Saturday, October 29, 2016

Meine Lieblingsmusik

Wer sagt, die Deutschen haben keinen Sinn für Humor?

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

"Like a complete unknown ..."

I suppose I'm going to have to weigh on on this whole Bob Dylan-Nobel Prize thing, but since Dylan himself hasn't acknowledged  it yet, I haven't felt too much pressure. According to Adam Kirsch, our latest laureate isn't even returning the Swedish Academy's phone calls, and now the Lords of Literature are getting all huffy, accusing their newest poster boy of being "impolite and arrogant."

They're surprised? The guy has made a career of being impolite and arrogant.

The truth is, I'm neither outraged  by the prize, nor am I raising huzzahs, as some have. I'm just not that into Dylan, and the Nobel is not a ticket to immortality. Every year when the prize is announced, we recall the greats who were never named -- Proust, Tolstoy, Conrad, Joyce, Nabokov, Auden -- and we overlook, yet again, the many mediocrities who were. Every Novel, every Pulitzer, every Oscar, every Grammy is a reminder, as if we needed reminding, that life is unfair.

And then there's the question, is what Dylan does literature? I'd say yeah, sure, why not?, but that admission doesn't make me prouder to be an American living at this particular time.

In the New York Review of Books, Luc Sante argues that while Dylan's lyrics, on their own, might not scan as well as those of Cole Porter or Smokey Robiinson, he added a new dimension to song: "As great a Porter and Robinson were as songwriters,  they were working in -- and profiting from -- the air of frivolity that attended lyric-writing by the mid-twentieth century, an era that prized verbal dexterity and rapid evaporation. Dylan, through his ambiguity, his ability to throw down puzzles that continue to echo and to generate interpretations, almost singehandedly created a climate inn which lyrics were taken seriously."

In other words, Dylan is more pretentious. What, one may ask, is un-literary about lightness and frivolity? And I hardly think Porter's lyrics have evaporated.

But Dylan was not awarded the Nobel Prize for his lyrics. He was given the ward for his songs: the combination of lyrics and music. Anyone who recalls "Like a Rolling Stone" or "When I paint My Masterpiece"  doesn't recite the words.  They sing them to themselves, and it is this mutual dependence of words and music that led Alex Ross to compare Dylan to Wagner.

I don't think the comparison quite holds, since Wagner is regarded primarily as a composer. The music, without the words, is still ravishing. Gershwin's melodies, too, stand on their own and have become standards of the instrumental jazz repertoire. Dylan's have not.

Give him his due, though: There may be  better lyricists, better guitar players, better tune smiths -- heaven knows there are better singers, but few others have combined their talents into something so memorable. He  is one of the few cases where the overused word "synergy" is appropriate.

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.