Friday, October 21, 2016

The holes are very small

Conductor Matthew Glandorf gestures for a soloist to take a bow 

after The Choral Arts Society's performance of J.S. Bach's 
Cantata BWV 80, Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott.

I didn't need an excuse to blow off Wednesday night's debate between the presidential candidates, but if I had, I couldn't have asked for a better one than the hourlong "Bach at 7" concert by Choral Arts Philadelphia. This season, the choir is working though the cycle of 18 of J.S. Bach's cantatas from 1734-35. Wednesday, it presented BWV 80, the familiar Ein feste Burg isst under Gott, and BWV 96, Herr Christ, der einige Gottesohn, which I had not known, despite my great affection for Bach's cantatas. Of late, they have absorbed me more than any other aspect of his work, but there are 260 of the things. There are only so many hours in a life. 

Herr Christ charmed me with its prominent part for sopranino recorder, played in this performance by Rainer Beckmann, who must be at least 6-foot-2. (It's always the biggest guys who play the tiniest instruments. In every bluegrass band I've ever seen, the mandolin player is a giant.) The sopranino is the dog-whistle of the recorder family. Its lowest pitch is fˊˊ, and the holes are quite close together. Modern instruments, like my little plastic job, are tuned at A=440, but Choral Arts uses the Baroque tuning of A=415. (The string players also use old-style, convex bows, which produce a softer sound than modern, convex bows.) Because of the lower tuning, Rainer explained, the finger holes are very small (though he didn't say why). Then he took his instrument out of its case and showed it to me: The holes were like pinpricks.

One mystery of the cantata concerned the symbolism of the recorder part.  In Bach's religious music the instrumentation always carries extra-musical connotations, Matthew Glandorf, the Choral Arts conductor, told me, but he has been unable to turn up any information on just what the recorder is supposed to stand for in this work.

"The Holy Spirit," I offered. "Flutes are always the Holy Spirit."

Unfortunately, the Paraclete is not mentioned anywhere in the libretto.  

I also asked if there might have been practical reason for the scoring: The sopranino's piercing sound should guarantee that it can be heard over the chorus and the orchestra -- although in the cavernous nave of St. Clement's Church, that was not always the case. No, Matthew replied, mere practicality was not an issue for Bach. There is always a spiritual justification for the choice of instruments. If anyone has any ideas, now's your chance to show off.

Rainer also said Wednesday night was his first professional gig as a sopranino player. In that, I have him beat by 20 years. I played the instrument back in the late 80s in a production of Jean-Claude Van Italie's Mystery Play. It drove the other actors crazy.

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Summer of Lovecraft

Autumn begins Thursday, and as the weather gets cooler, I will have the energy to return to more serious, or at least more difficult, reading. In the hottest part of the summer, however, I entertained myself with a few potboilers and, in a project that started small but expanded as the time went on, the so-called horror fiction of H.P Lovecraft. I say “so-called” not because the tales were bad ― most of were quite enjoyable ― but because I didn’t find much horror in them, despite the use of the word the titles of “The Dunwich Horror” and “The Horror at Red Hook.”

In his most mature fiction, Lovecraft is obsessed by the idea that human beings are only the latest, and not even the most important, civilizing force in the planet.  Both “In the Mountains of Madness” and “The Shadow Out of Time” present the ruins of long-dead cultures that rose and fell millions of years before the extinction of the dinosaurs. His most famous creation, the monster Chtulu, lives in another dimension but can break through at any time if someone utters the right incantation.
The sickly scion of a New England family, Lovecraft was preoccupied with inbreeding among the white population ― “The Dunwich Horror” distinguishes between the decayed and undecayed branches of the Whateley Family ― and, on the flip side, with the rise of what used to be called the “colored races.” His work is sometimes marred by crude and cliched bigotry, as in the description, in “Herbert West ― Reanimator,” of an African American boxer who has been killed in the ring: “He was a loathsome, gorilla-like thing, with abnormally long arms which I could not help calling fore legs, and a face that conjured up thoughts of unspeakable Congo secrets and tom-tom poundings under an eerie moon.”

