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March 2009
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May 2009

Ad Vitam In C

Per Alex Ross, this year marks the 45th anniversary of the composition of Terry Riley's In C.  I am mightily fond of Terry Riley's In C.  I have six different versions of it living on my hard drive, and there are more out there.  

For a while earlier in the year, In C was your Best Entertainment Value in the Amazon MP3 store, which offered the seminal original record (I still have my old Columbia vinyl copy) as a single 42 minute track for 99 cents; then, for a week or so, it was available for free; today, sadly, it is priced as an album at $9.99.  iTunes is similarly priced.  There are several versions -- the best of those being a performance by the Bang on a Can All Stars, the strangest being a feedback-drenched electric guitar version from Japan's Acid Mothers Temple -- at EMusic, downloadable as single tracks and therefore cheap cheap cheap.  Amazon is still offering the great early Riley double-header of A Rainbow In Curved Air & Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band for a mere $1.98, though it's rather a different sort of a beast than In C.  But enough of base consumerism!  Let's move along.

Like the wall drawings of Sol LeWitt, In C exists principally as a set of instructions.  (The score and instructions can be downloaded as a PDF here.)  A group of musicians, the size and makeup of which is whatever the players decide it will be, work their way in sequence through 53 brief musical motifs, all in the titular key of C.  Riley sees 35 as the optimal size of the ensemble, but allows for wide variation.  Each player may repeat each given segment for as long as he or she wishes before moving to the next.  Throughout, at least one player maintains "The Pulse," a steady stream of eighth notes played on the high C's of a piano or mallet instrument.  The piece ends when the last player stops playing the last segment.  While the element of spontaneity makes every performance different, the core structure produces performances in which the essence of In C is almost always recognizable.  when Terry Riley unleashed it on the world, it served as catalyst for much of the music -- Philip Glass, Steve Reich and more -- that is typically, lazily, lumped together as "minimalism."

The 45th anniversary will be marked this evening by a tribute concert at Carnegie Hall, featuring a very large and varied ensemble centering around members of the Kronos Quartet and divers figures of prominence in the New York New Music scene.  Below is a rather different version for quite a small group of performers that I just discovered, uploaded a few days ago.

This 55 minute performance -- a bit on the long side for In C, which tends to clock in around 40 minutes or so in most renditions -- comes from the closing night of the 2008 Tone Deaf Music Festival in Kingston, Ontario. The performers are the self-described Canadian "nerdgrass" band, The Gertrudes.  In C does not usually feature banjos or accordions, but this version does.  It turns out to work perfectly well that way.

While we are on the subject of unconventional versions of In C, here is a video trailer for a project I am looking forward to hearing later in the year. The Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble (of Grand Valley State University, Allendale, Michigan) released a very fine recording of Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians in 2007.  This year, they are taking on In C in a series of remixes by a fairly dazzling array of remixers.  It's got a Pulse and you can dance to it!


Let's All Vogue Like Die Vögel Vogue
["I Kissed a Bird and I Liked It"]


Some once-popular artists simply drift into obscurity. Others have obscurity thrust upon them.  The German composer Walter Braunfels is one of the latter.  Well known, popular, and highly thought of in the period between the two World Wars, he was unceremoniously stripped of his teaching positions and booted in to internal exile by the Nazi government in part because he was a half Jewish convert to Catholicism and in part because he had roundly snubbed the Nazi Party when it sought to have him write a party anthem in the 1920s.  At war's end Braunfels found that while he was out the musical world had largely passed him by, embracing serialism and electronic experimentation and disdaining those who still adhered as he did to the more melodic models of The Two Richards, Wagner and Strauss.

For this season's installment of conductor James Conlon's ongoing "Recovered Voices" initiative, devoted to the rediscovery of composers whose creative lives were in one way or another opposed or obstructed by the Nazi regime, Los Angeles Opera has revived Braunfels' Die Vögel (The Birds).  Written in the period before and after World War I, in which Braunfels served and from which he returned in a more dour and depressed frame of mind than he had left, Die Vögel was an immense success when it premiered in 1920, performed some 50 times in Munich and staged in many another opera house across Europe.  Fame is fleeting, however, and Die Vögel fell from the repertoire quickly once Braunfels was denounced with other composers of degenerate, "entartete musik" in 1933.  While his musical career never really recovered, Braunfels at least was still alive at the end of the war, unlike many others on that list.

