Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Speaking of Orchestral

. . . And I know we always are: here's a review I wrote this month for Brink Magazine, the online literary magazine my ex-roommate Charlie cofounded. It has the distinction of being their first music review. New concertos & other orchestral music by Michael Daugherty. Good things.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Hey, You Don't Like Orchestral?

I don't usually read The Onion A.V. Club's music reviews, but I'll click through to their write-ups for artists I recognize (still pretty low in number). So I read through Chris Martins' review of a couple of instrumental releases from Sufjan Stevens (yeah, what's he been up to?) and tripped over his judgment on The BQE that "[the] music has little appeal to those who don’t already listen to classical".

To me this comes perilously close in tone to some phraseology once deployed on the satirical side of the Onion house.

Meanwhile, whatever else you can say about BQE, you can't claim as Martins seems to that its merits are somehow impenetrable to anyone except for hardened classical-listening veterans. (The A.V. Club site has a sidebar feature on its album reviews now that lets you listen to each track of most of them once, and possibly more if you're willing to delete the cookies from your browser, given an account you can set up for free with a dummy email address. Maybe it steals a little bit of your soul every time; maybe they'll try to "monetize" it eventually and it will go away; for now it's really useful for evaluating the music after you read about it.) It's hard for me to imagine orchestral music that would be more accessible to non-classical listeners than Stevens' stuff. "Classical" and "pop" are crummy categories to try to use in any corner case, but even with a couple movements of restrained electronic music I'd characterize BQE as light orchestra music -- like indie-pop Ferde Grofé. It seems to me no harder to make sense of than one of Nobuo Uematsu's later Final Fantasy soundtracks, or for that matter Gordon Jenkins' instrumental backing for Frank Sinatra's take on "It Was a Very Good Year".

If anything, being cozy with classical music will probably work against you liking the album rather than for it. It grew on me as it went on, but it's short on large-scale development and thoughtful orchestration -- two parameters that became important to me pretty early along the classical-listening path -- and sounds pretty foursquare overall. (The triplet figure that keeps hitching up the "Sleeping Invader" movement, for example, is likable at first but never varies, which becomes monotonous over four-plus minutes.) Charming, though (assuming you can like Sufjan Stevens at all, which means walking that razor's edge that separates the insufferably quirky-soulful from the sufferably quirky-soulful) -- I've mentioned before that light classical fare was my hook into the heavier stuff and I'd like to see this type of work put into orchestras' regular rotations. Its place, though, is on the accessible outer rim of classical; if you dislike it for what it is, fine, but to dismiss it as a niche product in a review is to fail to explain, or to own up to, what actually leaves you cold about the music. And that undoes the reason for having the review in the first place.

From another angle, maybe I just shouldn't let myself be baited on Friday afternoon into writing sniffy, overlong responses about classical music appreciation by offhand comments in random album reviews. Happy Weekend!

We Built This City On Cinematically Influenced Post-Minimalism

Being that I skipped Oregon Public Broadcasting's first airing of it on Wednesday evening, I decided to catch a rerun of Dudamel's L.A. Phil premiere on Great Performances at 2 A.M., or at least the first half with John Adams' City Noir. (Mahler's first symphony, the second-half feature, is way too long for the middle of the night.) There is a daytime rebroadcast on Sunday but it will overlap about the last third of the Vikings/Steelers game, and if the game's too dismal to watch by that point then I'll be too sad to appreciate music anyway. I sort of suspect that the show will be available online at some point, more or less invalidating my effort to wake up in the dead of night, but I've been going to bed early and sleeping a lot this week anyway owing to quitting coffee yet again, so it worked out pretty comfortably. And anyway, televised culture! It's important! But not as much as televised football!

Presumably because the concert in question was a fairly high-profile cultural event in L.A., the show found room within its aggressively middlebrow framework to bring the star power. And by the star power I mean:
  • Footage of Jack Black lauding Dudamel's commitment to classical music education during a youth orchestra concert;
  • Stiff-looking host Andy Garcia conducting a breezy (yet stiff-looking) interview with Dudamel; and
  • The cameras in the concert hall picking out Tom Hanks, looking not entirely engaged, sitting a couple seats down from the composer.

