MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Arcadians and Utopians

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 General’s closeted sexuality — in gently diplomatic terms — and prompted objections from the Hammarskjöld estate before he published it. At the time, it was widely believed that Auden would win the Nobel Prize, but he refused to revise his copy. Mendelson notes that he “ignored the hint, and seems to have mentioned the incident only once, when he went to dinner with his friend Lincoln Kirstein the same evening and said, ‘There goes the Nobel Prize.’ The prize went to Jean-Paul Sartre, who refused it.”

So why did Auden in later years cultivate a curmudgeonly, cantankerous image precisely when he was at his most generous? “In part,” suggests Mendelson, “he was reacting against his own early fame as the literary hero of the English left … Far from imagining that artists were superior to anyone else, he had seen in himself that artists have their own special temptations toward power and cruelty and their own special skills at masking their impulses from themselves.”

From this tendency toward keeping his good deeds secret, Mendelson draws out far deeper implications about moral self-awareness and the crucial debates of modernity:

One of many forms this argument takes is a dispute over the meaning of the great totalitarian evils of the twentieth century: whether they reveal something about all of humanity or only about the uniquely evil leaders, cultures, and nations that committed them. For Auden, those evils made manifest the kinds of evil that were potential in everyone.

How familiar and easy is that Manichean division of the universe into good and evil. Auden, though, “was less interested in the obvious distinction between a responsible citizen and an evil dictator than he was in the more difficult question of what the citizen and dictator had in common, how the citizen’s moral and psychological failures helped the dictator to succeed.”

In his own poetry and essays, Auden loves to play with binaries in a different — and humanely metaphorical — way:

Much of his work dramatizes a distinction between gentle-minded Arcadians, who dream of an innocent past where everyone could do as they wanted without harming anyone else, and stern-minded Utopians, who fantasize, and sometimes try to build, an ideal future in which all will act as they should. He identified himself as an Arcadian, but he never imagined that Utopians, no matter how much he disliked being around them, were solely to blame for public and private injustice, and he always reminded himself that Arcadians were not as innocent as they thought.

Find the whole essay here.

Filed under: aesthetics, ethics, poetry

Musical Anhedonia


You know that chilling moment when you try to introduce a friend to a piece of music you love — a piece of music that contains a little bit of the world’s meaning for you — and … nothing? That moment when it doesn’t just fail to register, but the other party has no interest in trying to figure out what turned you on in the first place?

This phenomenon can be shocking when you’re dealing with someone who normally does have some sort of musical response but who remains immune to the piece in question. I vividly recall trying to introduce an acquaintance years ago to the Heiliger Dankgesang from Beethoven’s Op. 132 — which is about as transcendent as music gets, as far as I know it — and being appalled by the evident reaction of boredom. For a moment, it felt like some sort of variant on the uncanny valley phenomenon.

I think we’ve all been there, but what I find truly unfathomable is an existence without music. Yet it turns out a new study whose results were just published in Current Biology suggests that music simply may not be as “universal” as we like to believe it is. A team of psychologists at the University of Barcelona found that possibly up to 5% (!) of the population cannot take pleasure in music — any music. Some people are simply, or rather, biologically, incapable of enjoying it, no matter how accessible we try to make the experience.

This is distinct from the well-known phenomenon of amusia and similar dysfunctions Oliver Sacks has described in Musicophilia. The Barcelona study also points out that the 30 student volunteers who participated — “healthy people with specific musical anhedonia” — “do not find music pleasurable, but enjoy other rewarding stimuli.”

From the abstract of the article (“Dissociation between Musical and Monetary Reward Responses in Specific Musical Anhedonia”):

Music has been present in all human cultures since prehistory, although it is not associated with any apparent biological advantages (such as food, sex, etc.) or utility value (such as money). Nevertheless, music is ranked among the highest sources of pleasure, and its important role in our society and culture has led to the assumption that the ability of music to induce pleasure is universal. However, this assumption has never been empirically tested.

