Friday, February 26, 2016

Amplifications

Lily E. Hirsch writes to remind us that:

In my book Music in American Crime Prevention and Punishment (Univ. of Michigan Press, 2012), I explored the historical and current connection between enduring though evolving ideas of music as enlightening and romantic ideas of prison as a place of authenticity/creativity. These ideas can obscure the real work of music in prison.

Music, in performance or a class setting, can function in various ways: as a productive way to occupy time or connect an individual to his or her past and identity. It can also act as a means of exchange for good behavior or function in observation and discipline (à la Foucault). There is much more to be said here.

My look into music’s roles in prison relied on the important work of others, including ethnomusicologist Benjamin Harbert. I also want to mention André de Quadros, Mary Cohen, and Maria Mendonca.

Harbert, incidentally, is involved in an upcoming symposium that may be of interest to some:

Angola Bound Revisited: Prison Music of Louisiana 

A symposium on music at Angola prison
Friday, March 11, 2016, 9:30 - 4:00 P.M.
Louisiana State Penitentiary Museum Receiving Center
Angola, Louisiana
Participants:
    Nick Spitzer, Moderator of American Routes, Public Radio Exchange and Tulane University, Anthropology
    Adam Machado of Arhoolie Records, working with the Harry Oster Collection
   Benjamin Harbert, Georgetown University, director of Follow Me Down: Portraits of Louisiana Prison Musicians
    Alvin Singh II, grand-nephew of Lead Belly and curator of the Lead Belly Archives
    Charles Neville, of The Neville Brothers 

Afternoon live music will be provided by Angola’s prisoner bands The Jazzmen, Angola’s Most Wanted, The Main Prison Gospel Band, Pure Heart Messengers, Little Country, as well as Final Mission from Dixon Correctional Institution.

Free and open to the public.

Lily E. Hirsch is an independent scholar and author of the books A Jewish Orchestra in Nazi Germany: Musical Politics and the Berlin Jewish Culture League (Univ. of Michigan Press, 2011) and Music in American Crime Prevention and Punishment. Her research has also appeared in Rethinking Schumann, Musical Quarterly, Philomusica, the Journal of Popular Music Studies, American Music, and Popular Music & Society.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

An Interview with Sol Hurok (1888-1974)

The following interview was omitted for reasons of space from a collection of extended interviews with musicians Bálint András Varga, From Boulanger to Stockhausen (University of Rochester Press, 2013). We are delighted to be able to reprint it in English for the first time here.

I met the great impresario in New York in 1973.[1] I appeared in his life out of nowhere and disappeared again after half an hour. No wonder he did not bother to be particularly friendly. 

It would be unjust and misleading if I were to detail the impression he made on me. In my introduction to our published interview in Hungarian in 1974, I noted that I had found him morose; all my efforts to make him unwind were to no avail. However, if you want to know what Sol Hurok was really like, you should read the memoirs of an artist he had on his roster: Isaac Stern.

In Chapter Eight of his reminiscences written with Chaim Potok, My First Seventy-Nine Years, you get a rounded picture of the impresario’s personality. Far from being morose, he had an “expressive face that was always ready to break out in a smile. There was a lurking humor about him; he would with ease laugh or scoff at others and himself. His voice had a rolling pitch to it and was distinctly colored by his formative years in Russia and his Jewish background. He spoke several languages, all with a Yiddish accent. He used to wear fedoras in a rakish fashion, with one side down, like George Raft in the early movies, and handsome topcoats with fur collars; in later years, he sported a cane with a silver top.”[2]

Re-reading the interview, I cannot understand why I was unhappy with it at the time. I think his clipped sentences do give an idea of the way he talked; his self-confidence at the end of a successful life also comes through. Still, facing him in his office, I felt defeated by my failure to break down the wall he had erected between us. I even asked him if there was anything he wished to talk about, in case I had not succeeded in devising the right questions.

He then looked at his watch and asked me if there was anything else he could do for me. I carried my disappointment home to Budapest and gave vent to it in my book. You can see for yourself if I was justified.



Impresario Sol Hurok (1888-1974).  Marie Hansen—Time Life Pictures/Getty Images.

- Mr Hurok, what advice would you give me if I wanted to become an artists’ manager like you—what would I need to do to be a success in the business?

- If this was a business, I would never have become involved with it.

- What is it then?

- A malady.

- What do you mean?

- It is a kind of sickness, but you have to fanatically believe in it, you have to be in love with it. If I were not in love with it, if I were not fanatical about it, I would not be a great impresario.[3]

- When did you fall in love with it?


- In my youth, a very long time ago. That is why I have not been able to fall out of it: in 1909.

- How old were you then?

- Fifteen, sixteen. Or nineteen.

The first artist I managed was Efrem Zimbalist.[4] He was a stupendous violinist. I organized his first concert in Brooklyn, New York’s working-class district. I charged low ticket prices. That is how I started; initially in a modest way, later on I had more courage, I dared more.

In 1912, I launched my first concert series. I called it Music for the Masses. The venue was the Hippodrome, a hall seating 4700 people. I put another one thousand seats on the stage and also sold standing-room places. In other words, there was space for some six thousand people—and the hall was sold out. Sunday afternoon and Sunday evening. I made an arrangement with some newspapers: they printed my advertisements and those who bought the papers could get tickets at half the price. Except those who turned up right before the performance, at six o’clock: they had to pay full price.

