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August 20, 2007

Bostridge and me

I'm in the July issue of Gramophone, the cheerful, energetic British classical CD magazine. That's old news by now, I guess, but they were late in sending me the issue, and I was late in looking at it. They like to reprint things they read in blogs, and they chose my "Boring Old Handel" post from this past April, which they cute very skillfully, to fill the space they had for it.

My title, of course, was ironic. What I meant was that Handel, in his time, was anything but boring, and that his operas were unabashed spectacle, visual, vocal, and orchestral. They were also occasions for gossip and scandal, often highly sexual.

What they were not, most clearly, were artistic efforts in which everyone tried their best to realize Handel's penetrating dramaturgy, which may exist in the music (not always, I think, but that's another story), but certainly -- in performances back then -- took a far back seat to sheer excitement. As I wrote, and as Gramophone printed, "Starved of all this gossip and spectacle, Baroque opera as it's performed today is - to speak bluntly -- a 21st century fabrication, in which we contort these pieces into something there's no sign that they were ever meant to be."

But here's another irony. On the cover of Gramophone that month was Ian Bostridge, interviewed about (among other things) his new CD of Handel arias. And he takes Handel very seriously. He talks about Handel writing his operas for a tiny elite, which is true, if you compare the size and social class of his audience with the audience for classical music now. But it's also misleading to look at it that way, because the behavior of this audience -- raucous, inattentive, at times scathing -- was nothing the word "elite" might ever suggest to us. (It's also worth nothing that even if the core of the audience was noblemen, the noblemen brought their servants, who sat or stood, I don't know which, up in the balcony, and were very noisy.)

Bostridge also talks about the castrati, the castrated Italian men who sang leading roles in all Baroque operas, including Handel's. Here's what he said, as deftly recounted by the writer of the article, Patrick O'Connor:

In London...they definitely preferred their male singers to be castrati, "for which [now quoting Bostridge] there must be all sorts of ideological and social-fashion reasons to do with Catholicism. The anti-Catholic feeling was enormous in Georgian England, so audiences relished the idea of going to see castrated Catholics on stage." This seems a rather startling notion; is it much researched? "No, I just invented it."

Actually, I think it's clear that, first, the London audience loved seeing fashionable celebrities on stage, and, second, that (like audiences elsewhere in Europe) they loved the air of sexual scandal that the castrati breathed. As I wrote (Gramophone didn't quote the second paragraph):

[C]astration of boys for musical purposes was illegal in Italy. But it was widely practiced, and here were the castrati to prove it, each one representing a flagrant violation of the law. They were almost like liquor during prohibition -- legally forbidden, but (with a wink and a grin) widely known to be available.

And on top of that, they were sexually potent. Their castration robbed them of any chance to have children, but they could (and did) have erections from morning till night. Some were gay, some were straight. The straight ones were much in demand as sexual indulgences, for women in the nobility. They were celebrities, after all -- and they couldn't get you pregnant.

Bostridge is entitled to his view, of course, and (quite seriously) I love the zaniness of propounding, in public, a theory you haven't even remotely bothered to check. That's very rock & roll. But the classical music world takes itself far too seriously, and doesn't think very much -- even avoids thinking about -- the things about the music that, centuries ago, weren't serious at all. I've often made a fuss about the extravagant vocal ornamentation that singers in Handel's time indulged in (and were expected to indulge in). Just about nobody today dares to do it. It violates one of the central ideas of classical music scripture -- the role of the performer is to realize the composer's intentions! So you can change the composer's text only modestly, even if the composer expected his text to be transformed almost totally into something else. I wonder how much ornamentation Bostridge does. Not much, I'd guess. Which for me would mean that he doesn't understand Handel at all, though I'm sure he'd disagree, which he has every right to do. (My apologies to him if he ornaments like a demon, and my guess that he doesn't is based only on my own ignorance. But I've read two interviews with him about this CD, and he doesn't mention ornaments at all.)


And on a similar note...I was reading the liner notes in the reissue of the old Philips recording of Verdi's La battaglia di Legnano. They're by Julian Budden, whose three-volume study of Verdi's operas certainly qualifies him as an authority. Budden talks, among other things, about the opera's librettist, Salvatore Cammarano., whom Verdi revered, because he'd written the libretto to one of the greatest pre-Verdi Italian operas, Lucia di Lammermoor.

So in Budden's description of Cammarano's work on this piece, I read the following (emphasis mine):

He preserved the essentials [of the play that Cammarano based the opera on] while altering several of its details and adding the moral and sentimental embellishments that an Italian audience demanded.

