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

Monday, June 25, 2007

That Thing We Talk About When We Sing About...

Thanks to friend James in Seattle for sending this article about the direct relation between speech and music, which I suppose might be used for some as an argument for equal temperament (and will no doubt result in a flurry of angry emails from microtonalists). Though as usual the musical experiments were probably conducted only with scientists and not consulting musicians, which leads to a number of strange entries in the article, particularly the bit about how no music uses all twelve tones except "modern experimental pieces." Now come on, Duke, walk over to the considerable music department accross campus and vet that one: Mozart uses all twelve tones in the way of chromatic passing tones, modulations to close keys, etc. What they no doubt meant to say was that music is not "chromatic" usually--and here, to be clear, I am referring only to quote-unquote tonal music--but is more rooted in the seven notes of a diatonic scale, which is true perhaps until the late 19th century, thereby making, say, Les Preludes both modern (hardly) and experimental (not today).

Not to split hairs, because this study is pretty interesting and worthy of some attention, aiming to answer the question Schoenberg lays out in his masterful Theory of Harmony, namely: is there a natural, atavistic explanation for the way tones move against one another? But please, let's let the musicians at least clean up your musical locution.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Felsenmusick at 200

So this post here is my 200th--I know as blogs go, not much, but for me quite the accomplishment. And though I've hardly been able to keep to my personal edict not to do liberal politics or film criticsm, I've had an absolute blast. I do want to thank those who kept with me during the fallow periods (and there was one, who shall go unnamed, whose reccomended mercy killing kicked me into high bloggear yet again; I vow not to slow) and for many thoughtful comments, even those with which I disagreed.

See you at 300!

Friday, June 15, 2007

Yes I Said Yes

Happy Bloomsday! Go read a page from Joyce and smile (or tear out your hair, or just have a drink). Or before, you could check out my friend Andrew Conn's fascinating article on the subject. Hope to see some of you at Symphony Space for the annual Marathon--I know I'll be there from Stately, Plump to Yes and all the wild wisdom in between.

Again, and Again

I honestly believed that the whole "classical vs. jazz" as high vs. low art was a departed debate, both facing the same troubles, both populated with those who want to push forward contra those who want to stay put. But then, of course, the Times--or Bernard Holland in specific--publishes this, apropos a new Gershwin record:

"It was the misguided ambition of jazz geniuses like Duke Ellington to write so-called classical music, as if the concert hall were some pinnacle toward which lower musical orders yearned to climb. We have learned better, I hope. Ellington’s jazz repertory, divorced from his uneasy stabs at symphonic forms, occupies the high ground these days, with the vast body of American classical music stretched out below it."

I just don't get it. When Ellington wanted to write classical music (the Queens Suite, say) he only wrote the so-called stuff, but when he stuck to his (to him) less ambitious work he was in fact unimpeachable? Or now we dismiss the entire canon of classical music for one tune, "Take the A train" being far and away above, say, Copland's entire output or the whole minimalist movement or concert works by Bernstein, Corigliano, Kernis, Carter, Harris, Schuman, etc. We have learned better (he hopes)? We used to think Ellington low and now we, if we are lucky enough to be so enlightened, realize that his (to him) less lofty impulses were what put him above Samuel Barber?

Perhaps I sound the tempest in the teapot, but this to me is like rallying the troops for a Yankee/Dixie split. Seems like an old battle being fought. I'd like to think that we'd actually leanred better.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Librettists Recieve Their Due

In an odd case of litero-musical "too-little-too-late," it seems that Hoffmanstaal, the man-behind-the-man of Richard Strauss, is set to finally recieve some fiscal compensation. Odd to happen some hundred or so years after the fact, but no doubt the inheritors of the poet's estate will be thrilled beyond description. Now if only the Shakespeare estate could pursue some cash for Falstaff, or the Ovid estate begin to soak any number of companies.

