Not something that happens
But the way something happens
-- Charles Ives,
Essays Before a Sonata

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Chorus of Westerly celebrates its 50th anniversary

The Chorus of Westerly was founded in 1959 in Westerly, R.I., by George Kent, who remains its director today. They recently celebrated their 50th anniversary in the George Kent Performance Hall, a former church that the Chorus has bought, renovated, and converted into a concert hall.

I was privileged to be a part of this wonderful community from 2001-03 as I conducted the fieldwork for my doctoral dissertation, and I greatly enjoyed singing through Handel's Messiah at the open singing that was part of the 50th anniversary celebration.

Photo: interior of the George Kent Performance Hall, taken 11/7/2009.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Frank Zappa's prophetic imagination for the music business

I was reading through The Real Frank Zappa Book, as told to Peter Ochiogrosso, and came across a remarkable document, "A Proposal for a System to Replace Ordinary Record Merchandising." In this prescient 1983 essay, Zappa foresees many of the transformations that have rocked the music industry since the opening of the original Napster in 1999.

"... think what is being wasted in terms of GREAT CATALOG ITEMS, squeezed out of the market place because of limited rack space in retail outlets, and the insatiable desire of quota-conscious company reps to fill every available niche with THIS WEEK'S NEW RELEASES."


Zappa would have loved Amazon.com and the other Internet-era merchants based on providing the "long tail": multitudes of niche products rather than a few blockbusters aimed at a mass audience. Yet the Internet is a technology entirely absent from Zappa's 1983 vision. He imagines that sound recordings will be transmitted by telephone or cable TV (an emerging technology in 1983) rather than through a dedicated data network. When he talks of album art and other details being transmitted to a TV screen while the music loads, he sounds almost as if he is describing digital cable channels such as Music Choice (which are not an ideal medium for encountering Zappa's music).

Another major technological advance Zappa does not foresee is the encoding of digital music in compressed formats such as mp3. In 1983, research for such compression schemes was still in its infancy. Transferring digital music as uncompressed data, using the analog modems available in 1983, would have taken an eternity. I remember dialing into BBS systems with a 300-baud modem connected to a Commodore 64, and plain text scrolled across the screen at about my reading speed. There were faster modems then, but nothing even close to the broadband connections we enjoy today.

Finally, it's fascinating to note that Zappa's vision for the music industry of the future looks more like Rhapsody than iTunes:

"We propose to acquire the rights to digitally duplicate and store THE BEST of every record company's difficult-to-move Quality Catalog Items [Q.C.I.], store them in a central processing location, and have them accessible by phone or cable TV, directly patchable into the user's home taping appliances ... The consumer has the option of subscribing to one or more Interest Categories, charged at a monthly rate, without regard for the quantity of music he or she decides to tape."

Rhapsody, unfortunately, has struggled to reach a market share of 7%. Something in the psychology of music consumption still leads most people to buy a single-purpose music hardware device (iPod, etc.), then to "buy" songs or albums one by one. (I put "buy" in quotation marks because in many cases, the transaction is more like a "lease" that only allows you to do certain things with the audio file.) The idea of music as a subscription accessible from any device (computer, mobile phone, TV) has not caught on as much. Even Rhapsody seems to be moving away from this business model and is now offering mp3 downloads.

Isn't it ironic that today, Zappa's music is hard to find at the online music retailers? Currently Rhapsody lists only 31 tracks composed by Zappa, and none of them in his original performances. iTunes has more than it used to, but still only a fraction of his releases. Is it merely nostalgia that leads the rights holders for the catalogs of the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and Frank Zappa to resist offering this music digitally, forcing one to consume the music through older technologies such as the CD or LP?

