MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Bleeding Together, Falling Apart: Marc Weidenbaum on Aphex Twin

aphex-twin

There are some real gems in the innovative, ongoing 33 1/3 series from Bloomsbury (which now numbers 90 crisp little volumes) — and I’m not claiming that just because I personally know several of the authors. Or because two of the most dazzling of those gems are by friends: Mike McGonigal on My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless and the latest in the series, on Aphex Twin’s seminal Selected Ambient Works Volume II by Marc Weidenbaum.

If you haven’t discovered it yet, I also highly recommend Weidenbaum’s fascinating and long-running webzine disquiet — named in honor of the Portuguese poet, critic, and philosopher Fernando Pessoa — where you can find his fascinating collaborations, interviews, experiments, and musings on ambient and electronic music.

Just published last month, his new book is already harvesting a bumper crop of impressive reviews — and deservedly so. Any in-depth consideration of a musical landmark needs to offer the simultaneous perspectives to which Weidenbaum alludes when he writes that Selected Ambient Works Volume II, as Aphex Twin (aka Richard D. James) enigmatically titled this 1994 album, “may be timeless music, but it is still very much a product of its time.”

Weidenbaum gracefully sustains that double focus through his close listenings to each of the 25 tracks and his evocative contextualization of the album’s origins, recounting, for example, its emergence amid “the populist flowering of British occultism, a rave-era echo of the Summer of Love.” He also deftly weaves into his discussion points about the cross-connections between ambient music and classical composers and ensembles like Alarm Will Sound.

When the composer Caleb Burhans (a member of Alarm Will Sound) was assigned the project of scoring the “Blue Calx” track for his group with only acoustic instruments, he played on references to the beginning of Mahler’s First Symphony; the music of John Tavener and Ingram Marshall provided other classical precedents as well.

Paul Gleason points out that this isn’t just another exercise in music criticism: “both the album and the book stretch listeners and readers to develop new definitions of what music means.” He continues:

One of the most compelling sections of Weidenbaum’s book is on the so-called “beatless” nature of “Selected Ambient Works Volume II.” To put it country simple, when people first heard the record back in 1994, they had a hard time hearing beats. This, of course, was anathema to any electronic music fan back then. But what Weidenbaum shows in some truly deft and exciting passages is that – get this – the record’s beats emerged over time. This analysis is so cool because it shows that a record’s meaning and innovations (the beats are subtle) emerge over time and that, more generally, the meaning of a work is created in time. I don’t know whether Weidenbaum was thinking about Martin Heidegger’s hermeneutics, but I certainly was.
[…]
Like all good critical studies, [his book] doesn’t provide the illusion of closure; rather, it expands minds, fostering the creation of textual meaning.

Weidenbaum has gathered together here all of the pieces he posted separately on disquiet for each of the album’s tracks (which were originally untitled, except for “Blue Calx”). In an interview with his publisher, Weidenbaum explains what attracted him to writing about Aphex Twin:

What drew me in particular was the album’s deep, resounding, unrepentant murkiness — which is to say, its absence of what might be considered particular. The record evades the idea of particular, except to the extent that its pronounced murkiness is particular to it. Tracks seem to bleed together, and to fall apart … … Ambient music is often packaged and promoted as being ephemeral, ethereal, but this album is more so than most; it’s tantalizingly difficult to get a grip on.

He also refers to one of the many challenges he has taken on here — and so beautifully addressed. Selected Ambient Works Volume II is almost entirely instrumental. Weidenbaum says:

One of the great benefits of a record with no words is how it doesn’t respond directly to your writing about it — it doesn’t purport to explain itself in the way that records that consist of words, such as a traditional rock and rap records, explain themselves. This is very enticing to me.

Filed under: aesthetics, book recs, music writers

Arcadians and Utopians

MEMETERIA by Thomas May

W.H. Auden in 1939 W.H. Auden in 1939

Edward Mendelson’s new essay “The Secret Auden” in the New York Review of Books is a provocative read. The literary executor of the Auden estate and an authority long familiar to Audenites, Mendelson reveals some of the poet’s best-kept secrets.

