Across many styles of music, many of the greats drew on a variety of artistic influences. Charlie Parker, though a titan of jazz, was fascinated by Stravinsky, who happened to be interested in jazz. Miles Davis was in awe of Jimi Hendrix and Sly & The Family Stone, assisting his turn to fusion. Harold Budd originally wanted to be a jazz drummer, and Flea was similarly taken with jazz. Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin have strong rhythm & blues influences. A number of hard rock and punk acts seemingly have an affinity for free jazz. Yada yada yada. And yet, when considering these or any other musicians in the context of his or her respective stylistic traditions, then tendency is to only look at the lineage within that particular style. So, for Budd, non-ambient and non-Minimalist (or “non-post-Minimalist,” etc.) sources can be a curious footnote. (Although, Budd’s employing saxophonist Marion Brown and his quotation and adaptation of Coltrane‘s “After The Rain” in Pavilion of Dreams are hard to ignore.) So on and so forth.
I mentioned here that this blog isn’t included on The Big List of Classical Music Blogs, likely because it’s not solely dedicated to classical music. No biggie. Yet, a darling topic of a number of contemporary classical musicpublications is the genre or style often labeled “indie classical.” This term references pieces or artists that share qualities with varying degrees of indie rock (a vague enough term on its own) and classical music. Popular examples of this include Sigur Rós, Radiohead and in particular guitarist Johnny Greenwood, Sufjan Stevens, and numerous collaborations by Kronos Quartet. Consequently, some new music sources are now occasionally exploring certain related rock artists. Somewhere, I’m sure the classical Illuminati have circulated a whitelist and blacklist, as only certain groups and artists seem to consistently make the cut. For example, would DMB‘s collaboration with Kronos Quartet on 1998’s Before These Crowded Streets fall somewhere on the indie classical spectrum? (Fellow indie- and pan-stylist Béla Fleck also appears.) I doubt it, at least today. (Perhaps in a few years, when such cross-pollination isn’t as “novel.”) And this phenomenon isn’t new. After all, Brahms‘s affinity for Hungarian music came in part from the folk and stylistically “popular” musicians he encountered in Vienna. To engage Brahms’s music in a classical vacuum alone is to miss part of the story.
This isn’t a campaign to get my blog included on classical directories, but rather a notable symptom of what seems to be a much larger issue. My generation (early Generation Y?), as well as Generation X, has benefited from a horizontal access to the whole history of music at our fingertips. Consequently, many of us have diverse interests and tastes – at least, it’s not a rarity. And yet I still see somewhat of a tendency to wall off classical music as slightly “other,” separate from and aesthetically superior everything else. While it is indeed aesthetically different, I don’t consider it to be automatically superior. You can’t engage a Mahler symphony as you would a Grateful Dead concert. But you can engage them both, and if you do so sincerely and in the appropriate context, the impact for both can be equally powerful, though in different ways. Going from there, if cross-pollination is going to be celebrated (e.g., “indie classical”), then perhaps a deeper appreciation will result from trying to engage the disparate sources on their own terms.
The recently-released The Singing Gobi Desert showcases PRISM Quartet in collaboration with Music from China. Here they are also joined by guests conductor Nové Deypalan and sheng soloist Hu Jianbing. Don’t be fooled by the billing of Music from China as “Guest Ensemble” – this is a true musical partnership. It’s better to think of this recording as performed by a chamber ensemble comprised of saxophones and traditional Chinese instruments as opposed to a binary orchestra. The album is a follow-up to 2010’s Antiphony(my review here), PRISM’s first outing with Music from China.
The Singing Gobi Desert is a natural successor to and evolution from Antiphony. The first album had somewhat of an “East Meets West” ethos, and was even billed as such to a certain degree – e.g., the album title itself. (Thankfully, it was tastefully executed and avoided Third Stream traps.) Here, however, this sophomore release displays a true “fusion” – in the best sense of the word – of styles and cultures. While Chinese and Western influences no doubt reign supreme here, the end result transcends both sources, resulting in a new stylistic language that speaks to all listeners of that catch-all category known as “contemporary music.”