To be fair to Andy Garcia, I remember finding him charming enough in Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead. Hanks' presence actually affected my impression, strongest in the first movement, that the work has something in common with John Williams' Catch Me If You Can soundtrack, which he reworked into a short concert piece for alto sax and orchestra called Escapades. (BIS has a fine recording of it with Branford Marsalis and the North Carolina Symphony, Grant Llewellyn conducting, also including a fine account of Ned Rorem's tone poem, Lions: A Dream; here also is a video of our younger cousin Aaron performing the solo part with his high school concert band in a wind ensemble arrangement of the same material.) That's a superficial connection, largely based on Adams' frequently exposed alto saxophone lines and some jazz orchestra touches early on -- Bernard Herrmann's woozy score for Taxi Driver, but for Tom Hanks, would seem a much more apt reference -- but City Noir comes off very much as a piece about L.A. (or maybe just The World) viewed through movies and through movie music, with syrupy cinematic influences blended as thoroughly as Adams' minimalist roots into the mix. It's hard to call the resulting style anything other than Romantic at this point.

The first movement has its moments, mostly of the rhythmically propulsive kind, and Adams plays winningly, as usual, with a big shiny orchestra -- I wonder how the economics of John Adams' popularity has affected his body of work; he keeps getting these high-profile, presumably well-funded, large-orchestra premieres -- though I wished for something with a little more structural backbone. The opening of the second movement was the most purely lovely part: a modernist haze out of which low, abrupt figures lurch into motion. The ending minutes of the final movement were purely pleasurable, too, with one of Adams' blazing fades-to-white (cf. Harmonielehre, The Dharma at Big Sur) transmogrified by grooving bongos (to my ear and sleepy brain anyway) into something like a celestial 1970s car chase.

The grabbiest thing in Adams' most recent work that I've heard, though -- both in City Noir and in Son of Chamber Symphony, which was streaming online earlier this year -- is how he deforms in places the straight-ahead rhythmic propulsion that still gives his music much of his shape. I remember two key instances of this in the chamber symphony: the second movement develops for a few minutes as a fairly straightforward, almost antique slow movement, then ramps up; and the last movement behaves like a boppy, retro-1980s-Adams piece until about two minutes from the end, when the beat dissolves somewhat and the work concludes in an unexpectedly contemplative space. (If these are inaccurate it's because I haven't listened to the piece for a few months.) Early in the third movement of City Noir, Adams puts some of his traditionally motoric figures through a sequence of accelerations, decelerations, and pauses, as though they keep getting caught at stoplights. It's not unprecedented in his music, but it seems like a stylistic parameter that he's varying more eagerly, and it's fun to hear.

I didn't get a good sense of Dudamel as a conductor -- that's hard to gauge from a new piece, and some combination of GP's sound mix and my TV speakers pancaked the non-solo voices together, making it tricky to judge the balance. High-energy, though, and he has more than enough charisma for the small screen. PBS should love him for years to come.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Fall Has Sprung

It's been a while since I've put up anything too, hasn't it? Time keeps on slipping into the future, as the old folk song says. Autumn seemed to burst onto Portland a week ago Monday, bringing the clammier, cooler air and frequent drizzly rain that I expect we can count on seeing at some point on any given day until springtime, save for a few bright, unannounced windows in the weather schedule. As more of a plus, the leaves are turning more dramatically than I remember them doing last year, if not up to East Coast standards, and the view from my particular 18th-floor corner of the office -- south along the Willamette River and west towards the rich-people houses up in the hills -- features some modestly striking reds and golds, complimented by the gloomy low cloud cover and the fog that clings to the heights until the early afternoon. If you've ever looked at a Dutch masters landscape and thought, "That painting is gorgeous, and in fact I'd love to live inside of it, but I hate windmills," I might recommend western Oregon in October through February.

We're well into the heart of the cultural calendar as well as the NFL season so it seems there's once again a lot for me to sit down in front of and watch, if not at the Schnitz then at Claudia's with a greyhound and a breakfast sandwich, or even more likely on the comfort of my very own couch. I'd watch PBS' Great Performances broadcast of the L.A. Philharmonic's inaugural concert with Gustavo Dudamel (feat. Mahler 1 and John Adams' new City Noir) this very night, in fact, except that Kyle's a little bit laid up with what looks like the flu and I'll be hanging out with her at her TV-less pad. (I have no fear of contamination myself, due to trust in my tried-and-conceivably-true miracle cure of eating responsibly / drinking lots of water / not having children, as well as a fatalistic interpretation of the germ theory of disease, i.e. if a bug's going around it must have gotten into my own body before I even noticed anyone was sick.) All the sit-n-watch activities can start to feel overly passive after a while, and part of me wants to, I don't know, do that thing where you try to write an entire novel in the month of November or something, though given that I can apparently hardly put two blog posts together my prospects there would seem dim. And other parts of me (the butt, the eyeballs, the brain) are pretty content with soaking in the audiovisual evidence of others' activities. And that's okay, right? It's like Peter Sellers' character says in Being There: Go you Steelers.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Eight to Go!

