04 November 2010

Listening in Roslindale

Lest it seem that all is gloom and doom around here, it's time for a long overdue installment of "Listening in Roslindale," covering my listening (or at least most of it) for September and October.  

Perhaps an even more mixed bag than usual: blues, jazz (and especially jazz piano), classic R&B and its descendants, African music, classic early country, Jewish music, and the beginning of a Schubert orgy. Even (gasp) some Mozart.

Son House, Delta Blues: The Original Library of Congress Sessions from Field Recordings, 1941-1942.
Interesting, but lacking in variety.
Butterbeans and Susie, Complete Recorded Works 1924-1927 in Chronological Order, Volume 2, 1926-1927
Pretty much a single shtick—but I’ll bet they were fun to see on stage.
Jackie McLean
Destination Out. Surprisingly dull.
Bluesnik. McLean plays consistently out of tune...and not in a good way (as opposed to, say, Eric Dolphy, who turned his intonation into a fully consistent part of his distinctive voice.)
Cannonball Adderley Sextet, Dizzy Business. Great straight-ahead playing.

Big Maybelle, The Complete Okeh Sessions, 1952-55. Rock & Roll!!

Skip James, Complete 1931 Recordings in Chronological Order

Ghana: Ancient Ceremonies, Dance Music & Songs (Explorer)

East Africa: Witchcraft & Ritual Music (Explorer)

Lonnie Johnson, The Essential (Classic Blues). Wonderful.

Prince, Musicology
Prince may not be the greatest poet of his age, but his sense of sonority is extraordinary. I was surprised (but perhaps I shouldn’t have been) to hear echoes of (among many other things) Frank Zappa.
And the title makes sense after all.
Cedar Walton Plays, featuring Ron Carter and Billy Higgins

Jimmie Rodgers, The Early Years, 1928–1929. O-de-lay-ee!

Earl Hines Plays Duke Ellington, vol. 2, tracks recorded in 1971 and 1972

Shalom: Music of the Jewish People. Roumania, Roumania!

Schubert orgy (ongoing):
Symphony in B-minor, “Unfinished,” D 759
Bruno Walter, New York Philharmonic (recorded 3 March 1958)
Roy Goodman, The Hanover Band
Josef Krips, Vienna Philharmonic (March 1969)
Kleiber, Vienna Philharmonic
Riccardo Muti, Vienna Philharmonic
Giuseppe Sinopoli, Philharmonia Orchestra
On a first listening, my favorite is the Krips. But I know some may disagree... For my least favorite, perhaps a tie between Muti and Goodman.
Symphony in C major, “Great,” D 944
Josef Krips, London Symphony Orchestra (May 1958)
Music to Rosamunde, D 797
Roy Goodman, The Hanover Band
Mass in A-flat, D 678
Mass in E-flat, D 950
Wolfgang Sawallisch, Chorus and Symphony of the Bavarian Radio. Soloists: Helen Donath, Brigitte Fassbaender, Francisco Araiza, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
Mass in C, D 452
Wolfgang Sawallisch, Chorus and Symphony of the Bavarian Radio. Soloists: Lucia Popp, Adolf Dallapozza
Tantum ergo, D 962
Wolfgang Sawallisch, Chorus and Symphony of the Bavarian Radio. Soloists: Lucia Popp, Brigitte Fassbaender, Peter Schreier, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
Offertorium, D 963
Wolfgang Sawallisch, Chorus and Symphony of the Bavarian Radio. Soloists: Adolf Dallapozza, Peter Schreier
String Quartet in D minor, D 810, “Der Tod und das Mädchen”
String Quartet in A minor, D 804, “Rosamunde”
Takács Quartet
String Quintet in C major, D 956
Emerson String Quartet with Mstislav Rostropovich
James Brown, Star Time (4 CDs)
YeeeAAeeaah! (Now there's a sound that is beyond transliteration) Take it to the bridge!

