Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The External Musical World in Knowledge and Practice

A blog post by Jesse Limbacher, submitted to the San Francisco Symphony Social Network with the provocative title "Why Music?," sent me back to review one of my own posts, entitled "Our Knowledge of the Musical World," only to discover that I had written it exactly one year ago. I had chosen my title as somewhat of an homage to Bertrand Russell's book, Our Knowledge of the External World as a Field for Scientific Method of Philosophy. However, such an homage may have been misplaced, since I am not sure it makes sense to think about music as strictly an "external world" set of phenomena; and I suspect that Limbacher's post piqued my attention, at least in part, because it was trying to take such an "external world" stance. This seems to be leading me down two paths, one concerned with the nature of the musical world and the other concerned with whether or not it makes sense to talk about having knowledge of it.

I would have to review Russell's book to confirm this, but I am pretty sure that he used the phrase "external world" to denote "external to self." This is a very Cartesian approach, which Daniel Dennett came to call the "Cartesian Theater" perspective. The Wikipedia entry for Cartesian Theater includes the following excerpt from Dennett's book, Consciousness Explained:

Cartesian materialism is the view that there is a crucial finish line or boundary somewhere in the brain, marking a place where the order of arrival equals the order of "presentation" in experience because what happens there is what you are conscious of. [...] Many theorists would insist that they have explicitly rejected such an obviously bad idea. But [...] the persuasive imagery of the Cartesian Theater keeps coming back to haunt us — laypeople and scientists alike — even after its ghostly dualism has been denounced and exorcized.

The theorists Dennett has in mind are those who view reality as constructed, rather than presented to the senses; and Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann made a strong case that such construction is a social process, rather than simply a product of stimuli "processed by an individual self." Since I have tried to make the case that the performance of music resides as much in the social world of engagement among performers as it does in the objective world of technique and the subjective world of interpretation, I support Dennett's rejection of Cartesian materialism and recognize that it may be more appropriate to talk about "constructed musical reality" than about the "musical world."

So, does it make sense to talk about our having "knowledge" of this "constructed musical reality?" I suppose the intuitive answer to this question would be, "Why not?" However, as Russell liked to observe, we should only use words when we know what they mean; and "knowledge" has been a difficult case that goes all the way back to Plato's "Theaetetus." About half a year ago, I summarized this particular dialog as follows:

It begins with the quest for a definition of knowledge. Each time Theaetetus proposes a definition, Socrates elegantly unravels it. Thus, in the final paragraphs of the dialogue Socrates as much as says that, while they did not achieve their goal, the journey towards that goal was still worth making.

For me the most interesting part of that journey involved the discovery that talking about knowledge led to deep exploration of three others equally challenging concepts: being, description, and memory. Think of these concepts in terms of three primary questions:

  1. What is?
  2. How do we account for what is when talking with others?
  3. How do our past experiences with what is impact our present behavior?

I would not suggest that these questions are any easier than the question of defining knowledge. However, I would argue that such simple reductive formulations give us a better start down a path of inquiry than more abstract questions about the nature of knowledge. Besides, I have already spent a fair amount of time knocking my head over the question of description in music to recognize that I am not yet ready to ramp up to a higher level of abstraction; and I have not even scratched the surface when it comes to questions about being and memory! One thing I suspect, though, is that my inquiry will have less to do with Russell's deeply cherished scientific method and more to do with social theory!

Monday, June 29, 2009

Worth the Pound?

What price royalty? Back in the days of Beyond the Fringe, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore took a light-hearted approach to this question in the "Royal Box" sketch. This is the one in which Moore goes to the same theater every night and pays for a seat from which he can see the Royal Box, figuring that, sooner or later, he will get to see the Royal Family sitting there. The punch line comes with the following exchange:

Cook: Do you really mean to say to spend fifteen shillings every night just on the off-chance you may catch a glimpse of the Royal Family?

Moore: Well, they're not worth the pound.

On a more serious note this morning the BBC released a report on the impact of Royal expenses (should that last word have been capitalized?) on the annual budget for the United Kingdom. The "bottom line" is that the Royal family costs the government £41.5 million, an increase of £1.5 million from last year's budget. This comes down to 69p for every person in the country, which means that they really are not worth the pound; but, in a time of serious economic hardship, they certainly cost far more than a pretty penny!

Missing the Opera

In the terminology of Kenneth Burke, the underlying story of a narrative is basically a matter of motivated actions. More specifically, in the framework of Burke's pentad, acts are performed by agents, who have purposes. Every act takes place in some scene, and its performance may rely upon the instrumental assistance of agencies. However, scenes and agencies tend to supplement the basic questions of who does what and why.

One of the greatest hazards in revisionist productions, particularly when a war-horse grand opera is concerned, is that the secondary overwhelms the primary to a point where the primary becomes at best insignificant and at worst ludicrous. This is precisely the problem with Marta Domingo's staging of Giuseppe Verdi's La Traviata for the Los Angeles Opera, currently being performed by the San Francisco Opera. As she explained in a one-page "note" in the program book, she wanted to transplant the tragic tale of Violetta Valéry from the "world of the demimondaines" of late nineteenth-century Paris to the "world of the flappers" during the Roaring Twenties of the United States. This may make for good eye candy, but it tended to undermine the characterizations of the key agents (Violetta herself, her would-be-poet lover Alfredo Germont, and his bourgeois father Giorgio) and their underlying sense of purpose. That undermining may explain why, in reviewing this production for the San Francisco Chronicle, Joshua Kosman saw it as a story about Giorgio in which Violetta played a supplementary role. By subordinating acts, agents, and purposes to matters of scene, Domingo offered a topsy-turvy discourse for the story.

The success of such a radical approach involves a "social contract" under which the audience is willing to accept the terms of the director. Because Dwayne Croft put so much of his own sense of character into his performance of Giorgio (as both actor and singer), we in the audience certainly had reasons to accept this contract. On the other hand the two party scenes, where the eye candy was at its richest, kept bumping over potholes of inconsistencies with the libretto, some of which were deftly (or not) paved over with rewordings in the projected titles. Ultimately, the most successful scene was the final act, in which (with the exception of a choreographic interruption that was as inept as it was inane) everything was stripped away other than the bed on which Violetta would expire. Perhaps, then, it is no surprise that this was the act in which Anna Netrebko's Violetta and Charles Castronovo's Alfredo rose to the same vocal heights that Croft had established the first time he set foot on the stage. Working together (and with conductor Donald Runnicles), the three of them made magic out of music that can too easily fall into cliché; but why did we having to slog through so much muddle before finally encountering the operatic experience that made it all worth while?

This may come down to support for the argument that, in a time of economic austerity, it is necessary to go back to the basics. That means concentrating on the agents (as both actors and singers) and that "sense of purpose" without which the acts lose their meaning. The best way to avoid missing the opera altogether is to keep the primary in its primary position.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Music Lives On

I am not sure the BBC had any particular message in mind when they went into streets around the world to collect comments on the death of Michael Jackson. Whether it was their intention to show how thin a line separates appreciation from cultism, the remark that made the deepest (and most aggravating) impact on me came from a young American (probably too young to remember the Jackson Five), who declared the day of Jackson's death to be "the day the music stopped." From that point of view, while I cannot personally understand the extent to which this story as blocked out so many others, I am glad to see that the ABC News team came up with a variety of perspectives on how, as has always been the case so many times in the past, the music is showing healthy signs of outliving the musician.

Nevertheless, my initial aggravation was further provoked when I read the "This Week" column in the Sunday Datebook section of today's San Francisco Chronicle. The specific event announcement that piqued me concerned the appearance of Mose Allison and Bob Dorough at Yoshi's; and I knew there would be trouble when I saw that the event was listed under a "Comedy" header. Still, I was not prepared for the text that followed:

Even if you don't recognize the name Mose Allison, you're sure to recognize his music. Van Morrison, John Mayall, the Who, the Clash, Eric Clapton, the Yardbirds, Elvis Costello and others have covered his songs. The list goes on and one, and so does the beat. Allison has not stopped writing and performing since he moved to the Big Apple in 1949 to immerse himself in the emerging jazz scene.