Friday, October 2, 2009

Friday, September 25, 2009

In appreciation of Forbes Piano Company

Birmingham, Alabama, where I spent my childhood, has lost an institution in its musical life, the E. E. Forbes Piano Company, which closed this summer. (The Montgomery location is still open.) Until I moved away from Birmingham, I did not realize what a treasure this store was. As a piano student, I spent plenty of time at Forbes browsing through filing cabinets of sheet music, trying pieces out on one of the display pianos. They had an astonishing inventory, some of it decades old, and I can remember buying a few pieces for the original publisher's price of less than a dollar.

(Perhaps I am remembering wrong, but I think Forbes also had a location in Eastwood Mall in the early-mid 1980s, which moved to the Golbro shopping center, then closed around 1990 or so. The Golbro location is where I took some guitar lessons during one of my rebellions from classical piano. Eastwood Mall yielded to the wrecking ball in 2006-07 in favor of a Wal-Mart Supercenter, and the recent recession finally brought about the demise of Century Plaza.)

Of course, as with book and CD stores, this kind of shopping experience is becoming obsolete with the development of Internet retailers who can provide the "long tail" on demand. While much of the sheet music available at Forbes is available from retailers such as sheetmusicplus.com, and the out-of-print items might turn up on eBay, one must know in advance what to look for. It's harder to enjoy the serendipity of finding a new piece, trying it out on the piano, and then adding it to one's repertory.

In particular, I have a memory of finding a contemporary score at Forbes that I never would have found otherwise: Fantasia on an Ostinato by John Corigliano, a minimalist work by an otherwise neo-Romantic composer. I was intrigued by this work as I played through it in Forbes's showroom, bought the score, and played around with it at home (especially the passages in indefinite notation, where the performer is given latitude to construct a realization). As I put together my senior piano recital at Sewanee, I wanted at least one work by a living composer, and this one fit the bill nicely. My teacher, Steve Shrader, had not been familiar with the work before I introduced it to him, but he generously allowed me to add the work to my lessons. I could not have managed the technically difficult passages without his input.

I remember reading in John Szwed's biography of jazz great Sun Ra, Space is the Place, that Sun Ra (then known as Sonny Blount) spent plenty of time at Forbes in his youth. It is a testament to Forbes's reputation that they nurtured such an artist at a time when many downtown Birmingham merchants treated black customers as second class citizens. For example, as recounted in Diane McWhorter's Carry Me Home, until the civil rights protests of the 1960s, black customers at the downtown department stores could buy clothing, but they were not allowed to try the clothes on, and all sales were final.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

At the border between North and South

Two photos I took this summer while living in suburban Washington, D.C.

Top: The Appalachian Trail crossing the Potomac River at Harpers Ferry, W. Va.

Bottom: The Great Falls of the Potomac from Olmstead Island, looking south toward Virginia.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

When style categories like "neoclassical" confuse more than they enlighten

One of my tasks this summer has been to dig deeper into the music of Igor Stravinsky as I complete an article on the nexus between liberal theology and choral singing. Stravinsky's choral music, his religious life, and his approaches to text setting are fascinating and complex matters. But rather than rehearse here what I intend to argue in my article, I thought I would use this space to discuss a side issue that I won't be treating there.

I am increasingly suspicious of the division of Igor Stravinsky's career into three periods (folkloric, then neoclassical, then serial). Ever since Beethoven, the notion of three style periods has become an overused crutch. The more I listen to Stravinsky's works, the more I am unhappy with the notion that everything from the ragtimey chamber music of The Soldier's Tale (1918) to the hieratic ritual of Oedipus Rex (1927) constitutes a "neoclassical period."

(And even in Beethoven's case, it is debatable how useful it is to speak of three style periods. The Eighth Symphony is neither "heroic" nor "late," and perhaps we neglect this wonderful work because it doesn't fit our preconceived notions of "second period" or "third period" style.)

Take the three mature works which Stravinsky named with the word "symphony," often grouped on a single CD: the Symphony of Psalms (1930), Symphony in C (1938-40), and Symphony in Three Movements (1942-45). As a choral singer, I have had a long interest in the first work, one of the major works for orchestra and chorus from the 20th century. I have gotten to know the others more recently. Surely if any work of Stravinsky's deserves the label of "neoclassical", it is the Symphony in C, with its obvious debt to Mozart and Haydn for its balanced phrasing and form. Next to it, the Symphony of Psalms seems from another world, with its wind-heavy orchestration, chantlike themes, and dissonant counterpoint.