In the present report, we identified a group of healthy individuals without depression or generalized anhedonia who showed reduced behavioral pleasure ratings and no autonomic responses to pleasurable music, despite having normal musical perception capacities. These persons showed preserved behavioral and physiological responses to monetary reward, indicating that the low sensitivity to music was not due to a global hypofunction of the reward network. These results point to the existence of specific musical anhedonia and suggest that there may be individual differences in access to the reward system.

Filed under: aesthetics, music news, musical research

At the Frye: Tobey and Teng

Mark Tobey, City Reflections, 1957. Sumi ink on paper. Collection Janet and Doug True. © 2014 Estate of Mark Tobey / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Mark Tobey, City Reflections, 1957. Sumi ink on paper. Collection Janet and Doug True. © 2014 Estate of Mark Tobey / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Currently on view as a counterpart to the Frye Museum’s Noguchi exhibit is Mark Tobey and Teng Baiye: Seattle/Shanghai. The latter, more modest in scope, also attempts to break new ground in considering cross-cultural connections and impulses shared between artists.

The American painter Mark Tobey (1890-1976) found himself at a turning point in his career when he discovered inspiration from the East. And, as with the Noguchi on display in the companion exhibition, a component of that inspiration was mediated early on by friendship with a Chinese artist. The friend in Tobey’s case, Teng Baiye (1900-1980), had moved to Seattle to study art at the University of Washington and met Tobey in the early 1920s.

Seattle was the city where Tobey had chosen to move in order to reboot his life and art after a disastrous attempt at marriage. (He eventually met his life partner, the Sweden-born Pehr Hallsten, in Ballard, according to one account.) Around three decades later, Life Magazine published its famous article hailing four “mystic painters of the Northwest,” which cemented Tobey’s image as a leading figure of the so-called “Northwest School.”

Portrait of Teng Baiye with dedication to Mark Tobey, 1926. Photograph. University of Washington Libraries.

Portrait of Teng Baiye with dedication to Mark Tobey, 1926. Photograph. University of Washington Libraries.

Tobey’s early friendship with Teng gives this glimpse into his mature work its focus. The younger Teng taught Chinese calligraphy to Tobey, who later visited his friend in Shanghai in 1934. But with the onset of the world war looming, Tobey lost contact with his friend and never heard from him again. Some very intriguing questions emerge from this juxtaposition: what interpretation of a complex traditional aesthetic did Teng mediate, and what role did this play in Tobey’s evolution of his characteristic “white writing” style?

The exhibit is also about mirroring, and the same should be asked in the other direction as well: what did Teng take away from his time in Seattle, what did he gain from his friendship with Tobey? The shocking fact is that we apparently have so little to work with. The two ink-and-paper scrolls on display represent the only works by Teng on display.

left: Teng Baiye, Bird on Rock, before 1949. Ink and paper mounted on scroll. Collection Bao Mingxin right: Teng Baiye, Cranes and Pine Tree, before 1949. Ink and paper mounted on scroll. Collection Bao Mingxin.

left: Teng Baiye, Bird on Rock, before 1949. Ink and paper mounted on scroll. Collection Bao Mingxin
right: Teng Baiye, Cranes and Pine Tree, before 1949. Ink and paper mounted on scroll. Collection Bao Mingxin.

Teng’s absorption of Western influences made him suspect back home as China struggled toward its postwar identity as a nation. Teng became a victim of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and was released from forced manual labor just a few years before his death. The vast majority of his artwork appears to have been destroyed — perhaps other works have survived in private hands, but the sparse knowledge we have is one of the points here. (Even the transliteration of Teng’s name has been maddeningly inconsistent among books in English, adding to the confusion over his legacy.)