I joke, but only out of surprise that this was not taken care of long, long ago.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Another Sad Passing

Thanks to Scott McLemee for his excellent account of the career of Richard Rorty , one of our finest philosophical fellows, recently departed from the earth. As I've had to type too often: the world is lighter today because of it.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Dazzling Ukulele Playing (?!)

Thanks to Amanda for this link to a truly brilliant reading of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." Who on earth knew this instrument could do this?

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Classical Restaffing

It's been a fascinating couple of weeks for the old guard of music criticism. The newest addition to the list of recently, unceremoniously fired is Peter G. Davis, who held the post at New York magazine for decades. Of course much will be made in a see-I-told-you-so way about this being the indication of the death of classical music. After all, like many respectible print outlets, New York, in seeking to attract a younger crowd, is slimming down their coverage, and apparently firing their lead critic, perhaps due to his age, perhaps due to his opinions, perhaps because there's simply not room for him.

Now I do feel terribly for the wonderful minds that have been dismissed, and when the stories of the suddenness and vehemence of their ousting--this being the culture of The Apprentice where someone losing their livlihood is a laugh line--I think we, as people involved in this field (or those who love from the outside) need to not become Cassandras and use this as yet another measuring stick, another brick in the wall, another nail in the coffin. Again, if we say that because New York magazine is diminishing their coverage of what we do then that must mean what we do is dying on the vine, why not take a different tact. Maybe it's not Classical Music that's dying, maybe it's New York magazine. After all, a magazine with a guaranteed and dedicated readership makes taste, and never has to court a younger audience because they don't really need it. Everyone's rushing to do what suits the young people smacks not of a dumbing down but rather of a desperation: they simply need the money. It's unfortunate, destructive, and indicative of certain problems to be sure--the decline in literacy, for one--but I do believe that when classical music goes on the dumpster in any of these situations it is hardly a comment on the music but rather recieved wisdom translated through the boardroom, shareholders being considerd above readers and thinkers.

Maybe the same could be said of, say, Tower Records, whose closing after years of struggle with bankruptcy was seen as yet another sign of The Death. But maybe that was more a sign of Tower's inability, of bad management or poor decisions. I do not know the facts, and frankly don't feel compelled to learn them as music is my love and not records (being only a means, not an end). But why is is when something happens that stirs the pot, even a little, or an institution (be they brick and mortar or human) takes a hit, we always rush to the assumption that it is music, and not the industry around it, that is dying? The same might also be said of the major orchestras and opera companies, who seem to tell us what their audiences want rather than listening to them, too afraid and running at too tight a budget to rock the boat. After all, when The Ghosts of Versailles opened at the Met, there was not a seat to be found for months. So why is it not a staple? Surely not a comment on the piece, or on the audience who loved it; rather, a comment on the corporate culture, or the culture of the parent corporation.

I am here to tell you, in no uncertain terms, that classical music is by no means dying. Not even a little. People aren't dumber, music isn't any less interesting, but businesses and marketing schemes are working from an immediate fear rather than an overarching desire to promote what is most interesting.

Of course Peter G. Davis will be missed, and I am certain the way in which he heard the news was ghastly, but I'd suspect that is a fact of the culture of magazines rather than a comment on his knowledge, capacity, or usefulness.

Felsenmusick PSA: Stephanie Mortimore in Carnegie Hall

Sunday, June 10, at 8.30PM my close friend Stephanie Mortimore will make her Carnegie Hall Debut, and she'll be taking me with her. Along with works by old codgers like Schuloff, Prokofiev and Couperin, she'll also play, in Weill Hall, the world premiere of a piece I wrote just for her, a single movement work for piccolo and piano entitled All Work and No Play. I've heard her do it, and she's damn good, so I heavily endorse this--that, and the late start time on a Sunday night seems very, I don't know, Madrid. Hope to see you all there.

Information and tickets can be obtained here.

