main: December 2003 Archives

One of the advantages of this blog is that it allows me to indulge in the news-pegless item. Those of us journalists who have a soft spot for obscure music, or who have even become leading experts in bodies of music few people have ever heard of, get frustrated waiting for the "news peg," the external event that justifies a subject to editors. When, after all, is there going to be an Ivan Wyschnegradsky concert in New York? How long will I wait to give my opinion of Ben Weber (1916-1979), if I am dependent on the prodding of external events? What excuse do I give an editor for injecting Giancarlo Cardini into an essay? And yet, if circumstances prevent me from bringing up artists who I feel are vastly underrated, how will they ever begin to be evaluated properly? So as a new, ongoing feature of this blog, I offer the Academie d'Underrated, a series of totally gratuitous articles bringing to your attention composers who aren't visible anywhere on the cultural radar - and SHOULD be.

As it turns out, I've been planning for months to begin this feature with Dane Rudhyar (1895-1985), and just when I get the chance, a news peg actually appeared in the form of a new compact disc, along with the advent of an excellent Rudhyar web page. Had Rudhyar continued composing through the Depression, he would doubtless be one of the more famous names in American music; instead, even rabid new-music fans of my acquaintance have often never heard of him. An emigre from Paris who had come straight from hearing the premiere of Le sacre du printemps, Rudhyar landed in New York with a splash, getting two orchestral works (now lost) performed within months of getting off the boat. Spreading the twin gospels of Theosophy and Scriabin (a much more popular composer before World War II than seems imaginable now), Rudhyar made his way to San Francisco, and ended up in the proto-New Agey Halcyon community with Henry Cowell.

Had he been born a few decades later, Rudhyar's heavily spiritual approach to composing would doubtless have landed him in the same milieu as La Monte Young, Charlemagne Palestine, and Terry Riley. As it was, he had to make do with the resources of early 20th-century modernism. Many composers in the 1920s, Rudhyar leading a banner in this regard, drew an equasion between dissonance and spirituality, the idea being that the irreducible sonority of dissonant chords elicited a new kind of meditative listening. Rudhyar felt that by playing dissonant sonorities on the piano, one turned it from being a rational instrument into a mystical one; like Scriabin, he seemed to imitate gongs and bells in resounding chords that played off the odd notes of the overtone series. Rudhyar wrote mostly brief works on principle, feeling that the emphasis on form and relationship necessary that a long piece demands detract from the magical quality of pure sonority. In fact, I regard Rudhyar as a kind of important midpoint between Scriabin and La Monte Young: less formally conservative than Scriabin, not yet aware what he might have been able to do in terms of sonority by retuning the piano as Young does in The Well-Tuned Piano.

The craggy, dissonant style of modernism, however, was hard hit during the Depression. The American composers who had championed dissonance in the 1920s either simplified their styles considerably in the 1930s (like Copland, Antheil, Cowell, and Thomson), or quit composing altogether (Crawford, and temporarily Arthur Berger). Rudhyar's composing slowed to a trickle in the 1930s, and he got sidetracked into a career as the country's most esteemed astrological writer. I highly recommend Rudhyar, actually, as a starting point for astrology, especially his first and seminal book, The Astrology of Personality - that was my introduction to the subject, and I became interested because I was already such a fan of Rudhyar's music. Rudhyar can be a dense writer, and he often desperately needed editing for clarity; the following sentence, if rather brief by Rudhyarian standards, is otherwise not atypical:

In most ancient cosmologies with a metaphysical foundation - that is, that speak of a transcendent, spiritual realm of being antedating material existence and becoming - a release of sound is said to cause the "precipitation" of the Forms of a spiritual realm (noumena and archetypes) into the objective, perceptible, and measurable materials constituting the foundations of existential entities.

