Monday, August 31, 2009


As has been making the rounds recently, I thought Id weigh in briefly during my half hour here in the Denver airport, which sensibly has free wireless by the way, on the whole should I go to grad school thing.

I should begin by making my own perspective clear. I've been in my program for 4 years now, and still love it. By and large my friends are also in grad programs, though not exclusively, I know a lot of good, smart friends who don't know what they really want to do in a long-term sense, and I have two siblings who never went to college. The short answer is that I don't know, and I think the above posts do a good job of making some recommendations, which I almost whole-heartedly echo. I have no practical post-PhD experience. And there are a lot of bad reasons I've seen people get disenchanted with the process, though I want to stress that at some level, going may have been smart for some of these friends: it made them quickly decide what they actually wanted to do. And that's my little spiel here: you have to know the details of what you like, and build your decisions around them.

For me, I had three years off working an increasingly frustrating arts admin job and a filler year at a music publisher. I quickly discovered that I missed using the part of my brain that dealt above the practical side, that I hated budgets and loved the promotional aspects, in short, the aspects that allowed me to indulge complex arguments and the music itself, and where I failed was the practicality angle, being decisive about things I wanted to treat with more nuance. I also missed the general atmosphere of school, and realized that it was that kick that propelled me to work (this is not to say I was lazy in my work, but that the effort was increasingly noticeable). And so thanks to my years off, I vowed to enter into grad school only focusing on the parts I loved: the discussions, the self-propelled knowledge, the music itself, and the camaraderie. The parts I found more tedious (testing, politics), I've only applied myself as much as was necessary, and once done, let that go. Teaching, once I tried it, confirmed that I loved doing it, but that was a big big question mark.

My flight is boarding, but here's to enjoying not only what you do, but learning what you enjoy and how to enjoy them even more!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Naive and Sentimental Music

This weekend in New York brought not only humidity, but the respite in air-conditioned musical opportunities (the real perk of summers in NYC is the abundance of this stuff when everywhere else takes the summer off).

Monday night, I caught the International Contemporary Ensemble (even their acronym is pleasing in this heat!) performing a delightful array of John Adams chamber music. Shaker Loops, his breakthrough piece, still holds attention with its crisp energy, pulsing through its harmonic trajectory. While the shimmering fast bits sound perhaps the most characteristic sound, the slow movements really shine with snatches of melody unravelling, always leaving you wanting more. After the more minimal style of Shaker Loops, we got the more pop-infused style of Gnarly Buttons, Adams's clarinet concerto of sorts, making a rather nice bookending of his styles. I really love this piece; the sort of spinning out of lines from a single idea in the first movement and the colorful minimalist Hoedown that really does evoke the clippity-clop plunking rhtyhm and delicate orchestration of the Copland without direct quotation. But the prize for me is the hauntingness of the last movement, inspired in part by his father's battle with Alzheimers, as this plaintive melodic phrase (to which the words "Put Your Loving Arms Around Me" could be set) echoes over a held chord in the piano, with little additions But the even the simplest phrase slips away pretty early, and the music becomes increasingly agitated and aggressive, only to return ever so briefly to the hint of what was lost. After the break, they played Son of Chamber Symphony, a work I didn't know going in, but really enjoyed hearing it in the context of both styles, catching both the hypermelody of the later styles with the first movement and the sort of throwback rhythms and chords of the final movement (inspired by but not rehashing the News aria from Nixon in China).

A different kind of sentimental and naive music came on Saturday night when my lottery luck continued, getting us two front row tickets to West Side Story (aka the greatest Broadway score ever written). It really astonishes me just how amazing that music is. What normally would be a vamp or a throwaway introductory refrain before a song here is just as richly satisfying as the songs themselves. You almost wish it was underscored throughout. The standout was the Dance at the Gym, where the music has aged much better than the 1950s lingo, the brash jazzy chords reined in just enough to match the dancing on stage (oh, what dancing!), but as soon as I settle on that, I want to throw in so many other moments. The blisteringly funny Gee, Officer Krupke. The swooning on the balcony as they sing Tonight. Anita's fire in practically everything. The Somewhere ballet's ravishing simplicity. And going through the score, it's just as impossible to choose a favorite. I'm not even going to try, but I will tell you the moment that comes at the end of One Hand, One Heart, where the two lovers suddenly turn a mixture of shameful and fearful at the mock-wedding they've just conducted is one of the most unforgettably potent I've witnessed on stage to date. Highly recommended.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Daily Art