Coming from a culture (and a campus radio station) that was playing Allison's own recordings before any of the names on that list had become public figures (which probably means back when they were listening to the same recordings), I found this presentation to be narrow-mindedly offensive; but I suspect that Allison is enough of a professional to realize that you have to take what you can get. Still, the culture of performance is rarely one of acknowledging your sources. If neither Eric Clapton nor the Rolling Stones were particularly conscientious about giving credit to Robert Johnson during their concerts, then I have to remind myself that Johann Sebastian Bach was not that better in the matter. If Bach had an impact on the "discovery" of Antonio Vivaldi and Dietrich Buxtehude by the recording industry, then this has served the interests of listeners around the world and is not that different from the influence that Clapton may have had on Columbia's decision to release all of the recordings that Johnson ever made on two compact discs. Nevertheless, Allison is still alive and still at it as both composer and performer; and I find it tragic that he should "live" only by virtue of those of a later generation who covered his material.

I suspect that this is nothing more than a sobering reminder that the history of music is no different than the history of nations. In both cases the past is necessarily viewed through the distorting lens of the present. George Bernard Shaw captured the latter situation with more wit at the end of his play, The Devil's Disciple. He delegated that wit to his characterization of General John Burgoyne, who knows that he will soon be leading his army to defeat at the Battle of Saratoga. When asked by his aide how history will judge both him and the British army, he replied (in Shaw's words):

History will tell lies, as usual.

Kurt Vonnegut would later add his own riff to Shaw's in his reflection on the "historical view" of the fire-bombing of Dresden in Slaughterhouse-Five:

So it goes.

In the face of such inevitability of historiography, I wish Allison a good gig at Yoshi's!

"The Lord is my shepherd" … and He's Packin' Heat!

I take some comfort in the ability of the BBC to give equal time to "news of the weird" coming from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. However, without trying to play up any nationalistic pride, when it comes to weirdness, I am willing to bet that Fundamentalist Christianity will always win over British eccentricity hands down. Consider the following report, which BBC NEWS filed last night based on a few of their American sources:

A pastor in the US state of Kentucky told his flock to bring handguns to church in what he said was an effort to promote safe gun ownership.

Pastor Ken Pagano told parishioners to bring their unloaded guns to New Bethel Church in Louisville for a service celebrating the right to bear arms.

He said he acted after church members voiced fears the Obama administration could tighten gun control laws.

When the service began, some 200 people were present, AP news agency said.

"We are wanting to send a message that there are legal, civil, intelligent and law-abiding citizens who also own guns," Mr Pagano told the congregation.

"If it were not for a deep-seated belief in the right to bear arms, this country would not be here today," he said.

The pastor also held a handgun raffle, as well as providing information on gun safety.

"I wish more churches did this, I wish more people did this," the Louisville Courier-Journal quoted one attendee, Doreen Rogers, as saying.

"For some reason, most people think that carrying guns is sinful. It's not. I think my life is worth protecting."

About 10 members of a private local militia also attended, the Courier-Journal said.

As the Jews who joined the melting pot of immigration during the turn from the nineteenth to the twentieth century were fond of saying, "Only in America!"

From my own philosophical point of view, I can only wonder what text Pagano chose for his sermon at that particular service. I doubt that it had anything to do with beating swords into ploughshares. Similarly, anything about turning the other cheek would probably have been out of place. Perhaps he preached that the handgun was the latter-day slingshot with which his congregation of Davids would prevail over any threat of new Goliaths. I suppose the Lord really does work in mysterious ways!

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Half-Way Through the Project

Symphony Hall, the "basic" classical music channel for the (now merged) XM/Sirius satellite radio service, chose an interesting way to celebrate this year's anniversary of the death of Joseph Haydn. They decided to use the year to traverse all of his numbered symphonies (omitting any of the "extras" in the Hoboken catalog). Since there are 104 numbered symphonies and 52 weeks in the year, this works out conveniently to playing two symphonies each week. Today Martin Goldsmith made it a special point to recognize that he was playing Symphony Number 52 (Hoboken I/52), emphasizing that this was one of the Sturm und Drang symphonies for which Haydn had selected the key of C minor; but the occasion was far more celebratory for having reached the exact midpoint than it was stormy or stressful.

I rather like the way in which Goldsmith has set himself his own "Mount Haydn project." Both the peak and the ascent are far more modest than my own project, based on the Brilliant Classics Haydn Edition; but, while I forged ahead at a pace more concerned with checking the condition of all the CDs, Goldsmith found a good way to stretch his over the entire year. Interestingly enough, today's recording was the performance by the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra, conducted by Adam Fischer, from the collection of all the symphonies used by Brilliant for their larger package. Furthermore, in contrast to the frustrations I experienced with all those settings of folk songs that were not even of Haydn's own folk (so to speak) and the even larger mass of "politically motivated" baryton compositions, I have always felt that every symphony along Goldsmith's path of ascent is a rose worth stopping to smell, making the entire year a perfectly suitable time for his chosen journey. It therefore seems like the perfect time to congratulate Goldsmith for thinking up this particular plan and to recognize the significance of his milestone!

Friday, June 26, 2009

Pushers' CHUTZPAH

Chances are that not many readers will be familiar with the name of this week's Chutzpah of the Week award recipient unless, like myself, they use Reuters as one of their resources for financial news. The recipient's name is Joe Kinahan, and I selected him on the basis of a Reuters dispatch filed this morning by Leah Schnurr. The opening paragraphs of that dispatch should provide the basic grounds for my reasoning:

U.S. stocks faltered on Friday as weak oil futures pressured energy shares and a jump in the savings rate raised worries the economic recovery will not make much headway if consumers continue to be frugal.

Data showed that while consumer spending and income both rose in May as the government stimulus spread through the economy, much of the money was being socked away. Savings jumped to a record annual rate of $768.8 billion, the highest level since record keeping began in 1959.

"We need people to spend money in order to keep the economy humming," said Joe Kinahan, chief derivatives strategist at online brokerage thinkorswim Group in Chicago. "The consumer has been the stalwart of the economy at this point, and we still need them to be."

Now I grant that Kinahan serves primarily as a symbol for a more abstract collective that relies upon the views he expressed in those two sentences, and I also grant that such collectives have received past awards. Nevertheless, I tend to prefer singling out an individual (as I did last week with Daniel Vasella, CEO of Novartis) when it is clear that the individual embodies the chutzpah of the collective, so to speak. In this case, however Kinahan embodies not so much his own employer (about as unfamiliar to most of us as his name) as a prevailing view that reminds us (as if we needed reminding) of how wide a gulf there is between the interests of Wall Street and those of Main Street.

Once again we need to revisit the hypothesis that Wall Street's all-important metric of consumer spending is basically an external manifestation of an addictive behavior. From that point of view, a return to frugality (brought on by a lack of money to spend or borrow) constitutes an effort to "kick the habit;" and we can view economic recovery in terms of recovery from that addiction. Put another way, both consumers and markets are striving to return to more "sane" conditions. Kinahan clearly does not see it that way. He would prefer that Main Street return to the old habits that played such a major factor in getting the world economy into its current mess; and, when considered from such a global perspective, his self-interested Wall Street Weltanschauung escalates to chutzpah-level proportions. Thus, he deserves the award; and I am far from troubled by the fact that he will be too selfish to share it with all the others he represents!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

"But how will we know what to believe?"

There are entirely too many one-liners in Ellen Goodman's latest Washington Post column, which has now been reproduced on Truthdig. They come not only from Goodman herself ("Twittering is just frittering.") but from her designated spokesperson for the "digital perspective," John Palfrey ("Bullets are more powerful than bytes."). Nevertheless, the message in this column is strong enough to rise above any "rhetorical noise," because it recognizes that "journalism in the Twitter era" (the title of Goodman's column) has to contend with a new "fog of war." This metaphor used to refer to the chaos of battle itself, its distorting influences on our basic capacities for perception, and the impact of those distortions on our abilities to make effective decisions. The new metaphor now refers to data sources, regardless of whether or not they may be distorted by that chaos of battle; the metaphor has become, as Goodman put it, a "downpour of texts and tweets." Within that downpour, it is as difficult to distinguish signal from noise at it was under the old metaphor to distinguish friend from foe.

Goodman uses this new metaphor to build a strong case that we need the disciplines of traditional journalism more than ever. More specifically, the extraction of signal from noise is a matter of validation, vetting, and editing. From Goodman's point of view, the current crisis in journalism comes down to the loss of valuable resources:

I don’t have to remind readers of newspaper woes, but in this imploding world, who will do the job of the mainstream media?

