Yearly Archives: 2009

Critical Commentary

Fanfare Magazine’s review of the American Chorale Premieres CD has just come out, penned by one Jerry Dubins.  It’s not much of a review, and I’m guessing that very few people will actually read it outside of the Cedille Records administration and Choral Music Junkies (if such things actually exist), but I simply must take issue with Mr. Dubins’ overall critical approach.

First off, let me just say that this is not an argument against his “review” of my piece.  In fact, he doesn’t really review my piece as much as offer a vague and vaguely dismissive semi-description of the music sprinkled with biographical misinformation (I’m well known in the Roman Catholic community?  For my choral music?  When did that happen?)  Since he doesn’t even attempt to figure out what my piece is about compositionally, there’s not much that I can respond to.

Where I really take issue is with his review of Egon Cohen’s Stabat Mater.  In the interest of full disclosure, I do know Egon, as we were both students of Easley Blackwood at the same time, and I would list him as an acquaintance – not exactly someone I would rush to defend under most circumstances.  I do quite like his piece on this disc, but that’s neither here nor there.  Here’s what Mr. Dubins had to say:

Finally we come to Egon Cohen (b. 1984), the youngster among this assembly. His Latin-titled Stabat mater set in English translation was written in response to an invitation to submit a piece for this CD. The music effectively captures the doloroso character of the text; but it does give me cause to wonder why a young, Jewish composer would be drawn to this deeply Roman Catholic 13th-century sequence that meditates on the suffering of the Virgin Mary. Surely, as Rochberg and many other Jewish composers have, Cohen might have found an equally moving text from the Hebrew liturgy.

Um, Excuse Me? You wonder why he couldn’t find a Hebrew text?  That so clearly falls into the category of None of Your Goddamn Business.  Would Mr. Dubins conclude a review of Mendelssohn’s Christus by asking the same question?  How about Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei?  How about John Adams’ A Flowering Tree, for that matter?  Any critic who can’t understand that a composer might possess a vivid enough imagination to think outside of his closest cultural boundaries is truly wanting and kind of missing the point of a vast swath of artistic output.

I have no way of knowing if this Jerry Dubins is himself Jewish, and is perhaps a Yenta-ish figure of some sort, bemoaning the fact that a member of his tribe couldn’t meet a “nice Jewish text”.  Even in that case, I don’t really think that a music criticism magazine is the best venue for such an opinion.

Call me crazy, but I kind of think it’s a critic’s job to get inside the piece, whether or not it be his cup of tea.  David Effron, my conducting teacher, tells us that it’s our job to love any piece of music that we’re conducting.  Well, clearly it’s not the critic’s obligation to love everything he reviews, but I do think that a decent critic loves the process of delving in deep and trying to take a piece on it’s own terms.

This is where so many of the critiques of Inglourious Basterds go wrong.  I’d say about 90% of the reviews fail to penetrate the surface, or at least the immediate sub-surface level, even some of the more sophisticated ones.  For example, take Stephen Rea’s review in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

Tonally schizoid and rife with anachronisms (a David Bowie song on the sound track, out-of-era vernacular), Tarantino’s Third Reich folly is utterly exasperating.

Umm… “rife with anachronisms” is as far as you got?  OK, fine, this is a particularly shallow analysis, but most of the reviews don’t get past listing the many genre references that pervade the film.  Almost none of the reviewers get to the heart of how QT uses the genres artistically.  To me, the Big, majorly subversive element of the film [oh, btw, spoilers a’plenty follow] is not so much QT’s re-writing of history, but in how this interacts with our pre-conditioned genre expectations.  Because of films from The Longest Day right up through Saving Private Ryan, we the viewers damn well expect realism from the WWII genre — it’s almost like an unwritten moral code.  Even in more fictional WWII films, the details of an individual squadron or battle or whatever may be made up, but the outcome is always the same.

Tarantino absolutely knows this, and that’s why the third act of his film has tension — because the viewer is sitting there wondering “How is this plot going to fail?“.  Now, the problem is that that’s really the only reason why the third act has tension — there’s very little internal to the movie to make you yearn for the success of the grueling finale.  Within the film, the American “Basterds” are depicted as way more brutal than any of the Nazis, and the character of Hitler is imbued with a Mel Brooks-esque buffoonery; Tarantino is relying completely on the viewer’s personal sense of history to justify his (Tarantino’s) violent end to the Third Reich.