Then there is the Symphony in Three Movements, which at first I found elusive, perhaps because I was trying to square my experience of the work with the category of "neoclassical." My first impression of the work was that Stravinsky was trying to sound too much like the Stravinsky of the popular early ballets such as The Rite of Spring (1913). With repeated listening, I began to focus on a comic tone found through much of the symphony. Perhaps I was hearing the work with the ears of Hollywood, because a number of passages seem to be closely imitated by numerous film composers these days. The bouncy, slightly askew opening of the slow movement could easily appear between scenes of a romantic comedy, while the theme beginning at 1:21 in the third movement seems a dead ringer for depictions of comic mastery in blockbusters of the Spielberg type. (Is the melody at 2:00 a premonition of one of the themes in Star Wars?)

Recently, I have been reading Robert Craft's most recent compilation of his conversations with Igor Stravinsky, Memories and Commentaries (2002). Stravinsky's discussion of the Symphony in Three Movements is an eye-opener because, despite his protestations, the work seems to have a specific program drawn from the events of World War II, particularly as experienced in newsreels. It is not just a matter of later film composers raiding the Symphony for ideas; there is already something cinematic about the work's musical language. (And in fact, some of the music in the symphony comes from abandoned film projects.) On the other hand, Stravinsky's imagery seems to be different from mine. The passage I experience as "comic mastery" above Stravinsky describes as a "rumba ... associated in my imagination with the movements of [German] war machines": comic "immobility" rather than mastery.

(You can read a version of Stravinsky's program from an earlier Craft conversation book here. In Craft's 2002 book, the account of being roughed up by Nazi brownshirts does not appear in conjunction with the Symphony, but in a completely different context. Making sense of the multiple versions of Stravinsky conversations would be a fine topic for a folklore or musicology dissertation.)

One of my favorite writers on music, Joseph Horowitz, has posted a wonderful video that attempts to couple Stravinsky's music with the newsreel footage that inspired it. (It does not appear to be available on video sharing sites, so you will have to download the file to your computer. It is well worth the effort.) While obviously this video is not the last word on "what the music means," it makes clear that the finale of the Symphony in Three Movements could be heard as a "film score without images" (rather like a "song without words"). Perhaps one could call the Symphony "neoromantic," but "neoclassical" just does not apply.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Ethnomusicology, baby formula, and the perfume of language

The things you notice when you're both a parent and an ethnomusicologist. One day I was giving my daughter a bottle and idly reading the label of the can of formula when I scratched my head over the trademark Natural Cultures. To anyone who knows the histories and meanings of these terms, this phrase is a direct contradiction. It makes no more sense than if a state park were called Developed Wilderness. Yet marketing language is more often based on the perfume words emit rather than the denotative meanings of those words.

The 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes famously described the "state of nature" as "nasty, brutish, and short." In Christian theology, the "natural man" is the human in an unredeemed state, prior to the reception of the gospel. In neither school of thought is it a compliment to label something as natural. The idea that the natural is something desirable, even a prelapsarian state of grace, developed in the thinking of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Romantics of the 19th century. In a sense, we Americans are all Romantics now, since this idea of the natural is so pervasive among us as to be unquestioned. And since the Food and Drug Administration does not define the term natural, almost anything can be sprayed with the perfume of the word. If euthanasia becomes legal, I imagine that someone will market an all-natural euthanasia aid made from USDA organic lima beans.

Culture, on the other hand, has had a host of definitions over time, but all of them have in common the idea of human agency. One use of the word describes the act of growing biological material under controlled conditions: a throat culture is removing bacteria from the throat and growing them in a petri dish, while agriculture is growing plants in a systematic way in a field or greenhouse. Precisely because of the human agency involved, throat cultures and agriculture are not natural.

