Thursday, April 27, 2006

Matt Groening (hearts) Messiaen

In an interview this week at the Onion AV Club (click here for it), Matt Groening casually induces a dopamine rush for hundreds of music geeks: "I would prefer to listen to a French classical composer like Olivier Messiaen than to the pop hits of the day."

Somehow, this is the exact opposite of that time Condi Rice professed to love Brahms.

Groening's comment brings up an interesting question, though. I imagine that he's quite a busy guy -- "Life in Hell" / "The Simpsons" / "Futurama" revival -- but somehow he apparently finds time for... Messiaen?

'People are busier than ever!' is one of the modern era's more popular bromides. We all sigh and wish we had the leisure time of, say, Charlemagne. Irregardless of Holy Roman scheduling issues, though, people spit out that little sentence over and over because it very much feels true- and nothing makes its point more clearly than the music of Olivier Messiaen.

He wrote fairly long pieces. "Turangalîla" clocks in at around an hour-and-a-half, the "Catalogue des Oiseaux" takes three CDs (I've never gotten through it all), "Quaotour pour fin du Temps" is at least an hour, and there are lots and lots of pieces with names like "The Ascended Blood of the Lord" (in French) that usually go on for about a half-hour. These pieces don't get performed in public very often, so presumably Matt Groening listens to them -- as I do -- on a stereo or computer or iPod.

So, my big question is: where does classical music fit into people's schedules today?

I like a lot of pieces by Messiaen, but I can't imagine sitting down in the evening with a pair of headphones and listening to "Turangalîla" in one block. Even if I were following a score, I'd probably start to get sleepy or antsy- this is a long symphony, and even with the aura of immediacy and excitement that hangs in the air at a live concert it can start to weary the listener. As a result, %90 of the Messiaen that has entered my ears as been, in some sense, 'background music.'

This is a dirty, despicable thing for a classical music person to admit. Composers like Hindemith were always at pains to point out that the existence of background music cheapens the very nature of music, the idea being that true music -- concert music -- must be enjoyed with full concentration and no distractions. How many people have the luxury of approaching music like this today, though? Who, upon arriving home with their new album, reverently sets it up on their stereo/computer, takes the phone off the hook, sedates the dog, closes their eyes, and earnestly savors the music for an hour?

Well, not me. I would earnestly like to be that person, so serious and focused on music that whole evenings drift past as I lay on my back with my MDR-7506s caressing my ears, never growing bored or antsy. That never happens though. More likely I hear a fifteen minute tract of "Turangalîla" while running errands, the whole symphony divvied up over multiple days and multiple little occasions- tinkling piano and ondes martenot occupying the part of my attention that is not engaged in, say, checking email, then thunderous alien brass egging me on as I put away the groceries. This is a bit like if you could hang a Picasso in your hallway instead of traipsing down to the museum to stare at it earnestly- you gain a deep, pleasant famliarity with the painting by passing it constantly, but you unavoidably become a little numb to its initially striking features.*

Still, classical music as a culture -- and I do realize more and more that classical music is just a 'scene' with especially rich donors -- persists in pretending that people listen to its pieces in big blocks without interruption, that the vast majority of its listeners sit down with Beethoven 8 and listen to it as though they were reading a novel. Moreover, composers are still writing very long pieces (I am too, I realize). Honestly, there are probably only a few hundred people on the planet (and I think I'm being generous) that have made it through that six hour Feldman string quartet. This has the unusual effect, I think, of scaring off newcomers to classical music and making its existing fans feel guilty inside: on some level, you think that a good classical music fan, a serious one who really gets it, would be looking into SACD technology and sitting down in front of the stereo to smile dreamily for an hour of Schubert piano sonatas.

When I do sit down like this and listen to a piece 'properly' in a non-concert setting, it's almost always when I'm reading along in a score. Even this, it seems to me, is a little impure, like taking your Arden Shakespeare with you to the theater. It's music as study, not a pure aesthetic experience. Still, it's probably my favorite way of listening- I'm working through the complete Haydn symphonies right now, and without the scores I'd probably have been a little bored somewhere around the third CD.

So- am I alone? How do people listen to classical music today? Am I the only one who feels a trace of guilt that he's never heard Boulez' "Sur Incises" without groceries being involved?


*Still, in a sense I think know "Turangalîla" better because of this constant, casual acquaintence. I guess that's why people buy lots of recordings of the same Beethoven symphonies- an attempt to recapture some of the novelty.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Berio's Rendering- the light eye and the dark

When I was in high school I took some private lessons from real symphony musicians, i.e. people who played in the (old) San Jose Symphony and present SF Symphony. (In retrospect, I should have been troubled by the fact that these musicians who had 'made it' were still spending their Sunday mornings trying to coax gangly high schoolers through the trickier parts of Don Quixote. The present status of orchestral musicians is kinda like that of doctors in the beginning of the last century: highly respected, lowly paid, and often forced to make housecalls). One of the tips imparted by these musicians was extremely practical: whatever you're going to be playing, your first task is to get a recording and (ideally) a score. It seems pure and virtuous to nurture ideals about arriving at a fresh interpretation by starting from scratch, but it's more important not to embarrass yourself in rehearsal.