On the whole, Gobi features fewer but meatier works than its predecessor: four compositions ranging from 14 to 20 minutes each. They are, in album order:
• Bright Sheng‘s The Singing Gobi Desert (2012) for erhu/zhonghu, sheng, pipa, yangqin, saxophone quartet, and percussion
• Lei Liang‘s Messages of White (2011) for saxophone quartet, erhu, sheng, pipa, yangqin, and percussion
• Fang Man‘s Dream of a Hundred Flowers (2011) for saxophone quartet and four Chinese instruments
• Huang Ruo‘s The Three Tenses (2005) for pipa and saxophone quartet
All four pieces have an orchestral quality that blend PRISM and Music from China into a unified whole that sounds much larger than the sum of its parts. One way in which this is achieved right off the bat is by the title track’s heavy use of the sheng, a mouth organ. That, coupled with myriad percussion as well as long, flowing melodies, gives the piece a thick, lush texture. Extended techniques abound here and throughout, but they are written and implemented tastefully and with purpose. Messages of White, on the other hand, employs a similar instrumentation but to strikingly different effect. Instead of lyrical passages, Liang’s emphasizes rhythm and harmony, focusing on stark, repetitive staccatos juxtaposed with subtle, often nebulous harmonies. Dream of a Hundred Flowers takes the listener back toward a vocal space, but one quite different than Gobi. Here, Fang Man guides the musicians to “imitate Peking opera speaking voices.”1 The drama unfolds in manners both cacophonous and whispered, with the coda taking on an almost electro-acoustic quality. (It’s no surprise that Man studied at IRCAM-Paris.) Rounding out the set is Ruo’s The Three Tenses. Even though it is for a pared-down ensemble, it again transcends “saxophone literature.” (Because of its minimal instrumentation, it perhaps helps that it’s last on the album and sonically buoyed by the first three pieces.) The pipa’s extensive presence and the multitude of extended techniques also lend an orchestral quality to this quintet composition – a tribute to the composer.
Arguably the album’s greatest triumph is that the compositions take center stage, not simply the blending of instruments and styles. Antiphony was a valiant and substantive first step for such artistic exploration. The Singing Gobi Desert, however, opens up a wider and more comprehensive world of sonic and aesthetic possibilities, making this “novelty” instrumentation seem like anything but. I highly recommended this album.
I don’t use this blog to troll others, although it’s been attempted once,twice, or thrice in the past. In general, I find the whole trolling culture to be a waste. It goes nowhere, even though it may be incredibly popular. Having said that, since I have the time, it’s worth pointing out an odd article/blog over at The Washington Postby the classical music critic Anne Midgette about Renée Fleming‘s performance of The Star Spangled Banner at the Super Bowl. (And, believe me, I’ll be the first to concede that my scheming away in my dark, untrodden corner of the internet won’t even register on the Post‘s or Midgette’s radar.) I’m not out to fisk, but a couple items have annoyingly stuck with me over the last couple days.
Full disclosure: I enjoyed the performance (as much as I can enjoy over-the-top versions of the national anthem, anyway). And, having turned the TV off afterwards, it was the most I’ve seen of a Super Bowl in I don’t know how long.
First, a major point of agreement with Ms. Midgette. Like many other classical music-oriented folk, I developed an almost partisan attitude about the performance. Admittedly, there was a small part of me that was genuinely pleased/excited when it was announced that Renée Fleming would be singing the national anthem at the Super Bowl, the first opera singer to do so. The timing couldn’t have been better considering the latest circular firing squad about the death of classical music, etc. And I must confess that I, along with many of my musical colleagues, was excited to have a trained, virtuosic singer bask in the glory for a change. I by no means think training is everything – much of this blog complains about such things – but let the academy have the spotlight now and again. Besides, without getting on too high a horse, lip-synching (and finger-synching) is all too common, and enjoying some live music is a welcome change of pace.
