Monthly Archives: October 2009


finally, an orchestra does something totally, apologetically AWESOME!!  The London Phil is officially the Best Orchestra in the World (at least in terms of programming)!!!!!!!!


It is so, so rare to come across any kind of worthwhile festival programming in the world of orchestral music these days, much less to come across an event that actually has an interesting and totally integrated media/publicity element to it.  Everything about this Schnittke festival Rules!!!  Go to their site and click on “Explore the Brochure” — how sweet is that?  Most websites for popular music or things that actually have some kind of economy associated gambling with them don”t have sweet features like that.  Not to mention that the actual brochure is brilliant — IT”S GOT THE BACK OF HIS HEAD ON IT!!!  I have this whole new wave of respect for Vladimir Jurowski – his commentary is brilliant.

Finally, there is hope for the world.

Even with unadulterated shit like this and this splattering all over the US press.

If you live in London, YOU MUST GO TO this festival.  I mean all of it.  Even screening”s of Schnittke”s films!!  It”s for the good of humanity.

Ouch, my neck.


Like many people who participated in the Infinite Summer, I just finished reading Infinite Jest, the sprawling masterwork of recently deceased American author David Foster Wallace (above).  I mention this for 2 reaons: (1) since people first began finishing the novel in 1996, it has been de rigeur to make said deed publicly known on the internet, and (2) because in my various post-Jest Infinite Internet Wanderings, I stumbled upon such a lovely quote by Mr. Wallace that I just had to share it.  This comes from a ’96 interview with the author, and let’s just say, I think it applies equally well to the world of serious music:

If an art form is marginalized it’s because it’s not speaking to people. One possible reason is that the people it’s speaking to have become too stupid to appreciate it. That seems a little easy to me.

If you, the writer, succumb to the idea that the audience is too stupid, then there are two pitfalls. Number one is the avant-garde pitfall, where you have the idea that you’re writing for other writers, so you don’t worry about making yourself accessible or relevant. You worry about making it structurally and technically cutting edge: involuted in the right ways, making the appropriate intertextual references, making it look smart. Not really caring about whether you’re communicating with a reader who cares something about that feeling in the stomach which is why we read.  Then, the other end of it is very crass, cynical, commercial pieces of fiction that are done in a formulaic way — essentially television on the page — that manipulate the reader, that set out grotesquely simplified stuff in a childishly riveting way.

What’s weird is that I see these two sides fight with each other and really they both come out of the same thing, which is a contempt for the reader, an idea that literature’s current marginalization is the reader’s fault. The project that’s worth trying is to do stuff that has some of the richness and challenge and emotional and intellectual difficulty of avant-garde literary stuff, stuff that makes the reader confront things rather than ignore them, but to do that in such a way that it’s also pleasurable to read. The reader feels like someone is talking to him rather than striking a number of poses.

That’s so beautiful it could have been written by Alfred Schnittke.  [Although Schnittke put the same thought quite elegantly with his famous statement, “the aim of my life is to unify serious music and light music, even if I break my neck in doing so.”]

Here we are 13 years later, and I have to say, I think that the situation has improved greatly, at least as far as music is concerned.  There’s plenty of really excellent serious stuff that is both interesting and entertaining.  Personally, I think most of that comes from people like Björk, Sufjan Stevens, and Animal Collective, but even students in Academe these days seem to have the “right” challenge in mind –  much more so even than when I started college in ’01.  This new state of affairs has been accepted with a rather defeatist sort of attitude by the people at the top, but that almost makes it even better.

There’s some good fodder for this subject in the recent Bitchfork review of Sufjan Steven’s new album The BQE (not to be confused with his other new album, which isn’t so much his new album, but arrangements of an old album of his):

it’s tough to know for whom The BQE project is intended. It seems doubtful that the work will find a second life in orchestral programs, and it feels equally unlikely that fans of any of his previous albums will be clamoring to hear this work live. As such, The BQE is probably best classified as an unusually successful vanity project, as well as evidence of Stevens’ restless creativity.