Although it strays far from the original, Braunfels took his inspiration from Aristophanes' satirical drama, The Birds.  As in the Greek original, two humans dissatisfied with their lives in the City make their way to the kingdom of the birds.  They persuade the birds to fortify themselves so that, by preventing the smoke of sacrifice from reaching Olympus, they can rule over the gods.  Unlike Aristophanes, however, Braunfels does not permit the birds and their human comrades to prevail.  Although warned by a visit from Prometheus, himself no stranger to the consequences of thwarting Zeus, the birds persist in their rebellion, whereupon their great city is literally blown to the four winds.  Duly cowed, the birds sing a hymn to the greatness of Zeus and the humans set out to return among their own kind.  As a subplot, and as an excuse for some rapturous music in Act II, Braunfels adds a romantic mystical bonding between the Nightingale and the younger more sensitive human ("Good Hope") who carries a yearning in his heart as he sets out to rejoin the world of men.


Braunfels wrote the first act of Die Vögel before the first World War and the second upon his return from the front, and it shows.  Act I is a lighter, more jovial piece, closer to the mocking tone of its Athenian forebear.  Act II is almost a different opera, nearly twice as long as Act I and steeped in the heavier tones of Wagner and Strauss: the curious union of Good Hope and the Nightingale is pure Tristan and the warning lecture of Prometheus echoes the ominous pronouncements of Jochanaan in Salome.  Braunfels was a very talented composer in veins pioneered by others, but he was not an innovator.  Die Vögel even includes an old-fashioned second-act ballet, a feature against which Wagner himself famously rebelled when the Paris Opera insisted he include one in Lohengrin.

Vgl15 Other than the temple architecture adopted by the birds for their city, the design of the Los Angeles Opera production is more influenced by 1920s Europe than by the Greeks.  The costumes of the humans are drawn from that period, and those of the birds echo Art Deco à la Erté. Only Prometheus fails to fit in: he resembles no one more than Hagrid in the Harry Potter films.  The amusing ballet, celebrating the nuptials of a pigeon and dove and the arrival of their first clutch of eggs, would fit well in a Hollywood spectacle of the same era.  Other than the dance episodes, the staging is relatively static.  This may be a matter of safety and necessity, since the production shares the extremely steep raked stage being used for the LA Opera Ring and greater movement would likely risk the limbs and necks of the singers.

The review excerpts running in the print ads for Die Vögel all single out Conlon and the orchestra for praise, which is only right. In his chosen style, Braunfels devised large swaths of top drawer late Romantic music, and the Opera orchestra plays it as well, I think, as it can be played.  The big Act II set pieces in particular -- Good Hope and Nightingale's meeting by moonlight and the warning of Prometheus -- strike home.  The birds' closing grovel to Zeus is a bit turgid, but that is Braunfels' fault and not the orchestra's.

Die Vögel is more deserving of its obscurity than Zemlinsky's The Dwarf (Der Zwerg), which was revived in last season's "Recovered Voices" production, but it does not deserve to disappear altogether.  Musically, it has genuine merit and the LA Opera production demonstrates that it warrants at least occasional revival for reasons that go beyond historical curiosity.

Two performances remain -- April 23 and 26 -- and there are numerous tickets available at half-price through Los Angeles Opera itself (here) or through the Goldstar service (here), so anyone with even a remote fondness for German high Romantic opera, or for singing birds, should give it a go.  Why, with those half-price offers, it's cheaper than a trip to Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room!


Photos: Robert Millard, via Los Angeles Opera.


Animations of Mortality

Man does not live by serious, sophisticated music alone.  No, sometimes man lives by peppy, poppy, non-serious music.  And sometimes man lives by the animated videos that accompany that peppy, poppy and/or non-serious music.  Such as the three exemplars below, which I offer for your Friday or weekend consideration.