Not tabloid secrets, not the gossipy stuff. Auden’s “secret life” lay hidden “because he would have been ashamed to have been praised for it.” Mendelson starts by touchingly recounting several instances of the poet’s under-the-radar generosity to war orphans, prisoners, people in need. And “when he felt obliged to stand on principle on some literary or moral issue,” writes Mendelson,”he did so without calling attention to himself” — in contrast to Robert Lowell, “whose political protests seemed to him more egocentric than effective.”

A potent example Mendelson adduces: Auden’s preface to his co-translation of Dag Hammarskjöld’s diary reflections, Markings, implicitly referred to the UN Secretary…

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Filed under: Uncategorized

A Crazy Night from Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams in 1953;  photo by Walter Albertin

Tennessee Williams in 1953; photo by Walter Albertin

This is exciting: the discovery of an early short story by Tennessee Williams that is being published for the first time in the spring issue of The Strand Magazine.

“Crazy Night” is the story’s title. Apparently it dates from the 1930s and recounts an undergraduate romance between the narrator, a young freshman in love with a senior named Anna Jean. According to the AP report, which quotes Strand managing editor Andrew Gulli:

“Crazy Night” is set on an unnamed campus in the early ’30s, after the stock market crash of October 1929 and before the 1933 repeal of Prohibition, when “students graduating or flunking out of college had practically every reason for getting drunk and little or nothing that was fit to drink.” The title refers to a ritual at the end of spring term during which students are expected to binge on alcohol and sex, a bacchanal “feverishly gay” on the surface but “really the saddest night of the year.”

“There is a theme of disappointment, the old ‘mendacity theme’ from ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,'” Gulli says. “He could show how beneath the cloak of respectability his characters had horrible insecurities and dark secrets. Williams was a master of showing the desperation and need humans have for companionship and was equally skilled at showing how relationships go sour and lead to cynicism.”

Tennessee Williams, who holds a special place in my personal pantheon of revered authors, wrote short stories throughout his life. “It has been suggested that many of the stories are simply preliminary sketches for the plays,” writes his friend Gore Vidal in his introduction to the marvelous volume of Collected Stories published by New Directions in 1985. “The truth is more complicated,” Vidal observes:

In the beginning, there would be, let us say, a sexual desire for someone. Consummated or not, the desire (“Something that is made to occupy a larger space than that which is afforded by the individual being”) would produce reveries. In turn, the reveries would be written down as a story. But should the desire still remain unfulfilled, he would make a play of the story and then — and this is why he was so compulsive a working playwright — he would have the play produced so that he could, like God, rearrange his original experience into something that was no longer God’s and unpossessable but his… “For love I make characters in plays,” he wrote; and did.

Filed under: literature, playwrights

A Concerto Première Takes Wing in Seattle

Tomoko Mukaiyama; photo by Takashi Kawashima

Tomoko Mukaiyama; photo by Takashi Kawashima

My latest concert review is now live on Bachtrack:

The music of Alexander Raskatov remains relatively little known in the United States. Smart concert programmers, though, should take note of the effectiveness of his new Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, “Night Butterflies”, as demonstrated in this performance by Tomoko Mukaiyama and the Seattle Symphony. With these concerts, Ludovic Morlot gave the work a persuasive American premiere, fully alert to the score’s psychological fascination. The SSO co-commissioned Night Butterflies with Het Residentie Orkest Den Haag, which presented the world première in the Netherlands last May.

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Filed under: new music, programming innovation, Seattle Symphony

Richard Goode Vibrations

Richard Goode

Richard Goode

Can there be any better therapy than to spend an evening with Richard Goode in recital? I mean therapy here not as some kind of temporary balm but as a restorative of a sense of musical health. Mr. Goode’s playing, for me, is able to reaffirm the essential values that make music such an indispensable part of life.

It’s admittedly hard not to wander into Ye Realme of Hyperbole when attempting to convey just what it is that makes Mr. Goode’s pianism so damn appealing. But after two blissful hours of listening to Mr. Goode at Meany Hall — his program this week was part of the University of Washington’s World Series and followed — I emerged invigorated and more alert to the unique qualities as well as the originality of the three composers Mr. Goode juxtaposed in his recital.

His program framed the early Romanticism of Robert Schumann’s Op. 6 Davidsbündlertänze (1837) with two examples from the early 20th century: selections from Leoš Janáček’s cycle On an Overgrown Path (published in 1911) and the first book of Claude Debussy’s Préludes (1910). All three call for innovative approaches to keyboard sonority and form alike.