Where a more sympathetic writer might see a beautiful, well-muscled athlete struck down too, Lovecraft resorts to jungle metaphors.

Spawn of Chtulu
My two favorite stories are among the least known, and the shortest. “In The Walls of Venus,” an effort at straightforward science fiction that, unaccountably, didn’t make it into the Library of America’s handy Lovecraft edition. It’s a well-told tale that builds gradually and inevitably, without sensationalism, and by the end grows into a parable on the evils of colonialism ― surprisingly, given the author’s racial attitudes.  

The other story that stood out for me, “The Color Out of Space,” was Lovecraft’s own favorite. Here, he imagines what the astronomer Neil De Grasse Tyson has described as “different ways of being alive”: the alien force that destroys a New England family is not humanoid, or animal, or even material. It is, rather, “a shapeless stream of unplaceable color.”

But as I’ve said, while Lovecraft’s alternative realities can be absorbing and even exciting, I find little horror in them ― not because of any lack of skill, but simply because the horror that monsters may inflict on human beings is nothing compared to the horrors we inflict on each other.  

Poe, Lovecraft’s hero, understood this.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins and Charles Ives

In an earlier post, I referred to Florence Foster Jenkins, portrayed my Meryl Streep in the eponymous film, as a horror. Now,  however, the blog Voice Science Works has defended her, or at least her right to sing, because of her enthusiasm and her love of music. "Do we want a world where only a few will sing due to social  pressures," the blogger asks, "or one where we all understand that our voices have enormous potential should we seek to find it?"

Personally, I'd go with the social pressures. Ara longa, perhaps, but vita is too damned brevis to put up with incompetence, let alone encourage it. I wouldn't want to waste my time on an execrable singer any more than I would on a juggler who keeps dropping his clubs. Performance might benefit from passion, but it also demands skill.

And yet ... the blogger's defense reminds me of a passage from the Memos of Charles Ives, whose music I have loved since I was a kid and whose ideas have been an ever-present challenge:

Once a nice young man (his musical sense having been limited by three years' intensive study at the Boston Conservatory) said to Father, "How can you stand to hear old John Bell (the best stone-mason in town) sing?" as he used to at Camp Meetings). Father said, "He is a supreme musician." The young man (nice and educated) was horrified -- "Why, he sings off key, the wrong notes and everything -- and that horrible, raucous voice -- and he bellows out at hits notes no one else does -- it's awful!" Father said, "Watch him closely and reverently, look into his  face and hear to music of the ages. Don't pay too much attention to the sounds -- for if you do, you may miss the music."

Uh oh.

Ives spent much of his creative energy trying to capture the spirit behind the sounds, and, looking at the joy in Streep's face as she butchered "Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen," I had to ask myself, have I been missing the music? Is Florence Forster Jenkins the embodiment of the Ivesian ideal of substance over manner?

On this occasion, I'm going to comfort myself by saying no. In the first place, Florence would have hated Charlie's music, as well as his idea that dissonance can lead to higher truth. At the end of the film, we hear her as she heard herself, and in her own mind, she sang like an angel. Earlier, when pianists are auditioning to be her accompanist, we find she can't bear loud, aggressive playing, though her sensitivity was likely a symptom of  her lifelong syphilitic condition. Volume and aggressiveness were, of course, staples of Ives's repertoire  -- as was humor, and while Jenkins's listeners might feel free to laugh, she took herself seriously.

Ives also would have despised Jenkins's choice of material, which for him typified the easy, spiritually bankrupt world he was rebelling against. For Ives, a man singing a hymn off key is channeling God. A woman singing Mozart, no matter how well, is just singing Mozart.

(Zappa, I think, would have loved her, just as he loved the Shaggs, who he insisted were better than the Beatles. But for Frank, wrong notes weren't about the music of the ages. They were about the subversion of information.)

