Category Archives: Misc

The (Supposed) Mediocrity of Now — Canonical Musings

(Rambling in multiple directions below, holes and all…)

They don’t make ’em like they used to.
Dead artists sell more.
If only they went back to the roots.

Yada yada…

While the above statements can convey a fair amount of truth in a great many applications, they also carry with them an implied bias against the now, be it for better or worse. One way in which I’m regularly dubious of these claims is when discussing artistic style and merit, particularly in music. (Since I’m a musician, that’ll be the focus, though I see it in various media.) By and large, there’s an inherent institutional bias in favor of those artists and works that have come before. The argument in support of this is that an artist or work must “stand the test of time” — whether it holds up under prolonged cultural, critical, and communal scrutiny. Those are noble criteria. After the initial fanfare of a premiere or release, it’s important to look under the hood and see how much there is there and how — or if — it influences the field. But, ultimately, this of course begs the questions: WHO is dispensing this approval and HOW and WHY?

In music, one aspect of this criticism is that pretty much everything’s been done before (until it hasn’t, that is), and so to really appreciate something one must just go back to the “original sources.” One doesn’t get Lady Gaga without Madonna. Fair enough. One can of course give credit where credit is due, but that doesn’t mean that anyone who likes Gaga should just shut her off and go back in time. She also plays piano and can sing (can Madonna do much of either consistently?) and wears costumes — enter Elton John. (And I do love Elton.) But, again, does this mean that Gaga’s Monsters should just listen to Madonna and Elton for the “authentic” Gaga experience? It’d be a good frame of reference, but it’s no substitute for Lady Gaga herself. In appreciating Gaga, they are footnotes, and footnotes and references are important. Go read them. But a series of footnotes does not automatically synthesize to create a new and original idea or argument. (Of course, this says nothing of the influences of Elton and Madonna, and their influences, etc…)

Having influences — and/or building upon their work — doesn’t automatically strip an artist of their originality. Also, yes, there are plenty of derivative artists working today. Just as there were decades and centuries ago. (The new wave of blue-eyed soul singers is but one exponent of this.)

One current group making noteworthy, original music is Bon Iver, having recently released another jaw-dropping album. I’ve been listening to 22, A Million on near-repeat for weeks, which is how I reacted five years ago when I first heard its predecessor Bon Iver. I received Bon Iver as a birthday gift a couple weeks after its release. At the time, I recognized the name and peripherally noticed praise online, but I hadn’t listened to anything from the album or artist. But I clearly remember being floored the first time I listened to it. (Specifically, I was in my Houston apartment packing late at night for my first stint teaching abroad.) I was transfixed and utterly distracted from the task at hand (packing). I gave the album three full listens back to back. And then I just kept listening to it. I never wrote much about it (except here), but it quickly became a desert island disc for me. Fast forward five years and 22, A Million seems to be on a similar trajectory. It’s an engaging and beautiful extension of Bon Iver, taking Justin Vernon’s project to new sonic and artistic planes.

All this is to say that, even though Vernon is in his mid-30s, I don’t hesitate to say that he’s written some truly great albums, and I easily place them alongside other, older works.

In a related vein, I praised Mette Henriette’s self-titled ECM debut as a wholly original statement. I thought then, as I still do now, that one of the album’s strengths was that, artistically, I could only really hear Henriette’s voice and vision. I can make a couple of leaps and say that a couple sections may sound similar to this or that, but overall it’s a pretty self-contained statement.

Of course, my argument isn’t to throw out the titans and disregard history. (My various entries on Wagner, Liebman, and Einstein on the Beach, among others, are evidence of such.) However, they have their place, just as newer artists have theirs.

In pop music, “the good old days” are roughly the late fifties through the mid-seventies. There was a lot of great music produced then, and my music collection is a testament to my agreeing with that sentiment. It was the result of countless factors, including but not limited to various cultural, political, and technological developments. That said, is nostalgia on behalf of the baby boomer establishment — those who were young fans at the time but now old enough to be the journalistic gatekeepers — not also a factor? I often think so. In another twenty years, will canonical focus shift to emphasize the nineties and aughts?

Another aspect of this phenomenon is older artists, who themselves created now-classic pieces, who continue to work today. Generally the argument is that they’re not producing at their former (“classic”) level. (Sub-argument: does the new, “lesser” work degrade their overall output? Or, as asked in High Fidelity: is it better to burn out than to fade away?) Consider two sides of the piano rock coin: Elton John and Billy Joel. I’m a fan of both, but, admittedly, much more so of the former than the latter. (I think Joel’s The Stranger is a near-flawless masterpiece, but I think a number of his other albums sound like good imitations of other styles/artists rather than good Billy Joel records.) They’re both held up as rock icons, and they both continue to sell out arenas throughout the globe. Joel, similar to many of his musical generation, hasn’t released new material (save a couple songs in the mid-aughts and a classical album in 2001) since 1993’s River of Dreams. Elton, however, keeps putting out new albums every couple of years. (His 32nd studio album was released this year.) Sure, they’re of varying quality. Wonderful Crazy Night (2016) doesn’t really hold up against 2010’s The Union and 2013’s The Diving Board, but he’s still creating and regularly releasing quality material.

