Thursday, January 31, 2008

We shall never be able to do anything like that!


James Keller repeats the old story in the program booklet of the San Francisco Symphony:
Once, walking with the pianist-composer Johann Baptist Cramer, [B**th*v*n] heard an outdoor performance of the Mozart concerto. He stopped, called attention to a particularly beautiful motif, and exclaimed, with a mixture of admiration and despondency, “Cramer, Cramer! We shall never be able to do anything like that!”
Many years ago my own first experience of the piece live was in a performance by the school orchestra at U.C. Berkeley under James Senturia: the soloist was, of all people, Ian Underwood, later of The Mothers of Invention. At the time he was a student at UC and a music assistant at radio KPFA, where I was then also on staff. He had prepared his own cadenzas for the concerto, and as I recall they were appropriate to Mozart's style while still probing and expressive of our own day; nothing academic at all about them.

Another time, at the Cabrillo Festival in August 1964, it was Ludwig Olshansky at the keyboard, and this was where I learned that it is in measure 329 (or thereabouts) that the greatest stress must be placed, on what seems an impossibly low note but is in fact only two octaves below middle C, a note that sounds and resounds and brooks no demurral. I don't recall whether it was Olshansky who did this, or Gerhard Samuel, who conducted; I only recall that it was the pivotal note of the movement, and has remained one of my favorite aural landmarks.

Friday, January 25, 2008


January 25, 2008

It is a small but not insignificant recent change in written English that in Britain the newspapers have started spelling acronyms in lower case with capital initial instead of all in caps. The Universities and Colleges Employers Association and the the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are not UCEA and DEFRA, but (at least fairly often) Ucea and Defra. And in Times Higher Education magazine, the Higher Education Funding Council for England is now Hefce. This only applies to one of the two subclasses of what The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language chapter on lexical word formation (chapter 19) calls initialisms: it applies to the acronyms, not the abbreviations. Nobody calls the Science and Technology Facilities Council "Sftc", because you don't say "sftc" (could anyone?), you say "S F T C". Acronyms are more like words than abbreviations are, and the developing convention recognizes that.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at January 25, 2008 10:38 AM
That's been the style in Italy for a number of years, and I have to say I like it. Strings of caps, even small caps, shout out too loud from the printed page.

(The last three sentences confuse me, though. Surely many, reading aloud a sentence like "Call the Sftc," would say call the sefftsee.)

In any case what's happening is a confusion of language seen and heard, and any such synesthesia can only be a good thing. Well, "synesthesia" isn't the right word, of course; that refers to sense impressions; what I mean is an intellectual impression formed by two fairly distinct sensory impressions working in tandem. There must be a word for such a concept...

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Winter's Tale

SHAKESPEARE WAS IN a retrospective mood when he wrote that problematic play The Winter's Tale: just about every theme he ever visited ends up in it, from Romeo and Juliet to The Tempest. It's a curious play, because however retrospective it is it seems unresolved, resolutely so. It ends happily, I suppose, but with lingering sadness. And however unlikely its plot may be, however distant from our own experience, it's one of those plays that always leaves me thinking Yes. That's how it is, all right. Nothing to be done about it.

Last weekend we saw it for the third time in eighteen months: Ashland in July '06; Glendale (A Noise Within) six weeks ago; Healdsburg last Saturday. In many ways the Healdsburg production was the most affecting.

It was staged by the Imagination Foundation, a Healdsburg company whose chief activity is the production of community theater using children and teen-aged actors for the most part. We've followed them pretty closely over the last few years, as one of our granddaughters has been with them from their beginning (this was the first production she has not appeared in. We've seen Pinocchio, The Tempest, Antigone, an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, The Crucible, Tonight we Improvise! (Pirandello), and an adaptation of Animal Farm, just to list the more or less standard repertory; along the way there have been imaginative and resourceful productions of other pieces often generated through collective improvisation in rehearsals.

These "Imagineers" have produced some strong theater — work whose strength comes from its return of theater to its community responsibility. Theater is more than entertainment; at its best it presents its audience with a kind of collective awareness, expression, and even resolution of urges and events that are general and immediate. Last September, for example, IF presented The Division/La División, a piece that cast children and seniors from the Healdsburg community in an investigation of both the separateness and the togetherness that can characterize its "anglo" and "hispanic" subcommunities. A short documentary of that production is available on YouTube.