Not that one can't figure out that sentence, but when Rudhyar starts generalizing about the history of mankind, several paragraphs in a row of such material can leave the reader desperate for a concrete bit of solid ground. Nevertheless, Rudhyar was a revolutionary figure in astrology whose influence is still much felt today: someone who championed the planets as spiritual forces leading one to self-knowledge rather than as implements of inevitable, therefore predictable fate.

And so Rudhyar's composing pretty much dried up in 1934, as he wrote more than three dozen books about astrology. In the 1970s, due to interest expressed by young composers like James Tenney, Charles Amirkhanian, and Peter Garland, he resumed composing - and his style didn't change one iota. Though I've heard only a little of Rudhyar's orchestral output (and only his Five Stanzas for string orchestra has been commercially recorded), his best work seems to be his piano music, especially the series' of brief works called Pentagrams, Tetragrams, Paeans, and Granites. The music is as tough and granitic as that of Charles Ives or Carl Ruggles, but instead of being melodic or contrapuntal it is an interplay of sonorities that reappear and evolve, impressionistic and atmospheric and yet stern and commanding at the same time. There are also a pair of string quartets he wrote for the Kronos Quartet, but I don't find them as compelling.

The new compact disc (Furious Artisans FACD 6087 - you can hear a brief soundbite here) is a recording of piano music by pianist/composer Richard Cameron-Wolfe, who does justice to Rudhyar's abrupt and impassioned side. (The disc also includes a rare Erik Satie ballet, Uspud, and one of Cameron-Wolfe's signal achievements is that he has performed Satie's Vexations, a 24-hour repetitive work, by himself rather than as part of the usual team of pianists.) Cameron-Wolfe includes two previously unrecorded early Rudhyar works from his Parisian period, Lamento (1913) and Cortege Funebre (1914), dark, original, and not as Debussyan as you'd expect from the fact that the young avant-gardist had written his first book on Debussy in 1913. The other Rudhyar works are Tetragrams Nos. 3 and 8, from the late 1920s, which as far as I know are also world premiere recordings. This is absolutely top-shelf Rudhyar, taut, mystical, thoughtfully explosive.

The Rudhyar web page, in which Rudhyar's astrologer widow Leyla Rudhyar Hill is involved, is also exciting news. It offers not only a fairly detailed biographical sketch outlining Rudhyar's musical and astrological achievements alike, but a list of works, twelve of his swirly, geometrically symbolic paintings, some of his portentously abstract poetry, and best of all a generous selection of his writings, including the entirety of his late book about music, The Magic of Tone and the Art of Music. Please avail yourself of it all: Rudhyar was an important central influence of the 1920s (on Ruth Crawford and John Cage among others), and musically ahead of his time in many ways. His insistence on brevity as a way to avoid abstraction, parallel to Harry Partch's emphasis on corporeality, makes him a postclassical composer who arrived decades before the world was ready for him.

December 29, 2003 8:13 PM | |

Well, the week before Christmas is a difficult time to blog, especially when my semester only ended six days earlier, and I had been prevented from Christmas shopping the last two weekends by a blizzard and cold, respectively. (My son's birthday is Dec. 23, too.) So I've been absent. And I'm not really the type to send out the obligatory Christmas greeting - just because it's obligatory. For the record, I am happy to express the usual lip service to peace on earth for us all, and all that.

But I do have a triumphant bit of Christmas information to report. Every year on Christmas morning I get out of bed, and my first act is to put on a CD of Christmas music. All my life, my dad would play Handel's Messiah, interspersed with recordings of Christmas songs by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. So over the years I've tried different recordings of the Messiah, Bach cantatas, choral music by the American William Billings, Renaissance choral music, English choirs singing Holst and Walton arrangements, and so on and so on. Some of it's too hackneyed, some too familiar, some too intrusive. But this year it finally occurred to me to play the nativity music, in fact the entire Christmas oratorio section, from Franz Liszt's oratorio Christus. It was the perfect accompaniment to a mellow Christmas morning. The Christmas oratorio section is mostly instrumental (in imitation of Berlioz's Romeo et Juliet), the choral parts are mostly low-key and lovely. The nativity music is fully as charming as any Waltz of the Sugar Plum Fairies and far more interesting and original - surely the only Christmas music ever written in 5/4 meter (actually, 2/4 and 3/4 in alternation). The Easter music on CD 3 is heavily dramatic and emotional, of course, but for Christ's birth and the "March of the Three Kings" Liszt showed for an entire hour what a delicate, light touch he was capable of with chorus and orchestra. No less an authority than German musicologist Carl Dahlhaus has called Christus the greatest oratorio of the 19th century, and I totally agree - yet Liszt is vastly underrated in America, excoriated because he was far too complex and Protean a figure, and mixed in a ton of superficial showpieces along with his masterworks.