I’ve read the Post piece three times, and I still don’t know how Anne really felt about Ms. Fleming’s performance. (But at least she wrote something, which is more than I can say for most. For all the hubbub leading up to the performance, afterwards you’d almost think it didn’t happen.) I think the source of my frustration lies in the opening paragraph. Anne rightly points out the classical community’s insecurity about its place in society. But then, instead of writing confidently about the opera star, Ms. Midgette hedges and takes an almost hipster turn, praising Queen Latifah’s “sounding easy” and looking “drop-dead perfect” in her casual attire. This is followed by Anne’s sniping Renée’s formalwear. I read that as the classical music critic herself feeling somewhat out of place and trying to “play nice” in the popular realm by writing about a sporting event. (“Oh, hey, I’m one of y’all! Did you see that diva?! Ick!”)
Not to speak ill of royalty, but I thought Queen Latifah sounded easy because she probably wasn’t trying too hard. I know my wife (a music teacher) and I cringed on the couch during America the Beautiful and shared quite the chuckle afterwards. Add in the ghosting musicians behind her and it was quite the musical circus. If Renée had a “faux-pop” sound, then Latifah’s was faux-good. It’s true that Ms. Fleming was a touch flat in parts, but big whoop. Not only did she sound lovely – though, that arrangement left much to be desired – but, again, she came to the table and delivered. And of course Queen Latifah was relaxed. She performs in such environments on a regular basis, whereas Renée – clearly the superior vocalist – was in an alien environment, from the amplification to the massive crowds to the televised spectacle.
Having written this, I suppose my real contention is with the author’s apparent hedging. There’s no need to kowtow to the popular music establishment. You’re the classical music critic – I don’t think anyone’s expecting you to opine about the wonders of 90s pop stars. Such insecurity does as much to perpetuate the myth of classical music’s death as some tripe in Slate. After all, if those in the classical community seem relatively embarrassed about belonging to it, why would others find it worthwhile?
I know how it seems: the Wagner bicentennial is officially over and so I bring back another trope: Einstein on the Beach. That wasn’t the plan, but I’m happy to go with the flow.
This past Tuesday’s performance of Einstein on the Beach at Paris’s Théâtre du Châtelet was simulcast via live stream. I watched along with my fellow Beachers. (If that’s not yet a term, I’ll gladly take credit.) I watched intermittently, anyway, as the stream occasionally crashed for me because of bandwidth – heavy traffic – and the weather around here has lately been horrible for internet connections.
Regular readers know of my love for this work – not just the piece, but the experience of it. I proudly count myself among the fortunate few who’ve attended a performance, all things considered. (I love Wagner, but his works are performed more than one tour every 15-20 years. The rarity is of course compounded by the fact that a full video recording has never been released.) And, as I described here, seeing Einstein was one of my favorite experiences, musical or otherwise.
For those who may have missed the stream, the tour, or both – and for those who may want to relive a fraction of the experience – the stream has been archived and made available for viewing until May 7. I highly suggest taking 4.5+ hours of your time and giving it a go.
A few brief thoughts on the stream:
• It was a great reminder, but it cannot live up to the real thing. (Of course.) This is partly because of the camera work. The various close-ups and angles take you out of your seat, as it were. Part of the genius of the work is getting lost in both the forest and the trees simultaneously – musically and visually. Large scenes move glacially and seemingly small actions are monumental. With the camera closing in on various characters and/or actions, it diminishes the larger scope some. For example, when the prisoner screams during “Trial II,” the close-up bars the viewer from seeing the judge’s simultaneous reaction – you only see it afterwards, but not as it happens.
• That said, some of these different – and unique! – angles help to give a new perspective if you’ve seen the performance live. For instance, I sat in the fifth row or thereabouts, so I lacked the aerial view of the two dance scenes. (The aerial view is preferable for them, although I had a great seat for the “Train” scene’s diagonal dance…)
• It was wonderful to once again enjoy Kate Moran‘s phrasing during “Trial II.” Simply wonderful. She’s so nuanced with compelling diction.
• “Building”! This scene gets short shrift on the audio recordings. What a delight to hear it full-bore. Andrew Sterman OWNS it. (Thank you, Mr. Sterman.)
