"In addition to the nightmare-works, most of which are written in a style that can only be called the stupid style, there are the nightmare-men. We have the nightmare-orator who buttonholds you at the street corner or clamps you to the drawing-room mantelpiece in order to saturate you with his doctrine; the nightmare who proves to all comers the superiority of Oriental music over ours; the old theorist who finds mistakes in harmony wherever he looks; the discoverer of ancient manuscripts that make him fall into ecstasy; the defender of the rules of the fugue; the man who worships exclusively the 'limpid' style, the 'sense-of-form' style, the good-and-dead style, the enemy of expression and life; the admirer of organ music; of the Missa Papae Marcelli, of the Missa l'Homme-Arme, of the chansons de gestes. All these people are the greatest nightmares you could name."
—Hector Berlioz, Evenings with the Orchestra, 1854, translated by Jacques Barzun
It's been pointed out that DecSimp isn't displaying properly in Internet Explorer, and maybe other browsers. I didn't think people were still using that useless web browser, but life is full of surprises, so please switch over to Firefox. I'll keep trying to get the formatting fixed here, and keep wishing that Typepad had never felt the need to improve its service. It's the best case yet of creating a problem so you then need to go out and find a solution.
"I'm not scared / I'm outta here."-R.E.M., "Electrolite"
We've got two wars going on. Russia's incursion in Georgia has all the trappings of a Cold War-era showdown. The economy is drowning, the Masters of the Universe talk as if they're bums on the street cadging a buck, the religious extremists are as extreme as ever, bombs get deadlier, firearms more powerful and easier to obtain, and the list goes on. It's a scary time to be here on planet Earth. At the same time, I'm sitting at home typing instead of facing the effects of any of these challenges, and the cat is peacefully napping behind my chair. For all the major crises I've lived through, abject, out and out stomach-in-throat fear has never been an actual result in my life, for which I'm extremely thankful.
Still, like anyone else, I have my fears, and I have my extreme doubts and worries, which are at least somewhere on the grand continuum of fear. Walking into a crowded room where I don't know anyone is one of the more crushing experiences I can imagine, filled as it always is with hovering around the perimeters of conversations before being invited in. Identifying the other loners takes time, and the energy to stick out your hand and say, "Yo, I'm Marc," and the person could turn out to be beyond boring. Such are the chances we take.
I can only think of three times when I was blanketed and covered by fear, and they all involve performing for important people. In high school, I competed in the Fort Wayne Philharmonic's young soloist competition. I prepared Alan Hovhaness's Prayer of Saint Gregory, one of those rare pieces I love as much today as I did when I first discovered it.
A guy named Charlie Conrad was judging the trumpets, and I'd heard his name from my teacher, who'd said that Conrad was the first-call session player in Indianapolis. He was supposed to be amazing, and I respected him a very great deal.
I all but froze when I walked into the room and saw him there, and the performance sounded like I was frozen stiff. No high notes, no phrasing, and my knees started to give out, which was always the first sign I was feeling performance anxiety.
I bombed out again in front of Conrad a year or so later at a contest while playing a different piece in Indianapolis. My mom was charitable: "Did you mean to play it that fast? I never heard you practice it that fast." I eventually got a grip on performance anxiety, but not enough for yet another crashing and burning at my senior college recital. It said that Hindemith's Trumpet Sonata was on the program, but I don't think anyone would have recognized it without that visual aid.
That sort of fear doesn't hit me too often anymore, thankfully. A presentation can bring back the butterflies, but you're almost always allowed to have water and coffee nearby, as well as papers to shuffle. That helps. I sometimes wonder if people who take gigantic folders to meetings carry all that paper around as a security blanket. Me, I go into meetings armed with only the most necessary material.
All of which is to say that it isn't the present that I fear for, it isn't any pressure-inducing situation that scares me, but rather it's the worry that nothing will ever change. I won't meet the people who can move my life to the next stage, whatever that is. Or if I do meet them, I say something stupid and they write me off. Or someone meets me and goes away unimpressed. I do a lot of things in my life by myself, and I do get scared that will never change.
I see it around me. I see the middle-aged guys eating at restaurants, at movie theaters, places where people usually don't go to alone unless they have to. It doesn't seem like such a great leap to find myself there in five, ten, or fifteen years. That scares me.
