Felsenmusick - The Weblog of Daniel Felsenfeld
The Web Log of a Certain Daniel Felsenfeld: Composer, critic, avid reader, aspiring
bon vivant, capricorn, shadowy figure, advice for the lovelorn

Friday, December 30, 2005

And While I'm At It...

The new issue of Symphony Magazine arrived at my doorstep a few days ago, with a cryptic note saying "look on Page 57." There I was pleased to find a review of two of my books by none other than the illustrious blogger-critic-composer Kyle Gann. His comments were generous, his criticisms vailid and appropriately framed, and his observations keen beyond keen. I do not know him personally, though am a huge fan of his many musical incarnations, and so I bow humbly and publically thank Mr. Gann for his warm words about my little books.

Alas, the whole of the review is not available online, so you must of course run out and buy a copy of the magazine.

Self-Promotional Aside: Should you wish to go straight to the source and buy either book (hint hint--they make good gifts for your friends who've always wanted to know about new music but were too afraid or intimidated to get started) here's a link to Ives and Copland and here's one for Britten and Barber. They both come with accompanying CDs.

A Valedictory Note to An American Tragedy

The hype of a premiere stands to be a more exciting experience than a final performance from an event standpoint, but a new opera's Swan Song can often be more telling: the hype has dissolved at the same rate that the cast and orchestra have settled into the piece; shiny novelty is traded for deeper polish. I attended the last of An American Tragedy (my second time to see it) and with neither bells nor whistles abetting a buzzing pressroom, I discovered that it is just a commendably wonderful piece of writing. The score is marvelously tight, creative and inventive, and while I see one big problem in the libretto (which is also a problem in the book and A Place in the Sun: you never quite understand the murderous scope of Clyde's ambition, so his plot seems deeply out of character) I suppose I could say the same thing about The Magic Flute (ridiculous), Les Enfants et les Sortilleges (singing teacups indeed) or Cosi Fan Tutti (would anyone really fall for those disguises?).

So the opera will either have legs or not--still too soon to tell--but the discussion it accomplished between critics and bloggers and those in the profession is rather astounding. Though the lion's share of this season's press was devoted (disproportionately, in my humble opinion) to the Adams/Sellars machine on the Left Coast, reviews for Doctor Atomic tended to be rather divided and tendentious: you were fer or agin' it; this was either a breakthrough or a flop, depending on who you asked. For AAT, on the other hand, the reviews have run the gamut from patently disapproving (Justin Davidson) to accommodating (Tomassini) to guardedly praising (Alex Ross), but what all three of these perspicacious critics did was to review the complex work in a complex way, admitting both its faults and strengths, without simply saying which direction their thumb was pointing. I disagree with some of these reviews, but respect their non-colluding points of view. And though much was made of whether or not AAT "pushed the boundaries" of our collective (and disparate) notions of how opera ought to behave (best instantiated by the Times), mostly critics and the critics of critics effectively, and without fawning in-the-pocket effusion or bilous vituperation, vivisected the work on its own terms.

This gives me hope that the proto-Teutonic way of criticizing something new based on which line it falls in will lose steam; the artistic-musical bunkers of the mid-century have been shattered to a million little pieces, and though that makes this an even more complex time to be a composer (do not get me started), I would hope that a good way to really kick off this post-millenial period of this country so recently deflowered of its innocence is for all of us who choose to opine in print or pixels to continue to remove our vanished lenses and use our secret weapons of even-handed knowledge, educated opinions and agenda-free thinking (no serialist or neo-Romantic doublespeak nor minimalist posturing) to create a new form of dialogue. As a writer, it allows me to be unconstrained by the shackles of old ways; as a composer, it allows limitless freedom of material untainted by any political ramifications. So we come to judge what's there, not what we believe should be there.

More than that, bravo Tobias, you've written an opera that made us all cry, think, and feel: there's much to be said for that.

Monday, December 26, 2005

A Little Christmas Music, Part II

So Christmas came and went--I am spending it with the Jewish family of my Jewish girlfriend in the very Patrician city of Philadelphia--and yet still the seasonal music pours forth from the speakers in Redding Terminal, mostly jazzed- or popped-up versions of the best (or worst). I wonder why nobody plays Samuel Barber's hidden masterpiece Die Natali or Schutz's Christmas Vespers--I'd even prefer the "how are your children and how are your sheep" bit from Amahl and the Night Visitors.

And I won't even get started about the Hudson News Stand at Penn Station, where once--not terribly long ago--I bought copies of Commentary and the New York Review of Books for trips out to Princeton, whose rack proudly proclaims the word "Literary" yet whose magazine content ran to weapons and wrestlers. We asked; they averred. It is just too depressing.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

A Little Christmas Music

In order to quell the constant echolalia of Christmas Songs which seem to cloud the judgment of the world from Thanksgiving until the first, I've been trying to put some other sounds in my ear. This Christmas: Brahms, specifically the new disc of cello sonatas plus some bonus piano works performed by David Finckel and Wu Han, which would definitely get on my best-of 2005 list if I were disposed to making lists. This is just a really, really, really good record, capaciously recorded and movingly performed. Han's piano contains rich orchestral multitudes, kicking Finckel into that not-quite-chamber-but-also-not-orchestrally-boomy sound that makes for excellent Brahms. Their e minor sonata--a symphony unto itself, at least in sheer scope--is fraught, anxious, funny, coy, smirking, dark, seething, manic and ultimately potent, and their F major is equally effective, at points heartbreaking, and at others wistful, gay, hysterical and soothing. Brahms' work is easy to schmaltz up, to dose in faux-Slavic ardor in order to achieve the maximum effect for a given moment, losing sight of the overall mission. In other words, it is too easy to sacrifice overall devastation to the false god of momentary ecstasy--and into this trap these players do not fall, never once. Han's intermezzi--especially the famous and ravishing A major--are a textbook rendering of how this music ought to be played: open-throttled when needed, but sparingly as well, with appropriate reserve. The fact that the sound quality is remarkable doesn't hurt. As a lifetime lover of Brahms--I even co-wrote a biography for kids--this is among the best records of the composer's chamber music I've ever heard. And you'd be supporting the rather revolutionary take-to-the-streets ethos that is the Artistled label.