This is an indisputable point. However, if we are going to address questions of resources, we need to remember that time is as significant a resource as manpower. Goodman first really came to my attention a little over two years ago, when she wrote a column entitled "The Benefits of Slow Journalism." Even before Twitter was a gleam in some venture capitalist's eye, she realized that the Internet was more about speed than about reflection. Looking back on both that column and my "reflection" on it, I realize that those practices she advocated in her "post-Twitter" column, validation, vetting, and editing, are all highly reflective activities. If you are going to try to perform them at "Internet speed" (the primary target of Goodman's earlier column), you might as well not perform them at all.

For Goodman, the fundamental question is the one I incorporated in my title: "how will we know what to believe?" Pessimist that I am, however, I wonder if the real question is a darker one: Do we care whether or not we know what to believe? Instant gratification does not necessarily require validity as a prerequisite. It just has to provide the "buzz" of being right there "in the moment" when (to choose a poignant example-of-the-moment) a cell phone captured the shooting death of Neda Agha Soltan on video. Without any subsequent reflection, however, that buzz quickly deteriorates into trivialization; and those of us desperate to avoid such trivialization find ourselves in the same boat as Abraham Lincoln, asking questions about those who may have died in vain. I thus worry that Goodman's latest column may be that proverbial tree falling in a forest where no one can hear it. It definitely made a sound worth hearing; but, if that sound has not been perceived by those with the power to do something about it, it might as well not have been made at all.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Validating Music

Yesterday, in writing about the analytic approach of Heinrich Schenker, I declared that I did not accept his view of analysis as a means of "validating" a piece of music, equating the "validity" of the composition with the "success" of the analysis. What I had not realized, until I did some further digging, was that Donald Francis Tovey, whose methods of analysis were quite different, was as obsessed with "validity" as Schenker was. A paragraph of Tovey writing about Schoenberg, which led me to this conclusion, can be read in a comment I posted this morning to the San Francisco Symphony Social Network. I also realized that, beyond yesterday's comparison of Schenker's synchronic approach to Tovey's diachronic one, Tovey, being more of an English gentleman than a scholar, tended to resort to methods of rhetoric, in contrast to Schenker's efforts to make his points (not always successfully) through logic.

Consequently, any "emancipated dissonance" is "off the map" for both of these analysts. Thus, as far as Schenker was concerned, Arnold Schoenberg never existed, while Tovey was generous enough to acknowledge Schoenberg for his Gurrelieder (probably because it fit so nicely into his evolutionary view of music history). Perhaps one of the reasons for Joseph Kerman offering the prospect of "getting out of analysis" in the title of the essay that triggered this recent round of thoughts was concerned less with analysis itself and more with a tradition embraced by both Schenker and Tovey under which analysts were "gatekeepers of validity." Having established what we really need to escape, my favorite proposition, that we begin with the nature of listening, as opposed to structures in printed score pages, still seems like the best escape hatch. We may then examine the nature of listening through Gerald Edelman's biologically-based model of consciousness, which seems to have its origins in some of the final research undertaken by Friedrich Hayek. As I have observed, Edelman's approach "involves not only our capacity for forming perceptual categories but also the interplay of those categories that arise from 'sensation of the world' with categories based on 'sensation of self.'" We are thus as likely to find perceptual categories in our listening to Schoenberg's "Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte" as we are to find them in those symphonies of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven through which Schenker could demonstrate his methods so excellently. Furthermore, Schenker's self-appointed gatekeeper role is soundly thrashed by the subjective nature of those perceptual categories. To put it aphoristically, we hear what we hear because we hear it in terms of what we have heard. If Schenker's method "works" at all, it is because his Ursatz is nothing more than the barest abstraction of an authentic cadence, which most of us have heard for as long as we have been listening to music. However, experiences in listening to music composed after the Second World War have endowed us with a subjectivity that does not require authentic cadences as passionately as Schenker did. Perhaps, then, the goal of Kerman's title has some merit. We can get out of analysis (or at least the analytic practices that dominated music theory during the twentieth century). Each of us can do so by pulling him(her)self up with the bootstraps of his(her) own consciousness!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The "Organic" Metaphor

Barnaby Thieme has been doing some interesting reading, and his decision to share that reading with the San Francisco Social Network has led me down a path I had not previously considered. His source is Joseph Kerman's essay, "How We Got into Analysis, And How to Get Out Again," which was included in a collection of Kerman's writings entitled Write All These Down. My own trigger was the following quote from Kerman:

Schoenberg's really decisive insight was to conceive of a way of continuing the great tradition while negating what everyone else to be at its very core, namely, tonality. He grasped the fact that what was central to the ideology was not the triad and tonality, as Schenker and Tovey believed, but organicism.

My immediate reaction was to consider whether Kerman's decision to place Heinrich Schenker and Donald Francis Tovey in the same sentence could be construed as chutzpah. However, since Kerman's essay appeared in 1980, it is not really in the running for a Chutzpah of the Week award; so I was willing to simply credit it as bold rhetoric. The problem is that it may also be misleading.

I have nothing against "organicism;" but we have to remember that any use of "organic" in the description of musical activities can only be metaphoric. Schenker used the metaphor explicitly. I am not sure I encountered the word actually being used by Tovey, but I can see the logic behind Kerman attributing it to him. The problem is that Schenker and Tovey construe the metaphor in radically different ways, and that is what makes Kerman's text misleading.

Let me begin with my understanding of Schenker's use of the word based on my readings of his texts in various English translations. Schenker's approach is to view a composition as if it were a living organism. His approach to analysis is one that validates that point of view from a "physiological" perspective. In other words the composition has a "structural anatomy," which provides the framework for how that composition "functions" (which, in turn, should inform how performance should present that "functioning"). I have no problem with this particular metaphorical approach to organicism, even if I am not sure I would engage it in my own writing about music.

Tovey, on the other hand, is not so much concerned with the physiology of a particular species as he is with how that species evolved. This is most evident in the "Music" entry that he prepared for the eleventh edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica. Tracing the history of music from the Ancient Greeks to the beginning of the twentieth century, he saw an evolutionary progression through which composers expand their compositions to work with longer and longer durations of time. The fact that Tovey's argument broke down when Arnold Schoenberg, along with his students Alban Berg and Anton Webern, went "back to brevity" is irrelevant to Tovey's understanding of the metaphor. He was working with the data points he had, he put up a reasonably valid hypothesis, and developed an argument that paralleled an evolutionary process (without bring either genetics or natural selection into the picture).

This distinction between Schenker and Tovey revolves around a fundamental difference in thinking about time, which I have explored in previous writing about listening behavior. Schenker's approach is a synchronic one, based on nothing more than the properties of the composition being analyzed, while Tovey's approach is diachronic, placing every composition in the context of the overall flow of music history. Ironically, Tovey's case can be made through Schenkerian methods, since that management of longer durations of time is usually associated with an increase in the number of "layers" between the surface "foreground" structure and the Ursatz in the "background." However, an echt Schenkerian would examine each of Tovey's examples on a case-by-case basis, rather than seeking out a "metalogic" of how the foreground-background relationship changes over time.

Personally, I do not think we should be obliged to choose between synchronic and diachronic thinking. Pragmatist that I am, I believe we choose methods suitable to the nature of the questions whose answers we seek. Mind you, I do not approve of Schenker's approach as a means to determine whether or not a composition is "valid;" but, if we look beyond his rather dogmatic stance in such matters, we find some very useful tools for understanding the syntactic foundations of embellishment; and it is through those foundations that we can begin to make sense of Tovey's evolutionary perspective. In other words informed listening is a matter of seeking out the dialectical synthesis of the "natural" opposition of synchronic and diachronic. That, for me at least, is what analysis is; and, unlike Kerman, I have no desire to get out of it!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Gil Evans' Bartók Connection

That passing reference to Gil Evans while writing about Porgy and Bess reminded me that it has been a while since I did some serious listening to Evans. On the Porgy and Bess album he had the chutzpah to supplement his arrangements of George Gershwin's music with an original composition of his own, "Gone," which is far more than a paraphrase of the music for Robbins' funeral scene in Scene 2 of Act 1 of the opera. This is symptomatic of the way in which Evans could turn the work of another composer into a new and original object. This was probably most evident in the way in which he reworked the second movement of Joaquín Rodrigo's "Concierto de Aranjuez," originally written for guitar and orchestra, for the Sketches of Spain album he prepared with Miles Davis. Less familiar may be "Song of our Country," recorded at the Sketches of Spain sessions but not released on the original Columbia vinyl. The title is the English translation of the subtitle of the second movement of the second of Heitor Villa-Lobos' Bachianas Brasileiras suites ("O Canto de Nossa Terra"); and Villa-Lobos is far better served by Evans' treatment than he ever was by the overabundance of hack adaptations (anyone remember Johnny Mathis?) of the aria from the fifth Bachianas Brasileiras suite.

