Thursday, March 27, 2014

Joe

by D. Kern Holoman

Joseph Kerman at 60
Just before his 60th birthday, after Andrew Porter had (yet again) cited Opera as Drama in that week's New Yorker, I asked Joe what it what it was like to be so remembered, so notorious, for what amounted to one's opening salvo—and for three words of that salvo, no less. He shrugged and said “I haven't really thought that much about Puccini since then: other things to do.”

(Opera as Drama appeared in 1956 and has been in one or another form of print ever since. A 50th-anniversary edition was published by the University of California Press in 2006.)

We had moved to California in 1973, and I suppose stayed here in part because of Joe and Vivian, who had welcomed us from the first and who were the patina on those early years of discovering an unknown land. For two decades we talked or corresponded—toward the end, e-mailed—almost every day, mostly about 19th-Century Music, the journal we founded together with Robert Winter in 1977.

In the introduction to Essays for Joseph Kerman (19th-Century Music 7/3, a double issue published on April 3, 1984—his birthday), I tried to evoke the merry circumstances of the magazine's birth and something of the power of his pen. He was, as noted elsewhere on this site, the brains behind the original “Dear Abbé,” and a certain amount of Writing about Music (3rd edn. 2014, first published 1988 for the tenth anniversary of the magazine).

19th-Century Music founders
DKH, JK, Cynthia Bates (ed. asst.), RW
For “Joseph Kerman: Bibliography” (pp. 192–98 of the Kermanschrift) I found and read everything he had written until then. Nothing was more formative to my own developing ideas of mission and strategy than reading all those pieces in a row. At the Press and the magazine, and in his inner circle (Vivian, Gary Tomlinson, Walter Frisch), we pushed Joe toward an anthology of what he thought his best writings, and the result was the fine volume Write All These Down (1994). It begins with his famous pieces “A Profile for American Musicology” (1965) and “How We Got into Analysis, and How to Get Out” (1980).

I chose his textbook, Listen (1972), for my first large-lecture class in 1975—largely for its gripping treatment of “Wotan's Farewell,” and the one-line score thereof—and used it, for nearly two decades, as we built the course into our campus's foundational curriculum. The inevitable result was a textbook of my own: I reveled in the notion of meeting JK on the field of commerce, though knew in advance the certain outcome. The close of Masterworks (1998, still going in its e-version), was meant as a salute to the Kerman style: “Art, properly done, will sustain you, challenge you, comfort you. And it may show you a path. Listen to it.”

Joe has at a typescript
Meanwhile there had come The Masses and Motets of William Byrd (1980) and the great Beethoven article with Alan Tyson, published in book form as The New Grove Beethoven (1983). Contemplating Music: Challenges to Musicology (1985) was the last of his works I was able to study in its genesis and execution. He began to be the guru of the “New Musicology,” of which I thought I might disapprove, and I became more consumed by conducting and administration and things French. Still his work kept coming out, each new book drawing us again to the canon: the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard, published as Concerto Conversations (1999), The Art of Fugue: Bach Fugues for Keyboard, 17151750 (2005), Opera and the Morbidity of Music (2008).

Joe relished being a shocker himself, now and then. You saw it in his titles—“How We Got into Analysis,” “Taking the Fifth”—and in the pleasure he took in shaking things up in general and the zinger in particular. When he was on the verge of retirement, we hosted an afternoon symposium in Davis on critics and criticism, with Joe and David Cairns and Richard Swift and maybe Michael Steinberg. In the Q&A I asked him what he was looking forward to most about retirement, to which he replied, without pause, “not going to concerts.” 

You simply didn't know what to think, and by the time you did, he was off on his compelling list of reasons why sitting in tidy rows to worship the Great Masters in silence had to change. And he was right, or pretty close to it.

I had already decided that the concept of finding one's voice would end this short essay when I re-read the preface to Write all These Down, where Kerman on Kerman says it all. His first voice, that of the Hudson Review and Opera as Drama, “was descriptive and evaluative, often enthusiastic and often judgmental. After the mid-1950s my work was addressed less to the Hudson Review readership and more to musicologists (and, one always hopes, to practical, performing musicians).

The need to speak technically—that is, in close detail—about music began to seem a more urgent matter than the intellectual and artistic common ground that I felt (or vaguely imagined) I shared with the Hudson readerships. I was also experiencing more and more difficulty coping with contemporary music—music past Elliott Carter—and felt as a result more and more uncomfortable with my stance as a critic. …

The scholarly voice cultivated after around 1960 was not a new voice—it had already been used for a dissertation and an AMS paper, inter alia—but it was now heard more often. The mode was descriptive, objective, and measured. ...

One cannot define criticism; one must be content with exemplifying it—bearing witness, as it were—and, sometimes, writing around it.

Professing, one might say. The memory of Joe that rings truest is that of his voice—rich-hued in sound, grand in the manner of Charles Rosen, gentle as Michael Steinberg. It is at once musical and musicianly: commanding, compelling, and comforting. Transfiguring. Listen to it.

LINKS:
D. Kern Holoman is curator of Musicology Now and was a co-founder, with Joseph Kerman and Robert Winter, of 19th-Century Music, which continues to be published by the University of California Press and to maintain an office on the Davis campus.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Remembering Joe Kerman