The Winter's Tale was staged, literally, on the stage of Healdsburg's Raven Theater, a community theater that's been carved out of a former movie theater, a place with problematic acoustics and not terribly good sightlines. IF overcame these problems by ignoring the audience space: instead we sat in chairs on the stage, providing the three walls of a theater-within-a-theater, with the cast right in our faces, no sets or props and minimal (though effective) costuming.

The play is really two plays, as I blogged last month. In the first Leontes, king of Sicily, goes completely insane with jealousy, causing the death of his son and queen and forcing a trusted retainer to expose his infant daughter to her death. In the second "play," usually done as the second act, we're suddenly transported from Sicilian courtiers to Bohemian country-bumpkins; Time has skipped sixteen years or so; and the plot begins to play itself out through the usual unravellings.

The play is about anger, comprehension, atonement, and forgiveness; that is, it's about fundamental human qualities that resist rational explanation but drive most human situations, whether court or country. And the play's effectiveness, apart from Shakespeare's splendid language, rests on the abilities of its major characters. Here the Imagineers came through: though minor characters had trouble with memory, clarity, and comprehension — not surprisingly, given their assignment! — the principals were amazingly effective. They may be students, or barely out of school, but they show an astounding degree of understanding: of the text, of their craft; of the emotions and urges that drive this troubling play.

There were only three performances. Imagine: young actors in their teens memorizing and rehearsing this play, all of it, this well, for only three performances. It was a gift to the community, another in a long line of such gifts. I do believe the Imagination Foundation is one of the most significant theatrical organizations in the Bay Area.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Music honest and dishonest

THE QUESTION OF "dishonest music" is raised on the blog On An Overgrown Path

A lazy search took me to three sites. The first turned out to be addressing commercial entertainment music — that is, what used to be called pop — and here the phrase made some sense, applied as it was to the practice of lip-synching.

The second, Jonathan Newman's Composer's Notebook, has an arresting opening:
It's as good a term as any ("Truthfulness" works, too), and whatever we decide to call it, for me it is the most defining feature of a composer's work. A piece can have as much craft as humanely possible (Greetings to you Mr. Diamond! How are you, Sir?) but if the composer doesn't LOVE every note that he or she is writing down then it isn't worth diddly.
He ends by referring to Roger Sessions, and that brings me to my third webfind.

This turned out to be a paper by Michael R. Brown, Chair of the Division of Fine Arts at Indiana Wesleyan University. "The Musical Offering: a question of honesty" quotes "The renowned American composer, Roger Sessions, [who]once said that there was no good or bad music, only honest and dishonest music."

I didn't read Brown's paper too closely; it's a discussion of music now being used in various Christian churches, not a topic of great interest to me — though I was surprised to read that many of these churches are apparently using technology to fill out their acoustical worship:
Many evangelical churches have readily accepted the use of accompaniment tapes for music offerings. This use of "trax" allows the amateur to supposedly "sound just like" the commercially successful star of the moment. Indeed, the sales of the "trax" add to the commercial success of many of these stars or, at least, their record company. The pseudo-sophistication of attempting to sound like someone else, to sing with an unseen orchestra, to be bigger than life, can amount to hero worship and not the worship of God.

THERE'S A BLUR HERE between "dishonest" and "inauthentic," I think, but no matter; they amount to much the same thing in today's atmosphere of imprecision. The real question is what is authentic music, and Brown and Newman, from their various viewpoints, address that question.

I've always been impressed by a long and complicated passage in Peter Yates's book Twentieth Century Music (Pantheon Books, 1967):
A composer's idiom is his own manner of speaking as creative thinker, original as the sound of his own voice. His content is his esthetic consistency, saying what he has to say. A composer is not uniformly aware of the forces which make him what he is; they are a part of him. The consistency he must achieve ifhe is to become a composer, instead of[merely] a practitioner of his art, will be under his control exactly to the degree that he is able to direct his intuitive conditioning to its creative purpose .... The consistency, as it is achieved, matures within the composer as his content, what he has to say. The subject, not yet married to content, grows within the composer as an irritant, putting him to work; his manner of disposing of it will be his style for that work or that period .... Style follows content, the outward sign of the composer's growing inner consistency; the achieved consistency of the artist extrudes the idiomatic consistency of his style. Together they evolve. (pp. 40-41)

Consistency of style: as good an explanation of musical authenticity as we need, I think. Critics need to keep it in mind. Years ago one critic, a friend, called another friend's music "meretricious," not really thinking I believe of the meaning of the word. It's a useful word, and it goes right to the root of the question of honesty and dishonesty of intent; and there, I think, we can leave discussion of that curious phrase, "dishonest music."

