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

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Enough Already!

Apparently the Year of the Mozart is off to a rocky start, with soprano Renee Fleming pulling out of a Salzburg Feastival tribute concert in a cloud of mystery. But does the Times have to devote three articles to it? I actually logged on to find a review of last night's searching, thoughtful Sequitur Concert at Merkin Hall and lo! There, again, is the Salzburg-Fleming conundrum re-reported (Muti, apparenly had nothing to do with it). Led me to wonder: did I wake up in Austria? Is this not the New York Times?

Just a thought.

Friday, January 27, 2006

A Big "Wow" to the Hon. Alex Ross

First, I must say I was premature with my b-day wishes to Mozart, and today celebrated his 250th by lamenting my experience, as a young composer on his first soujourn to Europe in 1991 (the 200th anniversary of his death), where all I hoped to see was some Brahms, perhaps even something as wild as Beethoven. But no: Mozart, Mozart, Mozart. It was as if the entire continent was its own Mostly Mozart, sans the "mostly,"

But now, today, I sat here trying to formulate some thoughts on Mozart, I could not help but venture, in my head, into the whole specious "what would Mozart be if he were alive today?" inner fracas. How many people over the years--from Prince to Thomas Ades to some 10 year old who could develop a theme for orchestra to David Helfgott--have been labelled "the next?"

And then, taking a short break, I clicked on Alex Ross' thoughts on the matter, by sheer coincidence. He said it all.

As a kid I used to hate Mozart; as a semi-grownup I adore, respect, fear, and appreciate him; I find his music chillingly humane, utterly erotic and, at points, screamingly funny. But it is his sheer profligacy that I fear, the utter weight of his accomplishment that gives me a nasty shiver. After all, as a 36-year-old composer myself, I labor outside the compass of his years on earth. But then again, as we all have to tell ourselves (because we all have to reckon, sooner or later, with Mozart), that was indeed then and this is sadly now. Alex is right: Mozart's supply of music was shockingly prodigious, but it also met an enlarged demand. So kudos, Mr. Ross, for saying what many of us fear: we can love Mozart, even love him not wisely but too well (unless, of course, our last name happens to be Lebrecht, in which case we can dismiss him as a naughty boy too beholden to his patrons), but if we really do want to respect what it was he truly stood for, we can listen to what goes on amongst our contemporaries. After all, a year of all Mozart is not so strikingly different from the usual years of mostly Mozart (with no disrespect meant to Mostly Mozart). So take Alex's statement (and my subsequent assent) as a hortatory call to exit the museum, blink in the sunlight, and support the new. Imagine if, in his day, poor Mozart was confronted with the fact that his opera houses only wanted to play the works of Frescobaldi, Buxtehude, Rameau and Lassus. So get your ears bent by something written last year--Mozart would have wanted it that way.

Or, if you like, prepare yourself for the Shostakovich centenial which should begin this fall.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Still in Quoting Mood

"Hatred of commercialism is also an absolute essential to any serious American composers nowadays; there is no grace, to reality, to be had from trade today, indeed the nature of American business is false from the beginning both to the heart and the mind. It is a monstrous fake carried out (like a patent medicine show) on the backs of slaves and pandering to a populous stupidity. That anyone survives to do really honest work in music is a blessed miracle, and that he should be professional in the usual sense is unthinkable.

In fact, American music, like so much other American art, is almost completely the product of amateurs. Its finest thinking and finest writing practicioners have for a long time been amateurs. And it is no disgrace to a country that its expression should arise out of a need of the private citizen. Rather it is a good sign that there is life in the old land yet. Confucius once remarked very neatly that you could tell the state of the nation from the condition of its music, and he didn't mean the kind of thing you get on the radio."
--Lou Harrison, "Ruggles, Ives, Varese," 1945

Another Quote

"We must stress and stress again musical quality, looking behind the facade of prestige, of publicity, often such deceptive indications of lasting worth. For it is the achievement of high musical quality that rouses the enthusiasm of each of us, and gives our profession its distinction and power. We must jealously guard it."
--Elliott Carter, "The Composer's Viewpoint," 1946

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

I Suppose I Will Never Understand...

This article in the Times about a newfangled instrument. I get why people have to invent new toys, and very much approve, but why does it have to spiral into a tendentious discussion about "traditionalists" (damned with faint praise) versus "progressives?" The new toy so gallantly addressed here stakes its claim in being able to be used by people with no training. So what do the traditionalists have to do with it? And why inovke the theramin, the instrument that still remains an oddity--albeit a fascinating and worthwhile one--in the classical music world?

It just baffles me: any time anything new comes along, someone's gotta jump out and claim it as the top of the heap method to create high art. Perhaps this question is naive, but why cannot it just BE rather than roll out its new life with some vaunted (and inevitably doomed) aesthetic mission that reads more like an advertisement trying to simultaneously give it both credulity and wings than an actual piece about a newish instrument? I guess we just want progress so bad, and every journalist wishes to be in on the ground floor when it happens.

When I Need To Fuel the Fire...

"Modern music is not modern and is rarely music."

"It represents an attempt to perpetuate a European musical tradition whose technical resources are exhausted, and which no longer has any cultural validity."

"That it continues to be composed, performed, and discussed represents self-deception by an element of society which refuses to believe that this is true."

"The hopelessness of the situation is technically demonstrable, and contemporary composers are aware of it."

"What makes their own situation hopeless is that they cannot break with the tradition without renouncing the special status they enjoy as serious composers." (sic)

"That they have this status is the result of a popular superstition that serious music is by definition superior to popular music."

"There is good music, indifferent music and bad music, and they all exist in all types of composition."

"There is more real creative musical talent in the music of Armstrong and Ellington, in the songs of Gershwin, Rodgers, Kern and Berlin, than in all the serious music composed since 1920."

"New music which cannot excite the enthusiastic participation of the lay listener has no claim to his sympathy and indulgence. Contrary to popular belief, all the music which surpasses in the standard repertoire has met this condition in its own time."

"The evolution of Western Music continues in American popular music, which has found the way back to the basic musical elements of melody and rhythm, exploited in an original manner, congenial to the society of which it is a spontaneous musical expression."

"And it has found its way back to the basic musical nature of the ordinary mortal, from whom music derives, by whom and for whom it is produced, and without whom it cannot and does not exist."
--the argument from The Agony of Modern Music (1955) by the dishon. Henry Pleasants

Oh, go on Henry, do go on...

Tuesday, January 24, 2006


"The contemporary composer is a gate-crasher trying to push his way into a company to which he has not been invited."
--Arthur Honneger, Je suis compositeur

Monday, January 23, 2006

Happy 250th

"Heaven, Hell, and a thousand sacristies, Croatians damnations, devils, and witchies, druids, cross-Battalions with no ends, by all the elements, with air, water, earth, and fire, Europe, asia, affrica, and America, jesuits, Augustins, Benedictins, Capuchins, Minorites, Franciscans, Dominicans, Carthusians, and dignified Holy-Crucians, Canons regular and irregular, and all hairy brutes and snitches, higgledy-piggedly castrates and bitches, asses, buffaloes, oxen, fools, nitwits, and fops!"

--Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Happy Birthday, you hysterical, elusive genius.

Friday, January 20, 2006


It was incredible, the final night of the New York Philharmonic's performances of John Corigliano's wild, masterful thrill-ride of a Violin Concerto with Josh Bell, as part of the HEAR & NOW series. Though the pun that is the series' title is punishingly bad, the idea is an excellent one--composer Steven Stuckey, of a recent Pulitzer Prize, interviews composers of former Pulitzer Prizes--and this concert, its maiden voyage, a success. In it, John spoke of his involvement with film music, beginnng with the (literally) trippy Ken Russell drug carnival Altered States. The orchestra, under the tenuous baton of Jonathan Nott, played one of the Three Hallucinations, an atavistic scene in the picture and an angry circus of a piece (this meant, from me, as the highest praise). Then there were snatches of The Red Violin, film and score (though the latter oddly piped in from the recording) and as the piece de resistance, a full, hot-blooded reading of the concerto JC derived from the movie's themes. From the solid journey of the first movement, through the hush and rush of the second and third and on to the barn-burner of a finale, this is a piece both rooted in tradition and yet thoroughly of today. It never aims to be ech, but rather aims to do what JC does best: use the wildest sounds qua sounds (as opposed to politics), incorporate them into what might sneer as a conservative cast--the tradition--and spit out a vibrant piece that really dances on the edge. In short, he's a true progressive, and this piece the sine qua non of that progress. Josh Bell, shuffling off the teen hearthrob image as best he could (at least until the autograph signing post-concert), is truly a remarkable player of the old school who is also aware of the sound people like today. Composer and performer, therefore, are an excellent match. Stuckey is an odd choice to carry off the host's role--he hemed and hawed in the tradition of Deems Taylor--but was not an unaffable presence. And if that's the worst to say about this enterprise, and in my opinion it is, then really, as problems go, these are the problems to have.

Alas, as I write this (which is so often the case) you will only have to imagine you'd been there, because it was indeed the final night. Next time, I suppose

John was graceful and informative in the post-event Q&A, and had some excellent news to report:

The Ghosts of Versailles will be once again played at the Met.

Allow me to repeat that...


He was not able to offer a who or when, but keep your eyes peeled. This is one of the great operas, a piece that's languished for some unknown reason. Perhaps there will be a resurgence? A recording? A telecast? Stay tuned!


And I would like to mourn for a moment the demise of the Lennox HIll Bookstore on Lexington Avenue. I sometimes teach nearby, and have spent many happy hours browsing (and more often than not purchasing) from what was their spectacularly rangy collection. I guess not enough people aside from myself bought the Pushkin Press editions of Stephen Zweig, and so they go, they go, no doubt to be replaced by a much underneeded swanky boutique store, fashions for puppies or custom doilies I suppose. So I bid this store a fond farewell, as I am sure do thousands of readers on Manhattan's Upper East Side.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

How Sondheim Found His Sound

I've done something I almost never do: I stopped reading a book halfway through because I got weary of and frustrated with it. I generally tend keep the faith, believing strongly that the final chapters will offer thrilling conclusions and trenchant insights even if the first chapters do not. But in this case, I decided to abandon the work, a book called How Sondheim Found His Sound by one Steve Swayne.

From the beginning, this seemed like I book I was destined to love: you have to walk many miles to find a greater admirer of Sondehim than myself (the man who so generously gave me many hours of his time when I was a 20-year-old fledgeling composer, and who dillegenly corresponded with me, fielding what seemed to me then intelligent questions; I can only grimace now. I am certain he's forgotten, but I never will) and this book claimed to get to the root of his very particular, very catholic (note small "c") sound. Even the cover photograph--showing a moony-eyed, wistful looking man of no-doubt 30 years old with requisite mid-1960s cigarette (as opposed to the bearded elder statesman of today)--held promise. Then I began to read...

I do laud the nobility of the exercise: trying to determine the set of influences, circumstances, and collusion of taken-in experiences that led a particular composer to be the artist he is. Borgesian as the undertaking might first appear, it is actually a promising conceit--one destined to fail, of course, because it cannot be done, but points are due for the brio of Swaynes into-the-breach expeditionary spirit.

