John Rockwell: August 2008 Archives
Much fussing of late from London's Proms, where Roger Norrington threatens to strip Edward Elgar of his vibrato. I'm not a staff employee of the new New York Times any more, so I won't belabor you with a Music 101 definition of vibrato. Suffice it to say that Norrington, fulfilling a lifelong crusade, thinks vibrato when applied to most 19th-century music (let alone 18th-century music and extending, as with Elgar, into early-20th-century Romanticism) is hopelessly overused. He wants music to sound lean and clean, the pure note untroubled by excessive wavering, and scrubbing away vibrato is one good way to do it.
Musicologically, he has a point. Vibrato was certainly used more selectively in the past, though hardly banned. Its current ubiquity has something to do with a perceived richer sound from the strings and something with string players' understandable preference for a technique that makes it easier for them to sound in tune.
But Richard Taruskin has a point, too, as usual, when he argues that the aesthetic of the early-music movement is less "authentic" (utterly inauthentic, he would contend at his feistiest) than reflective of the present-day predilections of its proponents. Norrington is a modernist. He eschews decorative frippery, which for him includes soupy vibrato.
But what about portamento? In Elgar's case, we have actual recordings of his music conducted, as late as the early 1930's, by himself. Yes, there's vibrato, though I suppose you could argue that that represented already ingrained habits of orchestral musicians that he didn't feel like purging. (Unlikely, but you could argue that). Far more striking is the ample application of portamento. High notes are swooped up to and down from. Phrases are more curves than linked individual notes.
When I was first writing about, and championing, Norrington for the Times in the 1980's, I had long discussions with him about both vibrato and portamento. (He was and remians a most engaging, clever man.) In my biased view, his antipathy to portamento came down to a simple matter of taste. In defiance of the recordings, he just didn't like portamento, and for the same reason that most modernists disliked it: he thought it sounded corny.
Maybe he's right; he certainly is right in advocating his own preferences. But his resistance to portamento proves Taruskin's point. All the research in the world crumbles before taste, and taste reflects the era in which it is formed. Norrington is a terrific conductor, but (and?) he's a modernist, or at least a modern-day musician. He can accept, even impose, vibrato, but for him portamento goes too far.
It would still be fun some day to hear a modern-day Elgar performance that really tried to replicate how the composer as conductor handled both portamento and vibrato in his own music. Maybe at the Proms some day. If taste permits.
On a lovely late August night, I walked out during the intermission of the Public Theater's "Hair" revival at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. My wife, of my generation, and our 19-year-old daughter walked with me. I felt free to do so, since I hadn't gotten a press ticket, which might have obligated me to stay, but had paid the $165 the Public (rightly and cleverly) extracts from those willing to pay to allow themselves to beat the line for the otherwise free tickets.
I walked out because I was offended. The show is the show, same as it ever was. I was a San Francisco/Berkeley quasi-hippie in the 60's, and back then I regarded "Hair" as a benign but utterly false depiction of the world of sex, drugs, rock & roll and relgion -- and politics, too, but that was less central to my 60's -- that I knew. I have always had a resistance to Broadway, and whatever the counter-cultural credentials the creators of "Hair" had or pretended to have, the show seemed manipulative and false even 40 years ago.
Now it looks and sounds manipulative, false and painfully distorted as any kind of insight into what actually happened back then. It's become cheap history. I hardly claim that the era was all wonderful and loving. There was sexism, cynicsm, anger and personal destruction on a grand scale. But there was also a wonderful sense of liberation and thrilling artistic adventure.
Especially, there was great music. There are a couple of catchy tunes in "Hair," but most of the music is pedestrian beyond belief. And the sequence of songs tries lamely to push one cliche, one hot button after another. We get your communal love, your drugs, your sexual experimentation, your race relations and on it goes, maniacally and hectically enacted in Diane Paulus's overwrought production.
Who likes this revival, which is apparently moving to Broadway itself? Most of the people my age, who might have remembered the actual 60's, didn't have many kinds words for it. Maybe younger folk. But what troubled me more than anything is the idea that they think they are actually seeing a real artifact of that decade in this show. It's a crude distortion, destructive in its blatant inaccuracy. Which still might be tolerable if it worked on its own terms as art. But it doesn't, painfully.
When you reach a certain age, artists you grew up with, whom as a critic you championed, become sufficiently established for not only prestigious performances in which they're hailed as icons, but for more or less hagiographic films. This late summer in New York saw not only a series of Lincoln Center Festival performance of Laurie Anderson's latest piece, "Homeland," graced with a cameo from her husband, Lou Reed, but for films about Reed from Julian Schnabel, about Patti Smith by Steven Sebring and about Philip Glass by Scott Hicks. Glass has a cameo in the Smith film, too.
"Homeland" was disappointing. Any artist who creates a distinctive style in their youth -- and all of these artists did just that -- runs the risk of repeating the formula. Anderson's sequences of quirky, witty, touching vignettes, with her droll, middle-American intonation, often altered electronically, her washes of electronic sound and her fiddle interpolations, work fitfully now but predictably. "Homeland" is a sadder and more despairing than most of her earlier work. But the real problem is the overfamiliarity of the format. Reed's cutting guitar solos kicked up the energy in a very welcome way.
Whatever you think of Schnabel as a painter, he had become a remarkable filmmaker. His documentation of the 2006 Brooklyn performances of Reed's 1973 album "Berlin" do not transform what was already a theatrical experience in which had had already had a hand, complete with film footage of Emmanuelle Seigner as the heroine who comes to a bad end. But gradually you realize what a wonderful job of framing the music he has accomplished.
"Berlin" was tepidly received 35 years ago. As the rock critic of the New York Times, I was one of the few who liked it. It may not contain songs on a level with Reed's (or the Velvet Underground's) greatest, but the arc of the album sustains a compelling aura of sadness and empathy. Reed's presence, singing and playing and scowling, stands out, but the band is fabulous and Schnabel's balance of subservience and subtle artistry is pretty thrilling. For proof, see Reed's reaction shots, his facial expressions of affection, paternal pride and awe, as the ethereal Antony -- body language from Joe Cocker, with a voice that translates Roy Orbison into ever more blissful gender confusion -- sings an encore.
The Smith film is an obsessive oddity, shot over a decade of devoted following about, with Sebring shooting anything that happened to come to mind, his or hers. Whether it will mean much to non-Patti devotees, I don't know. I'm a devotee, so it meant a lot to me.
There is too little music ("Horses" is oddly bifurcated with the litany of dances -- "Do you know how to Pony?" -- preceding by half an hour another performance of the introducion; the transition from intro to rock is one of her magical moments of Smith's art, and Sebring misses it). And yet the details of her life, her loves, her memories, are compelling. I was sucked happily into its dreamy flow.
The Glass film, too, offers insights for the admirer, though Glass himself shies away from personal revelations and much musical self-analysis. There are lovely shots of his Nova Scotia hideaway and his many friends and collaborators. The oddity is the weight placed on his most recent wife, Holly; it seems a lovely family unit until it suddenly dissolves, painfully, toward the end. Glass himsef is reportedly upset, presumably as much by the exposure of his personal, private life as by the loss of his wife.
And yet for all the uneveness and sameness and overproductivity of his work, Glass's masterpieces are truly masterly, and there are enough audio and video excepts from the early ensemble work (not enough of that, actually), "Einstein on the Beach," "Satyagraha", "Koyaanisqatsi" and more to keep any Glass fan happy. Like me.