Sarah Fuller

I came to graduate study at Berkeley in 1961 as someone unschooled in the labyrinths and habitudes of musicology and with great gaps in cognizance of repertory, and Joseph Kerman became a formative guide to me. I recall especially my two first-year seminars with him. One dealt with 16th-century English sacred polyphony that addressed not just style and imitative techniques of various composers, recusant oppression, and Italian influences on English music, but delved into music/text relations and expressive depths realized in key passages. From this experience came an abiding connection with the motets of Thomas Tallis and William Byrd.
The other was a seminar in Verdi opera.  By approaching the works “as drama” and presenting them in part through the writings of Abramo Basevi, he awakened in me a real love for opera, a genre that had been opaque to me. Our final test had two parts.  One was a written discussion-analysis of a passage from the end of act III, scene 1 of Falstaff that was to cover a wide range of aspects from unusual harmonic progressions to dramatic effects of reminiscences from earlier in the opera (“Reverenza!”). For the on-the-spot examination, we were told simply to know Falstaff well. We expected to have the usual listening identification exam—locate excerpted passages within the work, identify the character singing, comment on the importance of that dramatic moment and significance of the excerpt. What we got instead was a libretto of Gianni Schicchi, a single hearing, and the instruction to write on the influences from Falstaff that we perceived in the piece. A typically imaginative way of assessing whether we could indeed apply much that we had learned that semester to a practical situation, and a task that was stimulating for us, the students.
Joseph Kerman was unfailingly kind to me, and even entrusted me to scout the complex of watermarks in the “Kafka” sketchbook for his 1970 edition—I was at the time in London carrying out research in the distant realm of Aquitanian polyphony.
I have always admired the thoughtfulness with which he regarded the enterprise of musicology, his commitment not just to the academy but to the wider community of intelligent music listeners and to the education of young listeners, his genuine devotion to and appreciation for the music of many eras. 

 Coming unexpectedly upon his obituary in last Sunday’s New York Times, I felt a real pang of loss, but also a surge of gratitude for his teaching and for what he stood for in the profession. Rereading segments of Opera as Drama or The Beethoven Quartets has always invigorated me, and these studies, along with others, will, I believe, continue to inspire positive actions and reactions among musicologists for decades to come.
 Andrew Dell'Antonio 
His just-published Contemplating Music was one of the reasons I chose Berkeley for graduate school in 1985, and I was awed and a little cowed to have him lead the musicology boot camp course for entering Master's students. Later, as I was preparing for my comprehensive exams, he helped lead me through a focused independent study on Schubert, whom I had chosen as the "outside focus" for the comps, and I learned to love and understand that repertory much more deeply thanks to his guidance. At my doctoral graduationhe made a point of running up to his office for his regalia so that we could have a good photo-op; and ever since then he was always kind, gracious, generous in our interactions. He lived a long life, and shaped our discipline in so many important ways. May his memory always be for a blessing.
 Bruce A. Brown
A giant. I count myself lucky to have studied with him (I even TA'd for his Beethoven class). One of his best, and simplest, teaching strategies was to have those of us in his Renaissance proseminar sing and play through whole volumes of the complete edition of Clemens non Papa, as a way of acquiring a trained ear for the period's style, and also in order to actually make use of one of the many Gesamtausgaben piling up on the library shelves.
James Parsons
When I first started in musicology more years ago than I will admit, one of my teachers stated that his mentor thought some of Kerman's language a "bit too vernacular." I disagreed then and I disagree now. Who among us will ever forget the line, directed at Puccini's Tosca: that shabby little shocker? In my dissertation, I quoted one of my favorite Kerman passages, from an article of his from 1980, How We Got into Analysis, and How to Get Out.Lamenting back then that expression in music seldom plays a role in musicological discussion, Kerman concluded that when anyone states such is beyond the confines of their study one hears the sound of windows closing.Just these seven words made a profound impression on me. They still do. Kerman opened many windows and doors. I daresay he will continue to inspire that in we who remain.
Alejandro Planchart
He not only was a great scholar, he actually loved music.
David Rosen
I had looked forward to sending Joe Kerman greetings and perhaps a bottle on his 90th birthday next month! He was my principal mentor at Berkeley and was enormously kind and helpful to me. One example, I had been a history and social sciences major in college and had a relatively weak background in music other than piano playing (not that I was strong in that either). Joe spontaneously volunteered to meet with me one-on-one every week to talk about, well, thinking and talking about music (mainly about Beethoven quartets—he was working on the book then).
Lester Siegel
Kerman was a brilliant man who, though a musicologist, was able to write like a human being.
Chris Williams 
Joe Kerman died just a few weeks shy of his 90th birthday (he was born in the same year as my own father). To take Introduction to Musicology from this man was a life-changing experience. I will never forget his generosity in seminars and in the two independent studies I was fortunate enough to be able to take with him (on Sibelius and on Berlioz). His death leaves a massive void in the hearts of his former students, and really the entire profession.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Down with Eleven:
On the overamplification of American life

by Jay Nordlinger
Re-posted, with kind permission, from National Review / Digital, April 7, 2014.
It's not our biggest problem, or even in the top ten, or top 100. But it’s still a problem, I think: the overamplification of American life. I have long held this view, but have been spurred to write about it by recent events.

I went to the New York Philharmonic to review a performance of Sweeney Todd, the Sondheim musical. (Every season or so, the Philharmonic will stage a musical, for variety’s sake, I suppose, and maybe for the box office, too.) The cast was a mixture of classical and Broadway performers. In the title role was Bryn Terfel, the great Welsh bass-baritone. It was a shock to hear him sing into a microphone. The sound was unnatural—Terfel-like, but not quite Terfel. There is no hall anywhere that he can’t fill, naturally. Was it really necessary to mike him? To gild that lily?

Soon, the entire company came in, and the hall shook, so great was the amplification. The crowd cheered, excited. It was a little vulgar.


 
at the Proms, 2010

But as amplification goes, the Philharmonic’s Sweeney was tasteful. Certainly as compared with the next night—when I found myself in Minneapolis, at the Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant. My friends and I enjoyed a nice dinner, then settled back for the show. Onstage were the musicians of Viva Brazil. They were good, and so was the music they played and sang. But the volume was absurd—painful, assaultive, and anti-musical. We had to leave, and quickly.

Why would someone have done that to music, and how could others have sat there? Why didn’t it seem wrong to audience, management, and, maybe most important, the musicians themselves? They’re musicians, right?

