The Mouth of the Bell

The Mouth of the Bell
Saturday, November 9, 2013, 8:03 p.m. 

It’s too sentimental to admit to having watched.  There are deaths, tragedies.  The majestic soundtrack promises that these are noble sacrifices for the sakes of those who remain, those who keep the peace, who persevere week after week as others drop around them.  Could this be a lesson that some lives are more valuable than others?  And if that is the case, then whose are which?  Does it depend on when the trumpets come in?

Now that the orchestra has turned in for the night, a mask has been removed.  Outside, in the distance, there are bells.  It is eight o’clock plus three minutes.  Did it begin on the hour?  Usually I hear the carillon at six in the summer (an hour earlier in winter), and while the archaic method of calling out to a congregation is enchanting in principle, over time the daily hymns have begun to grate as I’ve found myself singing along mindlessly with the secondary dominants.  They always fall in the same places, and they always go exactly where expected.  They’re too much like music.

I’ve never been entirely sure where the carillon lives, though I think it is across the cemetery on Witherspoon Street, to the west, and I consider setting out some evening at 5:45, hunting my prey, but I always forget to go, and once “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” begins, I’ve missed my chance yet again.  I wonder where tonight’s metal is striking, and from the front walk I think it may be at Saint Paul’s—that’s south.   At least I think it is.  One or several centuries ago, citizens would have known which direction was which, would have known from how far the bells sang and shook and rattled, would have known which faith the metallic voices called out to, would have been able to interpret their language.  The bell was, along with thunder, one of the loudest sounds many generations ever heard.

I wonder what the typhoon sounds like.  I have only heard a little bit, from a distance.

Two notes: they seem to call out that something important is happening, right this moment, even as they make time stop.  Staying put while moving forward: the two sounds alternate, but the rhythm is always changing, and it’s much more interesting than downbeats and measures and chord progressions.  It takes me a moment even to wonder about the source: there was a time when certain sounds always signaled agency and effort, someone or something making it happen, whereas now, it can run on automatic.  There is something alluring and hypnotic about the irregularity, which keeps me listening for whatever might be new within the repeats.  Are there two people? Are they pulling big ropes like Charles Laughton in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, using their whole bodies in an inefficient economy to make just one sound each?  Are they trying to stay together, or are they aiming to strike in one another’s silences?  Either way, they’ve got it half right in their lopsided diligence.  The mouths sing, together and apart, meeting up and swinging away from one another again.  Two voices make a duo.  They need only one note apiece.

What important message am I hearing? A storm?  A funeral?  An observance for veterans a day and a half early?  Without knowing what I am being told, I am unable to craft a response.  Should I be heading south, or in whatever direction the bells live?  Am I needed at the church, or somewhere, and if so, for what?

Only later, when I hear the familiar neighborly train whistle, will I wonder whether the tolling might have masked something too.  What did I miss once the trumpets gave way to the bells?

I’ve left the door open to listen.  The heat kicks in.  Warm breath takes over, the outside fades, and the bells are quiet again.  I’ll remember them for days, trying to imagine not knowing that together they sang a major second.

 

What is Classical Music’s “Women Problem” Problem?

Chewing on the many issues raised by
“What Is Classical Music’s Women Problem?” by 

Thank you for calling attention to this issue, for covering it with nuance, and for including counterexamples. This eruption has an all too familiar shape: there is the A theme (inane offending statement), the B theme (understandably outraged response), and . . . well, not a lot of development. Recapitulations abound though: Twenty-five years ago Rolf Smedvig, trumpeter with the BSO, claimed that women lacked the equipment to play brass instruments, and there was outcry; in 2013, despite certain improvements in circumstances, the nature of the discussion itself has not changed all that much.

The very question, “Why aren’t there more female conductors?” shapes the discussion by implying that there is a clearly identifiable cause for underrepresentation and that the interviewee himself possesses a sophisticated and worthy understanding of a complex societal problem; this invites him to express his unconsidered biases and just make something up. When posed to a (specific) male figure who, it appears, has had no incentive to consider his male privilege, and who does not care about the underrepresentation of women in his field, the response is more a script than an exchange: a man exposing his inadequacy by claiming (yawn) that women are “weak.”