Of course, two obvious newcomers (soon to be seasonal mainstays) are John Eliot Gardiner's new record of Bach's Christmas Cantatas and Harnoncourt's new Messiah, over which I've previously gushed here. If any music stands a chance of knocking "Feed the world/let them know it's Christmastime" (and really, not even Beethoven himself returning from the grave with a new symphony could do that) then these recordings might stand a chance. At least they've worked for me.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

This Just In...

A fantastically wrongheaded article in the Times about the strike--and as I like many New Yorkers am grounded, but also think the strike is needed, long overdue, and will prove worthwhile once we can see past our own inconveniences and look a things through someone elses eyes--which is not only dumbly framed but godawfully written.

A few choice quotes (chosen for nothing else other than their grammatical grace):

Every apartment block, office, store or sidewalk had its tales of people who were unable to get to work, of businesses that had trouble functioning or were able to operate only at a daunting cost, of workers and employers who reached their jobs and found there had been little point in trying because the customers were missing.

(Not "absent" or "elsewhere," but missing? How purple)
The economic burden was felt citywide, but there were other costs, too - hundreds of thousands of children missing school, commuters spending extra hours shuttling to work and back, and pervasive fear of how long this will go on.

(read that last clause again for an example of not only conjecture, but also a poor way to end a sentence)

And then there's this pearl of unfettered homelander backwardness, an example of the strange thinking into which we as a people have been lulled by the haves (chosen for its true confessions and pure hamfisted weirdness):

"A lot of people in this country work a lot harder for less money," said Ms. Diaz, the salon owner. "They're complaining about health benefits and pensions; a lot of people don't have health benefits and pensions, including the people who work here in my shop."

I've said it before and I wish I did not have to say it now, but one can only blink...

Besides, they did not make mention of the thousands of buskers who have flooded the streets of downtown playing only "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree", "Jingle Bell Rock" and "Feliz Navidad," to the deep concern of thousands of DJs, all of whom were in deep Smiths/Cure-like despondency over the forced cancellation of the Yo La Tengo concert. What about them? They have feelings too.



Compare this article from the supposedly biased Village Voice to this one in the supposed Paper of Record, one admittedly liberal, the other supposedly Fair and Balanced. The Voice has offered the most clear birds-eye view of this complicated shutdown, a tough struggle between the labor who make the city go and the city that needs to do the going; the Times, knowing their readership, has painted this difficult struggle as a traffic inconvenience.

I am thinking of the last huge piece of public protest in recent memory, the anti-war rallies of February, 2002, before we'd officially decided to root out those thousands of WMDs poised to shatter the United States. Half a million pepople poured into the streets of New York--and three million total joined in worldwide, making it the largest protest in history. The Times, that bastion of truth and accuracy and Judith Miller, reported it as a traffic inconvenience.

So much for liberal media.

ADDED: This just in, the Times waxes poetic.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Happy 100th, Mr. Powell

Today, December 21, novelist Anthony Powell would have been 100. His epoch-making work Dance to the Music of Time, a novel detailing the viccisitudes of war-ravaged England through the lens of a single character's entire adult life earned him the reputation of being the British Proust, by all means well deserved. But what he did in this twelve book cycle, a sort of Anglo-Verismo Recherce, is breathtaking not merely for its trenchant observations on humanity but for its deadpan, P.G. Wodehouse-style humor. One line I will never forget is the hysterically droll, bitch quip: "He sat over his double vermouth with an air of slighted genius." Brilliant. Who among us has not seen someone do this in company?

I will say no more. Just go read it: these books occupied me for a month this year, and had me giggling, sighing, pondering, and constantly reaching for the next one. Not better than Proust, no worse, just different and equally special.

Love in the Time of Bloggers

Pardon the Mutual Admiration Society, but who does not love to see a praising account of themselves in pixelated print? Thanks Maury D'annato, whoever you are.

And do I dare answer the meme of four disovered on Alex Ross' site? Do I?

Monday, December 19, 2005

Color Me Unsurprised

Apparently, the idle rich are not so generous. Who knew?

Signs of the Apocolypse

Joining such visionaries as Billy Joel, Elvis, and Abba, Bob Dylan is apparently to be immortalized on broadway in a jukebox musical. This from the New York Times:

"The Times They Are a-Changin'," a new musical headed for Broadway, directed and choreographed by Twyla Tharp based on songs by Bob Dylan, will be about a low-rent traveling circus run by one Captain Arab and the longings of his son, Coyote, for the world outside the family business, according to a tantalizingly brief announcement by the Old Globe Theater in San Diego, where the show is to have its world premiere next month. Another character in the show is Cleo, a young animal trainer in the circus who is exploited by Captain Arab but loved by his son. Dylan fans' ears will perk up at the references to the songs "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" ("I yelled for Captain Arab/ I have yuh understand") and "Ballad of Hollis Brown" ("Way out in the wilderness/ A cold coyote calls"), but no other details of the plot were revealed. The show is to star Michael Arden ("Big River") as Coyote, Jenn Colella ("Urban Cowboy") as Cleo, and Paul Kandel ("The Who's Tommy," "Titanic") as Captain Arab. It begins Jan. 25 and runs through March 5.

