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.