PostClassic: August 2005 Archives
Following the fiasco in which my audio files disappeared from Live365 a few months ago, I was pretty slow in getting Postclassic Radio back up and in running order, and it sat pretty stagnant for the month of August. (By way of apology, Live365 gave everyone affected a free month's broadcasting.) But people kept adding on as listeners, and I finally took time out from other work to rev it back up. Having started with Eve Beglarian as July composer-of-the-month, the playlist took a female-intensive turn, and I thought about moving to an all-woman-composer playlist by September. I haven't quite gone that far - there were some Noah Creshevsky pieces I wanted to play, and I refuse to take down John Cage's In a Landscape, which some of you may have noticed is the station's ever-present theme song. Nevertheless, September will be Women's Month on the station, and I've got pieces up by Allison Cameron, Amy Knoles, Annea Lockwood, Annie Gosfield, Bernadette Speach, Connie Beckley, Eliane Radigue, Elizabeth Brown, Elodie Lauten, Eve Beglarian, Janice Giteck, Jewlia Eisenberg, Judith Sainte-Croix, Julia Wolfe, Maggi Payne, Maria de Alvear, Mary Jane Leach, Pauline Oliveros, Sarah Peebles, and Wendy Mae Chambers - plus I'll soon be taking down some men's pieces to add in Belinda Reynolds, Beth Anderson, Carolyn Yarnell, Laurie Spiegel, and Meredith Monk. Not that there's ever any shortage of women composers on my playlist, in my writings - or in my heart (sigh).
Today happens to be the second anniversary of this blog. I notice that I wrote a little fewer entries this year than last - I suspect that decline will continue. I'm not finding a blog to be the most effective means for getting my ideas out, because I can't accompany my arguments with sufficient evidence. I'm sitting on hundreds of scores by young composers, making statements about new music based on what I find in them, and it feels sometimes like all I do here is draw arguments from people who don't know the music I'm talking about and won't believe it exists. When I wrote my Nancarrow book I could include loads of score excerpts, and no one has ever accused me of not knowing what I was talking about with Nancarrow. It strikes me my time would be better spent on my proposed book about Postminimalism, with my assertions backed up by incontrovertible examples, rather than just sitting here drawing fire from skeptics.
Interesting development at Sequenza 21. It turns out I'm not the only opera composer who feels hampered by the ubiquity of bel canto singing. Composers in general, the discussion suggests, at least those my age and younger, like their texts enunciated, don't object to amplification on principle, and are a little sick and tired of the Europe-y sound of wide vibrato, preferring something a little more pop. Some would rather use untrained singers and amplify them than settle for the usual conservatory product. Last time I staged an opera, I tried to find singers with straight tones, good diction, and little vibrato - recruit them from early-music groups, I was told. But there are damn few around. Now we've got a whole generation of composers saying we want a different kind of singer for our operas. Where'll we find them?
Maybe they'll appear when classical music finally dies, which classical musicians keep promising me is about to happen, so I keep waiting for the final announcement. It's been dying longer than friggin' Generalissimo Franco.
After 36 years, I finally heard Roy Harris's Third Symphony live last night, conducted by Leon Botstein at Bard's Copland and His World festival. I had discovered the piece when I was 13, and it blew me away. The smooth sweep of the piece's organic form is masterful (or maybe just lucky, because Harris had trouble ever achieving it again), and the middle, "Pastoral" section had a deep impact on me: time stops as the orchestra floats on a directionless sea of polytonal arpeggios. In some ways I've spent my life trying to duplicate the effect of that "Pastoral" section, especially the amazing effect of stopping time, in the middle of a piece that's moving somewhere, to float for awhile. I think I've achieved something similar in the "Venus" section of my The Planets and my Unquiet Night for Disklavier, though that Harrisian texture also haunts the last movement of my Transcendental Sonnets, Time Does Not Exist (naturally), and other works. The piece is lodged deep in my psyche as an archetype. It was a kind of religious experience finally hearing it live, physically and in three dimensions, at last - I anticipated every timpani blow, every brass fanfare, as though I had written the piece myself but only held it in my imagination until now. (In fact, I note that Maestro Botstein played the original version of the piece, re-inserting about a dozen measures that Harris had excised after the premiere. I thought that was a permanent change, and am surprised you can get orchestral parts of the old version.)