Does this make anyone else nervous? Coupled with the Starbucks cross-promotions, I cannot escape that sinking, stripmall feeling...

Which is worse, though: Dylan softshoe or this disconcerting movement?

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Mr. Lebrecht, I Salute You

There are those who are for a canon, those opposed; those who relish tradition, those who want to smash it into a million little Po-Mo bits. Equally persuasive and compelling arguments might be made for both sides.

But then there is Norman Lebrecht, whose Cassandra-like wailing about The Death has amused non-initiates, infuriated those on the inside (except for many critics) and, in a the-mere-fact-of-observing-alters-what-is-being-observed way has done all he can to drive the nail in deeper. He laments and yet also encourages and supports The Death. Alas, we've heard it all before. Who Killed Classical Music? Look no further, as the answers are soon to be revealed.

For all his overblown statements, agenda-ridden derision, and career-enhancing grandstanding cum muckraking, this article, a grand mol dilettante's excoriation of that minor non-progressive (and therefore utterly worthless) composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, ensures his place in the grand pantheon of irresponsible modernist thinking (that which does not further the discipline cannot in fact be any good).

For those clickphobes out there, here's a choice sample, the essay's final sweep:

"Mozart is a menace to musical progress, a relic of rituals that were losing relevance in his own time and are meaningless to ours. Beyond a superficial beauty and structural certainty, Mozart has nothing to give to mind or spirit in the 21st century. Let him rest. Ignore the commercial onslaught. Play the Leningrad Symphony. Listen to music that matters."

Mr. Lebrecht, my hat goes off to you: you've really outdone yourself, helped me see the error of my ways, to realize what a midcult fool I've been. All these years of enjoying this composer you now so wisely tell me is, in fact "...the superstore wallpaper of classical music, the composer who pleases most and offends least," whose operas have been an (apparently false) utter revelation to me, whose piano sonatas (I thought) contain lessons for the ages, and whose sense of pacing, humor, humanity, melody, and everything I like about music were all just cooked up with an ear to the market. How easily the whole world has fallen headfirst for this (now, thanks to you) apparent fraud who aimed to please. Age of Enlightenment my ass! We should all be so ashamed of ourselves, celebrating the life and music of this unimportant, antithetical-to-progress composer with his arrested development and lurid sense of personal values and hygiene, his shitjokes and obsequiously effusive suckups to those of wealth or power, all of which otherwise masked an uninteresting life. Maybe we'd like him better if he had spent more time being amusing and profound, thinking deep thoughts, worrying about his effect on history and less time writing all that mindless music. Hard to say. But I for one am now turned around.

Someone also told me that Shakespeare was a sexually questionable third rate poet who altered history to please Queen Elizabeth and that Vermeer just liked to paint pretty pictures for ooldes of money. So glad people point out these things; I hate, after all, to be typical.

Friday, December 16, 2005


In March, I am to become what is called a "Classical Music Informer" for MTV.com's new Digital Music Service, in collaboration with Microsoft. What this basically means is that I shall be running not one but two blogs! For more information, click here.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I Keep On Doing

Since the epoch-dulling 1990s I have been a consummate lover of the books of David Foster Wallace, that moony satirist who is a cross between Sterne and Swift and Pynchon and that linguistically threatening dinosaur, the thesaurus. Ever in search of the mordant irony that defines the homeland, his fish-out-of-water causticism can be laugh out loud funny while at the same time bringing dark cultural tears. His newest, Consider the Lobster, is hardly an exception. Though less potent and a slight bit more uneven than his prior collection of essays A Supposedly Fun Thing I'’ll Never Do Again, in CTL he is still able to pack a belletristic wallop, causing me to run giggling for the dictionary--—or at least www.oed.com.

His topics are the usual rangy, motley farrago: from the porn Oscars to John Updike to the Maine Lobster Festival to the pre- versus descriptive schools of grammar, this is one book from which there is much to learn about many things, from hardcore to sentence structure. It is sometimes tough going, especially the constant nagging interruptions of his footnotes (or in the case of "Host,"” the schematic-like text asides in a complex array of nestled boxes trailed by arrows) but it is surely worth the hassle.

One quibble, and this has little to do with DFW but rather my own perception and sense memory, is that his particular voice, so closely associated (in my own mind certainly) with the now-vanished bleakness of the politically correct, unscandalous-scandal driven, aren'’t-we-all-so-in-touch-with-our-inner-selves techboom 1990s seems out of place when addressing, say, 9-11 (which he does from the vantage of Bloomington, Indiana in the essay "A View from Mrs. Thomson's," the weakest in the book). Again, this is no fault of the author; rather, its one of the great failings of nostalgia: it dates. Let me be the last to say something along the lines that since 9-11 our country has been corrupted on all levels, but most deeply (and least comprehensibly) damaging is that our innocence has been shattered. DFW'’s voice--—a principal distraction for me in the halls of my conservatory--speaks with Clinton-era dissonance, making me feel that overwhelming notion of aging: that one has endured not just a different era but a better, brighter, more optimistic one. It pains me to hear his voice addressing such things; it would pain me equally to hear Winne the Pooh directly addressing the Spanish Civil war or Encyclopedia Brown discussing torture at the Hanoi Hilton. (Michael Chabon brilliantly takes Sherlock Holmes into the Second World War in his novella The Final Solution for a distressingly sad objective correlative. Ditto William Hoffman and John Corigliano, whose embroilment of Almaviva, Figaro and Rosina in the bloodiness of the French Revolution in their opera The Ghosts of Versailles makes me shiver and cry.) I hold hope that blissful naivete will come back into fashion in our lifetimes, but that hope daily slips.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Congratulations to Me

Today, December 15, year of our lord 2005, marks my fifth New York-iversary. I crawled onto the island half a decade ago today.

