Bearing Valse Witness



Some thirty years later than I meant to do, I have recently been reading Carl E. Schorske's Fin-De-Siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture, which surveys its titular era in a series of interlocking essays considering the figures centered in Vienna who in a range of disciplines—drama, politics, architecture, painting, music, psychology—essentially created what we thought of as "the Modern" through most of the twentieth century. As an entry in to his subject, in the opening paragraphs of the very first essay, Schorske considers not a person but a musical form: the waltz.    

At the close of World War I, Maurice Ravel recorded in La Valse the violent death of the nineteenth-century world. The waltz, long the symbol of gay Vienna, became in the composer's hands a frantic danse macabre. 'I feel this work a kind of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz, linked in my mind with the impression of a fantastic whirl of destiny.' His grotesque memorial serves as a symbolic introduction to a problem of history: the relationship of politics and the psyche in fin-de-siecle Vienna.

Although Ravel celebrates the  destruction of the world of the waltz, he does not initially present that world as unified. The work opens rather with an adumbration of the individual parts, which will compose the whole: fragments of waltz themes, scattered over a brooding stillness. Gradually the parts find each other—the martial fanfare, the vigorous trot, the sweet obligato, the sweeping major melody. Each element is drawn, its own momentum magnetized, into the wider whole. Each unfolds its individuality as it joins its partners in the dance. The pace accelerates; almost imperceptibly the sweeping rhythm passes over into the compulsive, then into the frenzied. The concentric elements become eccentric, disengaged from the whole, thus transforming harmony into cacophony. The driving pace continues to build when suddenly caesuras appear in the rhythm, and the auditor virtually stops to stare in horror at the void created when a major element weakens the movement, and yet the whole is moving, relentlessly driving as only compulsive three-quarter time can. Through to the very end, when the waltz crashes in a cataclysm of sound, each theme continues to breathe its individuality, eccentric and distorted now, in the chaos of totality.

Ravel's musical parable of a modern cultural crisis, whether or not he knew it, posed the problem in much the same way as it was felt and seen by the Austrian intelligentsia of the fin de siecle. How had their world fallen into chaos? ...

And we're off, never really returning to the question of the waltz—although in that first essay and again later Schorske spends time and attention on Hugo von Hoffmanstahl, whose libretto for Der Rosenkavalier (1911) provided Richard Strauss numerous opportunities to compose some of the last serious but non-ironic waltzes.

Schorske's opening gambit notwithstanding, I was not particularly thinking about waltzes until I read this post from Susan Scheid on her Prufrock's Dilemma blog: "Does Anyone Still Compose a Waltz?" That post is less about "the waltz" than it is specifically about La Valse and more generally about Ravel.  It is worth your time, so I'll wait whilst youse reads it.


All right, then. Does anyone still compose a waltz?  Well, the form did not die, certainly, even as Ravel was busily vivisecting it. To the north, in Denmark, Carl Nielsen was busily constructing the first movement of his Symphony No. 3 (aka the Sinfonia Espansiva) around a grand, driving waltz theme that recurs at intervals, over the objection of the sections around it. (Some enterprising choreographer could construct a fine dance from that movement, if not the entire symphony.)  

Nielsen composed his symphony in 1910 and 1911, conducting the premiere in 1912. His waltz, therefore, falls in the middle of Ravel's composition process: begun after Ravel started his Valse in 1906 but completed prior to the outbreak of the war that so influenced Ravel's final version. While rumors of war can be detected in the brass and percussion—they become explicit in Nielsen's 4th and 5th symphonies of 1916 and 1920-22—the Espansiva is a fundamentally optimistic piece, particularly in its final two movements.

Susan complains of the fabulously gauche Andre Rieu and his sugary embalming of the quintessential waltz, Johann Strauss' Blue Danube. The best antidote I know to that is to revisit that waltz in the version that has kept it pretty swimmingly alive these past four-plus decades: Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic and the performance Stanley Kubrick selected for the long space station docking sequence in 2001:A Space Odyssey. Kubrick was never one for icky-sticky, and the von Karajan version is clean, astringent and smart smart smart, a performance that highlights what a sophisticated thing the Danube is, once you probe beneath its familiarity. We're not talking Beethoven, here, but the skill and intelligence it took to construct this particular confection should still impress us.