In any case, sorry the recommendation comes too late for this year, but if you received a Tower or Amazon gift certificate and have an eye to next Christmas (or even Easter), Liszt's Christus is one of the 19th century's mostly undiscovered gems. And there's a superb recording by Antal Dorati on Hungaraton. So, happy holidays. Back to the postclassical world soon, but even I can't steer you towards much postclassical Christmas music.

December 25, 2003 10:07 AM | |

1/1 is the unlikely name of a small but important journal published by Other Music, Inc., little known to the public but eagerly awaited and closely read by microtonal musicians. It's the most significant periodical devoted to the system of pure tuning known as Just Intonation - i.e., the practice of tuning pitches according to whole number ratios. And the current issue offers a cover article by LA microtonalist Bill Alves partly analyzing Toby Twining's Chrysalid Requiem. What's rare and exciting about this is that Twining's choral magnum opus is only three years old, true 21st-century music, and it's exceedingly rare to get analytical information about music that recent. Plus, Chrysalid Requiem, a revolutionary work in its approach to tuning, represents the choral music of the future.

Perhaps not the immediate future - with everything so conservative these days, and arts funding rolling unidirectionally backward, and the free fall of our culture into corporate fascism and the general ignorance necessary to allow it, Twining's vision may remain an oddity for decades, possibly even centuries. But fusing as it does a Renaissance choral concept, advanced systems of tuning inherent in Harry Partch's music, and overtone-singing techiques traditional to Tibet and Tuva and increasingly explored in the west, the time will inevitably come when this kind of music will represent more of a common practice. Like myself, Twining studied with microtonalist Ben Johnston, who, after working with Partch, invented his own incredibly flexible and logical microtonal notation based on extensions of Renaissance practice. In addition to the usual sharps and flats, the notation has pluses and minuses, little "7'"s and upside-down "7'"s, arrows pointing up and down, "13"'s right-side-up and upside-down, and so on. Twining, working out sequences of harmonic progressions not terribly complex in themselves, nevertheless wanders into harmonies so far afield that the notation ends up as an incredible morass with sometimes more than ten accidentals per note; the mind-boggling examples Alves gives are not even the most complex in the piece. The only way to perform the piece was for Twining to create a synthesizer realization, and for the singers to listen to it over headphones while performing.

If sometimes stark and austere, Chrysalid Requiem is just as often warm and thrilling, and most spine-tingling when it buzzes with overtone-singing techniques (in which the 12 singers each sing more than one pitch at a time). I'd even recomend the piece as thoughtful new music for the Christmas season. There's a recording on Cantalope that I reviewed in the June 4, 2002, Village Voice, and you can hear several excerpts at Just Intonation Network. Alves's analysis is only a few pages and far from exhaustive, but it offers a wealth of musical examples, correlated with the audio examples at Just Intonation Network, and gives the basis of Twining's numerical rhythmic structuring techniques, rich with Christian symbolism, along with the modulation patterns through which he achieves tonal contrasts never before heard. At least in concept, Alves makes this complex work seem simpler than it sounds.