This is what Mark Strand alludes to this in his poem "Black Sea:"
"Why did I believe you would come out of nowhere? Why with all that the world offers would you come only because I was here?"
Why would someone? What possible reason is there that our paths should cross, at the precisely correct time, when both of us are looking for something that the other friend can provide, and be able to find it in the other person? There isn't an answer. It's all chance.
Still, I think this is completely irrational. I've managed to connect with virtually everyone I've set my mind to lo these 30 years. There are very few situations I can't talk my way out of, or make a joke and lighten the mood and be able to effect my escape. I have several groups of friends I value incredibly highly, and who I spend more nights out with than I probably should. (I get far from enough sleep.) Still, there have been several times, some in the not so distant past, where I've met someone, made a few follow-up calls, and then watched as absolutely nothing happened.
That randomness scares me. The randomness that a terrorist will decide to do something suicidal, or that a banker somewhere dreams up a way of slicing mortgages and creating securities, and dragging down the U.S. economy, or simply that I'll miss a major connection, these fill me with an empty sense of dread.
People come into our lives when we are ready for them, I believe. I don't mean this in a utilitarian way; I mean that I have something to give to someone, and they are able to fill a need of mine. There is something that we offer each other at that time that a lasting connection ends up being forged, whether it's personal or professional. I only hope that those chances happen. Sartre said that "Hell is other people," but I sometimes think it's more true that "Hell is no people." I like my solitude, I like my books, but there are times when they outlive their usefulness, and a simple meal with someone across the table can approach the divine.
They have seen the light out in Hawaii! The Maui Newsno longer publishes reader comments following its articles. (Via.) Citing the "vileness" and "flagrant abuse" of the comments area, the plug has been pulled. A.J. Liebling once wrote that "Freedom of the press belongs to the man who owns one," and I commend the Maui staff for sticking up for their rights. Those who disagree and demand to see their half-witted responses following a story can email the editor. This has been a topic of interest of mine for a while now, and I'm glad to see the media showing some backbone.
Travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux reads tonight at the Harold Washington Library to lure readers to his new book Ghost Train to the Eastern Star. The new book retraces the train trip Theroux took across Asia two decades ago. Event details here.
Theroux has always struck me as a travel writer unbeholden to social niceties, and not bowing down in front of those he's writing about. "Every country has the writers she requires and deserves, which is why Nicaragua, in two hundred years of literacy, has produced one writer-a mediocre poet," he wrote in 1979's The Old Patagonian Express.
At the same time, he can be remarkably graceful in evoking the distancing act writing creates, as in the author's note to his 1996 fictional autobiography My Other Life, which you can read here.
Thanks for reading that long post below. Here's a clip of Sid Caesar sending up modern jazz, with jokes about Chicago and a little casual racism thrown in, and another of Caesar and Imogene Coca miming the percussion section through the final fusillades (now, that's a college word) of the 1812 Overture.
In the space of one week, the New Yorker's Alex Ross, author of The Rest Is Noise, won a MacArthur Foundation "genius award," and the Cleveland Plain Dealer's Donald Rosenberg was barred from reviewing the Cleveland Orchestra. Ross built his career around music criticism that's enjoyed by newcomers and aficionados alike, written with a gift for metaphor bested only, perhaps, by Kenneth Tynan, while Rosenberg was the go-to guy to find out what was happening with the Cleveland Orchestra, and whose down-to-earth writing was a verbal analogue of everything good and decent about the Midwest. So, what exactly happened here? How could one critic be barred from covering his turf while another is lauded for doing just that? It shows the tensions that are pulling publishing apart as well as the insatiable curiosity on the part of listeners and readers, and the delicate line that music critics of influential publications tread on.
I'll state at the outset that both Ross and Rosenberg are friends of mine. I also know Zach Lewis, who's now assigned to the orchestra's concerts. At the same time, I have friends, former classmates and several colleagues in and at the Cleveland Orchestra, and I have had zero conversations with anyone in Cleveland about this situation. I don't know what happened. I've read many of Rosenberg's reviews, but not all of them, but I do know that when he and I attended the same concerts (which we did at meetings of the Music Critics Association of North American around 2002 and 2003), we agreed on what we heard. I'll trust his musical judgment as much as I trust my own, in other words. Gary Hanson, the Cleveland Orchestra's executive director, wrote on Tim Smith's blog "that the Orchestra’s management understands and respects the paper's and the critic’s role in expressing opinion about our artistic activities," and I believe him.