He wanted to please his audience, in other words. Which apparently was OK in the 19th century (Budden doesn't say a word against it, and neither do other Verdi authorities.) But -- to judge from the denunciations of pop music we sometimes read, coming from the classical music world -- it isn't OK now.

Which is fascinating. Verdi authorities seem to love the popularity, in Verdi's time, of his operas. But in our time, some of these same people probably think that popularity is proof that something is shallow and cheap. So what changed? Why was popularity healthy in 1850, but now is lethal in 2007? Were 19th century culture and society more healthy than ours? I don't mean this simply as a "gotcha" -- I want to take it further than simply pointing out an apparent contradiction. I'd like to know the theory, that (whether or not it's explicitly articulated) lets people believe that popularity, formerly a good thing, has now turned ugly.

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August 17, 2007

The end of hegemony

Here's the second statement I promised, outlining where classical music currently is. It's from the extraordinary musicologist Robert Fink, who explodes with ideas, and connections between music and the rest of the world. (See, for instance, his book on minimalism, Repeating Ourselves). Here I'll quote from Robert's paper "Elvis Everywhere: Musicology and Popular Music Studies at the Twilight of the Canon" (American Music, Vol. 16, No. 2. (Summer, 1998), pp. 135-179). This paper was delivered to an audience of pop critics, and academics who study pop music, and it's mainly about the role of musicology in the present situation, and especially in the study of pop. It ends with some characteristic fireworks about "Hound Dog," the Elvis song, leading (no surprise from Robert) to an unexpected, staggering conclusion. (Anyone with access to J-Stor can search for the paper online.)

In the course of all that, Robert has to say where he thinks classical music stands. And this is what he wrote. Note that -- almost prophetically -- he wrote it almost a decade ago, when hardly anyone in classical music (except maybe for Robert, Susan McClary, and a few other musicologists) was having the discussions we have in this blog:

Unfortunately for [all of us] making our living off that classical canon, its hegemo­ny over musical culture is gone.

What does it mean to say the cultural authority of the classical music canon is gone? Indulge me in a very synoptic overview. Since about 1830 or so we have lived in the West with a quite circumscribed repertoire of so-called Classical Music. Obviously not everyone lis­tened primarily to this music--that was a large part of its class ap­peal--but almost everyone accepted that Beethoven was Music the way the Mona Lisa was (and still is) ART. From the late nineteenth century to about 1965, canonical European concert music occupied a secure--if hard-won--position at the top of a generally accepted hi­erarchy of musical culture.

Lest I be misunderstood, let me point out that this relatively brief moment of classical music hegemony was hardly a "Golden Age" of natural cultural creativity and utopian relations between composers, performers, and audiences. Most of the canonical pieces that it en­shrines were written well before the mummifying hierarchy of taste solidified around them. Even during the final middlebrow paroxysm of classical music canon worship (ca. 1930-60), many commentators saw how canonic power was being deployed as much to discipline the disruptive forces of modern mass culture as to preserve and trans­mit a unique cultural heritage.

In its heyday, this classical music canon had two secure domains: first, a performing canon of masterworks, centered in nineteenth-centu­ry Romanticism. This was art music for the masses, the repertoire of the conservatories, the big symphony orchestras, and the opera hous­es; "great" music hedged around with powerful social mystifications like genius, transcendence, and autonomy. Second, an avant-garde can­on, also hedged around with powerful social mystifications like ge­nius, transcendence, and autonomy. This was the realm of difficult and intellectually challenging "modern music," not much listened to outside of small coteries and (by the end) university music depart­ments, but possessed of tremendous cultural authority.

Both these domains are in the final stages of a thirty-year collapse as we speak:...for the first time since the mid-nineteenth century, neither the performing canon...nor the avant-garde canon...has any real authority in American culture. The cultural evidence is simply overwhelming, as the following quick survey of musical current events circa 1997 demonstrates.


[F]or the first time, the production and consumption of contemporary art music has broken quite free of institutionalized classical music. It is the classical avant-garde (the oxymoron is telling) that is "entrenched in old, superstitious ideas." That composers and critics within the academy are largely unaware of this development can only be charged to myopia. It may come as a surprise to those enmeshed in campus compositional politics, but the intellectually adventurous are not sitting around in coffeehouses complaining that the continued dominance of high modernist ideologies within aca­demic music departments has alienated them from serious contem­porary music. They have plenty of avant-garde music in their lives. It's just not "classical."