Over the years, hostile or condescending critics have leveled the same charges against Ives that some reviewers leveled against Jenkins -- amateurism, sloppy technique, and the use of wealth as a buffer against reality -- but right or wrong, Ives was an artist, and a skilled one. His dissonances have purpose, often to wonderful effect, and whatever spiritual vision his scores possess comes though more clearly and forcefully through -- dare I say it? -- a good performance.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

I read a lot of trash in the summer

Spenser is back, busting the bad guys and overeating, in Slow Burn, Ace Atkins' fifth attempt to extend Robert Parker's deathless franchise. It's his best effort so far, though it can't avoid some of the series' more glaring cliches. In one twist, Spenser, who is gradually showing his age more and more, gets the worst of it in a fistfight with a young thug in the employ  of the mob. Atkins plants the seeds for the next book, leaving open the question of a rematch, and just when the mob boss Spenser has ticked off will try to bump him off, but I left wondering why the mob boss would wait until Hawk comes back from France to make his move.

The novel is apparently based on a real-life series of arsons that took place in Boston in the 1980s. In Atkins' telling, the arsonists are a trio of pathetic firefighting wannabes who think causing a crisis will create more support for the fire department. Atkins resorts to Parker's old technique of inserting italic chapters told from the perps' point of view, which gets the miscreants into the story long before our knight errant catches up with  them in the last couple chapters. I've never liked this device. The books are supposed to be told from Spenser's point of view, and the shift in perspective has always struck as an authorial intrusion.

Spenser gets into the case, of course, because an angry, loudmouth firefighter doesn't think the higher ups are doing enough to solve the case. He asks Spenser to go through the back door, tracking down underworld contacts the arson squad wouldn't know about. Strangely, this approach is nothing but a a red herring: Spenser's initial theory of the case turns out to be wrong, and all he manages to do, at first, is get the mob boss mad at him.

Parker was an efficient writer, not a great one. He didn't have Chandler's style or Hammett's way with a plot. His prose is never memorable. But he was often diverting, and sometimes funny, and he excelled at gunplay (which is why his best books are his westerns). Atkins falls comfortably into the formula. It seems he'll be able to churn out a novel every year until Spenser turns 100.

And he's still taking the easy way out with his character descriptions, making comparisons to minor celebrities of the past. This time out, he tells us one guy resembled Fred Gwynne without the bolts in his neck. There's an esoteric reference for you. If nothing else, Atkins knows his demographic.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The inspiring true story of a real-life horror

Smon Helberg, Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant
in Florence Foster Jenkins. Helberg plays
Cosme McMoon, Florence's accompanist.
Grant is her husband and chief enabler, St. Clair Bayfield.
I don’t go to the movies much anymore, but on Sunday, with the heat index at over a hundred degrees, I forewent my usual weekend bike ride and spent the afternoon in an air-conditioned theater. I saw Florence Foster Jenkins, Stephen Frears’s comedy-melodrama about the heiress who became the worst singer ever to perform at Carnegie Hall, with Meryl  Streep in the title role.  This isn’t a review. There are enough of those around. Suffice it to say there weren’t as many laughs as I’d expected. Simon Helberg, my favorite cast member in The Big Bang Theory, has a few amusing moments when, as Florence’s hired accompanist, he first gets a load of her vocalizing. For the rest of the film, however, he has little to do but complain he can’t risk his reputation by appearing in public with her, then relent every time because a) the money is too good and b) he grows genuinely fond of the old dame.

My problem, when I left the theater, was that I wasn’t sure how we are supposed to feel about Florence. Are we supposed to laugh at her? Pity her? Admire her courage? Is she a trouper or a fool? But now I think there is no wrong way to respond. Derision, empathy and outrage are all valid reactions, together or separately, and  that very ambiguity may be the point of the film. Truly, Florence is a horror who makes a mockery of Joseph Campbell’s counsel to follow your bliss. Most of us overestimate our talents, but few of us have the money to rent out Carnegie Hall and inflict them on the public. The music critic who, in the film, writes a devastating review for the Post might be depicted as a meanie, but he is right to be incensed.  The drunken sailors and soldiers in the audience who think the performance is a joke, a la Jack Benny and his violin, are right to laugh. And Florence’s supporters in the audience are right to shout them down. They don’t want to see her feelings hurt.

