Archive for the ‘Regular life’ category

A Brief History of My Reaction When People Tell Me I am a “Young” Person Interested in Classical Music

July 5, 2014

 

My age My reaction
15 “Yes, but I’m a totally legitimate classical music fan nonetheless. Let me tell you how I liked the performer’s ritard in the slow movement. Spoiler alert: I did not like it.”
20 “Does this venue happen to provide tickets that are discounted based on my youth?”
25 “Yes, but I certainly don’t know anything about how to get other young people to come to these things. Particularly young women.”
30 “I’m not really that young, except in a classical music context. It’s kind of sad that you think I’m young, actually.”
35 (present day) “Yes. I am young. Thank you for noticing.”

The Nationals Pastime, or, From the New Season

May 15, 2012

Hola, amigos. I know it’s been a long time since I rapped at ya, but various life things have been dragging my attention from (a) classical concerts and (b) writing about classical music. Plus there was that fun detour where DMV Classical attempted to prove its worth as an Arts Blog in a challenge. Finishing in the bottom six blog entries in Round 2 (since they let two tied people swell the ranks of what should have been the Elite Eight, and one person actually quit on the contest midway) was initially a bitter pill to swallow, but the succeeding questions were not ones I want to write about anyway, so who cares. All any reader of DMV Classical needs to know about the question “Many countries have ministries of culture. Does America need a Secretary of Culture or Secretary of the Arts? Why or why not?” is that in Chocolate City, Stevie Wonder is the Secretary of Fine Arts. (Seated Ovation is right on target, though.)

One of the things that has stolen my attention from classical music and blogging is baseball. I go to 20 or 25 Nationals games a year even when they’re awful, and it just so happens that this year they are awesome, in first place for much of the year on the backs of their unmatched starting five. Attendance at Nationals games is a classical-free zone unless you count the soundtrack music to HBO’s John Adams miniseries, which always swells to accompany images of Nats players excelling in a pregame montage. (Or unless Glenn Donnellan is playing the Anthem, of course.) The most purely musical satisfaction I get during the games is probably the Earth, Wind & Fire hits played at the seventh-inning stretch.

During an idle moment (of which baseball has a blessed surplus), I began wondering: If I had the talent to become a pro ballplayer, could I possibly sneak in a classical work as an at-bat song, or a pitcher’s introduction song? Is there something that begins with a compact enough statement of its purpose and has enough energy, swagger, and sheer power that it can stand up alongside Roger Bernadina’s French song about dancing?

It turns out that you can think through a whole bunch of the classical canon and come upon nothing useful, for the following reasons:

  • Minor-key classical works often boast imposing beginnings (Bach’s BWV 565, Mussorgsky’s Bald Mountain) but lack the heroic dimension. In the case of these, your at-bat or relief appearance would sound like a horror film, which would be appropriate for many players on previous Nats teams, but mostly not this one. (Looking at you, Xavier Nady.)
  • Lots of pieces theoretically have the requisite energy and swagger but in fact would sound like some kind of ironic invitation to teatime, like the overture to “The Marriage of Figaro.”
  • Pieces that I think of as being in the heroic mode take way too long to develop. They also often have contrasting themes that spoil the mood. The Waldstein Sonata is a prime example here. The opening is too long for an at-bat song, where you have just a few seconds to get the job done, but then it falters almost immediately, which will not impress any opposing hitters who will be facing you in the top of the eighth.

I thought my errand was hopeless until the oeuvre of Antonin Dvorak popped into my head. The eighth Slavonic Dance was the first one to suggest itself, but even better is the fourth movement of his ninth symphony, the super-famous “From the New World.” This has it all: dark energy from the minor key but no tragic or horrific dimension, swagger and energy to spare, and a main theme so unfadeable that Kanye West sampled it. (Click the link — that really happened!) The main theme by itself would be enough for at-bat music, but I’d definitely enjoy coming out of the bullpen as the “Jaws”-y intro hyped itself into that resolute theme. At the very least, it would be superior to Ryan Mattheus’ song, which is Katy Perry’s “Firework” for some reason.