Consider a different question: “How do you go about fostering equity and respect in the workplace to make sure that the profession can ascend to the highest possible level?” I don’t for a moment think the esteemed gents cited here would start waxing poetic about diversity and inclusion, but it would take a step away from these unwitting invitations to proclamation one’s incomparable virility: “Why no women? Because my penis rules! Only I can wield the wand!” (Yawn again.)

And why is this called a “women problem”? (I know this may not be the author’s title.) Could NPR instead dare to title this article, “Gender discrimination persists amongst prominent male conductors”? Or, “Misogyny hinders excellence in classical music”? Or, “Male privilege still enjoyed by highly paid time-beaters?”

It is heartening to read, “I would like to hear the women in our community speak up as well, without fear of embarrassment, contempt or retribution.” And there are those of us who do speak up and write about such matters; I am only one who has done so. But the sad reality is that, in addition to the necessary burden of some of us (some women and a few men) taking on a second shift by addressing and resisting unequal treatment, those of us who advocate for equity do experience retaliation every day. And women are socialized to downplay the intransigence of inequity, encouraged instead to internalize the Ayn Randian notion that those who are tough enough will succeed and those who speak up about discrimination are just whiners—to focus on individual will and determination instead of systemic mechanisms that render some more equal than others. Ask a woman in a male-dominated field whether she has experienced discrimination (another one of those cocked questions), and see whether she checks the box yes or no. It’s another script, and a reply of, “No, no, not at all; I’m too strong for that” is positively reinforced. So, inviting women to speak up without fear is laudable but may—although this is absolutely inexcusable—cause even more harm to women. Even in 2013.  Sad but true.

For example, here is another prominent conductor speaking on the dearth of women in the field, ten years ago: “I personally feel that accepting the role of powerless victim can become a self-fulfilling prophecy and I am unwilling to even entertain that concept!” Who was that? Marin Alsop. It was posted on her site in 2003 as part of a
reply to the question, “Have you ever experienced prejudice as a woman in a field dominated by men?” It’s still there.

Zero, One: Empty Cookie, Lobster Roll.

Zero, One: Empty Cookie, Lobster Roll.  July 10, 2012.

On my way to meet Dean for the first time, I listen to his From Square One on the train.  It is not, he has told me, an audio book, but a musical composition.  He says, “Time ruins everything.  Because of it, food spoils, breasts sag, loved ones die.”

(Yes, a breast sags, sometimes.)

Later: “Whether focusing our attention on om or on 6-Down, we take control of that part of the brain that is normally hijacked by the voices telling us we’re not good enough, smart enough, attractive enough.”

And later: “There are so many nonnarrative ways to engage the mind, and still our culture puts stories front and center.  We are drowning in stories, whereas poetry subsists in the margins.”

He also speaks of loss, of longing, of compulsion, of limitation.  Of Manhattan, of Brooklyn, of Vermont, of Brigadoon.  His avowedly unpolished rendering of Joplin’s “Solace” is more engaging and touching than a rehearsed performance.

I stop at Ollie’s for lunch.  I remember coming here—that is, the one near Columbia; now I am over near Merkin Hall—for the first time, in 1996.

OlliesBlog

While I eat, I chew—as I often do—on Mark Epstein’s discussion of the ever-receding pleasure of the lobster roll, of the interrelationship of experience, memory, desire, and experience again.  Epstein is a Buddhist as well as a therapist.  Lunch is completed, and my check comes:

EmptyFortune

There is nothing inside.

Ollie’s has bestowed upon me The Fortune Cookie of True Emptiness.  Such luck!

Up and Down. January 30, 2013.

January 30, 2013. Up and Down.