1/1 is selflessly kept in operation by David B. Doty, who would love for you to subscribe at Or write to the Just Intonation Network at 535 Stevenson Street, San Francisco, CA 94103, whence you can also order a T-shirt emblazoned with the 12th root of 2 with a slash through it - a microtonalist's arcane way of protesting our ubiquitous, out-of-tune, equal tempered tuning. One gets so sick and tired of reading interviews where unimaginative composers and rock stars opine that everything's been done, there's nothing new under the sun, and we're in a postmodern period in which we can only rearrange elements from the past. The fantastic reach of Chrysalid Requiem into one possible future shows how ignorant and superficial all such assertions are.

December 18, 2003 9:34 AM | |

A second thought about Berlioz. When we think of Brahms's life, we think of his works being championed by Joachim, Clara Schumann, Hans von Bulow. We think of Beethoven's aristocratic patrons begging him to remain in Vienna and pooling their resources to give him a salary. We think of Chopin and Liszt playing piano to entertain at aristocratic soirees. But when we think of Berlioz's life, it's of him consumed with scribbling newspaper reviews, writing about musical nonentities for money, forced to put together his own early performances without institutional help. He did enjoy considerable success as a conductor on tours outside France, but he never lived to hear some of his projects performed, the complete Les Troyens in particular. Likewise, in a more profound sense than any other major 19th-century fiigure, we think of him composing in a vacuum. The extraordinary innovations of Symphonie Fantastique and Romeo et Juliet (stream of consciousness, ostinato, col legno, motivic linkage between movements, free rhythm of fermatas) often waited until the 20th century to find an echo. If his early works were too incendiary for the early Romantic movement he electroshocked into existence, later in life he retreated to an objective, Gluck-obsessed classicism that seemed even more strangely unrelated to his surrounding context. (One movement from the much-underrated L'enfance du Christ he actually passed off at first as a new 18th-century find.)

Composing without finding cultural resonance, pouring energy into a dayjob, unsupported by institutions and on his own - though incomplete, this thumbnail sketch makes Berlioz sound like a proto-American, even a Downtowner, a first draft for Charles Ives. More than any other 19th-century figure (although Mozart in Vienna was somewhat in the same boat, and the Swedish Franz Berwald worked as a glasses manufacturer, Ives-like), Berlioz faced the artistic conditions that we American composers face. We see him with a shock of self-recognition that we don't get from Brahms, Mendelssohn, Mahler. It makes me wonder if more than just Berlioz's wild music and wonderful sense of rhythmic surprise were involved in my early fascination for him. I devoured his Memoires and collected all his recordings years before it ever occurred to me to become, like Berlioz, a critic.

December 17, 2003 2:01 PM | |

No one asked me to use the words "miserable failure" and "George W. Bush" in a sentence (I do it often enough without being asked - and look up "miserable failure" on Google if you don't know what I'm talking about), but I was asked to participate today in a "blog burst" for Beethoven's birthday. I don't have very original thoughts about Beethoven at the moment. Count Waldstein set the stage for a three-person Classical Era when he wrote to the young Beethoven, who was leaving for Vienna, "You will receive the spirit of Mozart from the hands of Haydn," and against that aristocratic fiat I've long agitated for a more complex view of that era, teaching the finer works of Clementi, Dussek, and Hummel for a fuller picture. Many of Beethoven's works, it strikes me, are played too often, but I'll admit that the last six piano sonatas and last five string quartets are played far too seldom. And the slow movement of Op. 111, which has had a tremendous continuing impact on my own music, is just a miracle.

