Wednesday, October 3, 2018

A Sleigh Ride Watch record

My annual "Sleigh Ride" watch was jump-started unexpectedly yesterday, October 2, close to a month before it usually begins.

The immortal Leroy Anderson,
composer of the immortal
"Sleigh Ride."
To recap the rules: Every year around the holidays, I note the first time I hear Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride," in either its instrumental or vocal incarnation. The encounter must be accidental. I may not seek out a recording. I have to chance upon it, either in a public place, such as a supermarket or department store, or on the radio.

Late in September, I started a new job as associate editor at a trade publication, and one of the women in the production department likes to begin celebrating Christmas as early as she can. (Given a choice, she would celebrate it year-round but, apparently, co-workers have convinced her to suppress that particular urge.) Yesterday, at her computer, she was listening to a Google playlist of Christmas songs, and as I delivered a handful of documents to her inbox, I overheard "Sleigh Ride" sung by none other than Carole King. The number of artists who have covered the song is approaching infinity, but still, a recording by the woman who wrote "I Feel the Earth Move" surprised me.

So, with my one holiday tradition out of the way, there's nothing to do but await the new year.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Masters of disorientation

One of the joys of unemployment is the all the extra reading time. Recently, I’ve gone through studies of two of my favorite postwar American artists – Hiding Man, Tracy Daugherty's biography of his friend and mentor Donald Barthelme, and David Schiff’s latest assessment of his friend and mentor Elliott Carter.

Writer and composer have now become linked in my mind, and not just because I’ve read books about them in quick succession. For decades, they lived literally around the corner from one another in Lower Manhattan -- Barthelme at 113 West 11th Street, Carter at 31 West 12th – although there is no record  that they ever met. We also don’t know if Carter knew Barthelme’s work, even though Barthelme was a regular contributor to the New Yorker, and Carter a regular reader. (He was not familiar with Woody Allen’s writings for the magazine, Schiff says.) On the other hand, Daugherty informs us, in September 1962, Barthelme, then working as director of the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston, arranged a performance of Carter’s music. (I would really like to know what the piece was.)

Barthelme, born in 1931 and raised in Texas, was a full generation younger than Carter, a native New Yorker born in 1908.  In terms of their intellectual pursuits and their efforts to expand the language of modernism in their respective fields, however, the two appear to have much in common. I got the feeling of covering much the same philosophical ground in each book. Names of influential figures -- Beckett, Joyce, Pound, Eliot, Ashbery, Philip Johnson – recur, and Schiff and Daugherty reach similar conclusions in trying to pin down the meaning of “modernism” and “post-modernism.”

Here’s Schiff:  “The overused term Modernism makes the most sense when it denotes an evolving, many-sided disputation about the relation of art to the rapidly changing conditions of modern life, rather than a coherent movement or body of ideas.”

And here’s Daugherty: “’Post-modernism’ does not – cannot -- denote a single ethos. Nor is it solely the province of artists, writers and academics; if by ‘post-modern’ we mean style over substance, a blurring of values, and vague historical awareness, then the conditions for it are set by  lawyers, real estate developers, money speculators, televangelists, and the nation’s professional political class, along with its symbiotic companion, the professional media.

“Remember Don’s remark: ‘The disorientation in my stories is not mine. It is what is to be perceived around us.’”

Even the word “flaneur” shows up in both texts. I had never in my life encountered the word “flaneur.”

Despite the difference in their ages, Carter and Barthelme produced some of their most  characteristic, innovative work in the 1960s, a time of political and cultural turmoil – and of violence -- in the United States and abroad. Barthelme addressed the Vietnam War and the Parisian Days of Rage explicitly. Carter disavowed any political programs in his music, although the turmoil is certainly there to be heard. (Phil Lesh, bass player for the Grateful Dead and a big Carter fan, once told me that as far as he is concerned, the Concerto for Orchestra is 1968.)

In the end, too, both men saw their moments pass, their stars partially eclipsed by a more self-consciously populist aesthetic. I found it poignant that the phenomenon known as “minimalism” dogged each of them. In literature, the minimalist par excellence was Raymond Carver. In music, of course, it is Philip Glass.