And so, this weekend, I downloaded a recording of Berio's Rendering from iTunes for a whopping $5. The orchestra in which I percuss has announced Rendering as a program item for next year, and I figure that any composer who gets billed alongside Boulez on CDs probably deserves my early attention.

I had heard the idea for Rendering before I heard the piece: it's yet another piece where a composer 'finishes' someone's incomplete sketches, like all those Mahler 10ths or Schubert 9ths or last acts of Turandot or Lulu. For some reason, composers love finishing other people's pieces, but authors seem to steer clear of tacking happy endings onto, say, Kafka's Amerika.

Berio takes as his material some sketches for Schubert's '10th'. (These were sketched as though for piano apparently- I can't determine just how many fragments there are and whether it's certain that they were intended to be part of a symphony.) His idea goes something like this: rather than simply stitching these swatches of music into a symphony that would approximate something by Schubert, he instead creates an 'idea piece' in which the orchestrated fragments are left detached- the gaps between them are filled with nebulous, tonally ambiguous passages in which Schubert's themes are pulverized into atomized fragments (they sound a little like a cross between Stravinsky's Firebird and Ligeti's Clocks and Clouds, and apparently quote Turnadot- ho ho!). Moreover, Berio doesn't restrict himself to Schubert's orchestra- there is a full complement of trombones, a celesta, unusual string effects, and all the trappings of a fine orchestra c. 1918.

This work has been very successful. There are already four or so recordings of it in circulation, and a casual Google check reveals that it's popular with the more high-falutin' community orchestras. This is, presumably, because it isn't extremely difficult (I don't see these groups taking on Berio's Sinfonia) and consists of %95 classical tonal music that makes use of a full, modern orchestra. This last is a practical consideration- if you're working out the schedule for people to participate in a local group, you either restrict yourself to the 18th century or you find something for your trombones and clarinets to do.

So, by contemporary classical music standards, the piece is a success, no getting around that. So why do I find that it makes me so uncomfortable?

The first time I heard it, I was disappointed by how conservative it was. I'm not usually a huge fan of the more extreme IRCAM-style European plink-squawk virtuosity, but this piece was so restrained that I found myself eager for a little frenetic marimba and bass clarinet (those favorite agents of late 20th century plink-squawkery). Rendering sounds like Schubert orchestrated by Berlioz, with some dreamy intervals of 'modern' ambiguous music that wouldn't raise an eyebrow as background music in a 'classy' film score from the '80s.

Later, after I'd listened to it a few times, I grudgingly admitted that there are some fine, big Berlioz moments when the trombones blare and the strings saw violently. Still, though, the piece didn't convince me at all. I didn't get the feeling of there being a grand ligne in the traditional sense- and isn't that what tonal music like Schubert is built for? Eventually, I realized what was making me itch about this piece.

Consider this fragment from a conversation with Lutoslawski about programming modern music:

'No good comes from mixing two kinds of music, especially nineteenth-century and modern music. That results in what we might call the "cancellling-out" of two aesthetics. Perhaps this sounds rather extreme; but all the same it expresses the reality we have to come to terms with. [...] From my own experience I can give you two instances of modern music being performed along with other works. One occasion was successful, the other not. Both took place in America. The first was a subscription concert given in a large town with its own symphony orchestra and a typical subscription audience. They performed my Trois poèmes d'Henri Michaux, preceded by a Beethoven overture and followed by Tchaikovsky's Piano concerto in B flat minor with Rubinstein. This arrangement of the program resulted in some people cancelling their subscriptions and donations, while others wrote letters to the organizers expressing gratitude for the performance of my work. On the other occasion two works by Gabrieli were played first, then my String Quartet; after the interval there were Debussy's two dances for harp and string quartet and a Bach cantata, but I was very pleased to have my work in such company. / This is precisely the context in which modern music functions best. We should not combine modern music and nineteenth-century music, but there are great possibilities in performing it alongside music of other periods: Baroque, late Renaissance or early twentieth century.'

This seems, to me, to slice clean to the bone of what makes Rendering such an awkward, frown-inducing piece. There are fine tromboney passages of Berliozian Schubert and passably good passages of cloudy Schubert-deconstruction - all silvery with celesta and high strings - but, unfortunately, the two cancel each other out. If the 'idea' of the piece is to investigate the self-destructive juxtaposition then: fine, gold star for Berio, but he could have written an essay. I can't help but think that he could have made two fine pieces out of these fragments: an unusually-orchestrated, cohesive symphony and a great, weird boiling cloud of fragmented phrases and harmony.

The worst thing is how unhappy my vague dislike for these piece makes me. Rendering gets a thumbs-up from every critique I've read. In this sense, it's a piece like Ades' Asyla: fun to describe. It's the musical version of those book reviews in the New Yorker that excuse you from actually reading the books: you get the gist, like drinking a smoothie instead of peeling and chewing your way through a basket of fruit.

Spry (mentioned in my last post) concludes the first half of Life on the Bosphorus with a parable about a Sheik who, upon hearing that a certain town has fallen into sinful ways, sends two different dervishes to see the place and bring back news to him about whether it is still righteous. The first dervish returns and says:

"O, Sheik! it is high time that stringent correction should visit these people lest the hand of Divine wrath overtake them ... They are worse than their bad reputation; faith and truth to them are as treasures hidden in the sea. They neglect prayer-time, turn away their cheeks from ablution, and snap the finger of derision at Divine precepts. By my head and yours ! they are cheats, liars, false swearers, and there is no goodness in them. They deserve the fate of the children of Lot. I have spoken!"

The Sheik tells the first dervish that he has done very well and sends him off to get some rest. Then, the second dervish arrives to give his report:

"O, Sheik! God is great and infinite, and has made man both good and vicious. In His immeasurable bounty He has favoured these people and so balanced accounts that the majority are not of those who go astray. It is true there are some grievous offenders, but these are as black spots on the white lamb's fleece. I have eyes, and opened them to witness their ablutions; I have ears, and did not close them to the music of their five daily prayers ... These people could be much better; but many of higher repute are less deserving. Such they did appear to me; I have nothing to add!"

The Sheik then praises the second dervish, and sends him off to be refreshed. A guest of the Sheik, puzzles, asks:

"With permission, how is this, Effendi? There are two sides to all things, and black side and a white side; shade and light cannot be on the same face; but, lo! one dervish enters and swears by his head that the people of a certain district are all heretics, unclean, and sons of the devil; thereat you exclaim: 'Thou has spoken well,' and bid him depart with blessings; presently a second dervish enters, and, behold, he declares these people to be good and pure, like unto angels; whereat you observe: 'Thou has spoken rightly,' and dismiss him likewise with benediction. Now this contradiction passeth my knowledge and understanding; I beseech you, therefore, to explain how it is that he that speaketh well and he that speaketh ill of the same thing can be worthy of commendation.'

The Sheik answers:

'O, Moossfeer (guest), the words I used to those worthy men were just. Knowest thou not that God hath not made all men's eyes to see alike? He has granted some a bright eye which softeneth errors; to others he has granted a dark eye which augmenteth defects; so it is with these two dervishes. Yet both are honest, conscientious men, and have doubtless narrated matters even as they appear reflected in their own eyes.'

So, when it comes to this piece by Berio, I clearly have been given a dark eye. Does the classical music press only employ people with light ones?


For reference, you might enjoy:

•Kaczynski, Tadeusz. 'Conversations with Witold Lutoslawski', Chester Music, London, 1972.


•Spry, William J. J. 'Life on the Bosphorus: Doings in the City of the Sultan; Turkey Past and Present; Including: Chronicles of the Caliphs from Mahomet to Abdul Hamid II', H. S. Nichols, London, 1895.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Cymbals, Triangle, Bass Drum... Ruthe

(All of this will eventually be tied in to the Ottoman empire and contemporary American attitudes toward Islam.)

For the last couple years I've been assisting my friend Ryan in the percussion section of an amateurs-and-professionals orchestra based in San Mateo. Now, I'm a clarinetist by training (pretty good one, too) but this is the sort of orchestra where most of the winds double as treasurers and lawyers for the organization- in other words, the terms 'open clarinet spot' and 'obituary' are closely related. So, with this ensemble, it's the percussion life for me.

I've gotten okay at it, too. Sticking your neck out to play a clarinet solo in orchestra takes some nerve, and that mindset isn't so different from the spirit required to really commit to a big cymbal crash or ultra-precise little triangle tingggg. I mention this not to imply that I'm some kind of learning prodigy (%95 of what makes me a competent percussionist is years learning to count rests in youth orchestras), but because percussion's a weird field with lots of poseurs floating around. The size of a percussion section fluctuates widely, from the single timpanist required for early works to, say, ten people for especially clangorous contemporary pieces. As a result, you meet lots of itinerant subs and 'guest' percussionists of different backgrounds and skill levels.

There are: drummers who play well but can barely read sheet music, music theater pit-dwellers with van-loads of synthesizers and portable timpani, ultra-competent former youth symphony personnel with their old kit bags of pristine mallets, bearded (almost always bearded, for some reason) quasi-professionals who act pissy in order to advertise that they're a little too good for amateur orchestras...etc etc.