Mr. Goode’s musicianship proves so enthralling in large part thanks to the sense of conviction undergirding his interpretations. Now 70, Mr. Goode plays with all the intensity of someone eager to share the miracles of a new composer he’s freshly discovered, whose code he’s just cracked. There was never even a hint of “getting through” this or that thorny passage using tricks worked out decades ago. Of lazy habits or complacent readings I could detect not a trace.

And that means being unafraid to push in surprising directions (particularly in the Schumann) so as to risk a certain emphasis or refine a structural insight. The curious thing is that Mr. Goode’s fearlessness isn’t reckless or arrogant — on the contrary, it’s simultaneously reassuring. I repeatedly enjoyed the illusion of being treated to a private performance in a salon, with the pianist showing off something exciting he couldn’t keep from sharing.

So in the Schumann, for example — he played the entire 18-piece cycle from memory — Mr. Goode emphasized the fantastical contrasts of Schumann’s bipolar alter egos. His remarkable feel for dynamics allowed for maximal, shocking antitheses: heaven-storming attacks followed a second later by eerie, muffled scamperings. Here was composition as the art of non-transition: rather than smooth over the rapid shifts of thought, Mr. Goode sought out the emotional logic within Schumann’s mercurial, wildly roaming imagination.

But Mr. Goode avoiding invoking the cliché of the “unstable” Schumann, as if this music foreshadows his mental breakdown. This he accomplished largely by digging in to the pockets of humor which abound in Schumann’s score.

The more serenely lyrical dances, meanwhile, carried over echoes of the calm, knowing simplicity that radiates from the Janácek with which the program opened. Mr. Goode chose four pieces from the first book of On an Overgrown Path. I felt fortunate to be hearing these, performed by this particular pianist, so soon after experiencing Peter Brook’s The Suit at Seattle Rep.

Janácek’s pared-down lines and poignant, clutter-free harmonies suddenly seemed to share a kinship with Brook’s enigmatic clarity. Through the briefest of gestures — the mere wisp of an interval as ostinato, for example — Mr. Goode’s sensitive reading conveyed all the compressed density of meaning of a Webern score.

When Mr. Goode returned for the program’s second half, I admit wondering how he could possibly elicit a connection between the Debussy and what we’d previously heard. His Schumann was clearly forward looking, far ahead of his time, while his Janácek breathed nostalgia free of sentimentality with its elegiac, backward glances.

Soon it became clear that the connection was in Debussy’s own startling contrasts — spread out though they are over far larger scales — and in those evanescent, painterly gestures of a measure or two that suddenly illuminate an entire prelude. The spangle of notes at the keyboard’s uppermost extremity which ends Les collines d’Anacapri, for instance, glittered with an almost psychedelic vividness. And with La fille aux cheveux de lin, Janácek’s unfeigned simplicity was again recalled.

I found much of Mr. Goode’s Debussy refreshingly unconventional. In lieu of the intensely sensual, “sonorous poetry” you often hear in accounts of the Préludes, Mr. Goode showed off the solid construction of Debussy’s thinking with rhythmic acuity and clearly articulated voicings (his pedal technique is superb). Humor, again, was given its due, along with the proto-jazz elements that Debussy annexes to his vocabulary.

–(c)2014 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: piano, review

Ménage à froid: Peter Brook’s The Suit

l to r: Nonhlanhla Kheswa, Rikki Henry, Raphaël Chambouvet, and Ivanno Jeremiah, in Peter Brook’s The Suit. Photo: Pascal Victor, ArtcomArt.

l to r: Nonhlanhla Kheswa, Rikki Henry, Raphaël Chambouvet, and Ivanno Jeremiah, in Peter Brook’s The Suit. Photo: Pascal Victor, ArtcomArt.

“Truth in theatre is always on the move. As you read this book, it is already moving out of date. it is for me an exercise, now frozen on the page. but unlike a book, the theatre has one special characteristic. It is always possible to start again. In life this is myth, we ourselves can never go back on anything. New leaves never turn, clocks never go back, we can never have a second chance. In the theatre, the slate is wiped clean all the time.” — from Peter Brook’s The Empty Space

Brook’s insights into theatrical reality have meanwhile kept the director himself perennially relevant, despite the inevitable backlash and challenge from younger artists who take his innovations for granted. Consider the theatrical reality he creates in The Suit, which just opened at Seattle Repertory Theatre.