For all her wealth, Florence had a hard life, having been infected with syphilis on her wedding night at age 18. I should be glad she enjoyed her moment in the limelight, but I couldn’t really root for her. It made no difference to me ― and certainly not to music ― whether she finally summoned the moxie to walk out onstage. 

Monday, August 1, 2016

My own little slice of heaven

Steve Kramer plays Bach
Last month, the Times Herald building in Norristown was closed, to save money, and the staff was scattered to the winds. Now, one day a week, I work from home, two days a week I work in the Reporter building in Lansdale, and two days a week I work in the lobby of Norristown’s Centre Theater, where the cellist Steve Kramer teaches on the third floor.

Friday, when Steve was finished with teaching, he brought his cello down to the lobby to practice. I was the only one of the newspaper staff who had not yet gone home, and so I was treated to a private performance, though much of it consisted of warmup scales and arpeggios. 

Last year at a benefit concert, also held at the Centre Theater, Steve played one movement of Bach’s Suite No. 1 in G. Afterward, it seems, I teased him about it, asking him why he didn’t play the whole thing. I have no recollection of the incident, but Steve remembered, and he said he I was right. He felt guilty, he said, and to pay me back, he would play the entire suite right there in the lobby.

Well, you know, I said, my favorite of the Suites is No. 3, and which point he sat down and played it. He did it in fits and starts, since he was breaking in a new bow, but he did, eventually, get through the whole thing, and the extended portions were soul-searing. There is a physicality to the cello heard in close quarters, a quality not conveyed in recordings, or even live in a concert hall. One can almost see the instrument vibrate. One can certainly feel it.  

When he was through, he asked me, with a smile, “Have I paid you back?”

I said we were square.

Fun, if squicky, fact: Bows are made from the hair of horse tails, but, Steve informed me, only the hair of males is used. Why? Because females, given the arrangement of their anatomy, stale on their own tails. The hair is impregnated with urine. 

Monday, July 18, 2016

'Two seniors for Zappa'

Yesterday afternoon I went to the movies for the movies for the first time in years. The feature that, at long last, lured me out of my apartment on a weekend was Eat the Question: FrankZappa in His Own Words, a documentary by Thorsten Schütte. (Leave it to a European ― in this case, a German ― to remind Americans of their own musical heritage. It took a Dutchman, Frank Scheffer, to film Elliott Carter. )

The film consists of snippets of TV interviews Zappa gave over the years, interspersed with performance footage, presented more or less in chronological order. There is no narration, no subtitles identifying the interviewers or band members. Viewers are left to navigate the timeline on their own ― you can estimate when a scene was shot by the personnel, the repertoire, and the length and color of Frank’s hair ― and it seemed to me that the more you bring to the film, the more you’ll get out of it. I wondered if anyone who had never heard of Zappa would have any idea what was going on, but then, anyone who had never heard of Zappa would never pay the teen-dollar admission price.

Frank says at the top of the film that an interview is an unnatural situation ― “two steps removed from the Inquisition,” as he puts it ― and what we get here is very much the public Zappa, who was, in many ways, an admirable, if paradoxical, figure: One minute, he's inveighing against an educational system that leaves children unprepared to make informed aesthetic judgments. The next, he's singing about anal sex.

(The private Zappa, as we are learning from his daughter Moon, was not such a bastion of integrity. For one thing, he was an open, serial adulterer who once gave his wife the clap. In the film, he has a few things to say about groupies, as well as the clap, but his wife and children are never shown on camera.) 

Over the years, interviewers are constantly struggling to reconcile Zappa’s outrageousness with what they call his “serious” side, though he insists he approaches all of his music seriously. A piffle like “Valley Girl” and long-form compositions with the London Symphony Orchestra, he says, both present problems in musical form. In an early interview, we see him in his studio, editing a score with a razor blade, and talking about his ambition to become the missing link between Varese, Stravinsky and Webern. (Carter attempted much the same synthesis, with more success.) Years later (as indicated by the hair), he defines his aesthetic, a favorite word, as “anything, anywhere, anytime, for no reason at all.” His music, he says, embraces all styles. It contains both complex and simple rhythms, both dissonances and triads ― an openness that puts him more in the tradition of Charles Ives, if Ives can be said to belong to a tradition.