If begged to comment on classical music, I would rather comment on Hector Berlioz, whose bicentennial (1803-1869) has passed without too much hoopla. All of us Berlioz fans - and I've been one since way back - seem incapable of eulogizing him without simultaneously noting how sadly neglected his music is. And yet what composer in history (before Henry Brant, anyway) ever made his work so inconvenient to present? How often can the Requiem, with its four brass choirs and 16 timpani, actually be pulled off? Lelio is a logistical disaster, Beatrice and Benedict similarly between genres. Violists don't seem to like Herold in Italy, though I love it. Les Troyen is a mammoth effort, and, though nobly beautiful, a little slow once you mount the thing. Isn't what we love about Berlioz that his idealistic vision led him to places no one would ever be able to afford to revisit often? He's like a gorgeous canyon too difficult of access for the mere tourist. And as Charles Rosen has shown in The Romantic Generation, even the idiosyncrasies of Berlioz's composing technique come too much from a certain kind of training, and from his being a guitarist and clarinetist rather than the more usual pianist or violinist, to have led to much influence. I suspect that Berlioz must be a more popular composer than widely assumed, but we addicts all feel a little isolated by the understandable scarcity of performances. And in the wickedness of his literary humor, he yields not even to Shaw.

It was, admittedly, shocking to go to the Paris Conservatoire a couple of years ago and see statue after statue devoted to French mediocrities like Scribe and Auber, and no monument to the Conservatoire's most famous graduate. (The faculty there allegedly forbade its students to attend the premiere of Symphonie Fantastique, and then repeated the feat decades later with Debussy's Pelleas.) But I'm not sorry to have one hero whose pedestal is so high and inconveniently placed that experiencing him becomes a special pleasure of rediscovery every time. Since my Berlioz fanaticism is of such old origin, my complete collection of his work remains largely on vinyl, so let it be recorded that I marked his centennial by purchasing the Metropolitan Opera's ponderous but classic DVD of Les Troyens.

December 16, 2003 2:08 PM | |

I first met Corey Dargel years ago as a student at Oberlin. He subsequently made a beeline to New York City, where he has quickly become a rising master of the postmodern love song, in the fine kidding-on-the-square tradition of David Garland. As prime example, he's just posted a new song, "Antidepressants," on his web page. After you've listened to that one, scroll down to find some songs from his new CD, cry those sweet sweet tears on out, and you'll hear where I think post-rock and post-classical may collide circa 2004 or so. Dargel has a rare knack for combining technical sophistication with emotional nakedness. And he'd love your feedback.

December 15, 2003 11:27 PM | |

A severe head cold has kept me MIA lately. It's subsiding, and I hope to be back up to speed soon.

I did want to note the passing of Senator Paul Simon, one of the finest men in the U.S. Congress and the finest senator I've ever had the pleasure of being represented by - a man of honesty and a great friend to the arts. When he ran for president in 1987, those of us in Illinois who knew his quality were excited, but the rest of the country just made fun of his big ears and bow ties. They don't realize what, in their silly superficiality, they rejected. He would have made a much finer president than anyone else we've had lately.

December 15, 2003 7:55 AM | |

As I said in my first blog entry, the purpose of this blog is to entice people to send me information I'm looking for. It works beautifully. Publisher Joseph Zitt informs me that one can still order Robert Cogan's and Pozzi Escot's magnificent book Sonic Design privately from their web site, at There's also a workbook to go with it, which I'd never seen. Maybe I'll get to teach my Sonic Design class after all.

Zitt, of Metatron Press, also lusts to republish Cardew's Stockhausen Serves Imperialism, warts and all. Our little Bard College library copy is about worn to a frazzle from me and my colleagues fighting over it. If you don't know about the book, I wrote about it in my New Music Box article on political music, Making Marx in the Music.

December 7, 2003 9:36 AM | |

I had opportunity this week to teach with a classic music book that I rarely get to use: Sonic Design (Prentice-Hall) by Robert Cogan and Pozzi Escot. Published in 1976, the book was an amazing and long-awaited achievement: a culturally neutral attempt at general, analytical musical principles. Starting with abstract, non-Eurocentric concepts such as pitchspace, contour, and density, and usually starting by graphing scale steps and rhythms onto graph paper, Cogan and Escot came up with methods for approaching music that worked equally well with a Josquin des Prez mass movement, a Bach keyboard work, an Elliott Carter string quartet, the Ives First Sonata, a Zuni buffalo dance, a piece called "Plum Blossom" for Chinese Ch'in, Indian raga improvisations, John Cage's chance works, and Gregorian chant. They approached each piece from the outside via descriptive analysis, only moving in toward culturally determined features of musical language after coming up with general insights about shape and gesture. In fact, it was their Zuni buffalo dance analysis that, in 1977, spun me off into a life of visiting American Indian reservations and studying Native American music and dance for integration of its rhythms into my own music. Add to that the fact that the Forward is by Elliott Carter, and it's clear that this was an important, even revolutionary book with very widespread appeal and no axes to grind.

