Album du jour: Richard Reed Parry, “Music for Heart and Breath”

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“It’s not every day that a composer invents an entirely new way of creating music,” writes annotator Adam Sweeting in the booklet to the new album under review here, “but Richard Reed Parry may have succeeded in his Music for Heart and Breath.” Hmmm…is either part of that sentence true?  Let us see.  First, some background.

36-year old Parry plays in the Montreal-based Arcade Fire, among the better-known ensembles in indie rock.  From a musical family, though not academically trained in classical composition, Parry cites influences ranging from Guillaume de Machaut and J.S. Bach to John Cage, Steve Reich and Brian Eno as formative in developing his own style, one which fits comfortably into the “post-minimal” or “downtown” or “alt-classical” groove.  Here’s Parry talking about the new album:

Following an earlier 2014 release of orchestral works by Bryce Dessner (of the group The National) and Jonny Greenwood (of Radiohead), Deutsche Grammophon, probably the world’s most eminent classical CD label, has just put out an entire album devoted to a cycle of chamber works by Parry.  An undeserved distinction, considering the fine work of so many of his lesser-known peers without indie rock credentials?  That’s really up to DG to decide.  If they think (probably correctly) that Parry’s rock affiliation will spark interest and sales, they’ve made the right choice.

But how about musically?  And what about the sentence in the first paragraph?  Let’s take on the first part of the sentence first:  “It’s not every day that a composer invents an entirely new way of creating music.”

In each of the six works on “Music for Heart and Breath,” Parry employs a unique (as far as I know) technique for the musicians to determine the speed at which they play many of the works’ passages:  Using stethoscopes, the performers use their heartbeats as organic metronomes, basing not just tempi but other decisions (e.g., changing harmonies, cueing other instruments) on their pulse rates.

And since each performer’s heart beats at a different pace, the passages meant to be played “together” will sound off-kilter rather than in perfect synchronicity.  Hearing the music once before reading the explanation in the notes (which all listeners should do, IMHO), I found the effect mesmerizing at first, and wondered how Parry could rhythmically notate such beautifully controlled chaos.

As I let the CD continue from piece to piece (which turns out not to be the best way to enjoy it), the effect progressively lost its charm, and actually began to get on my nerves.  But after I read how and why it was done this way, I heard the music again with greater pleasure, welcoming the heartbeat passages the way one might the successive appearances of an eccentric but endearing character in a TV series.  Add another case to the age-old debate on whether knowing the story behind the music is a help or hindrance to comprehension and enjoyment.

But speaking of age-old, while Parry’s concept may be a new one, the concept of employing a concept is anything but.  As far back as the “ars nova” of the early 14th-century, composers (of which the previously name-checked Machaut is best-known) used notational tricks to give some of their music the slightly-out-of-phase effect Parry achieves with his stethoscopes.

Closer to our time, “conceptual” works, in which some internal or external device triggers what is played and when, have been a mainstay of the avant-garde at least since John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen.  Starting in the sixties, composers such as Terry Riley and Steve Reich innovated new techniques to give their works the complex interlocking quality that has since been a hallmark of the musical style they pioneered, minimalism.  Check out Riley’s “In C” (piece and explanation) or Reich’s “It’s Gonna Rain” (piece and explanation). And anyone who attends a decent number of new music concerts can no longer be immensely impressed by an “entirely new way of creating music.”  Composers are forever coming up with clever new ways in their works for musical event A to trigger musical event B, or for the combination of X and Y to lead to, of course,  Z.  I’ve heard some doozies in my day, and I bet you have too.

So, contra annotator Sweeting, it probably is “every day,” perhaps even several times a day, that a “composer invents an entirely new way of creating music.”  OK, chalk that part of his sentence up to hype.  How about the far more important second part?  Has Richard Reed Parry “succeeded” in his “Music for Heart and Breath?”

Well, if one measures success in this case as contributing music with style, personality and that combination of intellectual stimulation and aesthetic pleasure that makes you enjoy listening and want to listen again, I’d have to say he has.  Oh, some of the six variously-scored works are more successful than others.  Best is the one that’s featured twice, in different scoring, as both opening and closing selections, the “Quartet for Heart and Breath.”  Using very simple gestures to pace and shape the music, Parry expresses his ideas succinctly, and with a coy but thrilling sense of drama and suspense.  It would be fun to see what some talented choreographer could do with the Quartet.

The other selections, to varying degrees, combine the same drama and suspense with patience-trying longueurs, the risk a composer runs when sustaining a small number of gestures over the length of extended works.  There were moments in the “Heart and Breath Sextet,” for instance, when the Arvo Pärt-ish portentiousness of each note, each silence, had me rolling my eyes, though the piece redeemed itself by the end.  I liked the field-of-crickets effect of the pizzicati (plucked strings) in “For Heart, Breath and Orchestra,” though it might drive others up a wall.  Full kudos thoughout, by the way, for the performers, including yMusic, the Kronos Quartet and pianist-conductor Nico Muhly among a few others.