 Complaining about the sound of music—not in the Julie Andrews sense—is a classic expression of fogeyism. But I can plead this: If I’m a fogey, I have always been. When I was in high school, a musician friend of mine asked me to go with him to hear Pat Metheny, a jazz guitarist. My friend said he was first-rate. That night, he may well have been—but the amplification was so great, I could hardly hear him. I could not really listen to the music. It was a question of enduring the sonic assault (which I could not do for long).

Much later, I went to a concert by Lyle Lovett. He has written and sings so many excellent songs. Why would he want to smother them in overamplification? Why would he want to drown them, and render them offensive? He did.

There is a place for loud in music, of course — a big and wonderful place. Richard Strauss was notorious for writing orchestrations so heavy, they drowned out the singers in his operas. The story is told that he attended a rehearsal of his Elektra, in which Ernestine Schumann-Heink had a part. He calls out to the conductor, “Louder, louder, I can still hear the Heink!”

Years ago, I interviewed Beverly Sills, and the subject of Birgit Nilsson came up. Sills was talking about her Elektra or Salome—one of those Strauss roles, I forget which. She said, “You wouldn’t have believed the sheer volume of that voice. It was so loud. It simply blew your ears back.” I said, “But her Salome [or Elektra]—was it musical?” Sills made a face: “It was cold.” She quickly brightened again: “But that sound! It was so loud!

The loudest music I ever heard in a concert hall or opera house—unamplified—was in Salzburg’s Grosses Festspielhaus. The opera was Das Rheingold, the first installment in Wagner’s Ring. The orchestra in the pit was the Berlin Philharmonic. When the giants (Fasolt and Fafner) came in, the ground shook, thrillingly. And when Wotan and Loge descended into Nibelheim, I thought the house would break apart. It was beyond thrilling—and entirely musical. Of course, these were just moments, not an entire evening.

There were no microphones on that night, as far as I know, but, more and more, microphones are creeping into the opera house. After one performance, a friend of mine said to a singer friend of his, “You sounded almost miked!” The singer admitted she had been. This is not merely a matter of “cheating”—a matter of using artificial means to do what your technique fails to do. Miking distorts, warps, or at least alters sound.

For a long time, Broadway musicals have been rock concerts—amplified to that extent. Singers prance around wearing headsets, with sticks at the side of their mouths. Even the plays are routinely and heavily miked. People seem to have forgotten how to speak—on Broadway and off.

Earlier this season, I was in a grand old church on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, to review a choral concert. A priest came out to give introductory remarks. His microphone went dead. He stood there, silent, until another one was brought to him. I don’t think it occurred to him to continue speaking, without a microphone. It’s not done now. But for years, priests and others spoke in this church, without benefit of a microphone. Did they make themselves heard? I bet they did.

Above, I mentioned rock concerts, and those are another kettle of fish: Extreme amplification is part of the phenomenon. An aspect of the music. This is certainly true of heavy metal. There is a loved moment in This Is Spinal Tap, the 1984 satirical documentary, or “mockumentary,” about the rock life. A guitarist explains that the knobs on his amplifier go up to eleven, rather than the standard ten. Why is eleven better than ten? Because it’s “one louder.”

At the Dakota Club, with Viva Brazil on the stage, there was hardly any need for amplification at all. The space is not that big. But they had enough amplification for Yankee Stadium, and beyond. Everything was out of whack. The frustrating thing was that not everyone knew it. Or did they? One boy, who had come with his parents, had his fingers in his ears. That was the only visible sign of dissent. Everyone else . . . well, it was hard to read their feelings. Were they only pretending to think that everything was okay? Or did they really think it was?

Music is not a democracy, but I would have been interested to see a vote—by secret ballot. If the room could have voted on whether to turn down the volume, by a lot, what would the results have been?

William F. Buckley Jr.’s most famous essay was written in 1960 and has been anthologized many times. Its title: “Why Don’t We Complain?” The author begins by describing a train trip of considerable discomfort. It is winter, yet the temperature inside the train is boiling. Everyone is sweating and miserable. Yet no one says anything to the conductor as he passes through. Writes Buckley,
When the temperature outdoors is below freezing, it takes a positive act of will on somebody’s part to set the temperature indoors at 85. Somewhere a valve was turned too far, a furnace overstoked, a thermostat maladjusted: something that could easily be remedied by turning off the heat and allowing the great outdoors to come indoors. All this is so obvious. What is not obvious is what has happened to the American people.
I had much these thoughts while sitting in the Dakota. For one thing, a “valve” was obviously “turned too far,” a musical thermostat was “maladjusted.” Later in his essay, Buckley talks of sitting in a movie, which is badly out of focus. Again, the people just take it. Toward the end of the essay, Buckley writes,
I think the observable reluctance of the majority of Americans to assert themselves in minor matters is related to our increased sense of helplessness in an age of technology and centralized political and economic power. For generations, Americans who were too hot, or too cold, got up and did something about it. . . . With the technification of life goes our direct responsibility for our material environment, and we are conditioned to adopt a position of helplessness.
It could be that most people don’t mind the amplification at ballgames, and at wedding receptions, and in restaurants, or elsewhere. Incidentally, that elsewhere includes movie theaters. The flicks are no longer out of focus. But have you noticed the volume? And that the previews are much louder than the movies? A friend of mine—it was Rich Lowry, National Review’s editor — recently said, “The previews are positively punishing. You can hear them through the soles of your feet.” Maybe most people don’t mind what I consider “overamplification.” Perhaps they like it. But are we sure we would know for sure? That boy in the Dakota, with his fingers in his ears, has not yet learned to conform.

They say the unexamined life is not worth living; I say the overamplified life is nuts. Buckley asked, “Why don’t we complain?” I am, Bill, in your magazine, and maybe someone will hear, over the awful din.

