I was busy in September. I missed the three-year birthday of this blog, which launched on September 7, 2005. Thanks to everyone who's read it and returned, and written to take issue or say they agree. It's gonna be great in 2008, and mighty fine in 2009.
New Yorker staff reporter and author Steve Coll (Pulitzer-winning Ghost Wars, The Bin Ladens) also keeps a blog called "Think Tank" at the magazine's site, and weighed in recently on his evening spent watching Doctor Atomic at the Metropolitan Opera. (Question: The daily newspaper and most magazines publish far more articles than most readers have time to read. By adding blogs to their sites, are newspapers and magazines reducing the percentage of words their readers can reasonably digest? Discuss.) Coll reported many empty seats ("Economic crisis plus modern music equals lots of rush seats"), but highly recommends the opera to those who, like himself, may be reluctant to attend.
But where Coll shifts away from musical criticism and arts boosterism is by discussing the libretto and the history of the Manhattan Project. Specifically, he discusses a forthcoming book by Thomas C. Reed and Danny B. Stillman about Japan's own nuclear ambitions during World War II, and the conclusion is that the two atomic bomb drops of 1945 may have been more of a deterrent than we have known up to now. The scientists of the Project believed they were working to beat Germany to the bomb, but it's possible that the Japanese were well on their way to their own thermonuclear device.
The Timesstill has mp3s available from the Met Opera's opening-night performance. Cast and chorus sound good, but the orchestra---they eat that score for lunch. That is some tight ensemble work.
As is so often the case, Alex Ross started it. He claims to hear Queen's "We Will Rock You" in Aaron Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man. Fair enough. Bryant Manning, here in Chicago, claims to hear another classical antecedent in Queen, this time in the bass line to the Queen/David Bowie collaboration "Under Pressure." It's the repeated note followed by a drop of a perfect fourth, which you can see here. (Spondee-dactyl-spondee, for those who know their poetic feet.)* Manning also hears Vanilla Ice's "Ice Ice Baby" in that bass line, and as a bored-out-of-my-mind afternoon spent watching a VH1 interview with Vanilla Ice confirmed more than 10 years ago, even Ice himself admits that. I recall Vanilla claimed he was different because he added an eighth note pick-up to the bass line. Anyways.
Where Manning goes wrong---wrong, I tell you!---is when he traces the bass line and rhythm back further in time to Beethoven, specifically to the "Hammerklavier" Sonata's opening gesture:
Clearly, this falls but a third, and cannot be the source of the catchy bass line. That source, turned to 4/4 from 3/4 is, of course, the Scherzo of Sibelius's First Symphony. (Click to enlarge, and zoom in on the timpani in the top line):
It involves the long-long, long-short-short, long-long rhythm, and falls a fourth; you cannot argue with the evidence. Here is a YouTube of Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting that movement with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. As further buttressing of my point, I'll point out that commenter "yryriza" also thinks it sounds like "Under Pressure." This resemblance explains why, to this day, I've never been able to listen to this movement with a straight face.
"The Damnation as we have it, and as Berlioz himself described it, is 'an opera without decor or costumes.' It is an opera of the mind's eye performed on an ideal stage of the imagination, hardly realizable within a framework of live drama. We see it more vividly than any external visual medium could possibly depict it, except the cinema (which Berlioz seems at times to be anticipating)."---David Cairns, Berlioz, Volume Two
"As for such compositions as La Damnation de Faust, staging them reduces their imaginary dimension to a painful sham. Berlioz's visual imagination is not essentially of the kind that can be represented materially; it is, indeed, a 'vision.' "---Pierre Boulez, "Berlioz and the Realm of the Imaginary," 1969, collected in Orientations, translated by Martin Cooper
The Chicago Symphony gives two concert performances of The Damnation of Faust this week, with Susanne Mentzer, conducted by Charles Dutoit.
When symbolism works, it really works. The examples that grab me the most and focus my attention are those that explode into my mind and expose exactly what's going to happen next. I recently finished watching the first season of The Wire, and the lead-up to the murder of one character in it is mirrored on an episode in Saul Bellow's 1970 novel Mr. Sammler's Planet. The TV series is set in Baltimore among the police, courts and drug dealers of 2002, and the novel is in New York of 1970, among a family of Jewish professionals and professors. Completely different milieus, but both Bellow and the team of David Simon and Ed Burns, who wrote the TV teleplay, find a clear metaphor for human well-being---the inside of a building, the pipes and wiring hidden behind the walls. (Spoiler alert: I give away a key plot point to Season 1 below. Chances are you're hipper to pop culture than I am, and don't need an alert, but I'll provide it just the same.)