That was my first big success. I gave music to the masses. It was the talk of the town. The New York Times carried an article on it, on October 23, 1926. The journalist posed the question: “Who has done more for popularizing music in New York—gramophone records or Sol Hurok? The answer: Sol Hurok.”

After that, everyone talked of me as the man who has done more for classical music than records.

I am also credited with making ballet popular in the United States. Cultural life today is unimaginable without it.

- You started at an incredibly young age. How did you come in touch with music, how did you acquire the musical background necessary to become an impresario?

- I was born in the Ukraine. As a boy, I enjoyed listening to the singing of young people as they made their way to the tobacco plantations in the morning or returned home from work in the evening. That was when I grew fond of folk music, and I learned that music could play an extremely important role in the life of a community, of a whole country. Nothing brings people closer together than song, dance and ballet.

When I settled in the United States, I decided to acquaint my new country with everything that is the very best in the world, not only in music but also in literature.

Sol Hurok does the twist with Nina Danilova of the Leningrad-Kirov Ballet.  Photograph by Lillian Libman.
 Ann Barzel Dance Research Collection, The Newberry Library, Chicago.

- As a young impresario, how did you win the confidence of artists to sign a contract with you?

- I was at the time very active in the working-class movement. I argued that artists had the duty to do something for workers. I asked them to charge a low fee, so that as many people as possible could hear their concerts. They agreed—that is how I embarked on my career. If I had not believed in success, I would have looked for another profession. All my life I have endeavored to achieve something and fought, if necessary, against heavy odds. I am still fighting today for what I believe in. That is my advice to all young people who wish to get somewhere: to love what they do, to persevere and to fight. Then they will achieve their goal.

- What was concert management like when you started in the 1910s? Did you have many rivals?

- Rivals never worried me. They do not worry me now either. They are welcome to imitate me, I do not mind.

- What was your contact with artists like? The more established they are, the higher the fees they command.

- I never thought that way. Rather, my position was that the greater the artist, the smaller the risk. All my life I have worked with the most outstanding performers. Our contact has always been based on three things: loyalty, sympathy, and affection. They have all been my friends, not just my clients.[5]

- Your success must be due to your talent for recognizing talent.

- I have never made a mistake in artistic judgement. In financial matters, yes. I get a lot of praise: Hurok has a good nose, he has good taste.[6] Even if I may have lost some money, artistically I have always done the right thing.

- Will you mention some artists you have discovered and launched on their careers?

- Discovered? My great discovery (I have mentioned this already) was ballet. I have also had a hand in staging some productions. I signed up Anna Pavlova, I have worked with artists like Chaliapin, Isadora Duncan, Richard Strauss, Titta Ruffo, Arthur Rubinstein, Marian Anderson, David and Igor Oistrakh, Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, Eugene Istomin, Joseph Szigeti. I have managed some two hundred artists in all. I have brought Russians, Hungarians, Germans, Italians. I brought Glazunov to the United States—look at that picture on the wall: it shows the two of us together.

I am not interested in the personal characters and affairs of great artists. What interests me is what it is they represent with their art. I invited Glazunov to the United States because I respected him and not because I wanted to make money on him.[7] I wanted the American public to meet him in person. He spent two or three months over here and conducted his own works.

In signing a contract with an artist, my main consideration is not the amount of money I may earn through him.[8] What interests me is his potential success with the public. His success is also mine.

- What motivates you in signing a young and as yet unknown conductor?


- First of all, I must see and hear him conduct. I must assess his chances, I have to talk to him. I have indeed taken on a number of unknown conductors. It is my job to make them known.[9]

- You have seen and heard every single artist on your roster?

- That’s right. I have launched the American careers of Rubinstein, Marian Anderson, Andrés Segovia, Ysaÿe, Elman, Alma Gluck and others.

- Is it difficult to persuade a major orchestra to engage an unknown conductor?

- It is true that orchestras want well-known names which attract the public. Orchestras receive no financial support; that raises an obstacle in the way of inviting no-name artists. It is our responsibility to iron out those difficulties.

- Would you agree that there are fewer significant musicians around today than at the time when Walter, Toscanini, Furtwängler, Klemperer, and Kleiber were active at the same time?

- There is no doubt about it: in music, just as in the theater and film, there are not as many outstanding personalities as twenty-five or thirty years ago. There are some talents whose career is taking off, but the age of the great Renaissance is gone.

The world since 1914 has seen nothing but carnage. I hope the day of peace will arrive, when we are all brothers, when people renounce armaments and spend the money on support for the arts, in order to create, with its help, a better world. That is what I have always striven for and that is my message to the world.

New York, 1973



Bálint András Varga has spent more than forty years working for and with composers. His previous books include György Kurtág: Three Interviews and Ligeti Homages and Three Questions for Sixty-Five Composers, published in the Eastman Studies in Music series by the University of Rochester Press.