The portrait that finally emerges, almost incidentally, from the nonstop polemics is of a man who loved music for its own sake, and I think Schütte deliberately chose the last shot in the film to reinforce the point. Frank, grizzled, dying of cancer, stands lighted against the darkness and, with c
concise, weak strokes, conducts an unseen percussion ensemble in “Ionisation” by his beloved Edgard Varese. His eyes are closed. For the only time in the film, perhaps the only time in his life, he looks to be on the verge of tears. He didn’t believe in heaven, and neither do I, but here he is as close to it as he ever expected to come.

Music is the best.

Note: The title of this post was overheard in line at the box office at the Ritz Theater. The words were spoken by the white-haired woman standing in front of me. She was in the company of a man who, downstairs as the concession stand, asked for a pair of headphones so he would hear the movie better. What starker reminder of  the passage of time? Zappa has been dead for more than 20 years, his first album was released 50 years ago this month, and the youth who rebelled in the ’60s are now collecting Social Security.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Brothers Vonnegut

One of the few nonfiction books I’ve bothered to read this year is The Brothers Vonnegut: Science and Fiction in the House of Magic by Ginger Strand. Not quite a full dual biography, it's more an examination of the parallel careers of Kurt Vonnegut and his older brother, Bernard, in the years following WWII, when they both worked at General Electric in Schenectady, New York -- the House of Magic of the title, Here Kurt wrote copy for  the publicity department (known pretentiously as the News Division) while Bernard conducted experiments in cloud seeding. In this period, as in their childhood, Bernard was the star of the family, a bona fide scientist who followed the path set for him by his father and uncles. Kurt was the overlooked kid brother, a college dropout, the family clown who sent story after story to slick magazines and amassed stacks of rejections slips.

The central section of the book flips back and forth between the brothers’ working lives in the late forties and into the fifties, and Bernard’s story is far more absorbing. The descriptions of Kurt sitting at his desk and pounding out prose become repetitive. Bernie, meanwhile, flies off in B-17s and makes rain with silver iodide (maybe). It isn’t until the last fifteen pages of the book that the roles are reversed, and Kurt becomes the dominant figure.

In Strand’s telling, the years in Schenectady bore most directly on two of Kurt’s novels: Player Piano (which disappointed me) and Cat’s Cradle (which didn't). The description of Ice-9 in the latter is taken directly from Bernie’s explanation to his brother about the different ways in which water may crystallize:

He told Kurt to imagine cannonballs stacked on a courthouse lawn. Just as the balls could be piled up into different shapes, ice crystals could be stacked into different configurations. In fact, [Percy] Bridgeman had described a whole series of ice phase variants, ice-1 through ice-6. And who knew—there might be more to come. (95)

Indeed there was.

Strand’s book also provides a valuable portrait of the GE corporate culture in those years. The company was then, as now, a central cog in the military-industrial complex, and it demanded not only the time and talents of its employees, but their political sympathies as well. And the sympathies were decidedly right-wing. (It was GE, she reminds us, that launched the political career of Ronald Reagan.) Kurt loathed the atmosphere, and got out soon after selling his first couple of stories. Bernard grew disillusioned over time – rather too much time, it seems – and escaped into academia.

Last aside: In Person of Interest, the sci-fi/action series that concluded its five-year run on CBS this month, the virus that finally destroys the evil computer is called Ice-9. I was tickled to hear that. 

Now I’m itching to reread some Vonnegut, when I’m finished (please, God) with Lovecraft.  

Monday, June 27, 2016

Final thoughts about the Doubleclicks

Aubrey and Angela Webber, with Max, the cat keyboard.
This will in all likelihood be my last post about Aubrey and Angela Webber, the maddeningly talented sisters from Portland, Ore., who tour and record under the name of Doubleclicks. For two years I’ve been trying to sell my friends on their music, and with one exception, I have failed.  The fault may lie not in our stars, but in our demographic. Most people my age, I guess, aren’t interested in geeky songs about dinosaurs, TV shows and tabletop games – never mind the appealing musicality or the memorable, singalong lyrics. This duo isn’t too young for me, because I never stopped being a geek, but it seems to be for my pals.

