Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Rest of Tchaikovsky

What we love the most can get in our way ...

Thanks to eMusic I've embarked on another music collecting binge over the past year, and it's taught me a lesson: Being stuck on what you like can be the biggest obstacle to finding something new to enjoy.

In collecting jazz I find myself grabbing more and more of the people I like best rather than searching out those I haven't explored yet. So I've ended up with the complete catalog of Ben Webster, for example, yet little or nothing by the likes of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. I have almost every album by Eric Alexander (who I discovered in a basement club in New York a few years ago), but almost nothing by others of the new crop of talented current artists -- not even Wynton Marsalis, who is only represented in my collection by two of his classical recordings.

Slowly it dawned on me that I had similar gaps even in my classical collection, where vast amounts of Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart allow scant space for all the rest. One day I realized I was totally ignorant of the 15 symphonies of Dmitri Shostakovich, even though I treasure his collection of 24 preludes and fugues in every key (the only time anyone has done that since J.S. Bach).

Similarly, I was well acquainted with Schubert's "unfinished" Eighth Symphony, along with his Ninth (because it was recorded on the same album by Leonard Bernstein), yet I could tell you nothing about the rest of them. And as a big fan of Tchaikovsky's last three symphonies, how was it possible to be unaware of the other three?

This came as a shock to someone who had grown up around the feet of two classical pianists (my parents), one of whom had been to Julliard. As a child I thought nothing of going outside to play while whistling a Chopin nocturne, and took it for granted that Sunday afternoons had been intended for opera broadcasts on the radio. Admitting these gaping holes in my musical knowledge made me feel like a literature student who had written a paper on Hamlet once but had never heard of Othello or The Tempest.

Well, maybe that's going too far. The problem is more like having a familiarity with only the prominent tragedies of Shakespeare, while remaining in the dark about the lesser known histories. Or more to the point, like contenting yourself with the "best" Beethoven symphonies (3,5,6,7 and 9) but omitting the rest. I long ago worked my own way through the remaining Beethoven (1,2,4 and 8), but never got around to Schubert.

However, the problem could be solved simply enough. Immediately I started browsing through the eMusic catalog and adding lots of stuff to my Save For Later list. Soon I'd filled out the missing Schubert symphonies (not to mention his excellent Mass in A-flat) and moved on to those of Shostakovich. Speed bump! Nobody told me that Shostakovich was so tough! I had to put on the brakes when I found out how demanding he was on his listeners. I'll have to absorb them more slowly, like rich food.

But then I remembered Tchaikovsky. He was one of the first composers I discovered on my own, immediately after Gershwin. I had inherited my dad's LP of the Fifth Symphony, and went on to enjoy my own acquisitions of the Sixth and then the Fourth.

Each of these is wonderful in its own way. The Fifth is the most perfect in its classic elegance, rivaling the monumental quality of Brahms. The Sixth, or "Pathetique," is known for its slow and tremulous final movement, the get-out-your-handkerchiefs closing bow after the triumphant and trumpet-infested third movement.

The Fourth is even more of emotional roller coaster -- a lengthy first movement that seems to be all about ignoring your fate, then resisting it, and at last raging against it in an all-out childish tantrum with fists pumping and feet kicking the floor ... a second movement which is a mournful lullaby of respite ... a joyful third movement almost entirely in pizzicato on the strings ... then a finale of triumph over fate (remember that from the first movement?) with a conclusion that feels like white-water rafting down the Colorado River.

The notion that music can be "about" something emotional is an idea that first came of age with Beethoven, and turned into one of the core precepts of the Romantic school. But no one ever portrayed sheer emotion with the wild abandon of Tchaikovsky. He used to be criticized for "wearing his heart on his sleeve," which was an extreme euphemism for the way he erotically drove his crescendos to climax after climax. He seemed intent to push the orchestra to its limit, plumbing the depths of despair and reaching the heights of ecstasy, and never more so than in his greatest symphonies.

Leading up to those monsters of the orchestral repertoire are Tchaikovsky's three earlier attempts at symphonic form. But though I once heard a recording of the First, "Winter Daydreams," I didn't find it impressive enough to purchase back when "record" prices were such a large fraction of my income. And what I didn't own, I didn't listen to, and what I never listened to, I never learned to love. Over the years I came to know his piano and violin concertos, his ballet music, his overtures, the string serenade, but never the rest of the symphonies. So now at last the time had come.

The pleasure of this discovery was much the way the world would feel if a lost trove of Bach manuscripts turned up, or a missing late quartet by Beethoven. Even though the ignorance was of my own devising, the restoration of these "other" masterworks was no less a revelation.

