Friday, November 23, 2012

Black Friday: A Meme I Don't Like

The meme to the right has popped up quite a bit over the last few days across. I think it is supposed to be some clever observation about inconsistent behavior or foolish Americans or "consumerism." . . or something. There exist a few problems with this bit of alleged perspicacity.

First, one is not credible who gets holier-than-thou about "consumerism" while supporting a governmental policy of spending (and printing) money as "stimulus." I'd be willing to split the hair about "spending for the sake of prosperity" (however grossly misguided that notion is) in contrast to spending for the sake of mindless acquisition, but it's duplicitous to castigate people for spending when you really do want them to spend and "stimulate" the economy, and have even in the past given them money to spend. It is likewise duplicitous to wag your finger at shoppers when you support laws creating easy credit or protecting reckless creditors.

Second, it is not as if these people are buying products which are not available at other times, before and after, the sale. Black Friday shoppers are buying the same products everyone else buys, they simply want to pay less than the items used to cost but are willing to pay more than they will cost in the future. (They are also willing to wait in longer-than-usual lines.) Apparently making that particular judgment makes you a consumerist, but buying the same things and paying either more earlier or less later, does not.

Third, no one makes memes when lines for Apple products go around corners and down allies, perhaps because Apple markets to trendier folk who consider themselves savvy clients of the upper bourgeoisie and not icky proletarian "consumers." Apple's lines might be longer and more ebullient if more people could afford their products.

Fourth, the meme presumes people are actually grateful on Thanksgiving, a presupposition. If people aren't actually grateful then there isn't any inconsistency. This seems plausible and if so, then an ingratitude meme would be more appropriate, although less self-satisfying.

Fifth, people like events. People like them because they give purpose to a humdrum routine dominated by work, sleep, and chores. This is just a supposition, but I think some people line up because it is fun, or at least purposeful and out of the ordinary. They haven't calculated prices, places, and times, but get up and go because it's exciting, and it is exciting precisely because they don't know if they'll get what they want. In an age of abundance this uncertainty is rare and, perhaps surprisingly, sought and relished.

Sixth, spending is fun. One feels a sense of agency when one spends, that he can make things happen. So, sanctioned by the apparent scale and inertia of the occasion, some people go an spend regardless of what they need or can afford. Prudent, no. Not shocking either, though.

Lastly, the stampedes and scuffles. These ballyhooed hullabaloos, inflated by crisis-mongering reporting on the nightly news and tabloid presses, seem upon closer inspection to be more rare and less earth-shattering than the stories would indicate. Too, people queue and push and shove for all sorts of reasons, very frequently although in smaller numbers. Have you ever seen people react to the announcement of free food?

So fine, though. Those few hundred people across the nation are dumb. Shame on them. Wicked 'Mericans. Very clever of us to point that out.

The modern world with its abundance and prosperity has a few potential pitfalls, I think we can agree. Mostly we need to respond by cultivating deliberately virtues which used to be adopted out of necessity. We ought not relish scarcity, i.e. suffering, nor ought we grow high-and-mighty in pointing out a minority who behave foolishly on certain occasions and then extrapolating from that event some spurious truism from which we judges are, naturally, exempted.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving, 2012

While I recently promised a return to my curmudgeonly self, it is Thanksgiving once again and so time for another list of gratitude. This year, right off the heels of an extraordinary performance, I decided to consider some other definitive musical events. So many uncontrollable factors, from schedules and health to personal affairs and finances, affect a performance apart from the difficulties of making competent, let alone inspired, music, that we ought to be grateful when truly exceptional interpretations and collaborations come to life. In acknowledgement of and gratitude for this, my. . . 

Top Ten Recorded Performances

10. Colin Davis: Handel's Messiah [YouTube]

9. Pablo Casals: Bach's Cello Suites [YouTube]

8. Alfred Brendel: Beethoven's Diabelli Variations [YouTube]

7. James Levine: Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen [YouTube]

6. Victor Pablo Perez: Don Giovanni [YouTube]

5. Wilhelm Kempff: Beethoven's Piano Sonatas [YouTube]

4. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau: Schubert's Lieder [YouTube] [YouTube]

3. John Eliot Gardiner: Beethoven's Missa Solemnis [YouTube]

2. Glenn Gould [1981]: Bach's Goldberg Variations [YouTube]

1. Mitsuko Uchida: Mozart's Piano Concerti [YouTube]

Previous Thanksgiving Lists:
2011 | 2010 | 2009 (T) | 2009 (N)

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Review: Gardiner Conducts Beethoven

Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. The Monteverdi Choir.
Conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner. 
Carnegie Hall. November 17, 2012.