Later in his booklet annotation, Adam Sweeting writes: “Defining boundaries between musical genres is becoming increasingly difficult, not least because the most creative musicians increasingly prefer to ignore them.  But is it fair to say that artists such as Parry, Bryce Dessner and Jonny Greenwood are renewing classical music for the 21st century?”  Oh boy, another couple of sentences to decode and weigh in on!  But not this time.  Maybe when I get to the other new Deutsche Grammophon album of classical pieces by indie rockers.  For now, let me recommend that you give Richard Reed Parry’s “Music for Heart and Breath” a try.  And please, do tell us how you liked it.

When classical music went to the movies

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(Joan Fontaine, left, as the infatuated young friend of classical composer Charles Boyer, right, in the 1943 film “The Constant Nymph.”)

Snap quiz:  Which 1944 classic Hollywood film contains the following passage of dialogue?  Answer at the end of the blog.

DETECTIVE: You know a lot about music?

POSSIBLE MURDER SUSPECT: I don’t know a lot about anything, but I know a little about practically everything.

DETECTIVE: Yeah? Then why did you say they played Brahms’s First and Beethoven’s Ninth at the concert Friday night? They changed the program at the last minute and played nothing but Sibelius. 

Let’s overlook for a moment the implausibility of either program mentioned by the detective.  Isn’t it cool that in a mass-market movie, the characters would demonstrate such breezy familiarity with classical music, and that one of them would actually attend symphony concerts?  True, that last fact marks the potential suspect as a gentleman of more than average sophistication — but not that much more.

Watch enough vintage flicks on TCM or elsewhere, and you’ll pick up on other off-hand classical references, and I don’t just mean in classical-plotted movies like “Humoresque,” “Deception,” “The Constant Nymph” or “Unfaithfully Yours.”  But of course, the existence of these and other movies like them speaks to a time much unlike ours, a time when classical music was part of the American cultural mainstream.  To be a cultured person at the time was to have at least a basic handle on classical music.  Even a satire like the Marx Brothers’ immortal “Night at the Opera,” depended on its audience’s knowledge of and love for the object of the jibes.  Could you imagine such a movie being made today?  (As to subsequent use of classical music in the movies, a little creative search-engine use will bring up all sorts of web lists of more recent examples — though it will be instructive to compare how classical is used in movies now with how it was used then.)

Once upon a time in America (film reference intentional), classical music went where the audience went:  to the movies.  To do so wasn’t pandering or lowering its standards, nor was it the dreaded “dumbing down.”  Also, and crucially, the pop music styles of the day, which included quasi-operatic vocal ballads (e.g., Vaughan Monroe, Kate Smith) and “sweet” bands with strings (e.g., Guy Lombardo, Wayne King) alongside jazz and swing, stood far closer to the classical mainstream than does our current pop.

Thing is, while our popular culture, including pop music, movies and later media have continued to move forward over the decades, classical has basically stayed still.  And the two, the popular and the classical, are much farther apart than they were back in the day.  The audience, which by and large prefers the popular, has to make a fairly significant leap to latch onto the classical, to learn its ropes, to speak its language, to feel comfortable and welcome in its settings.

How is that gap to be bridged?  Well, when an art form needs to reach new audiences or die (a little melodramatic perhaps, but not by much), the art form is the one that needs to do most of the reaching, not the audience.  In presentation, repertoire, venue, media — everything, classical music needs to go where the audience goes.  Yes, a mainstream classical concert like last weekend’s all-Tchaikovsky program at Tanglewood with Yo-Yo Ma and the Boston Symphony Orchestra can still draw huge crowds, but all available evidence tells us that such events are the exception.  This evidence exists, by the way (check out Greg Sandow’s blog), so there’s no excuse.

That’s why I’m hitching my wagon to the musicians who in at least one way are helping classical catch up with its potential audience.  No one has to do it all, but if I were Classical Czar, every classical event would have to include at least one innovative aspect — even an all-Tchaikovsky program at Tanglewood.  If you want classical music to make it back into popular movie dialogue, and into all the other media today’s cultured people use — which would, by the way, be a good thing — then you’ve got to do something.

Quiz answer:  Otto Preminger’s 1944 film “Laura,” with Dana Andrews as the detective and Vincent Price as the suspect.

At the Concord with the Goldbergs

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I was a little worried going into last night’s Tanglewood recital by pianist Jeremy Denk — not for him, but for the audience, myself included, and for the composers and works on the program.  Denk, you see, had presented us with a formidable challenge.  He selected for his program two monuments of the solo keyboard literature which, at first thought, had little to do with each other except for their monumentality.

The first, Charles Ives’s “Concord” Sonata, wrestles with the Big Questions of Existence for 45 minutes without letup in intensity.  Dense to the point of impenetrability, difficult to the point of unplayability, profound, bewildering, all-encompassing, craggy, hilarious, sublime — need I go on?