First, they reminded me why Tchaikovsky was so accessible and satisfying to begin with. He had a gift for melodic invention uniquely his own, an apparently bottomless wellspring of tunes that were thoroughly Russian in character but universal in their appeal. Time and again while listening to these "new" works I found myself rocking in time to some lilting wordless song, or pounding along as the orchestra stampeded toward another cataclysm. You can't just sit there, you have to move.

I'm reminded of the story told by Oscar Levant, Gershwin's pianist friend, who once got out of a speeding ticket by explaining to the cop that he had been listening to Beethoven's Seventh Symphony on the radio. "You have to speed when you're listening to that," he said, as it it were obvious.

So now I'm beginning my acquaintance with these three new friends. Two of them have nicknames, "Winter Daydreams" and "the Little Russian," while the Third simply goes by its number. It's too early yet to know which will become favorites, but I'm already learning some of the landmarks of their inner landscapes.

The First comes on softly like the cold breath of air after a snowfall, an interestingly low-key debut. Each movement begins in mist, and there are some wonderful discordant horn parts that sound like winter. ... The Second attempts to be more grandiose, and largely succeeds. You can tell the composer is still gaining confidence in his use of the orchestra, but the results are frequently brilliant. I swear there is one passage that would be right at home in a modern opera by Phillip Glass -- as is often the case, great composers anticipate the future and help to bring it into being.... The Third is notable for having five movements instead of the traditional four, and they range from an introspective waltz to a stirring finale. The last movement even explores the fugal possibilities of its rousing theme.

Oops -- just noticed that Pyotr Illyitch also left us two suites for orchestra that I've never heard. Excuse me while I dive in to those.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Bad Words

When is a noun more than a noun? When it's deleted ...

Let's start with a joke, which is actually a true story:

A friend's wife once had to give a lecture about "naughty words" to her small son after he had been reprimanded at school for using a four-letter synonym for "excrement." Next day while driving him back to school she had to make a sudden stop and her pocketbook and coffee went flying through the air.

Instantly she blurted out, "Oh, shhh--!" and caught herself.

The boy looked at her calmly and asked, "Do you want to say shit?"

This routine is familiar to any parent or grandparent. Even the most blasphemous and forgiving of us feel an obligation to introduce our young ones to the concept that there are certain words that cause offense to certain people, so it is considerate to moderate our language when in public. But in our society this prohibition often results in ridiculous persecution, reaching its heights in the media where the "public" is perceived to be the largest and most easily offended.

This past week on NBC's Today show they were interviewing Hans Lange, the base-jumper (AKA "Human Flying Squirrel") whose near-disaster video has been widely circulated. In a rare unguarded moment in live broadcasting, Lange used the expression "holy shit," which elicited a comical and sophomoric reaction from the crew on the set -- including interviewer Matt Lauer, who was captured with his hand over his mouth and eyes wide in shock.

Later the entire cast was called upon to issue a form of apology to protect their network from the censure of the FCC. And as they pointed out, viewers in the Western states where the broadcast is delayed would be protected by having the harsh language excised. Presumably then only lip-readers could be harmed by his words, unless the picture was also blotted out.

How bizarre this is. News broadcasts on the same program are filled with violence of all sorts, from war to terrorist bombings, from gang violence to rape and murder, child pornography and the salacious behavior of celebrities. They think nothing of airing lies and abusive political attacks in the guise of providing commentary on them. And if someone slips up publicly, as radio personality Don Imus did last year, they will replay the incident ad infinitum until we have become so bludgeoned by the words that they almost make no sense anymore. But let one small word which is uttered in private hundreds of millions of times each day be pronounced on the air waves, and all hell heck breaks loose.

Some years ago when Hugh Greene (brother of novelist Graham Greene) was director of the BBC, he was told that "Monty Python" should be taken off the air because "some people might be offended" by the show's off-color humor. He replied, "Well, some people should be offended," and left it alone.

It will likely be a long time before anyone with that courage and sense of proportion takes over at the FCC and introduces some common sense. By then it may well be irrelevant because the public will have moved on to more diverse and less regulated forms of information and entertainment. But meanwhile, couldn't we just lighten up a bit? If nursing mothers can bare their bosoms in airport waiting areas, do we really have to fine a TV network half a million dollars for accidentally showing a split-second glimpse of Janet Jackson's nipple?

I don't know who first added the word "holy" to the common epithet up above. That would be an interesting exercise in linguistic derivation. And I suppose there are those among us to whom that is the more offensive of the two words when they are paired together. But -- I mean -- really now -- aren't they just words? Eight letters of the alphabet? How bad can they be?

