“Some one was playing the piano–playing Chopin with so much expression that he was scarcely audible.”
Maurice Baring, C
“Some one was playing the piano–playing Chopin with so much expression that he was scarcely audible.”
Maurice Baring, C
It suddenly occurs to me that I haven’t mentioned for quite some time that “About Last Night” is graciously hosted by artsjournal.com, the Web site that offers a daily digest of news stories and commentaries about the arts gleaned from all across the English-speaking world, not to mention a whole bunch of cool arts blogs.
I visit artsjournal.com every morning, without fail (and I did it before I started “About Last Night,” thank you very much). It’s the quickest and best way I know to keep abreast of the wide world of art.
To visit the artsjournal.com home page, click on the artsjournal logo at the top of this page.
To check out any of my fellow artsjournal.com artbloggers, go to the OTHER AJ BLOGS module at the bottom of the right-hand column.
And while you’re at it:
If you enjoy reading “About Last Night,” tell your art-loving friends.
Tell them all.
Tell them often.
Tell them that Our Girl in Chicago is not Joseph Epstein.
Tell them…oh, never mind. It’ll take at least a few more weeks before I live that one down.
Then there’s a score by Philip Glass (a standby to which Morris has become very accustomed), a metronomic New Age pulse that encourages not thought but the impression that one is thinking. “No one does `existential dread’ as well as Philip Glass,” Morris has offered by way of explanation. “And this is a movie filled with existential dread.” But “doing” existential dread is a far cry from understanding it or, better yet, addressing it.
I used to be a big fan of Glass’s music when I heard it performed live, largely because of its meditative qualities. But one might question the use of meditating on Robert McNamara as opposed to thinking analytically and critically about him. If we meditate on charts and figures or feel existential dread about them without even knowing what they say, there’s a danger that we’ll think we’re doing something serious just by gaping at what’s in front of us. The same thing applies to gaping at McNamara even when we know what he’s saying, in part because of the high gloss of that chugging Glass music. It’s almost as if Morris were characterizing McNamara’s discourse as “Glassy” (rather than simply gassy), the same way Oliver Stone and Anthony Hopkins tried to make Richard M. Nixon seem Shakespearean.
I’ve never been a big fan of Philip Glass’ music, whether live or on record, but it always used to strike me as rather effective when used as background music to a more interesting event taking place in the foreground–a movie, say, or a ballet. But Rosenbaum has put his finger on something significant about Morris’ use of Glass’ music that I sensed (I think) but never completely understood.
A very neat piece of criticism.
For those of you who read what I wrote yesterday about A.J. Liebling and had your curiosity piqued, here’s an excerpt from The Earl of Louisiana, plucked from my electronic commonplace book. It’s too long to be an almanac entry, but it deserves to be quoted, as they say, in extenso, so here you are.
* * *
For one thing, the expression of conventional indignation is not so customary in Louisiana as farther north. The Louisianans, like Levantines, think it naive. A pillar of the Baton Rouge economy, whom I shall here call Cousin Horace, had given me an illustration, from his own youth, of why this is so.
“When I was a young man, fresh out of Tulane,” he said, “I was full of civic consciousness. I joined with a number of like-minded reformers to raise a fund to bribe the Legislature to impeach Huey [Long]. To insure that the movement had a broad popular base, subscriptions were limited to one thousand dollars. When I went to my father, who was rich as cream, to collect his ante, I couldn’t get but five hundred from him–he said he felt kind of skeptical. So I put up a thousand for me and the other five hundred for him. I wouldn’t pass up a chance to give the maximum for such a good cause.
“A vote of two-thirds of each house was needed to impeach, and there were then thirty-nine state senators. But before our chairman could see ehough of them, Huey induced fifteen–a third plus two–to sign a round robin stating they would not impeach no matter what the evidence was. Earl says now that he thought of that scheme. We were licked, so I went around to the eminent reform attorney who was treasurer of our enterprise and asked for my money back.
“‘Son,'” he said,
As you know, I’m all tied up writing an essay about Kandinsky and Schoenberg for Commentary, so in lieu of something brand-new, here’s a column I wrote for Fi, the now-defunct audio-and-music magazine, back in 1997. I doubt anybody who reads this blog will remember it—in fact, I doubt any of you read it in the first place! I think it’s still relevant, too, though regular readers of “About Last Night” will know that I wouldn’t put it quite the same way today….
* * *
Was the invention of the phonograph a good thing for music?
This question will no doubt strike the average audiophile as a bit peculiar, if not actually bizarre: anybody prepared to shell out ten thousand bucks for a pair of speakers is by definition a true believer in the virtues of recorded sound. But as far back as John Philip Sousa, thoughtful musicians were expressing serious reservations about its possible effects on music–with good reason, as it turned out. For the phonograph completely transformed Western musical culture, and the fact that we now take this transformation for granted doesn’t lessen its significance in the slightest.
