Thursday, November 26, 2009

In Defense of Christmas Music

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Of course, today also marks another significant holiday tradition: open season on Christmas music. Turn your radio to the 24-hour Christmas station and don’t touch the dial for the next month.

I must admit that I broke the Christmas seal a little early this year. Yesterday, I was overwhelmed by the Christmas bug, and my immediate response was to seek out the sonic equivalent of being wrapped in a warm blanket sitting by the

fireside, otherwise known as Christmas music.

If the thought of 24-hour Christmas music stations give you a feeling akin to

fingernails on a chalkboard, not to worry, there is still hope of converting you into a Christmas music lover by the end of the season, I will be trying my best. I must make clear, however, that I in no way mean this with any religious connotations, in fact, with apologies to Bill O’Reilly, I see Christmas as almost entirely a secular holiday.

At the mention of a Christmas album, it seems that the obligatory response from any “real” music lover is to give a roll of the eyes and a haughty laugh, “Of course, everyone knows that these highly commercial “sell-out” albums by otherwise distinguished artists don’t actually count as part of their oeuvre.” And yet, they exist, and in very high numbers at that. These works are apart of the soundscape of nearly every public space for an entire month each year; from Starbucks to elevators they are virtually inescapable. Despite this ubiquity and cultural prominence, a search for scholarly studies of 20th-century Christmas music in the UB library catalog and JSTOR brought up almost no relevant sources. There was one book, Publishing Glad Tidings: Essays on Christmas Music, however, this was much more concerned with traditional hymnody than Christmas music in popular genres. I am sure I have overlooked some studies because I cannot believe that this subject is as overlooked as my futile searching would imply. However, even if I have missed something, my guess is that a serious ethnographic study of popular Christmas music would receive the same condescending response that has been given to Daniel Goldmark’s studies of cartoon music; an amused chuckle, but no serious consideration.

I promise I will eventually post the rest of my thoughts on AMS, however, it will likely be after the end of the semester. For the next few weeks I will be posting some “musicological musings” on Christmas music and its role in society, as well as some reviews of great, and not so great, Christmas albums (just listened to Bob Dylan’s, will probably post something later tonight). I need some outlet to escape from the stress of the end of term scramble to finish writing papers, Christmas music musings seems as good as any.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

China and Facebook and Criticism, oh my!

Despite my growing disenchantment with NPR's music website, it's still a great way to kill time. I just read a story that was interesting, but reveals why my disenchantment has grown. The article is about the growing punk scene in China, and there are some nice quotes (including one that reveals a bit of how Chinese popular musicians consume American popular music, from Bob Dylan and Woody Gutherie (!) to the Ramones), but the article does not consider what seems to me the obvious ramification of the article: China has a growing punk scene?!? Does the author understand the political and social ramifications of this? The Chinese government clearly does not, else they would have nipped this in the bud. The article also does a terrible job of contextualizing the scene, saying China has "the fastest growing" everything else, making it seem that punk music is the predominant style and that those darn Chinese beat us to the punch yet again. However, by their own admission, the musicians realize they are 20-30 years out of date. Can you really have "the fastest growing" scene of a trend that stopped dominating 20-30 years ago?

I also wanted to talk a bit about facebook. I've joined the dreaded menace, as that's how the Music and the Written Word Conference is organizing travel and lodging arrangments, which makes a good deal of sense. I want to comment on two things. The first is what facebook is doing to the concept of friendship. I have about 25 facebook friends, which is roughly the number I would consider to be my friends in the "real world." Yet, I see these people who have 400 or 700 or 1000+ "friends," and know by their own admission they don't even KNOW some of those people, much less have a "friendship" in the traditional sense of the word with them. Maybe its symptomatic of our growing isolationism (ironically* because of a technology designed to keep us closer together), an issue others smarter than I have touched on and that I won't rehash. But, those who use facebook would do well to consider its effects on their perceptions and labels of "friends."

Labels are my second point of criticism. I spent a lot of time procrastinating reading peoples' "info" yesterday. It was telling, as with facebook, we can label ourselves, in effect construct our identities, as we WANT to be seen and percieved. Granted, that tells one almost as much as the actual "info" itself, and is a suprisingly revelatory feature. However, I think this too is symptomatic of our technological age, as we spend time carefully constructing these somewhat virtual identities for ourselves, yet sparse time realizing them in a non-virtual world. Just some things to think about.

* This is not *actually* ironic.

Friday, November 13, 2009

I know I promised more for today, but I completely forgot how much a full day of papers takes out of you. In addition, I have an analysis project looming over my head that I want to try to nip away at. So, I will be doing a serious of posts giving my thoughts about the conference in the following couple weeks.