• Composer Nico Muhly’s live-tweeting of the broadcast is a humorous companion.
I encourage you to take advantage of this opportunity if even the slightest bit interested.
(Photo: Wagner’s grave at Wahnfried, taken by myself)
Today is Wilhelm Richard Wagner‘s 200th birthday. The real world and cyberspace are rife with celebrations today and throughout all of 2013. Although, as Dr. Mark Berry correctly noted, “every year is a Wagner year.” This blog is but a drop in the digital ocean of related tributes, and therefore I’m going to be realistic. First, I won’t be breaking any new Wagnerian ground here. Second, there’s no point in writing what others will and have had covered already. But I would like to share something, and so I’d like to jot down a few thoughts about my relationship with my favorite classical composer.
Being a saxophonist, I ostensibly have little to do with Wagner outside of my instrument’s namesake. (Adolphe Sax was whom Wagner turned to for the development of his Wagner tuba.) That, and Wagner’s use of the saxophone to fill out the needed twelve French horn parts for Tannhäuser‘s Paris premiere, cover most of his saxophonic bases. (Further proof that what you need a ringer, hire a saxophonist!) So what’s my deal?
Honestly, aside from a few random facts and musical excerpts, I knew very little about Wagner until covering him in my music history survey in college. I spent a number of years in my teens voraciously learning about the Holocaust and Nazi Germany, and so I was also aware of some sort of Hitlerian connection, but the specifics were lost on me until later. So I was a relative novice my class’s Romantic unit. I must say that I was instantly fascinated and even a bit overwhelmed. Some reactions, as I can somewhat remember them:
1. I was instantly moved by the music. If I remember correctly, we watched both the end of Die Walküre (I still have my worksheet) and a portion of Act III (?) of Tristan und Isolde (it’s been a while since that course…). And of course listened to the Tristan prelude. Two passages and works that I’m now all too familiar with but that were completely new to me at the time.
2. The theoretical concepts – leitmotif, gesamtkunstwerk, endless melody, etc. – scratched me where I itched. Saxophone literature is largely twentieth (and twenty-first) century or bust. Chronologically, Wagner’s music and musical approach and philosophy represented the first time we covered music in a similar vocabulary (i.e., late Romanticism, highly chromatic, etc.) as some of the solo literature I’d been learning.
3. DRAMA. Wagner’s focus on drama sucked me right in. That music should serve the drama – the actual end – is something with which I whole-heartedly agree (in many contexts still, but at the time it was absolute).
A few weeks after my aforementioned introduction, I checked a recording of Tristan und Isolde out from the music library, and the rest is history. From there I moved to Der Ring des Nibelungen – the Levine/Met recording of the whole cycle – and then Lohengrin, and beyond. I was hooked. A couple years later I completed an independent study for which I researched and wrote about exclusive similarities between Der Ring des Nibelungen and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth works, separate from both creators’ common mythological sources. (Tolkien, along with C.S. Lewis, was at one time quite the Wagnerite.) While at first blush it seems like an easy target, there’s much debate surrounding this topic. Sometime I’d actually like to revisit that paper/project for revision and expansion.
The following semester I saw the full Ring cycle live at the Chicago Lyric Opera featuring James Morris, Michelle DeYoung, Plácido Domingo, Jane Eaglen, and John Treleaven. From the rushing, flowing E-flat chord that opens Das Rheingold to Valhalla’s destruction at the end of Götterdämmerung, I was transfixed. And not just when I was in the theater, mind you. For example, I saw Joshua Redman with the SFJazz Collective on the night between Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, and remember only bits of that performance. My mind was with Wagner throughout. It was my first Ring, and surely not my last. There are so many aspects of that performance I could write about here, but suffice it to say I was profoundly moved. I will say that one of the many things that stood to me was Sir Andrew Davis‘s musicianship. He phrased throughout the whole cycle. For example, the loudest and biggest moments of the whole week were Siegfried’s “Trauermarsch” and Brünnhilde’s “Immolation Scene,” both in Götterdämmerung‘s Act III. He let the music unfold with the drama, and therefore the audience and production alike grew throughout the week.