Of the two, Schiff’s book is harder to categorize. It’s not quite a critical biography (which Schiff says has yet to be written), not quite a memoir of a friendship, not quite a reception history, not quite an analysis of the music -- although it contains elements of all of these. If backed into a corner, I’d call it a start in the process of historical evaluation.

Carter’s death, in 2012, seems to have freed Schiff to say publically things he must have kept private while the composer was alive. He is more critical of some of the music than he’s been in the past, offers interpretations and terminology at odds with Carter’s own, and even makes a few good jokes. It’s clear he doesn’t care for Carter’s only opera, “What Next?”, though his dislike seems to have more to do with Paul Griffith’s libretto than with Carter’s music.

(As an aside, I’d submit that Barthelme would have made an ideal librettist for Carter. He had just the knack for surreal comedy Carter was looking for, and some of his all-dialogue stories have been successfully staged. Unfortunately, he died – of throat cancer, at age 58, in 1989 – years before Carter ever considered writing an opera. Life is full of tantalizing what-ifs.)

As with everything Schiff writes, there are quotable insights on almost every page of Carter, but I must say I didn’t find his comments on A Symphony of Three Orchestras as enlightening as they might have been. The decay of New York in the ’70s (another occasional theme in Barthelme’s work) might provide a plausible context for the descent from the soaring trumpet solo of the opening to the “bludgeoning, mechanical ostinato of the coda,” but to my ear, it doesn’t account for all that sumptuous stuff in the middle.

The notion that Carter’s musical personality may be divided into “Carter Light” and “Carter Dark” isn’t quite fully developed, either, and, forgive me, it makes him sound like a brand of beer. (Other product lines would include Carter Pale Ale and Carter Winter Lager.)

Hiding Man and Carter also suggest these New York neighbors currently occupy the kind of critical limbo that often follows an artist’s death. Barthelme and Carter await rediscovery and a cultural positioning that may be possible, if ever, only when our current, partisan squabbles about modernism are over. 

In the meantime, I read, I listen.

Monday, April 30, 2018

All roads lead to the G-Spot

Every year, when the prospectus for the upcoming season of The Philadelphia Orchestra arrives in the mail, I leaf through it, looking for a program or a particular piece to get excited about. It rarely happens anymore. The big orchestras, especially on the East Coast, have become increasingly reactionary over the past few decades. I'd even go out on a limb and say Yannick Nezet-Seguin's repertoire is more limited than Eugene Ormandy's.

To maintain my interest in live music, I rely on chamber groups and ensembles like Orchestra 2001, which, under the leadership of the young and amiable Jayce Ogren, presented a pair of programs last week that I swear were put together specifically with me in mind. On April 22 and 28, the group celebrated the 25th anniversary of the release of Frank Zappa's Yellow Shark album, the last disk the composer issued in his lifetime.

The April 22 program, titled "Zappa's Radical Classical Roots," was held at World Cafe Live and focused on Zappa's musical heroes, with works by Edgard Varese (of course), Pierre Boulez, Stravinsky, and Anton Webern, as well as three brief selections from "The Yellow Shark."  The April 28 concert, at the Fillmore Philly, presented the (almost) complete Yellow Shark. (Three pieces from the album, improvisations worked out by Zappa and the Ensemble Modern, have not been approved  for performance by the Zappa Family Trust.) The second event was also preceded by a rare treat: a reading of Varese's Ionization for percussion, which I'd never heard live.

Both performances were uniformly outstanding. The musicians of Orchestra 2001 rose to every challenge the 20th-century avant-garde could throw at them. Of the two, however, I would say the first was the more deeply satisfying. The music Zappa wrote for classical musicians, or for the Synclavier, as attractive as they can be, often lack the cogency of "L'histoire du soldat" or "Density 21.5." Pieces like Times Beach II and III feel like fragments of larger works. They don't so much begin and end as they seem to materialize out of  nowhere, linger in our plane of reality for a few minutes, and then vanish. The most successful of the lot were, for me, "None of the Above" for  string quintet, in which the bravura lines for the first violin create an arresting point of focus, and "Ruth Is Sleeping" for two pianos, largely because Stephanie Ho seemed to be having such a ball.