[1] The text of the interview is my translation back into English of the Hungarian version.
[2] Isaac Stern, My First 79 Years. Written with Chaim Potok. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Da Capo Press, 2000, 71.
[3] I think Sol Hurok had every right to regard himself as a great impresario. His unique position in the world of music was testified to by a biopic directed in 1953 by Mitchell Leisen. In Tonight We Sing, Hurok was played by David Wayne. Other stars included Ezio Pinza in the role of Chaliapin.
[4] Born in 1889 at Rostov on the Don, Efrem Zimbalist died in 1985 at Reno, Nevada. He was not only one of the best-known violinists of his time, but also a conductor, a composer and a teacher. He was Director of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia between 1941 and 1968.
[5] “We not only worked together, we also ate and drank together; we were a large family.”  Isaac Stern, My First 79 Years, 205.
[6] “He was a flamboyant man who believed utterly in himself, the only person I have ever known who would refer to himself in the third person—“Hurok said that”;”Hurok thinks such”; “Hurok did this”—and have it come out simply natural.”  Isaac Stern, My First 79 Years, 71.
[7] Glazunov toured the United States in 1928.
[8] “He would put up his own money, or find money, to back unknown artists. He would take on struggling young artists and try them for a couple of years, see if they caught on; if they didn’t, he’d let them go. He made fortunes, he lost fortunes.”  Isaac Stern, My First 79 Years, 71.
[9] “Hurok was not entirely enthusiastic about having a virtually unknown musician join his august group of artists, but he agreed to take me on.”  Isaac Stern, My First 79 Years, 32.

Monday, February 22, 2016

The Perils of Public Musicology

by Bonnie Gordon



The online community of the American Musicological Society is currently exploding around a post by Pierpaolo Polzonetti called “Don Giovanni Goes to Prison.” The post, about teaching opera in prison, sparked both harsh criticism of Polzonetti’s efforts and writings as well as important discussions about implicit and explicit biases in our field.  I am weighing in as someone who runs a program that pairs undergraduates with under-resourced, mostly African American kids for a variety of arts programs and is currently designing a community engagement curriculum for the College of Arts and Sciences at UVa.  While I find the post problematic, I fear that calling Polzonetti and his defenders racists risks turning this moment into a twenty-first century version of the AMS 1964 meeting when Edward Lowinsky associated Joseph Kerman’s call for a native musicology that moved away from “alien” ideas with Nazism.

Polzonetti’s approach to teaching these prisoners, while perhaps logical in some music appreciation contexts, relies on repeating some of the most problematic stories musicologists tell their students and the public.  And despite criticism of the endeavor, there are numerous successful books-behind-bars, Shakespeare-behind-bars, and music-behind-bars programs.  It’s wrong to assume that classical music speaks to everyone and that watching Don Giovanni will solve the problems of men who are victims of the carceral state.  But it’s also wrong to assume that classical music doesn’t speak to those men and that they shouldn’t get the chance to hear it.  It’s also gone relatively unnoticed that one of of the most problematic sentences in the post about is about an aria that’s a response to rape.  A rage aria and a rape scene are not the same thing.  Defusing violence with a Mozart score?  It sounds from the post like the men in the class had an emotional response to a musical moment.  If we think understanding affective emotional responses to music depends on the score than we have already lost the battle for inclusion.

The students in the Arts Mentors program that I founded used Polzonetti's post to think about the differences between traditional community service and community engagement which depends on using institutional resources to collaboratively (as in: with the community) address and solve challenges facing communities.  This is not sending academics out to “help.”  The students also pointed out that doing community engagement often comes with the risk of making big mistakes and almost always forces confrontations with horrifying biases.  Maybe it’s easier to write about decolonialization than it is to figure out how to actually do it.

Our program has had some spectacular failures and successes.  An ecoacoustic event gave the kids exposure to audio engineering and encouraged deep listening.  It got both undergraduates and students to visit a gorgeous city trail that many children had never been to.  But our trip to the UVa art museum started with a fourth grader saying about the University “it’s really dangerous, college kids get murdered here all the time.”  This was just after a male lacrosse player had murdered a female lacrosse student.  A music student pointed out that he had heard UVa students say that about the neighborhood most of the kids live in because people get murdered there all the time. In truth, we have a low murder rate here.  Then, a museum docent told the kids they could get arrested for touching the art.  Many of them have incarcerated relatives and the undergraduates were not equipped for the responses that triggered. We learned the hard way that when the kids we work with are enraptured by a classical music performance we can’t control the other patrons.  They don’t usually see thirty African American kids not dressed in concert hall attire and the result is often uncomfortable and sometimes downright racist.

What the community teaches us is far more profound than what we teach the community.  To capitalize on this opportunity, the program comes with an academic component for the students.  So instead of taking them to a Mozart opera and turning to the eighteenth century to argue for education as liberating and potentially taming, we begin by asking the students to do a close reading of Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. In this document Jefferson, who founded our University, laid out his argument for exclusion of African Americans from American citizenship based in part on their (according to Jefferson) inherent inability to be creative thinkers and to have aesthetics.  The echoes of this are palpable in the deeply segregated arts scene in Charlottesville today and at the University of Virginia.