At this point, there was (and has been) no turning back. In 2008, I had the good fortune of spending some time in Bayreuth while on vacation. Having not been on the infamous years-long wait list, I didn’t attend that afternoon’s Tristan. But simply touring the grounds of the Festspielhaus and spending considerable time at Wahnfried was all I needed (and hoped for) for that trip. (And I ended up seeing Tristan that following fall in Chicago. Another moving performance.) Hopefully I’ll get a chance to return this summer while teaching abroad.
(Photo: Yours truly at Bayreuth, 2008)
Yadda, yadda, yadda. I could go on and on, but it’s best to find a point.
So those are some things I’ve done. But what does that have to do with today’s bicentennial? The day I returned to school after seeing the Ring, I met with my saxophone professor, John Nichol, to talk about my trip. I jokingly told him that by the end of Götterdämmerung I felt like I had accomplished something just by sitting through it. After a good chuckle, he asked, “But did Wagner accomplish something?” I told him that he did. And I really meant it. Much like Beethoven with the symphony, Wagner composed a relatively “small” number of operas (13, with only 10 being performed regularly). But most of those compositions seemed to dramatically shift the music world in its own way. Most of the operas are artistic behemoths, requiring significant work on behalf of both performer and observer. Unlike Beethoven, however, he wrote very little outside of his operas.(Various orchestral works, songs, and piano work exist but are rarely performed, with Siegfried Idyll being arguably the most well known. I recommend The Other Wagner as a nice, comprehensive starting point.) He also wrote a lot of prose, and his ideas were/are just as game-changing as his music (and not all for the better).
200 years on, Wagner’s legacy continues to cast a shadow over so much in the art world, extending far beyond opera, and in ways that most people perhaps don’t notice. For instance, film music – from the early talkies to present – owes much to his lush musical style and leitmotif-laden compositional approach. Just think: The Wizard of Oz would be a very different film if it weren’t for him (e.g., the overture’s lush orchestration and play-by-play of the various melodies/characters.) And, specifically, much later, how would Apocalypse Now have fared? And how many weddings use Lohengrin‘s “Bridal Chorus”? (That’s not without controversy, as most Wagnerian things aren’t.) And how many children have enjoyed this cartoon? And without Wagner there’d possibly be no castle for Cinderella. Hell, Wagner even gave us horns, spears, and breastplates. (And, occasionally, the all-too-familiar fat lady who sings.)
Yet, despite all of this and more, we Wagnerites must often defend our love of his art and publicly state that we’re not in fact members of the Nazi party. (I didn’t really address that issue in this post. That’s not the purpose here, and it’s much too broad and muddled of a topic, though I touch on it here.) A nice, humorous encapsulation of this, especially the latter point, can be found is “Trick or Treat” from Season 2 of Curb Your Enthusiasm. (Imagine my delight upon first seeing this, considering that Seinfeld – Curb‘s older brother – is my all-time favorite show.) Here’s a slightly NSFW clip:
[NOTE: Larry David’s brief but hilariously clever quotation of “Springtime for Hitler” is especially entertaining when juxtaposed with the Meistersinger overture at the end, the latter having a main character named Walther – the clip’s antagonist – and being closely associated with German nationalism.]
Pros, cons, and everything in between, Wagner left a huge mark. As mentioned above, his legacy extends far beyond his own music. Price asks if Wagner is bad for us, to which I strongly answer NO. Speaking for myself, his music has left an indelible impression on me. Two of my favorite musical experiences have been because of him (seeing the Ring and Meistersinger), and he’s never far from my ears and mind. And that is why his 200th anniversary is worth noting for me. I’ll of course be enjoying some of my favorite recordings and may even go through some select scenes on DVD. Who knows, perhaps I’ll wear one of my t-shirts and play with my action figure…
For y’all, I recommend and leave you with one of my favorite clips from the great BBC documentary The Golden Ring (about Solti’s recording Götterdämmerung for his landmark cycle):
And so I say, in the manner of Cosima’s tweets: Happy Birthday, R.