More surprising, however, is when Evans moved away from Spain and Brazil and turned to Béla Bartók. This is a more subtle (if not downright concealed) adaptation, since it resides in the introduction to his arrangement of the tune by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, "Wait Till You See Her." The source comes from the introduction to the first movement of Bartók's "Concerto for Orchestra." Hopefully, one of these days some capable graduate student will get around to writing a thesis on Bartók's influence on jazz in the third quarter of the twentieth century. Given Evans' extensive literacy, finding that influence in his music is no surprise. More surprising may be accounts that John Coltrane used to practice by playing along with the opening measures of that same Bartók composition, which may well be where he got his idea for "Giant Steps." At the same time we find piano solos by Mose Allison with a strong Bartók influence (which I was able to confirm through a conversation with Allison "back in the day"). The middle of the twentieth century was an exciting time for both making and listening to music. Gil Evans was a champion of that time; and the recordings he influenced, both directly and indirectly, constitute a valuable legacy.

Orchestral Gershwin

One of the things I like about my seat at the War Memorial Opera House for my San Francisco Opera subscription is the view it gives me of the orchestra pit. So much attention has been given to the staging and singing of the production of George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, which opened on June 9, that I feel a bit of an obligation to play up the instrumental side of the action. Where orchestration is concerned, Gershwin was somewhat of a late bloomer. The worlds of Broadway and Hollywood imposed a "division of labor," where the composer came up with the tunes and an arranger took care of the scoring. Even "Rhapsody in Blue" was orchestrated by Ferde Grofé. However, once Gershwin established his "concert hall credibility" with that composition, he began to work his own orchestral ideas, beginning with his F major piano concerto.

To some extent what I have previously called "the Ravel-Gershwin connection" may have been driven by Ravel's acute listening to Gershwin's sense of melody, harmony, and rhythm in both the rhapsody and the concerto and to Gershwin's development of similarly acute listening to Ravel's orchestration. The first impression one gets looking into the orchestra pit is the synthesis of concert hall and dance band elements, side by side. Most obvious is the use of a trap drum set to supplement the timpani and battery. Then there are the single-reed wind players, most of whom seem to divide time across clarinet, bass clarinet, and alto sax, making the score a bit of a journey through different wind sounds. This is definitely the work of a composer who no longer has to depend on an arranger, coming up with orchestrations through which even the most familiar of the tunes (and this opera has plenty of them) take on fresh coloration in which "classical" sounds cohabit comfortably with more jazzy elements.

From this point of view, I have to say that not enough attention has been given to conductor John DeMain. I first heard DeMain conduct when the 1976 Houston Grand Opera production of Porgy and Bess went on tour and came to Radio City Music Hall in New York. Even under those adverse conditions, he brought Gershwin's score to life, expressing with sparkling clarity how the journey of the opera's protagonists is very much a journey of the music itself. He commanded the same respect from the musical resources of the San Francisco Opera, finding at all times just the right pace to fit the progress of the journey to Francesca Zambello's compelling staging. Most important was the way in which he explored the richness of the music beyond those familiar tunes, territory overlooked in the jazz and pop worlds by just about everyone other than Gil Evans (in his arrangements for Miles Davis).

This production was the perfect antidote for that bloodlessness that so disappointed me in last week's Tosca!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

On Choosing Words Carefully

It has been a while since I placed a text under a strong magnifying glass; but, considering how volatile conditions currently are in Iran, I think it is worth examining Barack Obama's most recent statement this way. If he thinks he is pouring oil on troubled waters, then others may see him as setting a match to that oil. Let us consider his first (and most quoted) paragraph (using Robert Dreyfuss' most recent blog post for The Nation as my source):

The Iranian government must understand that the world is watching. We mourn each and every innocent life that is lost. We call on the Iranian government to stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people. The universal rights to assembly and free speech must be respected, and the United States stands with all who seek to exercise those rights.

This text starts out immediately on the wrong foot with its use of "must." This is nothing more than that great classic of Bush-speak, "ya gotta understand" (which I once called "the only rhetorical device Bush has mastered"), with less folksy phonology. It presumes that the speaker's point of view is the only valid one, and this shows a flagrant disregard for the message behind the subtitle of (now "banished") Dennis Ross' Statecraft book, which is the need "to restore America's standing in the world." The bottom line is that this one little word reveals that, when push comes to shove, we can fall back on the same might-makes-right reasoning of the Bush Administration that got us into so much trouble.

This injudicious use of the word "must" is followed by the equally suspect adjective "unjust." Like it or not, the Iranian government has a justice system. We may not like the way it works, and we are under no obligation to agree with it or support it. However, using the word "unjust" amounts to invalidating it; and, like it or not, we do not have grounds to do so.

This then takes us to the even more highly-charged adjective "universal." Presumably, this adjective was engaged because it appears in the title of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 10, 1948. Unfortunately, subsequent debates and decisions emerging from the United Nations since then have demonstrated that there is far from "universal" agreement when it comes to taking the 30 articles of this Declaration seriously in practice. Thus, Obama would have done better to make his point on the basis of his grounds for support, referring to "rights granted by the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights" without shoving the "universality" of those rights in the faces of those currently violating the Preamble (free speech) and Article 20 (assembly) of that Declaration.

As was the case when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was first elected, we would do well to recognize how little this disputed election has to do with the governance of Iran. Power still resides ultimately with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei; and the president is little more than an "interface" between the world of this religious leader and the world of other countries, whether their governments are secular or sacred. Khamenei has made it clear that those who protest are indisputably at fault and will thus be subjected to the consequences of their faulty actions. Those are currently the "rules of the game" in Iran. If we are going to even try to exercise statecraft, we cannot begin by denying that those rules exist. This puts most of the Western countries in a great bind. However, this may have been Khamenei's intent. He is testing us to see if (and how) we can negotiate from such a difficult position. This will be Obama's real test as to whether or not meaningful relations with Iran can be restored. Khamenei has created that test, and it is now up to Obama to figure out how to pass it.

Cinematic Free Association

Yesterday I alluded to my plan to go over to the San Francisco Conservatory to observe a Master Class conducted by Kiri Te Kanawa. This was a donor's event held in conjunction with the annual Conservatory Gala, which meant, among other things, that I did not approach it as an Examiner.com event. Furthermore, since I am limited to observing the practice of music, rather than practicing it in any serious way, I approach occasions like these in terms of taking what I can get out of them. Thus, at the beginning of this season, I used a similar event, at which the "master teacher" was pianist Leon Fleisher, as a point of departure for raising a couple of questions about Fleisher's pedagogical approach. Needless to say, I never got any answers from Fleisher; but the questions "seeded" a couple of trains of thought that I subsequently followed.

This time around I had no questions to raise regarding Dame Te Kanawa's approach. As I have observed with other vocal master classes, she is particularly attentive to the need for the vocalist to treat the whole body as the "instrument;" and much of her guidance homed in on how to honor "the music itself" through proper physical management of that "instrument." Nevertheless, the context I ended up bringing with me to this class triggered a fascinating free association during one of the performances; and, because it is so often the case that we cannot control our contexts, I wanted to share this particular impression.

The trigger was provided by Kittinant Chinsamran, a bass-baritone who recently received a Post Graduate Diploma in vocal performance from the Conservatory and is now artist-in-residence at the San Francisco School of the Arts. He chose to perform the air "Revenge, revenge, Timotheus cries" from George Frideric Handel's oratorio Alexander's Feast. This is the opening air of Part Two, Part One having ended with Alexander (the Great) getting a bit drowsy (and melancholy) from all the wine being served at his victory feast. Thus, the air is preceded by a tenor accompagnato to the text:

Now strike the golden lyre again,
A louder yet — and yet a louder strain!
Break his bands of sleep asunder,
And rouse him, like a rattling peal of thunder.

This is pretty much what the "Revenge" air does, invoking the memory of Alexander's soldiers:

… that in battle were slain,
And unbury'd, remain
Inglorious on the plain.

Timotheus invokes these spirits as:

… a ghastly band,
Each a torch in his hand!