I also believe that there's no such thing as bad publicity. If people are talking about you and writing about you, it means that they care about what you are putting in front of them. Sports teams know this intuitively. Ozzie Guillen might get righteously ticked at Jay Mariotti, before Mariotti left, at least, in the Chicago Sun-Times, but the chances of Mariotti being barred from writing about the White Sox are nonexistent. For the simple reason that people care, and they want to read something that's not cheerleading. I get a laugh whenever I tell people, "As long as they're talking about me." It's always better, whether it's at work, in the papers, on listservs, to be a topic. If you're a topic, it means you matter, and if you matter, people are gonna buy whatever it is you're putting out there, if only to see if they also disagree.
Which brings us back to Rosenberg. His reviews of Franz Welser-Möst
called them as he heard them. This is what critics do. (Even more disclosure: I never heard FWM conduct the Cleveland Orchestra.) Some commenters have pleaded that Rosenberg wasn't "objective" in his reviews, and let's call this the lie that it is. If you want objectivity in a newspaper, people, go read the box scores. If you want to know what happened filtered through a knowledgeable person's mind, then you read the newspaper. Objectivity gives you nothing more than "The Beethoven was ragged, I guess, but it wasn't that ragged." It's tedious, and nobody with two brain cells to rub together should be expected to read it. Music isn't a thumbs-up or thumbs-down proposition; there are shades of gray and nuances in there, and it helps to have a critic around to describe what they heard.
Now then, I understand that Cleveland is a small city, and that there isn't another paper out there to counter Rosenberg's critiques. But heck, New York doesn't even have a second paper of equal significance to counter a negative review in the New York Times. You tough it out and hope for the best if you get a less than stellar review from the Times. It's not the end of the world.
This is where Ross's recognition reenters the picture. He's won numerous deserved praises for the book (my own is here), but the larger point of that praise is that people are hungry to learn about classical music if the writer will meet them halfway. If you do not condescend to people, if you write in language and rhythms they understand, they will come to you. I know this from my own experience at a weekly city listings magazine and at this blog. You remain constantly vigilant about keeping your writing approachable, you use action verbs as if you're storming the goddamn Bastille, and you try to slip in an idea and philosophical turn of phrase whenever you can. The readers will come. (They'll also leave in droves if you don't keep your blog up, but that's another topic. Although it's more accurately been a single drove in the case of Dec Simp.)
Whatever happened in Cleveland, I hope the reasons for it are valid. I can't imagine what valid reasons might be in that situation, frankly, but my terminally open mind compels me to admit their possible existence. My one hope is that the recent success of Ross and his willingness to rewrite the twentieth century's musical history forces the Plain Dealer's editors to realize the importance of questioning perceived power structures. It's one of the more useful aspects of the media, after all.
The paucity of reflection and context given in the obituaries of David Foster Wallace show just how surprising his death is. Those are usually written far in advance and added to as a person grows older, so that a large, long piece can be published shortly after the death.
I haven't read any of Wallace's novels. The closest I've gotten to them was shelving Infinite Jest at a Borders in Indianapolis and wishing he'd been somewhat pithier and cut its 1,000 pages down to less Biblical proportions, if only for the sake of my back. Infinite Shooting Pain, was more like it.
But I did read and do remember a long article (20,000 words) he wrote for Harper's in 2001. It was on the state of the language, as well as ostensibly a review of A Dictionary of Modern American Usage and a handful of dictionaries. The article was published on card stock, I remember, so that it could be removed from the magazine and read on its own. (I'd link to Harper's own site for the essay, but, like all good Communists, they make you pay dearly for stuff that should be cheap.) (UPDATE: Someone who can lay claim to his own verbal skill has posted the orignal essay here [PDF].) He managed to bring the intricacies and problems and snares and pitfalls people fall into when they speak and when they write, the differences between Prescriptive and Descriptive dictionaries, Noam Chomsky's generative linguistics, and much more, down to an approachable, compulsively readable, level. Take the following excerpt, with its attendant writerly fireworks. The man had a way of making a point, is what I'm trying to say.