The Times Does it Yet Again

I've been simmering a long while about David Brooks' deeply stupid gloss and misreading of Al Gore's book, but wanted to wait until I'd read the book myself before advancing an opinion. Brooks' assessment, that "...whatever the effects of our homogenizing mass culture, it is still possible for exceedingly strange individuals to rise to the top" is just plain yellow, Limbaugh-style crapcasting done with an air of restraint (sans prescription meds, one presumes) and put forth as a review. Now we all know about Mr. Brooks' irrational and atavistic love of this war (which, incidentally, he'll never have to participate, so his enthusiasm becomes a sort of political Fantasy Football) and his exceptional right-wing thinking (hardly a surprise in this paper), but I wonder did he read the book at all or did he simply form his opinions from what he imagined the book would say?

He does that one thing which I hate in a reviewer: he opens not with any discussion of the books substance but rather of its style. Gore's sentences and not his arguments are run out for ridicule, and though the sentence he cites is perfectly understandable and clear (well, maybe not if you are someone who finds multiple clauses a little complicated: if you are such, you can always wait for the graphic novel), but more to the point it is not his clarity as a writer but his clarity as a thinker which will attract all to this book. And yes, while Gore does love his machines (called by Brooks a "radical technological determinist," a moniker I might think better suited to someone who goes to war in an attempt to root out cutting-edge destructive weapons that were never even actually suspected to be there, but I will let it rest) he makes his point over and over that it is televisions one-sidedness that he finds to be the greatest threat to a well-connected citizenry, and offers solutions involving the internet rater than simply cursing the offending machines. In fact, throughout the book, Gore--painted by right wing pundits like Brooks as not exactly a "people person," which was often held in relief to the donwhome affability of our current despot (who, incidentally, never meets the commoners, only dignitaries or stars, so all that flap about desiring to have a beer with Bush is actually irrelevant--he has a lot of people fooled)--is invested mostly in people interacting, creating communities be they right or left. He speaks of moveon.org and rightmarch.org as two shining examples about how technology can inform people.

Another misreading: "Has Al Gore actually ever looked at the internet? He spends much of this book praising cold, dispassionate logic, but is that what he really finds on most political blogs or in his email folder?" This rhetorical question of course goes unanswered, and rightly so because frankly this is one of the most despicable things I've ever seen in a book review: hang the man out to dry with a posed question. "Gore's imperviousness to reality" he continues "is not the most striking feature of the book. It's the chilliness and sterility of his worldview. Gore is laying out a comprehensive theory of social development, but it allows almost no role for family, friendship, neighborhood or just face-to-face contact." This is, presumably, contra the oakiness of our current administration, who purports to help people and then disgraces themselves, sans mea culpa, in the face of Katrina; who consistently lie to us about our war, our tax cuts, funneling money to corporations which, when last I look, are in fact the enemies of "family, friendship, neighborhood or just face-to-face contact" as they elevate the wealthy, strip the poor, and wholly eliminate the middle class. If that's not a dispassionate approach, handily the iciest administration in American history, I shudder to think of what is. And this White-House received bit of counterpress is not even accurate: Gore, quite the contrary, calls for a certain coming together of people, he wants citizens to again have a say. And if they cannot afford to buy television slots (or even if they can: apparently one Super Bowl disallowed a MoveOn.Org sponsored spot that was critical of the White House, but allowed one in praise) and people no longer read newspapers, the youthful technology of the internet is a fantastic solution.

Most scurrilous about this review, however, is that Brooks commits a sin of omission that ought to get him fired: he leaves out the main point of the book, which is a long overdue scathing account of how Bush and his attendant people have utterly and completely failed. Finally a (possible) candidate who has the nerve to say what most of the country is feeling--that this has in fact been the most damaging and unscrupulous administration in American history--and the Times winnows its focus to only one small aspect of the book, leaving out its main point entirely. Is it pompous, in a democracy, to criticize these temporary offices set up to help the country run smoother? If you are getting your opinions from the White House (as I believe Brooks, like Limbaugh, Hannity, Coulter, and the whole rogues gallery of wailing, lying banshees that for some reason have our ear, is) then of course you could. But Al Gore has finally scrupled a response to our current problem--and it is a massive, probably unfixable problem that is going to result in thousands more dying at least--and of course the heart of his argument is wholly ignored. It's like reviewing a production of Macbeth and citing it a comedy because you choose to focus solely on the hysterically drunken gatekeeper. Forest, meet trees.