A great chronological survey of Brown's career, from the beginnings to the early 90s. Includes a substantial booklet with a very good historical essay.
Miles Davis, Bitches Brew
I hadn’t listened to this in decades. I bought in when I was in high school, and nearly wore it out at the time. It’s amazing how much of it is still in my memory. Nearly as vividly remembered as Kind of Blue.
Johnny Hodges, With Billy Strayhorn and the Orchestra

Marion Brown
Alto saxophonist Marion Brown, a long time figure on the avant-garde scene, died on 18 October 2010 at the age of 79. I had known of Brown ever since the 1970s, but didn't really know his playing.  So I'm enjoying the tribute at destination out ...  "Iditus" is especially entertaining:  sort of a "Viennese waltz meets free jazz"
Mozart, Last Four Symphonies
Sir Charles Mackerras, Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Kenny Barron Trio, Live at Bradley’s
I didn't know Barron's playing, and it captivated me on a first listening, and it inspired me to check out all the rest of the Kenny Barron CDs from the Newton Library.
Vijay Iyer, Reimagining
I like Iyer, a lot. He plays rather the way I do in my own (recently revived) “free” playing: a stew of influences, in a unique personal amalgam that (at least for Iyer) never sounds derivative, sometimes structured, sometimes less so. I’m looking forward to listening to more.
Art Tatum, Solo Masterpieces, vol. 3. Tracks recorded in 1953–55
Beyond extraordinary, beyond commentary.  Just listen.  Really listen.
Listening to this inspired me finally to read James Lester’s biography of Tatum, Too Marvelous for Words. Tatum is beyond sensible commentary, but I may have more to say about the biography here.
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18 October 2010

Review of "On Mozart" (1996), Part IV

This is fourth and final part of my review-essay on the collection On Mozart (ed. James M. Morris).  I wrote the review for the journal Notes in 1996, but it was not published at that time. This is its first publication.  See also Parts 1, 2, and 3.



Wye J. Allanbrook is justly celebrated for her brilliant and subtle readings of Mozart’s mature operas in light of their rhythmic and musical topics (or topoi).[26] In recent years she has turned her attention increasingly to his instrumental music. Her essay here, “Mozart’s tunes and the comedy of closure,” opens with a critique of the “dark and troubled” Mozart that, in her view, is a legacy of the romanticized Mozart of the nineteenth century. This Mozart survives in the guise of a “subversive” in recent writings by authors such as Rose Rosengard Subotnik and Susan McClary. Allanbrook writes:
The musical result of the pursuit of the Gloomy Mozart is an agenda that shapes a dangerous misconception of the conventions of the Classic style—a presumption that these conventions have somehow been imposed from without, by the enlightenment’s musical thought police, and that it is intellectual progress to grow away from them, even if in the process the individual becomes divided against himself. (p. 172).
This is surely right (although one wonders just how “dangerous” these misconceptions are; perhaps the rhetoric is a bit overheated). What may in hindsight seem like stifling conventions were continuously and dynamically forming and reforming in the eighteenth century. As Allanbrook points out, the prevalence of major keys in the late eighteenth-century was actually a novelty (compared, say, with J. S. Bach), and sonata form, far from being a formal straightjacket, was “a gradually emerging compositional process” (p. 175).

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One Man's Fight For Same-Sex Marriage

On Friday, Morning Edition at NPR broadcast a moving story about David Wilson, a black man who was one of the plaintiffs in the suit in Massachusetts that led to the 2004 decision legalizing same-sex marriage.

You can read the story here, or listen to it here.



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17 October 2010

Review of "On Mozart" (1996), Part III

This is part 3 of 4 of my review-essay on the collection On Mozart (ed. James M. Morris).  I wrote the review for the journal Notes in 1996, but it was not published at that time. This is its first publication.  See also Parts 1, 2, and 4.



Christoph Wolff’s essay deals with Mozart’s fragments: those works that exist in partially completed full scores written in Mozart’s “public” composing hand (“sketches,” in contrast, are generally private documents, written in a spidery hand that Mozart did not intend to be readily legible to anyone other than himself, which he used for working out melodic continuity, contrapuntal elaborations, and the like).[19]

Wolff, echoing Zaslaw, writes that some may consider it “blasphemy” to claim that Mozart worked hard at composing. Even so, he continues to maintain that Mozart “conceived and shaped” all his music in his head (Wolff’s essay does not take into account Konrad’s book on Mozart’s sketches, although that book appeared in 1992, two years before On Mozart). Wolff divides Mozart’s fragments into four types: those with a single line (melody) notated on a fully laid-out score; those with upper voice and bass line; those with upper voice, basso and some transitional passages; and those with all parts written out in full.[20] Wolff’s article breaks little new ground, but is a good, succinct introduction to the topic of Mozart’s fragments. It is worth noting that Wolff’s chapter (the sixth) is the first in On Mozart to include musical examples (p. 116) and facsimiles.