Here is a random selection of post-World War(s) waltzabilia:

The poet Theodore Roethke took the waltz as theme for one of the best of his autobiographical poems, harking to his brusque and practical German father, a Michigan nurseryman.  In My Papa's Waltz, the waltz is a foundation of sorts to the aging, inebriated father, and an anchor as well for his child, who will someday become a poet.  Here is Roethke reading his poem:  

The band Team B, made up largely of brass players who have participated in projects with the likes of Arcade Fire and Zach Condon's Beirut, released an EP, The Lost Son, in early 2010, consisting of settings of Roethke poems. It featured this stern and rustically gallumphing version of My Papa's Waltz:

Having mentioned Beirut, it should be acknowledged that the waltz is not unknown to Zach Condon and his co-conspirators. The "lead single," or equivalent, from 2007's Flying Club Cup (my personal #5 pick of that year) was waltz-y as can be:

I can't really answer the question that Susan Scheid poses in her post title. At least insofar as "serious" composers are concerned, the waltz seems not to be a viable, lively form. It lives on as a basis for pop songs of various kinds, as this catalog on Wikipedia suggests. In terms of orchestral music, the waltz has seemingly become principally the province of film composers. Here, for instance, is an excerpt from one of John Williams' Harry Potter scores, trotted out for Dancing with the Stars' "Classical Week": 

Of course, it could be worse: the waltz could be left in even less respectable hands....


Illustration: Eadward Muybridge, Phenakistoscope of a couple dancing the waltz, Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons.

Deep Dark Truthful Mirror [Updated]

This is the cover of a forthcoming CD.

["Was" the cover, actually: see the update below.]


Specifically, this is the cover for the recording of WTC 9/11, by composer Steve Reich, forthcoming from Nonesuch Records on September 6, 2011, five days prior to the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2011.

When this image first appeared yesterday via a post by Christian Carey on Sequenza 21/, I anticipated that it might not set well in some quarters, and I posted a few admittedly glib remarks about it on Google+. This post is meant as an expansion and as a more unhurried reflection on those earlier remarks.

WTC 9/11 is Steve Reich's musical response to the events of September 11, 2001, in New York City. It is about 15 minutes long, and Nonesuch gives this description of its method:

The piece is scored for three string quartets; Kronos [Quartet] recorded all three parts for the album. WTC 9/11 also uses pre-recorded voices, the speakers’ final vowels and consonants elongated in a stop-motion sound technique that Reich says is the 'means of connecting one person to another—harmonically.' Those voices and their texts belong to NORAD air traffic controllers, as they raised the alert that the airplanes were off course; FDNY workers on the scene; friends and former neighbors of the Reichs, recalling that day; and women who kept vigil, or Shmira, over the dead in a tent outside the Medical Examiner's office, reading Psalms or Biblical passages.

The piece has been touring in live performance by the Kronos Quartet since its world premiere at Duke University in March of this year. A review of the west coast premiere in San Francisco is here. The Village Voice review of the New York premiere is here. The first two minutes of the piece can be heard here.

Beyond those two minutes, I have not heard WTC 9/11, so the work itself is not before us. This post is only concerned with what the recording of the work will look like.

It is no surprise that this cover design has upset, and has drawn objection from, many who have seen it, including particularly many who move in the same musical and artistic circles in New York as Steve Reich himself. A simple statement of those objections came from Steve Smith, music editor of Time Out New York:

Nightafternight tweet

Composer/performer Corey Dargel was more blunt:

Dargel tweet

And publicist Amanda Ameer was similarly so:

Amandaameer tweet

These objections have been raised in the highest good faith, by people who (I believe) were there in a way that I, for one, was not. I was here in California, thousands of miles distant. As with everyone else on earth not in lower Manhattan and the surrounding buroughs that morning—or not in Washington/ Alexandria or near the crash site in Pennsylvania—my experience of the thing is beyond secondhand, largely mediated by the television screen. Even Steve Reich, whose apartment was only four blocks from the World Trade Center, was out of town in Vermont that day, although others in his immediate family were there on the spot. 

Taking the objectors' good faith as a given, I would defend Nonesuch and anyone else—Reich? Kronos Quartet? If I was a journalist, instead of just some fellow with a blog, I might inquire further—who had a hand in or gave consent to the selection of this cover image. The choice is not only defensible, it is appropriate and perhaps even necessary as we approach the tenth anniversary of the events to which that image bears witness.