With extraordinary economy — and in dramatic contrast to popular culture’s fixation on psychological realism and “virtual reality” — The Suit centers on one of the most paradigmatic of all stories and yet fills it with surprise, sorrow, and revelation. It is the immemorial story of love given and love taken away — the story of jealousy, revenge, and the patterns of cruelty that link our social, political, and private selves.

In other hands, it might be easy to be misled by the brevity and light touch of this play — it lasts a mere 75 minutes or so — into regarding The Suit merely as a sad and wistful tale, or perhaps a rather slight essay in pathos benefiting from the vibrancy of its South African “local color.” A trio of actors and a trio of musicians together recount the story of a young married couple, Matilda (“Tilly”) and Philemon. Soon after Philemon introduces us to his happy life with Tilly, he’s informed by a friend that she’s been cheating on him. He rushes home, discovering the suit left behind by Tilly’s fleeing (and disrobed) lover. As punishment, Philemon insists that she pretend the suit is her lover, in the flesh, and react as she would to a third person who has now settled in with them.

But it would take the theatrical equivalent of tone deafness to remain impervious to the deeper realities sounded in Brook’s remarkably potent blend of narrative, acting, stage movement, and live music. Simplicity, that hallmark of so much great art, becomes all the more effective when allied with this degree of nuance and ambiguity.

Peter Brook. Photo: Colm Hogan

Peter Brook. Photo: Colm Hogan

The source of this unforgettable theatrical experience is a story by the tragically short-lived South African journalist and fiction writer Daniel Canodoce “Can” Themba (1924-1968). His short story was posthumously adapted for the famous Market Theatre in early-1990s Johannesburg by Mothobi Mutloatse and Barney Simon.

Over the years, Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne, his longtime partner, further honed and directed this material in keeping with the aesthetic of Brook’s Paris-based company, Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord. The show currently on tour across the U.S. represents a more-recent adaptation (in English) of an earlier Brook staging and is receiving its West Coast premiere in Seattle Rep’s presentation.

Themba wrote the The Suit in the 1960s in the wake of the brutal destruction by South Africa’s apartheid government of the black community of Sophiatown. From this thriving though impoverished suburb of Johannesburg, many residents were “resettled” into the sprawling shantytowns of Soweto.

Not that life was easy in 1950s Sophiatown, where one of Themba’s characters recounts a Sunday being denied the right to celebrate with other worshipers by racist church gatekeepers. But it represents a comparative Eden, and this takes on a domestic guise at the beginning of the play in the private idyll as depicted by Philemon (Ivanno Jeremiah). He greets each morning as “a daily matutinal miracle” that reinforces his love for his young wife, Matilda (Nonhlanhla Kheswa).

l to r: Nonhlanhla Kheswa and Ivanno Jeremiah in Peter Brook’s The Suit. Photo: Pascal Victor, ArtcomArt.

l to r: Nonhlanhla Kheswa and Ivanno Jeremiah in Peter Brook’s The Suit. Photo: Pascal Victor, ArtcomArt.

Here Brook’s method is already apparent. The most minimal of details — framed by a minimalist set of bright wooden chairs, a table, and rolling clothes racks and Philippe Vialatte’s versatile, effective lighting — evoke a world that is simultaneously specific and timeless. Brook refuses to allow us to settle into the complacent (and apolitical) attitude of abstracted “universality”; at the same time, he has no intention to preach a didactic lesson about oppression whose moral we already know (another form of complacency).

And so one dimension of the scene that Philemon so charmingly lays out for us feels like something between folk and fairy tale. But as The Suit progresses, Brook clarifies the dangers and humiliations of his social milieu. Philemon commutes on a bus to his job as a lawyer’s secretary, meets with one of his friends (Jordan Barbour, in a variety of roles) in a speakeasy, where the government’s increasingly harsh racist policies are discussed. A trio of musicians (guitarist Arthur Astier, keyboardist Mark Christine, and trumpet player Mark Kavuma) provides an ongoing level of commentary with powerful music interludes designed by Franck Krawczyk. On occasion they also play minor roles. The pared-down aesthetic here similarly draws a great deal from the elegantly simple cues of Oria Puppo’s costumes.