Beethoven's Missa Solemnis holds a well-earned reputation for taxing singers with its tessitura, dynamics, and length. Period players like those of The Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique run against additional challenges, with horn players swapping bits and violinists fiddling delicately against gut strings. Tonight even Sir John Eliot sweat up a storm as he led his ensembles through Beethoven's massive missa. The humble audience, however, receives little credit for following this exhausting piece for its duration. I did commit this time, and as close to fully as ever I have. Such may sound strange, "this time," but we fallible, distractible, humans, even music lovers, scholars, and aficionados, even performers, don't live in the whole piece every time. Cares intrude, fatigue sets in, wrappers are crinkled. Last night, however, Sir John Eliot, his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and The Monteverdi Choir were in full form. They made something special, and I went right along, note-for-note, now toe-a-tapping, then water-eyed, here a goofy grin on my face, there jaw agape. It was quite a night.

The woodwinds shone throughout, first bringing the Kyrie to intimate life, a life of presence but not activity, from their tender, luminous opening and the warm halo they add to the invocations of Kyrie, to the doom they herald and to which the soloists reply in imperiled urgency, Christe. Sir John Eliot meticulously shaped the remainder of the Kyrie giving weight and height to the impeccable declamation and intonation of the soloists, in particular Tenor Michael Spyres and Bass Matthew Rose. Without explication or philosophizing we heard what it means to call someone Lord and Christ.

The soft, tapered end of the Kyrie throws the forte opening of the Gloria into relief sharp enough to raise the hairs of the most casual listener. The dynamics here are so controlled that one never dulls to the forte or gets stuck in a rut of loud alternating with soft. The dynamics are rich and unified by a firm sense of forward movement, moving from the soft, fragile pax hominibus to an adoramus te of such power and volume I winced, then to a fleeting, pious adoramus te, and ending with the brazen glorificamus te.

After the four praises the winds again set the tone, this time with the oboes hollowing out a warm and gentle space for the gratias agimus tibi within this massive, rollicking movement. What the woodwinds shape in tone Gardiner shapes in time, and with this shaping the gratias becomes a discrete, personal prayer within a larger more grandiose movement. The same applies to the sections Qui tollis.
Gardiner keeps the finale, a flourish of fanfares and entrances of in gloria Dei Patris, full but not ponderous, and always finely articulated. This dense section easily collapses into a a brassy avalanche but Gardiner kept it light yet forceful.

The brass and winds launch the Credo in exceptional form. The bassoons were particularly nimble, neatly shifting from sprightly steps and walking lines to tortuous counter-melodies and plosive fortes. They not only gave the movement, especially its opening, a full, almost brusque bottom, but also, under Sir John Eliot, brought out figures that often remain on the page.

The glories of the Credo are twofold, though. First are the vigorous rhythms which give confident, joyful expression to the faith declared. From the steady, petrine Credo figure itself to the agressive de Deo vero and non factum, these figures animate the movement and bring to vivid life the text, in this case the faith itself, reaching an apotheosis in the dauntless, even strident fanfares ending with the great fugue on et vitam venturi saeculi. The courageous playing here adds a veritable sense of risk and pride in the growth of this timid figure from its humble origins nestled up with the sopranos through its brassy, celebratory climax.

Second is the incarnatus est, one of the glories of all music. It's also another wicked shift of dynamics and mood, from the swift descending figures of descendit de coelis to the soft basson pulse. We move in the space of a few bars from literal word painting, a descending figure to represent descent, to re-creation. While we perceive much of the movement as depiction, the symbolic language of this scene, the coming-into-being in the flickering bassoon, the hovering flute trill and the glimmer at de Spiritu Sancto, and the departure to the ethereal world of the Dorian mode, not only mimics but makes. We feel as if we have borne witness, and hence the power of the epoch-ringing declaration, et Homo factus est. The solo vocalists here were so soft and tender I leaned in as if trying to hear the news as it spread from part to part.

The winds and horns again made the moment in the opening to the Sanctus, which was as peering into a cloud waiting for someone to step from the mists, a wait fulfilled in the Benedictus. Here Concertmaster Peter Hanson coaxed a pure tone and a sweet, songful prayer from his instrument over the soft footsteps of the drums and strings in the highlight of the evening.

While the prayer for peace and military music are rightly said to characterize the Agnus Dei, its opening struck me the most tonight. The steps of the Benedictus continue on, but here as the lamb and through the cries of miserere and peccata. Gardiner's balanced touch and forces kept the two elements in joint relief, never overshadowing one another.

In the pre-concert talk Sir John Eliot noted how the score is only part of the piece and that the instruments themselves hold much of the music. The score, he said, is the butterfly pinned to the board, and music is the cloud of them in the sky. Last night, they took flight.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Own and Play an Instrument

The advent of musical notation facilitated the creation and performance of complex music. No longer was music limited to what could be fashioned in one's head and memorized, but intricate harmonies and rhythms could be worked out, revised, and shared. Music was liberated from the mind and hands of the composer. You could now play music even if you could not compose music, at least if you could get your hands on any scores. Paper was precious, and thus so remained music.

The arrival of the printing press made music plentiful. Instead of having painstakingly to transcribe scores by hand, a process which produced not only illegibility and errors but relatively few copies, sheet music could be shared in great quantities. All that remained was the not inconsiderable task of learning to play it.