Maynard Solomon’s essay on Mozart’s sister, “Marianne Mozart: ‘Carissima sorella mia’,” appears in essentially unaltered form as Chapter 26 of his recent Mozart biography.[21] There, it is deeply embedded in a densely woven web of narrative, whose principal antagonist is a heavily demonized Leopold, whom Solomon alleges to have secreted away a small fortune that he declined, even in death, to share with his wayward son. This is not the place for a detailed critique of Solomon’s biography. Suffice it to say that the chapter published here is representative of Solomon’s work in general. He is a vivid writer who is deeply engaged with his topic. He is highly attuned to distant and non-obvious resonances in the language of the Mozart family letters, and he has a gift for thinking critically about sources and documents (a gift that, alas, he does not often bring to bear on his own writing). What would perhaps make an engaging historical novel, however, does not necessarily make good history. Solomon’s essay here, and his Mozart biography as a whole, are to my mind vitiated by the same flaws of method and argumentation that seem to me pervasive in his work: the creation of densely woven structures of fragmentary quotations, often wrenched out of context and taken wildly out of chronological sequence, and inserted into a predetermined narrative built on allusion and innuendo which, at the next stage of the story, become taken as fact (Leopold’s reputed “fortune” being a prime example).
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Crisis in the Humanities

So it seems that at least a few academics employed in the humanities are beginning to get an inkling that something is wrong....although to judge by what they're writing, they have no clear idea yet what it is, much less what to do about it.

On Monday, 11 October, Stanley Fish published a piece at the Opinionator blog at The New York Times, "The Crisis of the Humanities Officially Arrives," occasioned (in part) by the announcement on 1 October by George M. Philip, president of SUNY Albany, that the university was cutting its programs in French, Italian, classics, Russian, and theater.

Some quotes:
And indeed, if your criteria are productivity, efficiency and consumer satisfaction, it makes perfect sense to withdraw funds and material support from the humanities — which do not earn their keep and often draw the ire of a public suspicious of what humanities teachers do in the classroom — and leave standing programs that have a more obvious relationship to a state’s economic prosperity and produce results the man or woman in the street can recognize and appreciate. (What can you say to the tax-payer who asks, “What good does a program in Byzantine art do me?” Nothing.)

[...]

What, then, can be done? Well, it won’t do to invoke the pieties informing Charlie from Binghamton’s question [Charlie is a reader whose e-mail Fish had discussed at the beginning of his post]— the humanities enhance our culture; the humanities make our society better — because those pieties have a 19th century air about them and are not even believed in by some who rehearse them.

And it won’t do to argue that the humanities contribute to economic health of the state — by producing more well-rounded workers or attracting corporations or delivering some other attenuated benefit — because nobody really buys that argument, not even the university administrators who make it.

And it won’t do, in the age of entrepreneurial academics, zero-based budgeting and “every tub on its own bottom,” to ask computer science or biology or the medical school to fork over some of their funds so that the revenue-poor classics department can be sustained. That was the idea a while back, but today it won’t fly.

The only thing that might fly — and I’m hardly optimistic — is politics, by which I mean the political efforts of senior academic administrators to explain and defend the core enterprise to those constituencies — legislatures, boards of trustees, alumni, parents and others — that have either let bad educational things happen or have actively connived in them.
Fish does not go on to suggest what those explanations and defenses might be.  It is symptomatic that Fish uses Byzantine art as a an example of the perceived uselessness of the humanities, while overlooking the obvious case that could be made that the availability of instruction in Russian language and culture (for example) might very well actually be of crucial importance to the nation's future political and economic well being.  (Not that I'm saying this is the only valid justification for the humanities; it's just indicative of a certain kind of blindness in academics that Fish overlooks this.)

For insight into what Fish might offer as explanations for and defenses of the humanities, Mark Liberman at Language Log looks back to an earlier NYT piece by Fish, "Will the Humanities Save Us?" (6 Jan 2008)....and doesn't find much that's persuasive there, either.

Meanwhile, two other reactions to the closures at SUNY-Albany, one direct and one indirect:

Justin Erik Halldór Smith sees the closure of the French department at SUNY-Albany as a symptom of a long-term general trend in the humanities (in the United States) away from teaching that is transformative (in the sense that learning another language actually rewires your brain) to a model which promises to enhance the skills students already have without actually requiring them to become....well....different.