Concerts Upcoming

February 10, 2012

This weekend I am planning to attend Brian Ganz’s Chopin recital at Strathmore, the second in a series of concerts at which Ganz will play all of the Chopin works for piano. (That’ll be a while!) I missed the first one, which got good reviews from lots of folks, and I am always into checking out local musicians (Ganz is living in the great state of Maryland according to his bio). Plus it’s at Strathmore, which is always a good time due to its fab acoustics and easy transportation accessibility (not to mention relative proximity to Urban BBQ. Pre-concert ribs, here I come!).

There are a ton of interesting concerts coming up in the DMV. The filter I have been using to help me determine what to attend is to concentrate on local artists (born here, raised here, or living here), works by local composers, presentations that have something to do with the area, or (sometimes) just things I think are exceptionally interesting. There are too many interesting concerts for me to attend even when having applied this filter, given my workout schedule, creeping oldness and tiredness, and occasional attempts to have a social life of some sort. Nevertheless! If you’re involved in a concert you’d like me to review, please feel extremely free to e-mail me (see the About post) and give me a heads-up about it. I’ll do my best.

I Want a New Drug

February 23, 2011

I did not know this before today, but apparently there is a drug called Sonata. In case you didn’t know or didn’t click on the link, the drug is designed to combat…wait for it…sleep deficiency. It’s always good to see that modern culture still feels the urgency of the timeless classical masterworks.

On the other hand, I guess whoever named the drug hasn’t listened to a lot of actual sonatas. Some of them don’t even have any obvious melodies. Better to have named such a medication “Barcarolle” or something.

However, classical music does seem a natural discipline from which to steal drug names, given that both classical music and pharmaceuticals favor words that sound vaguely foreign and end in vowels. Here are my ideas for classical-inspired drug names of the future:

Drug name What it treats
Tremolo Fine motor disability
Passacaglia Constipation
Eusebestan Bipolar disorder
Tempogiusto Hyperactivity
Glassinex Monomania
Collegno Erectile dysfunction
Sonatina Nap deficiency

Do you have any ideas to help further line the pockets of Big Pharma? (Was that not the best solicitation?)

Kennicott Off-Pitch on Auto-Tune; or, Oh, The T-Pain of It All

August 31, 2010

Philip Kennicott, former classical critic for the Washington Post and current overall culture ponderer, knows a lot more about opera than I do, and he’s a wonderful writer; I don’t always agree with his pieces, but they’re normally thought-provoking. But (and you knew a “but” was coming) his article in yesterday’s Post about the intersection of operatic ideals and Auto-Tuned reality contained so many inaccuracies and misconceptions that it nearly ruined my breakfast. (Fortunately, Frosted Mini-Wheats are ultimately indomitable.) Here are the most problematic parts and my objections thereto:

[Auto-Tune] can also be used to turn spoken speech into sung melody, although the results usually have a rather robotic or metallic sound that is familiar in hip-hop recordings, especially those of T-Pain, a rapper and songwriter who uses the technology so extensively that it has become something of a joke in the industry.

T-Pain is not a rapper; he’s a singer who uses AutoTune to give his melodic lines the “robotic or metallic” tang to which Kennicott refers. The title of T-Pain’s first album is, in fact, “Rappa Ternt Sanga,” which (if you can sound it out) should have been a clue.

I also dispute the proposition that T-Pain’s extensive use of AutoTune is something of a joke in the industry. Rather, the discussion I’ve read lauds T-Pain as a pioneering virtuoso in the expressive use of AutoTune, with his followers lamented for their derivativeness. The most prominent rappers to make extensive use of AutoTune are Lil’ Wayne and Kanye West, and both have cited T-Pain as an exemplar. If, by “the industry,” Kennicott means some group of people outside hip-hop and R&B, maybe what he’s saying is true — I really don’t know.

Kennicott may have been confused by the fact that Weezy and Kanye both became famous as rappers, but both sing (just like T-Pain) in order to get melodic effects in AutoTune. Their endeavors thus differ from those of the Gregory Brothers, who do actually create song from speech.

This is not how the game is played on YouTube. The medium is fundamentally hungry for content, and Auto-Tune is the perfect technology to supply it. Based on the vocoder, a machine that was used to disguise radio transmissions during World War II, Auto-Tune can process speech into music quickly and without need for an actual singer. This has made it controversial: Some pop artists have vociferously protested its overuse.

When I first read this paragraph, I thought Kennicott had forgotten to insert the modifier “competent” before “singer,” because the chief way in which Auto-Tune plagues pop music is not by processing speech into song but allowing people who can’t stay on pitch to sound tolerable on records (see Ke$ha, for one of a million examples). In my readings, it’s this use that “pop artists” protest, not the use of Auto-Tune by folks screwing around on YouTube. (In the case of “The Bed Intruder Song,” no less than Paramore’s Hayley Williams has participated in a cover, one datum countering Kennicott’s assertion.)

This paragraph also reveals a more fundamental problem with Kennicott’s article: He writes like Auto-Tune itself roams the land looking to transform people’s speech into marketable song.  Auto-Tune is a tool, like a potato masher. You can use a potato masher to do great things, like make mashed potatoes, and you can use it to do terrible things, like overmash potatoes into an inedible gluey paste. (Incidentally, it might have been nice for Kennicott to further distinguish between the vocoder, a piece of hardware, and Auto-Tune, which is phase vocoder software sold by Antares Audio Technologies.)  Kennicott further misidentifies the problem in the conclusion of the article:

With Auto-Tune, “first the words, then the music” seems like a joke — the technological realization of an old operatic dream, but at the loss of something elemental, the actual human sympathy that makes us care about what people are singing.

Human beings (in this case, the Gregory Brothers, although they have many followers) are using Auto-Tune to realize that old operatic dream. Kennicott’s article leaves wide open the possibility that someone (apparently not the Gregory Brothers) could take speech and transform it into emotionally complex, affecting music. The right Auto-Tune enthusiast simply hasn’t come along yet. What Kennicott meant to write is something like “With songs like ‘Bed Intruder’…” That he didn’t seems to betray a lack of understanding or engagement, either of which are enough to make this article less that it could have been. Which is too bad, because its central point (as I understand it, “Bed Intruder” = prima le parole) is something I genuinely had not considered before.

In my readerly experience, there is a blithe assurance about much classical-critic writing about pop, seeming to come from the idea that this pop stuff can’t be that complicated. And others are complicit; the Post advertised Kennicott’s piece to me on my Facebook feed as “the most intelligent piece you’re ever likely to read about auto-tuning the news,” which I hope is not true, for reasons discussed above. (And although the Post’s Facebook minder mistakenly lowercased “Auto-Tune,” at least the article bothered to spell “T-Pain” correctly, which not all classical blogs do.)

One of the lines I’m proudest of on this blog is here: “In their recordings, the ladies of Trio Mediaeval sing with an almost eerie precision and purity, like some kind of divine rebuke to the use of AutoTune” [lack of hyphen sic]. That line uses common cultural currency to show how adept the Mediaeval ladies are at a specific type of vocal virtuosity: Anyone who knows pop can understand one reason to listen to these performers. People who know anything about Auto-Tune and read Kennicott’s article, by contrast, probably will be put off by the basic lack of understanding therein. (Reader comments on the article, entirely negative as of this writing, express frustration with Kennicott’s disapproval of the “Bed Intruder Song,” but it’s not hard to imagine that he might have been taken more seriously if he’d shaped up his Auto-Tune discussion, perhaps running it by Chris Richards first.) If we classical music enthusiasts are going to get people fired up to learn more about this music we enjoy so much, we’re first going to have to stop misunderstanding the music they like. (Not to mention that we’ll need to stop deriding it, but I already covered that.

Also, I saw the Janacek reference coming a mile away.

It’s Getting Hot in Here, But Please Don’t Mention It—We’re Classical Music Fans

August 19, 2010

On Tuesday I heard the best concert that’s graced my ears this year, and it wasn’t even in the DMV. Summer travel brought me to Santa Fe, and as part of that town’s chamber music festival, Yuja Wang gave a dazzling hourlong lunchtime recital of works by Robert Schumann (in his 200th birthday year), Alexander Scriabin, and Sergei Prokofiev.