I was cutting through the lobby of a building while walking across campus on Saturday evening, and I was pretty sure that I walked right past Sonia Sotomayor. And I was right! She was here over the weekend for a law school reunion, or some such, according to the university newspaper. Funny place to hang around, sometimes. Shoulda got an autograph -- I'll start carrying around a felt-tip pen and a copy of Ricci v. DeStefano in case it happens again.

Maybe this makes up for my never seeing Harrison Ford when they were shooting the Indiana Jones sequel a couple years back. At least Sotomayor's tenure on the Court will be a lot more distinguished than Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Awesome Feats of Literature and Strength

Miami finally had it's first cold front of the season, a welcome change from the blistering heat of the week prior. And, with the northwind swooped in the vultures, here again to grace the winter months that suddenly seem so near (it's heating up again already and won't get consistently moderate in temperature until Thanksgivingish). I got some frowns of disapproval at a recent program-centric social gathering when I warned a bunch of first-year students about the thousands of black and turkey vultures that rule these skies (apparently, I should be trying harder to find positive things to say--like "it's beautiful and perfect every day"). But seeing those birds is definitely gratifying for my negativity.

Not that I'm all that negative, really. Had quite an eventful weekend, really. The poetry collective was out again Friday night, working our classiest shindig to date, this being a benefit for the Lotus House women's shelter in Miami at a famous rich dude's art warehouse, which cost a pretty penny get into (but the poems still only cost as little as two dollars (we averaged around 10 dollars a poem though)). So this was cool, since it's nice to do benefit shows when we're all mostly either grad students or recent grads, and not really using the money we've been making for anything at all (other than t-shirts (would you like a miami poetry collective t-shirt? send me $10 plus shipping&handling and I'll get you one)). We wound up raising around $550 for the shelter, which is over double the most we'd ever made at any previous engagement. So that's awesome.

In the process I also wrote a single poem--of only seven lines--for a whopping $80. High pressure, to be sure--the requested topic was something to the extent of "in seven lines, answer the question of everything at the same time that you acknowledge that there is no answer". But I seem to have lived up to the pressure, since the person who ordered seemed quite thrilled with what I came up with. I also wrote what was easily the filthiest limerick in the history of the poem depot (someone ordered a filthy limerick, a genre for which, within the collective, I seem to have attained the reputation of being a specialist (aren't you proud, Mom and Dad?)). It's too filthy to reprint here, but may be robust enough to survive through the ages if it propagates at all. But that $80 poem may well be the most expensive poem I ever write in my entire life.

So pretty awesome, except that during the evening--rather early on into it, in fact--I also had a run-in with my solitary food allergy to brazil nuts, which, while never life-threatening was thoroughly unpleasant. And embarrassing too, since I should have noticed that the pesto pasta which was labelled as "containing nuts," though not specifying brazils, was right next to a brazil nut mousse and therefore incredibly likely to contain traces of brazil nuts itself. Luckily the serving cups were tiny so I didn't get too much, but it was still enough to have to have a friend run me out to a drug store to by benadryl to take the edge off the my-mouth-and-throat-are-melting-and-making-it-very-difficult-to-swallow feeling that happened.

It's also embarrassing because I'm not allergic to any other foods, so far as I know (white chocolate makes me feel sick, but in a different kind of way), and to have one's solitary allergy be something like brazil nuts requires an explanation that I simply don't have. But whatever the cause, it's an allergy which does knock my system for a pretty solid loop, since I woke up the next morning still a bit scratchy and with a strong feeling of heart burn. It's sad, when I think about the eventual future of mankind, and how the extra bone in my right leg will eventually evolve through the generations to become a kill-spike, that the kill-spike's only known weakness will be brazil nuts or brazil-nut-oil-like-compounds, causing a massive rift in post-human speciation. It's hard to predict all the specifics, but I imagine that the kill-spike bearers will eventually lose much of their eyesight (due to repeated sprayings with brazil-nut-like-compounds).

Saturday night featured a party for a visiting friend who had graduated two years ago. She was the social organizer and mover/shaker extraordinaire during her time in the program, so the party had the distinct feeling of having the old gang back together. And it was also cold enough to wear a hoodie and stand around a fire. Good times.