One of the details that made September 11, 2001, so awful was that it was a truly beautiful autumn morning in New York City, clear and blue and crystaline. The original image that is the basis for the Nonesuch cover reflects that, and the manipulation of that image for the CD cover unfortunately recalls instances such as TIME magazine's infamously darkened version of OJ Simpson's booking photo. Here, though, the manipulation is more easily justified: despite our all knowing what a glorious morning it was before the first plane struck the first tower, the feeling of September 11, 2001, in retrospect and in collective memory is dark, smoke-filled, clouded with the horrible dust of collapse. That sense of the day is reflected in the dismal palette of the CD cover, and in the contrasting fragment of blue sky that still peeps through in the vicinity of the composer's surname.

Granted, that sliver of sky is as close as this design gets to subtlety, and it cannot really be argued—at least it won't be argued by me—that this cover is, as a stand-alone piece, anywhere near "great" art. It is something of a blunt instrument. It is nevertheless legitimate. 

This is a strong and confrontational image, but not I think a case of facile or mercenary "controversy for controversy's sake." "This thing happened," it says. "Look at this." And WTC 9/11 adds: "This thing happened. Listen to this." I can speculate that many of those who are troubled or offended by this CD cover have defended, or have made, art that is as confrontational and discomforting of others' sensitivities on other subjects as this is to their own sensitivities on this one. It is the nature of sensitivities to be offended in this world, frequently or even particularly by art, and the sensitivities in play here are neither more nor less entitled to be protected from offense than any others.

As I suggested in my original comment, one of the reasons this cover comes as something of a shock is that we have established a habit in this country over the past ten years of not looking directly toward September 11, 2001, of wrapping those events in a gauze of piety or "Don't Tread on Me" American exceptionalism (or worse, both)—what Christian Carey, speaking more about Reich's piece than about the cover, referred to as "languid sentimentality and unfortunate jingoism"—or of simply looking away, couching denial as a form of respect. 

Whether we were personally present or not, we are all of us a decade past that day. The facing of this world's most unpleasant aspects is a part of what art is all about, and reflection upon them is part of the point of Steve Reich's piece. The cover image is not a cheapening or commoditization of the event it portrays. It is a palimpsest, a writing-over of an underlying image by way of commentary, focus, heightening of the already potent sting of the thing itself. September 11, 2001, happened, in lower Manhattan and elsewhere, and it was terrible as terrible can be. But it does not and should not follow that the only way in which we grapple with it is to declare that images of that day are beyond the pale.


Update [081111]:  Steve Reich, who acknowledges ownership of the decision on the original WTC 9/11 cover, has chosen to withdraw and change it. In a statement issued through Nonesuch today, the composer writes:

When the cover was being designed, I believed, as did all the staff at Nonesuch and the art director, that a piece of music with documentary material from an event would best be matched with a documentary photograph of that event. I felt that the photo suggested by our art director was very powerful, and Nonesuch backed me up. All of us felt that anyone seeing the cover would feel the same way.

When the cover was released on the Nonesuch site and elsewhere, there was, instead, an outpouring of controversy mostly by people who had never heard the music.

When WTC 9/11 was performed by the Kronos Quartet, first in Durham, North Carolina, at Duke University and then shortly afterwards outside of Los Angeles and then at Carnegie Hall and again at the Barbican Centre in London, the reaction of the public and press was extremely thoughtful and moving. To have this reaction to the music usurped by the album cover seemed completely wrong. Accordingly, the cover is being changed.

The statement comes dangerously close to being a "non-apology apology" or even a case of "blame the victim," and it has been taken as such in some quarters. It is not really an apology or argument, as such, at all. I take it as simply a statement that a choice has been made and a summary, compelling or not, of the thought behind hat choice.

I, obviously, was something of a defender of the original cover in the first version of this post, but I allowed as how those who were most opposed to that cover were offended in truth and in good faith, not donning the mere guise of offense for ulterior motives. The authenticity and the understandable nature of the negative reaction is such that it is difficult to believe that anyone could have been surprised by it. There were good reasons to select that cover image, but the notion that no one would notice or care would not be among them.

I still believe the original cover was and is defensible. I also believe that it is a decent thing—neither courageous nor cowardly, just decent and reasonable—to withdraw it.  Art sometimes has the element of a game, but it is never a zero sum game. No one has "won" or "lost" in these decisions.

No new design has been released at this writing. The Reich statement does not suggest that the September 6 release date will be changed, so we can expect to see the revised version soon enough.


A Museum is Like a Fish

The Turks have a homely proverb applied on such occasions: they say 'the fish stinks first at the head', meaning, that if the servant is disorderly, it is because the master is so.
—Sir James Porter, Observations on the Religion, Law,
   Government, and Manners of the Turks

Life and Death in a Parking Lot by laszlo-photo

This post is a continuation or further update of my previous post on the near-instantaneous removal by Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) of the mural it had itself commissioned from the Italian street artist, BLU.  We rejoin our story, already in progress . . . .

