Monday, January 29, 2007

Live Music: Menlo Park, Bede's Church, January 27 of 2007

A friend of mine and I turned up at a Master Sinfonia concert this Saturday. Like most local classical groups, they remain well below the radar of any sort of publicity or media attention unless you happen to listen to the excruciating KDFC ("Your place on the FM dial for oboe concerto after fucking oboe concerto!") or read the bizarrely joyless San Francisco Classical Voice. I happen to know one of the Master Sinfonia trombonists and -- my interest whetted by a promise of the Stravinsky Danses Concertantes -- I graciously deigned to accept a comp ticket from him.

The show was at St. Bede's in Menlo Park, which is an institution of the Episcopal persuasion and seemed very charming and innocuous. There were posters for the midly blasphemous weekly movie night by the church door (Life of Brian, Dogma, etc.) as well as a promise of a coming anniversary celebration for the church which will feature, essentially, a church renaissance faire. "Aim for the period of Chaucer" was the advice at the bottom, regarding appropriate attire. Will do, Bede's.

The interior of the place is generally %95 wooden, with big solid rafters and a general Anglo-Saxon weightiness that makes you think of Heorot in Beowulf. The orchestra was enclosed in a sort of sheep-pen on a dais in the center (the chapel is 'in the round') surrounded by stiff wooden pews well-freighted with old people and a modest smattering of people whose hair retained some color.

The Master Sinfonia itself seems to be a good little orchestra. It's quite small, as these things go, arguably a 'chamber orchestra' (just two basses, for example) but this seems to have allowed them a certain amount of selectivity in terms of players.

The conductor David Ramadanoff, unfortunately, came off as a terrible blowhard and couched the whole concert in terms of an old-fashioned music history lesson. Before every piece he delivered a potted history of the composer and his milieu, all of it very tame and firmly rooted in the 'great man' theory of music history, whereby certain composers are revered as gods and a few are fortunate enough to be given an occasioanl nod as demigods.

I am, needless to say, disgusted by this practice of prefacing music with lectures. The motive, it seems, is to explain to the audience why the piece they are about to hear is not actually boring or tame or badly-played but rather is important historically and therefore good for them, like dutifully-consumed medicine or flaxseed bread.

(As a side note, it is extremely irritating to the woodwind players, whose reeds are drying out and horns cooling while the guy on the podium outlines the major plot-points in the thrilling tale of Haydn in London.)

Saturday night had a good program, in theory: a J. C. Bach sinfonia, the aforementioned Stravinsky Danses Concertantes, and the extremely good Symphony No. 100 by Haydn. So, major points for program planning, which is usually incoherent even in professional orchestras.

Unfortunately, the J. C. Bach was a snore, played very straight and without spicy continuo or similar flourishes. Technically, everything was there for a good performace -- contrasting dynamics, a nice blended sonority, fine oboe playing, passable first violin athleticism -- but the whole affair was unexciting and riskless, with no effort made to pick out little details or otherwise breathe life into what can very easily be boring music.

The Stravinsky more than compensated, luckily. This was first-rate playing, with the added excitement of coming from a group just barely far enough to the 'amateur' end of the spectrum not to sound overly technical or bored. Ramadanoff's meticulous style -- which arguably made sitting through the Bach such a chore -- is perfectly suited to the rhythmic complexity and split-second texture changes of Stravinsky. In an ideal world, Master Sinfonia would dispense with old music and dedicate itself to the 20th century, where the fresher air and colder harmony is a source of invigoration. I'd be remiss not to mention the principal bass player, whose heroics counterbalanced the whole string section and almost single-handed kept the agular cardiovascular thump of the quick movements in motion.

And then... Haydn. It was an okay rendition of a great piece, tolerable but not good enough to prevent me from leaving during the intermission if I'd had a crystal ball. The percussion section did a nice job, particularly the aggressive timpani and a light touch with the cymbals, but they conspicuously lacked ruthe for the bass drum part. (If you're going to go for Turkish percussion effects, you may as well really dive in.) Also, the woodwinds -- so good in the Stravinsky -- didn't seem to have room to breathe or shimmer in the first movement, with the result that the chipper little fife tunes sounded muddy and uninspiring. Of course, no piece could live up to the pre-performance eulogy this one received.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Live Music: SF, The Fillmore, October 21 of 2006

I am opposed to paying more than $20 to hear music involving electric guitars.

That, at least, is my general rule when seeing bands in The City. I much prefer putting my $7 in the musical slot machines of the Hemlock Tavern or the Bottom of the Hill, places where you are much more likely to be astonished or irritated or amused than the cavernous palaces of hip like the Fillmore.

So, now that I've taken pains to pose as someone eclectic and worldly-wise, I'll admit that I usually break my $20 rule at least two or three times a year to see music at the Greek Theater or Great American Music Hall or... that cavernous palace of hip called the Fillmore.

