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Friday, April 30, 2010

Flail Fail

I have complained in the past about actors who are otherwise competent but who become unconvincing, yea even embarrassing, the moment they attempt to portray conductors. Someone else noticed the same problem.

In other news, Andy West reports that "the more you know about music, the less income you are guaranteed to generate." If that's true, I must be musically omniscient.


Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Monarch Envy

Like a lot of Americans with inferiority complexes, I'm fascinated by the Brittish monarchy. Thanks to the looming prospect of a hung parliament, I have, at last, found an article that addresses my big question: does the Queen do anything?

And by that, I don't mean anything purile or vulgar—for example, does the Queen ever use the toilet or pick her nose? No. (Not, no she doesn't pick her nose; but, no I don't mean to ask if she picks her nose. Sheesh, pay attention people.) No, I mean: does the Monarchy have any role that is not ceremonial?

Our own experience on this side of the Pond with the confusion of the 2000 presidential election caused me to speculate that the non-partisan part of the UK government would step forward when, and only when, the partisan part flounders. Which makes sense—so long as the non-partisan part is very careful to remain non-partisan in form and substance. In other words, the Queen is our Supreme Court; our Tie Breaker, our Deus Ex Machina.

If the Queen truly has discretion in certain unusual, but by no means impossible, scenarios, then in spite of all the crazy (crazy to the eyes of a Yank, anyway) stilted ceremonial costume dramas the Queen is required to enact (Queen Victoria decided such-and-such meeting would take place standing up, so now we always do it standing up, world without end, Amen), then it seems it really is true that she could not be replaced by a computer with a few hundred lines of code running on it. Which answers the question I've been asking all along.

The most interesting line from the linked article is most certainly this one:
The Queen will not involve itself in anything that could be construed as being partisan[...].
. . .which, if it is not a typo, pretty much completely refutes what I just wrote about a computer and a few hundred lines of code.


I Will Review the Reviewer

With two Alex Ross sightings under my belt, I can spot a trend. Alex's trademark look turns out to be coat but no tie. I'm not sure if the choice is aesthetic, practical, or political but he's gone tieless every single time I've seen him.

The latest event was The Rest Is Noise Stadium Tour, at Rackham Auditorium (not Michigan Stadium). Too bad Alex didn't post more snapshots of Rackham on his blog; it's one of the most intriguing buildings on the campus of the University of Michigan. Named after a major benefactor of the U, the building is noteworthy for its dignified neo-classical/moderne stylings and the not-to-be-missed shrine to Horace Rackham, a smallish oval sanctum sanctorum located close to the very center of the building. (A plaque on the wall informs the visitor of Horace's humility. No kidding.)

Alex's side-kick was the impressive Ethan Iverson, a pianist completely comfortable demonstrating the disparate styles of the 20th century. The day ended on a fun note (no! Twelve fun notes!) when Ethan asked members of the audience to shout out notes randomly to construct a melody that would become the theme for his concert-ending improvisation. An aggressive woman was first, shouting out "A double flat!" I thought, yeah, remove about 20 years of maturity from me, and I'd being doing the exact same thing.

On the drive home, the Wifeösphere and I speculated just how much of the improvisation was truly improvised. I suspect much of the form and many of the rhythmic gestures come from a "bag of tricks", which is de rigueur for such people. (Organists, especially, are expected to be able to improvise from a melody with no preparation, but few can do it as well as Ethan.) I admired the smart trick Ethan used to warm himself up to the melody, as it were: he began with a short, repeating pattern in the middle register and very slowly rang out the melody in the lowest register of the piano. The notes were so low, they were harmonically disassociated from the accompaniment. Voila! It didn't matter what the notes were. That arrangement could work for any melody at all. Neat.

My favorite line from the book made the cut and was quoted during the talk: the part about one needing a security clearance to understand Milton Babbitt's music. I was rather pleased with the Babbitt piano music Alex and/or Ethan chose for this show, and it changed my view of the old master of bleep-honk-snort.

Another surprise was the Ligeti (Alex pronounced it LIH-guh-tee; the rest of us better fall in line and stop treating it like a faux-Italianism: no more lih-JET-ee) which was quite dissonant, but showed a spark of wit I found very appealing. I have no doubt further listens will spread my love, something that hasn't happened so much for me with the that Ligeti vocal music made famous by Kubrick's 2001. Maybe the Ligeti piano piece was not as purely atonal as the example of serial music Ethan played, or maybe my implacable distaste for Schoenberg has something to do with the man's humorlessness. He certainly has a reputation for arrogance; am I hearing that attitude in the music? Is that possible?

So, I wonder how Alex feels, being on the receiving end of this review (assuming he notices)? The most entertaining part of his talk quoted (complete with verbal impressions) various bumptious critics, pro and con, reacting to Sibelius, who was, even by the extreme standards of our modern times, a polarizing figure. (I'm with Alex on Sibelius: pro.) Alex must be continuously aware of the possibility that a critic as high-profile, as prolific, and as quotable as himself must have expressed a misjudgment somewhere that a future Alex Ross will dredge up with relish. (Hmm. Dredge. Relish. Bad metaphor, bad!) Ah, well, we all have our occupational hazards.