Jay Nordlinger is a senior editor of National Review, whose column "Impromptus" appears in National Review Online. His music criticism also appears in The New Criterion and CityArts; additionally he hosts a series of interviews with prominent classical musicians annually at the Salzburg Festival.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Valentin Silvestrov and what the times dictate

by Peter J. Schmelz

Valentin Silvestrov
Among the almost daily shocks and surprises from the Ukraine has been the active engagement of the Ukrainian pianist/composer Valentin Silvestrov (b. 1937, Kiev). This represents a distinct turnaround from the historical figure I have been studying recently for a book about polystylism in the late USSR: here I look at Silvestrov’s compositions alongside those of Alfred Schnittke from about 1970 through 1991. During this period Silvestrov withdrew from the Soviet dictates for loud, optimistic music into a “quiet” style of composition. Initially it was founded on his own idiosyncratic ideal of “kitsch”: “elegiac and not ironic,” he said. His “kitsch” subsequently morphed in the early 1980s into his idea of a “post” style, a style that would slowly end, ending but never ending: “It is not the end of music as art, but the end of music, in which it may yet remain for a long time.”<1> I have always taken this statement, from a 1990 interview, to be his artistic credo: “I must write what pleases me and not what others like, or what the times dictate, as is often said. Otherwise, it would be a state of affairs … that cripples the imagination. … I must seek beauty.”<2>

Lately, however, the times have been dictating quite a lot to Silvestrov. He apparently went to the Maidan with some frequency during the protests and has composed a series of pieces in response to each new turn of events. “I went to the Maidan, but what could I do?” HERE we find him wrapped in the Ukrainian flag at a memorial event there; as well as two songs he wrote in response to the events of January 18–19, 2014.

The most moving of his recent compositions are two memorials for the protestor Sergey Nigoyan, reportedly the first killed during the shooting in Kiev on January 22, 2014. HERE we see Nigoyan reciting lines from “Caucasus” (Kavkaz) by Ukraine’s beloved poet Taras Shevchenko while standing on the Maidan.  (This year is the bicentenary of Shevchenko’s birth; Nigoyan was Armenian-Ukrainian.)

HERE are the two songs composed and recorded by Silvestrov immediately after Nigoyan’s murder.  The first sets the very same Shevchenko lines read by Nigoyan.<3> It is written in a style reminiscent of Silvestrov’s Quiet Songs (1973–77) and his associated “kitsch” songs (among them the Simple Songs, 1974–81). But its unsettled opening and more agitated delivery also recall the Four Songs to texts by Osip Mandelstam that Silvestrov composed in 1981 and 1982, when he said, “The prison atmosphere at this time depressed us. Eventually it was as if an electric storm hit me, and I had to write something as a sign of protest.”<4> The second of the recent Maidan songs in memory of Nigoyan sets the burial prayer “Lay in rest with the saints” (“Со святими упокой…”). This song is more reserved, a return to the repose of the Quiet Songs. The DIY intimacy of the recordings dominates their affect: vulnerable yet determined, solitary yet meant to circulate on a global stage.

Judging from some local responses to the songs, Silvestrov has managed to capture the grief and hope of the moment. His setting of the Ukrainian hymn (also from late January) “truly were a gift of minutes of peace and support,” as a journalist recently noted.

In this same interview [LISTEN], Silvestrov expressed outrage over the Crimea situation, declaring, “I think that Putin is simply insane!” His statements reveal the tensions and complexities of the situation—the interlinking of Russia and Ukraine, culturally if not politically. Silvestrov distinguishes between the “political face of Russia,” which is says is “entirely covered in excrement,” and its “authentic face”: “Chaikovsky, Lermontov, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and the holy Orthodox Church.” He similarly divides Soviet culture, thereby making an explicit parallel between Putin and Stalin, which he amplifies later in the interview. He compares the situation in Crimea to the following: “You invite an acquaintance to your home as a guest, you put him in one of your bedrooms, and then he throws you out of the apartment.” Most interesting to musicologists perhaps will be his praise of the musical qualities of the Ukrainian hymn and his critical comments about the poor musical tastes of the pro-Russian activists in Crimea and the Anti-Maidan demonstrators: “Low, debased music only disgraces the image of Russia. In order to conquer you must have culture.” But as the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics in Sochi showed, the Russians are well versed in using “Kul’tura” (with a capital K) as a weapon.

Peter Schmelz is Associate Professor and chair of the Music Department at Washington University in St. Louis.




<1>Sil’vestrov and Frumkis, Sil'vestrov and Tat'yana Frumkis, “Sokhranyat' dostoinstvo. . . ,” Sovetskaya muzïka, no. 4 (1990): 16. 
<2>Quoted in Tatyana Frumkis, liner notes to Valentin Silvestrov, Symphony no. 5, Kitsch Music, etc. Musica Non Grata, BMG/Melodiya CD, 74321 49959 2 (1997), 3 (translation amended by me based on the original Russian in Sil’vestrov and Frumkis, “Sokhranyat' dostoinstvo. . . ,” 12).
<3> Silvestrov had previously set texts by Shevchenko in his Cantata for a cappella chorus (1977) as well as in the Quiet Songs (no. 5, “Proshchay, svite, proshchay, zemle!”). 
<4> Quoted in Frumkis, “Eine lange Reise,” liner notes to Stille Lieder, ECM New Series CD, ECM 1898/99, 982 1424 (2004), 14.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Indexing Psalms and Music

by Meridith Murray

Those of us who are church musicians are always looking for new insights into sacred texts. Music scholarship can help us find and carry these discoveries to our choirs, congregations, and pastors. Such is the case with a book published just before the end of 2013, Psalms and Music by Max Stern of Ariel University (Jerusalem). I am well acquainted with this work because I had the privilege of indexing it. (There are actually three indexes: an Index of Scriptural References, an Index of Composers, and a General Index.) It was a treat for me to be able to contribute to a treatise that coincides with my academic background (a degree in music history from the University of the Pacific), and a still greater pleasure owing to the depth and breadth of the scholarship I found there.