Anyway, last year we did Mahler 2, a piece that called for ruthe in the bass drum part. Nobody in our immediate section knew what this meant, and it wasn't mentioned in my orchestration books. Little things like this, I think, are what make someone into a seasoned musician- it's only by rattling around the concert demimonde for a while that you end up being asked to learn what a ruthe is.

The answer is suitably exotic and charming. In the Ottoman empire, the armies of the Sultan - white-turbaned Janissaries with sabers and picturesque moustaches - were accompanied on the march by military bands. These comprised crashing cymbals, big triangles (with rings on them to jingle), and a huge Turk whacking a bass drum- he'd have a conventional bass drum beater in one hand and a ruthe in the other. This traditional ruthe was a bundle of straight birch twigs, bound at one end like a sort of cross between a fasces and a little broom. The Turks would hit it against the head or rim of the drum to make a good loud rattly THWACK to contrast with the BOOM on alternating beats.

The Sultan marched his armies up the Balkan peninsula - crashing and jingling and thwacking - to treat the citizens of Vienna to authentic Turkish martial music for much of 1683. Now, you'd think that things that were Ottoman would be held in low esteem by the Austrians after this, but somehow the opposite happened: Turkish music got to be the fashion among the upper classes. An imperial aristocrat might, for instance, give the ultra-lavish gift of a full Turkish orchestra to another noble in order to cement an alliance, and it's a safe bet that Mozart and Haydn heard their share of weirdly-tuned Ottoman lutes and zithers. What really made an impression, though, were those cymbals and bass drums, and 18th century composers soon integrated these into theater orchestras.

I had never known this. There are lots of weird little details to performance practice that, for one reason or another, don't really get passed down. In traditional 18th century percussion notation, for instance, a downward stem in a bass drum part indicated a conventional beater but an upward stem is meant to be played with the ruthe hand. This sonority - much neutered today because of the smallness of contemporary ruthes - would presumably make the end of of Haydn's military symphony a good deal more exotic and clattery than what ends up on the recordings.

Anyway, Mahler apparently felt a good deal of ruthe nostalgia, for whatever reason. In the second symphony he asks for crescendoing ruthe rolls and mechanical ticka-ticka-ticka rhythms that sound like dry bones. The problem, as I said, is that contemporary ruthe are little things, about a foot long, intended to be used as clumsy brushes on snare drums. The Ottoman ruthe was a baseball bat by comparison.

Inspired, I set out to make my own, sneaking around suburban neighborhoods at night to steal twigs from likely birch trees. This was a bust, unfortunately, resulting in one massive (three foot long) ruthe and four fragile little ones of delicate, flexible twigs that would only produce a rustle rather than a good Ottoman thwack. The twigs in the big ruthe weren't straight enough to get an nice, even rattle, making me think that contemporary percussion technology has lost some vital lore necessary for ruthe creation.

It's interesting, though, that these percussion instruments aren't usually remembered as contribution to Western culture that came from the former imperial bastion of Islam. Long European centuries of fascination with the 'oriental' Turk and Arab have been replaced today with a vague anxiety best exemplified by the charming American expression: "Religion of peace, my ass!"

I've been reading an account of life in Constantinople by an English naval officer named Spry, written between 1895 and 1905 when English imperialism was at its zenith. It's a great book - Constantinople is presented through a series of vignettes and visits to historic sites, all lavishly illustrated on vellum plates overlaid with onionskin. Spry visits a religious service of dervishes, dons a fez to sneak through a holy cemetery, bargains for embroidery with Armenians in the bazaar, peruses the treasury of the old seraglio, and frequently takes detours to relate (with Edwardian aplomb) the Roman and Islamic history of the city.

Consider, though, this passage about a religious service during the 'holy month of Ramazan' in the Hagia Sophia:

'The only emblems of the conquerors displayed are six huge shields, bearing, in golden letters on a dark green ground, the names of God and His Prophet and of the first four Caliphs. / The real monument which they have raised to the Most High is the imperishable faith of a patient, long-suffering people who give to their God, not the child-like tender piety of the Christian devotee, but the fierce, passionate devotion of a clansman towards his chief. / When the last prayer is over and the Imaum has once more sent forth his shout - "Allah, Akbar!" - then the pent-up torrent of enthusiasm is let loose, and from some thousands of throats there peals forth a wild kind of shout, "Allah, Akbar! Allah, Allah!" the breath of their very souls.'

What strikes me most is Spry's sympathy. He doesn't condescend to Islam or accuse the worshippers of unhealthy fanaticism. Paradoxically, by finding the picture exotic he's approaching the culture on its own terms. Also, it's hard not to be amused by the 'child-like tender piety of the Christian devotee'- the Evangelical Christainty of today's America seems much, much closer to the 'fierce, passionate devotion of a clansman towards his chief.'