No, I'm not talking about people who think Kate Bush's lyrics are "deep," or the amateur musicologist who has a catalogue of every extended jam by Phish. I'm not even concerned with the graduate stu­dent who can tell you how the Talking Heads act out the dissolution of the subject in postmodern society. I'm talking about people who will buy (and listen to) a fifty-five-minute collage of radio speeches in German; who will sit in the audience while their favorite band "plays" by attaching a contact microphone to an industrial belt-sand­er; who regularly consume huge stretches of dissonant, often achro­matic sound, pulsed or pulseless, screamingly loud, vanishingly soft--contemporary music that would have the audience for the Oregon Symphony tearing up their seats and throwing them at the stage.

It has been years since a musicologist's search for interesting con­temporary art music recordings (and there are so many of them now) could responsibly stop with the classical bins. You won't find Glenn Branca's mind-bending symphonies for massed electric guitars in various temperaments there; nor will you find the dissonant high-fre­quency assault of John Zorn's Kristallnacht, built upon layer after layer of sampled shattering glass, so literally excruciating that the composer warns it may cause nausea, headaches, and ringing in the ears; and don't expect to find any of John Oswald's CDs there, even though he has worked with the Kronos Quartet, and though his Plexus album purees Top 40 hits into insanely precise digital collages that make Luciano Berio's Sinfonia look like a child's puzzle. Today, serious art music has to be tracked down all over the cultural landscape: the grit­tier end of the new age; the spookiest and most ethereal corners of ambient; the most uncompromising slabs of hardcore and techno; and, sometimes, the least academic products of the university new music ensemble. As you explore this postmodernist, postclassical explosion of sonic creativity, you will be rubbing elbows with fans and fierce partisans who will not necessarily share your interest in Bach, Beethoven, Babbitt--or academic musicology.

This is the quiet, hopeful truth behind sensational announcements that "classical music is dead." Classical music institutions like symphonies and record labels will continue to function, and many people will derive pleasure and meaning from the composition, performance, and consumption of classical music. But both classical music canons, performing and avant-garde, have lost their roles as cultural valida­tors; they have lost control over what is defined as "art" music. The ultimate result is a fundamental decentering--not just of avant-garde or institutional authority, but of music culture in general. No longer is there classical Music-with-a-capital-M and its "Others" (such as jazz, pop, folk); the canon of Western classical music is now just one among many, and not the most culturally prestigious anymore, at least in America. Other canons are forming busily, and other kinds of music are making credible plays for the top of the taste hierarchy. These days, Wynton Marsalis might persuasively nominate pre-bop jazz as the most "classical" American style; a baby boomer, following his sixties idols Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix, might counter with Mississippi Delta blues. Ask any streetcorner Goth, or an East Village performance artist, and they'll tell you that boomer nostalgia sucks; the most cul­turally challenging, sonically difficult styles of contemporary music are techno, ambient, and (for the really arty) industrial.

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August 15, 2007

Off the pedestal

Our discussion of classical music and pop -- or vs. pop --seems to resonate very deeply for many people, and one reason has to be its larger context. We're in an era of great change. One long-term change has been the dethroning of classical music -- when I grew up in the 1950s, it reigned unchallenged as musical art, but for decades now, this hasn't been true.

But I don't think we've caught up to this understanding yet (And by "we," I mean not only those of us who take part in this blog -- which I'm starting to think of as very much a collaborative project -- but really everyone, all of us who share in western culture. Classical music still has some of its old prestige, but the prestige isn't attached, any more, to anything solid. Thus the discussion is a little hard to pin down. A few people insist that classical music has just the status it always had, or ought to have that status. This doesn't quite ring true; at worst, it's dead wrong, and at best, it's wishful thinking. But then the arguments in favor of pop (including mine) all seem to protest a little too much. Why do we still have to fight this battle? Finally, when people say -- with open hearts -- that there are only two kinds of music, good and bad, that, too, doesn't seem quite right. Clearly we have different musical worlds, floating all around us, whose status nobody seems quite sure of.

It helps, therefore, to know the overall situation we're in. It helps explain why our discussions don't quite seem grounded, and how they might be better focused. Certainly it helps me. And by chance, in the past week, I've come across two strong statements of our situation, which I'm going to share here, and in my next post.

The first came in an e-mail from John Steinmetz, who gave me permission to post it. I know he'd love comments.