Under most circumstances I would have simply accepted this as the sort of rhetoric one could expect in 1736 England; but it happened that, on the night before this event, my wife and I happened to see the Cinemax broadcast (saved on the VTR) of Hellboy II: The Golden Army. As a result I found myself thinking about how the visual imagination of Guillermo del Toro could be applied to Newburgh Hamilton's text (hardly a monument of English literature). This led to further thoughts about the decided Baroque element in del Toro's visual conceptions; and, if del Toro could capture imagery suitable for the rather mundane setting of a victory feast, what might he do with those Baroque operas in which the supernatural plays a much greater role?

The lesson from this experience seems to be that, while there is no doubt that "opera lives," that life draws as much from the context of our contemporary influences as it does from the merits of the "opera text" itself.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Chatting up New Talent

As regular readers of Cindy Warner's SF Opera Examiner dispatches should know by now, Cindy was kind enough to invite me as a guest for an event to meet the 2009 artists who will be performing this summer under the auspices of the Merola Opera Program. Each of these artists was subjected to a brief interview; and Cindy did an excellent job of capturing their observations (along with providing a photograph of the "interrogation process"). These interviews were followed by informal conversation over food. I am not much of a conversationalist; but I did want to make a point of letting Eleazar Rodriguez know that I had seen (and enjoyed) several of his performances of opera scenes at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

However, given my personal theoretical interests in the nature of performance and the nature of communication that takes place both during a performance and in preparing for one, my real interest at this event was directed towards those selected to serve as apprentice coaches. I was particularly fortunate to get to chat with Miaomiao Wang, since her own "interrogation" involved questions about Chinese opera (or, as she corrected Sherri Greenawald, Beijing Opera), which bears far less resemblance to Western opera than a plate of Shanghai dumplings does to one of ravioli. Wang was still coming up to speed with her English, but I thoroughly enjoyed talking with her about her experiences in accompanying art song. As far as I am concerned, any pianist who has worked with recital singers to prepare Robert Schumann's two major song cycles, "Frauenliebe und Leben" (Opus 42) and "Dichterliebe" (Opus 48), is more than adequately prepared to take on the encounter between music and drama necessary to pull off an effective opera performance. My regret is that, since she does all of her work "behind the scenes," I shall not have the opportunity to see directly how she exercises her skills.

As Cindy reported, Stephanie Rhodes was given a better opportunity for "shop talk" in her interview and used that opportunity to talk about the materials with which she works, including both full orchestral scores and recordings of performances with full orchestra. All this resonated very nicely with my own thoughts about the relationship between notes and music, although I knew better than to belabor her with any of the Chomskyan theory to which I have subjected my readers! I did, however, inquire as to what her performance preferences were when not coaching opera and was not surprised to hear that, like so many other pianists, she aspired to perform Sergei Rachmaninoff's second piano concerto. If her ear for Rachmaninoff's orchestration is as keen as it is for the opera repertoire, then she has the makings of a soloist who will be fully and effectively engaged with her "accompanying voices."

As a product of too many music teachers too fond of saying "There are those who like music and those who like opera," I was more than delighted to encounter so much "musical intelligence" at this encounter with the "Merolini." This bodes well just as much for the future of opera as it does for the future of music. (It also puts my head in an interesting place as I am about to go over to the Conservatory for a Master Class to be conducted this afternoon by Kiri Te Kanawa!)

Friday, June 19, 2009

Points of View on Health Care

I did something I almost never do: I "clicked through" on an advertisement placed on a Web page I was reading. This just happened to be a case where the connection seemed logical. The Web page was on Truthdig with the provocative title "Health Care Fail." This was in their Ear to the Ground section, where they report on what other sources are reporting, usually with a tempting introduction. In this case the introduction was as provocative as the title:

By one estimate, Sen. Max Baucus gets about $1,500 a day from the health industry. Who put this man in charge of health care reform? The senator’s latest innovation in compromise is to slash proposed insurance subsidies in a bid to get Republicans on board. And forget about a government-run insurance program.

Did the American people really fill the White House and both chambers of Congress with Democrats in order to placate Republicans?

The advertisement was placed by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The "message" (with colors reproduced) was "When you need just the facts about HealthReform.org." Other than this message, the ad consisted of nothing more than the name of the Foundation and its logo. Since I was curious as to what their position was on health care reform, I figured it was worth taking the "click," which took me to the following statement (which is on the page one would find by entering HealthReform.org as a URL):

Health care is an economic as well as a social issue. In 2008, the United States spent more than $2 trillion on health care—nearly 17 percent of our entire economy. Meanwhile, 46 million people are uninsured. But extending coverage to the uninsured won't solve what's ailing the health-care system. Meaningful reform also requires improving quality, emphasizing prevention and reducing costs.

In order to read this statement in its proper context, we need to bear in mind just who Robert Wood Johnson was. It takes a few clicks to get there, but that information is provided on the Foundation's Web site. Here is the entirety of the description:

Robert Wood Johnson was one of the twentieth century's most innovative and colorful business leaders. He built Johnson and Johnson into a world-renowned company and gave new meaning to the need for corporations to serve the public interest. His generosity created one of the nation's most significant philanthropies dedicated to improve the health and health care of all Americans.

In other words this is the philanthropic arm of Johnson & Johnson, named for one of the two Johnsons. Does this reflect a bias in how the Foundation is committed to doing "good works?" There may be grounds for this being the case that I would like to explore.

I take, as my own point of departure, Arnold Relman's article in the latest issue of The New York Review, entitled, "The Health Reform We Need & Are Not Getting." In the spirit of the post I put up yesterday, Relman recognizes that the crux of the health care problem is all about the money. However, rather than going down the path I took yesterday concerned with who will pay out that money, Relman begins by asking why the expense is so great:

Health care in the US is about twice as expensive per capita as in other developed countries—nearly 17 percent of US GDP in 2008—and its costs are rising faster.

Relman's first explanation for this expense is basically one of a disconnect between supply and demand:

This difference is partly explained by a higher proportion of specialists in the US, who rely more than primary care physicians on expensive technical procedures for their livelihood, and in general are much more highly paid than primary care physicians—one reason why primary care doctors are now in short supply.

However, Relman saves the more significant differentiating factor for his final explanation:

Another very important but often overlooked reason for greater health expenditures in the US is that, more than in any other advanced country, large parts of the system are owned by investors. As a result, the entire system behaves like a profit-driven industry, as I described two years ago in my book A Second Opinion. The commercialization of our health system dates back only a few decades, but its consequences are profound. Investors now own about 20 percent of nonpublic general hospitals, almost all specialty hospitals, and most freestanding facilities for ambulatory patients, such as walk-in clinics, imaging centers, and ambulatory surgical centers. These medical care businesses, like other businesses, need profits to satisfy their investors, and for this purpose they use marketing and advertising, directed at physicians and the general public.

To remain competitive, many not-for-profit hospitals promote their bottom line just like their for-profit counterparts, vigorously advertising their facilities and services to the public. No other health care system is as focused on generating income as ours, and in no other country is medical care marketed and advertised so aggressively, as if it were just another commodity in trade. This increases health costs, while hospitals concentrate on the delivery of profitable, rather than effective, services. It also favors those who can pay over those who need medical care but can't afford it.

There is a lot of highly charged language in those two paragraphs, none of which puts a corporation like Johnson & Johnson in a particularly favorable light. Relman's perspective may also explain why the ostensibly philanthropic position statement by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation should recognize heath care as an economic issue before recognizing it as a social one.

This brings us back to the Truthdig article and its first sentence. As long as health care is an industry, rather than some form of public service or public trust, all of the stakeholders in that industry (and their numbers are legion beyond imagination) will rally to maintain that industry status. The sharp point of their sword has always been, and will probably continue to be, the demonization of the concept of socialized medicine. We are all seeing that demonization at work through advertising campaigns; and, as Truthdig has reminded us, it is also at work through high-stakes lobbying. Unfortunately, it is also at work through institutions that, on the surface, appear to be philanthropic organizations interested in the public good; but when such organizations come to our attention through strategically-placed keyword advertising, we should be suspicious.

Can the public good prevail in the face of such opposition? Yesterday I was reading one of the chapters in From Max Weber in which he cited a favorite proverb of his contemporaries:

Mind you, the devil is old; grow old to understand him.

Weber then interpreted this text as follows:

It means that if one wishes to settle with this devil, one must not take to flight before him as so many do nowadays. First of all, one has to see the devil's ways to the end in order to realize his power and his limitations.

The devil of health-care-as-industry is, indeed, old (at least as old as Johnson & Johnson). His ways are subtle, but it does not take much critical inquiry on our part to see them. The trick will be to see his limitations and use them (perhaps in the spirit of judo) to restore health care to its rightful status as public service.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Who is being Represented in the Health Care Debate?