I’ve noticed similar criticism regarding Matthew Barney and Jonathan Beplers’s River of Fundament. (AKA, the piece that has dominated my attention in 2016.) In many of its mixed-to-negative reviews, one criticism often levied against it is that it’s not as good as The Cremaster Cycle, Barney’s 1994-2002 film pentalogy. Other than what I’ve read about it (and its few connections to Fundament), I can’t speak to Cremaster because I haven’t yet seen it. (That’s not out of lack of interest, of course. Many of Barney’s works are difficult to see outside of controlled exhibitions. There’s always YouTube, but I haven’t yet gone done down that road…) Sure, my view of River of Fundament is hardly objective at this point. Instead of mainly considering the work in relation to Barney’s ouvre, I’ve tried (and continue to do so) to consider the work itself in relation to what it was trying to do by, among other things, reading Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings and its review by literary critic Harold Bloom (the former is the basis for the film and the latter also strongly influenced Barney’s interpretation), and also the exhibition book produced by Okwui Enwezor, director of Munich’s Haus der Kunst. Yes, criticism itself should take the larger picture into account, but the artist’s overall output can’t be the primary focus — just part of it. Alone, “Was it as good as _____?” isn’t a fair assessment.

(As for Fundament itself, I could write another several essays on the work after reading Mailer’s source text. Only if you’re lucky, I suppose…)

To reiterate, this isn’t to say that “new” is inherently better than “old.” Rather, new and old can both be important. Furthermore, going back to the post’s beginning, when considering The Canon, it’s worth remember that who’s granted membership to that esteemed club isn’t an apolitical decision. As Bob Shingleton has wonderfully documented over the years at On An Overgrown Path, plenty of the recent past’s first-rate composers and pieces have been neglected by the artistic establishment. (One example of many here. Also notable is the highlighting that Simpson is often compared with past composers at the expense of his own originality.) Exploring neglected works of the past can be as illuminating and offer as much discovery as absorbing new works of the present.

More music is being written, recorded, and released than ever before. Similarly, access to music is more open and universal than ever before. However, the canonical narrative of the good old days remains, and at the expense of what’s happening now.

‘Das Rheingold’ at Lyric Opera of Chicago — The ‘Ring’ Begins Anew

Lyric Opera of Chicago‘s current season opened on Saturday with a new production of Richard Wagner‘s Das Rheingold, kicking off a four-year unveiling of a new Ring cycle, which will culminate in full proper cycles in 2020. Having attended their last Ring cycle in 2005, I was glad to be a part of this double-opener.

This production of Das Rheingold, as well as the cycle overall, is noteworthy in several ways. Whereas 2005 featured James Morris as Wotan (in one of his signature roles), this production features Eric Owens in his role debut. (He sang Alberich in the Met’s 2013 production.) Adding Wagnerian heft to Das Rheingold‘s playbill, bass-baritone and Bayreuth staple Samuel Youn made his American debut as Alberich. (In later installments, Christine Goerke is to play Brünnhilde.) Visually, Das Rheingold (and presumably the rest the tetralogy) is a clean break from 2005’s minimalist aesthetic. Director David Pountney, continuing with the original designs of the late Johan Engels (1952-2014) with current designer Robert Innes Hopkins, has conjured up a playful and visually rich staging, particularly in contrast to ’05’s Ring. As someone who saw the Pountney/Engels production of Die Zauberflöte at Bregenzer Festspiele (of which Pountney was the Intendant from 2003 to 2014, and which I attended 2011-16), there are certainly shades of that in this Ring, namely the use of color and frivolity. (Their production of Die Zauberflöte was in the vein of a child’s dream or fantasy. And while that’s not the exact course here, a related whimsy is present throughout Rheingold.) Related, Engels’s use of color was also striking in Lyric’s 2013 production of Parsifal.

Notably, this production of Das Rheingold begins before the Vorspiel, with the three Norns, onstage and in silence, laying the groundwork for the Rhine — a golden satchel that gives way to the river (which in turn houses the gold) — and by extension the drama of the entire cycle. (I presume they will again play some role once the ring finds its way back to the Rhine at Götterdämmerung‘s end. We’ll see in 2019.) The river then begins to flow with the orchestra’s opening churn, with the rapids’ intensity increasing with the musical texture’s density and volume. From the opening scene until the final curtain, Pountney made use of the entire stage, manipulating the width, depth, and height for a more expansive view. The Rhinemaidens themselves were both singing and “swimming” in three dimensions (a task often left to two separate trios) via wheeled, levered platforms. Diana Newman, Annie Rosen, and Lindsay Ammann blended beautifully as Woglinde, Wllgunde, and Flosshilde, respectively. This use of height of course helped also to demonstrate both the depths of Nibelheim and the heights of Valhalla. Further, Wilhelm Schwinghammer and Tobias Kehrer, who sang Fasolt and Fafner, respectively, spent most of their time tastefully singing while stories above the stage, drawing both the eyes and the ears upward as if they actually were the giants they embodied. My only quibble with such staging is that occasionally those singing near the stage’s ceiling didn’t project as strongly as others, likely a consequence of the natural acoustics. (It was less of an issue for the same singers when placed elsewhere, particularly in the case of Flosshinde.)