Mark Tobey, Forest Dance, 1951. Tempera on paper. Collection Janet and Doug True. © 2014 Estate of Mark Tobey / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Mark Tobey, Forest Dance, 1951. Tempera on paper. Collection Janet and Doug True. © 2014 Estate of Mark Tobey / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Meanwhile, as Life elevated Tobey to a new level of fame, questions about the identity of American artists in the postwar years were also taking on new urgency. But from today’s post-Cold War, global perspective, are we able to discover mutual influences beyond the mutual stereotypes of “East” and “West” that prevailed in the past century? As Tobey himself wrote:

Man today is challenged to extend his mental and spiritual horizons. Geographical barriers have given way before the light of science, invention and psychology. The great inventions that have demolished the former sense of special difference must await a new man who will use them positively. But this new will have seen a great light which burns away the barriers of prejudice and religious antagonism. The art of the future cannot germinate in antagonism and national rivalry but will spring forth with a renewed growth if man in general will grow to the stature of universal citizenship.

Filed under: aesthetics, art exhibition, art history, Frye Museum

Freezing a Moment of Infinite Possibility

My new feature on Jeremy Denk and his recording of the Goldberg Variations is now available in the Spring 2014 issue of Listen magazine. This one is limited to subscribers, so I can include only the teaser here:

Freezing a Moment of Infinite Possibility
Pianist Jeremy Denk on the stakes of recording Bach’s Goldberg Variations

In his first article for The New Yorker (“The Flight of the Concord,” February 6,
2012), pianist Jeremy Denk distilled the maddeningly quixotic experience of committing his interpretation of Charles Ives’ “Concord” Sonata to disc. Recordings, he mused, are really “manicured artifacts, from which the essential spectacle of human effort has been clipped away.”

One aspect of classical music that can puzzle newcomers is the enormous library of competing versions of the same blockbusters that have been — and continue to be — recorded.

Read the rest by subscribing to Listen here

Filed under: Bach, piano

Happy 300th, C.P.E. Bach

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach

Today marks the 300th birthday of Johann Sebastian’s fifth child, the amazing Carl Philipp Emanuel. Born during papa’s Weimar period to his beloved first wife, Maria Barbara (who died six years later), C.P.E. occupies a fascinating position as a “transitional” figure. In other words, his creative work can’t be conveniently pigeonholed into the neat categories music historians use to wedge everything into a straightforward narrative.

Carl Philipp Emanuel is in the spotlight all year long, with all sorts of programs devoted to exploring his legacy. Last week, for instance, the Friends of the Berlin Philharmonic presented a special program featuring “an autobiographical monologue with music.” The actor Burghart Klaußner played the role of the composer to a script drawn from his letters and similar documents.

A great place to start exploring is the C.P.E.Bach — 300th Anniversary website. It includes a neatly illustrated biographical breakdown, an overview of life in the 18th century, a comprehensive catalogue of his prolific output, some audio samples, and more.

In a section on the reception of Carl Philipp Emanuel, the composer’s contemporary Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart describes how he was considered a true original:

“Bach in Hamburg leads the clavierists as Klopstock leads the poets. He is epoch-making […]. Both his composition and his playing are inimitable.” A characteristic of Bach that still applies today. Countless composers of the late 18th century were imitating Haydn and Mozart, but no-one tried to imitate Bach. They would not have succeeded – his melody is expressive but seldom cantabile. The “Hamburg Bach” was denied having street boys whistle his tunes as they did Mozart’s. In any case, Bach considered himself the creator of demanding music and had little interest in serving the populace.

Filed under: Bach family, music news

Travoltify It!


Not that I have a problem with procrastination — no, of course not — but … here’s a meme I couldn’t resist.

So what happens when you Travoltify Wolfgang Amadé Mozart? “Wilson Ajams,” natch.