The disciplinary debates going on now should serve as a reminder that scholars who step outside of their training should do so with intention, with a willingness to fail, and with an eye for what they don’t know.  For example, 49% of the people incarcerated at the prison Polzonetti works in are people of color, according to their website.  Polzonetti named one inmate as African American and didn’t mention the race of any other.  This disjunction allows us to reinscribe myths of black criminality and violence.  Khalil Gibran Muhammad describes black criminality as “one of the most commonly cited and longest-lasting justifications for black inequality and mortality in the modern urban world.”  Writings on mass incarceration as the new Jim Crow and on the criminalization of black men, should have informed how Polzonetti wrote about his experience in a prison. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “The American response to crime cannot be divorced from a history of equating black struggle—individual and collective—with black villainy.  And so it is unsurprising that in the midst of the civil-rights movement, rising crime was repeatedly linked with black advancement.”  If I had been sent Polzonetti’s post as an outside reviewer, I would have suggested that he take into consideration the racial injustice inherent in the carceral state.

The AMS has invested in public musicology – not only through a blog, but also in its support of the Library of Congress Lectures, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Lectures, and via other venues, as well. Those efforts to me feel like arts education and outreach.  I see them as crucial but they will not address the issues around racial injustice and diversity that this blog post has brought to the fore.

Public musicology in these senses is is not the same thing as community engagement. Teaching opera in a prison certainly seems like one kind of “public musicology,” and like the kid of effort that could be community engagement.  If you take the suspension-to-prison pipeline seriously it’s likely that the men in Polzonetti's class didn’t even have the opportunities that were offered in their schools; if you are suspended you are not in school.  I usually don’t have the courage to write about community engagement because if I make a factual or rhetorical slip up talking about under-resourced African American kids in a town built by the enslaved, the consequences are devastating. That is not the case for writing about Monteverdi. 

I suggest that if the AMS truly wants the blog to be public-facing, that they might need to hire a paid, full-time, professional editor, and think hard about its content and who controls it. Scholars who usually traffic in long and not widely circulated articles need to understand the impact of words in the digital—not just print—age.  This blog is curated by excellent scholars.  But people who contribute to blogs like the New York Times and Slate are made to rewrite articles in ways that many academics would resist. These rewrites can make all the difference in getting a message across to a non-musicological audience in a format that is shorter and faster than most scholarly formats.  I’ve written controversial articles for large publics a few times and my friends who do public writing for a living told me not to read the anonymous comments which are often nasty and silencing.  I usually don’t. But an article I wrote for Slate about rape culture included death threats so I had to.  It had over 1,000 comments, including calls for the University to fire me.  Even then, such a blog would not deal at all with the problems of inequities of all kinds within the field, the societies, the classrooms, and the journals.

The AMS blog comprises a disciplinary effort towards public relevance.  I suspect that most of the blog’s readers are music scholars.  I am more concerned about what a post like this one triggers for scholars of color.  Particularly those of us with tenure and some institutional clout should have already been very worried about how those scholars experience our conferences, our departments, our music making spaces, and our classrooms.  At the same time, Polzonetti’s post doesn’t stand in for the racial inequity and elitism in music fields, including ethnomusicology, which are bound up with the colonial project.  The field as a whole, like the arts and like liberal arts all told, have to ask hard questions that will likely make us fight and will probably make us give up some things we love.  How does the discipline move forward when our field still assumes the hegemony of the classical tradition and when most university programs still require good classical music chops?  Classical music is not inclusive; you need a certain amount of money to take music lessons, and concerts have excluded all but the most elite for generations.  Charlottesville’s free music program in the public schools is not alone in being predominantly affluent and white.  As music scholars feel pressure from our colleagues and our institutions to find public relevance, we have to think hard about how to do this effectively and ethically.  But we also try to do it constructively and without demonizing individual scholars.




Bonnie Gordon is an Associate Professor of Music at the University of Virginia. Her research centers on the experience of sound in 16th and 17th century Europe. She is working on a book entitled, Voice Machines: The Castrato, the Cat Piano, and Other Strange Sounds and working on a long-term project closer to home called Jefferson’s Soundscapes. She runs UVa’s Arts mentor program; a program that pairs UVa students with under-resourced  children in Charlottesville for a variety of arts experience.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Musicology, Freedom, and the Uses of Anger

by William Cheng

Audre Lorde (1934-1992)


Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” – Bryan Stevenson (on working with the incarcerated), Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

Fast and furious reactions to Pierpaolo Polzonetti’s essay belie the silences stirring just beneath our moral sonars. For wherever one stands on the issues here, I urge every reader to recognize the voices thus far disproportionately missing from this chorus of commentary: our junior colleagues and students, fearing the professional repercussions of speaking out on public forums; our colleagues of color, trying to sidestep precarious stereotypes of the always-pleading and never-appeasable minority; our colleagues with disabilities, who may not have the resources or energies to respond as swiftly as many others have done; and our colleagues who are so overworked and underpaid by multiple adjunct positions that they haven’t even had the time to check their Facebook feeds or to notice this commotion at all. In short, even if we’d like to think we’ve heard every possible stance on this controversy by now (via hundreds of replies), let’s err on the side of humility and assume we haven’t. As I read the visible responses to Prof. Polzonetti’s post, I continually attempt—and yes, continually fail—to remind myself of this fact: plenty more voices, still unsung.