There was far more humor in this production than I had anticipated, most of which worked quite well. Sonically, this was achieved via more vocal utterances from the characters — laughing, coughing, yelling — than I had expected. Some of the visual elements, I believe, are a consequence of having come fresh off the heels of the Pountney/Engels Die Zauberflöte. (The original announcement of this cycle’s production team was in 2014, and Zauberflöte premiered July 2013.) For Alberich’s transformations while wearing his magical helmet Tarnhelm, he became a dragon and then frog via instantly inflatable backpacks. (I immediately thought of Zauberflöte‘s inflatable grass.) There were the Norns who suddenly appeared with a mop to clean up after Alberich’s severed arm, and Loge’s near-caricatured portrayal as a carefree dandy. (As an example, while the gods initially made their entrances on carts symbolizing their powers, Loge casually rode in on a passenger bicycle.) The gods themselves — including the demigod Loge — were portrayed less as powerful entities and more as hapless patricians. Upon reading the Director’s Note afterwards, it made sense to learn that Pountney likened Valhalla’s inhabitants to the likes of the Habsburgs. Also, Pountney’s describing Rheingold as a “political cartoon” adds to the comedic and structural elements. Many non-singing cast members were mimes who performed a lot of the “behind the scenes” work — operating the Rhinemaidens’ levers and Fasolt and Fafner’s giant limbs — while onstage and visible. In total, it could be seen more as a fantastical reading of Das Rheingold than a cerebral re-telling.

Musically, the cast gave strong performances across the board. While Owens has received top billing as Wotan, he was joined by an excellent cast and by no means the show’s only star. Owens sang and emoted well throughout, though I would’ve preferred more volume. For me, Štefan Margita nearly stole the show as Loge, a role that’s become a regular for him as of late. His fanciful yet emotional tenor soared above the orchestra. And I wouldn’t have guessed that it was Youn’s role debut as Alberich, as he sounded natural throughout. Tanja Ariane Baumgartner‘s Fricka and Laura Wilde‘s Freia commanded attention as Wotan’s wise, seasoned wife and her youthful sister, respectively. Each sang with both power and nuance that really broke through to another level beyond an already strong production and performance. Rounding out the cast were Okka Von Der Damerau as Erda (whom I saw excel as Mary in Der fliegende Holländer in Munich this past July), Rodell Rosel as Mime, Jesse Donner as Froh, and Zachary Nelson as Donner. Sir Andrew Davis led the Lyric orchestra in an exciting rendition of the score, with the brass particularly shining in the later scenes.

Performances continue through October 22, with the new Die Walküre debuting in the 2017-18 season and Siegfried and Götterdämmerung following in kind. Whereas Lyric’s previous Ring featured more marquee names (e.g., Morris, Placido Domingo) and a rather traditional (though minimalist) staging, this new production seems to be going in a new direction in both regards, and I’m excited to see it unfold over these next several years.

Tool’s ‘Ænima’ at 20

Tool‘s Ænima is turning 20. It was released on vinyl on September 17, 1996 and on CD on October 1, 1996.

tool aenima

Ænima completes my personal holy trinity of top albums that were released in ~1996. It wasn’t the first hard rock/metal album I owned, but it was the one that struck deepest. With it, vocalist Maynard James Keenan, guitarist Adam Jones, drummer Danny Carey, and then-new bassist Justin Chancellor cemented Tool as one of the most formidable bands in rock.  Like Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and Crash, Ænima is a twofold touchstone for me:
1. The album itself is great, and one that I’m just as excited to listen to twenty years later.
2. It served as my entryway into a new musical world.

Because of this album and the near fanatical devotion it inspired in me, Tool was my favorite band throughout high school and much of college. (Tool is still in my Top 5, of course, but at that time the band was without peer.) It spoke to me in various ways. I read an interview with saxophonist Jeff Coffin once in which he said that the most moving music affects you in multiple ways simultaneously: your head, heart, and body. In this respect, Ænima was one of the first album to move me on all three levels. It’s musically interesting on a technical level; the music and message are equal parts profound and humorous; and everything comes together to simply rock and groove hard.