I personally think it’s more than that, but I can see where this reviewer (Jayson Greene) is coming from, because indeed, this album appeals to a pretty niche audience.  From an academic viewpoint though, a “successful vanity project” would basically be anything that more than half of the audience stayed awake through.  I think artists like SS have seriously expanded the audience for serious music — the question is, have artists expanded their definition of “serious music”?



P.S. Also from the same review:

In fact, until an electronic interlude crashes in about halfway through, The BQE could easily pass for the sort of palette-cleanser that might have opened a major orchestra’s subscription concert in the 1950s.

Um, actually no, it couldn’t — I’m sort of an expert on this subject, since in my interior mental life, I have in fact attended most of the orchestral concerts, night club acts, and cocktail parties that took place from 1932 – 1959.

Kudos to Naxos

for finding new reasons for children to hate classical music!

P.S. “Rococo” is a word that belongs in a song about as much as “inter-uteran”.

[Update: From the imdb episode descriptions for “Little Amadeus” (which is apparently German in origin):

Season 1, Episode 1: Solo für Amadeus

Amadeus is scheduled to sing in the choir on the Archbishop’s name day. Yet Amadeus must help his friend Kajetan with the problem of the robbed coach that was loaded down with cookies and chocolate for the event. Can Amadeus help his friend and be at Bishop’s celebration on time?

Season 1, Episode 9: Gift im Trunk

Ahoy! The Mozarts are on the way to Vienna by boat. Leopold and Anna Maria are there but where are their children? They are on the wrong ship! Will Amadeus and Nannerl ever see their parents again?

Season 2, Episode 7: Sternschnuppen

The children of Salzburg are playing in the snow. Pumperl joins in the fun and jumps on some ice in the river yet starts to float away. Can the children save the dog? And what has this got to do with the big telescope?

And what the hell does any of this have to do with Mozart????]

Tamino, ach mein Gott!

Dorothea Röschmann, soprano; Gustav Mahler CO / Abbado
Crystalline beauty, like floating atop the clouds.

Hilde Gueden, soprano; Wiener Phil / Böhm
Heavier, but with a full mode of expression, every note a deep moment.

Irmgard Seefried, soprano; Wiener Phil / Karajan
Would somebody please call the Humane Society to put this creature out of its misery?

Polystylism and the State: A case study


Not that I’m trying to get all political in this space, but I want to single out certain people in positions of power around the world for their recent displays of musical acumen.  First is senior White House advisor David Axelrod (above), who took a “musical leave of absence” from his duties in Washington to hear the Chicago Symphony play Lennyz “Serenade after Plato’s Symposium” simply because it is so rarely played.  Well done, Mr. Axelrod.


Next, even greater honors go to one Vladimir Putin, “Prime Minister” of Russia, who recently held a forum for Russia’s literary leaders, during which he said, and I am totally not making this up:

Humanity has entered a new development stage, and cannot turn back. It should be taken for granted. There is no way to reverse progress.

You know no worse than I do, and possibly better than I do that new means of expression appear every now and then in music and pictorial arts. Take our compatriot Alfred Schnittke. His music appeared sophisticated to the extreme. One did not think more complicated music could have been written-but contemporary composers write music of which experts say that no unprepared listener can hear out a piece from beginning to end. But some people enjoy such music and say that is the only way music should be today.

Say what??  Did the PM and general éminence grise of Russia seriously just name check Al Schnittke?  Damn straight.  But Putin has distinguished himself in matters musical before: in 2007, at the death of Mstislav Rostropovitch, the then premier issued a statement of public grief and attended the cellist’s funeral.  I remember that this seemed somehow natural to me at the time, but my good friend and insightful commentator El Bensón (who is apparently an opera blogger at this point) was duly startled, and contextualized the event with the following question: “Do you think George Bush would make a public announcement about the death of Yo Yo Ma?”


george-bush conducts

Unfortunately, just when things were looking up in the public sphere with regard to music, there’s This which basically cancels out everything that was ever good or right with humanity.  Pity.

On the flip side, if you want to read one of the finest pieces of writing about politics in music (not the other way around), I would direct you to our good friend Slavoj Žižek’s article “Shostakovitch in Casablanca“.