One more time I proofread my article concerning good fortune and misfortune and the music of what happens and determine to send it off to Ben.  Later, though: it’s unseasonably warm: worrisome for the planet, but conducive for my running.  Parking my Insight at the canal, I notice a somewhat shifty-looking (why?) guy; I size up the situation as best I can, pronounce myself safe, and head for the trail.  In order to ensure I don’t overdo it, I run three minutes exactly and then make myself turn around to run the three minutes back.  I feel blessed to visit my favorite spot in town and to reorient myself at last toward running, another intangible possession, alongside Weakness, that I want to reclaim after the bedlam of the previous year.  I lament that I cannot run my desired forty-five minutes yet, but I feel lucky to be starting again, and I am uncharacteristically relaxed as I approach my car.  There is no reflection in the driver’s side window.  Could I have left it down?  Unlikely.  But I must have; what else would explain what I see?  As I approach my car, the guy in the truck drives off, and I realize that my window has been smashed in; I might have been able to catch him, but it’s too bad I was so blissful and unsuspicious.  On the other hand, it’s a good thing I was unable to run longer, since I seem to have interrupted him by returning so soon.  It’s also unfortunate that I am without a phone: when I run at the canal, I always leave it at home with my purse just in case my car ever gets violated, even though I know the likelihood of that happening is small.  So, on the other hand, it’s a good thing I have foregone my phone, for if I had brought it, I would likely have lost it.  Feeling grateful that I’m strong enough to run another few feet, I race off and ask a stranger in the furniture store parking lot to call the police for me.  Somehow the police have never heard of the furniture store, which is on—Main Street.  Gabby kindly offers to walk me back to my car to inspect the damage.  I am kicking myself for being slow to perceive a problem and for missing my chance to chase after the “perp,” but Gabby reassures me that it may be better that I did not run after the pickup truck—“what if he had had a gun?”  I observe, bemused, the safety whistle on my lanyard, designed for the trail—“good thing I am so careful!”—but not much use against a getaway pickup truck.  Unfortunately, the police are slow—an hour, perhaps longer—but luckily, Gabby’s name suits him in the most delightful way.  He describes his work as a upholsterer and laments youngsters’ attraction to new and rickety furniture, but he brightens when I tell him mine was fashioned in Denmark in 1960.  He tells me about swimming across Lake Carnegie, down the road: “that was not so smart; what if there had been alligators?”  We agree that people in this region are proportionally pushier than in some other places and wonder together whether that may be because there are proportionally more people to push: “it’s just one God, why fight over black or white or different religions?”  We ponder the relative advantages of more homogeneous and more heterogeneous societies.  He talks about raising four children on his own after his wife left without explanation, and he wishes we would all treat one another better.  He never solved the mystery of his wife’s departure, but he observes that one finds a way to keep going even when difficult things happen, that it’s all just part of life, and somehow he sounds more wise than denying, more philosophical than macho, more Pema Chödron than Ayn Rand.  I wonder whether his vocation nurtures his ability to recover things; to join and stitch and seal; to render a dispersable object contained, connected and whole.  Having learned that he emigrated from Thailand at age fifteen, I wonder aloud whether a Buddhist consciousness may nurture his ability to practice acceptance, and he says yes.  Marveling at how fortunate I am, since I almost never leave valuables in my car, even though my friends tease me about my caution, I suddenly remember that I was so organized earlier that I remembered to change out of my expensive eyeglasses with their canal-unfriendly Transitionsâ lenses, trading them for the spare pair I keep in the glove compartment.  How lucky I am to have an extra pair—but the extra pair is what I am wearing, and so the thief has taken off with my “real” glasses.  What a loss!  They are only three months old, but I realize that fortunately the turn of the year has just rendered me eligible for a new pair through my insurance.  However, it is unlucky that I will be unable to use that benefit for the new reading glasses I also need.  At least, though, I’ll be able to decline the unappealing Transitionsâ option this time around.  It’s an expensive revision, to be sure, but I feel fortunate that I have a vision plan at least.  