The question raised last month by Stanley Kutler in his contribution to Truthdig over whether or not "Congress is broken" ultimately comes down to who is being represented by the agents of our system of "representative government." Now, to be fair, that system, as Edmund Morgan observed in American Heroes, is more an ideal than a reality. As Russell Baker observed in reviewing this book for The New York Review, "Morgan makes a persuasive argument that all successful government must be based on a fiction." However, even if the "facts" of representation fall short of that "idealized fiction" ultimately codified by James Madison and his colleagues, the instantiation of the idea of itself, regardless of its "truth value," allows us to raise such questions as who is represented and how.

When the system is "working," we do not have to raise these questions. As I put it last month, "we delegate the responsibilities of making decisions and taking actions, rather than relegating those responsibilities to the 'wisdom' of our own crowd," where I installed a hyperlink to justify my use of scare quotes around that noun "wisdom." Where health care reform is concerned, however, Kutler definitely has a point: The system is not working. It is stuck in an enormous mud-pit of passionately held ideas expressed through inflammatory rhetoric, with little regard to any thoughts the electorate may have. Put another way, the pharmaceutical industry will always speak with a louder voice than even the most organized bloc of voters; and the American Medical Association can even go so far as to speak louder than those actually in the trenches of administering health care.

Now I do not pretend to know what the entire electorate of the United States thinks about health care reform; but today Victoria Colliver, Staff Writer for the San Francisco Chronicle reported the results of a Field Poll based on a sample of 1207 registered California voters. The graphic included with Colliver's story is worth reproducing:

This seems to indicate that the need for health care reform hits very close to a significant number of California homes; but it also indicates that, while there may be agreement that reform is necessary, there is considerable divisiveness over how to pay for it. Furthermore, Colliver's text demonstrates the extent to which that divisiveness involves partisan sympathies:

Sixty-six percent of Democrats polled said they would be willing to pay higher taxes to ensure health coverage for every American, while 25 percent of Republicans agreed with that statement. Among nonpartisan voters, 54 percent agreed.

The problem, of course, is that such divisiveness could undermine any effort at reform, particularly when it is inflamed by the sort of media propaganda that undermined health care reform under Bill Clinton's Administration.

One sign that Congress may be as broken as Kutler claims it to be is that Congress is more interested in exploiting this divisiveness for political gain than in resolving it. If this is the case, then there may be little that President Barack Obama can do to repair that condition. However uplifting and persuasive his rhetoric may be, it may not be able to restore order to an entropy being roiled up by Republican and Democratic legislators in equal measure. In such a setting the only result to emerge from Capitol Hill will be reform in name only, presenting Obama with the same old pig, enhanced, if at all, with several layers of lipstick.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Pandemic CHUTZPAH

It looks like I can thank Laura Flanders for directing me towards the leading candidate for this week's Chutzpah of the Week award. She is (among many other things) one of the contributors to The Notion, which is a collective blog site maintained by The Nation. Her post this morning speaks for itself in language that is as clear as it is compelling:

The Swiss drug company Novartis will not give free vaccines against H1N1 flu to poor countries -- it will only consider discounts.

Novartis's refusal comes in the wake of a request from the Director General of the World Health Organization, Dr. Margaret Chan, who has called for drug companies to show solidarity with poor countries as they develop vaccines against the H1NI or "swine flu" pandemic.

Just by way of reminder, H1N1 has infected around 30,000 people globally, mostly in North America, though there have been a few deaths outside Mexico and the United States. Europe suffered its first death on Sunday. The first has just been reported in Argentina.

Help the poor prevent a pandemic? Novartis said 'No'. That's Novartis --makers of Exedrin and Bufferin -- I guess they haven't made enough off those over-the-counter best-sellers.

"If you want to make production sustainable, you have to create financial incentives," explained Novartis Chief Executive Daniel Vasella.

By "financial incentives" he means the 'p' word: profits.

Spot the flaw in the profit-driven approach to health care? Anyone?

Financial incentives?

When a pandemic isn't incentive enough -- I'd say we have another 'p' word -- a problem.

Bearing in mind that the pharmaceutical industry is almost too easy a target for chutzpah accusations, this is such a clear example of warped priorities that it deserves to be singled out for recognition. By placing the interests of shareholders (presumably including himself) above the exigencies of dealing with a pandemic as effectively and rapidly as resources allow, Vasella has built up a "chutzpah reserve" that could easily see him through several awards. For now, however, I shall just live in the present, give him the award, and hope that he places it next to the computer monitor he uses to track the value of Novartis shares.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Paying the Price for an Inconvenient Truth

These are not good times for reporters who take their work seriously. Lest our ethnocentric thinking leads us to the false conclusion that only representatives of Western institutions are at risk, this morning Al Jazeera faced the unpleasant task of reporting on the fate of their own staff:

Afghan intelligence services holding two Al Jazeera producers have demanded a copy of a report the pair made two days before their detention.

Al Jazeera was on Tuesday still awaiting information from the authorities about Qais Azimy and Hameedullah Shah, who were detained after being told to report to the country's intelligence headquarters in Kabul two days before.

Their detention follows the broadcast of a report produced by Azimy on Thursday June 11 in Kunduz province of Afghanistan, close to the border with Tajikistan.

In one interview in the report, conducted by Azimy, a Taliban leader said he had hundreds of men under his control and 12 suicide bombers waiting to strike.

'No news'

David Chater, Al Jazeera's correspondent in the capital Kabul, who helped compile the report, said he was trying to find out more information about what was happening to his colleagues.

"We don't know what they are charged with. We don't know when they might be released. We know absolutely nothing," he said.

"Intelligence forces that are holding our two producers ... accuse us of producing something that is unbalanced, with no government representative.

"That is clearly untrue. We interviewed, at the same time, the commander of the German forces in Kunduz, and he put his point across very clearly. That was a balanced report.

"They also accuse us of shooting essentially what is fake material, staged action from the Taliban. Qais Azimy and myself know the difference between fake footage and real footage. We did not," he said.

"It would appear that we are suffering from the fact that we are delivering an uncomfortable and unpalatable truth in our messages.

"So that means, once again, that somebody, somewhere in Kabul and in the government is trying to shoot the messenger."

Report approved

Al Anstey, Al Jazeera English's director of news, said: "We stand by the report filed by David Chater on Thursday June 11 which was produced by Qais Azimy in Kunduz province of Afghanistan.

"We were involved in the commissioning of the piece and approved all elements of the production.

"All stories we air on Al Jazeera English go through the toughest scrutiny and uphold the highest standards of balance and journalistic integrity.

"We would never tolerate any content being "artificially created" for AJE.

"Qais Azimy is a trusted member of our full time staff, and is one of the best journalists in Afghanistan," he said.

I was not surprised to find this account on the Al Jazeera English Web site. Beyond the usual reaction that this sort of thing has become normative, particularly when it involves "an inconvenient truth," I found myself wondering whether I shall see coverage from any other news source. I shall not be surprised if the American media let this one slip through the cracks, but I shall be watching my BBC sources very closely today!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Finding the Right Focus

My suggestion that Scarpia occupies a more focal position than Tosca in Giacomo Puccini's opera based on Victorien Sardou's drama named after the latter heroine may have had its origins in my student days when I first started reading arts criticism. I remember an issue of The New Yorker in which Winthrop Sargeant described Frederick Ashton's choreography for the ballet Cinderella as the story of two very droll old maids who happened to have a beautiful stepsister who went to a ball and married a prince. (Mind you, those old maids were originally danced by Ashton himself and Robert Helpmann, both of whom were comedic experts as well as superb dancers. It is easy to imagine them upstaging even the likes of Margot Fonteyn.) These thoughts on finding the right focus were further cultivated by Joshua Kosman's account of the new San Francisco Opera production of Giuseppe Verdi's La Traviata in the San Francisco Chronicle:

From its second act onward, the San Francisco Opera's new production of "La Traviata" attempts something radically new with Verdi's familiar melodrama.

In this version, which opened Saturday night at the War Memorial Opera House, a well-meaning but short-sighted father, Giorgio Germont, comes to grief when he attempts to stage-manage his family's affairs in accordance with bourgeois morality. It's a darkly moving tale, with hints of a Sophoclean downfall.

There are also a couple of younger folks in the story - the hero's feckless son and his tubercular girlfriend - but it's not always easy to get as worked up about their problems.