I can imagine the dilemma of those marketing infant formula: they need to come up with a euphemism for the bacteria in their product. People like the idea of nature in the abstract, but few realize that the nature of the human digestive system is to rely on symbiotic bacteria to do some of the work of digestion. Moreover, one of the current crazes in parenting is the use of antibacterial products (which, perversely, may do more harm than good.) The marketers could have chosen the term probiotic, which some yogurt manufacturers use for the bacteria in their products. The term sounds unthreatening and positive, but it's also abstract and scientific. It lacks the stinky perfume of "bacteria" but does not substitute a more alluring one.

Not so with the term culture. The term culture does have this alluring perfume, though I don't think this is because of the use of the term in biology as described above. In his recent book Beyond Exoticism: Western Music and the World, Timothy Taylor describes an experience that I have had on a number of occasions. People often tell me that they are interested in learning more about "cultural music," and they think it is admirable that I am able to teach on such subjects for a living. What do they mean by "cultural music"? Is there such a thing as noncultural music? Generally, it turns out that by cultural they mean foreign or exotic.

The use of culture in this sense is a popularization of the concept of culture promulgated in anthropology and related disciplines beginning in the late 19th century. In these contexts, culture describes the customs, beliefs, and practices that a group of people uses to make sense of the world. Of course, in this period of time, anthropologists were primarily interested in what they then called "primitive cultures," and they often decried the "loss of culture" that occurred as these societies came into contact with modernizing influences. Anthropology today has distanced itself somewhat from this model of what culture is, but the popularization continues to have force.

And I think it is a pernicious popularization if it reinforces the idea that one's own way of looking at the world is default, unmarked—in short, "not cultural"—while other people's ways of looking at the world are deviations from this norm. In this way a subtle form of ethnocentrism can creep into our thought via the language of multiculturalism.

Friday, March 6, 2009

The disappearing composer at the Obama Inauguration

The performance of Aaron Copland's A Lincoln Portrait at the Obama Inaugural Celebration (We Are One) in January of this year has created plenty of buzz on the web and elsewhere. Much of the conversation has centered on the symbolic links between Obama, Franklin Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln to which this performance has contributed. Depending on your politics, you may or may not find this symbolism convincing: the more cynical side of me says that it covers over the possibility that Obama may actually govern to the right of Eisenhower and Nixon.

But I'd like to focus attention on something not explicitly political. I didn't get to see the HBO feed of the Obama Inaugural Celebration on the Sunday before the inauguration, but the AMS-L listserv later carried a discussion provoked by this concert. While those of us who grew up within the Western art music tradition find it second nature to talk about the composer as the central figure of musical creativity, the culture at large prefers to talk about performers. One can trace this tendency back to 1960s-era popular musicians (the Beatles, Bob Dylan), who established the ideal that popular musicians should be both performers and composers (singer-songwriters), or further back to the beginnings of recorded jazz in the 1910s and 1920s, where the recorded performance and the composition are often one and the same. In short, over time the very act of composition has become hard to talk about in isolation from other activities.

(One can make a contrast with film, where filmmakers and film historians usually speak of the director as the source of creativity, while fans may be more likely to care about the contribution of the actors. Yet while actor-directors do exist, film seems to have resisted the merging of these roles; film is still made within a highly specialized division of labor more reminiscent of Tin Pan Alley than of post-Beatles pop music.)

Consider, then, the Obama Inaugural Celebration. Among the numerous songs by rock performers (Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, U2), folk (Pete Seeger), country (Garth Brooks), and soul/R&B (Stevie Wonder, Usher, Beyoncé), appeared two selections composed by Aaron Copland: Fanfare for the Common Man and A Lincoln Portrait. Here is a clip of the performance of the latter, featuring Tom Hanks as narrator:



Now view this clip on YouTube's site. Notice that the blurb reads, "Tom Hanks honored Abraham Lincoln in his speech at the We Are One Inaugural Concert" and that the supplied list of keywords does not mention Aaron Copland at all. If you actually watch the video, Copland is identified as the composer of the work in the graphics, but you will not find this video by putting "Aaron Copland" in the search box at YouTube. The composer has disappeared. Apparently the uploader of this video was under the impression that Tom Hanks had written a speech to recite over background music. It never occurred to him or her that Hanks was performing an existing musical composition with a part for a narrator.