Conversations about the death of classical music keep cropping up, as they have for hundreds of years. Here, sparked by recent articles and emails, is yet another response. I'm writing this to try to understand my own beliefs and assumptions. I'm hoping that you will help me improve the ideas.

One of the chief concerns in the death notices is that respect is dimming for classical music's elaborate and nuanced language.

Classical music's approaches to harmony and melodic development empower the music to offer long and complex narratives that connect strongly with people's emotions, seeming to go to the heart of the human condition. Now, with classical music losing stature and status, some fear that this kind of musical narrative, and the very ability to construct such narratives, might disappear.

I don't think classical music is going to disappear. Too many people want to make it and hear it. But I believe that it is appropriate for classical music's kind of narrative to slip from center stage. In my opinion, our culture now has musical needs that classical music cannot meet. Classical music has moved off its pedestal to assume a place among other wonderful kinds of world music, contributing its voice to the global chorus while making room for fresh musical ideas to grow.

The change in classical music's status has happened because our culture has changed, as cultures do, and its musical needs have shifted. The shift reminds me of the change in physics in the early 20th century. Before that change, Newton's laws appeared to be universally true. But discoveries by Einstein and others made it clear that Newton's laws apply only to certain phenomena. The status of Newton's laws changed. We still can feel awe at Newton's achievement, we still learn his laws, and they still are very important, but we now see that these laws are limited in scope.

Newton's laws are part of a larger picture.

If classical music's ability to speak for the human spirit once appeared unlimited in scope, now the music appears to have limitations. It may not speak for everyone; it may not speak about everything. We can still admire, appreciate, and love classical music, and support it, while also seeing that it does not quite fit society's current self-perception and that it ignores some important issues.

Here are a few ways in which classical music--the music itself, not its mode of presentation or its role in society--has, through no fault of its own, fallen out of step with current values. While humanity struggles to rethink our relationship with the rest of nature, classical music, with its focus on human emotion, is mostly silent about that crucial current issue. While our culture is working to shed old baggage about gender, classical music narratives often emphasize a triumph of "masculine" energies over "feminine" energies.

(Even music theory uses gendered language like "feminine endings"-- see Susan McClary's wonderful books for more on this. In keeping with its predominant musical values, composers, conductors, and other power figures in classical music are still mostly male.) Recent thinking about community and interdependence does not fit well with classical music, which instead provides wonderful expressions of individualism while relying on hierarchical musical structures.

Classical music's emphasis on momentum--its special ways of mobilizing harmony toward a goal--biases it toward narratives about motion and development, and weakens its ability to provide other kinds of essential narratives.

Classical music, like any music, reflects the values of the culture that produced it. It's no surprise that it embodies some attitudes that now seem out-of-date while at the same time expressing values many people still care deeply about. Just as Newton's Laws say crucially important things, classical music still has a lot to offer.

Abiding human values dwell in that music, along with great richness and beauty. But classical music does not, and cannot, tell us the whole story of human experience or even the whole story of our own culture. It cannot live at the center any more because we are too aware of the multiplicity of culture; there is no center now.

In a culture of multiple streams, no kind of music can tell the whole story, so classical music will not be replaced at the center of culture by some other kind of music. Instead, our culture will foster many kinds of musical expression, including some new ones uniquely suited to current values, passions, and concerns. I'm sure that that our huge musical landscape will include many different approaches to classical music. As always, there will be obstacles and distractions, some of them quite formidable, but the human craving for music is so strong that people will figure out ways to deal with the problems.

Moving off the pedestal and moving away from the center of culture could actually help classical music. Because it no longer has to act as a cultural ambassador, and because it can shed any responsibility to be respectable and "great," the music can be free to show its full personality, including its crazy streak, its extremes and its looniness as well as its beauty and power. It can be free to emphasize its bewildering and exciting array of styles and approaches. It won't have to pretend to speak with one voice. It can appeal to more kinds of people. It can admit to being many things instead of one thing.

What should a person do about all this? Well, love whatever music you love. Encourage musicmaking that is mindful, soulful, honest, lively.

Don't pretend that something's good just because of its category.

Whatever you love about classical music, do what you can to keep that quality alive and present in performances and recordings. If you want your favorite music to remain alive, then help to keep it lively.

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August 12, 2007


I've said before that the comments are often the most stimulating part of this blog. That's especially been true in the 19 posts (so far) in response to my "Miniatures?" post, which itself was a response to a comment. Together, all this is a terrific discussion of the artistic merits of pop music, as opposed (or not opposed) to classical. Read it!


