Friday, October 30, 2009

Pre-Concert Conversation

Bored? Lonely? Miss me? Don't have plans for Halloween? Genuinely interested in Shostakovich's visit to Louisville 50 years ago? Then do I have a link for you! WUOL, our friendly neighborhood NPR station (well, one of them) has provided for download the pre-concert conversation I took part in a few weeks ago. Enjoy!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

NPR and Criticism

Not long ago, I read an article criticizing NPR's "Top Songs of the Year (So Far) list for being too "white." The author contends that "it's not that NPR doesn't like black music. It merely maintains a strict preference for black music that few actual living African-Americans listen to." Maybe so, maybe not. In my opinion, anyone who genuinely wants to keep a pulse on "black" music (more or less defined by the article in terms of what it's not: white, indie, guitar-driven, college educated, alive, young, local, and hip/fresh/non-retro) doesn't use NPR. Listening to NPR for current trends in rap/ hip-hop makes less sense than buying The New Yorker strictly for the cartoons. And I can see some merits in the author's point that "In matters of musical taste, everyone has a God-given right to provincialism and conservatism, even those NPR listeners who consider themselves cosmopolitan and liberal," although I think forcing yourself to consume music you do not like simply to be "cosmopolitan and liberal" is asinine. 

And I was doing well even through the comparison of the NPR "Best Music..." list with the fact that " 2009, the No. 1 song on the Billboard charts has been by a black or female artist—or by groups featuring both blacks and whites or men and women—a total of 41 out of 42 weeks." What got my dander up was the article's snippy "Who are the progressives again—the public radio crowd or the Top 40 great unwashed?" So, "progressive" equals "listening to music that prominently features black or female artists?" And the "great unwashed," because of their support of this music (isn't that what the chart statistics are proving, support?), are more progressive? Breaking "progressive" into such simplistic (and borderline racist) terms does no one any good. More over, it trivializes the complexities of production and consumption of race in music into antagonistic binaries. I'm not going to defend NPR and what they chose to conceive of "black" music, but in their exposure of non- mainstream "black" artists, they inform their listeners about the entire spectrum of "black" music, a spectrum that takes far more into account that Top 40 hits.

However, I will criticize NPR for its endorsement of Bernstein's recording of Shostakovich's 5th Symphony. And, for its sales pitch: "In the remarkable finale, Shostakovich achieves one of the greatest coups of his symphonic career: a "victorious" closer that drives home the expected message and at the same time makes an entirely different point — the real one." This whole trope of Shostakovich study was begun with the fraudulent memoir "Testimony," and was continued through a slew of noxious, pseudo-musicological "interpretations" that I won't even mention by name on my blog. This trope persists, in program and liner notes and pre-concert lectures (last weekend I saw a legitimate conductor spew some of this same nonsense before Shostakovich's 10th Symphony), and most frustratingly, in legitimate scholarly publications by scholars who did not critically analyze their sources. It's a serious historiographic problem, and one that I will return to soon.

"..An entirely different point- the real one." Please. Aside of being elitist and overly dramatic, and ignoring for sake of time the hermeneutic implications of such statements, sticking to such an interpretation with Bernstein's recording, BERNSTEIN'S!, the fastest one I have ever heard **, is mindless. The tempo at the end is so fast, so stereotypically reliant on traditional symphonic gestures of closure that the possibility for other interpretations doesn't even exist... and that does a huge disservice to Shostakovich and intelligent consumers of art music.

** Compare Bernstein's (8:53) with Rostropovich's (12:04)

Saturday, October 24, 2009

R.I.P. Nikolai

Today, my beloved fish Nikolai passed on into the Great Fishbowl in the Sky. He had some kind of parasite, and had been ill for some time, but the medicine did not help. In his memory, here is a link to my favorite story from his namesake, Nikolai Gogol.

I will return from mourning tomorrow with a series of posts criticizing NPR music, and criticizing those who criticize NPR.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Random Thoughts

I've been busy preparing for my pre-concert talk (Saturday at 7 pm before the Louisville Orchestra concert, if you're in town!), so this will be a bit fragmentary: -I got spam the other day in Russian. This is no doubt because of the web searching I've been doing for my thesis, but it was still nice. Of course, now I'm getting junk mail in two languages, but that's beside the point.

-Mozart's Piano Concerto #21 in A major has not only a hilarious cadenza (I was laughing during the concert), but the closing theme (I believe) of the final movement definitely sounds like the beginning of "Dixie." I asked everyone around me if they heard it too (whether I knew them or not), and it was unanimous. Obviously the song wasn't written yet when Mozart wrote the concerto, but it's still funny.

-University of California Press is having an online book sale, and they're including works that are on my "list of things you need to read." If anyone is interested and does not have a coupon, there are directions on their website on how to procure one.

-It's definitely fall when I start wanting to watch James Bond movies, so happy fall!

-My Adorno has not arrived yet. Neither has my new translation of the Benjamin, which is now titled "The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducibility." This title does not roll right off the tongue.

-This has so many issues I can't go into it now, but it is definitely food for thought!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

(More or Less) Live Blogging of Dudamel Concert

This evening, NPR had a broadcast Gustavo Dudamel's concert with the LA Phil, in a program of Mahler Symphony No. 1 and a new John Adams piece. While I do not know how worthwhile it will be, I am going to present my thoughts in more or less real-time, as part of my ongoing investigation into how people listen.