By the devastating final tableau, you realize how complex and multilayered are the threads Brook has woven underneath the simple facade of the narrative. There’s a recognition of the recurrent elements of human nature — and yet this story could happen only in the most extreme circumstances of oppression and cruelty.

Jeremiah’s demeanor in his first scenes as Philemon is so disarming we spend the rest of the play trying to square it with the humiliation and psychological pain he’s willing to inflict on his beloved Tilly. Barbour’s depictions of a large cast of characters, from Philemon’s “realistic” friend to a flirtatious townswoman at the play’s climactic party, contain an enthralling study in the art of transition and theatrical timing. But alongside even such excellence, Kheswa’s transformation from a bored, doted-on wife to a woman cornered into hopeless desperation is a rare theatrical achievement in its power to shock and move. The visual of the opening returns full circle, but the light-as-a-feather story with which we began is now freighted with the most intricate emotional counterpoint.

As to the actual score, Krawczyk’s choices and arrangements are uncannily effective. Among the pieces the musicians perform are some Schubert references (his song “Serenade,” intoned by an accordion, and the ominous tread of “Death and the Maiden”), a lovely and lilting Tanzanian song (sung by Kheswa), and a chillingly detached version of “Strange Fruit” (featuring Barbour). At the end Christine softly plays the music of one of the most moving arias from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (given just a few weeks ago by the Seattle Symphony).

What we’re left with are gnawing questions of who is to blame, who could have changed, how could the tragedy which had begun like a comedy have been averted — for in theater, as Brook tells us, the slate is wiped clean all the time.

Just before the performance, Jerry Manning and Benjamin Moore of Seattle Rep and Josh LaBelle of Seattle Theatre Group spoke about their partnership to bring this tour of The Suit to Seattle. I very much share the sense of gratitude they expressed that Seattle was able to host Brook’s The Tragedy of Hamlet back in 2001 — among the most indelible memories of my theater-going life — and that this city is again giving a platform to his work. You really should try to see this one — more than once, if possible.

The Suit runs through Sunday, April 6, at Seattle Rep’s Bagley Wright Theatre. Tickets here.

–(c)2014 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: review, theater

Atlantic Crossing

New Century Chamber Orchestra with Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg

New Century Chamber Orchestra with Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg

Here’s my new piece for Stanford Live’s remarkable performance series: this one involving the first-ever collaboration between Chanticleer and New Century Chamber Orchestra. I’ll post the entire original text here, since space limits prevented including all of it in the magazine. This special program embarks from Stanford tomorrow night.

A Provocative Entertainment: Setting Sail with Chanticleer and the New Century Chamber Orchestra

On 10 September, 1935, Kurt Weill disembarked from the SS Majestic and began exploring New York City. It had taken the ocean liner a mere six days to ferry Weill and his artistic partner Lotte Lenya – his ex-wife at the time, though the couple would remarry – across the Atlantic from Cherbourg. The towering skyline had already become a visual meme thanks to the century’s new mass medium of film: Lenya later recalled that its familiarity made it seem “really like coming home.” But what they encountered represented a new world in ways they couldn’t have anticipated.

Inside of a month, Weill found himself attending rehearsals for a pioneering work of musical theater titled Porgy and Bess, which prompted him to observe: “It’s a great country where music like that can be written – and played.” The German-born Weill may not have realized it at first, but he was already in the beginning stages of a reboot of his own identity as an artist. Instead of a European abroad, Weill would come to understand himself as an American writing for American audiences.

It’s the recurrent pattern of Old and New Worlds converging. But overlaid on this is a unique ambience deriving from the fact that it happened right in the dead center of what the poet W.H. Auden unforgettably called “a low dishonest decade.” That contact between Europeans and Americans in a period of ominous uncertainty, and the creative ferment it generated, could stand as an emblem for the programmatic concept Chanticleer and the New Century Chamber Orchestra (NCCO) have developed for their first-ever collaboration, “Atlantic Crossing.”