Ænima is multi-faceted, to say the least. The lyrics are wide-ranging — alternately existential, darkly comical, angst-ridden, and mystical. Such a description of the lyrical content could also be applied to the ouvre of comedian Bill Hicks, to whom the album is dedicated. Hicks, a friend of Keenan’s and one of the more biting and cynical satirists of the last few decades, died in 1994, and is described as “another dead hero” in the liner notes. To drive the point home further, beyond Hicksian attitude, the album’s crown jewel and final track “Third Eye” opens with several Hicks clips above a growing psychedelic maelstrom of sound before giving way to the song proper. (Live renditions, though rare, substitute Hicks for a recording of Dr. Timothy Leary.) Also, the album’s title track is a take on a regular Hicks trope: an earthquake causing LA (and the countless superfluous cultural ills it houses) to plunge into the ocean, leaving only “Arizona Bay.” Hence the refrain, “Learn to swim.”

The album’s humor extends beyond Hicks. This is particularly evident in “Message to Harry Manback” (a recording of a violent, expletive-laden voicemail atop soft piano), “Intermission” (a kitschy jazz organ arrangement of “Jimmy”), and “Die Eier von Satan” (aka “The Eggs (Balls) of Satan,” a recipe for hash sugar cookies aggressively recited in German over a screaming, responsorial crowd, reminiscent of Nazi rallies).

The music is heavy overall with sparse, nuanced moments throughout. Keenan’s intense vocal stylings convey urgency at all times, be it a whisper, more brassy full-throated fare, or all-out screaming. It’s a nice sonic counterpoint to the dark, relentless rhythm section. Aside from the occasional guitar solo, the drums, bass, and guitar blend seamlessly into one rhythmelodic juggernaut. And even though “rhythmelodic” is arguably a silly term I’m making up as I write this, the melodies and rhythms are so symbiotically linked that it’s hard to consider one without the other. Structurally, the music is intricately rhythmic — mixed- and odd-meters and hemiolas abound. (Carey’s percussion abilities and training have included tabla study with Aloke Dutta.) Not many rock songs maintain a deep groove when alternating between 6/8 and 5/4 and 16/8 (3+3+3+3+2+2), as in “Third Eye,” but Tool succeeds where others fail. To many, Ænima is Tool’s best album, as it’s a step further in the progressive and psychedelic rock direction from 1993’s Undertow (and 1992’s EP Opiate), but it was more radio-friendly overall than 2001’s Lateralus (the title track of which features a melody built upon the Fibonacci sequence and a chorus in revolving cycles of 9/8, 8/8, and 7/8) and 2006’s 10,000 Days. (Lateralus is this blogger’s favorite of the discography.)

For being such an iconic nineties rock album to many, Ænima has a surprising number of throwaway or secondary tracks. “Useful Idiot,” “Message to Harry Manback,” “Intermission,” “Die Eier von Satan,” “Cesaro Summability,” and “(-) Ions” are all either transitional sound pieces, jokes, or both. (And they work within the context of the album as a whole — one of the reasons it’s best listened to in its entirety.) The remaining nine songs more than make up for any lost ground. They range from four-and-a-half to nearly fourteen minutes in length, with the average being around six to eight minutes. Consequently it’s that much more impressive that the album included four radio singles: “Stinkfist,” “Forty-Six & 2,” “Ænema,” and “H.”

The songs are pretty well balanced between straight-ahead rockers and more exploratory pieces. It’s no mistake that “Stinkfist,” “Forty-Six & 2,” and “Ænema” were hit singles – they’re radio-ready stunners. “Hooker With A Penis” — a comment upon claims that the band had become too popular and sold out — is arguably the heaviest straight-ahead number on the album. Stylistically that’s no accident. How better to comment upon commercial success than pairing the caustic lyrics with a catchy hook? And when “Eulogy” — supposedly an “ode” to Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard — kicks in after its two-minute percussive introduction, it’s not hard to picture thousands of fans dancing and moshing to those anthemic choruses.

Then as well as now, I tended to spend most of my time with the more exploratory numbers. These four songs — “H.,” “Jimmy,” “Pushit,” and “Third Eye” — take up most of the album’s real estate given their lengths. “H.” is technically straightforward, but this contemplative medium-tempo dirge is cut from a different cloth than the other singles. In this respect, you could easily pair it with “Jimmy.” “Pushit” and “Third Eye,” however, go farther and deeper both sonically and rhetorically, and they’re the two songs with the most extreme dynamic juxtapositions. At over thirteen-and-a-half minutes, “Third Eye” was unlike anything I’d ever heard the first time I listened to it. Aside from its length, its various peaks and valleys feature noise, instrumental soloing, moving melodies, intricate rhythms, a meaningful message, and more.

(For the record and what it’s worth, though it’s hard to pick, “Pushit,” “Third Eye,” and “H.” are probably my favorites on the album.)