But then there was "G-Spot Tornado," the wild (and aptly titled) Synclavier piece, arranged for small orchestra by Ali Askin, that brought the second evening to a sensational close. Ormandy used to say the most sure-fire concert finale is Brahms' Second Symphony, whose last movement is guaranteed to send the audience home with a jolt. "G-Spot Tornado" is in the same class. There is just no resisting it. Before the last crash of the gong had died down, the Fillmore crowd was on its feet, calling for an encore, which, sadly, it didn't get. The piece has stuck in my head ever since.

All hail Ogren and Orchestra 2001 for a pair of memorable performances. Thanks, too, to Joe Klein, professor of music at the University of North Texas, who spoke at both programs. Klein teaches a course on Zappa and was billed in the programs as a "Zappa expert," a title he said he didn't fully deserve. His classes are full of Zappa experts, he said, and the audiences in attendance at last week's programs probably also had their share. He was right. The pre- and post-concert chatter each eveninng was impressively well-informed. The second night's crowd seemed particularly devoted, with some audience members traveling from as far as North Carolina and New York State for the privilege of hearing The Yellow Shark live.

I think I've heard more live Zappa in the 25 years since his death than I did when he was alive. With the dedication of groups like Orchestra 2001 and Andre Cholmondeley's Project/Object, his legacy seems secure for the foreseeable future.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Heavy on the Brahms

Don't want to let too much time pass before I mention a pair of morale-boosting concerts I attended over the weekend. On Saturday, pianists Rollin Wilber and Kasia Salwinski presented another of their signature theme programs at the gemütlich Ivy Hall in Philadelphia. The subject this time out was "musical fantasies," a catch-all that covers a lot of different kinds of music. 

Kasia Salwinski and Rollin Wilber
performed a program of musical fantasies
March 24 at Ivy Hall. The program was
repeated at the Ethical Society March 25.
(In her introductory remarks, Kasia said the fantasy has been a favorite form of hers since she was a student, though, really, the word refers to a lack of form. A fantasy is something composers of bygone eras wrote when they tired of limitations imposed by the sonata, which as early as the time of Chopin had come to seem somewhat academic.) 

The program began with Schubert's F minor Fantasia for four hands and ended with Mozart's Fantasia No. 2, also in F minor, also for four hands, a delightful work, yet surprisingly substantial for something originally written for a musical clock. (That's Mozart for you.) In between, we heard Chopin's F minor Fantasy Op. 49, Mendelssohn's F-sharp minor Fantasy Op. 28, Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata ("quasi una fantasia," in case you've forgotten), and Brahms's Fantasien Op. 116. The Brahms, sensitively played by Salwinski, affected me particularly, perhaps because I'm feeling rather melancholy these days. (Elliott Carter used to complain about what he called "the weepy side of Brahms." This is one of those  issues on which he and I part company.) 

As always with these two top-notch pianists, the program was varied yet unified, with much to enjoy and much to think about.

Sunday afternoon, the Elysian Camerata offered still more music by Schubert and Brahms in Bala Cymwyd -- the "Rosemunde" String Quartet and the String Quintet in G Major Op. 111. The Schubert was touching, and the "Rosemunde" theme always puts a catch in my throat. The Brahms, on the other hand, was a blast to hear live and in close quarters. It's a big, dense work that, from a few feet away, in the lively acoustics of St. Asaph's Church, felt almost symphonic.

My spirits could use many more weekends like this.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Essays After a Sonata

For the past few weeks I've been living with Kyle Gann's new book, Charles Ives's Concord: Essays After a Sonata, an exhaustive study that combines literary history, musical analysis, and aesthetic philosophy. It's an endlessly fascinating resource and a book I'll be returning to often.