Just as a few examples, here are some other pairs of words that I would consider more offensive and dangerous:
  • Kill Bill (movie title)
  • Patriot Act (repeal the Bill of Rights)
  • Military Intelligence (famous oxymoron)
  • Expletive Deleted (how Nixon swore)
Got more? Send me some comments.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Seven Years After

"When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross." 
(Sinclair Lewis, 1935)

Those in my age bracket have been made fun of for scrupulously remembering where we were and what we were doing the day John F. Kennedy was shot. But we have since been joined by succeeding generations who recall what they were doing the morning of September 11, 2001.

In my case I was at work when I heard about the impact of the first plane. At first it seemed remotely possible it was just an accident. After all, the skies around our largest city were crowded, and the towers were so tall. And at least in the first minutes, no one was taking credit for it.

With the second impact that delusion vanished, along with many others. But still the buildings were standing. It seemed only a matter of time before the fires would be put out and expensive renovations would begin. I remember I even joked that they would have to lower the rent for office space.

I watched the news reports from my desk on a tiny black and white portable TV/radio with a 5-inch screen. Reduced to this scale the giant towers were the size of magic markers scribbling smoke against the sky. I had no idea they were going to collapse until it happened. Nor, apparently, did the police and firefighters who were actively trying to evacuate the buildings. But I was watching when the first roof gave way and I followed it with open mouth all the way down, trying to imagine the calamity that this fuzzy remote image represented.

After that I knew it was only a matter of time until the second building would follow. Conspiracy theorists are having a lot of fun now spinning stories about how the jet fuel was not enough to account for the collapse, how bombs must have been on board, and so on. But according to one of the engineers who designed the structure, the failure was inevitable. There are limits to what even steel can do in the face of extreme heat and crushing weight. The miracle really is that the towers did as little damage to their surroundings as they did when they fell.

By this time my shock had given way to a grim resignation to what was sure to follow. I didn't know the exact form it would take, but I could foresee many years of turmoil and retribution. The peace that had followed the Cold War was over. Whatever cost had been exacted by the destruction of these twin buildings, eventually it would be dwarfed by the expense of what we were bound to inflict on ourselves.

I didn't have to wait very long or look very far to see the first results. Incredibly, some of the young men who worked at my company started bringing their guns to work with them and showing them off to each other, while engaging in bravado about how they would deal with any terrorists they found. They seemed to think we were surrounded, or at least infiltrated, on all sides. One of them told me that "all those people" should be sent back where they came from. When I pointed out that there were over seven million followers of Islam in the country, most of them evidently peaceable, the idea seemed to give him pause.

If I had been able to think faster on my feet I might have added something else. The young man was a Cuban-American, one of our many hyphenated citizens. I could have reminded him about the time when our own city of Miami was plagued with a rash of bombings and assassinations by members of Alpha 66, a militant group devoted to the overthrow of Castro. How would he have felt then if all the Hispanics in the whole country had been rounded up for deportation?

But such arguments have been falling mostly on deaf ears. Confronted by fear there appears to be no limit to our collective stupidity.

The argument could be made that the best reaction to this calamity would have been no reaction at all, or at least no more than paying greater attention to airline security. The number of deaths, fewer than 4,000 in all, was about the same as the number of us that drown each year in the US, and there is no retaliation for that.

By comparison, we kill ourselves or one another with firearms at the rate of 28,000 per year -- and 750 of those are accidental, like the incident that nearly involved Dick Cheney in manslaughter. On the highways we die at the rate of 43,000 per year, ten times the 9/11 figure, a number that dwarfs our military casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.

But of course it's not about the numbers. The terrorists understood clearly that they were engaged in a struggle that is mostly symbolic. And the administration in Washington reacted in kind. "9/11" was suddenly Pearl Harbor and "Remember the Maine" rolled into one. They immediately cast the incident into military terms. The event was an "attack," something a country or army would do, rather than a crime. It was not mere terrorism, it was "war." (George W. Bush's first reaction was, "that's the first war of the 21st century," sounding like he was pleased to be on deck for it.) And accordingly the military was soon attacking in return, first in Afghanistan, which made some sense, and then Iraq, which made very little sense. Bush claimed it was a slip when he called it, aptly enough, a "crusade."

The military victories were rapid, but the subsequent occupations have not gone so well. Imagine how we would have felt if by 1952, seven years after the end of World War II, our soldiers were still being shot and blown up in Japan, or certain German towns were still in the hands of Nazi holdouts. Such is the situation in both Iraq and Afghanistan, yet we are assured that things are going well. Meanwhile the staggering cost has exceeded even the wildest speculations of critics, and our domestic economy has gone into a tailspin.