Unfortunately, those young lovers - Violetta Valéry, the "fallen woman" of the title, and her devoted Alfredo - are actually the focus of the opera that Verdi composed. And Saturday's dramatic realignment was the result of some deeply disappointing performances that allowed baritone Dwayne Croft as Germont - recovering from a sinus infection, no less - to walk off with the show.

I suppose it comes down to whether you want to choose your focus on the basis of "star booking" (which is basically the reasoning behind that last paragraph) or a well-founded narratological argument (which is the strategy I tried to take in writing about Tosca). Germont may not spend as much time in a spotlight as Violetta or Alfredo; but we can make a good case for him being the primary source of motives for the entire opera, not only those of his own "bourgeois morality" but also those of the would-be "lead characters." I am not sure that I would call Germont a "Sophoclean" character; but, under only slightly different social circumstances, one could seem him as the subject of one of Euripides' plays.

The fact that one can choose one's focus stems from Gérard Genette's approach to "narrative reality," which distinguishes between the plotline (or "story") as a basic time-ordered sequence of events and the "discourse" strategies through which those events are presented to the audience (not necessarily in temporal order). In other words, the "story" (in Genette's technical use of that term) is not about anything (since it consists of nothing more than its component events); the significance of the story only emerges through how it is told (hence the old joke about a child's report on a book about Lizzie Borden, describing it as the story of a girl who was not very kind to her parents).

In all fairness, however, I should observe that, while I could come up with evidence that, regardless of how Sardou may have conceived his discourse, Puccini's Tosca is very much about Scarpia, I cannot make a similar case that Verdi thought of La Traviata as being about Germont. If Scarpia is with us from the very first note of Tosca, then the dying Violetta is there in the first phrase of La Traviata, which we shall then encounter as the prelude to the final act in which that death is depicted. (When Franco Zeffirelli conceived of this opera as a film, he took a similar "flashback" approach, having the camera walk through Violetta's rooms after her death while the orchestra plays the opening prelude.) It is hard to imagine Verdi as ever wanting to write an opera about a character like Germont; but, in today's world that has become so fixated on "family values," it would not surprise me to find an opera composer willing to take on the task of giving this epitome of bourgeois thinking his due.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Dare to be Vulgar

By all rights Victorien Sardou's drama that was subsequently adapted into opera should have been entitled Scarpia, rather than La Tosca; but such a title would have distracted attention from the "divine" Sarah Bernhardt. It is hard to imagine her putting up with such a distraction. In composing his score for the opera, however, Giacomo Puccini knew where the dramatic priorities are. In what may be his only successful adoption of Richard Wagner's leitmotiv technique, Puccini conceived of Scarpia as the one member of the cast characterized by a distinctive motif; and that motif is the very first gesture in the score. It recurs in all the proper places, even briefly in the third act after Scarpia has been dispatched (in the second act) by "Tosca's kiss;" and the symmetry of the drama is achieved as Scarpia is addressed in Tosca's final utterance.

From a narratological point of few, there is a perfectly good reason for Scarpia occupying the focus of Puccini's musical attentions: He is the epitome of vulgarity, having very few equals in the repertoire of Puccini's time or, for that matter, the remainder of the twentieth century; and by Aristotelian standards Sardou's narrative should be called a comedy, since it is almost entirely "an imitation of baser men" (along with one woman). Indeed, it would be appropriate to invoke the language that Alexander Pushkin summoned for the full title of his play about Tsar Boris Godunov and call Tosca a "comedy of distress." In the midst of the distress of the Roman monarchy under attack from Napoleon (ostensibly in the name of republican liberation, which should sound all to familiar to those of us following American military adventurism since the turn of the current century), all but the most insignificant characters are reduced to base actions at some point or other in the unfolding of the narrative. Scarpia is simply the über vulgarian, whose own base actions motivate those of the other characters (all of whom are relatively insignificant in the face of Napoleon's campaign).

It is hard to think of Puccini as celebrating the base. The problem is that, even when the score provides ample opportunities to flex its vulgar muscles, so to speak, performers tend to shy away and blunt the sharpest edges. This was evident in the current San Francisco Opera production. Conductor Marco Armiliato could have begun the performance with the same sort of obscene gesture coming from the trombone section that Dmitri Shostakovich would later summon in Lady Macbeth of the Mtzensk District. However, it seemed as if he heard Puccini's opening gesture more in terms of the pealing of bells in the church of Sant'Andrea, rather than a foreshadowing of Scarpia's first appearance. What followed was all disappointingly bloodless, whether it involved Tosca's jealousy, Scarpia's lust, Cavaradossi's torture, or even Sciarrone taking matters into his own hands after Scarpia's body is discovered. Whether this was a matter of lackadaisical staging, singing that lacked motivic energy, or insufficient drive to move forward coming from the conductor's podium is academic.

To invoke the Olympic "wisdom" of Thomas Bach in the domain of operatic criticism, let's not kid ourselves. Tosca may have its transcendent moments (some of which may be because of Sardou but most of them are in spite of him); but, at the end of the day, "it is what it is." For the record the last time I invoked that quote from The Wire was when I was writing about Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. This is not to place Tosca and Cavaradossi on the same plane as Harold and Kumar but just as a reminder that, from that Aristotelian perspective I so value, this is a narrative that revolves almost entirely around base actions. Puccini dared to acknowledge the baseness of those actions in the score he conceived. Every now and then a performance of Tosca comes along that gives that baseness its due. Sadly, the current San Francisco Opera production does not offer such a performance.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

A Federal Basis for Equal Rights

Having failed to make his case for same-sex couples before the California Supreme Court, California Attorney General Jerry Brown has decided, as the cliché goes, to "make a federal case out of it." Last night Bob Egelko, Staff Writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, released the following story:

Attorney General Jerry Brown, who tried to persuade the state Supreme Court to overturn California's ban on same-sex marriage, took the same position in federal court Friday, saying Proposition 8 violates the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of equality.

The initiative approved by the voters in November "denies gay and lesbian couples and their families the same dignity, respect and stature afforded families headed by a married couple," Brown's office said in a filing in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.

This is, of course, a legitimate path of appeal. However, what I had not realized before reading Egelko's report is that those who stand to gain the most from this appeal may also be least likely to support the action:

Gay-rights groups have avoided bringing up federal constitutional issues in the marriage cases, fearful of a U.S. Supreme Court defeat that would set their cause back for years. Brown's refusal to support Prop. 8 means that the conservative Christian groups who sponsored Prop. 8 will defend it in federal court, as they did in the state Supreme Court.

I would like to suggest that we may be facing a parallel with conditions in the United States prior to the election of Abraham Lincoln. By keeping questions of slavery at the level of states' rights, a rift was formed that eventually culminated in secession, followed by Civil War. Current historians seem to agree that Lincoln was more concerned about restoring the Union than about the question of slavery. Today we face a similar threat to the "unity of the United States," grounded in a variety of contentious "social issues," one of which happens to be same-sex marriage (and another, abortion, has been dominating the headlines due to recent violent consequences). Barack Obama has put considerable effort into reminding us of the need for such union, but there are many who see gain in undermining that effort. While I appreciate the concern of gay-rights groups, there is something distasteful about a same-sex couple being accepted in one state and turned out (if not turned upon) in another. Those who remember the Civil Rights Movement should be familiar with that distaste. Brown may be right that the time has come for the case for gay rights to be made at the Federal level. This may not be easy, but it is necessary for the integrity of the country.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Misreading the Metaphor

Tomorrow night I get to attend the final concert in the San Francisco Symphony's festival of the music of Franz Schubert and Alban Berg, presented under the title Dawn to Twilight. From the very beginning of this festival, I have been wrestling with the signification of that metaphorical title and have found that most of my listening experiences benefitted from my putting it aside and just paying attention to the performances. However, after reading Joshua Kosman's account of this week's concert for the San Francisco Chronicle, I now feel that my "quest for the signified" may have been pursued in the wrong direction. My original assumption, which seemed to align with both written and spoken commentary, was that Schubert and Berg served as "bookends" for nineteenth-century romanticism. Furthermore, not only did they serve parallel functions in the broad flow of music history; but also there were parallels to be examined in their respective achievements.

