The Wagner Equation

We’re reading Alex Ross’s Wagnerism for my podcast right now, and it’s got me thinking: who would be today’s Richard Wagner?

The truth is that no single person could provide a perfect analogy. But if you add a bunch of people together, I think you’d get close. Here’s the equation I’ve come up with:

1 part Julian Assange

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange at the Ecuadorean embassy in central London, 5 February 2016

Before he wrote The Ring or Tristan or Meistersinger, Wagner was a political rabble-rouser, a leftist revolutionary actively involved in the civil unrest of 1848. He was a hero of the movement for democratic reforms across Europe.

Wagner fled Germany when it looked like he might be imprisoned (or executed) for his actions, and lived in exile in Switzerland and Italy for close to a decade. During this time he published many political and philosophical tracts, including some of his most repellent antisemitic essays.

In the end, he was more than willing to play ball with government powers if they would fund his projects. The impressionable King Ludwig II funded his opera house in small-town Bavaria (with additional financial assistance from the Khedive of Egypt and the Ottoman Sultan), and the opening of the Festspielhaus was attended by emperors, kings, and aristocrats.

1 part Morrissey

I had to put a musician on the list, but there’s no classical composer today who has wound people up in their sound world like Wagner did. But people sure as hell do worship The Smiths.

Like Wagnerites, Smiths fans have to confront the complicated opinions of their idol. On one hand, Morrissey is a vegan animal rights activist, something for which I admire him. Wagner was a vegetarian by way of Schopenhauer, who came by his ethical stance from studying the recently translated Hindu vedas.

On the other hand, Morrissey has adopted a far-right, anti-immigrant political stance that can’t be ignored. His extreme outspokenness forces the people to love his music to decide if and how they can separate the art from the artist.

1 part James Cameron

Hollywood filmmaker James Cameron

Film is the obvious 21st century parallel to Wagner’s gesamtkunstwerke. But how to settle on which filmmaker properly represents the Wagnerian ideal?

I could have gone with Peter Jackson (especially since LOTR — including the score — borrows so much from Wagner) or Steven Spielberg (someone you often see put forth as the Modern Day Wagner), but I’ve chosen Cameron because of his inventiveness and grit.

By inventiveness, I mean just that: he literally had to invent (or have invented) new technologies to realize his film projects. He wrote the treatment for Avatar in 1994. It wasn’t released until 2009 because of all the new motion capture technology that had to be created.

What did he do in the meanwhile? He made Titanic.

It took Richard Wagner 26 years to write the Ring cycle. After writing the second act of Siegfried, the third of the four operas, he stopped work and wrote Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg , two colossal projects that would have defined the careers of any other composer. After eleven years away from Siegfried, he picked up his pen and carried on where he had left off.

Once had written his tetralogy, he had to work with inventors and architects to create the theater that could stage it according to his immersive vision. His designers pushed the boundaries of the stage technology, from the size and depth of the pit, to the lighting, to the acoustics. The building remains one of the largest free-standing timber structures ever built.

And let’s not forget, that even on the musical level, Wagner needed new technologies. After all, where would the score of The Ring be without the Wagner tuba?

More festive classical gabbing

The podcast continues apace. Games! Stories! Music! It’s great.

Episode 4 includes:

  • A rousing round of Listening Limbo
  • The dissolution of the Columbia University Marching Band
  • Norman Lebrecht’s zero-star review of “John Williams in Vienna”
  • An interview with Garrett McQueen about the current state of classical radio.

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Watch “The Bowmakers” EXTENDED thru 9/22

UPDATE: “The Bowmakers” is not playing through Tuesday, September 22 at midnight.

The Bowmakers” is a documentary about a most surprising subject: five of the world’s greatest creators of violin, viola, and cello bows all happen to live in the same small coastal town in rural Washington state. Check out the trailer:

My group, OSSCS, is sponsoring the digital premiere of this film; it’s never been seen outside of Port Townsend, WA (with the exception of a couple festivals.)

Tickets are $15, which might seem steep, but just consider that half of that is actually a donation to OSSCS, and now is certainly a great time to send your support. But also consider that, like, this is just a fantastic piece of cinema, and I promise that you will both enjoy and learn a ton of stuff watching it!

The Classical Gabfest

Like seemingly everyone else on the planet, I’ve started a podcast. Well, not just me — it’s me and my friends Kensho and Tiffany, two of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know.