Objectively, I should like that club more. It occasionally gives out nice posters, there is a 'greeter' who (once you get past the door goons) provides a nice Wal*Mart touch of civility, the upstairs lounge gives a chance to young DJs, and, hey, it's on a convenient bus line. Unfortunately, the show on Saturday night -- and the whole Fillmore experience in general -- was pretty terrible.

A few weeks earlier my friend Alison had emailed me: did I want to see Yo La Tengo with her? Why, sure. Yo La Tengo is one of those bands that succeeds largely by seeming just a little bit half-assed. They aren't especially good-looking people, they're not master technicians on their instruments, and in many ways they do better when covering other people's songs. As such, there's a scruffy normal-people appeal about them, like they're the band you can imagine your older sister being in. Even when they turn on the echo effects and churn out some head-bobbing rockabilly, there's a hum of failure underneath, a complete absence of the the showmanship and glamor normally associated with selling an audience on rock music. As such, their aesthetic is an interesting photonegative of cool, you might say.

This was not a great night, though.

Things got off to a bad start- two Fillmore door goons threatened to bar me from entering because my bag had 'too many Sharpie pens' (the bag has about ten slots for pens, in which I carry, among other writing implements, a few laundry pens for writing on CDs). I'm not sure where they get these people- one was a ravaged former punk in leather and tattoos (the drugs had turned him into what Stan Lee might have been if he'd done a lot of heroin):

The first guy just asked "What's with all the Sharpies, man?" after rifilng through my bag, but Stan Lee announced: "This guy's not comin' in!" I explained that I could check my bag if it was an issue, and the upshot was that I had to be taken aside for a little talk with the main door goon about whether I was planning on vandalizing their club. I got the impression that this might be a regular good cop/bad cop routine that they've worked up, but the whole experience was very sour and irritating after already shelling out for the privilege of entering their hallowed temple.

Ahem. Let me set aside my Fillmore irritation to describe the opening band:

"Why?" is a San Francisco-based band assembled by Yoni Wolf. The music is a tissue of influences, from They Might Be Giants (very apparent in the -- forced, unfortunately -- wordplay of their lyrics), to early '80s British piano-based thumpy music hall rock (er...Boomtown Rats? Dexy's Midnight Runners?), abundant mallets in the modern style (cf. Sufjan Stevens, Stereolab), and about a dozen other very discernible musico-genetic vectors. All of this, however, is tastefully integrated, and it is impressive to hear so many ideas melded together without collapsing in a kitchen-sink implosion.

The lyrics, unfortunately, contain an undue number of bloating corpses, funerals, apostrophized 'you's, and eye-rolling fun-with-language. ("Cheery-A Cheery-E Cheery-I Cheery-O, Cheery-U" -this repeated several times, no less.) Worse, the singer has a nasal, swooping voice that is very much at odds with the glockenspiels, electric pianos and dreamy guitar. The effect is like seeing a stick figure drawn in grease-pencil over a watercolor.

They were pretty good though. The best thing about 'Why?', in my opinion, was how satisfying it was to see people who were adept with their instruments approaching songs in a way that was compositionally clever. These songs were arranged with nice attention to detail. Instrument distribution was more interesting than the music itself, and the bearded drummer's alternation of drum kit with glockenspiel (using the same mallets for both somehow!) provided better entertainment than the latest graveyard in the lyrics. So, hats off to 'Why?' for being good at their instruments.

As a side note: this is possibly the darkest era in human history for stupid band names. I don't know if 'Why?' think they're sticking it to the man by picking such a stupid, general name designed to elicit confusion in conversation and writing.

And then, the main event: Yo La Tengo.

I didn't really know what to expect from a Yo La Tengo audience, and, in a way, I still don't. I don't know if the audience on Saturday night were fans of the band or, like me, somewhat lukewarm but vaguely affectionate- they certainly didn't seem particularly interested. As soon as the three bandmembers strolled onstage, there was a unanimous sparking up of terrible weed and the bad concert lurched into motion.

High, Scandinavian-looking people flailed their arms and danced for every song, dozens of pairs of skinny-glasses nodded imperceptibly on the bridges of noses, but -- mostly -- people talked. And talked. Through every song.

"WHAT? Your brother said what?"
" I don't know if you know a lot about screenplays..."
"...oh yeah, he's in the Mission now. The rent is..."

This drove home for me that I don't understand concerts. Or, rather, I don't understand why most people go to concerts. The 'classical' concert ritual has evolved in such a way that, implicitly, hearing the music is supposedly why you paid your money and presumably you'd want to listen to it without making a big distraction. I'm not some jerk who gets sniffy when people clap between movements, but this Yo La Tengo show floored me. Who would pay $35 to stand around at the edge of a club shouting over the music to be heard by their friend?

The band, I hate to say it, was bad, too. After two decent songs at the start of the set, they offered up a 13 minute wailing guitar solo over a literally one-measure repeating bass and drum groove. I don't understand how that could constitute entertainment for anyone. The idea struck me- is everyone at this show only pretending to enjoy this? Or is it a gigantic hive-mind effort, having paid their money, to make the best of things? Or is the idea to bask in the aura of something culturally accepted as impeccably cool and credible? Or do you use it as wallpaper for a conversation while you play the rôle of a hip young San Franciscan who gotes to Yo La Tengo shows?

I was, in a word, disenchanted.

The rest of the night is a little bit of a blur. There were a few good songs -- covers, mostly -- and some pretty, soft songs ruined by the chattering crowd. Mostly, though, I remember yawning during interminable, vaguely improvisatory guitar solos. Colored lights flashed, I lost my friend in the crowd, some girl was using her cellphone as a flashlight to look for her keys on the floor- all of these minor incidents are more interesting and memorable than the music.

Unfortunately, since I'd lost my friend, I had to stay through the first set of encores, culminating in a fucking Bob Dylan song, which, to my mind, placed a big cherry on the sundae of inexplicably bad music. Alison and I luckily bumped into each other again and fled before the second set of encores, taking our complimentary (and pretty) Yo La Tengo posters at the door with decidedly mixed feelings.

Friday, October 06, 2006

The Flying Dutchman (a. k. a. Der Fliegende Hollander): first impressions

Over at Tears of a Clownsilly, Patrick is doing a series of essays about what he thinks of Wagner's operas. The best thing about blogs, I think, is that they serve as an excellent catalyst for projects like this that might not get carried out without some form of fake public accountability. With that in mind, I'm totally stealing his idea and doing the same thing.

I've actually seen quite a few of Wagner's operas- the whole Ring at the Royal Opera (under Haitink) and a well-regarded Parsifal at the ENO (though sung in English, natch). I'm still not sure if I liked them.

Wagner is, almost more than any other composer, a creature of the 19th century, with all the potential badness that can imply. Art in that century was mostly sprawl and churn: literature -- Gibbons, Trollope -- had gigantic words and spun on for hundreds of pages, David's painting attained an astonishing sheer yardage, Keats thought people would want to read tedious hundred-page epics idealizing faux-Grecian pastoral antics, and, of course, Wagner asked people to sit through Parsifal.

As I slowly get older and wiser, I discover that the art of this era is increasingly hard to take. To tolerate the libretto of a Wagner opera takes a superhuman effort to:

(a) not be bored

(b) not be a little contemptuous

(c) pretend to care about crowds of wholly unsympathetic, vaguely Germanic characters

This is hard. Now, granted, few opera librettos of any era have been especially good or vivid as literature, but most are a few notches above Wagner's on the tolerability scale.

This brings me to the first opera: The Flying Dutchman. In theory, this is a crackerjack idea for an opera, since German romanticism and ghost stories go together like märzen and schnitzel. It's hard to think of a more likeable opera, for instance, than Die Freischutz, whose Wolf's Glen scene is so good and exciting and grin-inducing that it completely excuses Weber for writing his irritating pyrotechnic clarinet concertos.

Unfortunately, Wagner's libretto is structured in such a way that we don't really get anything especially spooky or ghostly. A summary:


(Implied backstory, common knowledge in the 19th century, included in the program notes today: The Flying Dutchman swore to 'round Cape Horn in a howling tempest, and was... cursed for some reason to continue sailing until he'd found a faithful woman? He gets a chance to do this every seven years. Presumably, he's been at this a while, but this has not improved his dating skills. In other words, Wagner takes a spooky sailor's story and tries to shoehorn in a romantic angle.)

Through complicated maritime maneuvers, a wealthy Norwegian (?) merchant's ship is joined with the famous Flying Dutchman (in this case meaning the ship rather than the captain) after a storm. The DUTCHMAN assists the MERCHANT and shows off some treasure, resulting in the fastest offer a daughter's hand in marriage in opera history. The wind blows up and they head for home, where the previously mentioned daughter is to be examined.

Meanwhile, back at the anchorage, a bunch of maidens are spinning and singing. SENTA, the daughter, is spinning and staring longingly at a portrait of - the Flying Dutchman (in this case meaning the guy rather than the ship). This is a good example of the ghost-story motif so prevalent in most Norwegian interior decorating. Senta is really, really, into the painting, in a way that everyone admits is creepy. This is because, yes, that's really creepy, to stare with longing at a painting of a ghostly captain of maritime legend all the time. Eventually, the Merchant and Dutchman arrive, and Senta and the Dutchman fall in love instantaneously. So far, so good.

Back at the docked ships, the sailors are having a big party, to which they have invited Mädel (which is Wagnerese for 'girls'). Now, you'd think they'd want to leave the ship and hang out in a nice warm house on the shore, but presumably there are regulations. As a bunch of zombie kill-joys, the crew of the Flying Dutchman (meaning in this case the ship) aren't joining in the fun, prompting a fierce and one-sided song contest as the crew try to spur them into some merry-making. So, a big storm blows up as the irritated crew of the Flying Dutchman sing a really chilling song about being the crew of the Flying Dutchman (sort of the reverse of the opening number of 'H. M. S. Pinafore') and the whole affair gets awkward and the sailors leave, understandably.

Then, finally, there's a quick scene where SENTA's earlier betrothed, ERIK, gets all huffy about her engagement and asks whether she remembers promising to be true to him. (ERIK was in the wool-spinning scene, but just a tiny bit, so that his arrival at the end wouldn't be a total surprise.) Anyway, the Dutchman overhears this (ghosts eavesdrop) and immediately goes into a histrionic fit about how he's doomed and sprints for the quayside to go off and be damned upon the waves some more. Senta runs after him and jumps off a cliff, proving her love for ghostly sea captains and breaking his curse. The libretto says they ascend to heaven.


Yeah, so, clearly, there aren't very many good ghost story moments here, mainly because everything takes place in relatively cheery surroundings (stormy weather aside). "A Merchant's House" isn't nearly as scary a setting as "A Wolf's Glen".

It's therefore a miracle that, for all its problems, Wagner really does make the libretto work pretty well. It furnishes him with numerous opportunities for storms, and few would deny him the status of one of the great composers of storm-music. It is, moreover, stormy ocean music, a la Scheherezade, which means fast chromatic scales in the lower strings to indicate precipitous waves. Okay, I happen to like that sort of thing. I am easily sold on cheap program music gimmicks. A lot of the scenes work surprisingly spookily, such as Senta staring at the painting, or the thrilling storm during the song-contest (a certain held piccolo note is a fine example of the sort of orchestration that frustrates aspiring composers because it doesn't look even slightly special on paper but gives you a chill to hear it). Wagner's skill with more conventional opera moods makes even the abrupt marriage proposal and mutual love-at-first-sight feel almost plausible.

This, of course, is the magic of opera, and already in The Flying Dutchman Wagner is pretty comfortable with writing music in which the singers aren't really carrying a tune. They sort of declaim tuneful lines around the tune (which is in the orchestra) in a sort of combination of recitative and melody. In this opera, it works very well, since he can insert a lot of expository dialogue into active, bustling scenes rather than roll it out as proper recitative. (Yes, there's 'real' recitative in the opera too, and it's particularly tedious.) Moreover, by not always giving the characters proper arias and set-pieces, Wagner does create the illusion of The Flying Dutchman as a solid musicalization of a single story, a big slab of mood and noise that (mostly) flows together seamlessly. That's my theory, anyway.

So, do I like it? Well, a bit. As the old saw goes, there are some beautiful moments and dreadful quarters-of-an-hour. It's hard to form a strong opinion when listening to a recording -- I went with Solti and the Chicago Symphony, with Jones, Martin, and Talvela and my score of choice was a nice hardcover Broude -- because the magic is necessarily broken into pieces. I have never thought that Wagner comes off well outside the opera house, or even in the semi-staged opera house.

One thing I did find amusing, though, was that I kept thinking of the music of Arthur Sullivan. Wagner must have been a powerful influence on Sullivan, and the two share a surprisingly similar vocabulary (at least at this early stage in Wagner's career).

So, these constitute my first impressions of The Flying Dutchman. Like all serious music critics, I shall assign a final score using strict aesthetic critera.

(on a scale of 1-10)

Libretto -- 6. (Ridiculous, but so much so that it almost becomes endearing.)
Leitmotifs -- 10. (The ship's main theme would make a great snobby novelty horn for a Wagner-themed lowrider.)
Music -- 6/10. (Highly competent 'regular' music, superb storms.)
Anti-Semitism -- 0. (Unless you're counting strained 'wandering jew' analogies, in which case it might be a 1.)

Finale score: 22. Or 26. Or 27.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Coon songs available.

I have always been interested in the minstrel show. It is, arguably, the first uniquely American art, but in the last forty years it has been almost completely purged from our culture. All that's left is an easy punchline for people trying to sound non-racist. We're proud, by contrast, to point at jazz and keep it dusted and shiny on the national mantelpiece- the minstrel show, meanwhile, sits in the attic, wrapped in newspapers behind a box of anti-Kaiser WWI songs.

This is wrong, this selective memory of what is allowed to constitute America's musical past, and the result of our well-meaning cultural purges is a mythologized past that is curiously misaligned with our present reality. When you do see a genuine piece of Old America -- a southern restaurant shaped like a mammy, an old IWW banner, a tobacco shop indian -- it gives you a tingle, a sudden realization of what the past was really like, all slaughterhouses and barbed wire and gunpowder and mud and buffalo carcasses and sheet music with titles like "Little Coon Lullaby."