Is there a reverse-Travoltify generator? See if you can figure out which composers these are/were before their transmogrifitravoltification:

–Louis Bruwn
–Aidan Crawzford
–Francesca Bozowens
–Adrian Butter
–Gavin Marsheem
–Sameer Ramso
–Nina Bailerey
–Raymond Walger
–Julian Suzzivan
–Charlie Marftinez
–Geordie Dorniels
–Grace Ferzguson
–Nina Morphay
–Nicola Roginson
–Frankie Mozaleen
–Jan Ajams
–Maisie Russeem
–Clarke Daveries
–Paige Burneez
–Phoenix Gonzeeles

Filed under: fun, WTF

Passio: Light in Darkness

Karen Thomas

Karen Thomas

I’ve always admired the quality and imagination of Karen Thomas’s programming for Seattle Pro Musica, but their upcoming program, titled Passio: Light in Darkness, has me champing at the bit, to put it frankly.

“The concept for Passio is music related to Lent and the deep human emotions this season has inspired composers to explore,” says Thomas, who not only directs Pro Musica but is herself a composer. And that can also take the form of completely secular works like the little match girl passion by David Lang, which draws on models from Medieval mystery plays and J.S. Bach’s Passions to retell a children’s story of searing, tragic simplicity.

The fact that Pro Musica will be presenting match girl (in the area premiere of the choral version) is by itself enough of a sell: this just happens to be one of the most haunting and inspired choral compositions by an American composer in recent years. But the program also includes a “re-discovered” rarity from the Russian choral rep: Passion Week by Rachmaninoff contemporary Alexander Gretchaninoff (1864-1956). Plus, there will be sprinklings of music by Benjamin Britten, Thomas Weelkes, and living composers like Paul Mealor and Kay Rhie. All of these selections, in different ways, highlight the special strengths of Seattle Pro Musica — and of the smaller ensembles comprising the company.

Seattle Pro Musica

Seattle Pro Musica

Lang, an LA native now based in New York (and known as one of the co-founders of the innovative Bang on a Can new-music outfit), has fast forwarded the American maverick lineage into the 21st century. Lang is also an adventurous collaborator who has worked with the likes of photographer William Wegman and the film director Jonathan Parker (scoring the 2009 indie comedy (Untitled). But for the little match girl passion, which won the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 2008, Lang engages in a remarkably original “collaboration” with sources you don’t normally associate with each other. He uses the tradition of musical settings of the Christian Passion narrative as a model for his retelling of an incredibly poignant children’s story by fairy-tale master Hans Christian Andersen.

The root of the word “passion” is from the Latin term for suffering. Lang strips away the traditional religious associations of the Passion story but uses the narrative techniques that were pioneered and perfected by Bach — “commentary” passages interpolated into the ongoing story — to recount the suffering and death of the little girl in Andersen’s story who tries to sell matches on a street corner on a brutally cold New Year’s Eve. Or, another way to put it, as Lang himself does: “There is no Bach in my piece and there is no Jesus — rather, the suffering of the little match girl has been substituted for Jesus’, elevating (I hope) her sorrow to a higher plane.”

There have been many musical adaptations of Andersen’s tale — TV musicals, operas, a synthpop video by Erasure, a concept album by The Tiger Lillies. But nothing I know comes close to the gut-wrenching impact of Lang’s treatment. His post-Minimalist score is deceptively simple, in keeping with the story. Spare harmonies and other archaisms evoke the starkness of early Medieval chant (think Perotin — that far back); tiny gestures generate maximal emotional response.

“There’s an extremely intimate quality to it,” Thomas explains. “Lang’s music has an immediacy and at the same time a kind of emotional reserve about it, because of the way he writes for the voices to evoke the Evangelist in a Bach Passion or a Greek chorus. So there’s a certain coldness and detachment as well that makes the tragic story that much more poignant as a result.”

Over the past two weeks, in concerts featuring the same vocal soloists, I’ve taken advantage of the rare opportunity to experience and compare the two great Passions by J.S. Bach that survive. (Pro Musica also performed the St. John Passion two seasons ago.) So it should be especially fascinating to encounter Lang’s piece, which I’ve long treasured since on recordings, with this context fresh in mind. Yet on its own terms, match girl is an immediately gripping and effective work, a mix of modern morality play and music theater — but with none of the preachiness that can sometimes creep into, say, a performance of Brecht.