Then, when Officer Mohan arrives and asks for my license and registration, I explain that I tend to leave my purse at home when I run, that therefore I have only a photocopy of my license to offer, and I am grateful that he accepts that.  But I notice, unfortunately, that my registration and insurance card appear to be missing.  I remember that there may have been a spare house key in the glove compartment (or was it to someone else’s house?), next to the eyeglass case, and I begin to worry that I have spent the last hour contentedly chatting with Gabby while the thief may have been availing himself of the possessions I so wisely left safe at home.  I ask officer Mohan to help make sure my cottage is secure.  He suggests that I call the Princeton police, but I remind him that I am fortunate to be phoneless, and so he calls them for me, and within ten minutes, when I arrive home, they are standing guard at my front and back doors.  When I escort the officer inside, I gather the mail, which includes a replacement credit card, which I am happy to see arrived so quickly after I learned yesterday that someone stole my information to buy video games.  (I felt lucky then that Citibank texted me about the anomaly.)  I apologize to the officer for the untidiness of my house and explain that the pile of rocks just about blocking the front door is part of my work, and he replies that he has four kids and that this mess is nothing.  Then he asks how the rocks are part of work, and I explain that I am a composer and I am recording them.  He asks, “How do you record a pile of rocks?!”  I say, “Oh!  I have to play them.  I don’t record them at rest.”  After the officers depart, I realize that it is two o’clock and that I have not yet had breakfast, so I am feeling light-headed, but I am grateful to find a locksmith who can come by three, though I am disappointed to have to wait even longer to shower, though it’s just as well, because when I finally get warm and wet, enthusiastically soaping and scrubbing, a virtuosic runaway pinky gives me my first ever hygiene-induced nosebleed.  Bummer; but once that is attended to, I am pleased to wolf down my sandwich, and the doorbell rings.  I’m in luck!  But wary: this is not the first time I have entrusted my safety to men who—knows how to change locks.   The Second Locksmith—who, if it were not inappropriate, I would describe as “played by James Purefoy,” who also made a compelling Mark Antony —inspects, and I worry that he is casing the joint.  After a while, he says, “cute”; and I ask, “The house?”  “Yes.”  Later I tell the two, “I’ve been trying to hear what language you are speaking—Arabic?”  They reply, “Hebrew.”  I say, “Well, I was close,” and they smile indulgently.  I am grateful that they have not gouged me (the window and nostril were enough slashing for one morning), though I have meantime learned that my car window will not arrive for four days, unless I pay extra, which I do, since I am fortunate to be flying to Cape Breton in a week.  However, I did not know I would have all these expenses when I booked my flight last night, and although I have yet to rent the car that will cost more than the plane ticket, I begin the process of feeling insolvent.  Window, locks, eyeglasses, planes, hotels, rental cars, upgrades to four-wheel drive in anticipation of a blizzard.  (A week later I will find my insurance card and registration and reflect that shelling out for new locks was unnecessary, but I am pleased to have one key for both front and back doors at last.)  In any case, as I watch the locksmiths tend the boundary between outside and in, I feel lucky that my person is unharmed and that I have nothing planned for my car for a few days.  Later I will observe that over the course of a few hours, I have interacted with six considerate men—and this isn’t even Canada!  There were three very professional and helpful police officers, two very professional and considerate locksmiths—and, of course, Gabby, who is as least as reflective as my lost window.  (If I include remote interactions, there is also the very helpful Jeff at Honda.)  The Second Locksmith says, “I really like the lavender in that vase on the mantel.”  I thank him.  He says of the vessel, which is made of glass and rests in a rustic iron housing,  “It would look even better if you put rice in the bottom to fill in the space.”  “What a good idea!” I exclaim, tickled that he has continued to case the cute details of my once-again protected joint; and I explain that the lavender has followed me from home to home and predates my good fortune in owning a cottage with space for a perennial outdoor lavender garden.  The First Locksmith interrupts to say that I’ll have to pay 10% extra if I use a credit card, and I have $280, so I am about twenty short.  Oh well.  I hand him my card and say, “Next time my car gets broken into unexpectedly and I have to change my locks on a half hour’s notice, I’ll make sure to plan ahead and have three hundred dollars in cash on hand.”