The truth is that America (and the world) loved the minstrel show, and coon songs were popular tunes that sold millions of copies. Moreover, the issue is more complicated than stating simply that 'people used to be racist', because, while they were indeed racist, it wasn't necessarily a vigorous, angry racism like the kind that motivates hate metal bands and certain Virginia would-be senators today. Racism against blacks in 1900 was a little like the treatment of indians in cowboy movies from the '50s- increasingly distasteful, by modern standards, but almost admiring by the standards of the time.

Moreover, coon songs were often -- and this is the part that is unfortunate -- musically good. Songs like "If The Man In the Moon Was A Coon" and "Coon, Coon, Coon" are gems of the tin pan alley music factories. Tuneful, memorable, possessed of admirably economy of harmony and charming gimmicks, these songs are fine pieces of American popular music, as good or better than many, say, Stephen Foster songs that are still polished up and presented to company.

It was with the intention of dredging up some of this real, hidden American music that I embarked on what I called (to myself) The Coon Song Project.

I selected a program of ten out-of-style tunes from the invaluable University of Colorado at Boulder sheet music archives and then set about arranging them for string quartet. I did this for a number of reasons:

(1) It is easier to confront the musical value of a coon song if you're not being distracted by the (invariably shame-inducing) lyrics.

(2) To toughen up my string-quartet-writing chops.

(3) I felt a certain amount of liberty inserting 'improved' harmonies, counter-melodies, dynamic surprises, and other interpretive changes into coon songs since, for all practical purposes, they've been thrown away by society.

At any rate, I'm done now with 'phase one', which would be arranging the songs. They are:

(1) "Abyssinian Patrol"
(2) "The African Glide"
(3) "If the Man in the Moon Were A Coon"
(4) "A Coon Band Contest"
(5) "The African Hunter"
(6) "Darkie's Dream"
(7) "Darktown Barbecue"
(8) "Ebony Funeral"
(9) "Little Coon Lullaby"
(10) "Hear the Pickaninny Band"

As you might have noticed, not all of these are strictly coon songs- some are rags or marches in an 'African' mood. Some, like "Ebony Funeral", are actually quite musically sophisticated in their borrowings, and I felt they justified considerable alteration to emphasize their inclusion of 'real' spirituals and folk tunes.

So, here's my offer:

I would like for these pieces to be played, ideally in a small public concert, but am too busy to arrange anything with a local string quartet at the moment. So: if anyone reading this has a string quartet, I'd be happy to send you parts as .pdfs for you to play through them, perhaps noting any rough patches in the arrangement that could use a polish. If you do decide to include any on a program, I'd be happy to write notes.

To contact me, just make a note in the 'comments' section and give me an email address or AIM account or something.

I must take pains to say that I didn't arrange these songs in order to present them as "An Evening of Old-Timey Racism!", although I suppose I did intend it as an act of provocation. I arranged them, as I said, in order to shed some light on a patch of American musical history that's been so strenuously buried that most people don't even know it exists.


As a side note, I know that some people may take exception to my alterations of the songs, since according to some people a arranger is supposed to be the equivalent of the guy who translates the Bible from American English into Papua New Guinean. I wanted (although I know this has a little implicit hubris) to put these songs in their best possible light, and that meant introducing elements of 'classy' string quartet textures that are admittedly at odds with the music's origin as dime-store piano pieces.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Elvis Costello's 'Il Sogno', redux

Okay, full disclosure:

My last post was an extended commentary on the percussion parts in Elvis Costello's 'Il Sogno', much of which was pretty unflattering. I wrote it after a long, hot, bad rehearsal, and I was feeling angry at the piece- the parts have some technical problems that made the first read-through very difficult.

So, what did I do?

Why, the cleverest thing possible! I wrote a long, incoherent assemblage of nasty comments about the layout of the parts, and the bile seeped through into other considerations as well, such as:

(a) whether I'd like the piece if I weren't counting measures and worrying about putting down the tambourine without making a lot of noise and

(b) whether Elvis Costello ought to ask fo an alto bass drum.

In other words, in the course of venting my frustration over a bad rehearsal I managed to badmouth the composition based purely on my personal inconvenience. Classy!

Anyway, tonight a guy at orchestra mentioned that he'd read it, and immediately I had that unhappy flash of realization that, gosh, that essay was undoubtedly a lot nastier than it had any right to be...

And then things got worse: he said Elvis Costello's manager had read it. And mentioned it. And commented that maybe Mr. Costello wouldn't be terribly interested in attending the performance if he saw it.

This, of course, made me feel like a thousand kinds of bastard, so the least I can do -- if I could, I'd take a time machine and tell my past self to wait a couple days before sitting down to the keyboard -- is offer a more considered appraisal of the piece, having had several more rehearsals to get used to EC's notation style. At the end of the last post I said "Still, I resolve to give it more chances." So, here it is, after a few more chances.