Since Stern is based in Israel, his work is perhaps not so well known in the United States, but this book (and its companion work, Bible and Music, 2011, both published by Ktav Publishers in Brooklyn, NY) is a resource of real significance for church musicians and scholars. Max Stern (b. 1947) is a composer, conductor, musicologist, and music critic whose compositions represent a synthesis of East and West in contemporary and traditional genres. He received the Israel Composers’ League Lieberson Prize in 1990 and an award from the Japanese Society for Contemporary Music in 1991. Stern has also participated in international festivals and conferences as composer, conductor, and lecturer.

In Psalms and Music, he treats the history of psalm settings, from early Christian church music to modern jazz and Mediterranean pop-rock. For the indexer, Psalms is the “metatopic”: everything in the book relates to this one subject. Thus the entries become Psalm categorizations, Psalm settings, Psalmody, Psalms by type, occasional Psalms, Psalters, and of course, just plain Psalms: Temple psalms, Hallel psalms, Hallelujah psalms, psalms for morning and evening prayer, for Easter, Hanukkah, Purim, and the Tenth of Tevet. It is a long list.

As for the music, Stern chooses examples from every age—Baroque polychoral style, for instance (Schütz, “Danket dem Herrn, denn er ist freundlich”), to neo-Hasidic music (Schlomo Carlebach, “Eso Enai”)—for analysis and  commentary, emphasizing the composers’ common goal of capturing the spirit and spirituality of the chosen psalm text.

An Appendix, occupying nearly half  the book, lists each of the 150 psalms and the musical settings they have fostered. For Psalm 1 (“Blessed is the Man” / “Beatus Vir”), we find 35 compositions, the earliest by the noted Slovenian Protestant Primož Trubar (1508–86), and the most recent by such  composers as Levente Gyongyosi (b. 1975, Romania) and Jane Marshall (b. 1924, Texas). Psalm 150 (“Praise Ye the Lord” / “Laudate Dominum” / “Singet dem Herren ein neues Lied”), at the end, finds 111 settings, by such composers as Clemens non Papa,  J. S. Bach, Ives, Kodály, and Max Stern himself. Next comes a list of settings that use more than one psalm or a psalm and another biblical text; discography; bibliography; and my three indexes.

I thought briefly about indexing this remarkable Appendix, too, but the result threatened to grow longer than the main text. In any event, the wealth of information to be found here delights in its admixture of familiar names and titles alongside the new and recherché. Psalms and Music is thus both a compendium and a highly detailed work of reference. Stern’s claim is sweeping, and in the end convincing: that the Book of Psalms is “one of the foundations upon which is erected the edifice of Western music.”


Meridith Murray is a freelance indexer and church organist.








Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Pop Triumphalism, concl.

NOTE: the thread--
Robert Fink: How I Got Over
John Halle: Pop Triumphalism Redux, a response to Robert Fink
Prof. Fink concludes:

Rather than prolong the back-and-forth over “pop triumphalism,” I’d simply note the difference of opinion between John Halle and myself probably has more to do with generational, temperamental, and professional issues than actual politics. I’d direct interested readers to the whole text of the 1998 article to which Halle refers, “Elvis Everywhere: Musicology and Popular Music Studies at the Twilight of the Canon.” Although the piece does mention what we commonly think of as “pop” (Elton John), its main focus is not to endorse mainstream commercial music as somehow the real music “of the people.” In fact, the one manifesto-like moment of the article is a pitch for paying musicological attention to obscure, difficult, un-popular music like “the grittier end of the new age; the spookiest and most ethereal corners of ambient; the most uncompromising slabs of hardcore and techno.” It’s not about easy listening: the music I was highlighting demands sustained attention, provides few if any familiar sonic landmarks, and in some cases presents a powerful immanent critique of rock as the soundtrack to neoliberal populism. There is a difference between popular music triumphalism and popular music studies triumphalism; to pay attention to a form of cultural production is not necessarily to endorse it or the social formations that bring it into being. As an academically trained musicologist who is also president of the U.S. Branch of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music, I am hardly going to walk back my conviction that the opening up of a post-canonic musicology to the study of popular music, broadly construed, is a good thing.

Suggested Listening:
dark ambient
minimal techno
slab of hardcore
extreme new age (7-hour track!)

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Reflections on Contemporary Ellingtonia

by John Howland

Duke Ellington’s 1999 centennial, as I observe in the current issue of Musical Quarterly (Fall/Winter 2013), fostered a wave of new research. Most recently, Terry Teachout published his Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington, which he describes as “not so much a work of scholarship as an act of synthesis, a narrative biography ... based on the work of ... scholars ... [who] have unearthed a wealth of new information.” This book’s mixed reception in the press and blogosphere leads me to reflect on contemporary Ellingtonia.

Duke is the first trade biography of Ellington since 2001. Teachout contends that his is the first biography to consider Ellington’s broader role in American arts and culture, though this aim is likewise central to Harvey Cohen’s 2010 Duke Ellington’s America. While reviews routinely praise Duke in this area, critics take issue with the book’s frank accounts of Ellington’s character, his propensity to procrastinate and to take credit for the work of others, and what Teachout sees as Ellington’s failings with extended works. The book introduces significant authorial opinion (another point of criticism), while at the same time it hits all the key marks of this favorite jazz history story: by reframing, expanding, and occasionally debunking often-recounted biographical details. In certain respects, it offers an important corrective to various earlier biographies, but it also reflects a tradition.

Jazz studies attracts many sorts of passionate researchers, from the professional to the amateur. The flashpoints of this community’s interpersonal politics often center on figures like Ellington, particularly in response to biography. Among the most sacred ground of Ellingtonia is the positioning of Ellington as a pillar of the jazz canon and a “genius” composer “beyond category.” Such themes began in the late 1920s with the marketing PR of Ellington’s manager, Irving Mills, and quickly entered early jazz criticism. These tropes were further refined in post-1950 scholarship of the kind that helped jazz enter the academy as a respected musical art. In sum, Ellington’s centrality to jazz studies has much to do with his historiographic construct as the quintessential jazz composer.
Recent writings have enriched and expanded the range of Ellington studies. But while Cohen and Teachout provide important new thoughts on the commercial strategies behind the Mills/Ellington marketing plan, both authors largely perpetuate an essentialized view of interwar musical culture as either high (elite “classical” music) or low (jazz and popular music), without really considering the many class nuances that Ellington negotiated between these stereotypes.