It’s no secret, for instance, that the rise of the phonograph basically killed off domestic music-making. My grandfather, who was born a century ago, played banjo, but neither of my parents played any instrument at all, and when I started making music, it was at school, not home; I am the sole member of my extended family who not only learned a musical instrument as a child but also continued to play as an adult. What’s more, I majored in music in college, making me even less typical of my fellow baby-boomers: I have just one close friend who plays classical music on a purely amateur basis.
To be sure, I have a lot of other friends who listen to classical music, but I’m struck by how few of them go to concerts at all regularly: their participation in the culture of classical music consists mainly of buying compact discs. Indeed, I know thoroughly civilized people who actively disdain concertgoing, preferring to shovel money into the care and feeding of high-end systems. I don’t mean to knock them–they love music as much as I do–but it seems to me that there is something fundamentally parasitical about their love: they reap the benefits of the musical culture without directly supporting it. This is part of what Benjamin Britten was getting at when he called the phonograph “the principal enemy of music,” adding that “it is not part of true musical experience.” Sitting down in your living room and throwing on a CD is not the same thing as going to a concert, much less playing for your own pleasure: though it can be intensely meaningful, it is nevertheless experience once removed.
Needless to say, this coin has two sides. Leafing through B.H. Haggin’s Music in the Nation the other day, I ran across this revealing passage:
Haydn’s Symphony No. 104…I heard for the first time a year ago; and several others of the London symphonies I have never heard at all; nor have I ever heard performances of a number of Haydn’s clavier sonatas that are superb pieces of music. I began to attend concerts in 1914, but didn’t hear Mozart’s Piano Concerto K. 467 until 1934, his K. 595 until 1936, his K. 491 and K. 271 until 1937; Webster Aitken’s recent performance of K. 450…was the first I had heard since 1922; and I have yet to hear a performance of K. 453.
Haggin wrote those lines fifty-eight years ago. Today they sound–well, quaint. At a time when Le Sacre du Printemps takes up a full column in the Schwann/Opus record catalogue, it’s easy to forget how the phonograph made it possible for serious music lovers to do an end run around the entrenched conservatism of symphony orchestras and big-money soloists.
What was true of a lifelong New Yorker in the ’30s was triply true of a small-town Missouri boy in the ’60s: I lived hundreds of miles away from the nearest concert hall, and it was through the phonograph that I became part of the larger world of music. I fell in love with Stravinsky and Shostakovich because my high-school library had a well-chosen classical record collection; I bought Toscanini reissues at Wal-Mart for $2.98 a pop, not because I knew who Toscanini was but because they were cheap (and because I loved those classy Robert Hupka photos on the jackets). Nor was my youthful musical life entirely passive: I learned the Brahms D Minor Sonata as a teenage violinist solely because the local piano store happened to have a dusty copy of David Oistrakh’s Angel recording in its lone classical bin, and I taught myself the rudiments of jazz bass by listening to my father’s battered copies of In a Mellotone and Jazz Goes to College, thereby taking my place in a line of descent that started with Bix Beiderbecke, who taught himself cornet by playing along with the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s earliest 78s. Without the phonograph, jazz might well have vanished into the humid night air of New Orleans, to be remembered only by those who first played and heard it; instead, it became America’s principal contribution to twentieth-century music, known around the world.
It may well be that the most important thing about the phonograph is its unique capacity to reproduce and disseminate those aspects of musical performance which cannot be notated. (If you doubt this, take a moment to reflect on the difference between reading about The Who and listening to Live at Leeds.) This capacity is not without its disadvantages. For one thing, it has caused us to grossly overemphasize the role of execution in musical experience: veteran record collectors habitually spend far too much time talking about whose recording of the Bartók Violin Concerto is best, and not nearly enough talking about the Bartók Violin Concerto itself. But it has also made it possible for us to re-experience great performances of the past—including, among many other things, the world premiere of the Bartok Violin Concerto. I’ve been listening to old records for well over half my lifetime, and yet it never quite ceases to amaze me that simply by pushing a button, I can hear Joseph Joachim playing Bach, or Louis Armstrong rapping out that golden introduction to “West End Blues.”
As this example suggests, collectors of historical recordings are perhaps most vividly aware of the power of the phonograph to take the evanescent and make it permanent. But there is a sense in which all recordings are historical, no matter how recently they were made. I’ve recently spent several blissful hours listening to “Turn Out the Stars” [Warner Bros. 9 45925-2], an extraordinary six-CD set of previously unreleased recordings made by Bill Evans at the Village Vanguard in 1980, just three months before he died. These performances may not be “historical” in the same way that, say, Percy Grainger’s 1925 recording of the Chopin B Minor Sonata is “historical,” but they’ve certainly changed my understanding of Bill Evans’ artistic development—I had no idea how brilliantly he was playing at the very end of his life—and I suspect they will have a powerful effect on the way jazz historians of the future write about Evans. Yet we wouldn’t have known the difference had these performances not been recorded (and, just as important, released).