Now I realize that much of the "journey" of the festival itself tended to involve a "biographical journey" through the achievements of its two subjects. Thus, the first concert in the series began with early efforts of each composer; and this week's concert presents two works, each from the final year of each of them. Berg is represented by his violin concerto, published in 1935, the year of his death; and the Schubert offering is his final setting of the mass, in E-flat major (D. 950), for solo voices, mixed chorus, and orchestra, which dates from his prolific final year, 1828. We were given a preview of this end-of-the-road parallelism in the Schubert/Berg Journey program offered at the beginning of this month, which coupled Schubert's pastoral Lied for soprano, clarinet, and piano, "Der Hirt auf dem Felsen" (D. 965) with a suite of movements from Berg's unfinished opera Lulu. If we look beyond the fact that, in the opera, our first image of Lulu has her posing for a painting in the costume of a shepherdess, the coupling of these two works would seem more than a little odd. However, as the Deutsch number indicates, the Lied is even later than the mass; and Berg died before completing Lulu. So it would not be out of place to think of both couplings in valedictory terms.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

A Failed Libretto?

In reading Joshua Kosman's review of Porgy and Bess at the San Francisco Opera, I was distracted from his perceptive thoughts about this opera when he referred to Eric Owens, who sings the role of Porgy, as "a commanding bass-baritone best remembered in these parts as the diet-conscious Gen. Groves in John Adams' 'Doctor Atomic." It left me wondering if that was all he could remember about Groves from this opera. I then remembered sitting next to a guy at the HD screening of the Metropolitan Opera production, realizing that the only thing he remembered was Oppenheimer wrestling with his personal demons by singing the words of John Donne! Putting these two episodes together, I realized that there was relatively little that I remembered from either production. One reason may be that the music was not particularly memorable, perhaps because the strength of the historical narrative ended up pushing the music into the background. However, I say "historical narrative" because the libretto itself, compiled from a variety of sources by Peter Sellars, was more impressionistic than narrative; and this may have been the real problem with memorability. For better or worse, I came to both productions of Doctor Atomic over-prepared for the historical narrative, just because I had studied it from so many difficult angles. (One of the first things I noticed in the set for the Met production was the projected image of Klaus Fuchs' security badge. I am sure this was intentional, but the production team probably knew that only a few people would pick up on that bit of irony.) What I realize in retrospect, though, is that Sellars' text neither presented the narrative (which I think was not his intention) nor reflected on it in any way that registered on my (admittedly over-prepared) existing impressions of the events depicted by the opera. (The British press seems have had similar problems when the Metropolitan Opera production was transferred to the English National Opera.) Whether this constitutes, as my title has insinuated, a failure on the part of the libretto is open to debate. However, I now find myself wondering whether or not Doctor Atomic is one of those dog-walking-on-its-hind-legs operas, memorable for having done what it did but not memorable for doing any of it well enough to make a strong impression.

The Final Stretch

If all goes according to plan, then my final radiation treatment will take place this coming Tuesday. Since I have been having my regular review with my radiologist after my treatment on Wednesday, this means that yesterday was my final review. However, these weekly meetings have involved little more than monitoring for adverse side effects; and my experiences never seemed to descend from the merely uncomfortable to the seriously adverse. Nevertheless, Tuesday will be far from the end of my relationship with the UCSF Comprehensive Cancer Center, where my treatment (initiated by my urologist and implemented by my radiologist) has been taking place. As was explained to me (many times?), the positive effects of radiation therapy cannot be observed immediately (even with that regular monitoring for side effects). So I shall basically go back to the situation I was in after my prostate removal: A test for PSA level every three months for the next two years. Curiously enough, I had a scheduled PSA test at the beginning of May, a couple of weeks after my first radiation dose; and the level was 0.15, down from the 0.17 at the beginning of February, when my urologist first recommended the radiation therapy. As Dante is alleged to have said, "Go figure it!" Whether any of us will ever be better informed about why the PSA went up in the first place (or whether it is now on a statistically meaningful descent), walking over to the Cancer Center every three months will definitely be easier on my personal schedule than going over there every day!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Useless Data CHUTZPAH

Given the attention they have managed to garner, it seems appropriate that the Texas-based Global Language Monitor receive this week's Chutzpah of the Week award. According to this morning's BBC NEWS report, this is what they do:

Global Language Monitor (GLM) searches the internet for newly coined terms, and once a word or phrase has been used 25,000 times, it recognises it.

Their act of chutzpah is the use of this method to declare the "millionth English word." To those of us who still honor sources like the Oxford English Dictionary, however, there is something disconcerting about this result:

GLM said Web 2.0 beat out the terms Jai ho, N00b and slumdog to take top spot.

What amuses me is that this "winner" is a term that has its own obsolescence built into its structure: I just did a Google phrase search on "Web 3.0;" and it returned 3,400,000 hits! Needless to say, the competitors are just as disconcerting for other reasons:

The terms Jai ho and slumdog originate from the hit movie Slumdog Millionaire, about India's slum dwellers.

But N00b comes from the gaming community, the company said, explaining that it is used as a disparaging term to describe a neophyte in a particular game.

It is also the "only mainstream English word that contains within itself two numerals", GLM said in a statement posted on its website.

In other words all it takes is sufficient buzz over a new movie (preferably one about some other culture) to beef up the GLM "lexicon" (I really have to use scare quotes there). As to that "mainstream English word that contains within itself two numerals," we old-timers recognize the use of "newbie" from the early days of Usenet; does abbreviation for the "texting generation" make for a new "word?" Is "CU L8R" already on the GLM list?

The only beneficiary of this silliness seems to have been Simon Winchester, who, not content to have written a book about the origins of the Oxford English Dictionary, used the anticipation of the "millionth word" to write an overly long meditation on a topic he has already worked to death. Among all that verbiage he managed to misspell "N00b," as "noob;" no texting maven he! Still, Winchester can be accused of little more than self-promotion. The real chutzpah resides in GLM's rather warped approach to what a lexicon is and the role it plays in communication. Confusing that with getting people to pay for figuring out how to cash in on keyword advertising is where we find the sort of chutzpah that deserves an award!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Honoring the Master

Writing about last week's performance of Alban Berg's 1925 "Chamber Concerto," performed as part of the San Francisco Symphony's Dawn to Twilight festival was one of my greater challenges. As a result, I made an effort to read as many accounts of both the music and the performance as I could find, once I had committed my own thoughts to my Examiner.com site. Looking back on those thoughts, however, I find that I missed out on what may be a key point; and the only comfort I can take is that none of the other reviewers seem to have picked it up either.

The problem may be that the intricacies of Berg's score tend to be taken as an invitation to decode, when all that Berg expected of any of us was that we take the trouble to listen. Indeed, an anecdote I cited about a lecture Berg had given about the compositional details of Wozzeck in my Examiner.com piece makes it clear that Berg was more interested in our listening than in trying to unravel the "codes" behind the structural details of his composition. From the point of view of listening, I would suggest that all we need to know in approaching this music is that it was dedicated to honor the fiftieth birthday of his teacher, Arnold Schoenberg. At one level that honor is conferred by his commitment to the "magic squares" of twelve-tone serial technique and the selection of pitches based on the names of Schoenberg, Berg, and Anton Webern; but, to my ears, the real honor resides in the work of a student highly talented in orchestration capturing and building upon the sounds of one of his master's earliest revolutionary compositions. More specifically, the sonorities of the "Chamber Concerto" were conceived to recognize and advance those of the fifteen solo instruments of Schoenberg's Opus 9 chamber symphony. This is not just a matter of the obvious fact that Berg's work was also composed for fifteen solo instruments; it goes to the core of the specific ways in which Schoenberg elicited sounds, particularly from wind instruments, and pays homage to those techniques of instrumentation.

Thus, while it was definitely valuable that the performance of Berg's "Chamber Concerto" has been preceded, earlier in the week, by a performance of his Opus 1 piano sonata, as a way of cultivating our ears for his piano writing in the later work, I suspect that most of the audience (perhaps all but those deeply immersed in Schoenberg's Opus 9) were deprived of a critical listening aid. In this respect the advice given in the talk prior to the concert (as reported by Jeff Dunn for Classical Music Voice, since I was not there for the talk) to "get out your magnifying glass" may well have been an intimidating piece of misdirection. More useful advice would have been to throw away the magnifying glass, forget about all the codes residing in the notes, and just sit back and enjoy the sounds (perhaps even "bathe" in them, even if Erich Korngold's father had used that metaphor pejoratively in critiquing his son's compositions). That advice should then carry over to this week, when the Berg side of the festival will conclude with a performance of his violin concerto, whose sounds definitely live up to Michael Tilson Thomas' "radiantly beautiful" epithet.