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.


Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The real joy of music

As I wrote in my previous post, I spent all day Sunday at one musical salon or another. One of the nicest things about it was that, for a full afternoon and evening, I was able to forget about the presidential race. It started much too early, it's been going on much too long, and none of the constant barrage of information is of any lasting interest. All of the minute-by-minute polling and the commentary, as urgent as it is made to seem, is instantly forgotten. A year from now, no one will care to remember that Jeb! or Ben Carson ever ran. It will all be as interesting as last week's traffic reports, the only difference being that traffic reports are at least useful at the time. For one day, it was a pleasure to leave the hype behind and create a lasting memory.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Riches from a very long day

A large number of short pieces led yesterday to a musical experience of Wagnerian proportions. For the first time in my life that I remember, I attended two concerts in one day. No single work on either program lasted more than fifteen minutes, but together they added up to more than five hours of music. At 3 p.m. the Fine Art Music Company presented a concert of music for violin, saxophone and piano at Ivy Hall (in the Georgian mansion known as the International Institute for Culture) on Lancaster Avenue. Then, at 7, Andrea Clearfield hosted her monthly salon at her home downtown.

Maybe I was just fresher in the afternoon, but I would have to say that, while both programs were memorable, for musical satisfaction, the Ivy Hall program had the edge. (It also had chairs. In Andrea’s living room, most guests sit on the floor.) Jonathan Moser played the Debussy Violin Sonata with just the right combination of lightness and grit, accompanied with expert deference by Katarzyna Marzec-Salwinski, and Jeremy Juteson introduced me to the sound world of Joan Tower with Wings for solo saxophone, a tour de force of tone color and rapid mood shifts. (The piece depicts a falcon in flight, Justseon said, and both the score and the performance certainly made the inspiration clear.)

The program also included Hindemith’s Sonata for Solo Violin, Op. 31, No. 2, and two attractive if slighter works, the Trio for Violin, Alto Saxophone and Piano by Jeffrey Quick, and Cantilene et Danse, for the same three instruments, by Marc Eychennne. The middle movement of the Quick was titled “The Answered Question,” a shout-out to Charles Ives, though the composer took too big a chance by inviting a comparison. The music came nowhere near capturing Ives’s sense of wonder. As an expression of faith, it struck me as a little too self-satisfied.

I was going to skip Andrea’s Salon this month until I learned it would include music by my longtime acquaintance Sheridan Seyfried, whom I first interviewed for his hometown newspaper more than a decade ago, on the occasion of his acceptance to the Curtis Institute of Music. Sheridan and three of his Curtis friends performed a short, exuberant work for piano quartet that deconstructs a well-known patriotic air. I refrain from naming it, since, in accordance with the composer’s intention, no one outside a circle of initiates is ever supposed to guess what it is.  

The music at Andrea’s salons is always diverse, and last night’s program gave me my first glimpse of a wholesome young folk group called Sunday Muse, and the singer-songwriter Alexandra Day, who had some funny patter. The five-star discovery of the night, however, was Karolina Syrovatkova, a wafer-thin Czech pianist with a delicate jaw like the limb of a crescent moon. She played a dance and a folk-song arrangement by Smetana, and her touch seemed a miracle of weightlessness.  

I did not get home until  close to midnight, and falling asleep was not an issue.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Salon of Russian Music and Poetry

From left, mezzo-soprano Tatyana Rashkovsky,
pianist Katarzyna Marzec-Salwinski, and reader
and all-around good egg Inna Lobanova-Heasely. 
It's always an exciting challenge to find something to do on Super Bowl Sunday other than watch the game. This year, my Facebook (and real life) friend Inna Lobanova-Heasley invited me to a salon f Russian poetry and music held at the Ethical Society of Philadelphia on Rittenhouse Square. It was a lovely afternoon out that was also educational. Russian anything is a gaping lacuna in my cultural education.

The salon was dedicated to the memory of Alexander Pushkin. Inna read his poems (in Russian) and mezzo-soprano Tatyana Rashkovsky, accompanied by either Kasha Marzec-Salwinski or Rollin Wilber on piano, sang settings of his verses. The program also included solo piano pieces big and small, with Kasha and Rollin switching off.