As it happens, I never heard Bill Evans play in person: he died before I moved to Manhattan. Thus, my whole knowledge of his playing derives from his recordings. In fact, I suspect most of the really important musical experiences of my life (not counting the ones in which I was a participant) have come to me not in the flesh but through the medium of recorded sound. I’ve lived in New York for the past twelve years, in the course of which I’ve attended my fair share of live musical performances of all kinds. But even during that time, there has been no shortage of important artists whom I first heard on record. Four who come immediately to mind are Anne Sofie von Otter, Diana Krall, Alison Krauss and Liz Phair, all of whom are now central to my listening life, both on record and in concert; had the phonograph not been invented, I might never have heard any of them.
It is for this reason that I find it difficult to wave the Luddite banner with any real enthusiasm. Of course recorded sound is a mixed blessing: we pay a price for its ubiquity, and that price is getting steeper. Readers of last month’s column know I’m concerned about the long-term effects of the recording industry on the health of our musical culture, and I plan to sound the alarm loudly and regularly in this space. Still, all blessings are mixed, and it is up to us to make the best of them. If I had to choose between the continued survival of the Podunk Philharmonic and the existence of the recordings of Louis Armstrong, I’d probably take a deep breath and vote for Louis—but it’s our job as music lovers to make sure that such choices never become necessary. You might think about that the next time you decide to blow ten thousand bucks on a pair of speakers instead of buying a subscription to your local opera company.
“Renoir asks us to see the variety and muddle of life without settling for one interpretation. He is the greatest of directors; he justifies cinema. But he shrugs off the weight of ‘masterpiece’ or ‘definitive statements.’ The impossibility of grasping final solutions or perfect works is his ‘rule.'”
David Thomson, “Jean Renoir,” in A Biographical Dictionary of Film
So why do you think OGIC and I are going to the trouble of making a joint radio appearance on Superbowl Sunday? Just to talk about the arts? Nothing doing. Not only is she possibly going to reveal her secret identity, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it emerges that she’s someone else, too. (And I don’t mean Joe Epstein.)
A reader writes:
I must thank you for listing Dance in America: Acts of Ardor in your top five. I just finished watching it and was overwhelmed. I really did enjoy it. I am a relative new comer to art appreciation and I have been somewhat skeptical about whether I would enjoy dance. That show definitely changed my mind and to think it was on the same day that I received your book The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken
in the mail. I am sure I will enjoy it as much as I enjoyed the Paul Taylor Dance Company.
I sure hope so. The pleasure is all mine. And for those of you who missed Acts of Ardor, some stations are replaying it. (In New York, for example, it’ll be shown again next Tuesday at 12:30 a.m. on Channel 13.) Click on the Top Five link for more information.
Another reader writes, apropos of my Wall Street Journal piece about the Lake Shore Limited:
experience with trains was last March, when I traveled with a friend from
Chicago to Tucson on the Texas Eagle, a three-day trip. The wonderful
thing about a train trip is that you can’t possibly do anything else except
eat, drink, and socialize. We spent afternoons in the lounge car, grumbling
that we were behind schedule (as train passengers are obliged to) and
exchanging rumors that the conductor had told someone that there would
be a smoke break in St. Louis, or that we would make up time after San
Antonio. At 4 o’clock, the dining steward walked through to take dinner
reservations. My friend and I were always seated with two other people, so
as not to waste space at the tables (which, happily, are still appointed with
fresh flowers). One evening, we dined with a delightful older lady named
Margaret, who, upon hearing that coach passengers were not provided with
a shower, invited us to the use the one in her sleeper car–“if the steward
tries to stop you, tell him your Aunt Margaret is traveling in the sleeper and
said you could use it.” In the evenings after dinner, we sat in the lounge
until 1 or 2 o’clock drinking bottle after bottle of dreadful Amtrak
Cabernet, talking about philosophy and staring out at the Texas night.
While I never experienced the grand old days of really first-class train
service, I believe it is still the most civilized way to travel. It was nice to
read about your experience and your other reader’s train memories on the
I’ve been getting other nice letters from people who remember their own train rides, past and present, with great fondness. Thanks to you all for writing.
Finally, this wildly amusing speculation:
I have to admit, there was a period of time in which I thought Our Girl
was just Joseph Epstein having a little fun pretending to be a woman.
All that gushing about Henry James… But your recent statements
concerning Our Girl looking ravishing (or something like that) while
listening to Johnny Cash (and not Schubert’s “Trout”) have been poking
huge holes in my thesis. Either that, or your blog is no longer
grounded in reality.
I may tune in to your radio appearance and miss all those cool
Super-Bowl commercials just to hear my best guess as to Our Girl’s
identity smashed once and for all.
Fond as I am of Joe Epstein, he isn’t nearly as pretty as OGIC. And she’s taller, too.