The second, J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations (Denk’s witty thoughts here), may be as close to a perfect work of music as we’ll be permitted to enjoy during our earthly existence.  If you’ll forgive the perhaps overreaching metaphor, every note of the “Goldbergs” is like a star, each taking its rightful place in a constellation, that forms part of a galaxy, that subsumes itself into a universe of sound, and which at each level, from single star to universe, performs a celestial dance of peace and order.  I told you it might be overreaching, but this is what Bach’s “Goldbergs” mean to me.  It’s the sanest music I know, which is why I’ve never fully cottoned to either of Glenn Gould’s celebrated recordings, particularly the second.  I prefer my sanity untinged by madness, thanks.

Again, I knew that Denk would be up to the challenge of the program.  The guy’s an amazing dynamo, with an all-encompassing technique and a musical mind that operates several levels beyond those of us mere mortals.  But how would we mortals in the audience survive the challenge?  As for the “Concord” and the “Goldbergs,” how would each work stand up when juxtaposed with the other, and how would they harmonize?

Ah…that’s where Denk’s genius comes in.  Under his hands, Ives’s thickets of notes rang clear, true and balanced.  Denk’s delineation of line and clarification of texture were simply astounding.  What may with a lesser artist have been (and has been, alas) an arbitrary Ivesian jumble turned into an intelligible, if still endearingly eccentric, narrative.  The eclecticism that has gotten Ives into hot water with some critics and composers, mashing together as he does hymn tunes, brass bands, parlor piano and other homey materials with more abstract and dissonant music, took on the quality of skilled cinematic montage.  How magically Denk cast each seemingly disparate element in its proper light, making obvious its relation to the whole!  Here was an object lesson in real virtuosity — not just the ability to play the notes, but the ability to play the music.  I know of no greater tribute to Denk’s performance of the “Concord” than to say:   What a great piece!

Then the Bach:  Playful, spontaneous, very pianistic, absolutely delightful.  The canons that Bach spots throughout the work, where one melody chases the tail of the other, actually had me laughing out loud.  Other variations danced, marched, sang, swirled and plumbed the depths of emotion.  Was it perfection?  Not quite — it was too human for that, and all the more moving for it. Bach, of course, did not tell Denk to inflect the “Goldbergs” in the myriad ways we heard last night.  But, and this is the key, he also didn’t say not to. The work survives, even thrives on, a near-infinite variety of interpretations (OK, even Gould’s), of which Denk’s is among the most joyous.

So overall, it was a pretty good couple of hours for the human spirit, which, as you well know, can use all the bucking up it can get lately.  And for me, that vision of humanity — striving, searching,  singing, dancing — was the takeaway from a fine evening to be alive and a music lover.

 

The $400 blues

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As you may have heard on NPR or elsewhere, rock musician Jack White’s Third Man Records and the folk label Revenant Records have teamed up to reissue the legendary recordings by one of the most crucial labels of early blues and jazz, Paramount Records.  Ma Rainey, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Ida Cox, Charley Patton — these and other immortal artists can still be heard today primarily or exclusively on their Paramount sides.  Other celebrated artists, such as King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Alberta Hunter and Jelly Roll Morton, also waxed important music for Paramount.  How a Wisconsin-based chair manufacturer came to be such a major force in “race records,” as they were known in the 1920’s, is a fascinating story well told by Tom Cole in the NPR piece.

So, how will the Third Man/Revenant reissues be marketed?  As affordable CD sets?  User-friendly downloads?  No such luck, music lovers, or at least music lovers of the “75 Percent” or thereabouts.  Rather, the labels are soon to issue the “Paramount Records Wonder-Cabinet,” a luxurious package containing fancy print materials, high-end vinyl pressings of 800 tracks and a USB drive containing all materials in digital form, all stuffed into a “handcrafted quarter-sawn oak cabinet with lush sage velvet upholstery and custom-forged metal hardware.”  Price tag:  $400.  And by the way, this fabulous package, formally titled “The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records, 1917-1932” is just Volume 1.  Volume 2 comes out a few months later, no doubt in a separate casket — er, velvet-lined wooden box.

$400.  That’s about what you’d fork out for an extremely fine bottle of Single Malt, which would no doubt make a splendid complement to Blind Lemon’s “See That My Grave is Kept Clean” or Patton’s “Down That Dirt Road Blues.”  Such raw, authentic musical expressions of the human spirit!  Such a complex whiskey, with overtones of sea salt, peat smoke, butterscotch and leather!  You could even pretend that your exquisite Isla or Speyside was actually Sterno strained through bread, a favorite digestif of impecunious and unchoosy bluesmen.