By a stroke of ill fortune, a severe storm is predicted for the night, but I am relieved that, while my outer tarp, weighed down by bricks and paint cans, flies across the yard, the car’s vulnerable opening is successfully sheltered by the garbage bag and painter’s tape underneath.  A few days later, I drive through my neighborhood, noting another breath of early spring, and I feel fortunate to be able to lower the newly installed window.  Later, when I press to close, it rises toward its destination, arrives,  and—bounces off the top of the frame and lowers again.  Up.  Down.  Up.  Down.  It’s unwilling to rest in the closed position: it’s as if my Insight insists on remaining porous, open to the elements.  This machinery seems to have has a mind of its own, to discern what is appropriate for a given moment, even if it is neither what I expect nor what I request.  I’m transfixed by this automated convenience gone awry, like Jean Tinguely’s mechanized paper-demolishing pen, or the Sorcerer’s Apprentice’s broom.  I play my window, marveling at its utterly consistent uselessness, experimenting with varieties of tempo and pressure.  Up, down, up, down.  U-u-u-p—DOWN!—up, up, up, up . . .

Maybe I won’t bother with a repair this time.

“Moving At the Speed of Thought”—Or, A Drop of Liquid Sunshine

[dedicated to Alice, with gratitude]
Peter Sellars On Art, Ethics, and Opera*
Department of Music at Princeton
March 30, 2013

[I remember one year ago today: temperature in the 60s, or 70s even, blossoms effortlessly and joyously emerging.  Today, I see a crocus here and there, a mangled snowdrop, and the spring seems elusive still, hard won.  But the birds persevere, beckoning into the next season.]

birdegg copy

Peter Sellars—I first heard tell of his legendary Adams House swimming-pool extravaganza thirty years ago when I was a freshman and years later had something of a fit when I saw his Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez during my first years of graduate school—darts in and begins by honoring his hosts, referring to musicology as a “place to create a zone of integrity,” saying that “the story behind the story is going to save the world.”  He describes the value of many minds, rather than a single authoritative one, and speaks in favor of reciprocity and inclusion.  He acknowledges the physical body that creates the music and describes Bach’s as a “music of questioning,” noting that the texts of Bach’s works are discussed less fully than are their ostensibly abstract principles.  I think of the lecture hours my undergraduates and I have been spending just upstairs considering the norms and questions that inhere, but do not quite cohere, in Bach’s chorales, stripped of their texts and contexts.

[Three hundred sixty-four days and nineteen hours ago, in a theater across campus, I picked up my bass clarinet to sound the first notes of my opera, Weakness.]

Sellars speaks of ritualization, cooperation, reciprocity, inclusion, and the involvement of the “congregation” (audience).

[Weakness concerns trauma and healing, and the entire process of putting the work together was blessed by mutuality and cooperation even as it was bedeviled simultaneously by thoughtlessness and disregard.  The final two weeks of preparation go beyond the expected pre-premiere strain, past the irritating but inevitable underfunctioning and jockeying, to insupportable dysfunction and outlandish aggression.  And, as I warned at the time would happen, the damage is still resounding a year later.  I have spent much of the last twelve months lathering, rinsing and repeating, but despite all my elbow grease and scrubbing, my opera remains grimy.]

Turtle

Mr. Sellars—I think it’s time I call him Peter—speaks of the St. Matthew Passion: “Two weeks ago you thought you were going to change the world, and now you are standing around a tomb. What happened in these last two weeks?”

[Indeed.  One year later, I am no longer surprised that a staging of the unspeakable conjured up more of same offstage, but I do still mourn it, and I think how after all this time, I am still recovering from the trauma attendant upon the trauma.  I marvel at my profession's expectation of constant activity (often confused with productivity, which is not at all the same thing) and the disinterest in addressing what has been damaging in favor of getting the next gig and making another mess.  My naïve youthful belief in the academy as a sanctuary for contemplation, in the arts world as a setting for what Keats called "a vale of soul-making"—

—But here I veer dangerously toward taking others’ inventory, which is never a good idea, so I’ll just leave it at this: In a conversation with a cherished colleague, months after the beauty and horror that was Weakness, I found myself saying, "You say you have not had a moment to reflect in the past few months, and that is all I have been doing; you have reached outward, while I have been looking inward.”]