I've never been a fan of Russian music, and the outer movements of Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Sonata, with which Kasha ended the program, reminded me why. The score is stuffed with fat and carbohydrates  ― yummy, but not really good for you. (The fingering is so ostentatiously furious Kasha broke one of the black keys. Bravely, she kept whaling away.) Scriabin's Fifth Piano Sonata, however, which Rollin played at the end of the first half, was a wild ride. I especially liked the way it ended, suddenly breaking off as though the composer, or the performer, got sick of the effort and said, "To hell with it." The smaller piano pieces were lovely, too, even those by Rachmaninoff, and the songs were a revelation. The discovery of the afternoon had to be Nikolai Medtner (1880-1951), and who was represented by his songs "I Have Outlived My Aspirations," "Winter Evening," and "To the Dreamer," and whom I had never heard of. There was something old-fashioned and painfully nostalgic about the whole enterprise ― the youngest composer on the bill was Shostakovich ― but it was a memorable afternoon.

This morning, I found the Puppy Monkey Baby on YouTube. The commercial proves that combining one good thing with another good thing does not necessarily result in a third good thing. The Greeks understood this.

So, those of you claim to watch the Big Game for the commercials,tell me, which of us made the healthier choice?

Saturday, February 6, 2016

... ly Ballou here in Times Square

Bob, left, and Ray, right.
I note, with great sadness, the passing Feb. 2 of Bob Elliott, one half of the great Bob and Ray, one of my two favorite comedy teams (the other being, of course, the Marx Brothers). I bought the soundtrack album to Bob and Ray: The Two and Only with paperboy money when I was 12, and a year later, I saw the touring company (which consisted of the same cast) at the now-defunct Locust Theater in Philadelphia. A few years later I followed Bob and Ray on WOR in New York (which I could pick up in Southeastern Pa.) and then on National Public Radio.

I never missed a chance to hear them, if I could help it.  They were clean, subtle to the vanishing point, and at their best, hilarious. I was such a fan that in the early 1990s, while I was active in community theater in the Washington, D.C., area, I strung together several of my favorite bits into a one-act play I called "The Bob and Ray Suite," which I directed and appeared in and which turned out to be a great hit.

Having no no idea how to get the performance rights to the  material, I wrote to the Museum of TV and Radio in New York, asking that my request be forwarded to Bob, wherever he might be. Weeks later, I was surprised delighted to find a typewritten response from Bob Elliott in my mailbox. (The return address on the envelope was Cundy's Harbor, Maine, where Bob was reported to have died.) Bob granted me permission to perform the skits without payment. He asked only that the program give proper credit. I still have the letter.

Monday, January 18, 2016

File under Bou - Bow

The death of Pierre Boulez on January 5 was quickly overshadowed by the death of David Bowie a few days later.  Bowie was the talk of my newsroom for an afternoon, and of course, none of my co-workers had ever heard of Boulez. Even many of my classically trained Facebook friends had more to say and more posts to make about the flamboyantly pansexual rock star than the quietly asexual composer and conductor.

Though I never actively followed Bowie’s career, I always felt his presence: He seem to lurk in the background of my life, on the jukebox in my high school cafeteria, on the car radio, or on the television. Taking inventory after he died, however, I realized the only Bowie song I have in my entire music collection is a cover ― Rickie Lee Jones’ version of “Rebel, Rebel” on the album Stuart’s Coat.  It’s my favorite Bowie song, and guitar riff has been stuck in my mind for days. Yet I’m certain than when it finally leaves me alone, my strongest memory of Bowie will remain his unexpected, and hilarious, appearance on the Looney Tunes 50th anniversary special:

Boulez, on the other hand, became a central figure in my musical life early on, first as a conductor, and only later as a composer. His name appears throughout my record and CD collections as the leader of treasured performances of Berg, Carter, Debussy, Mahler, Ravel, Schoenberg , Webern and Zappa. I first saw him conduct in New York City in 1974, when directed the New York Philharmonic in Charles Ives’s Fourth Symphony. (The Ives centenary was celebrated that year.) Three years later, I attended the premiere of Carter’s wonderful Symphony of Three Orchestras, also with Boulez and the Philharmonic, and in 1986, I saw him lead the Ensemble InterContemporain in the US premiere of Carter’s Penthode at Avery Fisher Hall. (His recording, released in 1990, unfortunately does not capture the charm of the live performance.)  