I’ve got a feeling that there might be a much, much deeper message here, that Inglourious Basterds is an Anti War Film – that is, both an Anti-War Film and an Anti War-Film, if you know what I mean.

So Jerry, what’d you think of the movie?

At the Movies


About four months ago, I saw Giant (both the movie and the musical) and it dawned upon me that I hadn’t seen James Dean’s other two movies, East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause.  Over the past couple days, I have filled in this cinematic lacuna.

I can dispatch with Eden pretty quickly by referring to Dan Callahan’s review at Slant Magazine (except I’m sure that Mr. Callahan meant to refer to Leonard Rosenman’s painfully overt score as “pseudo-Schoenberg” rather than “pseudo-Stravinsky“).  He’s got it all right – Dean acts like an overwrought Brando impersonator, Kazan’s direction is flaccid, and the story is reduced to a rather trite fable.

Then we come to Rebel Without a Cause.  Here, I’m perfectly willing to go along with Roger Ebert’s analysis, but we’ve got to take a step back on this one, because watching this movie brought me to a horrible, gut-wrenching realization: West Side Story is, in many respects, a Knock Off of this movie.

That’s sacrilege of the highest order, and something that pains me — PAINS me — to write, but there’s really no denying it.  OK, maybe “knock off” isn’t quite right, but WSS definitely owes a lot to Rebel.  Even, to a minor extent, the score. Sort of.

There, I said it… breathe deeply… BUT, the good thing is that whatever debts WSS owes to Rebel, it in every way improves upon its predecessor.  And obviously, Romeo and Juliet was the true model for West Side, but there are so many elements of Rebel that it’s impossible to ignore them.  I mean, Hello – Knife Fight? [See above.]

wss knife fight

As to what I said about the score, first off, Sondheim, thankfully, denies it.  And it may be wholly a coincidence given the subject matter and settings, but there’s no denying that this:

does sound in some ways like this:

Although upon further review, the latter possesses such a greater sophistication that the point is rendered almost moot.  Lenny’s score is a masterpiece and there are traces of everyone (“Hey, we’re having a party – why not invite the Black Panthers?”) so I guess it shouldn’t bother me too much that Rosenman has a small say in the dialogue.

Frankly I think very little prevents Rebel overall from being MST3K movie fodder… in fact, it largely resembles my absolute favorite episode thereof: “I Accuse My Parents“.

Speaking of movies, tonight is of course Inglourious Basterds night, and I’m definitely looking forward to it.  Quentin’s media saturation has reached monumental proportions even by his standards.  But it’s like, Quent, dawg, if you would just make movies a little more often, there wouldn’t be quite so much pressure on the success of the few that you do make.  I think, and I think most creative types would agree with me here, that it’s maybe the most important thing that an artist produce.  All the time.  Although there’s got to be some kind of limit to that, because even Stravinsky jumped the shark, and Lord Knows he was poppin’ ’em out all the time.

Speaking of which, I really ought to compose before taking in the cinema.

Oh, P.S. The trauma from my Rebel-WSS related psychoses was totally outweighed by the awesomeness of getting to see Mr. Howell in an apron!!


Gotta Dance!

I’d like to share two recent discoveries:

1) You can have EVERY SONG like EVER from the 1930’s for 25 bucks on iTunes.  I shit thee not, people — 129 songs for $25.  Even if you’re only marginally interested in the top hits from the ’30’s, that’s still a helluva deal.  Highly recommended.

2) But what you can’t get on iTunes, for some blasted reason, is the totally amazing, English electro-pop musician FrankMusik whose music is seemingly the perfect mix of ’80’s, ’90’s and ’00’s dance music.  (Pardon my infomercial-speak).  Thank God for YouTube:

Let’s just hope it doesn’t take 70 years for him to get North American distribution.

The Bilbao Song

q club entrance

Having just returned from Hyde Park, I am charged with the unenviable task of decrying the current condition of the Quadrangle Club.  In song.  Be patient – this might take a little Weill.  (lol — I kill me!!)