I'd construct a class around Sonic Design if I could order it for students, but, of course, I can't: it's out of print. (I Xeroxed a couple of chapters this week.) I don't know how long it was in print, a few months, it seemed like. It can be just about guaranteed that any important book about music will disappear from print almost before the music community is aware of its existence.

For instance, Henry Cowell's New Musical Resources is the most influential book in the history of American music: it was published in 1930, remaindered in 1935, brought out briefly again in 1969, and picked up by Oxford again in 1996, and I've just heard a rumor that it's going out of print again. For many years another crucial book in American music, Harry Partch's Genesis of a Music, was unavailable, though Da Capo managed to bring it back a few years ago with CRI's help; I hope when I order it for class next week it's still out there. Jonathan Kramer's 1988 book The Time of Music was a ground-breaking study of 20th-century concepts of musical time: out of print. Cornelius Cardew's Stockhausen Serves Imperialism: still relevant today, but a collector's item that you can make a good profit off of on E-bay. And as for books on tuning, fugeddaboudit. My keyboard temperament bible is Owen Jorgensen's Tuning: Containing the Perfection of Eighteenth-Century Temperament, the Lost Art of Ninteenth-Century Temperament, and the Science of Equal Temperament, but you'll never find it. In 1992 Patelson's Music in New York had a stack of them on the cut-out table and I grabbed several for friends, though the tome weighs a good ten pounds. And every microtonalist I know would give his left little finger for a copy of J. Murray Barbour's Tuning and Temperament (Da Capo Press, 1972). Somehow Cage's Silence and Charles Rosen's The Classical Era manage to stay in the bookstores, but any other good-looking music book I snap up on first sight, because I never expect to see it again. There are thousands of musicians out there searching for rare copies of books that no one will publish because - "there's no demand for them."

December 6, 2003 9:24 PM | | Comments (0) |

The Noam Chomsky passage to which I alluded in my last blog entry is worth reprinting here, worth memorizing, in fact, and worth being plastered on a wall of every building in this American Republic:

...In our society, real power does not happen to lie in the political system, it lies in the private economy: that's where the decisions are made about what's produced, how much is produced, what's consumed, where investment takes place, who has jobs, who controls the resources, and so on and so forth. And as long as that remains the case, changes inside the political system can make some difference - I don't want to say it's zero - but the differences are going to be very slight.

In fact, if you think through the logic of this, you'll see that so long as power remains privately concentrated, everybody, everybody, has to be committed to one overriding goal: and that's to make sure that the rich folk are happy [italics mine] - because if they're happy, then they'll invest, and the economy will work, and things will function, and then maybe something will trickle down to you somewhere along the line. But if they're not happy, everything's going to grind to a halt, and you're not even going to get anything trickling down. So if you're a homeless person in the streets, your first concern is the happiness of the wealthy guys in the mansions and the fancy restaurants. Basically, that's a metaphor for the whole society.

Like, suppose Massachusetts were to increase business taxes. Most of the population is in favor of it, but you can predict what would happen. Business would run a public relations campaign - which is true, in fact, it's not lies - saying, "You raise taxes on business, you soak the rich, and you'll find that capital is going to flow elsewhere, and you're not going to have any jobs, you're not going to have anything." That's not the way they'd put it exactly, but that's what it would amount to: "Unless you make us happy you're not going to have anything, because we own the place; you live here, but we own the place...." [U]nless you keep business happy, the population isn't going to have anything.