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Thursday, April 22, 2010

Fear Not Again

Previously I told you how my Christmas anthem Fear Not came to be composed and performed. I said I wrote the thing in 2 evenings, an insanely insane time frame for your host, who is by nature cautious and circuitous in all his creative efforts. By necessity, the result was a cut-n-paste job, at least in the accompaniment:

Around the time we sang the anthem (in church services) I met Aaron Tan, who has been charged with organizing a new music concert for the local chapter of the American Guild of Organists. He invited me to present a piece, and I decided on a revamped version of Fear Not. This will happen tomorrow.

Composing this anthem has been quite satisfying. I've learned something about myself: I don't particularly like, or pay much attention to, repeated patterns in music. I'm a bit shy about admitting this; it's like a painter saying he doesn't put much thought into what kind of brush strokes he uses. Indeed, my whole life I have struggled to become a comprehensive musician; in my youth I was even careless of melody, believe it or not, prefering music with interesting chord progressions.

Previously, my strategy for dealing with my own limitation has been to make virtue of necessity: write a lot of a cappella choral music. This worked well for me because I love choirs above all ensembles (when they are good) and because the voice is the one instrument I'm truly comfortable in performing with.

Fear Not is my first piece with an accompaniment built on an optimal pattern, one simple enough to bend flexibly as the music flows and changes, yet interesting enough that it can be sustained from beginning to end. I finally settled on something that doesn't require laborious, arbitrary reinvention from measure to measure. It's so exciting, because it's better and easier to work with this kind of pattern, once the initial experimental stage achieves its goal.

(And that's another trend in my composing: a lot more work in planning and brainstorming; a lot less work in laying pipe.)

The new pattern can be seen in this line, the second of the piece:

Notice the one-note delay between the leader RH and follower LH, which leads to some funky dissonances, especially when the supertonic is flatted.

In the end, I switch to double time that is more impressive but significantly easier to play (which is a wonderful thing; my organist Jeff Greunke will probably be thinking very grateful thoughts by this point, or at least, less homicidal ones):

There it is. My first "real" accompaniment. I'm looking forward to tomorrow night.

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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Baba Yetu

You people are supposed to keep me informed about this stuff! My friend John finally got around to telling me about Baba Yetu, a World Pop treatment of the Lord's Prayer in Swahili. In our post-listen IM discussion, we agreed the song is an emotional chameleon, wherein sadness, happiness, grandeur and pure simplicity can be found, depending on who's looking. (Or I should say: depending on who you happen to be at the moment you're looking.) I hesitate to call a mere pop song great art, but like all great art, Baba Yetu leaves gaps that the audience may fill however they like.

John first heard the song while playing his favorite computer game, Civilization IV. It's the theme song. Very odd choice. I'm tempted to say: brave choice. It's got that Africa! Cradle of Mankind! vibe that kind of makes sense, and nobody (but you and I) will notice the religious specificity. (I guess some folks on the Civ4 design team researched Monotheism in their spare time.)

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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Hey, You Guys

Item One The gentlemen of SFF Audio become my heroes as they generously, lavishly, gratuitously link once again to my sci-fi jazz chamber opera They're Made Out of Meat.

Item Two (Or maybe that should be Item-a Two-a.) Cosh strikes again with a fresh take on the ol' see ourselves as others see us thing: Italian comedian Adriano Celentano sings very convincing, but fake, English. My best experience on this topic was meeting an Brit with the gift for imitation. I asked him to talk like an American, and his instant response—"Hey, you guys!"—gave me more self-knowledge in one second that a lifetime of experience.

Item Three Alex Ross mentions his The Rest Is Noise tour, which includes Ann Arbor. I'll be there, bud, me 'n' the Wifeösphere.

Item Four Terry Teachout quotes H.L. Mencken on the topic of book intoxication. I think I may be addicted to politics. Without much serious thought, I gave up my political blogs for Lent. I experienced a dramatic sharpening of my wits.* Suddenly, there was this to-do list in my head that was never there before. I found it impossible to ignore the tasks necessary to achieve my ambitions. I noticed that, when one is lazy, it takes forever to get anything done! An amazing discovery. It's sort of the reverse of that conservative kid in that Woody Allen movie who is cured of his political leanings when a brain tumor is removed.

*Although, to be honest, maybe it isn't the political fast that's doing it. Maybe it's fish oil.

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Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Rev.

After this, what could possibly be next? Maybe Forth Horseperson of the Apocalypse Barbie???

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Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Wagner Was Making It Up, You Know

I don't like to link to twice in a row, but sometimes the mission of this blog compels me: Dexter Palmer puts a sci-fi spin on a Blu-Ray recording of the La Fura Dels Baus staging of Wagner's Ring. He claims that kids raised on Star Wars and Harry Potter will eat it up, so long as they are kept in the dark about this being, you know, an
S P O I L E R   A L E R T
opera, and I'd like to believe him and give the experiment a try. . .but he don't know my kids.

Palmer also gives a nod to: Anna Russell's mangling of the plot (which I've never bothered to listen to); the graphic novel treatment of the Ring by Dark Horse Comics; and the introduction written and recorded by Deryck Cooke, which is—let's be perfectly frank—an absolutely essential starting point for anyone who aspires to understand the Ring on a musical level.

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