Defenders and detractors alike have homed in on questions of Prof. Polzonetti’s language: how we should say what we say, and how words matter, good intentions and noble actions notwithstanding. Let’s also remember, however, to take a step back and ask ourselves: in this situation, who feels comfortable or capable of saying anything to begin with?

First, in the spirit of transparency, I offer a few disclosures. Due to health challenges, I hadn’t planned to write anything on this matter, although I have followed its conversations and offshoots (see here, here, here, and here). On Thursday night, I did write privately to Prof. Polzonetti (whom I’ve never met) to inform him that while I take issue with what he wrote and how he wrote it, I imagine he must be going through an extraordinarily difficult time, and I hope that some hint of good comes out of this storm. On Friday, Drew Massey, editor of Musicology Now and former grad school colleague, emailed me asking whether I would be interested in penning a brief post. I was grateful to receive his request and now acknowledge the privilege of addressing my peers publicly. Yet this privilege is not without peril: I do not have tenure, I do not possess a fully able body (meaning I cannot always defend myself reliably and rhetorically if the need arises), and I do not presume to speak adequately on others’ behalf.

In my view, aesthetic autonomy and academic freedom are a pair of specters looming over our debate on Musicology Now. Aesthetic autonomy: its connotative stains of paternalism, insularity, and colonialism have seeped into the fabric of our disciplinary conscience. Academic freedom: an ideal that many of us applaud and champion. But to my ears, aesthetic autonomy can actually sometimes bring echoes of academic freedom. It’s not that they’re identical in sense or syntax, but that recommendations of Let music be music bear injunctive similarities to Let scholars be scholars, the notion that academics have a de facto right to pursue their work free from political pressures and without fear of termination. Such freedom can nurture creative, progressive thought. But how can one ethically claim this extreme immunity without simultaneously attending to others’ extreme vulnerabilities? How can one feel entitled to speak with full exemptions without paying dues to the systemic silences that make selective free speech audible in the first place?

For scholars fortunate enough to land on tenure tracks or obtain positions of influence, the tasks of caring and outreach become that much more pressing. Cynthia Wu declares that we shouldn’t “forget about the original purpose of tenure—to protect academic freedom.” Yet Wu also implores us not to forget one of the duties of academic freedom—namely, to advocate for people who do not possess such privileges. If reparative work is a privilege, then its exigencies should weigh that much more heavily on the shoulders of those who are in the most secure positions to undertake the deeds.

Even scholars with tenure, to be sure, don’t get a free pass. Even if they face relatively little risk of losing their jobs or income, the weight of social retribution can be tremendous nonetheless. Public shaming has reached fever pitch in the age of online media. We shackle people to the worst things they’ve ever said. We tie them down to their most offensive phrases and tweets. And we keep them pinned down on the basis of Better safe than sorry! and Us versus them! Our conversation here has been as much about prisons—their cultural stigma, institutional violences, structural prejudices, symbolic thresholds—as about freedom. Not just the freedom to speak, but also freedom from the traps of antipathy, and freedom from playing into the very tendencies we excoriate.

One might argue that Internet exchanges are fortuitous in how they afford anonymity to those who seek it. A black, queer, crip, junior, outraged scholar can comment with impunity on this website, so long as they redact their identity. Yet this hardly poses a consolation prize, especially given how some of the commenters so far have been senior scholars whose real names do appear in plain view—names that, by virtue of status, lend authority to the statements delivered. Despite seductive illusions to the contrary, the Internet is not a democratizing agent. Not everyone gets an equal say.

To reprise Bryan Stevenson: “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” I would add that each of us is potentially more than the worst things we’ve ever said. It’s hard to live by such a beautiful mantra when cuts get ugly, when anger runs high. Because anger is necessary, after all. Anger, as Audre Lorde proclaimed during a 1981 keynote, has its uses.

So if you have colleagues who are expressing anger toward Prof. Polzonetti’s article, do not ask them to calm down, to adopt more constructive feelings, to move forward, or to stop overreacting. Ask them why they feel the way they do; then, listen, converse, and learn together.

As this debate proceeds, let’s not instantly assume the worst about voices with which we disagree. But let’s also not assume we’ve sufficiently accommodated all of the heretofore muted voices yet to be fairly heard. By freeing ourselves from such presumptions, some good may come to pass.

William Cheng (@willishire) teaches at Dartmouth College. The Eileen Southern Travel Fund of the Committee for Cultural Diversity enabled him to attend his first AMS conference in 2006. His current project, Just Vibrations: The Purpose of Sounding Good (University of Michigan Press, forthcoming 2016), calls for an ethics of care, compassion, and outreach in music and musicology. Website here.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Don Giovanni Goes to Prison: Teaching Opera Behind Bars

Ed. Update: Comments for this Post are Now Closed. Please continue the conversation on social media, or in the posts elaborating on these issues by William Cheng and Bonnie Gordon. -- 22 Feb. 2016 8:15 AM EST

By Pierpaolo Polzonetti

When Bard College asked me to teach a three-hour class on Haydn’s Creation at Eastern Correctional Facility, I did not know what to expect. I accepted out of curiosity. Eastern Correctional Facility is a massive neo-gothic maximum-security prison built in 1900 in rural New York. Crossing into the prison’s mighty walls and passing through the security checkpoint can be intimidating. Encountering the incarcerated students has an even more powerful effect, but in a positive way. To me these men seemed to have dissolved the prison walls, thanks to their intellectual curiosity and their eagerness to learn. They opened their minds and ears to music that sounded exotic to many of them. Eighteenth-Century oratorios and operas can appear meaningless or dull to listeners mostly accustomed to the blatant lyrics and pounding beat of rap music. Classical music and opera, like rap, are acquired tastes and their value is both intrinsic and contextual. Fortunately they had already carefully read the texts I had assigned, including passages from Milton, Ovid, and the book of Genesis. This allowed us to engage with Haydn’s Creation on the basis of a shared intellectual background that made the oratorio somehow familiar and approachable.