First in line, with the most prominent pedigree, is the newest from Moby, "Shot in the Back of the Head."  There is shooting involved, and a head, as well as a severed arm.  Head and arm apparently find romance in an otherwise dark and harrowing world.  

Moby has written that his forthcoming album, wait for me, was inspired by a speech he attended on creativity and the marketplace.  The speaker was director David Lynch.  Moby thereafter prevailed upon Lynch to create a video for the initial track from the album, and Lynch thereupon created this:


Batting second: Devo.  

Akron's finest dystopians are reportedly midway through the writing and recording of their first proper album in some 20 years, and are teasing their believers with a new video, "Don't Shoot (I'm a Man)."  Yes, more gunplay and  more visions of life in an unsettling urban realm, with topical references ["Don't Taze Me, Bro!"], a dollop of tawdry role-playing sexuality, and some of those irritating inflatable advertising wiggler things thrown in for spice:


In search of a final animated treat we turn north to Toronto and the widescreen piano pop of Brad Lyons and Carly Paradis, doing business as Oceanship.  For the video to accompany their song "Hotblack," Lyons and Paradis turned to Israeli animator Ofir Sasson, who produced a largely hand-drawn tale of love, lust and betrayal as a starring vehicle for the ever-popular Wolf and Sheep.  It is what you might have gotten if Warner Brothers hired John Cheever to write a "reboot" of the Looney Tunes franchise.  

It ends in tears.  Firearms are again in evidence, as is the inevitable long, slow fall from a cartoon cliff.  The song, with a swooping "nah-na-na-na" chorus, is easily the best one included in this post.  (Although it is embedded below, I recommend watching this video in its largest and clearest size, here.)

Enjoy your respective weekends, folks.


Title reference: a now out-of-print book by Monty Python animator Terry Gilliam.


An LA Times Story With a Familiar Ring To It


Christopher Smith of the Los Angeles Times went to see Los Angeles Opera's Walküre the other evening, and lays claim to an Important Insight into its director-designer's methods:

I was equally eager to see director Achim Freyer's staging and designs, which have led critics, bloggers and impassioned local Wagnerians to whip themselves up to near-hysteria.

An incomplete list of comparison points for the design of the opera mentioned online include 'Star Wars,' a carnival, 'Wheel of Fortune,' the circus (both the regular and Cirque varieties), puppet shows and 'The Twilight Zone.'

But the opera was less than 10 minutes old when I realized it was I who had discovered the true, secret coda [sic] powering Freyer's vision. A post-performance trip to the Internet confirmed this revelation, which is clear, indisputable and undeniable, and which you can see above [in Smith's post].

(Emphasis added.)

If you click through to discover Smith's Revelation, you may wonder along with me whether his "trip to the Internet" might have included this revelatory, if unacknowledged, blog post.


Photo: Placido Domingo, as Siegmund, is stabbed in the back; it runs in the family. Photo by Monika Rittershaus via Los Angeles Opera.


Please Don't Squish the Squirrel
Please Spare a Fish for the Swan

Squirrel stool - bowes museum

Time once again for the fool in the forest Easter Squirrel, the sixth in our recurring series.  This year, we turn from purely pleasurable paintings of squirrels to the more practical, and pianistic, purposes to which our perky pals can be put.

As decoration for an early Victorian piano stool, par example.  This squirrel-emblazoned stool, of English manufacture circa 1850, is in the collection of the Bowes Museum, located in the market town of Barnard Castle, County Durham, in the northeast of England.  

While the beadwork nut gatherer on the seat is clearly a proper English red squirrel, the institution in which this squirrel is housed has a suspicious Francophile quality to it.  The Museum was founded and built by a successful English businessman, John Bowes, with his wife Joséphine.  Mr. Bowes met the future Mrs. Bowes in Paris in 1847, where the lady was an actress, Joséphine Coffin-Chevallier.  They were wed in 1852.  Mrs. Bowes was an amateur painter and lover of the arts, and she persuaded her spouse to embark on a project to bring the benefits of the arts to the presumptively unenlightened folk of County Durham.  To that end, the two traveled and collected widely, and oversaw the design and construction of the Museum building, modeled on the style of a French chateau and claimed to be the first major British building constructed using metric rather than imperial measures.  Sinister, indeed.