Take, for example, the Descriptivism claim that
so-called correct English usages such as brought rather than brung and felt rather than feeled are
arbitrary and restrictive and unfair and are supported only by custom and are (like irregular verbs in
general) archaic and incommodious and an all-around pain in the ass. Let us concede for the moment
that these objections are 100 percent reasonable. Then let's talk about pants. Trousers, slacks.
I suggest to you that having the "correct" subthoracic clothing for U.S. males be pants instead of
skirts is arbitrary (lots of other cultures let men wear skirts), restrictive and unfair (U.S. females
get to wear pants), based solely on archaic custom (I think it's got something to do with certain
traditions about gender and leg position, the same reasons girls' bikes don't have a crossbar),
and in certain ways not only incommodious but illogical (skirts are more comfortable than pants;
pants ride up; pants are hot; pants can squish the genitals and reduce fertility; over time pants
chafe and erode irregular sections of men's leg hair and give older men hideous half-denuded legs,
etc. etc.). Let us grant — as a thought experiment if nothing else — that these are all reasonable and
compelling objections to pants as an androsartorial norm. Let us in fact in our minds and hearts say
yes — shout yes — to the skirt, the kilt, the toga, the sarong, the jupe. Let us dream of or even in
our spare time work toward an America where nobody lays any arbitrary sumptuary prescriptions
on anyone else and we can all go around as comfortable and aerated and unchafed and unsquished
and motile as we want.
And yet the fact remains that, in the broad cultural mainstream of
millennial America, men do not wear skirts. If you, the reader, are a U.S. male, and even if you
share my personal objections to pants and dream as I do of a cool and genitally unsquishy American
Tomorrow, the odds are still 99.9 percent that in 100 percent of public situations you wear
pants/slacks/shorts/trunks. More to the point, if you are a U.S. male and also have a U.S. male
child, and if that child were to come to you one evening and announce his desire/intention to
wear a skirt rather than pants to school the next day, I am 100-percent confident that you are
going to discourage him from doing so. Strongly discourage him. You could be a Molotov-tossing
anti-pants radical or a kilt manufacturer or Steven Pinker himself — you're going to stand over
your kid and be prescriptive about an arbitrary, archaic, uncomfortable, and inconsequentially
decorative piece of clothing. Why? Well, because in modern America any little boy who comes to
school in a skirt (even, say, a modest all-season midi) is going to get stared at and shunned and
beaten up and called a Total Geekoid by a whole lot of people whose approval and acceptance
are important to him. In our culture, in other words, a boy who wears a skirt is Making a Statement
that is going to have all kinds of gruesome social and emotional consequences.
You see where this is going. I'm going to describe the intended point of the pants analogy in terms
I'm sure are simplistic — doubtless there are whole books in Pragmatics or psycholinguistics or something
devoted to unpacking this point.
"It is still possible that most Iraqis will come out of the war better off than they were before. Being ruled by Saddam Hussein was about as bad as it gets. The question is whether the US will be a better place after years of fear-mongering, military abuse, erosion of civil liberties, and a constant stream of political propaganda that distorts America's proudest legacies. If America can no longer offer the hope of freedom, refuge from persecution, or a second chance in the lives of millions, the whole world will be worse off. And we cannot blame al-Qaeda for that."—Ian Buruma, 2004.
I reviewed that presentation postively when it debuted in 2006, before I joined the CSO administration, and it's been slightly modified since then. The Stalinist heckler I mention in that review won't be heard on the DVD, since the presentation was edited anew and retaped. The DVD also includes a touching 15-minute interview with Haitink on how he came to know Shostakovich's symphonies. (On first encounter with the Fourth: You think it is this massive "dinosaurus."
The CSO also plays the Fourth at the Proms tonight, which can be heard here. (Click on the Radio 3 Live icon in the right column.) Haitink led Mark-Anthony Turnage's Chicago Remains and a crushing Mahler 6 yesterday, a concert that's available for streaming for the next seven days. And, as per the first "A Plug," Mahler 6 is, wouldn't you know, also available on CSO Resound.