The experience was so enlightening that I decided to teach an entire opera history class for inmates entitled “Opera and Ideas.” I taught it at the Westville Correctional Facility in Indiana during the Fall semester of 2014.

Thus far, most of the debate on education in prison has focused primarily on the issue of whether it is ethical to make educational opportunities available to criminals. Many people resent the idea of a free education being offered to offenders while it is being denied to honest taxpayers. Advocates of educational programs have therefore conducted statistical studies to deploy data proving that education initiatives in prison are good for society at large. The most recurrent argument can be summarized this way: considering that a person in prison spends tax money, while a person out of prison, when employed, pays taxes, education for prisoner, as long as it is not heavily funded by tax money, is cost effective because it reduces recidivism and helps ex-prisoners find jobs. In 1764 Cesare Beccaria, in his influential book Crimes and Punishments, addressed this issue in equally rational, but simpler and less materialistic terms. Beccaria wrote, “the most difficult but also most effective method to prevent crime is to perfect education.” To explain why he takes this position, he refers to Rousseau’s Emile, claiming that education has the power to “lead to virtue through the easy road of feelings” (“spingere alla virtù per la facile strada del sentimento”).

A page from the manuscript of Mozart's Don Giovanni.

The humanistic study of opera (or music in general) may not provide job opportunities to ex-offenders but it may be more effective than computer science or economics to help former criminals understand – and therefore control – human emotions, and to reflect on ethical issues. Lorenzo Bianconi, in his essay “La forma musicale come scuola dei sentimenti,” writes that “the secret of vitality and longevity of opera is that it has represented a powerful school of feelings.” But musical forms do convey feelings with immediacy only when understood, structurally, historically, and contextually. To make them work one needs to know how they work. To help people figure this out should be an important mission of professional musicologists.

When Don Giovanni entered Westville Correctional Facility during my opera class, the prisoners gave him a very warm welcome. Their previous study of Metastasian opera equipped them with a powerful tool for understanding the differences, similarities, and influences between opera buffa and opera seria. For example, when confronting Donna Elvira’s entrance aria, “Ah chi mi dice mai,” the students were able to detect similarities with rage arias in heroic opera. However, the presence of interjections and asides by Leporello and Don Giovanni, seemed to them to belong to a different genre, for seria arias are typically impenetrable to other characters who can only listen to them in silence. Compared to rage aria in Giulio Cesare this one also displays a limited amount of coloratura. One man commented that we are supposed to laugh at the betrayed stupid woman in the presence of her cunning seducer. A second student, an African-American man with a long beard, immediately pointed his finger at the first, shouting that it is never funny when a woman suffers. “Never!” he repeated three times in a frightening crescendo.


Hoping they would chill out, I encouraged them to look closely at the score and analyze Mozart’s dramatization of emotions. As in Handel, for example, the orchestral introduction provides information on the primary affects and dramatic situation represented in the aria. What do the first four measures mean, with their fragmented descending groups of three-note legato scales played piano? Why is this followed by the detonation of a loud ascending octave leap? Why hold on the highest note before precipitating into a descending rapid staccato scale? Learning to address these questions empowers students with the competence to use the appropriate terms to describe melodic contour, phrasing, dynamics, orchestral and vocal texture, and so on, and thereby reflect on their meaning and expressive value. Without an understanding of the formal elements of music, opera can trigger emotional responses, but cannot be a school of feelings.

Mozart’s Don Giovanni gave these students a chance to better understand real-life emotions that, when repressed or out of control, can be destructive: fear and fearlessness, guilt and remorselessness, sexual passion leading to compulsion, sexual abuse, even to rape and murder. It became obvious to all of us, all the more so in prison, that our world is full of Don Giovannis. There is no other place than prison where, even when played through small portable speakers, his hymn “Viva la libertà!” resounds with more power than in an opera theater, amplified by emotions that can break the heart, but heal the mind.

NB: A longer version of this text will be published in Musica docta vol. 6, in production. 

Pierpaolo Polzonetti specializes on opera and eighteenth-century music. He is the recipient of the AMS Lockwood book award and the Slim and Einstein article awards.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Music Shorthand, or How To Capture Sound circa 1833

By Mackenzie Pierce

Sound decays. Once its vibrations drop below the audible capacity of the human ear, it survives only as memory, trace, or reproduction. The history of this physical reality, however, leads in no singular direction: today it takes me to France in 1833, where Hippolyte Prévost had invented a new means for preserving transient sonic acts. By the time Prévost turned to music stenography (also known as music shorthand), he had already risen from a humble background to become the foremost parliamentary stenographer of the July Monarchy.[1] In an era long before C-SPAN, Prévost’s trade ensured that parliamentary debate was first preserved and then disseminated to a reading public. Stenography formed the critical link between spoken word and printed page.