Unlike with MCIS and Crash, I saw the band live around the time they were supporting this album. Even though Tool’s set lists are rather static within each tour, there’s no denying that they’re a great live band, particularly in the sense of flawlessly executing their material. (Though, to be fair, Maynard phoned in his performance at the last show I attended — Toledo, OH in 2012 — but I bet the brief tour was a cash grab for him to support his myriad other endeavors. Adam, Danny, and Justin gave it their all, however.) I first saw Tool on July 26, 1997 as part of Lollapalooza 1997 at Val-du Lakes in West Michigan. It was the first of fourteen shows for me, and I still think of it every July 26 (as well as throughout the year). It was the first real heavy mosh pit (of many) I’d been a part of, and staying near the stage was nothing short of an adventure, even when I moved away from the core melee.

In addition to seeing the band live at the time, I also became a member of the online community. That’s a ubiquitous element to most things now because of social media, but in the mid-to-late nineties it was relegated to message boards on the recently-retired toolshed.down.net. I must take a moment to state for the record just how much I’ve enjoyed toolshed over the years. Director and editor Kabir Akhtar began the site as a labor or love over two decades ago, and it was long the go-to source for band news, discussion of the lyrics’ meanings, fan reviews of shows (a few of which were written by a much younger me), and much more. Tool’s own website now includes actual news when appropriate, something it never did way back when. Though it did feature endlessly engaging tomes on all sorts of goodies… Even though I haven’t posted on toolshed in years, I’ve continued to regularly visit. It’s both a great repository of Tool info and a fascinating pre-Social Media time capsule. I may have mixed feelings about another fan site (to put it mildly) but I have nothing but fondness for toolshed. Thank you, Kabir.

Ænima‘s release and aftermath was game-changing for the band, and likewise for me as a fan of Tool and music — and a participant in fandom — generally. It’s wild to think it’s been twenty years. Hopefully it won’t be that long until the band’s next album

Franco Faccio’s ‘Amleto’ at Bregenzer Festspiele

Last night’s premiere of Amleto at the Bregenzer Festspiele was a shot of adrenaline to the arm of the indoor opera house, which often lives in the shadow of its sibling on the lake, the festival’s crown jewel. It was my fifth indoors premiere, and, by a long shot, it was the most well-received performance there I’ve witnessed.

bregenz amleto(photo courtesy of Bregenzer Festspiele)

With the festival’s new artistic director Elisabeth Sobotka moving away from her predecessor David Pountney’s habit of commissions and world premieres for the indoor theater with last year’s The Tales of Hoffman by Offenbach, it seems that now a fig leaf has been offered to recent tradition: the European “re-premiere” of a little-known work not performed on the continent since 1871 (or anywhere until the 2014 reconstruction by Anthony Barrese and staging by Albuquerque’s Opera Southwest), Franco Faccio’s Amleto. (Also, interestingly, Sobotka herself is a Faccio specialist.)

While I admit that I wasn’t here for the 2010 premiere of the much-lauded The Passenger (by Weinberg), I’ve otherwise seen the premieres run much of the gamut. In talking to folks both behind the scenes and in the audience over the years, it seems that each year from 2011 to 2014 improved (both the piece and its reception by audience and performers alike), and I’d have to say I largely agree. In order, those were Judith Weir’s Achterbahn (2011), Detlev Glanert’s Solaris (2012), André Tchaikowsky’s The Merchant of Venice (1982, premiered 2013), and H.K. Gruber’s Geschichten aus dem Wiener Wald (2014). I’ll avoid giving tangential reviews of each here, but suffice it to say I genuinely enjoyed much of the latter three (and some music of the first, from what I remember). (Despite the questionable handling of race, that is. An unfortunate occurrence in most of them but particularly in Solaris, and – sigh – a modern hallmark of opera anyway…)

With Amleto, Sobotka is bringing 19th-century Italian opera – of the progressive, proto-verismo sort – to a stage once dominated by modern instrumental and vocal techniques and mores. That’s not to say that, as a whole, older works are “less than” (not at all…hello, Wagner). But, despite the inconsistency, I did greatly appreciate and respect the festival’s (Pountney’s?) preference for and willingness to take risks and commission and feature new works each year. In a canon-saturated economy, it seems that new productions of old works are far more important than new works. Knowing that I’d be seeing something genuinely new each year (along with the traditional fare and spectacle on the lake stage) was exciting. (Though, the realities of life do sink in, and the festival was tired of losing money on the premieres.)

All that, however, is not meant to hang a cloud over Faccio and librettist Boito, Barrese, and Sobotka, but rather to simply say that things are different now — not better or worse, just different. Considering last night’s performance in a vacuum, it was definitely a success, and I quite enjoyed it.

You can read all about the history of Amleto and Faccio here. Briefly, Faccio, a leading conductor in Italy (particularly at Milan’s La Scala) was an important figure in the scapigliatura movement. Known mostly as a conductor, he also composed some, including the little-known Amleto, which premiered in Genoa in 1865 and then was quickly shelved and forgotten after a disastrous 1871 La Scala debut. Reconstructing the score from piano reductions over several years, Anthony Barrese then resurrected the work in a 2014 debut by Opera Southwest. (Audio and video recordings featuring strong performances and a moderately traditional production by Opera Southwest are now available.)