All right, look — I tend toward the libertarian in matters of product pricing, preferring that market set the rate.  Perhaps Third Man and Revenant have choosen a wise business model here, and their Wonder Cabinet will be wonderfully successful.  And although they’ve made no noises about it, perhaps they’ll follow the big boxes up with more affordable issues of the same material.  I hope so, since the remastering I heard on the NPR piece was excellent, no small consideration given how the source material was notoriously lo-fi even for its time.

But isn’t there something a little unseemly and culturally arrogant about turning such downmarket (and fabulous) music into such an upmarket commodity?  I’m reminded of the French aristocracy of the 18th century, playing at shepherds and milkmaids, enjoying simple peasant foods (just more of it than the peasants got to eat) and country-dancing to the music of the humble bagpipe and hurdy-gurdy.  “Poverty Chic” is how others have described this distasteful phenomenon.  I think it fits here too.

Classic album du jour: PJ Harvey, “Let England Shake”

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With the centennial of the “Great War” upon us, I can’t resist recommending an extraordinary album on the subject that you may have missed when it came out in 2011.  Am I falling for the “especially relevant for our time” meme I attempted to debunk in my last post?  Not really.  I thought the album was terrific three years ago, and I probably will continue to think so for many years hence.

The artist, 43-year old English singer-songwriter PJ Harvey, first came to international attention 20 years ago with a series of bluesy, hard-hitting albums strong on sexual energy.  Sample lyric: “Lick my legs!  I’m on fire!”  She’s been less prolific in the past decade, releasing only two solo albums.  But what a great pair of albums they are:  2007’s intimate, ghost-haunted, blood-curdling “White Chalk,” and the 2011 album in question, “Let England Shake.”

There’s nothing novel about a rock musician addressing the topic of war, usually to amaze us with the revelation that war is bad and that we shouldn’t do it.  But rare is the rock musician, or musician of any genre, who reports and reflects on the destructiveness of war with the keen, dispassionate intelligence of PJ Harvey on “Let England Shake.”

Whether it’s the soldiers’ wives, with white hands waving goodbye, or the same soldiers falling like hunks of meat, or the ghosts of the dead soldiers hanging in the wire, Harvey’s vision is unfancy, unsentimental, unsparing.  She neither flatters her audience’s sensibilities nor insults her audience’s intelligence by assuming a morally superior anti-war stance — as if any sane person doesn’t abhor war.  And her music is many times more effective and affecting for it.

For musical complexity, frankly, “Let England Shake” is not exactly Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem,” the greatest classical masterwork on the subject.  But it rocks, crisply and catchily (have I just coined a word?).  PJ Harvey’s keening soprano contrasts nicely with the dour baritone of Mick Harvey (no relation, apparently) over a light, natural-sounding backup of guitars, keyboard and drums (accent on the bass drum).  That’s all you get, and that’s all you need.  Can a simple, even slightly primitive rock album be considered a work of art?  You listen and tell me.

P.S.  Bonus points if you recognize the old pop novelty song whose melody is aptly appropriated (with full credit in the booklet) at the beginning of the first track.

A work for our time, or for no time?

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While I’m in a meme-busting mood, let me take on another one today:  the notion of a work being especially relevant for our time.  You know, such as when you read (and I’m sure you have) something like “given the present situation, the work’s handling of issues of (fill in the blank) seems particularly relevant today.”  Usually, this claim is made when some old work, according to the writer in question, can be interpreted, however creatively, to support the writer’s views of current political and historical events.

To me, if a work of art has something to say, it said it before the current situation, and will still say it when the situation has passed.  Timeless works — Beethoven’s 9th, Britten’s “War Requiem,” Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” — are, as the adjective says, not pinned down to any one time, but are always relevant.  They’re also the rarest of exceptions.  For every Beethoven’s 9th, there are thousands of works that seemed terribly important at the time, then fade and crumble like old newsprint.  Have you actually listened to Marc Blitzstein‘s once-vaunted “The Cradle Will Rock” lately?  An artifact, maybe; timeless art, no.

And then there are works of art that aspire to the big issues of the time, but fail to live up to the challenge.  In such cases, it’s the subject matter that adds resonance to the artwork, rather than the other way around.  I’ve been listening to one such work, a classical music work, lately.  My goodness, I wanted to like it much more than I do.  But the piece ended up illuminating for me not the big issue it aspires to, but the problem of tackling contemporary issues with old artistic solutions.  You end up with a work that not only likely won’t stand the test of time, but which seems irrelevant upon birth.