Peter speaks of the Passion inspiring one to look inward rather than outward.  He speaks of Dorothy Day—I mentioned her to Charles just yesterday, and though I know little of her, she has always intrigued me with her compassionate Catholicism, so different from the one I was indoctrinated into and to which I am now violently allergic—and her growing dissatisfaction, many years ago, with the “emptiness” of the worlds of arts and politics.

There is talk of mutual dependency and of Haydn and Mozart constructing a model of democracy in the configuration of the string quartet, where every voice is essential.  “What would equality look like?  What would it sound like?”

Co-opValues

Later I thank Alice, who invited Peter, for making space for these words and thoughts.  She and I acknowledge, again, the dangers of discussing openly the ubiquitous and pressing topic of trauma.  I say, realizing it for the very first time as the words exit my mouth, that I have encountered more resistance, even retribution, in response to performing trauma onstage than I have when I have addressed the topic in scholarly prose.

Peter has spoken about his staging of Handel’s Hercules  in Chicago—coincidentally, a work I first heard and fell in love with a month or so ago—and how the performance was attended by veterans and complemented by discussions of PTSD; he stresses (no pun intended)  that  the opera was meant to inform the understanding of PTSD rather than the other way around.  One veteran heard a countertenor for the first time—David Daniels, to be precise—and described the sound as “blood coming out of his mouth.”

[Years ago, Tom taught me a Druidic expression: “Wisdom makes a bloody entrance.”  Perhaps its exit is also messy.  I excised the line from my libretto, for it perplexed my collaborators, who, while sensitive and knowing, fortunately came to Weakness from their own experience rather than mine.  I appreciated their input, and I return again and again to that saying as I try to imagine my next work.  I am currently editing and polishing the documentation of Weakness, so that I may share it with others in audio and video format.  Nevertheless, I am leery of mounting it again, of risking that the trauma story may engender yet more trauma.  I have had enough bleeding for now.  Perhaps it is better to leave my four years (and more) of labor aside.]

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Peter says, “Bach is an incredible composer of disappointment” and recognizes what it means to live “with your idealism in such a state of profound despair.”  The first and only performance of his St. Matthew Passion was “ a mess,” and Bach, realizing his work was not meant for the milieu in which he found himself, “put it away for the rest of his life.”  Somehow this bad news is good news to me, much more so than the familiar narratives of dominance, of success, of triumph over adversity.

Peter talks about one’s “moral standing as an artist,” and while that is a difficult notion to explore without seeming righteous or judgmental, without seeming to congratulate oneself, and without denying the real, tangible, practical matters of survival that can be so far removed from the luxury of the proscenium, he manages somehow to inspire rather than to preach.  Likely this is in part because he himself moves between the palaces of culture and glitterless venues in a way that many of us only talk about.  He expresses a desire for all of us to resist the “gossip and infighting in the classical music world,” saying that “we are actually here to do something much bigger.” 

 TulipTear

It’s one of those days when I marvel at the way strands and shards weave together unexpectedly, offering solace and inspiration when they are most desired, in ways that could not possibly be anticipated.  Peter talks of magic and transcendence, but all I am seeking is awareness, good faith, and perhaps a bit of company in cultivating a more equitable and nurturing space for us all.  Afterward I say to Alice that these are the most worthwhile almost-three hours I have spent in this building this year.  I can’t help but feel sad that such conviction, such searching, is the startling exception rather than the norm, that this talk seems so out of the ordinary in our profession, but it’s a glimpse, at least, of something more expansive and generous, more aware and committed, and I am beyond grateful to hear some of my own values reflected and affirmed.