The invention of recording and replaying music at last made music cheap, and by cheap I do not mean poor, of course, but rather more precisely, costing little labor or trouble. One can now enjoy music without having either to write or to play, or even to ask or hire someone to play. You pay a modest fee and can enjoy a performance as many times as you like. Without much of an investment you can experience a massive symphonic movement or a delicate piano miniature. This ease has many virtues, the greatest of which is that one can hear performances one would otherwise never have. Likewise one can replay performances and study and compare technique and interpretation. Lastly, one can simply enjoy more music.

None of these benefits ought to be underestimated and I am not about to castigate sellers of CDs and mp3s. Yet minds starting with Plato's have considered the ill effects of putting ink to paper, wondering what is lost. Perhaps there is not much difference among the leaps to written music, then to mechanically printed music, and most recently to recorded music. The presence of written music meant that to play music one no long had to be creative, one could simply play the notes on the page. Yet this innovation seems not to have led to a decrease in composition or performative creativity. Not only did professional and semi-professional composition explode but so did amateur music writing. Likewise was it common both to write and play, but even performers who did not compose were expected to extemporize. True, few improvised like Bach and Mozart, but it was the norm for performers to have a few tricks and techniques with which to play with a theme on the fly. Mind you, it was not all excellent in concept or execution, but musical activity boomed.

Yet the popularity of recorded music has, I think, coincided with live music becoming a rarer presence, and thus music in general becoming a more passive experience. I don't mean to suggest, though, that recorded music has caused a decline in performance, only that the omnipresence of music made possible by recording has masked the decrease of live performance. Not in concert halls necessarily, has live music disappeared, but in the nooks and crannies of life. This is a rather anecdotal observation, but it seems the DJ has replaced the performer at most social gatherings, or perhaps more precisely, at gatherings at which music is not the focus. It seems harder and harder to find a space into which recorded music or worse, television, are not pumped in. Likewise informal music-making seems not so frequent. I wonder how many musicians, professional and amateur, play or sing informally in social gatherings or among small groups of friends. Is it common or acceptable at a party to begin to sing and play, or must the TV and iPod be on to entertain us?

Now recorded music is not to be regarded as an evil, but its presence reminds us that in the absence of the scarcity and struggle which necessitate certain virtues, we must cultivate them for their own sakes. In this case, although we are not forced to learn an instrument in order to enjoy music, we ought to learn the skill and cultivate the talent because making music is a meaningful and edifying activity. We will always be entertained and engaged by the virtuosi who play what we cannot dream, but there is also a place in society for casual music-making with its variety, spontaneity, happy accidents, and good humor.

So when the power went out last week and I sat in the dark listening to the charge in my iPod slowly ebb away, I realized with a new clarity that it didn't in fact house any music, but rather reproductions. Neither did the CD contain any, really, nor the sheet music. Music is someone playing, with all of the spontaneity and imperfections of the performer, the audience, and the moment, not a canned experience identically reproduced each time. So I went over to the keyboard, sat down, and promptly remembered it was electronic.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

We Are Back

So stand we returned from our unannounced and unexpected hiatus, a hiatus precipitated by a number of factors not the least of which were, first, an inordinate quantity of Latin materials I had to make for work, and second, a rather substantial blackout in NYC. I would, however, be guilty of a lie of omission if I did not mention a few other causes of my impromptu break from blogging.

Foremost among these esoteric excuses is, I say with no small amount of astonishment, a certain intellectual fullness. Indeed it is to the surprise of my philosophical self I confess this, but I have been rather content with my mental house, pleased to dwell amidst its intellectual furnishings. I haven't been perplexed or confused or infuriated about much of anything and thus I have had little to share about being, time, being and time, positive externalities, or the contrapuntal arts. Regrettably, if satiety breeds anything it breeds indolence.

Yet the wide world of APLV is not a contentious place, really, so one might wonder why satiety or indolence or such should create lacuna of no less than four weeks. I believe it is a certain restlessness which goes hand in hand with an active mind that creates. Even if he is not grumpy per se, the intellectual has some want of understanding which drives him to poke around, in contrast to the egotist, who perceives a want of being understood. An intellectual experiences, as the Philosopher noted, a desire to understand. Of course if this is so then equally it is possible my mind had been sated by pleasures, pursuits, and entertainments apart from writing. It is also possible I briefly became omniscient, or that I am not, in fact, an intellectual. I'll leave it to your powers of induction, dear reader, to consider those possibilities.

Actually, perhaps that's a point worth pursuing. It is facile observation to note how one only has so much time in a day and all mortals have wondered how, say, Bach and Shakespeare simply had time to do so much of such quality. How did they maintain such sustained interest in narrow fields? Put another way, how could one man have had so many ideas of the contrapuntal or theatrical variety? How did his mind never drift afield, or grow content simply to tend and take what had been planted? Were they not interested in their houses, hobbies, or their wives? Perhaps this is simply the dilettante, or indolent's, dilemma. Perhaps it is the prosaic concern of an earthly intellect.

In any event I'm back to my curious, gregarious, and fussy self. Blogging resumes forthwith. Thank you for your patience.