The strongest criticism of Duke comes from the Ellington “true believers,” which include the Duke Ellington Society’s William McFadden, who characterizes Duke as “the most unsettlingly harsh Ellington biography,” warning that “serious aficionados will find its contents disturbing.” Blogger Steven Cerra, similarly contends that Teachout portrays “Duke as a master of deception, a procrastinator, ... a robber of the work of others, a self-taught musician who lacked conservatory training and ... a supreme egotist.”

By contrast, the Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson posted one of the more thoughtful blog responses to Duke. Like many print critics, despite his ambivalence about specific issues, Iverson praises the book’s historical framing through the lens of “all of 20th-Century art and pop culture.” Iverson considers two “bumbling,” self-serving book reviews (in the New York Times and The New Yorker), and provides an interview with Teachout and his own well-argued disagreements. While noting that the way Teachout “discusses Ellington is not like any jazz player I’ve ever known,” Iverson further muses that he “looks at Duke as a composer first, and maybe Terry's right, that Duke really aspired to be that kind of Great Composer. It certainly seems like ... the gatekeepers wanted him to be the ‘hot Bach’” (a reference to a 1944 New Yorker article).

My Ellington research has focused on the pre-1950 extended compositions, seeking to understand this music and its cultural context, especially in relation to interwar entertainment and concert music. I was pleased to see some of my work reflected in Teachout’s “synthesis.” However, a repeated complaint against the book lies in its negative assessments of these same extended works. Both Howard Reich and Iverson take Teachout to task for his suggestion that Ellington was ignorant of  “elementary principles of symphonic musical organization,” and not suited to “large-scale, ... organically developed musical structure.” (Iverson says, instead, “I’ve never hung out with a great jazz musician who doubted Duke's grasp of form”). “What Ellington's large-scale works ... sound like,” continues Teachout, “is theatrical production numbers [and] ... those aren’t very effective musical models.”   

One blogger calls Teachout, intringuingly, a “professional middlebrow.” While intended as an insult, “middlebrow” is not necessarily a pejorative, since this idea captures key historical notions of social aspiration and cultural power, and invokes associative markers of self-conscious sophistication, glamour, and class (social class and the high-low mixed adjective, “classy”). The tone of these “opinionated” areas of Teachout’s prose is certainly midcentury middlebrow. Teachout’s approach here reminds me of the 1960s writing style of Gunther Schuller, who similarly employed classical formal rhetoric (“organic” development, etc.), style analysis as a weapon for value judgment, and displays of topical thoroughness (suggesting “I’ve examined everything!”) to reinforce his writerly authority. A companion element is the too-quick dismissal of non-jazz vernacular arranging traditions (e. g., production numbers) without consideration of relevant interwar jazz and pop. These afford connections to a wealth of concert-style music across stage, screen, recordings, and radio (see my dissertation). Many top name Broadway, Tin Pan Alley, Hollywood, and big band musicians contributed to this trend, as can be seen in Meredith (“Music Man”) Willson’s 1941 Decca album, Modern American Music, a project tied to his Maxwell House radio program with compositions from Vernon Duke, Ellington, Harold Arlen, Harry Warren, Ferde Grofé, and others. Beyond brief considerations of George Gershwin and Paul Whiteman, neither Teachout nor Cohen considers such trends or the pops orchestra tradition, both of which are important middlebrow contexts for understanding the extended works and Ellington the composer in pre-1950 marketing.

Duke Ellington, American Lullaby, performed on Meredith Willson, An Album of Modern American Music 
(New York: Decca Records, 1941)



While the middlebrow has become a significant topic in cultural studies, it remains under-researched in music scholarship. Like “popular” and “classical” music, middlebrow music should not be too readily essentialized. There is ample midcentury discourse on middlebrow culture by such public intellectuals as Dwight Macdonald, Russell Lynes, and others. Lynes humorously divides middlebrows into four types having different ambitions and habits. Midcentury popular-press comparisons of Ellington to classical composers were often meant to invoke a degree of cultural aura transference, by elevating the image of Ellington rather than the composers he was compared to. Such juxtapositions were worrisome to midcentury critics of the middlebrow, who took aim at media like Life magazine, which “scramble[d] together” and juxtaposed high and low—such as images of Renoir paintings set beside the photo of a “roller-skating horse,” of which Macdonald complained, the “final impression is that both Renoir and the horse were talented.” I say this not to denigrate Ellington’s image, but to provide added perspective on midcentury modes of high-low image construction in the popular sphere. This milieu relates to the elevated middlebrow conceptions of the “Great Composer”—or, in this case, the “hot Bach.” There are many interwar popular-culture tropes that juxtapose the “classical” and “jazz,” such as the Ellington band’s Hollywood cameo role in the “Rape of a Rhapsody” production number from Murder at the Vanities (1934): a parody of Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody. Such examples invite less essentialized readings of brow discourse through their tongue-in-cheek presentations of both the “Great Composer” (Liszt) and Ellington’s composerly image.

A truncated clip of the "Rape of a Rhapsody" sequence from Murder at the Vanities (Paramount, 1934)


Ellington developed a cross-class popular image built on an amalgam of high-low cultural symbols that presented a refined, commercially savvy musician, entertainer, and businessman who wrote hip but “serious” (sophisticated) popular music, on the one hand, and a lauded, “serious” concert music composer, on the other hand. At the center of midcentury jazz-is-art discourse, in an era where educators, aesthetes, and professional musicians typically restricted “composition” to mean traditional high-culture music (as opposed to the work of “tunesmiths,” “songwriters,” “arrangers,” etc.), Ellington’s extended works presented artful expressions of black urbanity and modernity through their rich juxtapositions of black and white vernacular and cultivated music traditions. The popular ascription of “composer” to Ellington was a major victory for proponents of jazz as art, and (as noted) is central to the rhetoric of the “true Ellington believers.” What this discourse and the narrative synthesis in Teachout’s Duke reveal are the continuing tensions within Ellingtonia between generations of invested individuals, older and more recent views on jazz as art, and mixed-class understandings of jazz composition.