MOCA was initially surprisingly reticent in explaining what had occurred and why.  In particular, even after the museum eventually issued a statement, there was no clear indication of the extent if any to which the decision lay with art-dealer-turned-MOCA-Director, Jeffrey Deitch, the ostensible moving force behind MOCA's upcoming exhibition devoted to street art.

The Los Angeles Times has now filled some of the gaps in an article by Jori Finkel, who interviewed Deitch by phone.  Deitch is quick to claim complete credit or blame for the decision to paint over the work even before the artist's own paint had a chance to dry:

'This is 100% about my effort to be a good, responsible, respectful neighbor in this historic community,' Deitch said. 'Out of respect for someone who is suffering from lung cancer, you don't sit in front of them and start chain smoking.'  
He rejects the talk of censorship.  'This doesn't compare to David Wojnarowicz.  This shouldn't be blown up into something larger than it is,' he says, describing a curator's prerogative to pick and choose what goes into a show. 'Every aspect of the show involves a very considered discussion.'
The unfortunate thing, he acknowledges, was the timing, as the artist began the mural while Deitch was out of town earlier this month for the art fair in Miami. . . .
When he returned from Miami and saw the mural, then more than halfway completed, Deitch said he made the decision to remove it very quickly, unprompted by complaints.  'There were zero complaints, because I took care of it right away.' He asked Blu to finish the work so it could be documented as part of the exhibition and appear in the accompanying catalog.

So, unlike Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough who crumbled precipitously when Republican lawmakers looked meaningfully in his general direction, Jeffrey Deitch proudly declares himself the sort of visionary cultural leader who succumbs to pressure even when none is applied.  That he had the artist finish the work so that it might be "documented" at the moment of its destruction is almost too much.

Deitch is right about one thing: this is not censorship in the usual sense. Censorship at least has the courage of the censor's misguided authoritarian convictions.  This is merely unprincipled cowardice, with a soupçon of vandalism.  

Deitch's apologia confirms that for him market forces and the concomitant desire to be popular and well-liked trump any other concern.  Sad, particularly for the museum he is tasked to lead.

The artist's blog for today (14 December) features a new photo of the whitewashed wall, and this comment:

this time news are going faster than my blog
i will make a short resume:

1. Moca asks me to paint a mural
2. I go to L.A. to paint the piece and I almost finish it
3. the Moca director decides to erase the wall
4. on the next day the mural is erased by Moca workers

5. journalists are still not sure if this can be called censorship
so they start asking my opinion about that

more photos and updates soon…

Still unanswered: What rights does the artist have, or will the artist choose to assert, under California's Art Preservation Act?  Did the unfinished mural qualify as "fine art" under the statutory definition?

“Fine art” means an original painting, sculpture, or drawing, or an original work of art in glass, of recognized quality, but shall not include work prepared under contract for commercial use by its purchaser.

Can MOCA assert that it had "purchased" the uncompleted work "for commercial use" rather than gratia artis (for art's sake), so that the mural is not to be deemed "fine art"?  And if not, how do Deitch and MOCA avoid culpability under the statute's broad prohibitory language?

No person, except an artist who owns and possesses a work of fine art which the artist has created, shall intentionally commit, or authorize the intentional commission of, any physical defacement, mutilation, alteration, or destruction of a work of fine art.

Let the lawyering-up begin.


UPDATEs 1129 & 1156 PST: The Los Angeles Times did not have a direct response from the artist when it published Jori Finkel's piece linked above. Now they do:

It is censorship that almost turned into self-censorship when they asked me to openly agree with their decision to erase the wall.  In Soviet Union they were calling it 'self-criticism.'
Deitch invited me to paint another mural over the one he erased, and I will not do that.

The new LAT post also includes the best photo I have yet seen of Blu's mural in its most-completed state.  The photo is credited to MOCA, so it is presumably a part of the Director's promised "documentation" of the work.

And Christopher Knight has more to say, including a retrospective look at the last time a wall of the same building caused a kerfuffle.


UPDATE 121610:  Apparently, "curatorial choice" is the flag being flown by Jeffrey Deitch and those who would justify his mishandling of this case.  As Hrag Vartanian reports at Hyperallergic the artist, in a further update to his own blog, begs to differ.

Hyperallergic has also posted a very good overview of the artist and the context of this mural within his work to date.