Time's 50 best inventions of the year. Check this one out: "The Biotech Stradivarius"

Thursday, November 12, 2009

AMS Conference: Philadelphia (Day 1)

First day of the conference today, and like the diligent, but broke, musicologists we are, a group of us left Buffalo at 5:45 this morning so that we could make it to Philly in time for the first session. The conversation in the car ride down was a wonderful experience. Especially for someone who: (a) is new to a department; (B) never tires of erudite, intelligent, sophisticated, highbrow, scholarly, analytic (“pretentious, bombastic, and overly analytic) conversations; ( c) probably spends way too much time in the library (books are good for reading, not so much for conversation)* I’m sure most musicologists, or academics in general, can relate to how nice it feels to have a long conversation with people that share the same passion as you, as a release from long hours with a nose in a book.

I was able to sit through two papers**, one of which was interesting (“From the Lower East Side to Catfish Row: “Strawberries!” as a cultural mediation in Porgy and Bess and Street Scene.” - Bruce D. McClung). There is certainly a link between these two scenes, and McClung raises interesting questions about the dramatic setting of the scenes, as well as the two scenes’ intertextual references. However, I did not quite follow him all the way to the final connection he makes of the “strawberry” reference: [from the abstract] “In both operas, strawberries symbolize sexual transgression and recall Aschenbach’s purchase of the fruit from a street vendor during his pursuit of Tadzio in Death of Venice, Iago’s comparison of Desdemona’s alleged loss of virginity to her white handkerchief ‘spotted with strawberries’ in Othello, and the legend of Venus weeping over the body of Adonis with her heart-shaped tears falling to earth to create voluptuous fruit itself.” A lot of the “question” and answer session were suggestions of more songs or artworks with strawberry references. Now I may be wrong, but I find it pretty unconvincing that either Gershwin, Weill, or any of their audience would have even made any of these connections. That is all I really have the mental energy to write about right now, but I would like to emphasize that I really did enjoy this paper, and found it to be a very well done presentation.

I apologize for the fragmentation and general sloppy writing of this post, I am quite tired right now (I know, excuses, excuses..). I just wanted to get a post up on the first day, and also get some of my thoughts down.

Expect more tomorrow.

* Going back and reading this last sentence, it comes off as really sad. I swear, I love the work I am doing in the library, and at no time this semester have I questioned why I am sitting in a library all day. This is probably still considered “sad,” but more in a losery way, which I’m ok with.

** I want to blog about my experience at the conference, but I have already decided, out of respect for our colleagues, that I will not name or comment on any papers that I felt were not very good.

Monday, November 9, 2009

A few thoughts on the new "A Christmas Carol"

Over the weekend I went and saw the Robert Zemeckis adaptation of "A Christmas Carol" in IMAX 3D.* I am not sure the world necessarily needed another film adaptation of the novel (after the beloved classic, "A Diva's Christmas Carol," it was hard to imagine the subgenre of Christmas Carol movies reaching a higher plain of artistic achievement), but Zemeckis' version provides possibly the most visually stunning version to date.** The exposition of the film, with its sweeping panoramas of 19th century London, are absolutely breathtaking. Even the scenes of the film that don't work on a dramatic level, still provide beautifully rendered artistic imagery. I don't know if I would say this was a good film, but for the reason just stated above I would highly recommend seeing it in the theaters (IMAX 3D if you have the opportunity). The film has gotten mixed reviews, but film critics also generally aren't very good at approaching blockbusters geared towards children.***

I decided to write a post about the film because Alan Silversti made a choice when composing its score that I felt largely diminished the quality of the film, and to be honest, was really just plain annoying. I am referring to the pervasive use of Christmas carols throughout the score. The arrangement of "Joy to the World" that opens the preview, is a very typical example of his treatment of these carols, especially during the ending of the film. Now on paper, basing a lot of the score to a Christmas movie with the title "A Christmas Carol," on Christmas carols sounds like a good idea, but in practice, it is just ends up sounding incredibly hackneyed and corny. Now I will admit that even the ending of the novel is sappy; Scrooge sees the error in his ways, becomes a completely new person, and all is well in the world. But what Zemeckis and Silversti do with the score is pour more sap on top of the already sappy ending of the story. The audience is presented with the film version of a double bacon cheese burger on two Krispy Kreme donuts. It's just too much for any sane person to handle.

I will give Silversti some credit. Though he may not be known as a very original film composer, he has a very good dramatic sense and generally does a good job scoring films. If you look through his film credits, it is amazing the sheer number of scores he has composed for blockbuster films (recently, G.I. Joe, the Night at the Museum series, as well as the Mummy trilogy). His most well known scores, "Forrest Gump" and "Back to the Future," are not likely to be the topic of any scholarly papers anytime soon (not that this should be the criteria for aesthetic worth), but they are still very enjoyable, and serve their particular films quite well. This is an important point. Musicians and musicologist often do not like to admit it, but the ultimate aesthetic criteria of a film score has nothing to do with how we judge Western art music, but is simply how well the music serves the film (It is interesting that Copland in his book What to Listen for in Music, suggests the same aesthetic despite the relative youth of the industry, and his background approach to concert music). Film is the ultimate collaborative art, and unless it is done for a particular purpose, the score is supposed to work more on a subconscious level and should not really draw attention away from the narrative. Most of the score to "A Christmas Carol" fills this role quite well, but the carols draw the soundtrack out of the subconscious and into our full attention because of their familiar nature. It may have been the intention of Silversti and Zemeckis, but the score at the end of the film gives off more the feeling of a sing-along than anything else. For some versions of this story this could have been appropriate, but the ending of the Zemeckis Christmas Carol, and the movie in general, does not really call for such a score, in fact, it necessitates something much more subtle.