Faccio’s score, though nonetheless in the Italian tradition, is forward-thinking and engaging, tending to opt for the dramatic than a melodious hit parade. Boito’s libretto greatly streamlines Shakespeare’s Hamlet for time, and the four acts run shy of 150 minutes (without intermission).

The Bregenz production was led by director Olivier Tambosi and set designer Frank Philipp Schlössmann. Tambosi is a fixture in Europe and the US, and Schlössmann’s work is seemingly everywhere Deutsche Grammophon has advertising lately, as his work for Katharina Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde from 2015’s Bayreuth festival can be seen wherever DVDs are sold. The performers and production each stood on their own, but their sum was much greater than their considerable parts. The stark sets and striking use (or absence of) color throughout — with possibly a hint of Tim Burton — helped to propel the narrative. The production team also placed action where there otherwise may not have been any (e.g., overtures and other instrumental passages, underneath an aria, etc.). Two examples stand out. For the opening overture, the orchestra begins after the curtains have already open to display (an unconscious?) Amleto laying on the ground under a lowered light rig. (Is he dreaming? Is he already feeling the psychological pressure of all the lights (eyes?) being on him?) Later, in the overture to Act III, instead of beginning with King Claudius at prayer, we see him awake in his chambers and slowly walk to the chapel, adding weight where the previously was little. Also, much is done with Laertes when he’s not singing. He’s occasionally lurking in the background when Amleto and Ofelia are near one another.

To continue begging the question as to whether we’re watching Amleto in or out of his mind, a seemingly outward-facing curtain is at the back of the stage through Act I. And during Amleto’s first duets with both Ofelia and The Ghost (of his father), he curiously lies down. Is he dreaming or hallucinating?

And nearly everyone who’s not Amleto sports an Illuminati-esque eye on their clothes. Is this to represent their looking at (and putting psychological pressure on) Amleto, or representing to the audience how Amleto sees them? In his incomplete attempt to don a mime’s makeup in Act II, is he looking to become anonymous and erase his identity, becoming just another faceless clown in the court? As he descends further into madness, the makeup then starts to gradually fade in the second half.

One curious musical device that I don’t believe was used — at least so extensively — by Opera Southwest is that of offstage orchestral forces. There seemed to be a separate and permanent offstage brass (and more? hard to tell at times) section that remained throughout the whole of the work. I thought it had to do with the court in the first act, but then it remained. Perhaps this musical schizophrenia is to be reminiscent of Amleto’s gradual dissolution, though I could be reading too far into the lines. (I know it wasn’t a matter of real estate — Gruber’s orchestra for Wiener Wald dwarfed Faccio’s.)

The cast was quite strong overall, with standout performances by Pavel Černoch (Amleto), Iulia Maria Dan (Ofelia), Dshamilja Kaiser (Gertrude), and Claudio Sgura (Claudio). The two truly excellent moments of the evening belonged to the trio of Černoch, Kaiser, and Gianluca Buratto (The Ghost), and Dan’s final aria, both in Act III. That one-two punch set an impossibly high bar for the fourth act. And both in and out of the pit, Paolo Carignani led the Vienna Symphony Orchestra through a dynamic and moving run of the score.

Regardless of how one feels about old works and new, last night’s production and performance was an all-around success. I’ve not seen an audience applaud for a work in the indoor theater here as I did last night (along with one heckle from the balcony for the director…can’t win them all). I’ll be curious to see where not only this production but the work as a whole heads after this. As for the festival, Bregenz is getting its indoor stride, as next year will feature the certainly-not-new Moses in Ägypten by Rossini (alongside Bizet’s Carmen on the lake).

(And as for Pountney, he’s busy getting his Ring cycle off the ground in Chicago, for which Das Rheingold premieres in October. See you there.)

Selective Pious

Art and artist. Two separate entities that are, to many, often inseparable. Can you, in fact, separate the two and appreciate the art as wholly divorced from the artist? For some (like me) it’s easy: YES. For others, not so much. It’s the latter group that can give me pause.

Before going further, I acknowledge that this can-of-worms topic is nothing that can be tackled in a single blog post, but its surface is worthy of scratching nonetheless.