The work’s composer, a 29-year old Arab-American named Mohammed Fairouz, has earned critical acclaim for a growing catalog of small- and large-scale works for varied forces.  My first encounter him is on a new Sono Luminus CD containing his ten-minute long clarinet-and-orchestra piece “TAHRIR,” and his hour-long Symphony No. 3, “Poems and Prayers.”  It’s the latter work that interests me here.  From the Sono Luminus website:

Symphony No.3: Poems and Prayers is a poetic Middle Eastern journey scored for solo vocalists, large mixed chorus and orchestra. Leading the performance are GRAMMY® award winning mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke and critically acclaimed baritone David Kravitz. Commissioned by The Middle East Center for Peace, Culture and Development at Northeastern University, the symphony expresses ancient and modern texts ranging from the Aramaic Kaddish to modern Israeli and Arabic poetry by Mahmoud Darwish, Yehuda Amichai and Fadwa Tuqan. Opening with the powerful chorus in Kaddish delivered in Aramaic, moving to the hauntingly beautiful and poignant movement Lullaby (where Cooke is joined clarinetist David Krakauer), to the expression of frustration at the futility of war Memorial day for the War Dead, and the repeated call for peace throughout the work with the use of the text in Oseh Shalom, Poems and Prayers weaves together a narrative of shared loss and dispossession as well as hope and reconciliation.

Noble goals and worthy sentiments, to be sure.  How does this young composer express them?  In a musical language hardly more contemporary than the Hebraic works of the great 20th-century Swiss-American composer Ernest Bloch (such as “Schelomo” or “Sacred Service”), or even of the epic film scores of the Hungarian-American composer Miklós Rósza (e.g., Ben Hur, Quo Vadis, King of Kings) — and frankly, less melodically appealing than either.

The soloists sing in full, hall-filling, vibrato-laden voices.  The large chorus intones its texts soberly and reverently.  The orchestra adds the requisite romantic backdrop, with occasional evocations of Middle Eastern rhythms and Semitic cantillation.  Yes, the subject matter is very, very serious.  Still, it would be nice if someone sounded as if they were enjoying themselves (other than clarinetist David Krakauer, who’s always worth hearing).  In other words, it’s your basic late-romantic classical choral-and-orchestral work.

And that’s my problem with this and many other new works on big themes (e.g., James Whitbourn‘s “Annelies,” a setting of Anne Frank texts recently performed in Northampton).  The more formidable the subject matter, the more conventional and dispiriting the musical language.  Serious doesn’t have to mean cautious, dull and grim.  A big, important work of art is still a form of entertainment.  If it fails on the latter score, it also fails on the former.

Neither does or should serious always mean a standard classical set-up.  I’m not going to tell Mohammed Fairouz or any other composer how to compose.  If this is how he chooses to express himself, that’s his right.  But if I may, let me propose an alternative approach to his subject matter:  How about getting a bunch of dazzlingly talented young Israeli and Arab musicians, playing and singing in contemporary vernacular and on the instruments such young people play today (even electronic!), and put something together that would really speak to today’s concerns in the language of today?  Maybe such a piece wouldn’t earn the cultural approval that classical status provides.  But it could have a chance to reach the actual people most concerned with the issues the piece tries to address.

P. S. Whatever I may think of this music, I certainly appreciate this example of Mr. Fairouz’s prose in the
Huffington Post.

My favorite batch of Satch

I would be remiss if I didn’t celebrate the birth anniversary yesterday of Louis Armstrong.  For not only is Pops tops on my list of all-time musicians, he may be my leading exemplar of the American spirit.  Creative, optimistic, hard-working, giving, personable, loyal, racially aware, philo-Semitic, self-created (at least largely), simultaneously noble and earthy, worldly and down-home — if they don’t represent the American ideal, I don’t know what or who does.  Even his flaws, such as his serial philandering and near-daily marijuana consumption, make him that much more endearing.  I mean, if weed and women are a man’s leading vices, he’s probably not that bad a sort.

Then there’s the music, which speaks, sings and soars for itself without my feeble attempts to describe it.  I love it all.  But what Louis Armstrong music do I turn to most frequently, when in need of the warmth and happiness he uniquely, among musicians, provides me?

Let’s see.  There are the Hot Fives & Sevens, locus classicus of jazz and America’s equivalent to Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier.”  There’s the relatively suave bandleader of the later 30’s and 40’s, no longer on the leading edge of jazz, but still capable of giving all the rest a run for their money on each track, in every solo.  And of course, there are the innumerable recordings (including some recent discoveries) by the Armstrong All-Stars, the small group with whom he toured for the last decades of his 70 years.  Sure, the critics scowled at the All-Stars’ narrow repertoire and hoary formulas (as well as at Armstrong’s old-fashioned, supposedly undignified laughing and mugging).  Louis, bless him, realized that the folks who came out to hear him and the cats were likely doing so for the first and only time, and deserved the standards for which he became famous.

But most often, I go back to 1930-31, a time when Armstrong was making the transition from young jazz genius to marketable entertainer for the masses.  His repertoire and settings, in recordings made mostly in LA and Chicago in these years, reflect this transition:  Out were the tight-knit, relatively cooperative small groups and original blues and stomps of the 1920’s.  In were popular standards, mostly of the Tin Pan Alley persuasion, played very much in a soloist-backed-by-big-band format.  Lots more vocals and fewer instrumentals, too.