Photo: "Life and Death in a Parking Lot" by Flickr user laszlo-photo, used under Creative Commons license.



Art writer Christopher Knight is on the very short list of reasons I still read the Los Angeles Times.  He has recently been in the forefront—alongside Modern Art Notes' Tyler Green and the Washington Post's Blake Gopnik—in covering the National Portrait Gallery's Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture and the questionable decision, driven by Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough, to remove the late David Wojnarowicz's video work "A Fire in My Belly" from that show in the face of self-righteous snarling by the Catholic League and certain powerful Republican legislators.  (I commented on the story last week, here.)

On Monday, Knight published a "Critic's Notebook" piece drawing a connection between the hostility toward Hide/Seek and the broader issue of anti-gay bullying.  That piece drew an anonymous email response from the Catholic League, characterizing the exhibition as being devoted entirely to "homoerotic . . . pornography."  Knight responds today, publishing the email in full and offering examples of work included in Hide/Seek "that the Catholic League apparently thinks will scare the horses."  (Tyler Green has a number of other examples in an interview today with the exhibition's curators.)

Quite apart from the point actually being made, Knight's latest piece may have revealed the real scandal concealed within Hide/Seek: a hitherto unsuspected bit of, ahem, shared artistic lineage?  

Judge for yourselves.  Compare and contrast Georgia O'Keeffe's 1945 painting, "Goat's Horn with Red"

Georgia O'Keefe - Goat Horn With Red

. . . and the more recently crafted logo of the Firefox Web browser:

Firefox logo

Somewhere, a team of intellectual property litigators is sharpening their knives, I just know it.


Go with the Flau


Soyez réglé dans votre vie et ordinaire
comme un bourgeois, afin d'être violent
et original dans vos œuvres.

["Be regular and orderly in your life,
so that you may be violent and original
in your work."]

        — Gustave Flaubert, Letter to Gertrude Tennant, 25 Decembre 1876.

That Flaubert quotation came to my attention via a comment attached to a post by Amber Sparks—"Get Jobs In Offices and Wake Up for the Morning Commute: Stevens, Poet and Insurance Exec"—part of the week-long tribute to Wallace Stevens at Big Other.  Sparks' brief piece aims at one of the points that has always added to Stevens' appeal for me: the fact that throughout most of his career as a poet, Stevens was a well-respected, very successful attorney-executive with The Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company.  

Stevens kept his life as poet and his life as insurance man largely separate from one another: when Stevens died in 1955, there were co-workers who had toiled beside him for years at The Hartford who were astonished to learn for the first time, from tributes in the press, that Stevens had been a poet at all.  Legend has it that Stevens would compose poems in his head on the way to the office, dictate rough versions to his secretary, go though his day dealing with surety issues—surety bonds being among the least "poetic" insurance products I know—and revise his work in his head on the way home.  

Dana Gioia, in his essay on "Business and Poetry," maintains that having a firm grounding in a "real world" professional position as Stevens did—and as Eliot did during his time as a London banker—is actively advantageous to the poet or other artist even, or particularly, when his or her artistic concerns are entirely removed from practical business concerns.

Wallace Stevens' version of "work-life balance"—if such a concept ever entered his mind—apparently meant being fully invested in his profession, his art, and his personal life at all times, regardless of which of the three he was attending to at any given moment.  He was well read in several languages, so I suspect that he knew of, and likely endorsed, Flaubert's sentiment, although Flaubert himself was never one for actually Getting a Job. Flaubert recommends being like a bourgeois, rather than actually being bourgeois; Stevens one-ups the French master, and demonstrated convincingly that the proper combination of attitude and skill permits a life of equal service to Mammon and the Muses. 


Illustration:  Wallace Stevens—looking rather more like W.C. Fields than he did in life—as drawn by David Hockney, for The Blue Guitar: Etchings by David Hockney Who Was Inspired by Wallace Stevens Who Was Inspired by Pablo Picasso (1977), of which more here.

A tip of the cap and bells is owing to Evan Schaeffer for pointing out the Big Other Stevens Fest, which is well worth a browse.


"What Did You Expect From an Opera? A Happy Ending?"

Tragedy on the Opera by bristley

In our freshly dismal economy, no one in the Arts game is having any fun.  This morning's Los Angeles Times fronted a story on the dire straits of the region's arts institutions.  Among the most notable recent casualties and developments:

  • Orange County's Opera Pacific has canceled the remainder of its 2008-2009 season, and after 22 seasons appears likely to disappear entirely.  As Tim Mangan reported in the OC Register, the company has eliminated virtually its entire staff and has placed its headquarters, "a large warehouse structure [with] almost 20,000 square feet of office, rehearsal, shop and storage space, " up for sale. 

