Another critical loss

There is sad irony in the fact that I read of classical music critic Allan Kozinn’s dismissal from the New York Times on the “Slipped Disc” blog of British classical journalist Norman Lebrecht.  While no uncritical fan of classical music critics, I always looked forward to reading Kozinn’s reviews and features, which struck me as fairer, more open-minded and more audience-focused than those of most of his peers.

On the other hand, while his up-to-the-minute coverage of classical news performs an important service, Lebrecht is an unreliable sensationalist whose frequently outrageous opinions (here’s the latest) and titillating headlines seem geared more for attention than enlightenment.  “Audience whoring click baiting” is how the widely-read “On an Overgrown Path” blog puts it.

I’m sure that many classical musicians feel that for their own benefit, they need to stay on Lebrecht’s good side, much as celebrities and their agents felt about scandal-mongers like Walter Winchell back in the day.  But among the classicalsphere, i.e., the pundits, critics and other wordsmiths one encounters on the net, the verdict is all-but-unanimous:  Kozinn and other “serious” critics good.  Lebrecht bad.

No question, I would rather read a hundred Allan Kozinn pieces than one by Norman Lebrecht.  But that’s not because Kozinn is a high-minded critic and Lebrecht a more populist one.  It’s because I think Kozinn is better than Lebrecht.  In an ideal world, where classical music appealed both to a small group of connoisseurs and to a larger fan base, there would be room for journalism that reached both cohorts.  They’ve certainly figured out how to do this in film, television and pop music journalism.

But in the U.S., there isn’t much room for either, at least in the general press.  You could put all the full-time classical critics in America in one hotel conference room, and still have room, I suspect, for the local chapter of the Lions Club.  (It’s not just classical critics, by the way.  I saw the same shrinkage in my field, classical public radio.)  As to covering the domestic classical scene in print with a more popular touch — who do we have?  Am I missing someone?

And I would say that the lack of the latter, more “popular” kind of critic is every bit as much an indication of the perilous current state of American classical music as is the Times’ layoff of Allan Kozinn.  Classical will always have its connoisseurs, who know how to find and share smart opinion about the music on the internet.  But if the American classical audience grew to the point where we could develop and sustain our own Norman Lebrecht — hopefully a more reliable, less obnoxious one — that would be a sign that classical music was on an upward, less overgrown path.

(P.S.  For those seeking lively daily coverage of the national classical scene, good old public radio does have at least one excellent choice!)

 

The twelve CDs of 2014

A faithful reader has asked me to compile a “best of” list for CDs of 2014.  OK, I’m game.

But best of what?  My listening is too eclectic to fit into any genre, too spotty to have heard it all, too idiosyncratic to be anything more than my own personal choice.  While my job used to entail keeping up with all the new classical releases — nice work which I was happy to have gotten —  I can’t be bothered to do so anymore, unless it’s something really new.  Living the great classical works in concert can still be a thrill.  But the idea of having to feign excitement for the skatey-eighth recording of the Bach Violin Concertos or Brahms Symphonies frankly fills me with dread.  I’ve heard those notes before, man — give me new notes!

Here, with links to my blogged reviews, are my personal best albums for 2014. Please add one or two of your own, in any genre, in the comments section.

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John Luther Adams: “Become Ocean

Brooklyn Rider:  “The Brooklyn Rider Almanac

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A Far Cry: “Dreams & Prayers

Flying Lotus: “You’re Dead!

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Grouper:  “Ruins

Imogen Heap: “Sparks

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Gabriel Kahane: “The Ambassador

David Krakauer, Matt Haimovitz, et al.: “Akoka

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Leyla McCalla: “Vari-Colored Songs — A Tribute to Langston Hughes

Owen Pallett: “In Conflict

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Ariel Pink: “pom pom

Tune-Yards: “Nikki Nack

And yours?  Please share.

Does music need gatekeepers?

It would be impossible for me to react to Sal Nunziato’s guest column in this morning’s New York Times without risking a little hypocrisy.  For while my ideology disagrees with Mr. Nunziato, much of my professional and personal life has been devoted to doing just what he wants more of.  How do I square that?  Let me give it my best shot.