In Schumann’s Op. 111 “Drei Fantasiestücke” (Three Fantasy Pieces), she brought a lightness to Schumann’s thickets of notes that one rarely hears, thanks to fingers that seem able to supply the most difficult runs and combos without any trouble. (I heard this capacity firsthand in music not nearly as fetching when she premiered Jennifer Higdon’s piano concerto with the NSO last fall.) Wang made all those note-thickets sway beguilingly with the melody, as in a breeze, where other pianists seem audibly to be picking their way through the tangles, trying not to tear their clothes on brambles (to abuse a metaphor). Wang assembled a selection of three preludes, an étude, and a poème from various Scriabin opuses, effectively contrasting light and dark colors and quiet and stormy moods while teasing out the shapes of Scriabin’s sometimes-elusive pieces.

And her performance of Prokofiev’s sixth sonata was the stuff of fantasies, aflame throughout with color and rhythm yet keenly controlled. She created an incredible variety of steely tones in the stentorian first movement, larked effortlessly in the second with just that hint of sarcasm that we all love in Prokofiev, ruminated in magnetic quiet tones during the slow movement, and played a blistering finale that launched me out of my seat to cheer. Various social engagements have prevented me from attending Wang’s DMV recitals in the past; the Prokofiev, in particular, convinced me that it’s worthwhile to dis people in order to hear Wang play. (And to think I could have heard it before, at Sixth and I!)

The Yuja Wang concert experience is not all about hearing her play, though; in addition to being a wonderful pianist, she is hot. On Tuesday, she wore a vivid purple dress that had the twin advantages, from the interested viewer’s perspective, of being strapless and short; when she sat to play, she showed a lot of well-toned leg, to which my eyes occasionally wandered throughout the concert. She’s got a pretty face, too, with an adorable toothy smile and a nice contemplative closed-mouthed look. Her record label, Deutsche Grammophon, featured the latter on the cover of her latest CD, along with a decorous dollop of cleavage.

I can’t imagine she’s looked less hot in any of her other recitals, but I didn’t see in a recent bout of Web-wandering for reviews and interviews (Joe Banno came closest). The people, however, have discussed Wang’s attractiveness in many comment sections, often in the kind of juvenile terms I employ in casual conversation but eschew when writing for this highly respectable blog. (Wait, what?) And, in an ironic twist, ever since I mentioned the phrase’s prominence in Google AutoSuggest in that NSO review, the most popular search phrase to reach this blog has been “yuja wang boyfriend.”

The lack of “official” discussion does not surprise me. Using my amazing powers to blindly attribute motives, I have determined that classical folk don’t like to discuss whether performers are hot for the following reasons:

  1. A widespread belief that people who are not as attractive as Wang should be able to have successful solo careers if they can play like Wang. I am sympathetic to this viewpoint, but one must also acknowledge that attractive people have had an easier time than less attractive people throughout human history.
  2. Discomfort with the thought that we might focus on the performer, when the important thing is the music being performed and how the performer serves it. You can read more about this here if you are interested. As an audience member, I believe it is possible to appreciate both at once. Really. Our brains are that big.
  3. Unawareness, or unwillingness to acknowledge, that visual presentation affects how we hear music. This baffles me, and I will take it up in more detail later.
  4. Classical music’s incredible discomfort with the body, as opposed to the mind. To some extent, the institutional classical-music dichotomy between pop and classical is the same as the false dichotomy between the body and the mind, as you can see by the fact that pop opponents always choose dance music as the target for their ire (the current fave is Lady Gaga). The idea, as best I can tell, is that the mind is better than the body and thus should be used exclusively to comprehend classical music and its performances. The problem is that it is very difficult to actually enforce such judgments, because we need the body to do stuff for us, like eat and breathe. (The body has also been shown to be a superior dancer.) And if it also likes to throw in a little lust, what’s the harm? The mind is there to stop the body from doing anything stupid like deciding that a gorgeous pianist nailed that scherzo when he or she actually didn’t, right?