On the Register Arts Blog, Tim suggests San Diego Opera, 70 miles south, as an alternative for opera-starved Orange Countyites.  I would counter with a reminder that Long Beach Opera is even closer and has a really interesting season coming up.  (Assuming, of course, that LBO survives when Opera Pacific has not.)

  • Meanwhile, in Manhattan, the New York Times reports this afternoon that the much anticipated (or in some circles dreaded) arrival of Gerald Mortier from Paris to take command of the perpetually struggling New York City Opera has come a-cropper over NYCO's inability to deliver the funding Mortier had been promised.  In proper Gallic style, Mortier was simultaneously gracious and insulting in announcing his decision to withdraw:
Speaking from his apartment in Ghent, Belgium, Mr. Mortier said he decided to resign when it became clear that the board would not give him the money needed to produce a meaningful slate of opera productions.  He said that from the start he had been promised a budget of $60 million, a number even mentioned in his contract.  But the board was prepared to approve only $36 million, he said, not much more than the basic fixed costs of running the company, leaving him little room for innovative productions. 

'I told them with the best will I can’t do that,' Mr. Mortier said. 'I cannot go to run a company that has less than the smallest company in France.'  Mr. Mortier is in the final year of running the Paris National Opera, which has a budget closer to $300 million. 'You don’t need me for that,' he said.
Lee Greenwood's main claim to fame is writing and singing the hit patriotic hymn "God Bless the U.S.A."  Soon Greenwood's blessing will matter on the American arts scene -- at least the part interested in tapping into federal largess via grants from the National Endowment for the Arts.  Appointed by President Bush and confirmed by the Senate, the Nashville-based country singer is scheduled to be sworn in Nov. 17 as one of the 14 regular members of the National Council on the Arts.  Council members advise the NEA chairman, and their portfolio includes reviewing and making recommendations on applications for grants from the $145-million-a-year federal agency.  Greenwood will serve a six-year term. 

Greenwood will be the only Bush appointee to the Council whose term will last through the first Obama administration.  I suppose the President's choice of Greenwood makes at least as much sense as Governor Schwarzenegger's recent appointment of Bo Derek as a member of the California Horse Racing Board.  (What? Was Cloris Leachman unavailable?  For either position?)


Photo: "Tragedy on the [Paris] Opera" by Flickr! user bristley, used under Creative Commons license.
Post title courtesy of B. Bunny.

Music for Money, Symphonic Division
[with special guest: Leopold!]

Gimme a country where I can be free;
Don't need the unions buryin' me.
Keep me in exile the rest of my days,
Burn me in hell, but as long as it pays:

Art for art's sake;
Money for God's sake . . . .

-- 10cc, "Art For Art's Sake" (1975)

Tim Cavanaugh, writing on the Opinion L.A. weblog earlier this week, posted an odd little item drawing on a 2005 survey that purported to identify the ten most financially successful orchestral composers.

George Gershwin, the sole American, heads up the list -- which is unsurprising but seems slightly unfair, given that his financial success was much more dependent on his masterful popular songs than on, say, the Concerto in F.  Italians are well represented (Verdi, Rossini, Puccini and Paganini all make it) as are Germans/Austrians (Johann Strauss, Handel, Haydn) and Russians (Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff).  The French are shut out.

Cavanaugh notes the survey not for aesthetic reasons but for the light it may shed on relations between free markets and classical music:

Why is this interesting (to me at any rate)?  Because longhair music is pretty much universally recognized as an art form that can't compete in an open market and must be supported through royal or (these days) public patronage.  Yet this list is remarkable for the lack of patronage its members enjoyed.  All but two of the composers on the list date to the industrial revolution or afterward, and the two who came earlier than that — Haydn and Handel — did plenty of lucrative for-profit work in Britain, which boasted the most liberal economy in Europe.  Verdi, Rossini and Puccini were all piece-work producers who were less interested in pleasing the royal ear than in filling up the house with paying customers.  Paganini and 'Waltz King' Strauss were expert self-promoters and brand builders, Rachmaninoff made much of his fortune on recordings and performances, and Gershwin made it to the top of the list strictly by producing music for a large popular audience.  I'm not sure he ever got a dime of public support.