For the snootier critics, this marked the start of Amstrong’s artistic downfall.  For me, this is one of the richest moments in American music history:  a unique black genius’s assault on and utter transformation of polite, mostly white popular music.

To those accustomed to the operetta-like pop vocal styles of the day (think Dick Powell in the Busby Berkley musicals), Armstrong’s guttural voice and creative garbling of words and melodies must of been a shock, giving many listeners, no doubt, their first encounter with real, unadulterated African-American cultural sensibilities.  But in their time, was there anything more avant-garde in the entire world of the arts?  And the solo trumpet choruses, usually two per number — oh my goodness, what brilliant melodic variations!  Time after time, the young Armstrong puts his horn to his lips, and turns a nice little tune into 4th of July fireworks.  I can’t get enough.

Sometime in the early 1960’s, near the end of his life, the great conductor Bruno Walter was asked his opinion of jazz.  “Oh, don’t provoke me!,” Walter answered.  “If you want to provoke me, then I feel I must answer, and I say that jazz is an insult to me. I feel debased by listening to it.”

I have no idea what music Walter had in mind when he said this, and what jazz could have had the power to inspire such negative, not to mention ugly, sentiments.  But it’s these 1930-31 Louis Armstrong performances I think of when I read these words.  Yeah, if one was inclined to be debased by proud, forceful blackness, these great sides would probably have done the job.  Except what was an insult to Walter is a privilege to me.  And what debased him never fails to elevate and inspire me.  I honor your career and love your Mahler and Beethoven recordings, Maestro Walter.  I can only hope that in the next realm, you’ve come to your senses, and that you and Pops are teaming up for some swinging symphonies — The Bruno and Satchmo Show!

Want to hear more?  I’ve put YouTubes of a few tracks above.  Here’s a Spotify playlist of the best Satch from the era, culled from a few different CD reissues.

And check out New England Public Radio’s Tom Reney and his Jazz à la mode tribute to Armstrong from Monday night at NEPR’s “Listen on Demand” page.  You have til next Monday to listen — don’t miss it!  Tom’s blog on Pops is of course worth reading as well.

Who you calling dumb?

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It’s the meme that keeps on meming, the canard that will not die.  You can read it in the musical press and find it all over your Facebook feed.  Why is it that classical music is in such precarious shape in the U.S.?

It’s because of the “dumbing down” of our culture.

Classical music, you see, is smart.  Other kinds, or at least most, are dumb.  And the Manichean distinctions continue from there.  Classical music is art.  Other forms are entertainment.  Classical music is real (i.e., European) culture.  Other more domestic forms are false, foisted on a complacent populace by corporate taste-makers, abetted by the educational-industrial complex.

Attempts to expand the classical music audience by appealing to a broader taste (often known in such circles as “the lowest common denominator”) constitute pandering, if not downright artistic vandalism.  The audience’s role, to the extent it has one other than funding the whole project, is to take whatever the artists give it and like it.

Would you like examples?  Get a load of the summaries of three books skewered by musicologist Richard Taruskin in a memorable 2007 review for The New Republic.  Speaking of TNR, there was a piece last year by critic Philip Kennicott in which he makes the point that “an effort to popularize classical music undermines what makes orchestras great.”  Other examples would be more anecdotal and personal, such a windy tirade I endured from the friend-of-a-Facebook-friend when I politely challenged his recitation of the “dumbing down” meme last week.  Fortunately, my flame shields were up and I emerged unscathed.

Well, I don’t like this whole idea, not one little bit.  One’s musical tastes are one’s own business, not subject to the approval of anyone else.  I’m sure some of my favorite music would strike others as positively moronic, and if told so by them, would firmly advise them where they can stick the music in question.  By the way, I’m no saint on this score.  In fact, I was quite the arbiter of taste in my younger years.  My goodness, what an arrogant jerk I was.

Further, I would suggest that anyone who places classical music on a higher level than others is both overrating classical and underrating everything else.  It’s one thing to point to Bach, Beethoven or Mahler  to make the argument of classical’s superiority.  (Note, by the way, how the composers cited in such formulations are almost invariably of the Austro-German persuasion).

Of course, these and other immortals also make most other classical music sound like crap, so what’s the point?  Any honest assessment of classical’s overall place on the quality spectrum should also include such once popular composers as Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf, Ludwig Spohr and Joachim Raff.  Ever heard any of their symphonies?  Go ahead and try one, then realize that in symphonic history, these dreary works are probably in the top quartile of quality.  In other words, there’s lots worse where they came from, if you can imagine.  If these pieces are superior to anything, I’d sure hate to hear the inferior.

Then there’s the vast amount of classical music — probably the majority in earlier centuries — whose whole purpose was entertainment.  Why, for instance, should I regard most operas and operettas as high art, when they were actually composed for the audience’s fun and the composer’s profit?  Same with ballets, orchestral showpieces, most classical songs and piano works — are Adam’s “Giselle,” Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Russian Easter Festival Overture” or Grieg’s “Lyric Pieces” really more important to our culture than, say, Bruce Springsteen or Billy Joel, just because they’re classical?