What happens in Mr. Sammler's Planet is this: Fairly early in the novel, Sammler's surgeon nephew Elya Gruner has gone into the hospital and is diagnosed with a brain aneurysm. Much of the rest of the book is spent with philosophical discussions between Sammler and the other characters, with episodic larceny and an occasional eruption of violence sprinkled in. As it progresses, Gruner's condition doesn't improve, they go back to the hospital to visit him, talk and talk and talk, etc.
Then, one evening. the family is in Gruner's attractive mansion when they notice water pouring down the stairs. They wonder if the tub has been left on and has overflowed, and decide it's coming down too quickly. After that, it's a short investigation before learning that a worn-out pipe in the attic (the highest point in the house...) burst, and has been spraying water everywhere. "Listening, they heard a sound of spraying abovce, and a steady, rapid tapping, trickling cascading, snaking of water on the staircase," Bellow wrote. It takes another 70 pages, but at this point, we know that Gruner's own aneurysm will take him with it.
In The Wire, we get clued in to a teenager's fate, instead of an old man, and he's murdered instead of dying in a hospital. The 16-year old drug dealer Wallace returned from hiding, and the bosses of his drug ring don't believe he can be trusted anymore. We watch the belief in Wallace fade at the same time as the police are preparing another move against those who will order the boy's execution in the episode "Sentencing."
The building in question is the one that houses the operations center of Avon Barksdale's drug ring. The police have decided to plant monitoring devices inside, and enable themselves to have audio and video feeds of the discussions taking place within. As this is progressing, we see Wallace hanging out with his friends. Eventually, the police have set up in the building and unpacked their tools, and any doubt the viewer has about Wallace's fate begins to plummet. Then, a detective sinks a drill into a wall in close-up, a bunch of drywall shavings pour out, and we know that just like that wall had a hole driven into it, so will Wallace.
(Aside: I absolutely loved that little guy, played by Michael B. Jordan, and was heartbroken when he started using drugs in the middle of the season. I started mad-texting a friend to tell me that the kid turns out ok, and she refused to do it. He got himself cleaned up, the police started looking after him, and I thought it would work out, and then felt my heart drop and my insides twist up as he was killed. For a fictional TV series to have this effect...I don't know, they must have been doing something right.)
So that's symbolism and that's foreshadowing, and it's great storytelling, and writers who can ratchet up the power of a death, which already is fairly potent, are playing with some very powerful toys.
Those who doubt that Chicagoans willingly distance themselves from William Ayers need only peruse Netflix, and look at the most popular titles for my (adopted) hometown, as of yesterday afternoon (click on image for full display):
Yes, we're deep into learning more about the Weather Underground, campy movies turned into campier musicals, long-distance running, and noir classics. The fey, fast-talking revolutionaries of Chicago have great endurance, knowledge of explosives, and talk outside the corners of their mouths. Watch it, kid.
Time Out Chicago, DecSimp's former enabler, has outdone itself with the Halloween special by Web Behrens. It's a how-to, but like the best how-tos, it's enjoyable to read regardless of whether you actually take the author's advice and follow through on the concept.
Combine this year's favorite Halloween costumes:
To be ideologically fair, I think it would also be fun to combine the Joe Biden look with Brad Pitt from Burn After Reading, since both are thin white dudes and both have a rare gift for malapropisms.
The poets have gotten a hold of Sarah Palin, witness Hart Seely in Slate, and every joker who can strum a guitar seems to be giving it a shot at parodying her (I've almost scratched my ears out with a trowel in the course of this exercise), but you gotta give credit to the jazzers. Pianist Henry Hey figured out that Sarah Palin was actually channelling a hip, spoken-word vibe as she was interviewed by Katie Couric, and a not a lost, get-me-out-of-here one. View and hear the result here.
Video footage from the CSO Resound's latest release of Shostakovich 4 can now be viewed on the album's page on Amazon.com, and the dedicated CSO Resound Store at the online merchant can be found here. We will not rest silently and let certain critics get all the credit for dragging classical music into the future.