These simultaneous sensations of dark and light, of desolation and hope, remind me of a Hawai’ian expression Riley taught me: “liquid sunshine.”

March 31: the anniversary of the closing of Weakness.  Also, Easter, a holiday I appreciate without really celebrating.  The birds continue to beckon, and I think they might win out at last, for a while.  I think of the volunteer chorus members who contributed so much to Weakness a year ago today, and especially of the family of three with whom I have become friendly.  Yesterday they sent me dozens of candids they shot as we put Weakness together.  I looked at the images as at the record of a dream, tearing up just a bit.  Maybe I’ll give the chorister-alums a ring today and see what they and their new puppies are up to.

Gangplank

“The speed of thought”: the speed of my thought, I see, is slow, its path recursive, its destination hidden.  Sometimes it feels less like a path and more like a gangplank.

March 29: I attended Emi’s show, a musical about gender-neutral parenting. As we began working together, I explained that I do not really care for musical theater’s syntax or aesthetic, but that I was happy to mentor her, and to my surprise, I was pleased to dip my ear in to this world.  Her songs are incisive, thoughtful, brave, and moving—youthful and idealistic to be sure, but also more mature and ethical than what I hear from many middle-aged artists.  It’s this sort of blossoming that keeps me motivated as a teacher.

April 1: a good day to post at face value.  Time to listen to the birds, head out,  and see what sorts of blossoms are popping up.

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*”Moving At the Speed of Thought” is another phrase of Mr. Sellars uttered in this same discussion, exemplifying the content in the form of his improvised paragraphs.  ”On Art, Ethics, and Opera” was the title of his talk.

 

“Bach Unplugged”: A Harmonic Distillery

Bach Unplugged, ca. 1941
A Manuscript Unearthed by Prof. Charlotte Jacobs, 2012    

[Peter Lieberson in memoriam]

[Ed note: In late 2012, Prof. Charlotte Jacobs discovered a long-lost manuscript of the familiar, unattributed music theory text Bach Unplugged: Voices Unencumbered by the Voice, known heretofore only through its edited and updated edition disseminated for university use beginning in the 1950s.  The manuscript includes a “Note to the Instructor,” excised in all published editions, which does much to explain the confounding rationale of music theory teaching in the latter half of the twentieth century.  Its writing style, as much early-century dreamy stream of consciousness as mid-century modern streamlined rational, remains a subject of speculation, though it is suspected that its cookbook-like instructions point to a female author, which in turn may explain why the text has for so long remained unattributed.]

Extract chorales from can­tatas from his­tor­i­cal con­text from sacred ritual from specter of anti-Semitism. Strip off texts too and play on piano to obscure any hint of regis­tral iden­tity or tim­bral char­ac­ter or vocal sen­si­bil­ity as well as ille­git­i­ma­cies such as crossed voices or prohibited melodic intervals.  Direct ini­ti­ates to remem­ber con­ceived for voice but con­tinue to play on piano to encour­age con­jur­ing of the voices in the inner ear rather than the audi­tory real­ity of the voice which is too easy and it’s espe­cially good for the instruc­tor to play badly like a com­poser whose cre­ative work pre­cludes get­ting his [sic] hands dirty.  Remem­ber not to men­tion Bach did not write the tunes (it’ll just con­fuse them with extraneous notions of his­tor­i­cal con­tin­gency and under­mine the power of the indi­vid­ual author) and def­i­nitely don’t point out that the tunes are often odd and pre-tonal and demand har­monic real­iza­tions that are less about explicit or con­sis­tent tonal func­tion but are modal and unpre­dictable.  Avoid observ­ing that some of the most inter­est­ing aspects of musi­cal works are ambigu­ous or involve a dia­logue between con­ven­tion and idio­syn­crasy with the ear lead­ing rather than a dog­matic rule­book guar­an­teed to achieve suc­cess by unthink­ing obe­di­ence but instead give them a list of incon­tro­vert­ible traf­fic reg­u­la­tions of what not to do with­out any dis­cus­sion of what is of value and stay away from any acknowl­edg­ment that musi­cal syn­tax is a mar­velous vol­un­tary mass delu­sion, in which we agree to con­spire in believ­ing that the way invis­i­ble pat­terns move in the aether has some sense and order to it and that it is a mat­ter of acousti­cal and aes­thetic virtue rather than con­tin­gent upon envi­ron­ment, train­ing, and idiom.  When you play through chorales in class (badly if pos­si­ble), say, ooh, isn’t Bach a genius for cross­ing voices and frus­trat­ing the lead­ing tone and using those weird unex­pected chords at that spot?