I stole the format from Slate (I worship Slate podcasts and basically remain on Twitter only to interact with their hosts and producers.) It’s a weekly discussion show where we pick three topics having to do with classical music. It could be something about music and politics or culture, or a new album release, or an internet kerfuffle, or a bit of news related to the discipline or industry.

Crucially, we’re trying to make this show a broad-based look at the world of classical music. When classical music breaks through to the mainstream media, it’s usually just something to do with the world of the biggest orchestral institutions, or star conductors — very often it’s strikes or budget cuts or bad behavior.

But the way I see it, most of what happens in the world of classical music happens at a much more grassroots level. It happens in schools and houses of worship and (now more than ever) in people’s living quarters and online.

Oh, and I should mention: there’s also games (!) and listening recommendations in every episode. And we’re like, fun people. I promise!

The Classical Gabfest is now available wherever fine podcasts are downloaded (Apple, Spotify, YouTube, the world wide web, etc.) Enjoy!

The Holy Trinity

Brief reflections on my three favorite contemporary* composers.
(*Contemporary in that their lifespans overlapped with my own.)

Alfred Schnittke: Chiaroscuro in Music

Find me another composer as adept at suffusing his canvas with darkness, laying on the thick impasto of a late Rothko. You’ll find plenty of angst and agony among the rest, but you’ll never find a musician working in such satisfying gradations of blackness as Alfred Schnittke.

Listen to how notes sustain, suffusing the air like smoke. This is a consistent element of Schnittke’s style, from the early days of the first string quartet right up to the austere works that he wrote after dying and coming back to life (not making that up!) Even his zaniest moments are like Pennywise peering out of a street gutter.

This reaches its apotheosis (as does his entire stylistic vocabulary: his melodicism, the crunch of his orchestration, his Beethoven-like motivic development) in the 8th symphony. I can think of no other music that so thoroughly captures the sound of the universe’s empty blackness.

Sondheim-Tunick: Pure Music and its Embodiment

Stephen Sondheim is the heir not only to the artistic legacy of Gerswhin, Arlen, and Rodgers, but he’s also a direct inheritor of the musical legacy of Maurice Ravel. His music is to Ravel’s as birds are to dinosaurs. 

Sondheim writes in short score, the purest articulation of the musical art. His music is not written to be played as such, and so it must be translated, either expanded (orchestrated) or condensed (for piano.) His main translator has been the orchestrator Jonathan Tunick, and because I’m an orchestral musician at heart, to me, “Sondheim” really means Sondheim + Tunick. 

And here’s the thing: Sondheim agrees. I’ll let him explain:

Can I love a Sondheim song when it’s stripped down to just piano and voice? Of course. After all, Sondheim is the kernel and Tunick is the husk. But honestly? I’ll never love it as much as when it’s enrobed in the voluptuous garbs of Jonathan Tunick. After all, Sondheim is the diamond and Tunick is the jeweler.

It’s worth noting that every Sondheim has been awarded the Tony for Best Score, he’s taken the opportunity to single out Jonathan Tunick as a collaborator (and often to bemoan the fact that there was no Tony awarded for Best Orchestrations.) Sondheim is a lover of orchestral music; it’s well known that he mainly listens to Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and Ravel. Let’s just say, he gets it.

[Coda: When the Tonys finally did institute an award for Best Orchestrations in 1997 (!!!) Jonathan Tunick was the first awardee.]

Alberto Iglesias: The Master of the String Quartet

It’s not just me who calls Alberto Iglesias the master of the quartet — it’s Pedro Almodóvar himself!

How did he come by this mastery? I only recently learned the answer.

Pedro Almodóvar does not use temp scores for his editing, but he wants music. In fact, he wants the music that’s going to be in the film — or the closest possible approximation. So he asks Iglesias to create a sort of temp track of his own.

The thing is, neither of them likes midi. So, starting early in their collaboration, whenever Iglesias would write a piece of music intended for string orchestra, he would hire a string quartet to record a reduced version of the cue. Pedro would end up falling in love with the quartet version. Eventually, Iglesias got wise and started writing the pieces as quartets.

Thus the greatest exponent of the string quartet since Debussy came into being.

But man, just listen to what he can do when he has a full string orchestra at his disposal:

To quote Penélope Cruz: