams's slow changes and textures, combined with an actual sense of a journey where things creep along the horizon and change as they grow nearer; Zimmermann's rather human-voice-like cello writing, yearning for something against a colder, unresponsive background. I'd like to think it was successful. I at least had a blast, and the teacher seemed to like it. And the students did have great questions.

And then I went to the DSO for two concerts: Brahms 4, nicely textured and fluid, Britten's Four Sea Interludes, which sounded a little uneven in the strings and winds for the first but gelled especially in a downright demonic Storm, and Berg's luminous violin concerto, one of my all-time favorite works. I can't get enough of it. An odder concert was the Messaien Colors of the Celestial City and Stravinsky's sharp, clear Movements for piano and orchestra (two rarely heard and worth getting), mixed with Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe Suite #2 (ravishing), and Bolero (I cannot stand this piece), and Bizet's Symphony in C. I know Bizet is French, but it's not a french-sounding piece. It's mostly charming, but everytime I listen to it, I feel like it's ripping off better composers—a bit of Schubert in the melodies, a bit of Beethoven in the cadences, a bit of Mendelssohn in the transitional material. And an odd piece amongst all the orchestral color, too long to be a palette cleanser, not weighty enough on its own. Still, they were free.

And a moment popped up after the Berg. I was there with some other students (non music majors) from another class a professor of mine is teaching (but I didn't know any of them). One of the women after the concert saw a group of young kids and struck up a conversation with a few of us, asking how we liked it and such. But before I could say anything she scoffed at the Berg (I know, right?), saying "Yeah, I bet can't sing anything from that last one, right?" And the other students laughed (I honestly don't know what they thought, except they tried to agree with both her and me). But I thought about how to respond. I mean, that's not really what we go to a symphony concert to do, right, come away whistling a melody? I mean, Beethoven symphonies often really don't have very memorable melodies, and we don't fault him for that. SO I tried to get at what exactly she meant, but she just sort of demurred. It's hard, you know, when someone doesn't like a piece that you love, and resists any attempt to like it. I resisted any urge to poke holes in her sing-a-long classics theory, though I'm sort of ambivalent about letting people enjoy music their own way (and accepting that people may not like something) versus trying to win them over. Sex, politics, religion, and now we can add Berg.

On the horizon: Andras Schiff tonight and Saturday in Beethoven's last 6 piano sonatas; Harry Potter the Musical this weekend; 42nd Street in a couple weekends; Takacz Quartet doing Haydn, Bartok, and the Schumann piano quintet (a rare Schumann piece that I love); and of course countless student performances. Though none, I imagine, will quite equal the hauntingly effective, sugary bitterness selections from Hanns Eisler's Hollywood Songbook.