Admittedly, this work is somewhat of a special case in the repertory of orchestral music, and a musical novice could be forgiven for not imagining that there are works out there for narrator and orchestra. Also, there is a long tradition of performances of A Lincoln Portrait with celebrity narrators (including Obama himself in this 2005 performance in Chicago) and such celebrities will inevitably steal the spotlight from a dead composer. Still, the fact that no recognition at all is given to the composer, even one as acclaimed as Aaron Copland, demonstrates well that the cultural presuppositions of many Americans are different from those of the so-called "classical music" world.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The perils of cloud computing

Last semester I began experimenting with Google Docs as a way of serving documents used in my courses. Previously I had used my account with .Mac (now MobileMe) to accomplish this.
  • But this membership is a bit pricey (about $109 a year, I think), and I hoped to be able to save a bit of money by migrating to a free service.
  • Also, I have had trouble with uploading documents from my laptop to .Mac from certain campuses, since they have the service blocked. Google Docs, as a standard web application, would not be subject to these problems.
  • Finally, I hoped that a simpler web processor would avoid some of the maddening problems that Microsoft Word is subject to (such as something I'm dealing with now: a document that is single spaced on my screen but resolutely double-spaced when uploaded to .Mac, no matter how many ways I change the spacing).
Google Docs turned out to be no better, and sometimes worse. Using the table tool is particularly maddening. But still, it's free and it's accessible through any web browser, which came in particularly handy when I had to make an extended trip to Colombia last fall and was dependent on public internet terminals.

Then, on January 1st, I logged onto Google Docs to find the message "Sorry! We are experiencing technical difficulties and cannot show all of your documents." I didn't think much of it at first, because it was New Years' Day, and perhaps they had to bring the site down for a few minutes for some maintenance. But as hours and days passed with still no access to my documents, I began to worry. It turns out that I'm not the only one to whom this happened. This was a very strange failure, because the documents were clearly still on the server. In most cases I have linked to these documents from one of my blogs, and if you follow those links, the documents are still available. But from the Google Docs console, nothing.

What is particularly scary about this experience is that there really isn't any way to contact Google to find out what is going on, other than to post on one of the support forums. Since it's a free service, Google has no direct incentive to make sure that it works correctly. When it finally did work, no one contacted me to explain what went wrong and how they had corrected the problem.

For this reason, I switched back to using .Mac to synchronize documents between my laptop and the network. Perhaps a paid service will be more reliable—though Apple has had their own problems with .Mac and MobileMe.

What gives me pause is how seductive these free "cloud computing" schemes are, and how difficult it is to disentangle oneself from them.
  • Blogger (another Google product) seems to be robust and reliable, but who knows? Now it doesn't seem like such a good idea to use a private blog to organize material for my current research projects.
  • I thought I might use Google Calendar for all of my scheduling, but I now feel compelled to write down the most important events in an old-fashioned paper calendar. (Thus the network creates more work, because now I have to write things down twice.)
  • What of all of the playlists I have stored on Rhapsody? There's no way to back them up to my own machine, other than writing down the names of the songs and laboriously finding them one at a time if Rhapsody crashes or goes out of business. But Rhapsody is such an improvement over finding music on CDs, the risk is worth it.
  • How about Facebook? Same problem.
  • What of my off-site backups to .Mac? To be really safe, should I be burning my work to discs and putting them in my safe deposit box at the bank? (I actually did do this when I was writing my dissertation, but now I can't imagine when I would find the time.)