With the cold front came a stiff wind, so Sunday, when I went out with a couple friends to through a baseball around, throwing with the wind made daring feats of strength possible--when I throw with the wind, I can throw pretty far. I'd had a similar experience one last year playing football on the beach, where I wound up playing some QB and launching some serious bombs when throwing with the wind. Also, two weekends ago, I hit a baseball over the fence at a little league park--no less than 260 feet, but estimates put it at about 285'. Maybe not that impressive, but still, hitting a baseball over a fence feels good. Especially since the pitches were coming from maybe 40 feet away and moving very slowly, and very wildly. And there wasn't nearly so much wind that day. AWESOME POWER!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Pie Proverb

"If you give a man pumpkin pie, he will eat pumpkin pie for a day. But if you teach a man to make pumpkin pie, he'll be all like Damn, that's a lot of pumpkin pie for one guy to eat in a week."

Not that you shouldn't give me pumpkin pie. I mean, it's almost Thanksgiving. Actually, the pumpkin-pie-and-coffee breakfast feels like pregaming for the holidays more than anything else.

I used canned pumpkin and a frozen pie crust, but that's still homemade, dammit.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Cartoons Just Aren't the Same Online, Though

It figures that the week I let my New Yorker subscription lapse is the one they run a humor piece that parodies orchestra program notes. Good thing it's online. (via Tim Mangan)

That's Yoni Brenner, the only New Yorker humorist I've ever laughed at besides Jack Handey. His batshit-insane depiction of Brahms is particularly funny.

The satirical description of the last movement of "La Mer" -- "pits roiling strings against strident brass, belligerent woodwinds, and unhinged timpani bent on physical reprisal" -- would actually make a pretty good non-satirical description of the finale of Nielsen's Fourth Symphony.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Has It Been . . .

. . . like more than a month before I wrote anything about myself? Or maybe late August? Briefly:

Things are going fine! It's cold out but I've got an apple bread in the oven, thanks to the Mark Bittman vegetarian cookbook Nate got me for Christmas last year and a Macoun apple from the locally popular Lyman Orchards (up Durham way) where I went last with this gal Eva who I've been seeing some since middle September. The foliage is getting nice; we also found Millers Pond State Park, known to be in the area but on an unknown route, thanks to a gas station shop clerk near Middletown, who flagged us down a local guy in the parking lot before he drove off in his pickup. The guy seemed a little stoned but gave us his coffee-stained Middletown map. Hooray for ponds.

I have Spanish homework, since I'm auditing an introductory-level Spanish class at the university, conveniently located a block from the office. It's an every-morning 8:20 class, which is great for me because I can just shift my workday back by 45 minutes. I signed up for this on a whim at the end of August, deciding that I was tired of still only knowing one language. And it's a great university perk to be able to take a serious, pretty fast-paced language course. Entiendo solo un poco español, pero todos los días hablo y leo un poco más. I'd say where I'm hoping to go with this, but we haven't learned the subjunctive yet. At least it's a little new comprehension, and I feel like a better citizen of the western hemisphere.

A question on the exam we had last week asked "What do you prefer to do in Cancún?" And I know enough Spanish now to respond "I prefer to sit on the beach with a book and a few beers" (Prefiero sentarme en la playa con un libro y unas cervezas). So if nothing else I'm getting to the point where I can reveal extremely telling minor details about myself.

And yoga class started up again, so that's a couple evenings a week, and I'm doing the radio show Wednesday nights now (I will start writing about it again once I get my act together and the other half of my ass into the effort), so with cooking and dishwashing that's most of the workweek right there. It's good to feel comfortably busy.

Oh, and I went to Salt Lake City and to Ann Arbor, Michigan, too, for a pair of long weekends in the past month. Both fine places to see, plus good people I know are in them. And it really was good to have Nate visit up here, even if that was a month ago now. And as usual it seems like the year is speeding up and we're hurtling towards the holidays. But more later, before then, really this time.

Monday, October 05, 2009

This Week in Poetic Legitimacy

The miami poetry collective was featured in this past Sunday's Miami Herald's "Tropical Life" section. The picture, seen here on the online version of the article, was nearly the size of a whole top half of a newspaper, and though I'm not named in the caption, clearly, my poetic self was gazing there out of the picture, to all the newspaper readers in Miami.

It should be noted, however, that the things I'm quoted as saying are all misquotes, and though I'm not about to have the Tropical Life section of the Miami Herald issue a retraction, the quotes in the article should be understood to be saying the following:

"I bought this [typewriter] in a flea market in Germany 10 years ago." should read as "A friend of mine bought this typewriter in a flea market in Berlin two years ago."


"The Z and the Q are swapped because they use the the Z so much more." should read "The Y and the Z are swapped because they use the Z so much more."

No big whoop though.

Also, the vignette about the Hummer on the second page of the article was mine (I know I know, it's the collective's, but you know how it goes...).