In place of the well-worn metaphor of a musical composition as a journey toward a predetermined destination, their idea is to draw attention to the cross-connections that happen en route. Travel itself becomes a metaphor for artistic evolution, as the thrill or nervous energy or bittersweet nostalgia involved in leaving one’s comfort zone and setting out on new ventures recharges the creative self. The categories of interchange making up the spine of “Atlantic Crossing” are the meet-ups between “high culture” and entertainment, modernity and timeless tradition, and, naturally, vocal and instrumental music making.

In practical terms, the junction of singing and playing instruments actually posed a significant challenge, since Chanticleer and the NCCO define themselves by their respective focuses on the former and the latter – a program simple-mindedly alternating between the two ensembles would be a program that ignores the entire point of collaboration.

Both Bay Area ensembles are acclaimed for their adventurous spirit, but their audiences tend not to overlap, so the prospect of joining together for the first time was intriguing when it began to percolate a few years ago. But however appealing such a partnership seemed in the abstract, “there was no existing repertoire that fit the bill for what we wanted to do to collaborate with orchestral forces,” explains Christine Bullin, Chanticleer’s president and general director.

The violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, who also serves as music director of NCCO, adds that there’s a relatively restricted repertoire as it is for string orchestra on the one hand and for male chorus on the other. “So when you think about collaboration, you have to go the arrangement route. But we didn’t just want to come up with pieces that needed to be arranged. We wanted to develop a thematic evening as well.” According to Bullin, the creative challenge began to take shape as a search for an integrative theme that could “incorporate some of the things that each group already does and then allow for things we could do together.”

Why the theme of transatlantic crossings between Europe and America – and why in the 1930s? “The period between the two world wars is so fertile and so full of creativity,” says Bullin. While the worsening political situation in Nazi Germany forced Weill and many of the other artists featured on the program to flee Europe, these voyages were happening in both directions. American artists like George Gershwin encountered a heady atmosphere of experimentalism in Paris that fueled new ambitions, even as their European counterparts enthused over the energy and directness they found in the latest American music. The Atlantic crossing becomes fraught with ambivalence: it’s a vital means of escape but also offers the promise of a new beginning. Transatlantic journeys trace the age-old story of migration to more-favorable circumstances, but they at the same time they are the paradigm of a pilgrimage of discovery.

Naturally the focus on destinations has only been intensified by our modern patterns of travel: get there fast, by the most direct route, no frills along the way. In the 1930s the revolution in air travel already on the horizon was foreshadowed by the brief heyday of Germany’s Zeppelin company and its promotion of the dirigible alternative.

But the state-of-the-art ocean liners like the SS Normandie and the SS Isle de France, while speeding up the trip across the Atlantic, offered those in the top classes the leisurely pleasures of stylish travel, including much in the way of musical entertainment. It’s not a coincidence that one of the most potent recurring images in the modern mythology of the doomed Titanic involves the heroic last stand of its eight-piece orchestra.

The special aura attaching to this mode of travel, combined with its historical reality as the route by means of which thousands of musicians fled Hitler’s Germany, led to the decision to anchor “Atlantic Crossing” in a literal context. In planning the program, Chanticleer and NCCO decided they wanted to encourage the audience to imagine an actual ocean liner passage: the kind of voyage during which these musicians would have encountered one another or even participated in musical events.

“If you were on this ship, what you would have heard? It might have been the European music from that time, with the best of the European artists coming to America,” says Salerno-Sonnenberg. Some of these, like Béla Bartók, never had time to adjust to their surroundings in America; others, particularly Weill and Paul Hindemith, went on to create a significant body of work in their newly adopted homeland, taking pleasure in and emphasizing its cultural context.

Weill also serves as the focal midpoint of the program, in which the two ensembles join together for the first time for an all-stops-out arrangement of his iconic Three Penny Opera number, “Mack the Knife.” Weill is a powerful symbolic choice as well, since he represents the convergence of traditional European classical training and populist, vernacular directness – a reminder of the creative synergy that got shut off by the damaging dichotomy between “serious” music and entertainment that’s arguably a relic of the postwar era. As Weill unforgettably put it, “I have never acknowledged the difference between ‘serious’ and ‘light’ music. There is only good music and bad music.”