More interesting to me than the libertarian economics is Cavanaugh's use of "longhair" to refer to Western classical music.  That was formerly a settled usage -- hifalutin' intellectuals had a reputation for flowing locks by the mid-19th century, and the term's specifically American use in connection with classical music seems to have originated in the 1930s -- but it fell out of fashion by the 1960's when long hair on men became a token of being one of Those Dirty Hippies who didn't much care for the classics but have since grown up and taken over the government.

So, harking back to that older usage, do I need any further excuse to offer up "Long-Haired Hare," a short documentary that takes us behind the scenes of Bugs Bunny's famous appearance with the Los Angeles Philharmonic during the 1948 Hollywood Bowl season?  No, indeed I do not:

Link-a-Dink Ado

Preparing for a whirlwind cross-country weekend -- to a conference in Florida and back again within 48 hours or so, no doubt to feel on my return as though I had yet to depart -- is as good an excuse as any to post a few otherwise unrelated links:

  • I have added a pair of new or newish weblogs to the lists at the left.  Each is focused on music, art, culture, etc., in Los Angeles and environs, and each approaches the subject with a touch more focus and serious commitment than I bring to bear.
  • Out West Arts first came to my attention at the beginning of the month with a post on unexpected tension and violence in the concert hall:

    This isn’t the first time that I’ve seen classical music produce this reaction.  Last year I saw a fist-fight break out in the same hall in a crowd overwhelmed with brotherhood after hearing Beethoven’s Ninth (also with Salonen) and two years ago I saw a man threaten to kill another over a slight the latter had made to the former’s wife in the lobby of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion during the intermission of Der Rosenkavalier, of all things.  Maybe a dwindling audience for classical music isn't such a bad thing if we can just select who specifically gets dwindled in the transaction.

    Since then OWA proprietor Brian has attended the 3-night version of the LA Philharmonic Tristan Project, his reactions moving from awestruck speechlessness through quoting a prototypically outré Peter Sellars program note before subsiding in a more voluble but no less awestruck final assessment
  • I have the full-opera version of the Project on my own agenda for next Tuesday, and will no doubt post reactions here as part of my recovery regimen.  Meantime, I've been doing my homework by reading up on Tristan in Ernest Newman's classic text on The Wagner Operas.  It surprises me that this is the first time I have actually read that book, as my parents have had a copy on their bookshelf for literally as long as I can remember.

NPR's All Things Considered did a story on The Tristan Project last week.  I did not hear it, but the online version of the piece includes teensy-tiny streamable excerpts from Bill Viola's accompanying videos.

  • is a freshly launched project of "freelance writer and arch-dilettante Christian M. Chensvold," who is also a participant in, a site devoted to precisely that. 

In the brief existence of, the high point is unquestionably the long, salty interview with music critic Alan Rich, formerly of both Time and Newsweek (when High Art was still in their portfolio) --

AR: I was the last classical writer for Newsweek.  In 1987 I was in Houston covering the world premiere of John Adams’ 'Nixon in China.'  I filed my story, and got a phone call an hour later: They were killing it for a Bruce Springsteen feature.

-- and now of the LA Weekly.  Mr. Rich is at least as put out as I am over the excessive quantities of Puccini being programmed by LA Opera.

I still insist students read 'Cat's Cradle' if they want to find out how to shape a story that is in effect over when it starts -- how to arrange the elements of a story that even its narrator knows the ending of. . . .   It was in a Vonnegut book that I first read that great humanist/atheist/ dunnoist paradox I live by:  The universe is a safe with a combination lock, and the combination of the lock is locked inside the safe.

  • For your more folksy freaksy listening pleasure, via the POPTONES MP3 BLOG, the opening track from Relatively Clean Rivers, described by the Record Geek weblog as

    A very California record, this is full of lots of wide open spaces, jangly acoustic-guitar folk-rock tapestries, twangy, reverbed, Garcia-like electric leads, reedy vocal harmonies, and extended songs that achieve a stoned, dreamy feel....  I've read that only 500 copies were originally made and [leader Phil] Pearlman 'distributed' many of those just by discreetly depositing them around college campuses and record stores unannounced.

    A loose-limbed sublimity prevails:

From the same source, for those who prefer the ridiculous to the sublime, might I recommend erstwhile gentleman's gentleman and Winnie-the-Pooh narrator Sebastian Cabot's recitation of "Like a Rolling Stone"?  How did that feel, Mr. Zimmerman?

Whatever your tastes, enjoy your week's end.

Why I Will Never Again Speak Ill of Harvard

One never knows what will turn up in the referrer logs, and this afternoon delivers a real treat.