This post is getting a little long, and I need to get back to my school work so I will try and bring it to a close. The important point is that this was not a light-hearted Disney adaptation of the Dickens' novel, but really a serious and faithful (the dialogue is almost entirely verbatim from the novel), though still highly original attempt at translating the classic novel onto the screen through a 21-st century artistic medium. It is unfortunate that the score of the film did not mirror this attempt.

I will leave you with one last thought. With the exception of Bruce Springsteen's song for "The Wrestler," composing an original song for the end credits of a film (especially if Andrea Bocelli will be the performer) is a really bad idea. I usually like to sit through the credits, but I couldn't get out of the theater fast enough when I started to hear a song with lyrics that related to the film I just saw. I felt like I immediately needed to take a shower to cleanse myself of such filth.

* Just a little note about myself, I love going to movies in IMAX. It has the wonderful ability to make even not very good movies an enjoyable experience. "Monsters vs. Aliens" is a perfect example of this phenomenon. However, for this reason it can sometimes be difficult to apply any sort of critical criteria to a viewing, because the IMAX film experience differs in many ways from a more traditional theater experience.

** IMDB shows 25 exact matches for title and 13 partial matches when you search A Christmas Carol, though, I checked and didn't even see "A Muppet Christmas Carol" among the results, so those numbers are lower than the actual amount of adaptations that have been made of Charles Dickens' novel. There are even more if you count films like "The Grinch who Stole Christmas," that are more loosely based on the novel.

*** I wanted to link to an article I read recently, but couldn't find it. It was on the dark nature of a lot of children's stories. This is a trend that goes back through the Grimm brothers, but it very much applies to this film. If I were 5, I wouldn't be able to sleep for at least two weeks after seeing this movie.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Introductory Post (At Last)

I suppose in John’s Introductory post when he said, “some of whom will be introducing themselves and their interests over the coming days and weeks,” the “some of whom” would be me. As you can plainly see, it did not take days and weeks, but rather months for me to get around to writing my first post. I am sure many of the potential readers of this blog can relate to the initial shock, and subsequent adjustment period, one faces when first entering graduate studies. As I am now fairly well adjusted (or at least until final papers are due), I should be able to post with some regularity.

All of that being said, please allow me to introduce myself. My name is Brian Holland and I am a first semester masters student at the University at Buffalo. As the title of this blog would suggest, I am pursuing a degree in the field of historical musicology. My research interests are wide ranged, but generally interdisciplinary in nature (basically anything music and ___). It is probably for this reason that music in film is the area of our field that has held my attention the longest.

I have to admit, this blog was entirely John’s brainchild, I was just fortunate enough to be invited to take part. He made all the initial decisions about the topic and scope of the blog by himself, but I was very pleased when I saw that he decided on an open-ended and inclusive approach. Obviously, given that our lives are consumed by our studies, the vast majority of our thoughts and ideas will concern the field of music history, but it is nice to have the freedom to post on any topic that may come to mind (fair warning, when I am not thinking about music, food usually dominates my thoughts).

I would like to end this first post by sharing some of my observations about the phenomena of blogging, as they will most likely shape my approach. I think what differentiates a blog from an online diary, news feed, or message board is the perspective of the individual looking out at a narrow part of the world. A diary is from the perspective of the individual, but it typically looks inward and is really just written for that person (others may read the diary, but I see it more as voyeurism than anything else). News feeds and online forums may look outward at topics, both large and small, but they are not defined through the lens of a single person. Essentially, reading a blog is a practice in empathy (assuming it is approached with an open mind). The blogger provides readers with their perspective on a topic. This perspective is shaped by the knowledge, personal experiences, interests, and biases of the blogger, and thus provides a view of a topic that is unique to that individual.

Though this is a blog and not a message board, there is a reason why all good blogs have comment sections. It is my hope that through our posts and the comments of the readers (underscore in your mind with appropriately sappy music), it may be possible to create a dynamic environment in which new ideas and thoughts are proposed, and all parties involved take part in a conversation that challenges our assumptions and fosters new ways to look at issues in the field, and possibly the world at large.

Now that I have provided enough sap to make maple syrup, I will bring this first post to an end. I am looking forward to posting with some regularity, and possibly some live-blogging from AMS this week in Philly.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Continuing with a string of nonsensical, borderline pointless blog posts, here is something to keep in mind if you haven't found me a Christmas present yet.