Understanding Power: The Indispensible Chomsky, pp. 63-64

This applies to us all, whether Republican or Democrat, whether aspiring pop star or experimental composer, whether homeless person or general in charge of deciding when and where to drop the nuclear bombs. Everything we say, everything we can say, about art and the arts on these blogs is limited by the confines of that external condition. Of course, the arts have always, through recorded history, been about keeping rich folks happy. The glory of the European 16th through 18th centuries was that back then rich folks were artistically well-educated and had excellent taste. The taste that rich folks have today, you can see in our major institutions. On any widespread scale, a society gets the art its rich folks want it to get.

December 6, 2003 2:20 PM | |

Alan Licht, composer and critic, came to speak at Bard the other night. He gave as a lecture an article that he had written for the e-magazine Bumpidee, "Improvisation and the New American Century," and which you can read either here or here. His anti-Bush-imperialist comments merely echo what I've long believed myself, but I was struck by parallels he draws between the acquiescence of Congress today and the acquiescence of critics who glorify whatever the industry releases. Here, from the middle of the article, are the relevant paragraphs:

"What strikes me about pop criticism of late - and this afflicts the broadsheets as well - is the tyranny of received opinion. I have yet to meet anyone, obsessive fan or otherwise, who thinks the last two Nick Cave albums come close to 1997's The Boatman's Call in terms of emotional depth and songwriting skill, but both releases were greeted with an across-the-board acclaim that bordered on instilled reverence, and an attendant lack of critical rigour. What gives here? Maybe writers are too hidebound by the notion of providing their readers with glorified consumer guides rather than informed criticism." Sean O'Hagan, "Can"t I trust anyone these days to tell me if a record is any good?" the London Observer, March 30, 2003

Jonathan Rosenbaum launches a similar complaint against his fellow film critics in his excellent book Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Conspire to Limit What Films We See (Acapella Books, 2000). He exemplifies the problems with current film criticism with the now-retired NY Times critic Janet Maslin, who wrote based on audience expectations rather than her own opinions (and references a critique by Sarah Kerr in Slate titled "Janet Maslin: Why Can't the New York Times Movie Critic Tell Us What She Thinks?" - compare with O'Hagan's title). [You can read this original 1999 Slate article here.] I remember her review of The Cable Guy, which she panned because fans of the lovable Jim Carrey would be disappointed by his memorably dark characterization in the film. Nice market research there, Janet, but was it a good movie? She's providing a glorified consumer guide/career advice rather than informed criticism. One of the more galling aspects of the slide into war was Congress' silence as Bush steamrolled over the U.N. and into Iraq (save for Senators Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd--who's also a violinist). Talk about a tyranny of received opinion! Congress abdicated its responsibilty for informed criticism of the President's doings when it gave him a blank check to go to war after 9/11. That responsibility, in the form of legislation, is what we elect our representatives for, and they're not doing their job.

It's interesting to see this tendency on the part of critics put into a political framework. It's as Noam Chomsky says, at greater length: the only chance for survival today is keeping the wealthy class happy, whether you're a senator or a newspaper critic. I think it explains why I've hit a glass ceiling in my career as a critic. It has been hinted to me at times, ever so delicately, that it would be appreciated if I would write more about the goings-on at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, since that's where the advertising money comes from, and that's the stuff larger audiences hear. And I've tried. I think my last attempt to take Carnegie Hall seriously, new-music-wise, was lukewarmly reviewing the Giovanni Sollima concert there in 2000: a rather nice postminimalist concert overwhelmed by its PR ("the Jimi Hendrix of the cello!") and the cellist/composer's patently stellar opinion of his own lackluster music. But those glorified spaces are not where the intellectual life of new music takes place, and these days the great new music never even seems to get there eventually. So, perhaps unwisely given free rein to define my own critical bailiwick, I've obstinately continued reviewing small spaces and tiny CD labels, and have integritized myself into commercial irrelevance. Luckily, I have tenure.