Consisting of just eight measures – some basic chords backing its eminently whistleable tune – “Mack the Knife” is a kind of blank slate that gets written over and layered into a ten-minute fantasy in the arrangement by Clarice Assad, a frequent collaborator with NCCO. Here and on her other arrangements for “Atlantic Crossing,” Assad hints at the ongoing role played by cross-connections among musical innovators in our own time.

Salerno-Sonnenberg calls Assad “probably the greatest arranger alive today. She’s the only one I can think of who could write these kinds of arrangements. Older composers would not have had the experiences available to her generation, and her background growing up in Brazil has given her a vast scope of knowledge of musical styles; all this variety of music lives inside of her.”

The art of arrangement as practiced by the Comedian Harmonists reveals another fascinating example of stylistic fusion from the 1930s. Launched by the young actor Harry Frommermann in the face of the profoundly depressed economy of Weimar-era Berlin, the original Comedian Harmonists numbered five singers along with the pianist Erwin Bootz. In another instance of how “Atlantic crossing” goes in both directions, they modeled themselves on the Revelers, an American group of close-harmony male vocalists. (A film biopic of the Comedian Harmonists was made in 1997 by the German director Joseph Vilsmaier, while Barry Manilow has written music for Harmony, a new musical about the group.)

The Comedian Harmonists anticipated the Beatles not only in the level of international popularity they achieved, but in the “feel-good” ethos of their deceptively effortless, extraordinarily sophisticated music making. In historical retrospect, their irresistible charm only underscores the insanity of what lay around the corner.

Because three of the sextet’s members were Jewish, the recently mandated race laws in Nazi Germany forced the Comedian Harmonists to break up at the height of their popularity, after they returned from their first and only American tour in 1934 (sailing on the symbolically appropriate SS Europa). Soon the Jewish members fled back across the Atlantic, but an attempt to form an American Comedian Harmonists met with only short-term success. (The baritone Roman Cycowski ended up serving for a period as cantor at Beth Israel Temple in San Francisco and was the last surviving member of the Comedian Harmonists.)

Reviewing Chanticleer’s program of material from the German sextet’s repertoire back in 2002, Octavio Roca aptly remarked that, however improbable the Comedian Harmonists seemed as a phenomenon, “there they were, just before German culture cut its own throat and visited unspeakable horror on the world, making sounds of joy for millions.”

But the story “Atlantic Crossing” seeks to recount involves the period before the madness, when European and American artists were listening to one another from new perspectives. Bullin points out that looking back at the accomplishments of the Comedian Harmonists helped define the overall “affect” for “Atlantic Crossing,” which aims to create a “provocative entertainment” as it prompts the audience to think about these varied kinds of cross-connections. The two ensembles might even be seen as themselves a kind of metaphor. Notes Salerno-Sonnenberg: “We wanted to imagine what happens when the two groups, which begin their journey on this ship as their own entities, finally meet up and start to jam together.”

On board ships like the Normandie traveled avant-garde pioneers and savvy, well-polished entertainers. Composers such as the Hungarian Míklós Rózsa brought their formidable classical training with them and ended up in Hollywood, where their soundtracks became part of the cultural landscape for millions of Americans. The ship itself provides an imaginary zone where, according to Salerno-Sonnenberg, “the entertainment sphere could meet up with the cutting-edge or avant-garde, where side says to the other: ‘This is what we do, now let’s do it together.’”

And waiting for them at the docks was the music being brewed by Americans themselves, from Gershwin’s jazz-symphonic-operatic fusions to the “loose, festive ensemble sound” of Duke Ellington’s orchestra, as Terry Teachout describes it in his marvelous new biography. Ellington, a “restless traveler,” himself had started leading his band on tours of Europe in 1933, and he was beginning to think of a very different Atlantic crossing that he wanted to evoke in a multi-movement suite – a composition expressing “the cruel journey across the sea and the despair of the landing, and then the days of slavery…” (Ellington).

Within a few years the luxuriously appointed ocean liners would be converted into war vessels. “We all know how the story ends,” says Bullin, but the horror to come is beyond the intended scope for “Atlantic Crossing.” Instead, “we’re going to get everyone to New York. Along the way we will create an intimate and entertaining atmosphere in which we hope the public will engage. We’re all in this lounge together.”