As regards his compositions, it seems I have been on the verge of truly appreciating them for years. Every so often, I’ll listen to some of them, like what I hear, and then go on about my business. Certainly, he was precocious, influential, and most important, good. Already in the 1950s, with Le Marteau sans Maitre, he had mastered an idiom that Elliott Carter would turn to his own purposes only years later. Robert Craft's recording of the piece, on Columbia, was epoch-making, to be sure, but Boulez' own, made half a century later for DGG, is gorgeous. I will, in the coming days, continue to explore the discography, and, I hope to come away with a deeper understanding of a composer who lived long but departed too soon. 

Monday, December 28, 2015

Spenser's frame of reference

Ace Atkins has written a fourth novel in his continuation of Robert B. Parker's Spenser franchise. This one is called Kickback , and it's based directly on the kids-for-cash scandal that played out a few years ago in Luzerne County, Pa., my proud home state.

(About that title: toward the end of his life, Parker skimped on his prose. The page count stayed the same, but the type got bigger, the margins wider, the leading deeper, and the titles were mostly reduced to one word. He seemed to be a race against time. The hireling author has filled out the pages again, but he has turned bi-syllabic titles into a tradition.)

Of  Atkins' attempts to inhabit the Spenser universe so far, this is the first  one that doesn't fall apart at the end, although he does feel the need to introduce organized crime into the story, the one element not drawn from real life,  just to he can set up an obligatory bloodbath. Just once, I'd like to read a Spenser novel in which goons are not sent sent to scare the hero off. The crime bosses never seem to realize that if they just left him alone, he'd have no leads to track down.
As with the last Spenser book, I couldn't help thinking about Spenser's age, which is never nailed down numerically, but which has to be over 80. Parker, who used element his own life in fashioning the character, was born in 1932, and Spenser was already in his forties when he was introduced in 1973. Do the math. Our urban knight errant is now dealing with a reconstructed knee, and he's gone on a diet, cutting out his beloved donuts (though he'd lose weight faster if he stopped drinking). Barring a complete reboot a la Star Trek, he'll soon be breaking down doors with a walker.

What drove the age issue home most forcefully, however, wasn't Spenser's physical condition, but his cultural references, which seem stuck in a time warp. Parker had a lazy way of describing characters, especially women, by comparing them to celebrities of the day, but at least the names he used were of the day. Atkins reaches back into the pop culture past, as though he knows he's writing for an aging demographic.

But to be fair, he's writing about a character who still listens to Artie Shaw and wears a Brooklyn Dodgers cap.

Here are a few examples, with page references. See how many you recognize.

A haggard woman missing two front teeth got up to slow dance with a man in a flannel shirt and unlaced boots. They could have taken a lesson from Arthur Murray. (44) Is that even around anymore?

The hood lay loose around his neck, making him look like Nanook of the North. (44)

All this sleuthing was exciting as hell. If only Bulldog Drummond had the Internet. (75)

Only myself an Warner Oland could sleuth over a plate of scallion pancakes. (78)

"I know you," I said, snapping my fingers at the old guy. "You were in the Mickey Mouse Club. You, Chubby and Annette. Wow. Brings back some real memories." (121)

"Enough," I said. "Not that I don't enjoy the Lux Radio Theatre ..." (134)

He looked about as menacing as Howdy Doody on a buckboard. (186)

His thick, curly hair had been cut shorter than Daddy Warbucks's. (232)

I waited for the purse to clock me with all the ferocity of Ruth Buzzi. (245)

He looked like a young James Caan without the looks. (290)

There was also a reference to Madonna in there someplace.