To quickly take an extreme example from recent headlines, consider Bill Cosby. He’s a comedic legend who’s been adored and respected by millions for decades. It turns out, however, that the lovable Dr. Huxtable was portrayed by a man who is (and has long been) allegedly nothing short of a sexually predacious monster. With dozens of accusers taking to the media, there’s the primary concern of the law and whether any (or how many) trials will take place. A secondary concern, however, particularly among practitioners and fans of stand-up comedy, has been the extent to which Cosby’s artistic output has been affected by such allegations. (There’s one specific Spanish Fly bit that really brings the conundrum into sharp relief.) If the allegations are true, then can any part of his catalogue be enjoyed by someone who knows “the real Cosby”? Or should it all be thrown out? (For an interesting take on this, see Greg Fitzsimmons’s shameless plundering of Cosby’s material to save the jokes and personally discredit him.) Also, as for Cosby specifically, it’s notable that he’s still alive and working (or at least trying to). I do think there’s a difference between boycotting concerts to make a financial statement/protest and wholly discounting decades of written and recorded material as if they never existed. I should also mention that, while I like some of Cosby’s comedy, I’m not the biggest fan of his work, so I’m not writing as a champion of his output.

But back to the original point without getting lost further down the Cosby rabbit hole: I believe an artist can be separated from his or her art. (I do admit to having some occasional odd biases, but I’m always trying to police myself.) Of course, I kind of have to. For one, I’m a Wagnerian. Additionally, I’m a deep Miles Davis fan. (More on that later.) Beyond them, I know that many of the artists whose music, etc. I — and many of you — connect with are flawed at best and, for some, downright repellent at worst.

Take the aforementioned Wagner, arguably one of the easiest targets as far as this is concerned. As often happens, in the last several months I’ve had a couple of folks rebut my discussing his music with the standard response that’s a variation of, “Well, he was an anti-Semite.” Yes. No argument here. (However, I highly recommend Think Classical for detailed discussion and dismantling of much of the anti-Semitic lore.) Though, it’s also true that he died a mere half-century before Adolf Hitler was made German Chancellor. While Cosima Wagner, his young widow (and by many accounts a more virulent anti-Semite than he), along with their children, took it upon themselves to pal around with members of the Third Reich, this happened decades after his death. That his music was held up by Nazi party officialdom isn’t itself necessarily a comment on Richard’s own views in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. And, yes, although the composer’s great-granddaughter (and current Bayreuth intendant) Katharina Wagner has said that her ancestor’s anti-Semitism is likely present in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, the same can hardly be attributed to the whole ouvre (though many try). Does Siegfried Idyll *sound* bigoted to you?

[Through this, Wagner also takes the heat for other musicians who lived, comfortably or even at all, under the Third Reich yet don’t receive such admonishment.]

I’m of course not saying that everyone has to dismiss an artist’s sins and adore their artwork. Obviously, in the case of Wagner, someone closely related to Jewish heritage or the Holocaust may detest Wagner’s music on principle. That’s completely understandable. What I don’t understand, however, is the social justice warrior mentality – particularly of those far removed from a given circumstance or cause – of tearing down an artist’s output because of such faults as a way to punish them and right past wrongs. And the reason for my misunderstanding boils down to this: where’s the line? I would think that combating racism (or sexism, etc.) itself would be more important than quibbling over (mostly neutral) works of art by creators who may have been racist or sexist.

Such a mentality when put into action often leads to censorship. I think back to 2003 and the Dixie Chicks. Natalie Maines derided President Bush and the Iraq War run-up when performing overseas, and the group quickly became the target of a shocking campaign to silence their music and (hopefully, for the critics) their voices. I’m no Dixie Chicks scholar, but I believe much of their music before this incident was apoltical, meaning that the boycotting and censoring of their work was purely a reaction to their personal actions.

I’m sure that, on principle, many of the aforementioned SJWs sympathized with the Chicks, and that’s certainly understandable. But now let’s replace Dixie Chicks with Richard Wagner or Chuck Berry or Paula Poundstone or R. Kelly. The list goes on and on.

Such dismissals are a cousin of the trigger warning: don’t listen to/read/watch _____ because it’s by a _____ist; in doing so, you’re supporting _______ism.

This is a tricky topic, as I can easily be perceived as being either a defender of horrible behavior or a regressive reactionary. Neither are remotely true. It comes down to a question of whether a piece of music, a book, or a film automatically reflects the worldview and/or behavior of the creator. It surely can happen, but it’s not always the case.

Implying an automatic relation has the effect of making a piece, effectively, “morally programmatic.” As I always tell my students, you can easily make any piece programmatic (i.e., about something) with even the vaguest reference. Simply replace Concerto No. 3 in Eb with Twilight and the job is done. Even with no further discussion, the listener is now implicitly encouraged to hear the piece in relation to “twilight.” Similarly, by relating the work to the composer’s misdeeds, one is implying (Racist) Concerto No. 3 in Eb when the work could be heard as anything but. Is Appalachian Spring promoting homosexuality (or sexuality of any kind), considering the composer’s personal life? (If you find that question ridiculous, then I’ve made my point.) And does this Euro-centric and racist clip by Leonard Bernstein negate his life’s work or merely just complicate his person?:

It’s curious that explicitly racist songs, such as those by Stephen Foster, have managed to remain ubiquitous through considerable sterilizing revisions, whereas non-______ist works by others are shunned simply for associative reasons.