In an earlier post, I asked whether any classical music organizations buy carbon offsets, to undo (or at least make a gesture toward undoing) the environmental effect of their acitivites, especially touring. A few pop bands do that. I don't have any answer yet from the American Symphony Orchestra League, whose publicist I'd queried, but I've learned that Wolf Trap (the performing arts park outside Washington, DC) does have an environmental program. In fact, if I'd kept up with my highly esteemed fellow blogger Andrew Taylor, I would have known this long ago, since he blogged about it.


Here's a personal environmental report (if I'm going to criticize others, I should be honest about myself). Since I live in two places, New York City and the country, I put lots of carbon into the world driving back and forth. My composing, too, has more environmental impact than it once had. Back before notation software, I wrote music with paper, pencil, and a piano. Now I do with with a computer and electric keyboards. I'm not alone here. Despite the environmental cost -- which I bet most of my colleagues don't think about, just as I hadn't, before a week or so ago -- most classical composers now work this way.


Since my hedgehog post was popular, here's another hedgehog website, quite a thorough and delightful one. If you love animals, don't miss the hedgehog stories, complete with all the hedgehog photos anyone could ever want.


When I described the end of Donizetti's opera Maria di Rohan (scroll to the end of the post this links to), I added a link to a recording, so everyone could hear what I think is (in purely musical terms) the most abrupt and shocking ending of any classical piece I know. (Read my post to see why I think that.) But I messed the link up. Now I've fixed it. So if you want to hear live performance of this unique conclusion (with Renato Bruson and Renata Scotto, and Gianandrea Gavezzeni conducting), here it is.

(A small caveat about this recording. It's heavily cut. In my post, I talked about a trio in B flat, followed by a scene for soprano and baritone in D, ending with a jarring return to B flat by way of dominant harmony in D that resolves, thunderously, to B flat instead of D major. This performance cuts most of the soprano-baritone scene, rushing to the conclusion and, I'd guess, making it less of a surprise. I've only posted the very end, though, so the cut doesn't affect what you hear.)

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August 6, 2007


BP, in a comment to my last post, suggested we resume the debate about the artistic merits of pop music. I'd lain down a challenge -- can anyone argue the negative side (pop music doesn't have much artistic value, or at least less than classical music) with detailed reference to specific songs and albums from pop musicians widely accepted as serious?

Bob Judd -- the executive director of the American Musicological Society -- posted a comment to my pre-vacation post, in which he didn't quite do this, but did raise an interesting and important point. I'm sorry to say that his comment came while I was on vacation, and since I'd said I wouldn't post comments while I was gone, I was stuck -- if I posted this one, I'd have to post everything that came in.

Here's what Bob wrote:

Now, as to the challenge: I'm not going to reject popular music or culture outright, but let's face it, the artistic goals are much more modest than those of high art music. The three-minute time limit of most pop music is just extremely limiting; no way could the Donizetti ending you describe have any significant impact. Is there anything remotely like this in *any* pop song? One has to turn to "the long songs" for something to chew on, but they're so few and far between (there's a stats-question: what are the pop songs that last more than five minutes?) as to have no thread of continuity.  

Pop songs are miniatures by definition. Many are gems, but... Imagine an art historian comparing a cameo brooch with the Sistine Chapel.

That's nicely reasoned, but in my gut I'm not convinced. Pop songs have moved me just as deeply as classical music has (which in my case is saying a lot), so Bob's argument doesn't work for me. It tries, on theoretical grounds, to prove something I haven't found true in practice. So I'd conclude that something's not quite right with the theory.

And the first problem might be the assumption that a three-minute song has to have modest artistic goals, simply because it lasts only three minutes. Tell that to Hugo Wolf! Tell it to Webern. Tell it to Schubert. I'll grant that we often seem to think that big is better, and that long is better (or at least more profound) than short. We think that symphonies go deeper than lieder, that novels are weightier than short stories, that a large oil painting counts for more than a small watercolor.

But what about poetry? With poetry, we don't make these assumptions. We accept short poems as masterworks. Yes, there are long poems, even epics, but I don't think there's any serious body of criticism that says that their length makes them more profound than sonnets. If we made a list of the greatest poems ever written -- or, rather, the ones most consistently cited as great -- wouldn't most of them be relatively short?

So then why do pop songs have to be long? Why should we assume that they have to be judged by the standards of classical music? Maybe the poetry model applies -- maybe pop songs work more like poems than like symphonies.