So please do not listen to this warmonger's incorrect mis- or non-reading of Al Gore's book. The work itself is hardly perfect--I wanted at least some discussion of the horrors of the dimpled chad, but alas nary a mention; and his faith-based solutions made me wince a bit--but at least we have this person who can write a complex sentence, quote from great historians and philosophers, and who is truly taking a stand on these issues. And his book and film "An Inconvenient Truth" were so tremendously effective that even our lame duck President Designate is now addressing, in however sound-bite-ey a fashion, the need to remedy our treatment of the earth. All I can say is, I hope Gore hits the silver screen with these details, because he is both fair and right, hardly self-congratulatory, and if he as the technocrat (which he is not) would like to see the world be safer and cleaner and better for all of us, who is a criminal apologist like David Brooks to stand in his way.

Please write to the Times and remind them of their negligence, which cannot be denied.


Friday, June 08, 2007

Why Can't The Walrus Read?

Richard Taruskin, in his massive and engrossing Oxford History of Western Music, draws a careful Maginot line between the two main musical traditions: the literate and the non-literate. Without rating one above the other, his meaning is obvious: the former is written down, the latter is not. And he is careful not to comingle, only commenting on the literate tradtion--his aim being to address only the former (which for him is, of course, handily coming to its end; the usual ashes-to-ashes)--and reminding the non-literate only on relevant instances...one of which is, of course, the Beatles.

Reading the New Yorker profile of Paul McCartney a few weeks ago drew from me a common screed that happens when rock stars, even brilliant ones, scream to go legit, to make the big orchestral statement, because so often they want to both have and eat the proverbial cake. What got me a little upset was not his desire to make a dent on the so-called "classical scene" with his orchestral pieces, oratorios, and choral works (think what you will of them) but his glorification of his inability to do the one simple thing required of a composer in this genre: to read music. In the article, he speaks of his failed attempts to learn (he got bored) and then turns the arguement around (as so often happens) using the whole innocence-experience split. The notes on the page, he claimed, didn't sound like the notes in his head. Therefore, ipso facto, it is not the head that needs work, it's the whole method. From there he goes on to equate he and John Lennon to the illiterate Pharoahs of ancient Egypt, who needed a team of scribes to dictate their thoughts (which were obviously far greater by being unencumbered by the ability to write, so time consuming, so tainted).

Now, of course, this is an insult to many who have bothered to learn to count to twelve (all you need to know to read music, honestly). But that aside, it's plain dumb, and even a little mean. And Beatle Paul is not the only one to have advanced this same arguement: Thom Yorke (of Radiohead) and Danny Elfman (formerly of Oingo Boingo)--and I believe Prince, though please do not hold me to this--are among the luminaries to stake such claims. Now as someone who's spent his life invested in music, both of the literate and non-literate tradition, I've heard many who made this point, who believe that not learning something and doing it anyway makes it somehow a more pure product than could ever issue forth from the studied. I've stared them down over tables at coffee shops, across smoky coffe tables, from one barstool to another, as they told me that all this training was going to ruin me, that the trust musicians, the purest souls, just have it in them and their sounds are therefore the sincerest possible expression. What's fascinating is that they often want the academic glory but don't want to work at it; and therefore they honestly believe that they who've learned how to write it down are worshipping false gods, and that they traffick in the rarest sincerity, they mean it while we just pose. Innocence, in their eyes, being the opposite of guilt. God is whispering in their ear, and he tends to pass over the wizzened for the wide-eyed, the learned for the chaste.