Iverson astutely suggests that “part of Duke’s genius was to mean many different things to so many different people.” I agree. Teachout’s biography has value as an historical corrective/update and a synthesis of certain areas of recent Ellington studies. In the end, I think of Kenneth Prouty’s comments on the jazz canon: “The canon survives because it is the basic historical language of the musical academy. ... It has its uses ... [even despite our] qualification[s], [and] a metaphorical ‘but there’s more to it.’” Teachout’s book offers a sort of biographical “changing same” (to paraphrase Amiri Baraka)—he redraws core familiar stories that many have found great meaning in. The critical response has predictably found important faults and added its “but there’s more to it!” commentary, even while knowing that biographies rarely tell the whole story, particularly with an individual whose private life was as elusive and multisided as Ellington’s. Ellington continues to attract such invested engagement because he attained such a remarkable synthesis of cross-cultural impact, media savvy, and racial and social relevance. Here, I believe, is where such an opinionated writerly voice can be helpful—it fosters further discussion.


John Howland, an American ex-pat musicologist, is Professor of Music History at the Department of Music, Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim. He is the author of Ellington Uptown: Duke Ellington, James P. Johnson, and the Birth of Concert Jazz (University of Michigan Press, 2009), and the co-founder and former editor-in-chief of the Routledge journal, Jazz Perspectives. He is currently working on a study of orchestral pop.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Pop Triumphalism Redux, Neoliberal Aesthetics,
and the Austerity Agenda:
A Response to Robert Fink

by John Halle
NOTE: a longer version of this response appears at Professor Halle’s website, HERE.
A central point of my piece “The Last Symphony” is that in its late, neoliberal form which we are now confronting, capitalism transcends its function as an economic system regulating the distribution of goods and services and becomes a philosophy of life dictating important aspects of how we see ourselves and the world around us.

The arts and culture, including music, are a revealing piece of this puzzle. But, in my opinion, they are only a relatively small one, and it is perhaps for this reason that the piece has elicited relatively little comment among musicologists. One of the few such comments was posted recently on this blog by UCLA Professor Robert Fink, a leading representative of what became known in the 1980s as the New Musicology. To address his objections requires identifying, for those outside of the tribe, the basic outlines of this once formerly dissident movement—now well established, and arguably the dominant wing of the profession. New Musicology can fairly unproblematically be seen—and indeed, according to Fink, sees itself—as music-historical scholarship’s response to the postmodern turn in other humanistic fields. A central component of this movement was to challenge the privileged status accruing to the traditional literary and artistic canon, much of which was produced by white male Europeans.

In music, the demographic profile is even narrower, with names beginning with voiced bilabial consonants highly over-represented. The most iconic of these B’s, Beethoven, would be a particular target, described as in the final stages of “rolling over” according to Fink in his widely cited essay, “Elvis Everywhere” (American Music 16/2, 1998). More generally so-called classical music had “lost its ability to define hierarchies of tastes,” having become by now “one style among many, and by no means the most prestigious.” No longer insulated from the realities of the marketplace by a system of elite patronage, classical music would be required to compete with other styles formerly denigrated as “commercial,” laying bare an inherent vacuity previously obscured by protective layers of pretentiousness and snobbery.

For Fink, a seminal moment within this delegitimation process was the funeral of Princess Diana (6 September 1997, as he was finishing his essay), which he described as “one of the most powerful media events of the decade, seen live by over 30 million and rebroadcast to hundreds of millions more.” Its signficance was the pitting of the “Libera me” from Verdi’s Requiem against Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind”—the latter having emerged as the clear victor in the competition for survival in the Darwinian marketplace.

It is a fact that the revised “Candle in the Wind” became, forthwith, “the biggest-selling single in the history of recorded music; every newspaper printed Bernie Taupin's new lyrics, and CNN camera crews captured crowds of British mourners swaying and singing it together over and over during extravagant midnight vigils.” “This was the Music of the moment,” writes Fink; and Verdi had definitively lost the battle for cultural hegemony.

__________

While bracing at the time, at a quarter century’s remove these kinds of claims have provoked among some musicologists a degree of buyer’s remorse. And there are indications that Fink himself is walking back some of his early positions. It would be hard to find a clearer statement of what Alex Ross calls pop triumphalism than “Elvis Everywhere,” which reads more like a manifesto than a scholarly monograph. Yet Fink now disavows the pop-triumphalist label, albeit it in carefully parsed, lawyerly syntax which suggests more a discomfort with the form of his original positions than reservations about their essential content.

A second indication of the softening of a previously hard line is his concern that some on the left will regard him as a “traitor to the working class.” But no one on the left will make any such judgment, for the simple reason that to be a traitor requires some indication of a prior allegiance to the economically disadvantaged 99%. Celebrating a stage managed, corporate media product having at its center a billionaire pop star’s elegy for a feudal aristocrat is about as far from an expression of leftist solidarity as could be imagined.

At three decades’ remove, it is becoming clear that the bite of postmodernism which so alarmed the right and excited the left was not much more than pro-forma academic barking. Yes, concessions in the cultural and artistic realm constitute a minimally significant attempt to redress the balance of centuries of elite neglect and condescension. According to a more critical view, developed recently by Walter Benn Michaels, Adolph Reed, and Karen and Barbara Fields, now dominant academic multiculturalism appears in a darker light: as a way of purchasing leftist bona fides on the cheap through symbolic concessions in the aesthetic and cultural realm, while failing to challenge capital’s virtually uncontested string of triumphs in the political and economic spheres.