Feel free and send me five of something to commemorate this milestone.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Handling Criticism

Now here is one way to handle one's critics.

Rakowski FYI

The Merkin piece (see sub) is called Inside Story, and will be performed by the new music dream team of Aleck Karis, Curtis Macomber and Chris Finckel.

And Once Again...

The Hon. David Rakowski, whose third piano trio (unnamed? It is hard to find such information) will be performed at Merkin Hall on Monday, December 19 circa 8pm, has also coined some fantastic new musical terms. Soon I shall be accused (and Davy, pardon my poetic license with your neologiana) of barfbacking the entirety of Davy's site, but really, it is just so screamingly funny that my countless millions of readers/fans/staunch admirers/blogospheric amigos/wellwishers/patrons/deep seated admirers should read it cover to cover (to decoin a phrase).

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

A Review of Yr. Blogger's Book

Any of us in the arts know that criticism stings. Those of us on the recieving end dread reviews; those on the giving end try desperately to put their thoughts into cogent words. But once in a while, you get a review of your own work that, though scathing, can only be giggled at and passed off not as an analysis of your efforts, but rather an insight into the manifold strangeness of the reviewer's complex (and often excerable) soul. My book Britten and Barber: Their Lives, Their Music was in fact the subject of such a review, and I cannot resist quoting it en toto. Read on, if you dare, and I take no responsibilty for what follows:

Britten and Barber
Their Lives and Their Music
Daniel Felsenfeld
(Amadeus Press)

The musics composed by Benjamin Britten and Samuel Barber were thought to be somewhat romantic, perhaps a return to the past. Rather than following the lead of such moderns as Stockhausen, Dallapiccola and Olivier Messien, they composed what was thought to be music of and for the people, not unlike the poetry of John Betjeman.

Both lived within that tiny closed, somewhat gay culture of musicians of mid-century America and England. Barber's lifelong lover, Gian-Carlo Menotti, composed opera; Britten's love --- the dandy-ish Peter Pears --- was a noted tenor of the day.
Anyone writing about composers and classical music of the 20th Century has to wrestle with a singular fact that when Barber and Britten were gadding about, Western musical culture was the playground of the rich and the fey, dancing about the once-great metropolitan centers --- London, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco --- with their opera houses, symphony halls, musicales, and such nearby venues as Tanglewood, Jubilee Hall and Aldeburgh.

At the same time a wholly new music culture was erupting, an iceberg of music-love scarcely noted by the eminent critics of newspapers and magazines of the times. As he discusses these two, two of the most famous musicians of the day, Felsenfeld can quote from reviewers from the pages of The Saturday Review, The New York Times or The Times of London. He can and does cite the words of the movers and the shakers of the day: Leonard Bernstein, Serge Koussevitzky, Eugene Ormandy, Arturo Toscanni.

A radical change was taking place in the world of music just as Barber and Britten were muddling their way through the cultural dustbin. It was the coming of the LP (and, somewhat later, the CD). These created a new world for those of us who refused to put up with the indignities of Culture in the local Symphony Hall: the waiting in line, the expense, the experience of sitting next to someone with terminal apnea (or intractable pulmonary edema), the eternal waiting through that most-forced of pauses --- the pause that oppresses --- the intermission. In "live concert," you and I were forced to wait what seemed like hours to hear what we came to hear.

But there was a new alternative for those of us who loved music as it should be loved. It was to be found in a stereo (or 'hi-fi') system where we could listen to, at the pace we wanted, at the hour we wanted, exquisitely performed music.

Instead of sitting through hours of The Rape of Lucretia, Peter Grimes, Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Anthony and Cleopatria, Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Sonata for Piano, we could hear, entire, without benefit of comments, coughs, sneezes, yawns or snores, the string quartets of Haydn, the trio sonatas of Telemann, the oratorios of Handel, the chamber music of Dvorák, any of the 211 cantatas of Bach.

We could hear, whole --- without the infernal spell-breaking intermission ---the greatest opera of all time, Verdi's Requiem (we call it opera because that's what it is; just because he was in mourning, the composer was not about to change his form).

We could spend an evening with some of the greatest religious works in western culture: Bach's B Minor Mass, or the St. Matthew's Passion. We could spend an hour or so (drink in hand) hearing that most charming of all set pieces, the vocal version of Stravinski's L'Histoire du Soldat.

At three in the morning, if we so chose, we could turn to the most moving meditation on death ever created, Schubert's 14th String Quartet, Death and the Maiden, named after the anonymous "maiden," the origin of his all-too-fatal disease.

Or, at any hour of the day or night, in any sequence, we could live inside the towering works of d'Aquin, Vivaldi (not the Four Seasons, lord knows), Handel's most obscure oratorios --- Xerxes, Julius Caesar, Theodora, Jephtha --- or any of the great chamber or vocal pieces of Lully, Monteverdi, Rameau, Soler, Purcell.

