Monthly Archives: July 2007

Live (still better than Memorex)

The Putnam County Playhouse, here in Greencastle, just finished its two-weekend run of A Midsummer’s Night Dream. It was the first time, I understand, that Shakespeare was done by our enthusiastic summer summer theater. It was imaginatively directed by Amy Gaither Hayes, who is passionate about the idea that Shakespeare can be well-presented and well-received by what one might call “everyday” people, including many of our non-academic neighbors in this small farm/college town of ours. In this, she reminds me of the wonderful work done by Albert Cullum, which I learned about in the PBS documentary A Touch of Greatness, not only in her use of children and teenagers in the cast, but also in her Shakespeare-is-for-everyone general approach.

I saw the show three times. As the father of the 15-year-old who played Tatania, Queen of the Faries, I was invited to the dress rehearsal; I also attended opening and closing nights. Each night was different, as live theater always is, and it was wonderful to see the way performances evolved over the run of the show. There were a few over-30 players, and they did well, but it was the chlidren, the teenagers, and some the college students who let loose in a way I haven’t seen before in an “amateur” production. By closing night, the spontaneity and collective energy of the actors and the audience made the space crackle with aliveness.

It made me want to read the play and see it again. The thought of renting a DVD of a filmed version crossed my mind, but I immediately realized that anything I watch on a television screen could not come remotely close to the joyful, collective, and so very human experience of which I’d just been part.



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Bent Objects

I forget how I found this delightful blog; I’m glad I did.

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The Grocery-Bag Riots

Responding to the mounting environmental danger posed by discarded plastic bags, Whole Foods is now selling cotton bags in which to take home one’s groceries. They are, in certain urban areas, the thing to have. The New York Times reports:

“A stampede of would-be purchasers in Taiwan in June sent 30 people to the hospital and required the riot police. A similar outpouring in Hong Kong caused no injuries, but the police closed down the shopping mall.”

Here in Greencastle, the Kroger store recently switched to new, slightly thinner plastic bags which split open with little provocation. I mentioned this to a cashier, who said mine was a common complaint.

And guess what? At the same time the new plastic bags were introduced, displays of purchasable, reusable bags appeared. Coincidence? Hah!

We had no stampede here, however. The expensive bags have now disappeared, and we’re just double-bagging everything. Worse for the environment, and probably costing Kroger more money.

OK, OK, I’ll get my own canvas bags somewhere.

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Best casual comment of the day

From a friend who now lives an hour away; we were with a group having drinks after a concert. Discussing our children, I asked about her daughter.

“Oh, she’ll be fine, as long as her father stays in jail.”

We both laughed, almost hysterically. I think she was as surprised as I by what had come out of her mouth.

UPDATE (7/21): At least one reader was upset by this and didn’t find it funny. When I originally wrote it, I knew it would be hard to communicate. I hesitated to post it, and perhaps that would have been the better course. I may make matters worse by trying to explain further, but here goes. The father in this case really is in jail, for possession of child pornography, and through episodes of tremendous financial irresponsibilty and emotional instability he has had more ill effect on his daughter than good. He may have some great qualities, and I’m sure he loves his daughter, but it is genuinely appropriate that he’s incarcerated. There’s never been any hint that he ever sexually abused his daughter, as far as I’m aware, and we’re all grateful for that. The overall situation itself isn’t funny, of course. It’s tragic. What was funny–to us at the time, anyway– was the unexpected and ironically light-hearted and matter-of-fact way the comment came out. Who makes casual conversation about something usually considered shameful? My friend has never talked about this situation with me before. There was a wonderful, warm, and open vibe, and it just came out. Humor comes from surprise, and is often a way of releasing tension. Both were the case with this.

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Curious Sign of the Day

Perhaps there are better ways to support the troops, but bless them for keeping us safe enough to soften our water. (photo by EE)

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Making a Luis and Clark Carbon Fiber Cello

DePauw has a Luis and Clark carbon-fiber cello. It’s an amazing thing. I haven’t given up on traditional wood cellos by any means, but I have a special fondness for our L&C. Here’s a fascinating short documentary showing how they are made.

(I don’t know why they show a violin with an overly-tightened bow for the opening shot, and call it a cello, but it’s clear this is not a made-by-cellists program!)


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Making a L&C Cello, Part II

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What orchestra players earn

or at least what they did in 2004-5. And no wonder so many violinists want to be a concertmaster!

(via Elaine Fine).

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Evolving, Not Dying

Classical music: is it dying, shrinking, undergoing a metamorphosis, or what? Edward Rothstein, former head music critic and current critic at large at the New York Times, writes today that

[t]he sounds of a dying tradition are painful, particularly if the tradition’s value is still so apparent, at least to the mourners, and still so vibrant to a wide number of sympathizers. . . .