Analyzing a favorite piece of music is, for me, rather like describing a mental state in terms of neural activity. It's necessary, I suppose, but does little to capture the quality of the experience. As detailed and daunting as Gann's vivisections can be, however, they do us the service of exposing the planning and intelligence -- the artistry, if  you will -- that Ives lavished on his Second Piano Sonata. The underlying unity if a composition is "not a selling point that would have impressed Ives," Gann says. Still, it impresses me. And although Ives downplayed the value of form -- what he would call "manner" -- in evaluating a work of art, it is also true that after self-publishing the Concord in 1920, Ives devoted the better part of three decades revising, editing, and tweaking the score until he arrived at a form that satisfied him. And even then it didn't, quite.

Gann's chapters on the Essays Before a Sonata, the short volume Ives published as a companion to the Concord, are more fun, though less essential to understanding the music, and they go a long way toward rehabilitating Ives as a thinker and prose stylist. Ives was not the first to judge art from a moral standpoint, or in terms of a fundamental duality. In both respects, Gann argues, he owes a large, mostly unacknowledged debt to John Ruskin. Gann admits, however, that "in the end, Ives's treatise on substance and manner may have to remain for us, no practical typology or description." In other words, it doesn't offer much of a guide on the best places to spend our entertainment dollar. To my mind, dualisms like substance and manner can create a useless diversion, entangling the listener in endless parlor about which pieces conform to the standard and which don't. They also deny us our right to determine our own response to a work of art. A song or a symphony may be enjoyed for any number of reasons, no one of which is to be deeper or more authentic than any other. To paraphrase Ives's father: Don't pay too much attention to substance. If you do, you may miss the music.

I've listened to the Concord Sonata countess times over the years, and I've seen it performed live more often than any other piece. Now I'm hearing it again with fresh ears, picking out details that had grown almost inaudible through repetition. I am grateful to Gann for reintroducing me to a piece I thought I knew well, and for loving Ives as much as I do.

(I should also mention the book includes a concise, helpful chapter on Ives's First Piano Sonata, a remarkable work that is often overlooked beside the Concord. This week,  I listened to it again, in Donna Coleman's fiery recording, and with Gann's notes in mind, I was able to navigate its conflicting cross-currents without once losing my bearings.)

Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Wreck of the Inarticulate

I wrote this after reading Longfellow's "Wreck of  the Hesperus." It helps to have a dictionary handy.

The Wreck of the Inarticulate

For Cal

t was the Inarticulate
That sailed the ocean blue —
A schooner, brig, or barquentine,
Nobody really knew.

Skippèr and crew were fearless men
Whose only major failing
Was total ignorance about
The lexicon of sailing.

Jibs and stu’n’s’ls, martingales,
Gammon, tack and luff,
Braces, ratlines, shrouds and stays —   
They knew it all as “stuff.”

Scuttle, course, and mizzenmast,
To them, were all the same.
They cheesed a Flemish coil down,
But never knew its name.

And so, one bleak December morn,
As the gales began to blow,
And every blessèd man on deck
Was blinded by the snow,

The skipper called upon them all           
To save the found’ring rig:
“Bring the pointy part around,
And hoist the thingamajig!”

Every man looked back at him
With vacant, blinking eyes,
Uncertain what to make of his
Obscure, despèrate cries.

The skipper shook his fist and thundered,
“Come on! Do your job!
Turn the what’s-is over there!
Raise the thingamabob!”

Every man looked back at him
Immobile as before,
As swells and billows tossed the ship
And drove her toward the shore.

The skipper gave it one more shot,
His last ’twas ever heard:
“Helmsman, grab those things and spin the —
Darn it! What’s the word?”

Just then a wave loomed overhead
And with a deaf’ning roar,
It swept the skipper and his crew
From what they called the “floor.”

At last, the roll of breakers
And the fifing of a gull
Played bourrées on the rocks that stove
What real tars call the “hull.”

For weeks thereafter, passengers
Aboard the island ferry
Saw, floating mid the ship’s debris,
A sailing dictionary.

So sank the Inarticulate
With all her crew and cargo.
Lord save us from chagrin like that
Upon the Reef of Argot!

Joe Barron

January 9-11, 2018