Thus instead of being dragged to the smart-set Palace of Culture to put up with the likes of Barber and Britten --- or those dead-weights hung on the necklace of western culture (Ferdé Grofe, Delius, Elgar, D'Indy --- or Ravel's blindingly circular "Bolero,") we could be up in the clouds with the masters, never having to hob-nob with the "guardians of culture," those snooty folks who haunted the Met, the Boston Pops, the Philadelphia Symphony, Avery Fisher, etc.

§ § §

Felsenfeld's essay is certainly clearly written, and for scholars who don't have any musical taste, it might even be considered important. For those of us crave worthy music, it will be just another scab off the corpse of Western High Culture. For it is, alas, an essay (with CD!) concerning two neurotic nannies in the masturbatory world of mid-twentieth century music, where audiences would go crazy over something as emotionally stunted as Commando March (for the Army Air Force!) Leonard Bernstein, who played this game for fun as well as for fame and profit, once remarked that Britten's music had "the sound of gears not quite meshing."

The ultimate occurred when we put the disk that came with Britten and Barber into our CD player. The disk spun and spun (and spun). And nothing at all came from the speakers. Not even a whimper. Much less a bang.

--- A. W. Allworthy

(One can just blink--DF)

Addition: If my hot google-searching is at all correct, the above A.W. Allworthy (stagename?) is actually Reverend A.W. Allworthy, author of the 1976 (sadly out of print) classic The Petition Against God, published by Mho & Mho works. You may by no means acquire a copy here.

Just Plain Funny

Hats off to Parterre Box for this hiliarous post.

Felsenmusick PSA: Composer/Performers at Symphony Space

There will be a concert this Thursday night, 15 December at Symphony Space Called Composer=Performer, Plugged and Unplugged, featuring three excellent composers who also double as excellent performers: Derek Bermel (clarinettist), Beata Moon (piano) and Valerie Coleman (flute). They will perform their own works as well as each others, to make an evening that will no doubt be musically compelling and done in the spirit of togetherness, but also financially wise! I know two of the three (and certainly know of the third) and have always been impressed, so this should be a concert not to miss.

Oh, and it starts at 7.30.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

The Times Does it Again

Awoke this morning to read a totally insipid, narrow-minded, one-off article about how our current novelists either cannot or will not engage the contemporary political scene. This is, of course, authored not by an artist but an academic, an historian. It just seems bent on excoriating the novelists who do attack politics as well as those who don't, and sites Twain and Hawthorne as the examples up to which our contemporary writers must be held. This lacks for several reasons. For one, Twain was a public figure in his day, a statesman, an enfant terrible because people looked to writers for answers--today his role is (sadly) filled by Oliver Stone, Tim Robbins and Michael Moore at best, Sean Penn and Bono (or Anne Coulter and that O'Riley person) at worst. If Michael Chabon decided to take on the contemporary administration in a scathing parody, it would at best be bought by, say, the population of Brooklyn, read by a portion of them, understood by a portion of that--and who among them would change their opinions, likely of the same agenda, if they were to read even the clearest morality play into Chabon's no-doubt beautifully wrought satire.

What about Coetzee or Gorimer, who do write about contemporary politics in other regions? And if Nicholson Baker does address it, his fantasia of someone wanting to execute W (which I've not read but now will!) sounds as valid as anything. So why slam it, calling it "appalling," when he is actually in line with what you are looking for. Philip Roth was very clear that The Plot Against America, whatever one thinks of the book (or its title) was not about today but a speculative look at a certain era, his own Newark mien, had it been overtaken by Lindbergh who believed fiercely in Hitler and his project. So the esteemed author of this article judges Roth on what the book should have done and rates him accordingly, rather than taking the project for its obvious intentions. This truly is the New criticism: selfish, me-centered, and not allowing for other viewpoints except what one thinks other's ought to be. It really is narrow, but more its anti-intellectual and terribly sad.

And to excoriate Toni Morrison for writing about slavery--which is always charged, still has to be sorted out and can often serve as allegory--is not only stupid and short sighted, it is frankly racist. I am reminded of an article in the new "literature" magazine N+1 which said something to the effect that if you were to read the new novels by Jonathan Safron Foer, Philip Roth and Michael Chabon, the worst trouble we have in this world is anti-semitism. Has the subject of slavery or the holocaust been overdone in these brilliant minds? As if we have somehow gotten past this, in an era where racial divide is worse than 1968, where anti-semitism comes not just from the infidels but from the left.

In the midst of all this, what's a poor novelist to do? Should Philip Roth write an Our Gang about this decidedly un-funny group of murderers who've hijacked America? Would anyone--particularly the Red States--listen to him? Or Tom Wolfe (who is an avid fan of Bush)? Or John Irving? Or Stephen King? Or Tom Clancey? Damned if they do, damned if they don't--and yet again, the Times, always white-hot on matters cultural, once again offers a flaccid "what is a smart person like me to do in such a dumb, thoughtless world" whine in the place of real commentary.

You see, in this culture we simply have no public intellectuals, certainly not the sort to whom voters look to when faced with the complex matters of their ballots. I remember trying to explain who H.L. Mencken was to someone who did not know, and coming up short trying to find a contemporary counterpart. John Stewart? Al Franken? Umberto Eco? Whom?

