I flew the coop last Wednesday morning, having seen too many plays and feeling the urgent need to be somewhere else. By mid-afternoon I was sitting on the terrace of Ecce Bed and Breakfast in Barryville, a microscopic river town not far from the spot where New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania meet. Longtime readers may recall my previous visit to this refuge, located on a wooded bluff some three hundred feet above the Delaware River. It’s one of the most relaxing places I know: the scenery is gorgeous, the hosts considerate, the food delicious, the d
Archives for May 15, 2006
Here are the CDs I took with me on my trip to Barryville:
– The Best of Blind Blake (Yazoo)
– Whiskey Is My Habit, Good Women Is All I Crave: The Best of Leroy Carr (Columbia/Legacy)
– Paul Desmond, Pure Desmond (CTI)
– Donald Fagen, Morph the Cat (Reprise)
– Lyle Lovett, Joshua Judges Ruth (MCA/Curb)
– Mitchell’s Christian Singers, Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order, Vol. 1: 1934-1936 (Document)
– Weslia Whitfield, Lucky to Be Me (Landmark)
If you’ve never heard of Mitchell’s Christian Singers–and most people haven’t–go here to read what an anonymous critic for Time wrote about them in 1939. It is, not surprisingly, more than a little bit condescending, but I bet it’ll pique your curiosity anyway.
In my biweekly “Sightings” column, which appeared in the “Pursuits” section of Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, I played Bill Safire avant la lettre–sort of:
Not long ago I was chatting with three gifted musicians who were looking for a new way to describe what they do. All are widely thought of as “jazz musicians,” even though that venerable phrase is no longer a good fit for the increasingly uncategorizable music they make. Luciana Souza, who came to this country from Brazil, sings everything from bossa nova to American pop standards to her own settings of the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop and Pablo Neruda. Maria Schneider leads a big band for which she writes large-scale compositions structured along classical lines into which she weaves flamenco, Latin American music and jazz improvisation. Theo Bleckmann is an uncompromisingly avant-garde vocalist whose latest album, “Las Vegas Rhapsody: The Night They Invented Champagne,” is a collection of show tunes accompanied by the Basel Chamber Orchestra.
How do you sum up such artists in a well-chosen word or two? You don’t–and that’s one of the problems with which they grapple as they try to find an audience for their music. This is why I was so struck when one of the three musicians (I can’t remember who) casually used the phrase “shuffle play” in an attempt to describe the stylistic multiplicity of their work. The others agreed at once: That’s what they do.
I wouldn’t have been nearly as impressed by their on-the-spot consensus were it not for the fact that I’d already heard the same phrase used in the same way by other artists of like inclination. Suddenly it hit me: I’d been watching a new cultural metaphor take shape….
The new music I have in mind isn’t random, but it definitely goes out of its way to take the listener in surprising directions. The Bad Plus, for instance, specializes in bracingly quirky jazz versions of such decidedly unjazzy tunes as Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” and the theme from “Chariots of Fire.” Nickel Creek plays bluegrass-flavored music that owes as much to the synthesized technopop of Radiohead as it does to the high, lonesome sound of Bill Monroe. “Observatory,” Julia Dollison‘s debut CD, contains songs by Jerome Kern, Duke Ellington and Rufus Wainwright, sung in a richly imaginative, pigeonhole-eluding style that lies somewhere in the no-man’s-land separating jazz from pop.
Michael John LaChiusa’s See What I Wanna See and Adam Guettel’s The Light in the Piazza are operalike “musicals” whose kaleidoscopic scores reflect their composers’ passions for an extraordinarily wide variety of music. Osvaldo Golijov writes “classical” music into which he stirs Afro-Cuban percussion, gospel-style choral writing, even the keening wail of a klezmer clarinet.
What to call this new kind of music-making? At first glance it resembles postmodernism, but the self-consciously wide-ranging eclecticism of postmodern artists is always tinged with irony, whereas the musicians of whom I’m thinking embrace many different styles in a wholehearted way that has nothing in common with the cool detachment of the postmodernist. Their new approach thus requires a new label, and “shuffle-play music” might be in the early stages of catching on….
No link, so if you want to read the whole thing–of which there’s a good deal more–I suggest you avail yourself of one of these alternatives:
(1) Head for the nearest library, where you’ll find a copy of the Saturday Journal and (presumably) a comfy chair.
(2) Subscribe to the Online Journal by going here. Doing so will give you immediate access to the full text of this week’s “Sightings” column, plus a plethora of other good stuff.
Douglas McLennan is the resident genius behind ArtsJournal. In addition to providing an indispensable daily digest of English-language news stories and commentaries on the arts, ArtsJournal also hosts “About Last Night” and a dozen other artblogs (all of which you can visit by scrolling down to the bottom module of the right-hand column). Now Doug has put together a special group-discussion blog called “Critical Edge: Critics in a Critical Age.”
Here, in his words, is what “Critical Edge” is all about:
Everyone’s a critic. And now that anyone has access to an audience through the internet, our computers have become a cacophony of people with opinions. Clearly not all opinions are equal. Traditionally, the influence of an opinion was closely tied to the venue in which it was published–how widely it was disseminated or how prestigious the publication was thought to be. With a growing flood of opinions available to all, some suggest that the influence of the traditional critic is waning, that the opinions of the many will drown out the power of the few. But in a time when access to information and entertainment and art seems to be growing exponentially, more than ever we need ways to to sort through the mass and get at the “good” stuff. The question is how? Where is the critical authority to come from? Some suggest that new social networking software that ranks community preferences and elevates some opinions over others will supplant the formerly powerful traditional critics. So what is to be the new critical currency? Stripped of traditional legitimacies, how will the most interesting critical voices be heard and have influence?
Doug has put together a wide-ranging list of participants, many of whose names will be familiar to you:
– Misha Berson, theatre critic, Seattle Times
– Larry Blumenfeld, jazz critic, The Wall Street Journal
– Caryn Brooks, writer
– Jeanne Carstensen, managing editor, Salon.com
– Anthony DeCurtis, contributing editor, Rolling Stone
– Enrique Fernandez, critic, Miami Herald
– Tyler Green, art critic, Modern Art Notes
– Joseph Horowitz, author/orchestra consultant
– Chris Lavin, arts editor, San Diego Union Tribune
– Ruth Lopez, art and design editor, Time Out Chicago
– Maud Newton, book critic, MaudNewton.com
– Claude Peck, fine arts editor, Minneapolis Star-Tribune
– Inga Saffron, architecture critic, Philadelphia Inquirer
– Andras Szanto, former director, National Arts Journalism Program
– Jerome Weeks, book critic, Dallas Morning News
I’m participating, too.
“Critical Edge” is now open for business and will be up and running through Wednesday. To read our collective discussion of the prospects for criticism in the age of the Web, go here and start scrolling.
“I believe the great human change into a new world should be expressed, but I also believe that when the Soviet arbiters say that Hamlet is foolish, they are talking nonsense, and destructive nonsense at that. And I hope the human race will never be purged of those types, who, like Shakespeare, are victims all their mature life of the most dreadful form of morbid jealousy, or of unconscious homosexuals like Hopkins and Housman, or of perfectly batty people, who drive themselves into extreme fits over the fact that the landlady looked at them sideways, like Beethoven. God keep me from a world, even without poverty and human degradation, in which there were no delicate sensibilities that could produce a remark like Margaret, are you grieving; or An expense of spirit in a waste of shame; that could not feel horror over mutability and an excess of joy over the facts of perfectly physical passion, or pity for the maladjusted or horror over the senseless cruel.”
Louise Bogan, letter to Rolfe Humphries, July 6, 1935