So classical music reviews should start decorously mentioning it when the performers are attractive, as I’ve been doing since I started this blog. (Maybe I should start mentioning it indecorously, just to drag the debate forward.) Obviously, when a performer is less attractive, we don’t need to mention that, because when in human discourse is it polite to mention that? But giving the body just a little more of a toehold in our discourse might make our discussions feel more real and immediate in other ways, too. And at the very least, those of us (like me) who have both superficial and profound interests in classical music performers would be getting the info they need.

Swagger-Jacking the Great Composers

August 7, 2010

From a Vibe interview with Dr. Dre (via Rap Radar):

You mentioned a hip-hop album without rapping. Will we ever hear a Dr. Dre instrumental album?
Oh yeah, that’s in the works. An instrumental album is something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. I have the ideas for it. I want to call it The Planets. I don’t even know if I should be saying this, but fuck it. [Laughs.] It’s just my interpretation of what each planet sounds like. I’m gonna go off on that. Just all instrumental. I’ve been studying the planets and learning the personalities of each planet. I’ve been doing this for about two years now just in my spare time so to speak. I wanna do it in surround sound. It’ll have to be in surround sound for Saturn to work.

So:

  1. Who’s going to tell him?
  2. When Gustav Holst got this idea, and talked about it with his friends, did he admonish himself by saying, “I don’t even know if I should be saying this, but fuck it”? (This site doesn’t say.)
  3. How will Dre’s conception of the personalities differ from Holst’s? How will they be similar? I am genuinely extremely curious about this.
  4. After Dre’s planets enter our orbit, which orchestra will realize the dream of me sprinting to be first in line at their box office window by programming a DJ spinning Dre and a symphony playing Holst back-to-back? (“Gadzooks! Using interest in popular music to shine a new light on a past materpiece? We simply can’t have it! Give ‘em the Figaro overture, Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto, and Beethoven 7 again!”)
  5. Will any rappers attempt to sample Dre and end up sampling Holst when the realize the copyright has expired on the latter music of the spheres?

(definition of swagger jacking in case you didn’t know)

Mirror, Mirror, On the Wall: Which is the Top Genre of Them All? (Hint: None of Them)

July 15, 2010

Last month, which seems so long ago, Greg Sandow hosted some debate over whether classical music really is the best genre in all of music and an island unto itself or not. Greg focused on the question of whether anyone can actually prove classical music’s superiority to all other genres, a question whose answer seems perfectly obvious to me: No.

If you make up some criteria for greatness of a musical genre and then decide that classical music fits those criteria best, you probably selected your with an eye towards getting the answer you wanted. Even if you somehow maintained in your conscious mind a benign neutrality, someone else could make up criteria that would pick another genre with equal validity. Classical music (or the best classical music, anyway) does stuff that no other genre can do, but putting a value like “best” on that…well, you can prove it for yourself, but you can’t prove it for everyone.

But let’s just say you’re someone who will never budge from your position that classical is the king of the hill, cream of the crop, etc. Here I argue that even if your reasoning feels airtight, you should shut up about it in mixed-genre company. Nothing’s going to turn off potential fans of classical music like being told that classical music reigns supreme and unchallenged atop Terpsichore’s pile. Here’s why:

1. It’s insulting to those who like other genres of music. As I type this, I am listening to the Chi-Lites’ “Have You Seen Her,” which is a great song. If you were to tell me that I am wasting my time with that pop effluvia when I could be listening to a Brahms concerto, I’d spit in your face. Maybe not even metaphorically! Telling people who love music but not classical music that once they go Bach, they won’t go back is the same as telling people that music in which they have (presumably) a great deal of psychological investment is trash. Most people will not react well to that.

2. It smacks of racism. If you say classical music is the summa of musical achievement, basically what you are saying is that white European males produced all the truly great music in history. Particularly if you are talking to someone who is not a white person, this position may not endear you, or classical music, to your listener.