Unfortunately, I live in the Hudson Valley, which, aside from Boston and Uptown Manhattam itself, is the world capital of Uptown musicians, who worship only music of a prestigious European pedigree, and consider woefully deficient any music that isn't at every moment entertaining them by audibly heading toward some obvious goal. And so, predictably enough, though in my Harris-induced daze I failed to brace for it, a famous musician accosted me as I was leaving the hall, assuming because I am intelligent enough to be teaching college that my tastes must inevitably mirror his, and bellowed, "GAAAAAWWWD, what a BOOOORRRRING piece, he should have cut half of it, especially that TERRIBLE middle section!"
I have spent my life trying to convince people that there are many different ways to enjoy music, and that there is a tremendous wealth of new music to enjoy. And the response I characteristically get, especially from "educated" musicians - which suggests that education is a process of drastically curtailing one's capacity for enjoyment - is, no, no, no, I'm wrong, great music is dead, music can only be listened to one way, there's no great music anymore, and I should just give up. My refusal to acquiesce in this has given me a certain reputation for negativity.
This is from one of the program notes I wrote for the current Bard festival, "Aaron Copland and his World":
Some of the musical intelligentsia decried Copland's return to tonality, but one of the remarkable things about Billy the Kid is how well it integrates his technical achievements of the 1920s. Bitonality is rampant: Scene 2, "Street in a Frontier Town," plays off the cowboy tune "Great Grandad" in A-flat major against "Whoopie Ti Yi Yo" in F major; and then plays the latter in major and minor at once, with some clashes reminiscent of the Piano Variations. Rhythmic ingenuity in the "Mexican Dance" and the treatment of "Goodbye Old Paint" is the more audible for being drawn out at greater length than in the early works. As Larry Starr has aptly written, "not only is this ballet score as sterling an illustration of Copland's basic methods as either the Piano Variations or Music for the Theatre; it also reveals these methods at a stage of greater maturity and refinement."
All serious musical intellectuals, a company from which I have become happy to exclude myself, consider Copland's Piano Variations the top-shelf evidence of his modernist bonafides. I'm sure I have once again alienated myself from the rest of musical academia by going public with the fact that I consider Billy the Kid a better piece - but after careful examination of both scores over many years, I do believe that Billy the Kid is the better-written work.
Charles Ives wrote, "Beauty in music is too often confused with something that lets the ears lie back in an easy chair." Today we need an addendum: "Profundity in music is too often confused with something that forces the ears to lie on a bed of nails."
From recordings, I've known and loved Aaron Copland's opera The Tender Land for over thirty years, but I had never seen a production of it until last night at Bard's Summerscape Festival. It's true the piece is a little more stage-awkward than I'd imagined: some of the lyrics are more pictorial than dramatic, and the first love scene between Laurie and Martin takes place at an otherwise racuous party, which must be imagined silently continuing in the background. (Staging also failed to clarify Top's peculiar second-act story, which scandalizes Laurie's mother, and which must have some underlying denotation I can't discern - please explain for me if you "get" it.)
Nevertheless, the piece is far tauter and more cogent than Blitzstein's Regina, and I find myself more than ever baffled by its continuing negative reputation. The score is gorgeous, deftly woven together in a web of both background and foreground motives, and the emotional emphases are in all the right places. As a mere love story it would be unconvincing, but Laurie's line when she leaves home to look for Martin - "I don't leave for that alone, maybe I don't leave for that at all" (which soprano Anne Jennifer Nash unfortunately rushed through in an otherwise stirring performance) - elevates it to a more potent American archetype, the young person stifled by a narrow upbringing. It's a lovely yet fearlessly unsentimental picture of Depression-era rural America - a lyrical one full of stock characters, though, not realist as this production tried to make it. After seeing it at last, The Tender Land remains probably my second favorite conventional opera ever (leaving aside Robert Ashley for a moment), after The Mother of Us All. And yet the musical intelligentsia came out shaking their heads and clucking their tongues about how poor Copland "couldn't write an opera." More evidence, if more were needed, that I hear things upside-down from the rest of the world.
I've seen Marc Blitzstein's opera Regina staged in its entirety. Not many people living today can say that; the number will swell another thousand or two by week's end, as the work continues to run at Bard's Summerscape Festival. Far be it from me to review a work presented by an institution which keeps me on its payroll, but it is worth reporting something about so rarely performed an opera. We have so many operas that possess some underground reputation, but that are performed less often than once per generation, due to presumed flaws whose severity we rarely come into a position to gauge. American music is rich in these known-of but unheard works: Antheil's Transatlantic and Helen Retires, Douglas Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe and Carrie Nation, Carlisle Floyd's Susannah, Bernard Hermann's Wuthering Heights, and on and on. Probably they are all unstageworthy to varying extents; but how few people are in a position to confirm this! - and meanwhile it sometimes seems like the bulk of our American operatic heritage is packed away in mothballs.