And is it really true, as Bob says, that musical details (like the surprising Donizetti ending I talked about in the post he responded to) can't have the same effect in short pieces that they have in long ones? Look at the end of Schubert's "Erlkönig," the two sharp, devastating chords in the piano that bring the song to a close, and aren't like anything else in it. The song is just a few minutes long, but isn't this ending one of the most chilling moments in all classical music?

I'd also cite the start of the development section in the first movement of Webern's Symphony, Op. 21, the long Es and Gs in the clarinets. The whole movement must be shorter than many pop songs, and still those Es and Gs stake out unmistakable new territory, in the most profound and calm way. Or, for a pop example, how about Bob Dylan shouting, "How does it feel?" at the start of each chorus in "Like a Rolling Stone"? That's as powerful now as it was in the '60s, when the song was new. And its power doesn't simply come from Dylan's performance. It also comes from musical details -- from the way the notes change each time the refrain comes in, and from the way these notes sometimes send tonic and dominant chords slamming into each other, with the instruments playing one harmony, and the voice suggesting the other.

I could also cite the heart-stopping last verse of the Pet Shop Boys' "Being Boring," whose power comes from something that doesn't happen -- suddenly you understand that the song is about AIDS, and that the "people missing," so casually sung about, are all dead, even though the word "AIDS" (or anything that might point to it -- "sickness," "epidemic," "tragedy") is never mentioned, and the music doesn't change. But here we'd run into fascinating differences in the way pop and classical music function, that classical pieces typically develop by changing their musical material, but pop songs typically do more or less the same thing from beginning to end. Which means that you can't analyze or judge them by looking for classical music-like structural details. And that would be a longer discussion.

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August 3, 2007

Something good about classical music

Here's something that seemed obvious, once it occurred to me. But I'd never thought of it before: classical music might be better for the environment than pop, because it (probably) has a lower carbon footprint. Or, more simply, it seems to use less electricity.

This came to me when I was reading British press comment last month on the Live Earth event, comprising concerts in many countries, which were designed to draw attention to global warming. The British press (or at least the Guardian and the Independent, the two papers I read over there) pointed out the implicit irony, which of course is that pop and rock performances are amplified, and thus use electricity in mammoth amounts, which means they themselves contribute (maybe in no small way) to the problem Live Earth was supposed to do something about.

Compare classical music. It's largely unamplified. So an orchestra concert uses less electricity than an arena rock show; a chamber concert uses less than a band playing in a club; and a violinist, practicing all day, uses less electricity than someone playing the electric guitar.

But I did qualify this in my first paragraph ("probably," "seems to"). Why? Because there are still some calculations to be done. I can't do them myself, but I have some idea what they are. Take, for instance, the contrast between an orchestra concert and an arena rock show. I'm sure an orchestra concert uses less electricity. But there are many more orchestra concerts, plus large opera performances, in New York each year than arena rock shows (and on top of that, the classical halls are often used during the day for rehearsals). So maybe the carbon footprint starts to even out. I'm sure that's true in any city with an orchestra that plays year-round (or close to that).

And how about travel? Classical singers, instrumental soloists, and conductors travel constantly. (So do many classical music artist managers, and administrators.) Jet flights have a huge carbon footprint. Pop stars don't travel nearly as much. They go on major tours, but only (as a rule) for a small part of each year. Many of them, maybe most, don't even tour every year.

So the bottom line might be hard to calculate. But here's one way that pop music is ahead of classical music on this issue -- pop music, at least, is aware of it, and a few bands buy carbon offsets whenever they tour. I've asked the American Symphony Orchestra League whether any large American orchestra has ever done that, or thought of doing it, and I'll be curious to know what the answer is.

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August 1, 2007



I'm back from vacation, and (before getting back to all the serious stuff) I want to show you this little guy (or girl) -- a very young hedgehog, eating from a plate of food we put out on our driveway, during our month in England. The plate is four inches across, which should show you how tiny the hedgehog was. Hedgehogs -- adorable bristly animals -- aren't found in the US, but people in Britain (and elsewhere) go crazy for hem, and we've joined the cult. We had a family of them living under some bushes near our house, a mother and three little ones, which when we first saw them were barely the size of my fist, but able to forage for food on their own. We'd see them at twilight, intently sniffing the ground, waddling, looking for slugs, grubs, and earthworms. They can cover more than a mile in a night.