In the column, Mr. Nunziato, an online record dealer, pines for the pre-internet days when record label executives — “suits,” he calls them — winnowed out the superior music from the inferior.  Now, he says, “the Internet has become a forum for all, regardless of talent. Anyone can be a writer. Anyone with GarageBand can make a record.”  His closing paragraph:

I would never discourage any musician, however green, from making music. But I would strongly discourage most from releasing that music just because they can. It seems like a kick to the faces of the genuinely talented and deserving, all because of a technicality called the Internet. Where are the suits when you need them?

Exactly.  And we, or more likely, someone who appoints himself to do so, should now also determine which authors may publish books, which winemakers are allowed to market their wines, which restaurants are permitted to open, right?

Wrong.  No artist should be prevented from making his/her music available because someone else deemed it unworthy.  Most of the music Mr. Nunziato would squash isn’t going to reach a significant audience anyway, so what’s the big deal?  If he feels overwhelmed by the choice he now has, that’s his problem, not the artists’. My music listening is not in the least diminished by the thousands of probably mostly junky albums I’ll never hear.  And the same technology that permits anyone, “regardless of talent,” from being a recording artist has, through preference algorithms, on-line marketing and dumb luck, introduced me to some music I like very much.

Yet of course, I was myself a musical gatekeeper throughout my radio career, when I decided what music my listeners heard, and what music they didn’t.  And I still man the gates of the chamber music series I program.  Hypocrisy?

I don’t think so.  For while I was and am responsible for the quality of what I program, in no way can or would I prevent any listener from going beyond my offerings to discover other music on their own.  In fact, the new technologies that make it easier for listeners to do so also made my radio job easier.  For not only did I have a wider selection to choose the best from, I also could advise listeners to make their own individual journeys of exploration through styles and eras that weren’t going to get much play on my show.  Not enough Renaissance polyphony or 20th-century modernism on the air?  No problem.

In the end, Mr. Nunziato’s worldview, one in which “product is foisted upon the masses whether we want it or not,” is the same tired anti-modernity that too often passes for wisdom in the Times and other gatekeepers of smart opinion. (Here’s an earlier blog in which I take on two other iterations of the same kvetch.)  As a proud member of the masses upon which this “product” is foisted, I say bring it on.  I’m perfectly capable of deciding which to sample and which to ignore, and so are you.

Coming up: Quartets à la russe

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Sunday afternoon at Smith College, the St. Petersburg Quartet will perform a program of Shostakovich (Quartet No. 4), Tchaikovsky (Quartet No. 3) and Bach (their violist Boris Vayner’s arrangement of the Chaconne in D minor), presented by Music In Deerfield and the Smith Music Department.  Pre-game at 3:00, with yours truly and members of the “St. Petes,” and concert at 4:00.  Click here for tickets and information.  Here’s what I wrote for the program booklet:

“We Western musicians play Russian music like we think it’s great.  Russian musician play it like they know it’s great.”

The late violinist, violist and Smith College professor Philipp Naegele said that to me during one of the many times we discussed music over coffee at the Amherst Starbucks.  He was reacting to a Russian performance of a Tchaikovsky rarity he had just heard on my WFCR classical show.  And this afternoon, you are about to hear what Philipp meant.

Of course, the immortal Russian composers, such as Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, are beloved and performed wherever classical music thrives.  To paraphrase the old Levy’s Jewish Rye commercial, you don’t have to be Russian to play Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No. 3.  But it makes a difference if you are.  Let me focus on one example from today’s program.

Tchaikovsky composed his Quartet No. 3 in 1876 as a memorial to Ferdinand Laub, the distinguished violinist who had played in the premieres of Tchaikovsky’s first two quartets.  The 3rd Quartet’s third movement, one of Tchaikovsky’s most personal creations, recreates in music an actual Russian funeral service, complete with funeral march, tolling bells, the priest’s intonations and the chants of the choir.  I won’t spoil the effect at the end of the movement, but its intent should be clear to all.

Of course, any quartet from any background who plays the 3rd would know this and apply it to their performances.  But if you’ve grown up with the sounds Tchaikovsky is trying to capture, and understand the music’s meaning not as something you’ve learned but as something you’ve lived, something you know – well, you’ll hear it.  The first time I heard Tchaikovsky’s 3rd Quartet played by the St. Petersburg, many years ago at Mohawk Trail Concerts, I could swear I levitated a millimeter or two during the third movement.  Your altitude may vary, but stay loose.