So, let it be reported that, yes, Blitzstein's Regina is a deeply flawed work. It is vastly overambitious - the plot, based on Lillian Hellman's play The Little Foxes, is a complex one that revolves around money (a less stageable theme than love or murder), and the dialogue is necessarily wordy. It is to Blitzstein's credit that he did as well as he did. Much of the libretto is spoken over the music, and with one exception (the final climax, unfortunately) the transitions between speaking and singing seem natural and motivated. The strangest flaw, though, is that the music for the second and third acts is noticeably more memorable than for the first, as though, after finishing Act I, the composer, gripped by a twinge of conscience, suddenly said, "Uh-oh, I'd better put in some tunes." The tunes would have served him better in the first act than where they are; the loveliest music - self-consciously lovely, written to be lovely and sweet and Coplandy - comes at the beginning of Act 3, where it dissipates the dramatic tension built up at the end of Act 2.
Other failings may be charged to the historical period rather than the composer. The middle of Act 2 is a sort of minstrel-show "jazz" number somewhat akin to those obligatory but embarrassing scenes in every Marx Brothers movie in which Harpo plays to an appreciative crowd comprising some condescendingly depicted minority group. I'm sure Blitzstein, good Communist that he was, thought he was being extremely liberal here; today, the effect is almost the reverse. Director Peter Schneider dealt with this issue well by including the African-American musicians as onlookers in the background throughout the work, rendering the racial issue both better integrated and less politically charged.
Beyond that, there is the matter of Blitzstein's lack of a really personal style. Regina was in that kind of late-Antheil, mild-Shostakovichy idiom that mid-century Americans were trapped into who were too populist in their sympathies to follow the atonal line, and too progressive in their aesthetics to fall back on romanticism. It was a hard spot to be in. (The difficulty of fusing leftist politics with progressive ideas about art continues to torture many of us to this day, but there are a few more alternatives since minimalism came along.) Blitzstein's jazz passages were credible, and, if anything, so true to the vernacular that one noticed their limitations as notated music all the more. His kind of cleverness in style-mimicking and lack of a personal aesthetic agenda were assets in writing a populist musical like The Cradle Will Rock - still one of the great achievements of the American theater, a piece that ought to be revived somewhere in this country at least once a year. In the high art world of stage opera, though, Blitzstein's impressive cleverness was writ large indeed - if only cleverness were enough to sustain three acts of intensely sung emotion.
But I'm glad to be in a position to say that, and I appreciate that my boss, conductor Leon Botstein, had the bull-headed tenacity to put the whole thing up there for us, warts and all. The stage design by my art department colleague Judy Pfaff, with glass doors of different shapes and an ethereal spiral staircase, was lovely, and imparted delicacy to a work that badly needed some delicate touches. Lighting by Kevin Adams was dramatic and quickly changing, which actually helped give the piece some structure where the music lacked it. Lauren Flanagan sang the title role well, and the piece was well cast. That's fortunate, because Blitzstein was a little too scrupulous about making sure that every character got a big aria to him- or herself. In short, I can't imagine how any better argument on Regina's behalf could be made than was made here, and the bulk of the deficiencies must be laid at Blitzstein's door. It was reasonably entertaining, extremely informative evening, and now I won't spend the rest of my life wondering how unjust the neglect of Regina is. Now if someone would perform that service for me vis-a-vis Transatlantic.
Sites To See
AJ BlogsAJBlogCentral | rss
Terry Teachout on the arts in New York City
Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture
rock culture approximately
Laura Collins-Hughes on arts, culture and coverage
Richard Kessler on arts education
Douglas McLennan's blog
Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
Art from the American Outback
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
No genre is the new genre
David Jays on theatre and dance
Paul Levy measures the Angles
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture
John Rockwell on the arts
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
Tobi Tobias on dance et al...
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
Focus on New Orleans. Jazz and Other Sounds
Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...
Jeff Weinstein's Cultural Mixology
Martha Bayles on Film...
Fresh ideas on building arts communities
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
Exploring Orchestras w/ Henry Fogel
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
Bruce Brubaker on all things Piano
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds
Jerome Weeks on Books
Scott McLemee on books, ideas & trash-culture ephemera
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world
Public Art, Public Space
Regina Hackett takes her Art To Go
John Perreault's art diary
Lee Rosenbaum's Cultural Commentary
Tyler Green's modern & contemporary art blog