Following directions on various hedgehog websites (this was our favorite), we fed them, using cat food (any flavor except fish), and also Spike's Hedghog Food, sold in British pet stores. We'd see them every night, eating what we left out for them. They tolerate people amazingly well. One of the babies did seem a bit timid, and would freeze when we came around (and flinched when we took pictures, and the flash went off). But I followed the mother around the first night I saw her, getting as close as five or six feet, and she didn't blink. One evening I followed one of the babies down a hill alongside a stream, watching it tug worms out of the ground, getting within a foot or two of the action. It didn't seem to know or care that I was there.

British vets, we read, will treat sick hedgehogs free. The species is declining, unfortunately, in part due to its defense strategy, which is to curl up in a ball, with only its sharp little bristles visible. This deters most predators, but it's not a good tactic to use against cars, and so hedgehogs show up all too often as roadkill, poor little things.

Ours got sick. One Sunday morning we found first one of the babies, then the second, and then the third, lying all but motionless out in the sun. That they'd left their nest in the daytime was a bad sign, and they looked terribly ill. They barely moved. One was muddy, and blew hapless bubbles out its nose when it breathed.

So we took three trips to the nearest vet, after phoning, and finding the vet ready to come to the office at a moment's notice to look at the hedgehogs. I put on gloves, and lifted them into a box. Even with gloves, the bristles are sharp! The vet reported that the babies had colds (due to the wet, cold weather), which is more serious than it sounds. Around 90% of young hedgehogs die before they're mature, and colds can easily kill them. After five days in the vet's care, all three of our hedgehogs recovered. We took them home, and released them. True to form, the vet didn't charge us anything (and in fact gave us a big box of cat food samples, to help with our feeding). We lost track of the mother, and wondered if she still was alive. But the little ones (bigger now), still came out every night, and -- though`they seemed more wary (who could blamle them, after we'd picked them up and taken them off to captivity?) -- still ate the food we gave them. They could be as wary as they liked. We were happy that we'd saved their lives.

Footnote: we'd hoped the vet could tell us if the babies were males or females, but the vet, wisely, I'm sure, didn't handle them enough to find out.

Posted at 6:54 PM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (6)

July 1, 2007

Vacation thoughts

It's time for my vacation, lasting all of July. As often before, I'll be going to a remote spot in the Yorkshire Dales, in England, a very quiet place, impossibly gorgeous, with far more sheep than people. This is what I see when I step outside:


I won't be isolated; I'll get e-mail (on a very slow dialup connection); but I won't be blogging or posting comments, until the beginning of August, when I'll return.

But before I go, I want to say how much I've enjoyed the conversation that developed around my last post. Many thanks to everyone who took part. (And let me add that the comments on this blog are just as much worth reading as anything I post.)

Among much else, in this last conversation, I think we managed to highlight two issues that are crucial for classical music's future.

First: some people (for instance, Alex, who doesn't give his last name) say that classical music will survive on its own. It's wonderful that people think this, especially in the context where Alex brought it up -- he was reacting to John Seabrook's book Nobrow, which argues that the distinction between high and popular culture doesn't have much force for many people any more. For Alex, this means that Mozart and popular culture can coexist, as indeed they're doing right now.

Of course, if this is true, we don't have to be talking about the future of classical music. I think there's a middle ground, though, in which Mozart will coexist with Bjork and Lucinda Williams, but with some changes that make him more comfortable in our present world. Or maybe that's not necessary. Maybe there will always be people who want Mozart the way he's being offered right now -- enough people, that is, to sustain classical music as we know it, without many changes.

Or maybe Seabrook's point really means that there are fewer people around who accept the unquestioned importance of Mozart, in which case we'd expect to see a smaller audience for classical music in the future, and also less funding for it. This is one of the issues I think the conversation highlights.

And here's the other one. Is Seabrook right? Is the distinction between high and popular art gone forever? I guess there are really two questions here. First, is the distinction gone? And, second, is this good or bad? Some people think it's a ghastly development. Not surprisingly, these people think that the distinction is as valid (and important) as it ever was. Of course they think that high art offers things that popular culture can never match -- or, more strongly (and more commonly) they think popular art is necessarily shallow. (At best.)

I'd offer one important caveat, which is that "popular culture" is -- rather like "classical music" -- a misleading term. "Classical music" is misleading because not all the music that falls under that umbrella is really "classical," in the sense that the word implies that it's music from the past. Because of course there's contemporary classical music, too. (I write it.) Similarly, not all "popular culture" is popular. Some is obscure, enigmatic, challenging, very much a niche affair. Robert Christgau, the rock critic who was my first editor at the Village Voice (when I first became a writer), offers the very useful concept of "semipopular music," meaning music that's written in styles that might allow it to be popular, but which in fact isn't oriented toward popularity.