Album du jour: Grouper, “Ruins”

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How minimal can minimalist music be and still cohere as music?  That was the question that came to me as I listened to, and very much enjoyed, the new album under review here.  Along the way, I was reminded how the pleasure we take in music often comes most from the tiniest things — if we listen closely enough to notice them.

“Ruins” is the eighth album by Grouper, the solo project of Oregon-based musician and visual artist Liz Harris.  Grouper’s previous music, consisting primarily of fuzzily recorded layers of multi-tracked (and haphazardly tuned) guitars and voice, has mostly failed to convince me that there’s enough of a there there to merit prolonged attention.  While I would stop short of questioning the artist’s sincerity, I didn’t hear enough skill or effort to take her music seriously.  There’s minimal, and there’s perilously close to non-existent.  Up til now, Gr0uper has struck me as the latter.

Grouper’s new album, however, has me in her thrall.  What has changed?  For one thing, Ms. Harris has put down her guitar and moved to the piano.  True, her keyboard technique is, to put it gently, rudimentary.  But she plays well enough to express herself coherently.  And the switch to piano seems to have brought out her inner Erik Satie, referring to the French composer (and acknowledged great-grandfather of minimalism) best known for such profoundly simple piano works as the “Gymnopédies” and the “Gnossiennes.”

Consisting of both songs and solo piano pieces, the music of “Ruins” is, if anything, even simpler than Grouper’s earlier stuff.  Yet it coheres, with memorable melodies and discernible shapes.  Mind you, very close listening is required to tease out what’s happening, including vocals so soft as to verge on inaudibility.  But pay attention, and you notice subtle shifts of phrase lengths, or pleasing melodic arcs, or the spine-tingling moment on the song called “Holding” when the overdubbed voices diverge from unison and blossom into harmony.  Tiny things, to be sure, but even in more complex and sophisticated music, it’s often the tiniest things that mean the most.  Even when Grouper goes conceptual and experimental on us, developing electronically transformed piano textures on a track called “Made of Air,” the music coheres as music, and quite absorbing music at that.

I wouldn’t quite call “Ruins” a masterpiece, and have not yet anointed Grouper as a Great Musical Artist.  Yet using the simplest, homeliest musical ingredients, Grouper has created something unique and quietly lovely.  Sometimes, that’s all I want or need.  Please check it out for yourself when you have the time and the space to listen closely.

http://open.spotify.com/a'tlbum/5ElYoVUqRQIlDekD1v6aKa

 

Album du jour: Nathan Bowles, “Nansemond”

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A multi-instrumentalist (primarily drums and banjo) from southwestern Virginia, Nathan Bowles can trace his musical family tree back on the one side to regional clawhammer banjo traditions, and on the other to the “Takoma Revivalists” of the 1960s and later, including such greats as John Fahey and Jack Rose.

But Bowles doesn’t just do old-timey.  According to his website, his music…

…demonstrates the elasticity of Appalachian and Piedmont stringband music and the inherent connections, when those forms are distended, dilated, and dissected…to contemporary improvised and post-minimalist avant-garde music.

Accurate, if boring.  Bowles’s music, on the other hand, mesmerizes and hypnotizes, but does not bore.  Depicting the eponymous historic region of eastern Virginia named for a Native American tribe, his new solo album,”Nansemond,” keeps the listener rapt through seven selections of mostly original composition.  It’s a kind of mountain music answer to Bedřich Smetana’s “Má vlast” (“My Country”), the cycle of symphonic poems that gave us “The Moldau.”

Though, mind you, “Nansemond” is made of far more homespun materials:  Acoustic and electric guitar, fiddle, Bowles’s gritty, plaintive voice, some fairly discrete noise effects (which qualify as homespun nowadays) and, as bardic narrator, the percussive strum of the clawhammer banjo, a sound as lonesome and haunting as a distant train whistle.  Like a good country wine, “Nansemond” may be more rustic than refined, but conveys the unmistakable taste of its terroir.