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Mahler's Ninth

STANLEY FISH, I read somewhere online today, has announced the end of the humanities. I thought we were through with that sort of thing, that The End Of History had pretty well put paid to such business. I guess not. Were there any doubt, a pretty decent performance of Mahler's Ninth on television tonight, with Simon Rattle beaming his way through it with the Berlin Phil,

     and afterward, a short documentary on the amazing goings-on in Venezuela, where we were told a quarter of a million young people are playing in orchestras, more than play sports; and where a young conductor in his mid-twenties, Gustavo Dudamel, is said (by Sir Simon) to be likely to be the most important conductor of the twenty-first century.

We watched him lead the Simón Bolívar National Youth Orchestra in the last two movements of Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra, and we were pretty well persuaded. What must it be like to be a youth in Venezuela, to be aware of the looming power of the United States, and to hear that music is not taught in our schools, music, which does so much to civilize the human spirit?

It was the first time I've heard the Mahler Ninth in many years, twenty at least. Fifty years ago it was a favorite; Bruno Walter's Columbia Masterworks recording was the first stereo recording I owned. Hearing it afresh tonight I was startled by the modernity of the first movement, so nearly incoherent at times; delighted by the fond Ländler; disturbed by the Scherzo, which so rarely really works; convinced, once again, by the rightness of the Finale.

Fifty years ago I learned most of what I then new about symphonies from the Penguin Book of the Symphony, edited by Ralph Hill. I'm startled to see you can still buy copies used online. As I recall he was pretty dismissive of Mahler, whose music was apparently still thought in 1949 to be infra dig. Now, of course, I listen to the piece thinking of the Nineteenth Century that had just died, and the Twentieth that was about to burst forth; marveling at Mahler's nostalgia and prescience in his Ninth. Will my grandson's children listen thus, I wonder, to Atlas Eclipticalis?

(If the Humanities will not, indeed, have ended...)

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

How does x understand the impulse that motivated y?

A FRIEND GAVE ME a copy of Alfred Schnitke's Choir Concerto last week. After listening to it I wrote him "Oddly it recalls Feldman, whose music is very different, but gets to the same place." Tim responded
Yes, maybe like you, I am all about "how does a work understand the impulse that motivated Feldman's composing" these days.  I have a new release of and by Boulez and the EC which I think would fit into your listening… Feldman and Cage and Ligeti are pertinent…
This kind of thinking is what I had in mind yesterday.

How does x understand the impulse that motivated y?

The intent is always toward the synoptic, toward a comprehension of where we are (since an understanding of it seems unlikely).

Certain of these thinking creators—these composers, writers, painters, artists—have synoptic views themselves, but use them to push through to new understandings; among them the people I listed yesterday.

To take just one case: John Cage said, somewhere, that while he rejects Beethoven (and, I think, the rest of the 19th century), he attends to Mozart, because there is so much going on at the same time in Mozart. How does Cage understand (and that also means "interpret") the impulse that motivated Mozart?

How did the second half of the 20th century understand the impulse (or impulses) that motivated the first half? (Geert Mak's In Europe is "about" that question, among other things.)

Let's list those visionaries, and gather their work as Silliman suggested, and begin a synoptic critical survey with Tim's question in mind.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Let's begin to focus…

What we really need, ultimately, is the Complete Jackson Mac Low, a multi-volume multimedia project on the scale of the works, say, of Walter Benjamin or Charles Olson or Gertrude Stein. Thing of Beauty is a good first step in the direction of creating that broader picture, but it’s only the tip of a far more vast canon on the part of the most broadly brilliant innovator of – at the very least – the last half century.

--Ron Silliman, Silliman's Blog, Jan. 14.