Prévost’s interest in all matters musical doubtlessly led him to note a curious inefficiency in standard musical notation: the smaller the rhythmic value of a note, the more strokes were required to write the note. This inverse relationship between the speed of music and the speed of musical writing made traditional notation an inapt recording device. By comparison, a rapid music stenography would allow musicians to preserve improvisations and the composer to capture the best of his or her musical inspirations. “How often in moments of verve and enthusiasm, is not the vivacity of the composer’s inspirations stifled by [traditional] musical writing,” Prévost laments. “How often does he not deplore being unable to conserve this first effusion, always so precious, where the ideas present themselves in all their freshness and originality!” [2] If Prévost’s concern for the ephemerality of genius reveals a romantic sensibility, his turn to a textual solution to preserving transient musical thoughts is rather more striking. The flags, bars, and beams that comprise western notation weigh on the composer, Prévost believes, stifling his or her creative potential.

How did Prévost propose to capture musical inspirations in “real time?” First, the stenographer must notate the intervals that comprise a melody instead of its pitches. Each measure would be written with a single stroke of the hand, forming a “monogram.” Although the stenographer would begin each monogram on the line or space corresponding to the initial pitch of the measure, all other marks would indicate intervals alone. The results look like this, with each squiggle corresponding to a measure of music:


Somewhat counter-intuitively, Prévost notates rhythmic values for quarter, eighth, and sixteenth notes through the number of lines or spaces on the staff that the stenographic sign crosses (half and whole notes receive their own signs).[3] In the following example, the initial stenographic sign corresponds to the standard location on the staff. The lower part of the semicircle indicates that it is a half note:


Next, a descending second is indicated by a downwards-directed straight line. This figure crosses two spaces on the staff, indicating that it is an eighth note:


Descending from B-flat to A requires the same stenographic figure (written in the opposite direction for ease):


The ascending fourth is shown through the vertical semicircle:


The final eighth note descending second is given through a straight line crossing two spaces of the staff:


Prévost’s system demands fluency in stenographic writing as well as a sharp ear. Although Prévost assumes that the stenographer could effortlessly translate sound into intervals, he also assumes that the stenographer has an exceedingly weak memory for the very same musical thoughts. Perhaps due to this incongruity, Prévost’s system found few adherents. Claims that it would herald “a complete revolution in music” by bringing to fruition the works that had previously “died in the inkwell because of slow notation” dissipated once the techniques of his system were evaluated.[4]

Yet Prévost was not alone in his attempt to capture musical inspirations. Over seventy musicians invented similar stenographic systems between the end of the eighteenth century and the middle of the twentieth. Some music stenographies forego the staff entirely, relying on combinations of novel signs to convey duration and pitch. Others trace the contour of pitches over a staff, while still others are little more than elaborate solfège systems or extrapolations from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Plan Regarding New Signs for Music. Even if none of these systems gained widespread popularity, the dream of aligning musical writing with the speed of musical thought never quite died either.

For historians of sound, the squiggly lines of music stenography may foreshadow the phonograph’s grooves and stenography’s real-time symbolic writing may augur sound indexing—in short—the stenographer’s quill may presage the phonograph’s stylus. [5] Yet as I sat in the reading room, ordering dusty volume after volume of these quixotic texts, I sensed that music stenographies were telling a more humble story. These systems are largely the work of amateurs, littered with musical errors and filled with translations of simple etudes into new signs; often they are preserved in single, self-published editions. In attempting to reimagine the limits of musical writing itself, however, music stenographers take us back to the medial horizons of their day. Writing is a technology. And stenographers document the relation between musical labor and the ink, paper, and scripts that render musical acts permanent.

Mackenzie Pierce is a doctoral candidate in musicology at Cornell University, where he is writing a dissertation entitled “Music and war in midcentury Poland, 1930-53.” Pierce’s research on the history of musical writing has been presented at the American Musicological Society Annual Meeting (2015) and the University of California Berkeley and his article on Chopin’s Préludes recently appeared in the volume Piano Culture in 19th-Century Paris (Brepols, 2015).


[1] René Havette, Bibliographie de la sténographie française (Paris: Dorban-aîné, 1906), 161-3.
[2] Hippolyte Prévost, Sténographie musicale ou art de suivre l'exéctution musicale, en écrivant (Paris: Prévost-Crocius, 1833), 1-2.
[3] Prévost, 15.
[4] "Sténographie musicale," Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung 35, no. 19 (1833): 321-2. Disappointment: "Recensionen," Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung 36, no. 18 (1834): 285-7.
[5] On the continuities and disjunctures between writing and inscribing sound: Lisa Gitelman, Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines: Representing Technology in the Edison Era (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), 21-61; Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 45-51.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Attractiveness of Musical Riddles

By Katelijne Schiltz

What has one eye but cannot see?