The ascendency of postmodernism overlaps almost exactly with that of neoliberalism. For example, Fink’s paper, which celebrates “pre-bop jazz” and “Mississippi Delta blues” displacing white European males from the canon of Western classical music, was delivered in the same year as the passage of Welfare Reform (the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act) which, as was predicted at the time, gravely and disproportionately disadvantaged African Americans. The Clinton years also saw an intensification of the so-called “war on drugs” and the passage of draconian crime bills leading to the grim reality of over two million African American males now in prison or on parole. And over the same period, casualization of the academic workforce has resulted in a full 75% of university teaching now being done by grossly exploited adjunct or part-time faculty. Roughly concurrent with this, numerous scholars have found their path to the tenured ranks through waging war against the elite hegemony previously enjoyed by classical music.

It is particularly disconcerting to find Fink responding to my arguments with the racialized innuendo of the vampire left, referring to what he calls my “defense” of Western art music as a variant of the notorious “one drop rule” based on “the presence or absence of melanin.” The road to the conclusion that I am a supporter of Jim Crow anti-miscegenation statutes is a tortuous one, and I won’t retrace the steps here except to note that it begins with Fink’s assertion that I endorse “the basic ideology of nineteenth-century theories of musical structure.” These, in Fink’s account, provide the foundation for the conclusion “that the best music, like the highest civilization, was that which delayed gratification the most.” Underlying these attitudes, according to Fink, is a “Hegelian worship of telos, the quality of goal-direction” a stance which is “congenial to a socialist critic because it springs from the same (impulse) that gave rise to Marxist theories of class struggle.”

Suffice to say that there is not a single phrase here which accurately represents the position advanced in my piece. Most transparently, the article never once mentions “telos,” teleology, or “goal direction.” Furthermore, while some leftists consider themselves Marxists, for many, including myself, Marxism is a relatively peripheral influence, and Hegelian dialectics still less of one. As to the notion of “delayed gratification,” socialists demand immediate fulfillment of ordinary peoples’ demands, e.g., for the restoration of decent standards of living which have been stripped away during the neo-liberal era. While an infantile acquisitiveness has, as mentioned in the piece, infected significant portions of the meritocratic elite, this does not in any way apply to those outside its ranks who have been subject to a decades long campaign of austerity.

One instance of this was the main focus of my piece: the assault on the unionized Minnesota Orchestra, or more precisely, some of the specific difficulties involved with defending them against a predatory corporate board. Fink confuses these with a “defense” of the kind of music they perform, namely notated, classical music, even though I have expressly stated that “the best of all forms of music have more or less equal claims to greatness; a failure to appreciate that musical treasures have been produced in virtually every known genre, is mainly an indication of one's inability to listen or to figure out how.”

That said, a defense of this musical labor force is now necessary at least in part due to multiculturalism having become the reigning academic orthodoxy, with these attitudes having trickled down to less rarefied settings—including, it would seem, corporate boardrooms. It is therefore now unfashionable to the point of taboo to recognize any unique characteristics in the formerly canonic repertoire and the unique skill set of the workforce associated with those fluent within it. Its is undeniable that the core piano and symphonic repertoire consists, as I note, of “works of ‘pure’ music which cohere, not by a text with its own self-contained expressive content and narrative logic, but by a logic entirely based on the abstract relationships inherent in the pitches and rhythms.” Fink seems to think the fact that “the Western literate tradition is filled with three-to-five-minute songs, mostly religious ones but some about love, from Dufay to Duke Ellington” constitutes a refutation of the blandly uncontroversial categorization of Mozart sonatas, Bach fugues, and Schubert variations as “pure music.” But nothing follows from the claim, even if true, that “Western intellectuals before the late eighteenth century . . . would have ridiculed . . . the idea . . . that there was some meaning in music alone just because it was written down.” In particular, it does not address, let alone challenge, the contention that the abstract forms in which they are composed allow extended works to cohere, which is to say, to exist as cognitive objects represented in the memory of listeners.

It should hardly need to be mentioned that whatever medium a piece of music is transmitted through—a recording, lead sheet, YouTube video, tablature, or conventional notes on a staff—has nothing to do with its quality. Intricately notated scores range from abysmal to lame to competent to divinely inspired—as do songs learned on a parent’s knee. Profound, complex, and subtle musical traditions will necessarily include representatives of the entire range. They need to be sustained not because they are superior, whatever that means, but simply because that’s what decent societies do. The fact that an expensive infrastructure is required to support one of these should be entirely irrelevant to this determination, particularly to a society which thinks nothing of investing hundreds of billions of dollars on useless weapons systems, subsidies to the fossil fuel industries, or bank bailouts.

All this is, unfortunately, invisible to market populists who take as the pre-eminent indication of artistic and social significance black ink on a multinational communications conglomerate’s balance sheet. Fink’s view of the past and present, then, amounts to not much more than highbrow cheerleading for the bland Opraesque mono-culture which is an increasingly conspicuous feature of commercial musical genres—and much else—in the neoliberal era.


John Halle, a music theorist and composer (and public intellectual, including as former New Haven alderman), is Director of Studies in Music Theory and Practice at Bard College Conservatory in New York. Another of his provocative pieces is “Occupy Wall Street, Composers and the Plutocracy: Some Variations on an Ancient Theme,” HERE.




Sunday, March 2, 2014

Dear Abbé

Professional musicologists offer answers and advice. Free.


DEAR ABBÉ:

Anent Mark Clague's post on the Star-Spangled Banner, I note that the Star Spangled Music Foundation and blog are administered by one Susan Key. Any relation to Francis Scott Key? to F. Scott Fitzgerald, another resident of our city?

                                                         P. BODY, BALTIMORE

DEAR SIR:

Plausible, but she isn't saying. She has, however, offered copies of the recording (Poets and Patriots) and Star Spangled Songbook to the first person who can demonstrate whether or not she is of the lineage. Enter in COMMENTS, below. Offer expires on the night of September 13–14, 2014, bicentenary of the late unpleasantness in your harbour.

                                                                              ABBÉ