(c) 2014 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: essay, programming innovation, vocal music

Creative Diaspora and Russian Composers

Alexander Raskatov

Alexander Raskatov

UPDATE on Saturday 22 March, 9:42: I just learned that Richard Taruskin will not be at the Conference to give the keynote speech; he’s prevented from traveling on account of illness. The lineup given here appears to have just been updated.

This weekend brings a conference co-hosted by the Seattle Symphony on the topic Creative Diaspora: Émigré Composers from the Former USSR. It’s taking place in conjunction with the U.S. premiere of Alexander Raskatov’s new piano concerto, Night Butterflies. Here’s my preview for CityArts:

Living in exile, crossing borders, starting over—are there any experiences more definitive of the modern era? Along with their concrete political and social consequences, these experiences have shaped cultural expression. What, for example, does it mean to be a “Russian” composer today? Does it even make sense to keep referring to national musical styles in this century of instant global connectivity?

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Filed under: commissions, musical research, new music, Seattle Symphony

Illumining Through Sound: Tribute to Morten Lauridsen

Morten Lauridsen

Morten Lauridsen

Over the weekend the Los Angeles Master Chorale performed program devoted entirely to the music of Morten Lauridsen. Here’s my essay for the program:

Well before he took up his composer residency with the Master Chorale in 1995, Morten Lauridsen’s artistic odyssey had already begun to intersect with the ensemble’s own unfolding history. He was only a year into college when he experienced an epiphany that made him realize his calling was a life dedicated to music. Spending the summer as a firefighter for the Forest Service in his native state of Washington, the young man was posted to an isolated tower in the wilds of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, south of Mount St. Helens. Lauridsen found himself completely on his own for a ten-week stretch. But his perspective from that lonely lookout tower revealed “beauty beyond description – to be above the clouds with these magnificent snowy peaks,” as Lauridsen puts it in Shining Night, the award-winning recent documentary portrait filmed by Michael Stillwater.

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Filed under: American music, choral music

The Sound of an Ending


Yesterday I was among the legions of opera fans around the world taking for granted the high-tech synchronization that makes the Met’s live performances in HD possible. During this performance of Massenet’s Werther, I noticed a couple of slightly ominous flickerings on the screen — subliminal heralds of the désastre to come.

And then the unthinkable happened: at the opera’s emotional climax, as Charlotte tries to comfort the dying Werther — who has finally acted on his threat to commit suicide — the audio feed also died. (I’m not sure how widespread the problem was, but it apparently affected many theaters around the U.S. at least.) It died at the worst possible moment. Had this occurred, say, during Albert’s aria or the drinking music at the inn, that would have been annoyingly disruptive enough. But in these crucial final minutes, the impact was devastating. On a larger scale, this was more like reaching the Immolation Scene in Götterdämmerung, only to have the plug pulled out. Even if the sound were to have been restored, Massenet’s spell had already been broken — and it quickly became apparent there would be no Audio ex machina.

I even imagined a sardonic director deliberately choosing this moment to expose us to a cruel new genre of performance art in which the audience is brought to the precipice and then plunged into silence at the moment of cathartic payoff, left with visual cues and English surtitles alone to which to cling like a life raft. The graphic image of Werther’s blood-spattered wall became especially searing. (Of course this would have required a coup deposing Richard Eyre, the actual director who had so sensitively shaped Massenet’s most beautiful opera up to this point.)

This was the aesthetic opposite of the Stendhal syndrome. A friend with whom I attended the cinemacast — the critic Roger Downey — coined the term “opus interruptus.” (I didn’t venture to correct this with “opus interruptum,” which would have been unforgivably pedantic — not to mention far less effective than Roger’s invention.)

So, with a little grammatical poetic license, “opus interruptus” it is. We both experienced a distinct sense of emotional disorientation which the genre of opera intensifies to the maximum. This has little to do with narrative fulfillment, with the compulsion to get to the end of the story that Scheherazade uses as her secret weapon. It’s about the investment of emotional energy through Massenet’s careful pacing of musical characterizations and events. Suddenly this was denied the resolution we know must be there in the music: a metaphorical cadence, perhaps.

And modern technology simply can’t “patch” that up.

At any rate, the Met has provided a link to the full final scene — ironic “Noels” and all – here.

(c) 2014 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: aesthetics, Metropolitan Opera, technology

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