And now we get to those other types of music.  You know, the commercial entertainment music, of the kind made by such insignificant panderers as Stephen Foster, Scott Joplin, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Benny Goodman, the Carter Family, Robert Johnson, Ella Fitzgerald, Hank Williams, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Stephen Sondheim, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Jimi Hendrix, Laura Nyro, Frank Zappa…I could go on and on, right up to such current names as Sufjan Stevens, Adam Guettel and Maria Schneider (whose “Winter Morning Walks” with Dawn Upshaw and The Knights last week at Tanglewood was my live musical highlight of the year).

Yes, I’m doing the same thing as above here, naming the immortals as if they represented the whole.  But I would take these names, add dozens more, and say that these musicians have made a more important contribution to American art and culture than any amount of European classical music.  Note that I didn’t say they’re greater than classical music.  But neither will I say or do I believe that they’re any less vital, creative, culturally resonant or smart than classical.  They speak of and to the American experience, and do so with fervor and brilliance.  Genius, even.

Finally, this suggestion:  Can we just get rid of smart/dumb, art/entertainment and real/fake culture when discussing music?  They’re false, unhelpful and, if you’ll permit, un-American.  We’re too open and democratic for such elitist distinctions.  And at a time of increased musical genre-bending and pluralism, the distinctions are increasingly indistinct.  If we need to make distinctions, how about we stick with good/bad?  Heaven knows, there’s plenty of both in all genres, and it’s still important to distinguish them.  Better yet, let’s stick with I like it/I don’t like it, and leave it at that.

P.S.  Would you like a current example of genre-bending genius in American popular music?  Check out this track from singer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane’s brilliant album “The Ambassador.”  It’s Kahane’s account and reflection on the tragic shooting of a teenager named Latasha Harlins at a Los Angeles liquor store in 1991, and is as masterful and skilled as it is painfully poignant

 

 

Album du jour: Gabriel Kahane, “The Ambassador”

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So, I picked up two new CDs, the other day.  One, Gabriel Kahane’s “The Ambassador,” is an intelligent cycle of ten songs about Los Angeles, written and performed in a jazzy, sophisticated contemporary singer-songwriter idiom.

The other is tenor Jonas Kaufmann and pianist Helmut Deutsch performing Franz Schubert’s immortal 1827 song cycle “Winterreise” (“Winter Journey”).

Which new CD comes closer to representing for today’s listener what Schubert’s work represented in its own time and place?  This is not a trick question.  Indeed, how you answer this question says a lot about about where you stand on the many issues pertaining to music’s present and future status in our culture.

Let’s consider what “Winterreise” is for the present-day American listener.  It’s a nearly-200-year old piece of music, sung in a foreign language that one either speaks through circumstance of birth, or learned in school, or (most likely) has to follow by reading the program notes while listening.  The musical idiom — melodies, harmonies, rhythms, etc. — is very much of early 19th-century Vienna, as well it should be.  The vocal style, while unexceptional for the minority of listeners versed in it, would sound unnatural in most of our current music.  I mean, people don’t grow up singing that way any more.  You have to go to a fancy, expensive conservatory to learn how to do it well.  And while we have plenty of 14-song albums…er, cycles, today, one that features just one voice and an acoustic (ahem) piano playing written (i.e., non-improvised) music is not something most people encounter in their lives, even most smart and sophisticated people.  The thought of listening straight through to such a work, either from CD or (even less likely) in a dark, quiet concert hall, where one’s behavior is strictly circumscribed, like church, would rarely if ever occur to them.

In short, the new Kaufmann/Deutsch “Winterreise,” while very, very beautiful, is also destined to be enjoyed, at least domestically, by a very small, very rarefied audience.  If you’re part of that audience, you know how heart-breakingly moving this music is.  But you’re in a tiny minority that’s not likely to get larger anytime soon, if ever.

Now let’s consider what “Winterreise” would have represented in 19th century Vienna.  For sure, it was even then and there music of rare artistry.  No doubt many would have found the work dark and forbidding.  But whatever barriers that existed between the music and its listener were placed there by Schubert, not by the work’s basic idiom.  Fundamentally, it would have been a collection of songs in the vernacular, both words and music, and performed in a scoring and style that would have been the norm for its day for any reasonably cultivated listener.  Yes, it would have been “art” music, but its art would have been much closer to the daily life of its time than today’s culturally-approved “art” music (e.g., classical, jazz) is to ours.

OK, that’s the Schubert.  Now how about “The Ambassador?”  The bare facts:  33-year old composer and singer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane wrote the words and music to ten songs exploring different facets of Los Angeles, drawing his subject matter from literature (Ray Bradbury, Raymond Chandler), cinema (Mildred Pierce, Pulp Fiction, Die Hard), place (Ambassador Hotel, Griffith Observatory, Union Station) and historical events (a tragic shooting).