3. It sets classical music up as something you have to have special skillz to like. Some folks believe this also. For my part, I discovered classical music mostly by hearing my parents play recordings during my childhood, and then going with them to concerts at the University of Maryland back when student tickets were $3. (Ah, halcyon days.) Learning about classical deepened my enjoyment of it, but that was after the bug bit me, not before. Before the bug bites you, acquiring the knowledge just sounds like pointless work, and if you think modern Americans are into pointless work I have a number of extraordinarily valuable collateralized debt obligations to sell you.

Honestly, if I had to choose to listen to only one genre of music for the rest of my life, I’d pick classical. It embraces multitudes and goes places no other genre does. But I don’t have to pick, and so I get to love go-go, hip-hop, jazz, funk, soul, and any other music that grabs my little heart. No one else in this modern world has to pick either, and they’re not going to listen to anyone who tells them that they have to.

So can we get off this? Please? Forever? Instead, I pledge to tell people what I find so exciting about classical music, hopefully in novel and vivid ways, and celebrate performances that generate just that kind of excitement. That’s what it’s all about!

Your Eyes Leakin’, You Ain’t Speakin’

May 6, 2010

Is crying allowed at classical concerts? Not grieving-relative wailing, obviously, but a few tears rolling down the cheek, and maybe a sharp, low intake of breath? A couple weeks ago I went to a concert by my homies the Daedalus Quartet and realized I was worried about whether I would cry while they played Beethoven’s Op. 127. (The music that makes me cry sometimes when I play it at home: late Beethoven, the Bach D minor Chaconne, late Schubert piano sonatas…that’s about it. I’m not counting music that chokes me up; the waterworks must actually start up.)

Crying at a classical concert, in which the musicians presumably strive to move you, should be a little different than regular crying in public. But for some reason the thought of crying at a classical concert makes me feel even more cringingly vulnerable than just crying in a park. At least when you cry in a park, people speculate on the reason, and maybe make up something respectable. But if I were to cry at a classical concert, everyone would know why. There’s something really embarrassing there, at least for me, a male socialized according to the normal pattern. And in considering the Daedalus concert, I realized that I’ve occasionally avoided otherwise interesting concerts because I was worried about whether I’d be able to maintain a dry-faced state as an audience member.

In the event, Op. 127 didn’t jar loose any saltwater, although I had a couple sharp intakes of breath, and a weird spine-melting feeling when the Daedalus made a fleet, icy, glassine sound during the always-odd coda to the finale — I had to make an effort to sit up. (That would have been tough to explain to my seat-neighbors!) But what do you think — is crying like coughing, or more acceptable? What if you saw your neighbor’s ocular precipitation — would you say anything, or just let it flow? (Please, please, please say the latter.) And (if you’re a little more comfortable with the whole idea than I am) what music sometimes puts something in your eyes?

Classical For When You’re Gassed: Yes, More Running Talk

March 3, 2010

Just thought I’d run down some classical pieces I tried to play in my head as I blasted through my 21-mile training run on Saturday:

  • Handel, Royal Fireworks Music. This is fast becoming go-to music to get through 2 tough miles, wherever in the run they happen to fall. The whole thing has a nice stately pace, rhythmic and cheery, and you can repeat the repeated parts for however long you need them to help you get around the next curve.
  • Beethoven Symphony no. 8. The first movement of this is cunningly dense and playful, and of course I got lost trying to remember all its twists and turns. The tick-tock metronome second movement, the minuet, and the finale all served as fine propellant, though.
  • Mozart, Piano concerto no. 21. I got really lost in the middle of the first movement and the middle of the second movement. Didn’t try to remember the finale.
  • Bach, Brandenburg concerto no. 1. This is just dynamite. Don’t know why I haven’t ridden it more or harder. It turns out that you can just select your favorite ritornello and play it in your head over and over, and it just keeps coming up fresh. I think the opening movement took about 15 minutes in my playback.

So, two clear winners, both from the Baroque period, when composers routinely drew on dance idioms and rhythm reigned supreme. Not really surprising. I hope to break out Beethoven’s Symphony no. 7 on the next long run, although since it’s only 12 miles I don’t know whether I’ll need it.


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