Friday, December 09, 2005

Weighing In

I've been following the angry action on Kyle Gann's fantastic blog and the excoriation of the critics by those composers who have posted--followed through Deceptively Simple, wherein Marc understandably throws his hands in the air and wonders why. And I am reminded--particularly by the bile in posts by Hucbald and the person known as Chris--of grad school and its attendant dorm room epiphanies. In those days, everything (to me) related to my own work, and so if I'd found it appropriate to use set theory, I shouted down all those who had something against it; ditto the evil major (or the eviller minor) triad; ditto twelve-tone; ditto rock; ditto minimalism; ditto Britten; ditto Copland; ditto ad nauseum. I hear it in the anonymous Chris' voice: he wants to not be told he's on the wrong track, and will enter into Agon with anyone who does. It is a genuine reaction, completely and utterly needed for him to progress as an artist and so I do not with do deny him it; more hope just to refocus his attention, were he to do me the courtesy of listening.

The one thing I have never understood, from critics and composers alike, is the idea that a sound, isolated from its context, can carry with it a political connotation. I do not understand it when Schoenberg (I think) declared prohibition on the octave, nor do I get it when whole movements (read: neo-romanticism or minimalism) are blasted in the Times over and over again. Is a chord evil or good? Does it even MEAN when out of a context? An F major chord, in F major, might come off--in the wrong hands, mind you--as a bit predictable: in the key of C-sharp minor, it could outline a revolution. We do not live in even a musical world wherein these sorts of bitchy minutiae mean anything to anyone outside of an extremely narrow set of people. And we then turn around and wonder why we are often accused of elitism or snobbery?

The truth is: we live in a more complex world than we are wont to deal with, and in classical music our superheroes have either died (like Stravinsky or Schoenberg), gone into hiding (like Wuorinen or Babbitt, until a few years ago), gone rogue (anyone like Rochberg or Picker or Del Tredici who made a famous volte face as things were starting to heat up) or been rendered more ineffective by the dark march of pop culture (Boulez and his ilk). These people all have something important to teach us--MUSICALLY. Politically, I am not convinced there is a whole lot out there to argue: the expressions "Tempest in a teapot" and "the map is not the territory" were invented for just such occasions. The reality of what classical music endures is much more complex, and that hurts. So in moments of pain, we blame critics (I am not guiltless myself), we blame Britney Spears, we blame the administration, we blame Boulez or Corigliano or Kyle Gann or Alex Ross or Anthony Tommassini or The Met or Bob Dylan or sex or hip-hop or whatever Blue Meanies, Dr. Dooms, Green Goblins or Lex Luthors we can shape out of the sad truth that is our current cultural position. And we want a caped crusader, a volunteer fighting just outside the law (the law being, in our case, is either academia or the very notion of a symphony orchestra, or even the dark pull of history) to come and pull us out of the wreck. But the honest question--one many are afraid to ask, and even more to answer--is why don't they love us anymore? Ned Rorem, outrageous as he is, is one of the few who dares get huffy that Paris Hilton's 21st birthday was more of an event than his 80th. We can condemn him for this, or mock his self-servingness, yet does he not in some weird way speak for us?

So what about polytheism? One of the things I most admire about Alex and Kyle (not to mention Steve and Marc) is their ability to be plural without that plurality being strictly novelty. After all, there is a time for everything, and we all contain enough multitudes that we can accept, without irony or as champions of some heirertical aesthetic "slumming," many different kinds of musics. There is a time for Debussy, there is a time for Eminem, there is a time for Wagner, there is a time for Schoenberg, there is a time for Schubert, there is a time for Menotti, there is a time for Phillip Glass, there is a time for all of this. These are the musical aporias, the boundaries of truth, and while I am a true believer that Beethoven is inherently better music than Elton John, what pop culture has to teach us is that sometimes better is not necessarily better.

As to the critic/composer split, I must confess I've found it frustrating: there's this notion that composers, hewing to this or that stripe or camp or school, are inherently biased towards a certain type of music, while critics, unblemished by the lure of their teacher's wicked ways, can present things as passionate audience members who can string words together. This, to me, does both sides a disservice: after all, composers can also report on music with a learned perspicacity even if that is not their particular thing (and with the camps being totally dead, or at least deeply on the wane, and each composer being his own renegade agent on behalf of himself, these temptations are at best exaggerated; likely do not exist) while critics, promised press tickets, gift bags, buffets, hotel rooms, access and more records than they can store are in fact subject to the same personal failings as all people. The presumption the other direction, that the critics are warped and in the suck of their press contacts while composers are nothing but pure is equally ridiculous. Like anything, there are a zillion shades of grey: as there are composers who are good, there are also critics (not composers) who are same.

I am of the opinion that a critic needs to endure some sort of musical training, to write from the point of view of expertise--and that they should be as expert as a composer has to be to practice his craft. Criticism is, after all, no escape from work. But what I do as a composer--write a zillion notes per year and wonder if anyone really cares--is probably not dissimilar to what Steve or Marc endure to make their weekly sections fly at what I am sure is hardly a princely sum. They suffer like I do for what we collectively love. And if I do not always agree with even the critics I admire, I am always keen to know they've arrived at their opinions on these matters in as complex and difficult a fashion as I have. Read Alex on Wagner if you do not believe me, he's as clear-headed and understanding of this monstrously multitudinous composer as any scholar.

The world would be better if there were more composer-critics, I do agree, or at least if there were not the immediate suspicion that all composers were biased--an opinion put forth mostly by non-composer critics, might I add. I believe that the dialogue is in a little bit of danger because composers so seldom have a voice in these matters beyond their underheard pieces, and that a critic often has the final (and unjustly commercial) word without any conversation ensuing, and therefore without accountability. Hence, now, where us bloggers come in! But mostly, if we were to shuffle off the Spanish-Civil-war era that a musical technique can actually be a political statement--think if a poet fancied himself radical for using form when there was a whole fat lot of poets who had never abandoned it--and get over the Schoenbergian notion that everything done is done to ensure posterity of a particular race of music, be you critic or composer or (hopefully) both, and we might be able to defeat the notion that The Great Tradition is on its final page.