The Quadrangle Club is a place that used to exude a tremendous aura from its blunt haunches on 57th Avenue.  For students at the University of Chicago it holds a tremendous mystique; one sees Professors, both feared and admired, enter the front door and what happens next is anybody’s guess.  One of course assumes that some sort of perverse, Eyes Wide Shut scenario follows, but one can never be sure.

That is, until one gets the rare opportunity to enter the club oneself.  For me, this happened when I was but a wee 1st-year college student.  I had made the acquaintance of one of Hyde Park’s – and the Club’s – great movers and shakers, a gentleman by the name of Todd Schwebel, and I had quickly ingratiated myself into his Garden Party Society as a hired pianist.  This was around 2001 or ’02, and the members of the Club had just reinstated the traditional “Revels” entertainment, to which Mr. Schwebel cordially invited me.

I’ll never forget that first night at the Club.  It seemed as if the stale air, a potpourri of damp smoke and Beefeater martinis, had been awaiting my arrival for nearly a century.  Old ladies passed by with immobile gray hair and sweetly pungent perfume.  Bowties appeared in profusion.  It was at that point that I knew my destiny lay at the Quadrangle Club.

I went back many times during my undergraduate years, and as soon as I became a staff member, I joined the club.  One quickly finds out that the specialty of the bar is, fittingly enough, an old-fashioned.  One also discovers that there really are no rules, no formalities, and no structure to the whole place.  It’s just like the song says:

The stools at the bar were damped with rye,

On the dance floor, the grass grew high,

Thro’ the roof, the moon was shining green,

And the music really gave you some return on what you paid.

Hey Joe, play that old song they always played…

And then came 2008, the year in which the University of Chicago assumed control of the club and hired an outside management firm to run the place.  And now, utter ruin.  To quote Josh Schonwald of the Chicago Chronicle:

The green awning is gone. The landscaping is different. The facility has been deep cleaned, and many of the rooms have been replastered and painted. There is a new menu, with a new kitchen ethos toward fresher, more seasonal offerings. There are new plates, silverware and tablecloths. Even the servers look different; they still dress in black and white, but will wear bistro aprons at lunch and the trademark vests at dinner.

Yes, the Green Awning is gone.  What were they THINKING???  The Green Awning made you feel like you were Someplace and Somebody as you walked under it.  I mean, tell me if this ain’t class:

the old club 2

[I have a secret theory that the Green Awning was actually stolen as a prank by the Faculty Club of Northwestern University (if they even have one) and that it is to be found hiding somewhere in Evanston.]

I had a long talk with the Membership Director the other day, Poor Girl, and explained to her that without the awning, the club has a very open, inviting entrance, and that that’s exactly the wrong direction for the club.

As for the supposedly new and improved menu, I suppose this must be what they’re talking about:

q club soup menu

Ahh yes… finally soup served with the Appropriate Garnish.  Not like the old days when it was invariably accompanied by a hyena carcass and earthworms.

The thing is, we all knew this was coming.  The writing was on the wall: there was no more room for “the profitless niceties of the home-away-from-home of the prewar gentleman-scholar.”  There were hints as early as July ’08, when I was part of the performance now known as “The Last Stand of the Old Q Club”.  It was one of my finest cabaret performances, and played to a packed house.  There was no Bilbao Song then, but let’s just say, it’s now a sort of unofficial anthem of the place, as far as I’m concerned.  As the song says:

Now they’ve cleaned up and made it middle class

With parted hams and iced cream

Very bourgeois, very bourgeois,

Just another place to put your ass.

They’ve cleaned up all the booze and broken glass

On parquet floors, you can’t grow grass

They’ve shut the green moon out because of rain,

And the music makes you cringe when you think of what you pay.

Hey Joe, play that old song they always used to play:

me singing

More Drama

With little time between overeating engagements in Chicago, and in spite of my bloated, fat-filled stomach, I courageously present News of two even newer Opera Productions:

Steven Schwartz’s “Séance on a Wet Afternoon”

and Jacob Cooper’s Timberbrit: The Story of Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake:

Not to mention these schannanigans at Milwaukee’s Skylight Opera, which, it turns out, seem to be affecting every Chicago musician I know in one way or another.