Examination of multiple strains was promised, commencing with (most excitingly, at least from my perspective) a look at how SS derived much of what he did from classical music, in a chapter called "Sondheim the Classicist." Alas, a more apt title for this first installment might have been "Sondheim the Collector," because this whole section was devoted to charting the master's influence based on his catalogued collection of albums. One can only blink. I know for a fact that Sondheim is (or was) a collector of old classical LP recordings, but, as anyone who collects knows, to have is not to love, or even to listen, so to say that Sondheim was twice as influenced by Milhaud as by Faure because his collection boasts 15 records by the prior and only 8 by the latter is a downright puzzling assertion. Yet there it is in print for all to see. These figures come not from the text by way of a chart. It will probably nowhere near interest you to know that Sondheim also owns 14 by Bach, a mere 11 by Mozart, 13 by Britten, 12 by Tchaikovsky, 15 by Brahms, 4 by Francaix (though one has gone missing, apparently), 4 recordings of Kennan's Night Soliloquy, 6 by Falla, 4 by Gershwin, and 17 by Stravinsky. Do your own calculations: Stravinsky was 4.2 times as influential on Sondheim as Gershwin (!) But the 18 recordings of Rachmaninoff versus the 13 by Ravel means that the Russian was 1.38 times as influential as the Frenchman. Yes, of course, Swayne does examine how this bears out in the music, but only just: he speaks of Sondheim under the sway of Strauss, but he is unsure as to which Strauss. For the most part, the cornerstone of his argument rests in Sondheim’s listening. Nowhere does he chart, for example, how many scores SS owns. What of the ticket stubs for concerts, or pieces he himself played at the piano? This is one wooly argument, and as it’s the first chapter in the book, it does not bode well. And assertions like “…one could linger long over Sondheim’s record collection, noting the names of composers and pieces that are virtually unknown to even the most assiduous music historian,” made with an eye to ensuring both the Great Man’s infallibility and his legitimacy (not to mention the depth of his knowledge, lest you think otherwise), smack of loving not wisely but too well. Sondheim’s brilliance is, at this point, indisputable, and much is made of his classical connection by those who really want Sondheim to be the consummate high/low culture crossover phenom. But why simply make these points based on a (relatively small) catalogue of LPs rather than, say, try to find it in the music itself. Listening is not exactly influence; traditions are not gleaned but absorbed through study, so charting what Sondheim heard is not as important as charting what he studied, what he loved, what he sought to emulate. There’s plenty of Gershwin, Ravel, Falla and Rachmaninoff in his magisterial work for a whole book (someone please write it with lots of side-by-side-by-side musical examples), not just a single, lamentably shallow chapter.

Other chapters are a little more adeptly done: “Sondheim the Tunesmith” examines SS’s more palpable influence of popular songs, and in this case comes with a helpful chart of what was running on Broadway when, allowing you to take in telling simultaneities in a single glance. It’s is amazing to see that The Rape of Lucretia made its first appearance in the world in the same year as Love Life, Kiss Me Kate and Look, Ma, I’m Dancin’. This is invaluable stuff.

In a chapter entitled “Pulling it Apart,” things take a dark turn (and caused yr. blogger to put down the book). This is a bona fide investigation into the music itself, and I stayed with it even though the song under tight examination was none other than Sondheim’s single greatest achievement “What Can You Lose?” from Dick Tracy. (Read for sarcasm please, because it is certainly there). Why not use, say, “Send in the Clowns” or “The Miller’s Son” or even “Franklin Shepard Inc.” to demonstrate that Sondheim writes in tight little motivic chunks? Yes, this song is textbook, but is also less interesting—and less motivically rife—than so many of his other more memorable tunes.

It was, however, these paragraphs about Bernstein and Sondheim that completely put me off:

Facile comparisons of the two composers overlook a profound difference between them. While Sondheim is a self-confessed harmony man, Bernstein is a rhythm man, and especially in his Broadway shows where dance is so important a component. In contrast, with the exception of Follies, no Sondheim show gives a prominent place to dance, comparatively few are the Sondheim rhythms that rivet themselves to the memory as do Bernstein’s, and rare are the moments where meters change as mercurially in Sondheim’s music as they do in Bernstein’s. Tracing both composers back to Gershwin—as well as to Hindemith and Copland—more logically explains whatever similarities exist in their music than tracing Sondheim back to Bernstein. Such a lineage also does justice to Bernstein’s obvious interpolations of jazz, which find few expressions in Sondheim’s songs. Bernstein and Sondheim took similar things from their compositional precursors, but their individual styles diverged significantly.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the “big finish.” Many of the songs in Bernstein’s musicals, both fast and slow ones, show a predilection for the theatrical flourish, as they build in rhythmic intensity and harmonic complexity to an apotheosis of sheer sound. Bernstein’s choices of musical materials may have made this approach an easier task for him than it was for Sondheim, though knowledge of the two men’s temperaments helps to explain the constant musical exuberance of Bernstein and the relative reticence of Sondheim. Certainly Sondheim knew how to build to a musical climax and has done so again and again. Yet, it is also as if his chastisement by Arlen [where young SS was chided for being too theatrical] stuck deeply. Sondheim’s musical finishes are more succinct and less overwhelming than the almost Mahlerian endings that were Bernstein’s wont. And those “big finishes” are affected by the choices of rhythms; while Sondheim, like Bernstein (and Copland before them), used Latin rhythms, Sondheim tended not to use the more exotic and hypnotic ones that Bernstein favored, instead preferring the tamer ones like the Rumba and bossa nova…