Alexander Gretchaninoff in 1910

Alexander Gretchaninoff in 1910

As for Gretchaninoff’s Passion Week, Karen Thomas points out that it will beautifully complement the pared-down sound of Lang’s little match girl passion by taking us to another extreme of lushness and blooming choral texture. Premiered in Russia in 1912, Passion Week sets texts from the Russian Orthodox liturgy that are used as prayers during the week that culminates in Easter. Gretchaninoff, a student of Rimsky-Korsakov, was part of the Renaissance of Russian choral music in the early 20th century that’s also represented by Rachmaninoff’s beloved Vespers (1915).

“In Gretchaninoff’s setting you can hear the influence of early Russian music and chant even more clearly,” says Thomas. “And he writes even more extensively for the low range of the basses than Rachmaninoff. This will sound especially compelling when heard in the acoustic space of St. James.”

Thomas adds that the prayers Gretchaninoff sets combine mystical and liturgical texts. They tend to be “more of a personal reflection” on the events of Good Friday, for example, than the librettos Bach set for his Passions. But this music fell into oblivion in the wake of the Soviet Union’s official crackdown on the Russian choral movement that had begun to take flight. Gretchaninoff himself stayed for a time but finally emigrated to the U.S. in 1939. His Passion Week wasn’t revived until the 1990s. Thomas believes these may be the first Seattle area performances.

An additional note: Yet another composer involved in the Russian choral movement — and another Rimsky student — will be in the spotlight next month when Cappella Romana presents the recently rediscovered Passion Week of Maximilian Steinberg, “the last major sacred work composed in Russia before Stalin’s 1932 crackdown (April 11 and 12).

And: Seattle Symphony is presenting a special symposium on March 22-23 on the theme Creative Diaspora: Émigré Composers from the Former USSR. Speakers will include no less than Russian music authority Richard Taruskin. The symposium is scheduled in conjunction with the U.S. premiere of Alexander Raskatov’s Night Butterflies Piano Concerto.

Seattle Pro Musica’s Passio – Light in Darkness concerts take place on Saturday and Sunday, March 8 and 9, both evenings at 8 pm at St. James Cathedral. Tickets here.

Thomas May

Filed under: choral music, new music, preview

No Joke

John Adams; photo (c) Deborah O’Grady

John Adams; photo (c) Deborah O’Grady

On the road: after being in the spotlight in Madrid for the Orquesta Nacional de España’s Carta Bianca Festival, John Adams is being celebrated this week by the Toronto Symphony with the New Creations Festival. The festival culminates on Friday with one of Adams’s most fascinating recent works, Absolute Jest. Here’s the essay I wrote for the original version of Absolute Jest on the occasion of its world premiere by the San Francisco Symphony and the Saint Lawrence String Quartet in 2012:

More than three decades have passed since the San Francisco Symphony gave its first world premiere of music by John Adams (the choral-orchestral Harmonium in 1981). The event marked the beginning of a longstanding relationship between composer and orchestra that has resulted in the commissioning of several landmark works: Adams’s breakthrough orchestral composition, Harmonielehre (a new recording of which the SFS has just been released), El Dorado, the millennial “nativity oratorio” El Niño, the opera A Flowering Tree, and My Father Knew Charles Ives.

continue reading

Filed under: American music, essay, John Adams, new music

The Bach Passions Project in Seattle

Passions Project

Over the weekend, Stephen Stubbs and his Pacific MusicWorks company concluded their ambitious Passions Project with performances of the St. John Passion. The project included partnering with the Seattle Symphony for the St. Matthew Passion the previous weekend. Here’s my review for Bachtrack:

Adducing Simon Schama’s comparison of Rubens’s Descent from the Cross with the same subject as painted by Rembrandt, the conductor and Bach authority John Eliot Gardiner has observed that the differences drawn by the art historian – chiefly, between an emphasis on “action and reaction” in the former and “contemplation and witness” in the latter – might broadly be applied to Bach’s two great Passions as well: St John and St Matthew, respectively. Audiences in Seattle have been provided an opportunity to compare and contrast these unfathomably rich works on the basis of live performances of both, presented over consecutive weekends.

continue reading at Bachtrack

Filed under: Bach, Pacific MusicWorks, review, Seattle Symphony

Another Look at Bach

Possibly the young J.S. Bach c. 1715; or possibly not; painting by J. E. Rentsch, the Elder

Possibly the young J.S. Bach c. 1715 — or possibly not; painting by J. E. Rentsch, the Elder

J.S. Bach has been much on my mind of late. I need to make time to plunge into John Eliot Gardiner’s new book on the composer, especially after George B. Stauffer’s review in the recent New York Review of Books has whet my appetite.

In Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, Gardiner distills a lifetime of devotion and study to the music of the Thomaskantor (one of the epithets by which Germans refer to Bach). According to Stauffer, this weighty tome basically revolves around the great question of “just how Bach managed to express the inexpressible, especially with regard to death, and what life experiences stood behind his compositional decisions.”

Gardiner recently started serving as president of the Leipzig Bach Archive and has managed to create a controversial portrait by drawing on recent findings of the archive — a portrait dramatically at odds with the longstanding image of an obedient musical citizen:

Moving beyond the hagiographies of the past, he presents a fallible Bach, a musical genius who on the one hand is deeply committed to illuminating and expanding Luther’s teachings through his sacred vocal works… but on the other hand is a rebellious and resentful musician, harboring a lifelong grudge against authority — a personality disorder stemming from a youth spent among ruffians and abusive teachers. Hiding behind Bach, creator of the Matthew Passion and B-Minor Mass, Gardiner suggests, is Bach “the reformed teenage thug.”

What sounds especially fascinating is that, according to Stauffer, Gardiner roots his speculations in the music (though he apparently omits discussion of the instrumental and keyboard pieces), since he views the music as “the anchor to which we can return again and again, and the principal means of validating or refuting any conclusion about its author.”

The result is that Gardiner “forces us to rethink Bach’s life and how adversity and faith affected his vocal compositions. And [he] takes us inside his world, allowing us to see the works from the standpoint of composer, performer, and listener.”

Over at The Guardian, Peter Conrad points out that Gardiner takes Bach’s intense faith for granted in his exploration of the sacred music, yet “he still makes the effort to account for the emotional force and consolatory balm of Bach’s music in ways that are humanly engaging.”

He treats the cantatas as psychodramas, and thinks of the Passions as three-dimensional versions of opera which, rather than exhibiting the vocal and histrionic antics of sacred monsters in a fictional world onstage, address us directly when the soloists perform their hortatory arias and require us, in chorales that were sung by the entire congregation, to participate in Christ’s tragedy and in the divine comedy that is its sequel. Gardiner’s analogy for the way the Passions work comes from a literary form that could not be less spiritually exalted: he draws on theorists of the novel such as Bakhtin to explain the “dialogic threads” and complementary “subjectivities” that Bach draws together, and despite his own orthodoxy he makes frequent allusions to Philip Pullman, for whom art is our demonic repudiation of an oppressive God.

While the title Bach in the Castle of Heaven suggests something emphatically pious, Conrad adds, “Gardiner’s is a festive book, enlivened by the ‘joy and zest’ of Bach’s ‘dance-impregnated music.’ Those dances are sacral but also rowdily profane… Quoting the sociologist Émile Durkheim, he defines religion as a ‘collective effervescence,’ a shared ecstasy – more readily available, perhaps, in the mud at Glastonbury or clubbing under the arches in Vauxhall than at a church service in 18th-century Leipzig.”

Just like Shakespeare, Bach will always be the mirror of our own age as well.

Filed under: Bach, book recs

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