All the pre-concert talking heads are dancing around one central issue: is Dudamel this generation's Lenny Bernstein? Every account I have ever heard of both conductors sounds the same: charismatic, enthusiastic, engages non-traditional demographics. I suppose time will tell... A good friend saw him live last year in Italy, so I have it in dependable authority how genuinely stunning it is to see him live.

New Adams- 3 movements, first 2 attacca. Why do I love every Adams piece I hear (like Cleveland doing "Guide to Strange Places," which is for some reason not available on commercial recording)? I love how Adams integrates the piano into his orchestral textures. And something new for saxophonists! This is not as good as the other famous homagé to the City of Lights, "LA Woman" by the Doors, but still good (I kid). Some of his orchestral textures sound so much like band music, and I don't know why... the use of the winds? Or maybe its the scoring of the winds, massed in triadic clumps... hard to tell. This is VERY different from the last piece Adams wrote for Disney Hall and the LA Phil, "The Dharma at Big Sur," which is one of my favorite pieces of music (a concerto for 5-string electric violin? Sign me up!). What does it say about Dudamel and the Orchestra's decision to have Adams as their composer-in-residence. I clearly enjoy Adams' music, but it's a very Disney decision, safe and not too threatening. Of course, the NY Phil is commissioning new works this season too, so maybe this is a trend? Till people realize, like they did back in the '50s with the Louisville Orchestra commissioning project, that you get a lot of shit that way too...

This piece sounds like "typical" Adams that I've heard over the last 3 years... driving rhythms and changing meters, primarily sonorous textures, extended consonant harmonies, expanded instrumentation, etc. It (so far) lacks the darker bite of "...Strange Places." Oh, great sonority going into what I imagine is mvt. 2. This is interesting. Even with the trombone solo. There are a lot of solos in this piece. Adams' slow movements are, in my opinion, the best parts of the piece. His rhythmic excitement is some of the best non-film/ non-dramatic out there, but I get the sense that he really lets himself go in his slow movements. Maybe its how he handles time... The orchestra sounds great, really well rehearsed. Adams gave them a piece that is fairly easy to shape, but its interesting that Dudamel is conducting new music. I know its part of the legacy of the LA Phil, but I think it's very significant for the hottest new conductor to be actively working with new works, even if they're by established composers. Sometimes the percussion is a bit much, and sometimes the piece sounds very band-y/ big band-y. And that's the second Adams piece I've heard that's had an odd ending...

~ ~ ~

I'm probably going to stop as I have an abstract due tomorrow. And if they take one more encore, it'll be 11:30 before intermission ends. I will probably post other blogs/ reviews of the concert in addition to my thoughts, which (as I re-read), are more about issues than the music. A quick note on the intermission interviews: any conductor that can make a trumpet player sit up and pay attention during rehearsal must have some divine grace (right, Nick?)

UPDATE: I got sucked into the beginning of the Mahler. Quite possibly the best version I have ever heard. Very organic, such a natural way of developing and letting the music work itself out. Incredible. This will be broadcast 10/21 on PBS's "Great Performances," so catch it!

Sunday, October 4, 2009


Recently, I was part of a discussion about what "genre" was. My interlocutor claimed that genre was (basically, I'm paraphrasing) a way of consuming. If you were listening to something in the chamber music genre, you knew that it was written to be played and heard in a relatively small, intimate venue. An orchestral work would be written to be heard in a large hall with a large audience. My argument with this was that, given the economic demands on "classical" music, nearly every concert takes place in a medium-to-large sized hall, with a fairly substantial audience. In other words, commercial necessity has supplanted their definition of "genre," and this is to say nothing of cds, which reduce this idea of genre into a private listening experience that can occur almost anywhere. Subsequently, this definition of genre simply cannot be correct, as pieces across genres are consumed with such similarity as to seem indistinguishable to an outsider. The response I got was that these ways of consumption are still valid, and are implicit within the creation of a work of music in the chamber music genre.

I still disagree, however. I think that genre is a set of shared or common listener expectations.
Audiences of country music have certain expectations as to instrumentation (and, by extension, the sound world of the music in general) and lyrical themes (and, by extension, the inherent values system of the music). Audiences of symphonic music have expectations as to the overall structure of the work (multi- and various movements, typically with large climaxes at the ends of the first and last movements) and the general way they will consume this music (for a fee, in a large hall, with a large orchestra, and with an accompanying set of social expectations). [The fact that I've been reading Christopher Small's Musicking is readily apparent from that last description, I know.] The genres are not inherent in the production of the music (though the composer or artist learns these generic traits and choses either to abide by them or subvert them), but reside in the audience's reception of the music. When I listen to a Hadyn symphony or a Garth Brooks song, even before I hear the work I will have a set of expectations about the artist's style in particular and the genre as a whole. These expectations are what is manipulated by the artist to create the piece. Ergo, without certain stylistic expectations, there is nothing really for the artist to work with, and no musical style as such can exist.

I suppose I should be even more specific, and say that this was really a discussion about how genre functions, as genre is at its most basic level an advertising method, a way of grouping like products so they can be marketed to like consumers (one of the assumptions of which is that everyone who likes 'rock' likes the same thing... making no distinction between John Mayer and Alice in Chains). However, I turn this over to you: what do you think genre is? And, how does it function? I do this not out of laziness, or the fact that I'm asking a question that's almost impossible to answer definitively. I've been thinking about what I hope to get out of this blog, and am starting a trend towards more interactive discussion, as the miracle that is the Internet shouldn't' exist solely for me impart my views. And, I already know what I think. Now, I want to know what you do.