But back to the people who deplore the end of the high/popular abyss. The argument against them is that popular culture (and especially, I'd think, popular music) has evolved its own forms of art, so we no longer have to look to high art -- or exclusively to high art -- for everything that art gives us. Their argument, I'd guess, is that this isn't so.

So, because I'm on the pro-popular culture side, let me offer a challenge. If someone wants to attack popular culture here, let them be specific. Since this is a music blog, let them explain what's wrong with popular music. Let them -- instead of making general comments, or flinging around the name "Britney Spears" -- let them take some artist who smart people who like popular music take seriously, and, with reference to specific songs on specific albums, say what's wrong with this person. If they want to take on Seabrook, they might start with Neil Young and the Chemical Brothers, since Seabrook specifically offers these as alternatives to classical music. Or if they want to argue with me, they might take on some of the music I often mention, Bjork, Radiohead, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, or Lucinda Williams (my current craze; I guess I've gotten off gospel music).

I hope someone takes me up on this. I could be a brat, and say that all I'm asking is for people who reject popular music to show that they actually know something about it. But far beyond that, they'll deepen the quality of discussion here, and, with any luck, teach me a lot.

In return, I can offer to say more about what I like in this music. And I might also talk more about what I like in classical music. Some people, I've seen, get the idea that I dislike classical music, or have some plan to destroy it. Actually, the reverse is true. In many ways, I'm hopelessly in love with classical music, and as lost as many other people are in the new world that's emerging. I can spend hours talking about classical music minutiae, just as I always did in the years before the present crisis emerged.

So, in this spirit, I'm going to offer one classical music delight before I leave for the month. I was asked recently to contribute ideas to a radio show about great endings of classical pieces. I began with what I think is the oddest ending in all classical music, the final page of Donizetti's opera Maria di Rohan.

This isn't a piece many people will have seen, or heard on CD. It was one of Donizetti's late operas. Sometimes, in his later stuff, he gets strange ideas, and doesn't hesitate to carry them out. In La Favorita, for instance, he decides he'll write one of the obligatory repeats in a fast ensemble in a new key. I've never seen anything like that in any other bel canto opera.

In Maria di Rohan, he might have wanted the ending to feel especially shocking. The situation isn't anything special: the baritone has found out that his wife, the soprano, is in love with another man, who of course is the tenor. After a scene of apparent friendship, in which the baritone seems to be helping the tenor escape from his political enemies, the baritone and soprano are left alone. Now I've got you, the baritone essentially says. I've arranged for your lover to be killed. Yes, he's going to die, and you -- you're going to live in infamy, unfaithful wife!

How does Donizetti set this to music? The trio, when the tenor thinks he's escaping, is a vigorous piece in B flat. After he leaves, the music falls into D major. When the baritone brings the opera to the close with the words I've paraphrased, he's singing what sounds like it'll be a simple cadence in D. The orchestra has dropped out, for the moment. The baritone denounces the soprano, going up the scale from A to D.

Under that final D, we'd expect the orchestra to rush in with a loud D major chord, to bring the opera to an end in the key we're in. But instead, it returns -- fortissimo -- in B flat! The name for this is a "deceptive cadence," and often it's followed by music that returns the music to the proper key. Not here! The orchestra screams out a couple of plagal cadences, B flat to E flat minor to B flat to E flat minor to B flat, and the curtain falls.

The simple way to put this is that, as the baritone finishes, the orchestra screams a completely wrong chord, and that's how the opera ends. The effect on CD is bizarre. In live performance, it might be insanely violent.

If you asked Donizetti to justify this, he might say, "Well, look, the final trio is in B flat, and that's really the final key of the opera. The D major scene for the soprano and baritone is just an interlude. That final cadence only returns the music to its home key." Sure. And I'm the king of Siam. Nobody who's ever heard western music before is going to expect that final chord, or think that it's even remotely normal. I'll go further, and say that I've never seen anything like this anywhere else in classical music. Does anyone know another piece that ends even remotely like this?

Sure, I know pieces that end with ambiguous harmony, like Also sprach Zarathustra, with that ethereal B major chord darkened by repeated soft Cs in the bass. But Donizetti isn't ambiguous. He's in-your-face blatant. Hear it for yourself! For me, this really is the oddest ending in all classical music.

Have a good July, everyone. I'll look forward to resuming the conversation in August.

Posted at 6:13 PM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (1)