A couple of weeks ago, in late September, the Secretary of the Treasury floated a $700 billion plan to bail out the financial sector. The plan eventually passed, but not before the House of Representatives shot it down, almost gleefully, after many constituents wrote and called to say they would never give money to Wall Street, or support a giveaway to executives who had proved they couldn't be trusted with money, or that it was simply a step down the slippery slope to socialism, and therefore verboten. The next day, the markets came crashing down, and those same complainers realized almost over night-less than that, actually-that their simple refusal to help out the financial sector actually did have an impact on their lives. Their outlooks were so narrow that they couldn't or didn't realize that their savings were bound up in the drama playing out in Manhattan and Washington.
This blinkered, myopic view of how the world (and money) operates isn't unique to our time, of course. The U.S. tried to stay out of what it considered European land wars longer than was wise, but we eventually came 'round and decided that we wouldn't stand for that sort of thing, after an interval of a few years passwd and the sinking of the Lusitania and the attack on Pearl Harbor. But today, we are in a world where it is easier than ever to avoid thinking about the connections we have to one another and to (relatively) distant events, it's easier to avoid different points of view, and the result is that those connections have serious consequences when they're avoided.
Of course, it's easy to get boxed in to thinking of oneself as "Southwestern homeowner" or "Midwestern soccer mom" and not "Wall Street investor." If you don't closely follow your 401(k), 403(b), IRAs, or other savings plans, you start thinking of those simply as spaces you throw money into each month, and the number goes up or down, but usually goes up. You forget that those accounts are sliced and divided several ways among several stocks, bonds and other investment tools, and you lose sight of your own personal stake in the market's well-being, and it becomes easy to start scapegoating those money-managers and bankers who follow this stuff up to the minute.
No one consciously puts those labels on themselves, I don't think, but they're in the air nonetheless, and some of us wrap them around ourselves as a form of protection. There's a good reason for this, and it's this: Every one of us is a member of a minority. By going tribal and deciding to join with others who are somehow similar to you, the world becomes a smaller place.
We may not be a member of a racial minority, or a gender minority or a national minority. But simply by virtue of our interests, you join a group, and that group is going to be smaller than the larger culture. It can't help but be otherwise, and yet, if we lose sight of the fact each one of us falls into larger groups, it takes a minor catastrophe like the plummeting stock market to make us realize that we, ahem, do.
Me (and this being a blog, it's virtually by definition all about me), I studied classical music, and if you want to separate yourself from your peers, there's not much that'll do the job quicker than studying a musical genre that teaches you words like Adagio, sordino, and genre. At the same time that I was a musician (and I'll always be one in one form or another), I was an avid reader, a Chicagoan, a runner, a writer, and a whole host of other things that labels could be attached to, up to and including the labels that lay bare your family status (brother and son, and so on).
These identities sneak up on you. I've resisted saying I'm a runner, even though I just ran my second marathon last Sunday, because I feel it's too limiting. Still, while waiting for a friend to pick me up over the weekend, I found myself absentmindedly stretching my calves on some nearby tree roots. These little acts that you start doing unconsciously are the outward sign that your body and neural circuits have absorbed the lessons of that activity, and are a way of maintaining your readiness to undertake them. "Stretch your calves," my unconscious mind was saying (very softly), "because you're going to be running soon." Musicians do this stuff all the time without noticing it, playing passages silently as they tap on tables. Or maybe that's the OCD.
The point is that this nichification of identities is not only self-defeating, it's society defeating. Instead of understanding in a vaguely Chaos Theory-related sort of way that everything we do has an influence on someone else, and that distant decisions made by others will affect us sooner or later, we get boxed in and isolationist. There's this kooky Dr. Bronner who makes Castile soap with his philosophy printed on the label in 8-pt. type that's really, really hard to read in the shower. His philosophy is that we're "ALL-ONE-GOD-FAITH" and "ALL ONE OR NONE." I don't know if I'd go quite that far, because there's a whole heck of a lot that does divide us still, thank goodness. Sarah Palin likes shooting moose, and I like watching Deadwood (NSFW), and we can both keep those passions going without harming or upsetting each other. And if she's elected and somehow contrives to ban the watching of quality TV shows on DVD, we'll have words, and I'll wish I paid more attention to her speeches where she was calling down the thunder on Ian McShane and David Milch. Until then, though, we'd all do well to remember that we're all connected, and in more ways than we realize.