I Love Me the Fakers

Once, I wrote an article about one Tristan Foison, a composer who was a forger: I've always been a fan of fakers, especially art fakers. A new article elucidates the chicanery of one of these geniuses. He's no Elmyr, no Ripley, but this is just plain fascinating reading.

Ah Grad School, How I Miss Ye

Blogger Sophia--the name of whose very blog is an elision in the fashion of a pun ("Philosophia")--offers some excellent conservatory nerd end-of-term fun in the form of some truly geeky wordplay, dorm room hilarity that I miss. After all, I was the one who hung on his dorm door a series of hilarious chunks of score under the monniker "Orchestrational Mistakes of the Great Composers" (can anyone hear the guero in The Rite of Spring? Can any bass player do the pastoral symphony appropriately? How about the C flat Schoenberg wrote for the viola in a string quartet?).

Sophia, we too invented these sorts of things, though the only one I can really remember is the fantastic sacraficial musical I intended called The Rite of Springtime for Hitler, otherwise know as Le Masscre du Printemps. Or "LarGO to hell" or creating a long list of groceries to buy that night, a shopping list--a Chopin Liszt. But unlike the sweetness of Sophia, ours took a turn to the prurient: "Bruckner? I don't even KNOW her" and the equally lame. Oh, and how many sexually deviant derivatives of the words "score" and "piece" and "fingering" did we devise? Sorry Sophia.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Will Always be a Mystery

Did I really recieve the following letter, or was it all a fake:

"Dear Mr. Felsenfeld,

My great-grandson has introduced me to the inter net, and we found an
article that you wrote that discussed my compositions. I am trying to
address each article written about me in turn, and now I have come to yours.

You wrote that I composed music that "tickled my ears," and I assure you
that nothing could be further from the truth. My damn ears stopped working
in 1943, and I've had to rely on the sounds my farts make resonating inside
my body for inspiration ever since.

Yours in music,

Elliott Carter

Now come on, who would really write this?

Old Wine in a New (Hilarious) Bottle

Thanks so much to pal Jonathan Lethem for introducing me to this. For those who've seen it, enjoy again; for those who have not, it's just damn funny.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Wrong on Countless Levels

Also available in navy, but of course not in red.

Final Tragedy Posting

Rather than just take umbrage with all of the reviews, I want to say something a little more general about the wishy-washy critical response to An American Tragedy. There seems to be a common disease among critics of lamenting of a work of art--especially a new opera--that it did not do what it 1) never set out to do and 2) could not have ever done. It was as if Picker's piece was supposed to be a boundary-smashing musical both hewn to and avoiding of the Great Operatic Tradition, and what's worse, from a few shows and only non-committal reviews, we should be all sad that, as yet, the Great American Opera spot is still up for grabs, that because this piece did not change the world it is not worth any more than trifling consideration. Do we lament the piece, or the fact that opera cannot any more change the world.

I don't know, its such a High Fidelity top five approach (we need the opera and nothing besides) and it outlines why many a European thinks we Americans are so off the cultural map: we don't discuss beauty, we discuss effectiveness; for art to be great here, it has to work and not just elude us, baffle us, tickle our sense of wonder. Maybe this sounds naive of me; perhaps this reveals the Candide beneath the surface (and only just), but even the staunchest Austrians or Germans that I have met are amazed (and not in a good way) by the incomprehensible scope and plumber-like apparatus of our collective critical lens. I reccomend a retreat to simpler times: were you or were you not moved by the piece, with all harmonic (read: idiomatic) guilt removed?

Serialism is by no means dead because some of its greatest adherents are still vital, but an au courant political movement it is about as potent and relevant as flappers or Dreyfusards. So why do we continue to speak in these vanished terms--tonal vs. non-tonal, progressive vs. conservative, theatrical vs. intellectual--rather than just judge works not on what they ought to be (or can never be) but on what they actually are?

I'd really like an answer, if anyone's got one.

They, Like Sheep

I must (pun intended) join the chorus of Alex and Marc to encourage anyone who is in need of some holiday cheer and an unintentional riff on Berio's Rendering do click here. Please. I've played it a few times now and will continue to do so, doubled over and weeping from laughter. As they say in the vaudeville: "Wait for it, wait for it..."

More on An American Tragedy

This review, from Robert Levine, who knows more about opera than any musicologist or human being should (he who owns multiple recordings of Rossini's Ermione), speaks volumes.

Short Attention Spans

I am always really put off by the two ends of postmodern "attention span" theory--that young people have none, or that this generation has it in excess. The arguements for the former usually hover in the hackneyed, Cassandra-like "death of classical music" (or "-poetry" or "-experimental fiction" or "-experimental cinema); the arguments for the latter, a favorite of Greg Sandow and an article about graphic novels in the New Yorker (apparently they are more demanding than regular old novels because of the difficult need to toggle back and forth between image and text). But this piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer comes down on the side of this argument I've always suspected to be true: that nothing has really changed, that "things" are neither better nor worse.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Janine Jansen

Allow me to be the last to praise the new (to us) Dutch violinist "on the scene" (read: with an international release on Universal Records) Janine Jansen. Her new recording of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, that well-overflogged warhorse to shame all warhorses, is nothing short of spectacular; it reminds as to why this piece has become so drastically overdone. Brace yourselves: it really is an amazing work, especially as illuminated by these performers, Ms. Jansen mightily presiding. Her choice to scale back the forces to a chamber version makes this recording intimate and very special (you can hear her breathe, which adds rather than detracts); her absolute mastery, depth and variance of tone, and humble energy is what spins the performance into a dream, the dark, rich, strange phastasmagoric tour that the piece--so overplayed as to become white noise save for the most vital reading--was no doubt dreamt to be by its composer. While working on my adolescent biography of Vivaldi, I dreaded writing about this piece, and thought, after I was done, that I would be happy never to have to hear it again, so dreadfully tired was I of this turning of the seasons as scored for violin and baroque ensemble. But as I write these words, I am on my fourth consecutive listen of Ms. Jansen's version, and plan to indulge in more. There's life and illumination left in the work yet.