The prize of the Bowes collection is a wondrous 18th century automaton, The Silver Swan.  Mark Twain mentions having seen it, at the 1867 International Exposition in Paris, in Chapter XIII of The Innocents Abroad:

I watched a silver swan, which had a living grace about his movements and a living intelligence in his eyes -- watched him swimming about as comfortably and as unconcernedly as if he had been born in a morass instead of a jeweler's shop -- watched him seize a silver fish from under the water and hold up his head and go through all the customary and elaborate motions of swallowing it -- but the moment it disappeared down his throat some tattooed South Sea Islanders approached and I yielded to their attractions.

The Swan is currently undergoing extensive conservation, as well as being studied to better understand its workings and perhaps to figure out exactly who constructed it.  Some glimpses of the Swan in action can be seen in this informative video on the conservation project:

And here is one of the Swan's complete daily performances, shot by a visitor to the Museum over the heads of numerous other visitors to the Museum:

From a squirrel to a swan, and on, and so on: a happy Easter to you all.


For completists, here are links to prior years' Easter Squirrel posts:

  • 2008 [John Singleton Copley and Joseph Cornell]
  • 2007 [Hans Holbein the Younger]
  • 2006 [John Singleton Copley]
  • 2005 [Hans Hoffman]
  • 2004 [Albrecht Dürer]


Kunsten å koke et eggy-wegg

Eggy-weggs by cbcastro

Easter means, inter alia, eggs.  As a reader service, here are some suggestions for preparing eggs in a variety of styles and textures, with and without their shells.

You have heard, perhaps, of Scotch eggs, reputed to have been invented not by Scots but by the wily London merchants at Fortnum & Mason.  A Scotch egg is a hard-boiled egg encased in a layer of pork sausage, breaded, deep fried and eaten cold, calculated to reinforce every unfortunate opinion Dr. Johnson ever uttered concerning the Scots.  But how, you may ask, does one properly hard boil those eggs in the first place?  For that, we must turn further north than Scotland and look into Norwegian eggs or, more accurately, the University of Oslo's "Kunsten å koke et egg" ("The Art of Cooking an Egg") which explains, in Norwegian, how to achieve exemplary results when boiling one's eggs.  If you don't read Norwegian but are able to convert sizes and temperatures to metric terms, the site provides a clever Flash-driven tool, shown below, to determine precisely how long to boil your particular egg to achieve perfection:


Whatever you may think of Scotch eggs, there is one anglicized Scot who knows a thing or two about the culinary arts, famously hot-tempered chef-restaurateur Gordon Ramsay.  Here, in his more charming mode, Chef Ramsay demonstrates how to prepare perfect scrambled eggs:

I had rather assumed that he simply glared at them and they scrambled themselves.  Viewers of the US version of Hell's Kitchen can only shudder when Chef Ramsay compares scrambling eggs to making risotto.  

The cooking of eggs for a full English breakfast requires the steady and attentive hand of a live chef, and should not be entrusted to unreliable, or mechanized, kitchen staff:

Let's see now.  Scotch eggs. . .  English eggs . . .  Norwegian eggs . . . What more do we need before we conclude?  The answer is obvious: 

Swedish eggs!

Bon appetit and Happy Easter.


Photo: "Eggy-weggs" by Flickr user cbcastro, used under Creative Commons license.  "Eggy-weggs" is a service mark of Alex DeLarge.

Sources: University of Oslo link and Gordon Ramsay video via lifehacker.


Date Night at the Museum

Precolumbian art at LACMA

By rights, opera should never work and that goes doubly, triply perhaps, for Baroque opera seria with its alternating recitatives and showcase arias, its absurdly elaborate plots of which it is just too easy to make fun, all of that vocal decoration for its own sake, and on and on.  And yet, and yet ... time and again it somehow does work.  It worked splendidly on Sunday afternoon in Santa Monica in the second, final performance of Long Beach Opera's production of Antonio Vivaldi's 1733 Motezuma, albeit on terms that would largely baffle the opera's original creators.