There is, of course, a peculiar inverse of this phenomenon: people liking an artist’s output because of their personal statements or deeds. This is why I largely avoid “message music” (e.g., political and religious music), as the music becomes secondary to the message. It’s a delicate balance that’s difficult to pull off. For me, Rage Against the Machine is one of the few to do this consistently so well. Just ask House Speaker Paul Ryan, a professed fan whose beliefs and policies are diametrically opposed to the band’s message.

I’ll regularly (but not always, depending on the situation) give a quick substantive defense of liking Wagner’s music when confronted with the anti-Semitism proclamation. Sometimes I’ll counter with the following, particularly if I already know the answer: do you like Miles Davis? The Prince of Darkness recorded music adored by millions, and in particular his collaboration with Gil Evans found its way into the mainstream. And though tales of Davis’s narcissism and drug abuse are legion — arguably common characteristics for many high-achieving musicians of the time — perhaps less known are the accounts of his wife-beating, not to mention his general misogyny. To hear Frances Davis, Miles’s first wife and the namesake of “Fran Dance,” discuss it in The Miles Davis Story is chilling. (You can also read discussion of it here.) What’s more, Miles was a trained boxer — not a prizefighter, but his study and practice are well documented. So while domestic abuse is horrible enough, his was that much more lethal considering his strength and training.

Now, if you’re reading this and 1) you like Miles’s music and 2) this is news to you, are you now going to discard all of your Miles recordings and boycott his music going forward? The more likely outcome is that you’ll perhaps give some thought to 1) how horrible he was for that and 2) the cognitive dissonance between your admiration for his music and disgust with his person. And that’s a perfectly natural reaction. And, what’s more, you’ll likely continue to listen to your favorite Davis recordings. (I’m curious to see how the upcoming biopic addresses this, if at all.)

Another reason this has been on my mind more than usual lately is because of River of Fundament. I wrote that many of the reviews have been, to put it kindly, sub-par (i.e., lazy and uninformed). A common thread in a number of the reviews is the charge of misogyny in the work. This review, for example, refers to the work’s sexism without actually providing a supporting example. Similar to others, it relies upon a general notion that, because Barney’s works are generally masculine, they are therefore misogynist, and therefore River of Fundament is no different. A sensational argument, but not a substantive one. (In all transparency, I’ve not seen all of The Cremaster Cycle, so I can’t speak to that work with any authority. As I wrote here, my only real Barney reference is River itself.) In fact, one could easily argue that the female characters in River are held in higher regard than the male ones. (Another topic for another day.)

Of course, Barney aside, there’s the whole discussion of what makes a work “masculine” or “feminine” in the first place. And couldn’t the argument be made that such coded descriptors perpetuate said paradigm? If a woman makes an aggressive work and a man a gentle one, are the works therefore masculine and feminine, respectively? Or only when they align? (And when they align, is it automatically problematic?)

Furthermore, River is (more than) loosely based on Ancient Evenings, whose author, Norman Mailer, is associated with misogyny like Wagner is associated with anti-Semitism. Like Barney, my experience with Mailer is limited to River of Fundament and Ancient Evenings (which I’m currently reading). Now, from the little I’ve read about Mailer’s life and the video interviews I’ve watched, misogynist seems an apt description. (As an example, of his half-dozen wives, he stabbed one.) That being said, I have yet to really interpret Evenings itself as being misogynist. But to many the combination of Barney and Mailer apparently is the artistic equivalent of a local chapter meeting of NO MA’AM.

Back to the the beginning: where is the line? Anti-Semitism is bad. (Duh.) Misogyny is bad. (Duh.) (Well, except when it’s associated with the gentle styling of a muted trumpet, that is…) What other qualities are non-starters? Charlie Parker was a drug addict who stole from his bandmates and, though an artistic asset, was often a personal liability to his friends and associates. (It’s striking that one of his proteges was a young Miles Davis.) What qualities cross said line? And do those qualities negate the artwork? Carlo Gesualdo was a forward-thinking composer in the sixteenth century whose idiosyncratic harmonic approach wouldn’t really be seen nor heard again for centuries. He also committed a double homicide (and kept on composing). Does “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)?” perpetuate misogyny? Its composer, Duke Ellington, was a rampant womanizer. Can it not be true that Ellington was both a cad and also arguably the greatest American composer?

Forgetting art altogether, what about that band of racist and misogynist eighteenth-century philosophers and politicians that so many Americans revere? Oh, sorry, I meant the Founding Fathers. What about them?

It’s easy — and tempting — to throw the baby out with the bathwater in such scenarios. But art, like its creators, is complicated. Virtue isn’t a prerequisite for creating good, meaningful work. Similarly, a good piece of art can be appreciated in spite of the artist’s shortcomings without being seen as a tool to negate or celebrate them.