Kahane sings the songs himself, in a smooth, attractive pop-music voice that might remind you of Justin Vernon (aka Bon Iver), Adam Guettel or many others.  The scoring, if you will, is primarily for voice and pop quartet (including keyboards, electric guitars and drums), with strings and horns added on assorted songs.  The idiom, as I wrote earlier, is sophisticated, somewhat jazzy singer-songwriter, with resemblances to Sufjan Stevens, Steely Dan and no doubt others that you would pick out.  Without question, this is a musical work of considerable artistry, probably not destined for the top of the charts. But has already earned plenty of cultural buzz, along with raves from the likes of the New York Times, NPR and the smart musical press.

In short, Gabriel Kahane’s “The Ambassador” is a highly artistic, decidedly non-dumbed-down musical work in the current musical and linguistic idiom.  Even if you didn’t care for it, there’s little chance that you wouldn’t “get” it.  It places no barriers between itself and your comprehension.

So those are the facts, ma’am (my own LA reference).  What do you think — is Gabriel Kahane closer to being”today’s Schubert” than even Schubert himself?  Actually, that’s unfair to the many other fine musicians, male and female, now working in similar styles, including the ones I mentioned above.  And it has nothing to do with a guess, which would be all it is, that Kahane or anyone else working today will have Schubert’s durability.  Let’s enjoy ourselves today and let the future take care of itself.

Of course, you couldn’t really answer this question until you’ve heard Kahane’s piece.  Which you should.  Immediately   It’s a brilliant and beautiful work which will repay many hearings, and which, I believe, represents some of the finest, most serious and most enjoyable music being made in present-day America. Just as Schubert’s “Winterreise” did in 1820’s Vienna.

My problem with “Klinghoffer”

Many of those who’ve criticized the Metropolitan Opera’s cancellation of the “Live in HD” transmission of the Met’s upcoming production of John Adams’s “The Death of Klinghoffer” lamented the fact that the cancellation removes an opportunity to debate the contentious issues surrounding the opera.  Well, the Met’s critics may not get their chance to see “Klinghoffer,” at least without heading to Lincoln Center.  But they sure got their debate.  The cancellation itself has engendered all the debate anyone could want.

And as my Facebook friends (and anyone else with the misfortune to be in earshot) can attest, I’ve had my say and then some, mostly about the opera’a alleged antisemitism and appeasement of terror.  (About the cancellation, I have been unequivocal: once scheduled, the theater transmission should not have been cancelled.  It makes the Met look indecisive and too easily persuaded, and cheaply bestows the status of free-speech martyrdom on Adams and his collaborators.)  Yet for all that, I don’t think I’ve quite gotten to the heart of what most disturbs me about “The Death of Klinghoffer.”  So, for what I hope is but can’t promise will be the last time, here goes.

In 1985, a man named Leon Klinghoffer was shot and killed aboard a cruise ship, then his body was dumped into the ocean.  Whatever its geopolitical implications, Mr. Klinghoffer’s death was primarily a personal tragedy.  A human being was killed.  His loved ones grieved, and continue to grieve to this day.

Not long after (or perhaps even during) their successful collaboration on the 1987 opera “Nixon in China,” a creative team headed by theater director Peter Sellars, and also including composer John Adams, librettist Alice Goodman and choreographer Mark Morris, began the conceptualizing that would, in March 1991, result in the premiere of “The Death of Klinghoffer.”  In very short, the opera dramatizes and semi-fictionalizes the circumstances of the real Mr. Klinghoffer’s killing, using him and his wife Marilyn (who died in 1986) by name as characters.

In other words, “Klinghoffer” uses a then-recent real-life personal tragedy involving non-public people (unlike “Nixon in China,” whose characters are major historical figures, hence fair game) as the basis of a work of art that, without regard for the feelings of anyone involved, appropriates a personal tragedy for the artistic and political purposes of the opera’s creators.

I find this to be an act of unconscionable arrogance and callousness.  If Sellars, Adams, Goodman, Morris et al. had something important to say about about terror, or Middle East relations, or whatever else was on their mind, they could have invented their own scenario and left the Klinghoffers the hell out of it.

As it is, the Klinghoffers’ daughters, who attended the premiere anonymously, despised the opera then and despise it now.  Whatever our personal feelings about artistic freedom, can’t we also see the overriding virtue of sparing the feelings of the Klinghoffer family?  In a statement following the Met’s cancellation, John Adams wrote that “My opera accords great dignity to the memory of Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer.”  Never mind the unmitigated gall of a composer crediting his own work with “great dignity.”  The Klinghoffers’ daughters, who have a greater right than Adams to speak on their parents’ behalf, vehemently disagree.  I’m on their side, as I think we all should be.

Let Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer rest in peace.  And until they repent, let the creators of “The Death of Klinghoffer” be denounced for their shameless artistic vandalism.