STILL THINKING of Geert Mak's In Europe and Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise, I'm struck by Ron's comment this morning. Those histories are impressive and useful, but one of their most important functions is their encouragement that we return to primary sources. Ron's begun a list of significant bodies of sources documenting the building of our time in literature; here's a beginning toward extending it into other fields:
  • Jackson Mac Low
  • Walter Benjamin
  • Charles Olson
  • Gertrude Stein
  • (for I accept Ron's list as inspiration)
  • Geert Mak
  • John Cage
  • Luigi Nono
  • Giacinto Scelsi
  • These are the writers and composers whose work I'll be attending to in the near future. There will be others, of course, speaking from earlier ages, figures like Vermeer and Franz Kline, Proust and W.G. Sebald.

    I've addressed only literature, music, and painting here, which raises questions:
    Of the last fifty years, Who are the philosophers whose work is of the scope and scale suggested by Silliman?
    Who are the painters and sculptors?
    Who the composers? the dancers?
    The lists must be defensible and persuasive; there's less and less time left to attend to them…

    Friday, January 11, 2008

    "The snow is general..."

    (to be read while listening to "Winter," in John Cage's String Quartet in Four Parts)

    START THE YEAR getting back in touch with the ground, remembering that you live where your roots are, that's what I told myself a week ago, housebound after a manner of speaking with all my family: wife, three children, their spouses, their children. (Well, all but one: I'll get to that in a minute.)

    We were in a good-sized house on the south flank of Mt. Ashland, just over the state line into southern Oregon. The last of us managed to drag in about midnight Thursday; there'd been snow delays for several of us. We got to bed late and awoke Friday to find the power out. No electricity; therefore, since we were in the country, no running water.

    The day was bright, thanks to snow everywhere, and we had candles for suppertime. The kids played board games, many of the rest of us joining in; there was a jigsaw puzzle; there were the many conversations as cousins and in-laws got reacquainted. Lindsey and the other women worked at the household; I basked in the pure pleasure of a large family of intelligent good-hearted people interacting in civil social discourse and mutual entertainment.

    The power came back on late Friday night; some went skiing Saturday; snowballs were thrown and a snowman built; there was a fine half-hour walk down the lane. By Sunday noon we'd chained up the tires and loaded the trunks and were out -- me a little bit regretfully.

    THE SILENCE OF SNOW is a magical effect; the silence and the cleanliness. A few fenceposts and of course the various outbuildings poked up out of the general whiteness: otherwise nothing we saw out those windows was man-made. I hear snow fell on Baghdad the other day, for the first time in living memory. I wonder if there's not a powerful lingering effect on the human mind of the seasonal erasure of man-made detritus and disorder by winter snows: but I suppose that while these will inspire some to clean up their surroundings, others will marvel at the unusual beauty, if they aren't preoccupied with inconveniences of transportation and such, shrug it off, and go on as usual.

    I need orderliness more and more, but desire to attain it only when driven to it, particularly in January, the month of good intentions. The snow, the short family gathering, the hundreds of miles of driving in good weather and bad -- all these were reminders of moments within motion; periods of repose, some of them fairly long, within the constant change of our lives.

    I think it is Matt Matsuda who writes, in The Memory of the Modern, that every civilization eventually accelerates itself to death. The "death" of course is the ultimate collapse into order, the order of stasis. The acceleration he writes of is a spin into disorder; I thought of this a few times as I carefully drove across frozen pavements.

    The missing grandchild is in South America for a year, learning Spanish and developing adult social skills. He's a composer and a musician, and intuitively expresses himself through those rhythms of complexity and repose that constitute music. Families, I reflect, are another locus of such rhythms, and their expression of order and disorder, of outward exploration in many directions controlled (for lack of a better word) by the centripetality of common roots and experience, reinforces the intuitive human social method of ordering our activities, containing their otherwise probable damage.

    We are modern social citizens, but before that tribal animals, and before that families of individual creatures, oddly curious and busily expressive creatures. Our conversation in moments of repose can explore the implications of this; winters and snow and music assist in their various seasons.
    A Winter Album is an online collection of thirteen piano pieces (so far) in score, by Dennis Báthory-Kitsz, Jon Brenner, Steed Cowart, Elaine Fine, Hauke Harder, Ben Harper, Jeff Harrington, Steve Hicken, Aaron Hynds, Lloyd Rodgers, Jonathan Segel, Daniel James Wolf and myself. It was gathered and edited by Daniel, whose blog Renewable Music is another joy of active contemplation in moments of repose.