Never mind that Mozart, arguably the most "gifted" musician ever, took his share of harmony and counterpoint lessons and had a remarkable fluency of craft. Never mind that a lifetime of investment in a certain tradition, especially the non-remunerative work of being a symphonic composer, is hardly the sign of someone who's pursuing something for the wrong reasons--even the richest among us cannot even begin to fathom the Croesan splendor of McCartney's life. Never mind that Mr. McCartney, who's spent 45 or so years in the white hot spotlight with the ballast of an untold amount of money to back up his royal proclomations, cannot be said to be one whose grasp on reality is solid. What gets me about this specious and ignorant argument is that it is never advanced by the literate; rather, it's used to bully them. McCartney, in his insecurity (!) seeks to topple me and my kind with a few public words, to remind us of our low place when that is honestly the last thing we need.

I want to say that I love McCartney, both as the latter half of the greatest songwriting team in the history of songwriting teams and as a solo artist (especially his collaborations with Elvis Costello in the 80s), and don't find academic training necessary for a musician to be absolutely brilliant. I have even seen, in my brief and merry life as a composer, the evidence of the insincerity of which these people speak, composers light on talent but heavy on imposing intellectual precepts who aim to intimidate rather than entertain or enlighten. But my experience is that innocence is not only the opposite of guilt, it's the opposite of wisdom--of "experience," be it spoken of by Blake or by Hendrix. And frankly I am tired of those people who absolutely depend on a team of people--their scribes, I suppose--who have as their solo qualificiation the exact same training as I do to write down their symphonies or film scores and make them sound spectacular (the "composers" do sign off, but that means I could author a cookbook with a team of talented chefs, a few interesting ideas, and an upturned thumb) who turn around and say that their ability to do this depends on their "innocence," which makes them somehow superior. As if three chords and the truth were enough to make a guitar concerto, and anyone who speaks otherwise is a snob, an elitist, exclusive, boorish, dull, or just plain talentless. I am more inclined to agree with Lester Bangs, who famously said "not having chops is not enough." And who will argue with me that McCartney's lack of capacity with his materials is obvious in his work? That were he to even tune in a little to what is really going on in classical music these days--and take a few months to at least acquire the basics--he might not be composing such pappy symphonic Beatles and really actually do something worth more than his famous name but that might exist on it's own musical merits.

I think of Danny Elfman, discussing his score for Planet of the Apes and mugging for the camera as the composer driven mad by his own music, or speaking of the orchestra used in the Spiderman 2 soundtrack when he probably cannot tell you the bottom string on the violin; I think of the three mysterious "arrangers" listed deep in the liner notes for Billy Joel's Fantasies and Delusions, a record of piano music. And I think of the hubub made around the fact that Elvis Costello provided, for a ballet score, some two hundred or so pages of handwritten orchestral music written by him entirely because he, in his ignorance, did not imagine any other way such a project could be done. I am inclined to agree with him: providing a score is, in fact, literally the least a composer can do.

This is not to say that people shouldn't cross genres, mix it up, dip into sounds, seek to change their focus or even leap genres altogether. I just think that a respect for the tradition might do them some good--at least do admit the things you don't do, and rather than glorify your ignorance, why not laud the capacities of those who do. After all, who did the scoring for Elfman's music for those films? Or the Liverpool Oratorio? At least Bjork admits Nico Muhly. Could not the others follow suit?

Again, McCartney hasn't really been on the ground for the bulk of his life, and I can imagine growing up in public takes its toll, and that you are not often discouraged in any of your pursuits. After all, who is going to sit him down now, after all he's accomplished, and say "Ok Paul, today we're going to dissect Mozart's F Major Sonata, and you don't get to eat your pudding until you've properly labelled the themes and key areas"?

Or could it be the number of reports of the death of classical music he read in concert with the number of reports of his own death that led him to the syllogism of his destiny: if both it and he were dead, then of course they were the same thing.