This baffles on so many levels; what, in fact, is it trying to say? Being a semi-academic myself, I will not quibble with the prose (writing about music is about as hard a thing as one can do, so even though I have exacting standards for myself I tend to be forgiving of others' clunkiness) but it is the point with which I take umbrage. Labelling Bernstein a “rhythm man” and Sondheim a “harmony man” is dangerously reductive of both, while explaining that they both have roots (“tracing back” is a funny way to put it when all these composers were writing at the same time, but again that’s picayune of me to mention) in Hindemith and Copland (they “…took similar things”) is a labrythine point which leads nowhere. Saying that Bernstein’s interpolations of jazz were only done justice to in light of his influences is mildly preposterous, as is claiming that Bernstein’s “…choice of materials” made it easier for Bernstein to burn the barn in a finale when Swayne claims in the previous paragraph that their materials were exactly the same.

(The earlier point does bear out, however: SS has catalogued 10 records by Copland and a whopping 17 by Hindemith. putting the latter on equal par with Stravinsky and just behind Chopin and Rachmanninoff viz. the amount of records.)

The passage that got me the most down, however, was not the “apotheosis of sheer sound” (even though that doesn’t work: a “big finish” is totally different than an apotheosis, and “sheer sound” is totally redundant as what is music aside from sound?) but the invocation of the respective temperaments, out of left field, rather than, say, the dramatic situations or the scope of the pieces to explain why Bernstein, more than Sondheim, was inclined to the “big finish.” What about the countless counterexamples—“A Little Priest”, “Epiphany”, “The Ladies Who Lunch”, “Franklin Shepard Inc.”, “There Won’t Be Trumpets”, “Being Alive”, “Another Hundred People”, “Multitudes of Amys”, “The Last Midnight”, “Art Isn’t Easy”, “Finishing the Hat”, “What Would We Do Without You?”, “Comedy Tonight”, “Free”, “I’m Still Here”—showstoppers that would do Bernstein proud to have written, all of which build to the (apparently not so) elusive “big finish.” The idea that Sondheim is all quiet reticent introspection while Bernstein is all flamboyant, over-the-top showman, too often invoked by way of “compare and contrast,” just doesn’t wash in light of the evidence.

Now it may seem like I am doing something I usually resent in a review: isolating a troubled paragraph or clunky sentence and breaking it apart, laying bare its flaws. I certainly hated it when it was done to me in a slightly mean-spirited way on amazon.com. But I am afraid that this sort of thinking—this shuck toward a conclusion (which might be that Sondheim’s sound comes from a lot of sources—but what composers music doesn’t?)—is rife throughout the book, or at least the 150 or so pages I read. On the one hand, this section (and the whole book for that matter) makes Sondheim seem lacking in that he cannot use the materials of Copland or Gershwin (or jazz for that matter, also not exactly true; think of all those pan-diatonic harmonies, that pastiche of early American song in Follies), while on the other it makes him out to be too much the innovator, placing him on too high a pedestal, as if he invented things like inner melodies—“contrapuntal harmonies” they are called here—or simple voice leading, an assertion SS himself would no doubt find laughable.