Yes, I confess: this is a silly riddle, and its solution—a needle—is rather trivial. But we somehow feel attracted to it nevertheless, because it is a little game. When we don’t know the solution, what do we do? We start trying to make a connection between the elements of the question, even if the riddle suggests an incongruity (how is it that something that has an eye cannot see?).  After a while, we start to realize that the key to the solution is a double entendre of the word “eye”: used here not to mean the human eye or an organ of vision, but in a metaphorical sense.

The person who came up with this riddle clearly wants to test our cleverness.  He teases our curiosity by playing with the ambiguity of words, their meaning and context.  And we know that it is our task to bring the seemingly incoherent pieces of the puzzle together into one image.

Now this a curious way of communicating: why can’t the author just say what he wants to say?  But that clearly is not the point.  On the contrary, the way in which it is said is equally important—if not more important—than what is being said. Riddles—whether the age-old riddle of the Sphinx or a brainteaser in a newspaper—have a special motivational and cognitive structure.  Above all, the answer is already contained in the question (an element which distinguishes a riddle from a mystery or a secret); this recursive, autotelic aspect lends the riddle a high degree of self-referentiality.

When I started working on Music and Riddle Culture in the Renaissance—a project that almost logically resulted from the book Canons and Canonic Techniques, 14th-16th Centuries I co-edited with Bonnie J. Blackburn (Leuven: Peeters Publishers, 2007)—I set as a major goal to investigate if and how such riddles connect with the broader culture of the enigmatic.  I discovered a wealth of books and articles written by scholars from the field of literature, psychology, philosophy, sociology and anthropology, who all tried to understand somehow what makes riddles so special.  Two central categories that emerged from this research proved to be fundamental to musical riddles as well: the positive appreciation of obscuritas—i.e. the quality of concealing and revealing at the same time—and the riddle’s transformative nature.

Consider for example the encoded voice from the first Agnus Dei of Josquin des Prez’ Missa Fortuna desperata as it is presented in Heinrich Glarean’s Dodekachordon (Basel, 1547; printed with permission from the Bischöfliche Zentralbibliothek in Regensburg):


The enigmatic Latin inscription, which can be translated as “They descend eleven steps multiplying, and in the same manner they increase in the opposite direction” implies that the singer has to apply no less than three transformations to the superius melody of the famous song Fortuna desperata (which, it should be stressed, is clearly identifiable on the page): he has to transpose the melody downwards an eleventh (meaning that what looks like a cantus voice is in fact a bassus!), to sing the notes in inversion and to multiply them by four.[i]  Here is the solution provided by Glarean:


It becomes clear that the relation between what is notated and how it has to be sung always implies a transformation.  In my book, I discuss musical riddles in which the performer is prompted to change the reading direction (in the horizontal [retrograde] or vertical [inversion] sense), to drop, pick out, substitute or add notes for rhythmic and/or melodic reasons, to treat the note values in hierarchical order, etc.—the number of transformations is indeed vast.  As a result, the written music is often changed beyond recognizability.  (Here you can listen to the Agnus Dei from Josquin’s Missa Fortuna desperata in a recording by Cut Circle under the direction of Jesse Rodin [from their CD De Orto & Josquin: Musique à la chapelle Sixtine autour de 1490; many thanks to Prof. Rodin for giving permission to use this recording])


In all these cases, the singer sees something he cannot sing as written because the notation has to be subjected to alteration.  This can be hinted at through a verbal instructions (the extensive catalogue of enigmatic inscriptions, taken from the Bible, Classical Antiquity, word games, proverbs etc. that Bonnie J. Blackburn published as an appendix to my book shows the composers’ sheer endless inventiveness in this field) and/or an accompanying image.

As in a literary riddle, which—as a consequence of its metaphorical structure—plays with the “double sense” of the words, the ambivalence of the notation is central to the musical riddle too.  The notated melody is at the same time a point of reference and a flexible entity that needs to be transformed.  In other words, the notation and the solution are intrinsically linked on a conceptual level, but drift apart in the performance.

But as soon as a riddle is sung, it is no longer a riddle.  The listener—however he is to be defined in the Renaissance—can only hear the solved version as it was decoded by the performers.  The sung version of a musical enigma is a paradox par excellence: it is and is not (or no longer) a riddle.

Every composer has to deal somehow with the “double existence” of music: on the page and as sound.  But in the case of musical riddles, this tension is not a mere “side effect”, but plays a central role in the very conception of the music.  Riddles, then, confront us with basic notational, performative, analytical and aesthetical strategies for Renaissance music, which makes them a highly significant phenomenon of the period.



Katelijne Schiltz is professor at the Musicology Department of the University of Regensburg. Her monograph Music and Riddle Culture was published in 2015 by Cambridge University Press. She is currently editing a book on Cipriano de Rore: New Perspectives on his Life and Music (with Jessie Ann Owens) and a Companion to Music in Sixteenth-Century Venice.



[i] For a brilliant analysis of how these transformations relate to Fortune, see Anna Zayaruznaya, “What Fortune Can Do to a Minim”, Journal of the American Musicological Society 65 (2012): 313–81.

NB: Some readers have had trouble viewing the video in Firefox.  We are currently working on fixing this issue.  For now, please try using Safari, Chrome, or Internet Explorer.  Thanks!