In private lessons, abandon all the above, but ask, “Are you sure you want that octave there?”  (Octaves, in any century, are high-maintenance.)  Listen to your student’s concern about her own creative future, and encourage her to learn by exploring the “resistance” she so fears.  She will.  Remember her when you bump into one another twenty years later, and compliment her graciously on her creative growth and professional accomplishments.

She will learn from you and thank you, she will remember the transcendent cello solo in your Piano Concerto, and she think of you when she in turn mentors the next generation.  She will mourn you when you depart.

Scalia’s Voice-Leading Constitution

This past Monday, Antonin Scalia delivered an address on the Princeton University campus.  While the official title of the Supreme Court Associate Justice’s talk was “Reading Law,” it has since been revealed that Scalia’s text was a coded elaboration of the voice-leading principles used in common-practice tonal harmony.  While Scalia spoke of “statutes” and interpretations, perspicacious spectators detected veiled references to cadences and voicings.  Below is an adulterated text—an interpolated glossary—that shows the hidden meaning behind Scalia’s comments:

“The fairest reading of the text [chorale] is what the law [common-practice tonal harmony] means.  When we read Shakespeare [Bach] we use a glossary [music-theory treatise] because we want to know what it meant when it was written. We don’t give those words [chords] their current meaning. So also with a statute [chord progression] — our statutes  [chord progressions] don’t morph, they don’t change meaning from age to age to comport with the whatever the zeitgeist [iTunes] thinks appropriate.”

Considering whether the Voice-leading Constitution is best construed as “a set of suggestions subject to the morph of the zeitgeist” or a “cemetery of decaying prohibitions ensuring that a dead language remain deceased,” Scalia became playfully severe:

“I have classes of little kids who come to the court, and they recite very proudly what they’ve been taught, ‘The Constitution  [Voice-Leading Constitution] is a living document.’ It isn’t a living document! It’s dead. Dead, dead, dead!” Scalia said, drawing laughs from the crowd. “No, I don’t say that. . . . I call it the enduring Constitution [the foundation of harmonic practice]. That’s what I tell them.”

In the on-campus discussion that continued this week, certain exegetes proposed that Scalia’s controversial comparisons of homosexuality to “murder, polygamy, cruelty to animals and bestiality” were intended to indicate the regulations that attend upon the traffic flow not of human bodies but of the individual voices in a Bach chorale, wherein parallels, touching and crossing are prohibited.  Evidence for this interpretation was cited in the use of the terms “morph” and “zeitgeist” (quoted above): in pretending to argue for the importance of the unchanging meanings of the language of the Voice-Leading Constitution, Scalia chose fluid, cross-linguistic, and up-to-date language that wittily subverted his own ostensible ideology.

Justice Scalia was not available for comment.

Shankar’s Fundamental Structure

Shankar’s Fundamental Structure
by Rose Marie McSweeney 

October 1983, Harvard University, Ear Training Class:

“Well, it’s really just a prolongation.”

“Well, Shankar would say it’s even simpler than you have there on the blackboard.”

[In my inner ear, a long sustain appears, followed by a descending sparkle.]

“Yes, he would . . .  but Shankar took it to extremes.”

[In my inner ear, and my retrospective eye, I recall this prolongation.
It was the first orchestral music I ever heard.]

And the delivery system:

A year or two later, I learn about something called the ursatz.

[R.I.P. Ravi Shankar.]