I wanted this book to be good, I really did. These words pain me to write because an investigation into this extremely worthy composer’s particular sound is long overdue. Sadly, it still is.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Match Point

I promised myself I would not write on matters cinematic on this blog (mostly because film reviews are not difficult to find on the internet, as the entire genre functions, both high and low, as a sort of cultural Esperanto) but I cannot resist a few quibbles with Woody Allen's latest, Match Point. It's getting raves, and yet when I saw it I was stunned for a number of reasons. To say nothing of the woodenness of the characters--(warning: spoiler to follow) the ambition of the lead character is tough to follow, a la An American Tragedy, whose plot it apes practically turn for turn save a surprise twist at the end--it is shot through with opera, the most baseless, stereotypical, cheap approach to it I've heard in years. One character gives another a CD of a particular tenor (Caruso, one suspects; why stray from the obvious) explaining that you can hear the "great tragedy" in his voice. Cue the timpani--except, when they go to Covent Garden to actually see an opera, there is no orchestra, only a piano. And not like they are seeing some experimental piece, some chamber opera, some reading or other...it's La Traviata of all things! So the question I have: was this conceit to create a more intimate, lieder-like atmosphere? Or was it strictly budgetary?

Now you have to walk many miles to find a bigger fan of Woody Allen than myself. I think he's made twenty or so of the greatest movies ever: Annie Hall, Manhattan, Crimes and MIsdemeanors, Sweet and Low Down, Small Time Crooks, Love and Death, Stardust Memories, Hannah and her Sisters, September, Another Woman, Everyone Says I Love You, Manhattan Muder Mystery, Banannas, Take the Money and Run, and this movie still retains many of his more amazing aspects: the pacing, the beauty of the shots, and his capacity to make an already-beautiful woman to look about as smashing as Marylin Monroe. Gone are the jokes, the insight into complicated psyches, the mordant, baleful wit, and the true intellect. Yes, we see our lead character not only reading Dostoyevsky, but also consulting a secondary text--The Cambridge Companion to Dostoyevsky--to augment his understanding, the act one gun which, in the third act, worries itself into a morally freighted murder, An American Tragedy, or Rope in reverse. But that's blunt, and it is opera--a guiding force in this movie, expertly used to make the bumbling murder scene into a true farce with drastic consequences--that he gives short shrift. I feel strange saying it, but Batman Begins took its opera scene more seriously than this. Love of opera is no excuse for wooden (and even sexist--the woman is all sexpot or "why don't you call me," without nuance or actuality) characterizations. This is to say nothing of his inability to properly characterize the upper classes: he loves them not wisely but too well.

And again i ask: why the piano? It was like watching opera scenes from college.

This all pains me to say, because I genuinely want Woody to have another renaissance and come back and remind us what a genius he is. He's certainly done it before (does anyone remember Alice, the bomb which immediately preceded Crimes and Misdemeanors?) and by so many people's accounts this film was his smashing return. I wish I did not disagree so strongly.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

The Struggle Continues

So I go to listen to Kyle Gann's beautiful, lilting CD Long Night, new music genius Sarah Cahill presiding on not one but three pianos. My iTunes sought to match the Gracenote info, sputtered and eventually spit out its hazarded guess: the title "Animazement," listing the artist as Disney! I wonder, has Kyle Gann sold out, writing for DISNEY (and not even knowing it)?? What goes on inside the mind of a database? But then again, I am the one listening to a piece called Long Night at 3am, so who am I to judge?

I've said it before and I'll say it again: one can only blink.

So hence the struggle continuing...

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

State Baskets Weaved and Quilters Laureate

The governor of Minnesota vetoed the idea of a poet laureate, largely because it would act as a gateway arts position, generating state sacntioned (and no doubt sanctimounious) freakiness like a state mime or a state interpretive dancer. He made no mention of a state kite artist, sound artist or artisinal fashioner of whalebone jewlery. Read all about it here.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006


"I tried to be as honest as I could be, I tried to write the truth, every word came straight from my heart. I have never read it from beginning to end. I can only read small sections of it. It hurts me to even look at it. It is exactly what I wanted it to be, the pain is real, I hope you feel it. I felt it, and I tried to share it, I hope you feel it." -- James Frey