I don't believe, however, that the classical critic makes a career by raving about every new effort that comes from the large corporations, as Licht claims that film critics and pop music critics do. It's always seemed to me that classical music critics make their way into the presitigious posts by disparaging almost everything recent and seeming extreeeeeeemely hard to please. That's another problem with me: contrary to a reputation that enigmatically clings to me outside Downtown new-music circles, the vast majority of my reviews have been enthusiastic. I rarely write about concerts I didn't like unless they were institutionally high-profile, and I rarely attend institutionally high-profile concerts because they look so boring.

And then, with Licht's words in my head, I went last night to see the Bill Murray movie Lost in Translation. I'd been primed and pumped by rave reviews at my favorite liberal news sources NPR and Salon, fed snippets of its sizzling dialogue, seduced by reports that director Sophia Coppola was possibly a greater director than her father, even to the point of giving her a cover spread on the Times Sunday magazine. Why didn't anyone mention that the movie was relentlessly dull, deliberately unfulfilled, monochrome, inflated with pointless detail, and unfocused? If this is the kind of movie that can earn raves as a "thinking man's comedy" these days, film critics' standards have indeed become more debased than I'd realized.

December 6, 2003 12:54 PM | | Comments (0) |

Long-time electronic composer and general Downtown raconteur Tom Hamilton sends me an interesting fact in response to my perceptions of the guitar's takeover of the composing world:

In 1995, an industry group called the Guitar and Accessories Marketing Association (GAMA), along with the NAMM and MENC, started a launched a program to train teachers to start guitar programs in middle and high schools. That group estimated that by 2001, over 200,000 students have learned guitar in school, and over 38,000 students bought their own guitar. They project a trend that by 2010, will have over 1.5 million students learning guitar in school programs, and over 300,000 students purchasing guitars. And that's just through one school-based program! My observation is that most guitarists learn through woodshedding and private lessons without any institutional structure at all.

So no wonder young guitarists seem to be coming out of the woodwork: it was a calculated industry initiative! Tom also notes that when he was in school (and he and I are roughly the same antediluvian age, struggling together to figure out these youngsters), guitarists had to major in piano and take guitar lessons on the side. Bard, I might note, and to brag about my own institution for a moment, allegedly boasts the country's oldest college guitar program, begun around 1968 by our cellist/guitarist Luis Garcia-Renart. Perhaps that's why, to this day, a good half of my students are guitarists.

The deeper insights I get into the guitar, though, come from my son Bernard, who plays electric, acoustic, and (fretless) bass. When you practice the piano, as I did as a teenager, the piano sits in the living room, everyone in the house hears your painful learning process and your mistakes, and you drive your parents nuts playing scales up and down after school. (Thanks for the denials, Mom and Dad, but I know it was a drag sometimes.) When you're a guitarist, you can go off in your room, turn the amp off, experiment to your heart's delight, work out your technical issues in private, and emerge showing off your best work. I think that's one reason, along with the macho Eric Clapton/John Lennon image, that the guitar and piano attract different personalities, and I suspect that's partly what's behind the guitar's ascendancy: because young men today, it seems to me, have a harder time making their mistakes in public than young men used to. Not only due to its deafening volume and visual appearance as a kind of oversize, substitute phallus is the guitar a more macho instrument.

And speaking of laptops, Tom reiterates a question that my friends and I agonize over all the time: is it necessary for electronic composers to acquire keyboard or other conventional-instrument skills? Why?

December 1, 2003 11:41 AM | |

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Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture
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Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
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Life's a Pitch
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
Mind the Gap
No genre is the new genre
Performance Monkey
David Jays on theatre and dance
Plain English
Paul Levy measures the Angles
Real Clear Arts
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture
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John Rockwell on the arts
Straight Up |
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude

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Out There
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Public Art, Public Space
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