More than her recording, I was struck by the live performance I saw at SIRUS Satellite Radio, a woefully underattended chance for the New York Press (all one of me there) to become aquainted with Ms. Jansen. The revealing, come-hither, tawny-tinged photos within the CD booklet of course perhaps explain her rocketing sales on iTunes (this record is competitive with Fiona Apple and Green Day, a completely wild phenomenon in classical music), but in person at the SIRUS terrarium she came off, though undeniably attractive, a passionate, dedicated, forceful, sincere, energetic, intelligent and co-operative player: in short, the real thing. I had opportunity to hear her make short work of Beethoven's A minor sonata, Ravel's Tzigane and Bartok's Roumanian Dances, as well as answer a few insipid questions (like "Did you do a scaled down version of the Vivaldi for financial reasons? Or was it because nobody wanted to play with you?"). And what makes me the luckiest member of the classical music community tonight: I was actually there.

And hell, though we could not persuade Martha Stewart to stay, I had occassion to live a real fantasy of mine and shoot a death-glare at Howard Stern, who happened upon the concert. To his credit, overheard in New York today were these words: "She's actually really playing. She's good; she's really nailing it." I suppose he'll now ask her to appear topless on his program, and I imagine there's more than a few record collectors who'd relish the appearance. Let's hope instead she opts to play Brahms instead. Maybe Mr. Stern would like that as well.

Davy Rakowski Strikes Again

This from the irrepressible (and deeply impressionable) Rakowski, he of the "butt sticks." Apparently the Wall Street Journal was right: tonality, in this new incarnation, is returned.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Smoking Kills (The Plangent Mood)

Recently the photograph of the Clement Hurd, illustrator of Goodnight Moon was digitally altered, the cigarette removed from his hand. Now the Times hilariously weighs in on some other changes the book might well need.

Son of An American Tragedy

In a decidedly flip-floppy review ("it works, it doesn't, it works, it doesn't") of Tobais' opera, Anthony Tomassinni writes this very confusing graph:

"An American Tragedy" is an effective piece; it works as an opera, you could say. But an opera is also a musical score, and on that level this score does not grab me like those of many operas that work much less effectively."

One can only blink.

Is effectiveness a bad thing for an opera or a good thing? He seems to damn with faint praise, stating that the piece works as an opera, but not on its own terms--even though its own terms were to be an opera. So the music is separate from the opera (this explains many reviews of Doctor Atomic that said the score was great but the piece doesn't work). I know this is a matter of opinion, but help me out there in blogland: is this not like saying that the text of the novel was great but the text was not so good? Or is AT simply implying that this is not the sort of music he likes (as if that really matters) but if you like this stuff then this piece works?

Honestly, not trying to deride The Times, just looking for a little explanation. I've always believed that a critic ought to confront a new work on it's own terms rather than their own terms, otherwise its just opinion-mongering, and then what does a critic really do?

I am actually more impressed--even if I disagree--with this review on Cafe Aman because it cites chapter and verse and does not get mealy-mouthed about its point of view. I would rather read this sort of writing and disagree than read the "professional" review and wonder what he meant.

Any help?

Los Angeles Consorting

I believe I am finally recovered from my trip to Los Angeles, which was full of family, friends, and a lot of new babies issued by friends and family. But what I really wanted to do was plug some people's work by way of some shameless name dropping: I spent a fair amount of time with three excellent and deservingly respected writers: one Blair Tindall, doubling on oboe, whose controversial Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs and Classical Music is a fantastic cross between provocative and fact-dense, prurient and realistic; Ellen Slezak, whose collection Last Year's Jesus is lovely, funny, sad, bizzarre and humane and whose novel All These Girls is among the more touching "coming of age" stories I've encountered this side of any Ya-Ya sisterhood; and Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, about whose stunning, precise, lilting novel Madeline is Sleeping I begin to lack for superlatives. So on the whole, my company did not lack for accomplishment or talent; I guess you might say the trip was worthwhile.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

An American Tragedy

Allow me to be the last to point out that Tobias Picker's opera An American Tragedy opened at the Met last Friday night, and the completely different responses from one critic and three different bloggers is something to behold. I am not saying anything bad about Mr. Davidson's taste (and truthfully, even when I disagree with his reviews I've usually found them intelligent and nicely written) but this chasm illustrates, to me, another reason why blogging is actually important. Its a rule of numbers: in this case, three for and one against; go see An American Tradgedy.

Overheard on Upper Broadway

Woman (to man): "Most people cannot photosynthesize because they are not plants. I am not most people, so I can."

Blog fans, you cannot make this stuff up!

More on the John Adams concert at Miller Theater tomorrow, but know the amazing Alan Pierson, of Alarm Will Sound, is still as amazing as amazing people get.