Worse yet, we have collectively acquiesced to the dismantling of our civil rights on a scale never before imagined. Habeas corpus, one of the cornerstones of our freedom, has been suspended before, during the Civil War and World War II, but it was soon reinstated. This time it may be gone for good, at least in any case where the magic word "terrorist" has been uttered.

There is hope, of course, as there always is. A new administration, the result of our own "regime change," will have its work cut out trying to extricate itself from the Middle East tarbaby and to heal the many wounds at home and around the world. But the possibility of success is still there. Not this year, or next, but maybe before another seven years have gone by, we may be able to look back on what we learned. Let's just hope we can afford the price of the lesson.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

With the Beatles in Worcester, Mass.

The Fab Four are with us still ...

In case you were worried, I can report that The Beatles are alive and well, all four of them, in Worcester, Massachusetts, where a big crowd of us watched them perform live in Elm park at sunset just recently.

Of course Beatles For Sale (www.beatlesforsale.net) is a "tribute" band and not really the Fab Four in the flesh, but the spirit was convincing enough to take us back "to where we once belonged," and to give a couple of succeeding generations a taste of what it was like when the group's every new release was a revolution in sound.

Those of us who are old enough can still date the periods of our lives (and/or partners) according to which album each song was on. For me, Help! was my first date at a drive-in movie, Rubber Soul will forever recall close friends departing for college at the airport, Revolver the introduction to hallucinogenic substances, and the White Album with its Charlie Manson connections one of the least savory parts of my youth. And how can I begin to describe the perfect joy of walking down the leafy side streets of Coconut Grove back then and hearing Sergeant Pepper coming out of each window, emphatically new every time?

Then there are all the associations with particular songs. I remember watching the first live transatlantic TV broadcast using Comsat, the first communications satellite, in 1967. They showed events and scenes from both coasts of the USA, England, France, and Germany. But the only one I remember is the one from London -- the Beatles singing "All You Need Is Love" in a sound studio crowded with friends and violins, with balloons rising, confetti falling, magnificently wacky. How could that not change the world?

When the band did "Got to Get You Into My Life" it brought back Leonard Bernstein, who sang it in his gravelly baritone while accompanying himself on the piano in a special TV lecture designed to explain to the grownups why the Beatles' music was important. (He actually compared "Good Day Sunshine" to Schubert lieder.)

And then there was "Michelle," which my own father, also a classical pianist, believed would be enough all by itself to insure the names of Lennon and McCartney would go down in history. He predicted a longevity comparable to "Greensleeves" and other hits of five hundred to a thousand years ago.

By this time the memorabilia was so thick that even the name "Worcester" started us discussing the scene in the 1966 movie, The Russians Are Coming,The Russians Are Coming, where the Soviet submarine crew argues over how to pronounce "Gloucester" on their American map. Is it Glockester or Gloochester? Later Alan Arkin gives himself a smack in the head when he hears the Americans call it "Gloster."

(Worcester is of course pronounced "Wooster," unless you come from the parts of Boston where it's "Woostah.")

But getting back to The Beatles ...

It was clear there was an abundance of us old fans at the concert in the park, all these portly bald men and dowdy women dancing and grinning with glee, and several meandering characters still spaced out and thinking they were back at Woodstock. But we were surrounded by children and grandchildren likewise lapping it up and having a blast. Amazingly, the music is still fun after all these years. The band must have gone through fifty favorites spanning the entire brief career of some of the most prolific songwriters of the twentieth century.

Most amazing is to consider what the equivalent would have been back in 1968. Can you imagine a crowd in a park back then boogieing to the flapper tunes of 1928, or dancing the Charleston? No way. We hated that stuff with a passion, including all the later eras of 1930's crooners, 1940's big bands, 1950's Broadway shows, and the terminally cute pop tunes of the very early 1960's. No self-respecting hippie would have been caught dead anywhere within listening range of anything but mainstream rock.

But now there seems to be room for all the pop music of the intervening years to coexist peacefully. From acid rock to heavy metal, punk, grunge, rap, hip-hop, trance, techno, you name it, it's all going on at once. Even our teenage relations were observed later that night listening to a Jimi Hendrix mix on an iPod. (Hendrix, the Paganini of the electric guitar!) So apparently Leonard Bernstein was right and the music we grew up on was really as good as we thought. It certainly has already lasted longer than anyone expected.

And there are still those, the smallest among us, who can look forward to discovering it as fresh and new. Soon as we get back home, I promised myself, I've got to pull out those DVD's of Help! and A Hard Day's Night for the grandchildren so another generation will see what we saw. I'm guessing they will still get it.