At the Yale museum, they were installing some stuff, with two pulleys resting on wood blooks, a half-hoisted scrim in the background. I asked the desk if it was construction or art, and they told me it was the former although they'd been trying to come up with a title. But there's I think a case where modern art, with all its seeming lack of artistry has sort of paid off, if it encourages us to enjoy the beauty in daily landscapes (photography has done this too). Walking through the Highline Park, I marvelled at how quietly nice the place was, the undulating concrete strips giving rise to benches, the tracks and wheels integrated into the landscaping, the views of the lower west side. A lovely night, nowhere in particular.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Lunch break

Finishing up here at Yale, I spent a nice leisurely lunch strolling through the two art museums. There's something so arresting about those Turner and Constable landscapes, that tension between the canvas's subject matter and abstraction, swamped entirely by color and light, the warmth even in those turbulent cloud scenes. And there were two exhibits, one of Dalou's women sculptures, and one of conservation. The latter was more interesting in theory than practice. It raises a number of usually hidden choices museums make—how to display something, how to treat functional objects as nonfunctional, how varnish affects a painting (especially interesting in the case of the Hopper painting, to which Hopper took the unusual step of varnishing the work himself), but there was too many words, to much vagueness about what it really meant, and worst of all, no real basis for the viewer to sort of have an opinion based on what was there. It read more like just a case for the defense. The former, a small exhibit centers 5 sculptures, beautiful, intimate scenes of women absorbed in quiet activities (books and babies), with some drawings from other French artists in England and contemporaries. The problem with it is that these bookended rooms with the sketches were difficult to reconcile with such a specific collection of works; they seldom had the same subject matter or expressive style, which may have been the point, that Dalou was radical in a certain way, but it seemed more disorganized. Still, I could marvel at those all day, but unfortunately Ives's handwriting needed some more deciphering.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Mostly Meowzart, Meow (re)Mix

Greyhound now carries wireless. This is great for people like me who keep meaning to update but keep having things like life getting in the way. This lifestyle of spend all day in the archive because you only have a few days, and then spend all night playing pub trivia, or better yet contradancing and then swimming in Walden Pond with other contradancers and then having cider and cheesefries is proving quite bad for the option of writing. I'm certainly not getting any of the dissertation done, but neither am I updating here, until now. Sort of.

On the heels of cats performing Schonberg comes a cat concerto! ADORABLE!

So why post all this? I'm doing it oddly enough to seize upon Phil's idea that we ought to have something to say about the AutoTune the News. I can say that I love it, especially number 6, and that I actually went to college with Evan Gregory (and Andrew, but I knew Evan as a fellow music major and proud member of the college chorus's tenor section). And so I thought I'd take up the challenge.

It seems to me one could say a number of things. For a start, there's the obvious points about techn it's a good example of how technology has made music so much easier to create and distribute, although I stress that Evan at least has a bachelors training in all this stuff, so he's not clueless by any means. It might for some raise questions of whether autotuning or this sort of remixing really counts as talent, a relevant issue for my friend Josh Duchan who did his dissertation on collegiate a capella.

There's the second level, the notion of the sound bite has totally pervaded the culture; what I like about these is that it draws a nice link between soundbites and the musical equivalent of the hook: something that grabs your attention and is in some way the essence of the song. And that's where I think the AutoTune series is best. It's political commentary is smart, similar to the Daily Show in its seizing on the more ridiculous aspects of our 24-7 news coverage (a favorite topic of Stewart's), though certainly a bit more absurdist. But what impresses me about the evolution of the series is it goes from a clever idea and commentary to an increasingly good musical number. In the early bits, Katie Couric's highly inflected vocal delivery is perfect, but in the later bits, it's almost wall-to-wall hooks ("Biden's God Bless America in #5, Boehner's Hell No! and Freedom in number #6); and the repetition of the hook maps so sweetly onto the repetitiveness of these politicians' buzzwords. In these later episodes, they move from simply sampling to a certain artistry in the give and take between themselves and the soundbites--in short, from arranging to composing.

I guess where I'm going with this is that the technological and political aspects are interesting, but what it meant for me was just sheer enjoyment. The cleverness and humor (likewise, the cats) are something I feel are constantly in danger of being lost in analysis by musicologists, a shame since the goal for me is always to share what it is about the music I love with people who might love it similarly. Hooks are good like that, perfect for visceral, immediate pleasure. Better than, say, writing a dissertation.

Coming up soon(ish), a report on the Newport Folk Festival at 50.