He writes:
To expect students to master a foreign language would be precisely to have a design upon the wiring of their brains, but such a design would entirely go against the trend, now fully dominant across the humanities, of creating, for every course, a parallel universe of so-called 'learning objectives', where the singular and obvious objective of a course cannot be mentioned, and instead one must speak vaguely of enhancing critical thinking skills, nurturing confidence in public speaking, learning to collaborate with others through small-group work, etc. But obviously the only legitimate learning objective of, say, a Greek course is to learn Greek. Once that basic commitment is abandoned, real education in letters is doomed.

Foreign-language programs were, I mean to say, the anchor of the humanities, but it is not only since the recent economic crisis and the massive closure of these programs that we have been adrift. The institutional changes that made these programs irrelevant and ineffective occurred during boom times, and in particular during a time when universities came to realize they could get in on the boom by catering to students as if they were customers, adapting themselves to the 'learning styles' and degrees of motivation of potential tuition-payers. Soon enough, classics departments were spinning out parallel degree programs in 'classical studies', where --following the general rule in academia according to which 'studies' implies dilution, corner-cutting, and compromise-- students could now get degrees by taking courses about daily life in ancient Rome, say, without having to learn any Latin at all.

I will not run through the argument here that it was not the humanization of the university, but rather the corporatization, that brought these changes about. What I want to suggest is just that it is not only cost-cutting in difficult times that has brought about such a dire situation for the humanities. Humanities programs are dying off in this desert into which we've all strolled because they were already weakened by the junk-food diet they adopted while still in their old and bountiful habitat. Faculty members who did not share the financial incentives of the people whose interests were served by scams such as 'classical studies' nonetheless were complicit, since they held onto the inherited belief that the replacement of learning by 'learning objectives' was a part of the democratic opening up of higher education to all members of society.
Meanwhile, Cathy Davidson, co-founder of HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory) counters (without referring directly to Fish's piece):  "It's Not a Crisis in the Humanities, It's a Crisis in the Society." 

Well, no.  The humanities are, really and truly, in dire shape, and their condition is not just a reflection of problems in the wider society.

To be sure, developments in the humanities over the past three decades or so parallel those in the society as a whole (for example, the tendency of many in the humanities to peddle intellectual versions of credit-default swaps and collateralized debt obligations as means to quick and painless academic riches).  But that's only part of the story.

Davidson's piece, insofar as it is making a coherent point, seems mainly to be a puff piece for HASTAC....which, to judge by the projects that it is supporting so far, is not providing anything like a new model for the humanities to go forward.
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16 October 2010

Review of "On Mozart" (1996), Part II

This is part 2 of 4 of my review-essay on the collection On Mozart (ed. James M. Morris).  I wrote the review for the journal Notes in 1996, but it was not published at that time, and this is its first publication.  See also Parts 1, 3, and 4.



The stated objective of William J. Baumol and Hilda Baumol’s essay[4] “is to help explain the extraordinary confluence of composers whose activities centered in Vienna around Mozart’s time” (p. 72).  As they describe it, their fundamental hypothesis is:
...that the political division of the Holy Roman Empire and the Habsburg possessions into many petty states worked to produce the circumstances (notably demand and a profusion of jobs) that help to explain the profusion of musical productivity (p. 72).
However, there is a fundamental misapprehension here.  It is perfectly true that non-Habsburg German portions of the “Holy Roman Empire” were an unruly collection of petty states lacking a strong central authority.  The Habsburg monarchy, on the other hand, did have a strong and increasingly centralized authority embodied in the person of the current head of the house of Habsburg, who held a satchel-full of titles from the various subject Habsburg territories, such as “King of Bohemia,” “King of Hungary,” and so on.  The so-called “emperor” (or empress) exerted direct control over most aspects of economic, religious, political and cultural life, implemented through a vast, if somewhat unruly, bureaucracy.  Thus, for example, when Empress Maria Theresia died at the end of November 1780, the crown decreed that theaters should remain closed in mourning for several weeks throughout the Habsburg lands.  Such a decree would have been impossible in Germany, and there was in any case no central authority to make it.
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The Simpsons

Still catching up.

For those few of you who are not among the 3,565,308 who have already watched the instantly classic opening sequence from last Sunday's The Simpsons, story-boarded by Banksy, here it is:



According to a post by Mike Masnick at Techdirt on Tuesday, Fox, apparently unhappy with all the free publicity, successfully had one instance of the sequence taken down from YouTube. But at that point, it had already gone viral...

At any rate, this copy is still up, and very popular.

For good reason. Some are calling this the best couch "gag" ever.
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