In my last post I mentioned (coming to my senses for a moment): "I am very sympathetic to Elvis Costello's ambitions in the ballet because he does make an effort to incorporate popular music material in a way that treats the conventions in that music seriously." Over the last few rehearsals, that opinion has solidified. EC's approach to 'popular music', I think, is the thing the thing I like best about the ballet. The intrusions of slinky vibraphone-and-sizzle-cymbal jazz and Nino Rota-style marches are something almost unknown in 'serious' concert music today, but (I think) extremely important if 'classical' music has any hope of extricating itself from its current snob ghetto. What's good is that the jazz and bouncy marches aren't presented in quotation marks- the music is allowed its full status as something just as viable as the more traditional Prokofiev-esque passages it abuts.

I do, however, still think that it's got all the earmarks of an early piece. It's like a puppy- the paws are a little too big, the ears aren't standing up yet, but, hey, its got charm. It's not Prokofiev's 'Cinderella', but Mr. Prokofiev wrote seven ballets before he got around to that one.

The parts... are still a pain. Most of the sheet music we play from in orchestras has been revised for a hundred years or so by publishing houses with professional engraving staffs- someone's usually taken the time to work out an efficient distribution of material. Il Sogno is, by comparison, what- a year old? Like I said, these are still basically draft copies, so I was undoubtedly kind of a dick in my assessment.

So, that's that, for what it's worth. I'll post something about how the piece goes in concert.


Addendum: there was also some irritation that I'd referred to an ensemble as a 'dorkestra' but, c'mon- we're all people who were inside worrying about F-sharp major while the other kids were out learning to French kiss.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Elvis Costello's 'Il Sogno', from the inside.

NOTE: As I mention in a subsequent post, all this is ranting and based on a single rehearsal, so keep a grain of salt handy. Thanks.

The dorkestra in which I play is doing a suite from Elvis Costello's ballet 'Il Sogno' for this season's first concert. The original plan was to do the Prestigious West Coast Premier of the full ballet, but apparently American Music Publishers or DG or some other copyright holder doesn't want smaller (i.e. unfamous) orchestras doing the full piece yet and wouldn't rent out the full score for another year...or something. Management only gave us a hazy, slightly shamefaced version of the details.

As it turns out, being forced to content outselves with the suite is no great loss, as the overriding feeling in rehearsal has been 'If these are the highlights, what did they leave out?'

'Il Sogno' got a 10 out of 10 at Classics Today, a review site I usually find to be pretty good. You can see David Hurwitz's review right here.

I can't help but think that Mr. Hurwitz would have a lower opinion of the music if he were forced to rehearse it.

You see, the parts are a nightmare. I can only imagine that they were intended as draft/working copies for the first production and then never corrected.

They are, one might say, conceptually flawed. Costello, for reasons known only to himself, insists on nonsense like repeating a passage five times, adding various melodies and sections with each repetition- the sort of thing you might do in a jazz chart. Nobody can tell why he notates like this with a full orchestra. Saving paper maybe? A bar rest with a '16' above it is easier for an orchestra to digest than four bars with a repeat sign and PLAY X5 above it- the idea being that you let these bars go by four times and then you get to play your bit. Needless to say, this often causes confusion since a notation like that can just as easily be interpreted as: 'I play this five times?' On top of this are the little typographical problems: repeats have opening brackets but no closing brackets, there are no cues whatsoever except for a single ambigious violin line in the set drum part, dynamics are nonexistent (or pop up at random), the piece begins with percussion notation that doesn't bother to indicate which instrument is intended and -- and this is the most frustrating for the percussion section -- the percussion parts appear to have been laid out by idiots.

There's no rhyme or reason to the percussion flow- it calls for four players, and then randomly assigns instruments among them. This means I have to keep two or three parts open on my stand but, stupidly, it's hardly even an issue since most movements are tacet (although fully notated with bars of rests, bizarrely). So, I play snare drum for a Movement A in Perc Part 1 during which Perc Part 2 is tacet, and then play the snare in Movement B in Perc Part 2 during which Perc Part 1 is tacet. And during both movements, of course, the set drum player is sitting there in front of his own snare drum doing nothing. It's a big waste of resources, and I can't imagine that most arrangers would be caught dead trying to pull something like it. Another great detail is that Elvis Costello, or his stenographer, is apparently a little hazy on percussion instruments, so you get, over the course of the piece, alternating requests for 'Crash Cym. (clashed)' 'Crash Cym.' 'Piatti', often with requests for, say, rolls on crash cymbals. Also, amusingly, Mr. Costello wants us to bring a 'Piccolo Snare Drum' to be used for about 30 seconds, and an Alto Bass Drum (my personal favorite) to be struck three or four times. In my own music, I find the Alto Tenor Bass drum to be a more appropriate choice.*

In a way, the notation ambiguities and hilarious use of repeats (trust me, when it happens five times per movement, it becomes hilarious) make the piece more interesting for us to play. The music just isn't that good, and at least counting repetitions and shuffling parts around on the stand gives us something to do.