"The vast majority of Iraqis prefer freedom with intermittent power to life in the permanent darkness of tyranny and terror." --President-designate George Bush

Monday, January 09, 2006

Sibelius' Eyebrows

More here on Mozart's skull (apparently it remains a mystery; Mozart, we never knew ye). In the wake of this and the recent theories put forth about Beethoven's Hair (a harrowing [pun intentional] journey of the master's follice from his death, through Nazi-occupied Europe and to the Ira F. Brilliant Center in San Jose), I am proud to announce the publication of my new book, to be called: Bach's Femur, Stravinsky's Hernia, Liszt's Nasal Cavity and Wagner's Pituitary Glad: I've Got Them All. A memoir, a bildungsroman (perhaps with the truth stretched slightly for dramatic arc) of a boy coming to terms with his chunks of famous composers. Look for it in bookstores soon.

Million Little Pieces Shattered

The book by James Frey A Million Little Pieces, which quite literally everyone is reading on the subways has Oprah quelling and she in turn has Frey's book selling--alas, topping the non-fiction charts. Apparently, according to this report on The Smoking Gun the work owes slightly more to fiction than to reality. Maybe this will be big--like Dutch big--but probably not. After all, squalid stories of depravity, true or not, do sell. It's remarkable what Frey did to make his story dance tragic, including reporting being jailed for months when it was probably not even hours, being tracked by the FBI as part of some kind of South-American drug ring (he was selling a little pot), and, most ghoulishly, forcing his own drama onto quite a real car crash in which two high school girls--friends of his, according to the author; nothing of the sort, according to their parents--were killed. The final line, where his new book, to be a novel, is being written to "...prove he can write fiction" is laugh-out-loud funny. This via Alex.

Addition: It seems the Times has run with this story as well. I love frauds, they make the world go 'round!

Additional Addition: It seems that Mr. Frey is not our only fake. Today the Times had stories not only about him, but about the mysterious JT Leroy (who apparently is not a gender-confused man but rather a middle-aged woman) and the Korean who faked his cloning data. A strange day for literary and scientific truth in this, the US of A. But then again, when our president and congress lie to use daily, and those lies get people thoughtlessly murdered, why on earth should Mr. Frey not have his way with the truth in order to sell a few books? Yes, there are people who will feel duped or betrayed because they bought a book under false pretenses--but that seems more harmless than, say, buying a war under false preteses. We live in a nation of howlers, a place where the most sacred prize is an Academy Award--an award rooted in effective artifice.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Thank God it is Now the 21st--

"Twentieth-century music is like pedophilia. No matter how persuasively and persistently its champions urge their cause, it will never be accepted by the public at large, who will continue to regard it with incomprehension, outrage and repugnance." --Kingsley Amis (1922-1995)

(Or you could amuse yourself reading about performance artist vandalism here. It does make sense that as things in the world escalate in violence, so too does the violence in the world of performance art escalate.)

Friday, January 06, 2006

OK, I got suckered...

Reading an article about the Hon John Stewart's new freelance position as the host of this year's Academy Awards, and I got locked into the tempest in a teapot that is the readers' responses. Just when I think the country's stupidity is overrated, I find plenty of examples of how completely uninformed, uncurious and beastly many of my own can be--and these are just the people who bother to write in.

Back to Wozzeck for me, it's much safer.

More on Wozzeck

The Met's production of Berg's second-best opera is daringly elongated, implacable and bleak (as is appropriate) and so musically flawless that the mind boggles, but this sort of perfection reveals, to me, a certain truth about the work: it is not so much an opera as a gorgeous symphony. Go to see it for the plot--even the murder of Marie or the chilling final moments, both of which are shockers--and you might find yourself wanting dramatically. But if you view the events less as dramatic turns and more as symphonic cues, the work, for my money, is the most thrilling piece of music drama ever composed (with the possible exception of Lulu). Case and point: the long held notes that follow Marie's murder are spectacular musical moments--sharp, violent, tense unisons in a chromatic sea--but are such because of their musical impact, with the murder simply being their cue. In short, Wozzeck does not lack for drama, but it is not dramatic after the fashion of Traviata or even Parsifal or Pelleas. Rather, it is dramatic in the tradition of Symphonie Fantastique or Also Sprach Zarathustra. The music drives the plot, rather than the other way around.