That is how I often think of the Western art-music tradition — the classical tradition — these days, and though I once tended to whine about its problems with cranky optimism, now even a stunning performance seems like a spray of flowers at a funeral.

His meditative piece is prompted by Lawrence Kramer’s Why Classical Music Still Matters, which i have yet to read. Rothstein points out that “. . . traditions do come to an end. The reading of ancient Greek and Latin — once the center of an educated person’s life — now seems as rarefied as the cultivation of exotic orchids.”

But there are plenty of people (well, some people) who read those ancient languages; not far from where I live there is wonderful orchid grower. Neither Latin nor orchids are dead. All over the world, there are those who take delight in listening to and, most importantly, playing “classical” music. Yes, a certain approach to what we call classical music, or art music, has lost its centrality, but being marginalized is different than being dead.

Things do change. The distinction between art and non-art music, and the notion of “great art” itself, is a largely Romantic concept. As are the conventions, developed in the nineteenth century, of “great music” composed by “great masters,” performed by “great artists,” in temple-like spaces in which the audience sits in reverential silence while the music is performed on a stage.

As a cultural ideal, this Romantic concept is dying. But how dominant was it ever, at least in the United States? How long a tradition are we talking about?

Let’s look at symphony orchestras as an example. The New York Philharmonic didn’t become fully professional until 1907, according to an online video interview with Ted Wiprud, the orchestra’s education director. Exactly what he means by “fully professional,” I’m not sure. Perhaps that everyone got paid? Or that during the season, the work was full-time? For the NYP didn’t provide full-year employment until 1964, according to Alan Kozinn of the Times. Back in 1950, according to an interview with Ralph Gomberg, only the Boston Symphony employed its musicians year-round, made possible, I understand, by its Tanglewood season. Searching the web, it’s hard to find reliable data on that. For example, Chris Durham of the AFofM writes,

During the 1964-65 season, only three orchestras–Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia. Philadelphia had 52-week seasons. New York was the only orchestra whose entire membership was employed for 52 weeks. Chicago and Philadelphia had two tiers with lesser weeks (50 and 47). Today, 20 orchestras have 52- week seasons.

No mention of Boston there. 1930 saw the first year-round orchestra in Britain (the BBC), according to Boris Tschaikov. And this article says it was the late 1960s when the first Canadian orchestra offered a 52-week contract. More research will turn up more detail. My point, though, is that the supposedly-dying “classical music tradition” is a short one. As Rothstein points out, music from roughly 1785-1915 forms the core of the classical canon. The great symphony orchestras, which we think of as the central institutions of the tradition, are relatively young. The NYP formed in 1842, the same year as the Vienna Philharmonic, a self-governed cooperative of opera-orchestra musicians. Boston followed in 1881, Berlin 1887, the Concertgebow 1888, Chicago 1891, Munich 1893, and Philadelphia in 1900 (all according to Grove Online).

Interestingly, these great institutions developed into their present form as the common practice period came to an end, and it was not until about 40 years ago that they really began to function year-round. Employment conditions are not necessarily relevant to a discussion of cultural importance and value, but to those of us who are working musicians, and who teach those with professional ambitions, they are indeed important matters.

In addition to the esoteric “art music” of the 20th century, there was a creative explosion in other forms of music. Jazz, Broadway music, and rock in the U.S., so much of which is central to the consciousness of even art musicians. There is tremendous meaning and nuance of emotion to be found within those genres. Rothstein quotes Kramer as writing about classical music that, “No other music tells us the things that this music does.” But it is deeply true to me that Frank Sinatra at his best singing Cole Porter, and Billy Holliday singing about anything, take me places no classical piece does. The mix of vulnerability, pain, tenderness and strength in Judy Garland is as unique and potent as any classical singer, and more eloquent and moving than most.

And that’s why we find composers like Roger Bourland, the new chair of music at UCLA, writing about Rufus Wainright and Edith Piaf and country music, treating it as respectfully as Schoenberg. 20 years ago, I had lunch at the house of a rising young classical pianist in Paris. He was listening to Pink Floyd, and said, “this is the future of music, not serialism.”

In Greg Sandow’s most recent post, he briefly discusses John Seabrook’s book Nobrow, “which argues that the distinction between high and popular culture doesn’t have much force for many people any more.” Greg is one of those contemporary classical-music composers and critics who take popular culture (especially “semi-popular culture,” as he explains) seriously. And he challenges those who dismiss non-classical music to make their case referring to particular albums and songs. “I could be a brat, and say that all I’m asking is for people who reject popular music to show that they actually know something about it.”

The “classical music tradition” has always been in flux, and has never been as stable or as truly central in (American) life as many of us imagine it to be or have been. And the distinction between high and popular secular art is an essentially Romantic concept, not an eternal truth.

I see a tradition evolving, as it has always been doing, not dying.

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