What drives me nuts about it all, though, is that I think Elvis Costello is a fantastic songwriter. His first five or six albums are extremely good and exciting- he's more than demonstrated a knack for writing great ear-worm melodies. So, why, in a 45 minute suite, do we get nothing that even approaches the rollicking rhythms and good humor of, say, 'Oliver's Army'? Instead he alternates between bland faux-Prokofiev and the sort of artificial big band music that you might find in an episode of 'Matlock' in which a big band conductor is found murdered. Also, as a side note, this piece contains the most egregious cembalom usage I've ever heard. It's bit like if someone started playing a Chinese jinghu in the middle of a Chopin piano concerto.

So, the question for me is- why did this piece get such good reviews? In some ways, I am very sympathetic to Elvis Costello's ambitions in the ballet because he does make an effort to incorporate popular music material in a way that treats the conventions in that music seriously. Still, this piece is a badly orchestrated one in an era which, whatever its defects, has raised orchestration to an unequalled, gorgeous height of cultivation. There are lots of composers writing better music that is equally accessible. Also, I must confess, I feel the natural green-googly-eyed irritation of an aspiring composer watching a famous pop singer's student works being recorded by the LSO.

Still, I resolve to give it more chances. It's only been a few rehearsals, so the piece still has time to grow on me. At least we're not doing anything by Paul McCartney.


*I know I sound like a jerk pointing this part out, but it only seems funny because the percussion instruments he calls for are so banal for the whole piece and then -- BAM! -- piccolo snare drum, and then alto bass drum.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

In which I ruin my knuckles.

Well, my knuckles are almost completely healed now, actually, but it's certainly taken a while.

As I might have mentioned before, I am a charlatan percussionist in a moderately highly-regarded local orchestra (the kind where nobody gets paid). For my first year or so, this imposture wasn't terribly difficult because I restrained myself to instruments like bass drum, cymbals, and triangle. (This is not to denigrate the instrument, but a trained musician can play most bass drum parts at a convincing C+ level after about 45 minutes' aquaintance with the instrument.)

This safe approach got extremely boring. So, to keep myself entertained, I've grown bolder in my percussion fakery- I now ask for the hardest percussion part in a piece, the theory being that anxiety trumps ennui.

So far, this has had pretty good results. I played the gong and (tricky) bass drum part for Rite of Spring, bells for the R. V.-W. Dona Nobis Pacem, tambourine for The Red Poppy, claves, bongos, and starter pistol for a big modern clarinet concerto, and -- most recently -- cymbals for the last movement of Tchaikovsky's 4th.

Now, I had some inkling that the last movement of Tchai 4 was famous for being a hard cymbal part, an 'audition piece', but deep down I figured that, hey, it's cymbals in a 19th century symphony. This was a summer concert, meaning that we got two rehearsals and then a dress, which seemed like ample time for me to get a feel for it. Thus began the cymbal nightmare.

In the first rehearsal -- held in a hot little borrowed high school band room -- we got to play through that last movement exactly once. I had reacquainted myself with the piece in the car on the drive over, and had been feeling capable. Needless to say, it was a total disaster.

The cymbal part in movement IV of Tchai 4 is, for the great majority of the piece, wholly reasonable. I mean, there are a lot of crashes that punctuate the usual dramatics (my college conductor D. Kern Holoman memorably described Tchaikovksy as 'one fucking aneurysm after another') but it's nothing outside the scope of standard 19th century cymbal pyrotechnics.* Then, just when you're feeling secure, it turns into the most cacophonous godawful crashing imaginable. The last three minutes of the piece looks like it was written for a ride cymbal for a set drummer or something- fortissimo crashes on every quarter note, then riding on offbeats, and then every eighth note, all driving on to the conclusion while the brass blare at full volume.

This leads to certain problems, the foremost being that if you're banging cymbals together very loudly, well, after about ten seconds of this kind of concentrated crashing you can't hear anything, just a sort of general noise cloud that envelopes you. It's not really your fault, even, with an instrument like the cymbals- the piece is moving extremely quickly and you can get caught up in your own sense of pulse very easily. So, when Tchaikovsky asks for you to play on the beat in opposition to extended brass off-beats, the whole idea of who's on which part of the beat gets very nebulous, particularly if the conductor is doing tick-tock baton business that actually obscures the beat.

Compounding this difficulty was my friend's brand new pair of beautiful Zildjian cymbals that, I soon discovered, had an approximately 5% chance of inverting on any given crash. In a piece with as many crashes as the Tchaikovksy, they were more or less fated to pop. And indeed, at every one of the rehearsals I'd get about a minute into the big crashy part at the end of the piece only to find -- GOD DAMN IT -- that they'd inverted, yet again. The procedure for unpopping cymbals is laborious and delicate- you put a tennis ball or bass drum beater on the floor, place the disc on top of it, and then, with the help of a friend, attempt to place an even, strong pressure around the rim of the disc to pop it back in the other direction. This takes about half a minute, which is quite a long time when Tchaikovsky is rattling by vivace in the background.