This is, of course, by no means a criticism, merely something new I learned this go-round. I am certain that the next time I am lucky enough to see it, in whatever production, I will worry out a totally new take on this work that contains multitudes.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Happy Birthday to ME (and Umberto, and Diane)

Yes, it is, in fact, my birthday. January 5th--same day as Umberto Eco and Diane Keaton. Now I feel as if the holidays are truly over. Spent the day eating well and seeing the Egon Schiele exhibit and the Nieue Gallery (did I spell it right? I am too tired to check.)

More on Wozzeck tomorrow when I can form a sentance.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Reading, Listening

Happy New Year to all, and now I suppose it is back to work--to life, to moneymaking, to composing, and to blogging--for the lot of us.

Through the holidays I have been immersed in William Vollmann's epically serious novel Europe Central, whose high moral tone and unimpeachably deep research not only earned him a National Book Award (long overdue), but also ratcheted up my already towering enthusiasm for his work. He's a gloriously beuatiful monster, a force and fluke of nature, and for those of you who've not read him, I advise you to do it. Either start smaller--The Atlas or The Rainbow Stories--or plunge directly into his brilliant six-volume essay on violence Rising Up and Rising Down, which, though not for the faint of heart, will be remembered as one of the most important books of the late 20th Century. Vollmann is our century's Melville, Balzac, Zola and Tolstoy rolled into a single, courageous one.

I've also read Harold Bloom's Jesus and Yaweh: The Names Divine and Paul Auster's newest offering The Brooklyn Follies. The former is essential, prototypical Bloom, a non-sectarian exploration of both Jesus and God not as spiritual icons but as literary figures, brilliantly assembled (though hardly easy to read--though in his case, ease of reading is not always a plus); the latter is pretty typical Auster--neat twists, wild, difficult-to-fathom coincidences, poetic pangyrics to the strange underlayers of Brooklyn--though closing with what comes off (to me, anyway) as the most blatant and slightly ghoulish misuse of 9-11 I've come accross. It's only in the final 'graph, though, so read on, especially if you are a fan.

One thing I am particularly enthusiastic about this week is that tonight I will see the Met's dank, tall, ugly-but-large DeChirico-ish production of Wozzeck for the second time (of three). I adore this opera, and find this production just gloomy enough to be haunting, and Levine has such a handle on Berg's music that he is able to bring out the vast beauties contained in a score that many find simply ugly, but which in fact runs the gamut from chilling to ugly to lush and verdant to spare to heartbreaking, sometimes within the confines of a single passage. More on this later, but when I saw it on the 31st I was knocked pretty much sideways, as I was in 2001, when I went to every performance. One of the most thrilling moments I've ever had in the theatre is the way Levine forces his orchestral hand on the gripping, terrifying long tone that happens in the interlude after Wozzeck murders Marie. It sends a chill even to think on it...

(As I type, I am listening to Karl Bohm's 1971 live performance on Opera d' Oro, and loving that too--how could you not adore this lurid, deviant opera??)

I also must give credit to Anne Sophie Mutter for her recording of the entirety of Mozart's violin concertos on DG. I had the fantastic opportunity to see her do these pieces live in Lucerne a few years ago (including being joined by Yuri Bashmet on the multitude-containing Sinfonia Concertante, also featured on the record) and was completely enamored of Ms. Mutter and her approach. There's a chamber-music-like quality to her approach, which is (I grant you) cold enough to lay bare the music clearly, but warm in a completely different, non-Slavic sort of way--similar to the quiet intensity with which I've heard her play the Four Seasons. If you like your Mozart schmaltzy, this is not for you; if, on the other hand, you prefer a more subdued, less cantankerous performance, run don't walk: this is a recording for the ages.

Now, to Wozzeck, but first a happy, resolute, productive new year to all out there.