Lbo motezuma set

The premise of the Long Beach production is not a new one: a group of people, for psychological or supernatural reasons, find themselves compelled to act out events from the distant past.  Here, the group is attending a private reception in a museum or high-priced gallery exhibiting artifacts associated with the Aztecs and Montezuma.  The exhibition's title -- "Motezuma: A Pre-Columbian Aesthetic for a Post-Modern World" -- is projected on a large screen at the rear; that screen later provides a running visual commentary on the action in the form of wittily chosen archival film footage, as well as a convenient place to project the supertitle translations of the Italian arias.  

Chief among the Champagne-swozzling guests is a blonde starlet engaged in a happily torrid lesbian relationship with the artist/designer behind the installation; the jolly pair is modeled for no particular reason on Lindsay Lohan and Samantha Ronson, right down to Ronson's penchant for menswear and her distinctive hat.  Also in attendance are the actress' disapproving father, her sympathetic and long suffering mother, the officious and sharply groomed curator or gallery owner, and a busy personal assistant.  

These "normal" identities are established during the overture.  Once the singing start, each in turn assumes a character from Vivaldi's opera with the aid of various period props conveniently on display in the exhibition, the transformation becoming more or less complete with each character's first aria.  The father and mother become Montezuma and his queen, Mitrina.  The actress becomes their daughter Teutile (pronounced with four syllables, Te-u-ti-le, a la Tenochtitlan).  The curatorial countertenor becomes Cortez ("Fernando" in the libretto), while the artist/designer becomes Cortez' brother Rodrigo, the [male] lover of Teutile.  The executive assistant is the last to transform, leaving her Blackberry behind for feathers, facepaint and spear as she becomes the Aztec general, Asprano.  Four waiters and a security guard serve as supernumerary warriors, soldiers, skull-masked sacrificial priests, and the occasional bit of architecture.   At the opera's conclusion, much like the mortals emerging from the wood in Midsummer Night's Dream, the players' identities are restored and all ends happily in a wedding celebration that is gay in every available sense.


It is entirely ridiculous, the logic of it wouldn't outlive a mayfly, and it was marvelously entertaining.  

Much of the credit belongs, as is so often the case with Long Beach Opera, to an able and committed cast of singing actors.  Special praise goes to the two women playing male characters.  The conflicted Rodrigo, torn between duty to brother and country and his love for Teutile, was sung by Peabody Southwell, who was also the raffish male Fox in LBO's Cunning Little Vixen in January.  She delivered the full range of necessary serious emotion in Rodrigo's arias while bringing a fine comic physicality in the recitatives and in her Ronsonesque "real world" segments.  I hope we will see and hear more of her soon.  LBO veteran Caroline Worra's giddily courageous functionary-turned-cutthroat Asprano was the clear favorite of the sold out crowd, especially in the wake of her final, roof-raising aria. 

Courtney Huffman's Teutile was a bit caught up in the physical mannerisms of the actress character in the early going, but came into her own with power and point after intermission.  Countertenor Charles Maxwell's turn in the castrato role of Fernando took some getting used to, but succeeded ultimately as a slightly campy portrait of an effete petty tyrant.  Who knew a conquistador could shimmy like that?

As history, Motezuma is less reliable than Mr. Peabody or Bill & Ted: it comes complete with a happy ending, Aztecs and Spaniards united in matrimony and good feeling. The obvious post-modern tack would be to posture it as a commentary on colonialism and genocide.  David Schweizer's production, thankfully, spared us that.  It had serious fun with the Baroque conventions and the absurdities of the plot -- "I escaped through a secret passage known only to me" Motezuma improbably explains at one point -- but never mocked the music or shortchanged the emotional stake of Vivaldi's characters. The audience, like the characters in the contemporary frame story, wasn't entirely sure what had just happened to them, but left feeling fine about whatever it was.

Long Beach Opera's final production of the season, a double bill to be staged somewhere deep within the hull of the Queen Mary, is nearly sold out, but tickets to an added midday performance on May 17 are still available at this writing.  You should go, if you can.


Long Beach Opera photos by Keith Ian Polakoff, via the OC Register.  Jorge Pardo's pre-Columbian art installation at LACMA, photo by the blogger.