Professor Harry S. [Terry] Martin III, who teaches the Art Law Seminar at, ahem, the Harvard Law School, maintains a list of Art/Law links and has graciously included this weblog among them.  (It is an interesting list for anyone interested in the interaction of art and law.  There are a number of sites linked that I have not previously encountered, and at which I will certainly be taking a look in short order.)

The link is certainly welcome, but I must confess that Professor Martin has given this Fool rather more credit than is strictly deserved.  Share my blushes at his description (emphasis added):

A fool in the forest - Influential blog among lawyers and cultural enthusiasts emphasizing art and culture with occasional law notes


Of course, the professor doesn't specify that I'm a good influence . . . .

Buzz Cuts and Bedrooms and Byrne

The weekend is upon us, and that is as good an excuse as any to look at music forthcoming from two tuneful laborers in relative obscurity mentioned here previously:

The Singleman Affair

In a January post about his band Hummingbiird, I mentioned Chicago musician Dan Schneider in his role as "The Singleman Affair" and the fact of his recent signing to the UK Poptones label.  [The good folk at Poptones even saw fit to quote that post on the label's site.  I bear no ill will over their not quite getting the name of this weblog right.]

I checked back this week on the upcoming release of the Singleman Affair album -- it's due out on July 17 -- and found another reason to look forward to it.  Originally posted in mid-March on the Poptones site, here is an airy, echoing and altogether effective recording of The Singleman Affair covering a classic Tim Buckley tune:

Bedroom Walls

Back in March of 2004, I praised the "Romanticore" stylings of Los Angeles' own Bedroom Walls; later that year I recommended the band's now-unavailable EP, "A Species of Idleness."  Many moons later, the band's second full-length release, All Good Dreamers Pass This Way, is scheduled to come out next week.  (I've gone ahead and preordered a copy for myself.) 

All Good Dreamers... is mostly new material but also includes one of the highlights of the Walls' self-released first album ("Do the Buildings and Cops Make You Smile?"), some longstanding fixtures of the Walls repertoire hitherto not issued in studio versions ("In Anticipation of Your Suicide" and "Who's Been Driving Around for Days" were both included in the band's on-air KCRW performance in December 2003) and one of the "bonus" tracks from the "Idleness" EP, the woozily affectionate "Hello Mrs. Jones."

When I last mentioned Bedroom Walls, I quoted a lyric about being "stuck inside with your books and your sad songs."  The line comes from "Your Idea of a Holiday," a song that I quite like and that the band has since seen fit to make available for download on their MP3 page and that also follows this next punctuation mark:

Bonus Think Piece
[That's a subject sub-heading, not the name of a band.]

Increasingly, I purchase Popular Music by download rather than physical CD, and my major recurring complaint with downloadable music is the absence of the sort of supporting information and graphical goodies that are incorporated in physical packaging: LP sleeves and CD insert booklets and the like.  No less an eminence than David Byrne has some thoughts on the subject in his online journal.  Excerpts:

There are those who mourn the vanishing of the nice big cardboard packages that vinyl came in.  The format allowed fairly large images, credits, and photos.  The usual assumption is that much of this imagery, like music videos, is a reflection of, and extension of, the music creator’s sensibility.  As if the packaging and the videos were usually under the direct control of the author.  This is absurd. . . .

. . . Our sense of the author and the music being represented and embodied graphically is imaginary.  We see the music and its package as all of a piece.  This of course is what good packaging does. Salty snacks and washing detergents are sold mostly based on their brightly colored packaging.  Most people don’t make this assumption about books — we don’t assume that the cover of a book is a visual representation of the writing, as imagined by the author, but with music we sometimes do make this leap.  Hence the love of LP sleeves… and even CD booklets.

I imagine that record companies in the 60s realized that selling to a new market — one that saw itself as hip beyond the generic record sleeves then prevalent, a new demographic who saw itself as outside and distinct from the mainstream — would require some new approaches to design.  They, the record companies, realized that to make a credible product for this reluctant market the inclusion of the bizarre and funky imagery made by their graphic pals was probably essential.  In addition, the music artists themselves began to demand control over their own sleeves, when they realized that they could.

The post goes on for quite a bit beyond that, covering a broad range of related subjects, and ends with quite an optimistic view of the expansive 'packaging' possibilities of the downloadable future.  [Link via Coolfer.]

  • Bonus Bonus: Another thoughtful Byrne post from earlier in the month on photography, expectations of privacy in public places, importing imagery from one medium to another and, above all, how "the law changes what people create."

Enjoy the weekend.