So, at the dress rehearsal things were looking grim. The cymbals had popped again. I had a spare set of crappy high school cymbals handy as the emergency set, but there were all sorts of nasty murmurs in the string section about the problem. This is a sort of ingrained prejudice that amateur musicians seem to have regarding percussion, since it seems like it ought to be very easy to whack two pieces of brass together once or twice in the course of a piece. I'd played through the piece only three times now -- once per rehearsal -- because the other movements and other pieces on the program were swallowing all the rehearsal time. I was starting to feel pretty guilty about how badly my part was sounding.

And so, here's the "Rocky"-esque portion. I decided, first, to just ditch my friends beautiful-sounding but unreliable cymbals in favor of the trash-can lid high school cymbals. Thus equipped, I started on a morning-of-the-concert crash course in Not Sucking At Tchaikovsky. I put in some earplugs (I didn't like the idea of sustaining permanent hearing damage for the sake of one concert) and banged cymbals together for five hours. I worked a long while with just a metronome, memorizing the part, then played along with the recording (via an iPod and big ear-shielding headphones), ticking off every successful play-through on a pad of paper, working toward my goal of three sets of thirteen.

This, it turns out, is really, really miserable for your hands. The way orchestral cymbals are held, you grasp a leather thong in a closed fist, the thumb and first big knuckle of the index finger holding tight at the point where the strap disappears through the disc. The left hand is held underneath, at an angle, the whole weight of the rough brass plate on approximately the middle knuckle, and the right cymbal held above. Now, there are prettier, more dramatic postures, but at the velocity of the Tchaikovksy this was the only option. After the first few hours, I'd worn through the skin on both hands, a nasty process by which the accumulated grime on the brass was rubbed into the wound.

The next step was heading to a friend's house to practice performing in front of someone. I usually try to perform in uncomfortable settings with strangers before a concert, to put things in perspective and calm my nerves. We both put in our rock-club ear plugs and cranked up the Tchai on his computer's loudest setting, undoubtedly delighting the neighbors. This was a few weeks ago, in the midst of northern California's memorable heat wave. I don't know if I can convey the sensation of banging cymbals together over and over, in a demanding, tricky pattern, in a house without air conditioning. It was easily 110°, and the sweat was rolling down my back. The leather thongs in my hands were getting that weird roughness that's unique to wet rawhide (copious palm sweat). My friend conducted as best he could (he didn't have a score, and kept getting tripped up by the brass off-beats, just as I had in rehearsal), but it was a good hour or so of practice under difficult circumstances. My hands hurt so badly that I wrapped them in paper towels, which turned out to be a good solution. I assume the neighbors really enjoyed it, so I had the 'strangers' angle covered. I then went home and put in another hour or so with the iPod.

So, that was where things stood when I headed out for the concert. I hadn't played the piece correctly in rehearsal yet, my hands were throbbing, and I didn't know whether to wear the earplugs for the show. All of my rehearsing, after all, had been with the plugs in, but I didn't know if onstage I should risk them- what if I couldn't hear the orchestra and ended up way off the beat?

The first two thirds of the concert were unremarkable. I played some bells and chimes stuff in Morton Gould's warhorse 'American Salute', and then a comparatively easy cymbal part in Liszt's first piano concerto. All this was stressless and successful, prelude to the main event. For the first two movements of the Tchai we (the triangle, bass drum, and cymbals) sat offstage, nearly a half hour in which to get nervous or sleepy. Then, during the plunky pizzicato stuff in the third movement, we snuck on.

I had decided to wear the earplugs. I'd worn a single one during the Liszt, just to try to get a sense of what it would feel like, and decided it was worth the risk. It was an interesting sensation- you feel a degree of removal from the situation, like seeing a landscape through tinted glasses. I'd left the knotted paper towels on top of the bells set, very picturesque, and carefully wrapped them around my hands as the pizzicatos began to wind down.

And then it went fine.

Unfortunately, there's no way to finish this little story without this anticlimax- it went very well. I didn't fuck up even a little, which can be a rare and delightful sensation in live music. Honestly, in all my years playing clarinet, which is arguably much more work and infinitely more expressive and demanding, I never felt such elation as I did successfully playing cymbals in the Tchai after one day of earnest, knuckle-ruining woodshedding. And that's How I Spent My Summer Vacation.


*I should add that cymbals aren't exactly easy- they demand a great deal of good taste from the performer. Most composers are very inexact with their notations for percussion, and a certain amount of creativity is required with regard to how long the cymbals will ring, how they will be damped... well, I guess that's it, really. But those issues are more complicated than they might seem on first consideration. Nothing drives me crazier than some hack crashing the cymbals and then damping them inappropriately quickly at a dramatic moment.