I give up.

Bitterness aside: Angela and Aubrey performed Sunday night at the newly reopened Steel City café in Phoenixville. It was their third appearance in the Philadelphia area in as many years, and it made up in energy and wit what it lacked in new material. Despite some problems the sound system, and Angela’s trouble with the tuning on her guitar (she hates summer, apparently), a splendid time was guaranteed for all. The sisters were in top form vocally, most memorably in the bouncy “Unstoppable Force.”  

They’ve been touring the country for the past week, and the long-distance driving seemed to have taken a toll. They didn’t appear weary so much as punchy: Angela would launch into rambling intros, only to have her sister pull her back from the brink. At one point, a song came to a dead stop as Angela retuned and asked for the sound to be brought down.  Like all real pros, however, they turned the trying circumstances to their advantage, milking them for laughs.  

Afterward, Laura Vernola, one of Steel City’s new owners, told me that of all the acts booked there since the coffeehouse reopened, the Doubleclicks were the most sheerly entertaining.
Still, as funny as they are, though, they always manage to put a lump in my throat. Sunday, the lump was planted by “Wonder,” “I’ve Got Nothing to Prove,” and their touching cover of Jimmy Eat World’s “The Middle,” a song its creators never intended to be touching.  

One last observation: As I was driving home, nervously watching the temperature gauge on my dashboard, I had to wonder how the act will change in the next few years.  Aubrey turned thirty last year, and Angela will in 2018, I believe.  In the near future, I thought, they will have to stop writing songs about growing up and begin to write about what it is like actually to be grown up. They might need time off to reassess, as Garry Trudeau did, before they were born, when he went on sabbatical and brought his Doonesbury characters into their post-collegiate lives.  But they are inventive musicians and observant lyricists, and I have no doubt they’ll handle the transition without letting the seams show

Maybe them my friends will pay attention.

Monday, March 14, 2016

The depths of the sea to the depths of space

The chamber recital this weekend by The Fine Art Music Company demonstrated just how fruitful thematic programming can be. Take a simple concept ― in this case, “A Musical Ode to Earth” ― and in a little while, pieces that otherwise might never share the same hour begin to present themselves. As the performances rolled by yesterday at the Ethical Society of Philadelphia, I could almost taste the excitement the Rollin Wilber and company must have felt in making their selections.
It was an eclectic list, certainly, though grounded firmly in the 20th and 21st centuries. The first half began with Henry Cowell’s “Tides of Manaunan,” one of the composer’s early experiments in tone clustering (written in 1914 when he was, incredibly, just 17), and ended with George Crumb’s exquisite Vox Balaenae, performed, as the score requests, in deep blue light with the performers wearing masks. It was an inspired juxtaposition, since Cowell pioneered the expansion of piano technique that Crumb later used to much more expressive effect. The low lighting and Lone Ranger-style facial gear must have interfered with the musicians’ ability to follow the score, but flutist Elivi Varga, cellist Julia Morelli, and pianist Katarzyna Marzec-Salwinski brought it off flawlessly. The finale achieved a genuine feeling of timelessness and otherworldliness, despite the intrusion of a police siren outside.

The other highlight of the first half, for me, was Katarzyna’s crisp rendition of Debussy’s prelude “The Terrace of Moonlight Audiences.”  In the second half, too, Rollin was as good as I’ve ever heard him in Ernest Bloch’s “Poems of the Sea” for piano.

The brief afternoon ended with the famous video of Carl Sagan speaking about the “pale blue dot” of Earth as photographed from the far reaches of the solar system by the Voyager spacecraft, followed by the music it inspired, David Ludwig’s Pale Blue Dot for string quartet. For me, the Ludwig was not as evocative as the Crumb, but I loved the soft, haunting way it ended, with the players tapping on their strings with small stones.

The program also included a pair of short works by the tragically short-lived Lili Boulanger, and, as a short break from the afternoon’s theme, Jacques Ibert’s Two Interludes for piano, violin and voice.