Wednesday, December 27, 2006


How could a musicologist not like this movie?

Well, there is one reason not to: jealousy. I've taught and TAed a lot of popular music in the past few years. In our classes we tend to focus a lot on the black/white color line. And this being a sensitive issue, we go to great trouble to present issues that get at the heart of this divide in particularly interesting and complicated ways. For instance, the phenomenon of cover songs in the fifties, or the dueling aesthetics of Motown and Stax in the sixties. Both of these issues show how complicated it is to have a "black" or a "white" aesthetic in popular music, and how such aesthetics are always mediated by market forces, by politics, and by individual personalities.

We go to great lengths to teach our students these issues. We spend a lot of classroom time and energy on them. And then comes along a movie that not only teaches all this basically as well as we do, but succinctly, and with style. Not unproblematically, of course, but just because the movie makes its own biases clear--soul music/black authenticity good, disco music/white inauthenticity bad--it nevertheless presents the issues in a fairly reasoned manner. I can tell that for the rest of my life I'm going to be referring to Dreamgirls in class, and that makes me jealous.

There is a lot more to be said about this movie. I really enjoyed it, although it was hard to turn off my musicological brain at times (for a movie that hates disco, they sure wrote a lot of faux Motown numbers with that patented disco accented riding hi-hat beat). But I want to point out one more thing, in addition to my own consuming jealousy. The truly tragic figure in this movie is not Jennifer Hudson's character, but Beyoncé, who plays the faux Diana Ross character. I've long claimed that Beyoncé is the Diana Ross of her generation. Like Diana, she doesn't have a strong voice. It is not that it is an unpleasant voice, but it is not particularly forceful in the way that the American public likes its black women singers. It wasn't a coincidence that her manager parents set her up in a girl group to start off her career; her voice was not strong enough to stand on its own, and the close harmony singing of Destiny's Child was necessary to provide her with vocal support. Even when she went solo, Beyoncé's producers overdubbed, reverbed, digitally altered, and otherwise provided the support necessary. Her first single sounded just like Destiny's Child, except with three digital Beyoncés instead of one Beyoncé and two friends.

Diana Ross, of course, was much the same story. As the movie shows, she had a light and somewhat colorless voice. Berry Gordy's great innovation was not just to put her as the front singer of the Supremes, but also to write music that pitched her voice unnaturally low. If you listen to some of the Supremes/Primettes early music, you can hear her singing in her original high pitched voice, and it is not particularly attractive. Pitched low, however, her voice became sultry. Recall "Where Did Our Love Go," for example, their first big HDH hit. Add in great production and the best backing band in the world, and you don't even notice that her voice isn't doing much.

So that's the history of Diana Ross's voice, courtesy of a class on Motown I TAed last year. The tragic thing about Dreamgirls is that it forces Beyoncé to perform Diana Ross's weaknesses while inhabiting a body with the same weakness. And the movie goes to great lengths not only to show that Effie White is a better singer than Deena Jones, but that Jennifer Hudson is a better singer than Beyoncé Knowles. I don't know if that was what Beyoncé was expecting out of making this movie. Poor woman.

But go see it! Alex Ross approves.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

December 25th, jet lagged

Merry Christmas, y'all.

Saturday, December 23, 2006


Ashland has an amazing theater scene. You've of course got the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which is one of the great American regional theaters. OSF has three theaters which together produce 750 showings of 11 different plays each year. But OSF is not the only game in town. There is the Oregon Cabaret theater, the Camelot Theater Company, Oregon StageWorks, and then a well-respected theater department at Southern Oregon University. Hey, if Terry Teachout loves this town, how couldn't you?

I say all of this because even in a great theater scene, things fall between the cracks. And last night I saw one of the most dreadful theatrical spectacles I have ever seen. It was a musical version of A Christmas Carol, and let's just say that the second act kicked off with a Cratchett family rap. You know, Tiny Tim, played by a precocious nine year old choir boy, started things off by tapping his crutches to a "hip hop beat", and then one by one each Cratchett family member took his or her turn rapping about Christmas spirit. All completely unironically. The music was by the notorious choral arranger Kirby Shaw, the book by his wife, and apparently it was a world premiere. I wonder what the word is for the last time a work gets produced? World Conclusion? World Finale? World Demise?

Off to DC tomorrow. Cross your fingers for a fog-less Medford and a snow-less Salt Lake City.

Update: Fog in Medford. Flight delayed four hours. Argh.

Update too: After being on hold for an hour, managed to get a later flight to Dulles. Arrived in DC forty-five minutes before Christmas!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Ode to the Hot Tub

What did I do this evening? Let me tell you. It's going to be fascinating.

My parents' new house has a hot tub. Although they are not necessarily the sort of people you would expect to have a hot tub, they have had actually had two, out of the five houses they have owned. When I was born, they lived in a little cottage in Mill Valley, Marin, down the street from a redwood grove. My mother commuted to work in the City via the Sausalito ferry. Side note: Apparently there was a pretty swinging singles scene on the Sausalito ferry back in the day. The boat had a bar, and the Friday evening commute could get pretty raucous. Rumor has it that my uncle, who lived on a houseboat at the time, used to ride back and forth several times in one evening. But that's completely unsubstantiated.

Anyways, I think it was basically a zoning requirement that little cottages in Marin in the seventies had to have a hot tub. So my parents had the redwood barrel pictured below. As you can see, I enjoyed hot tubs from an early age.
Hot Tub Baby

I still love hot tubs. I know, who doesn't? But I really like hot tubs. I think partly it is because I am rather tall, and so there are few bathtubs out there in which I comfortably fit. Denied the everyday pleasure of immersion in hot water, it becomes a rare treat when I find a body of water small enough to heat up, but large enough to fit me. I could spend hours in a hot tub, staring into space, letting my brain cells slowly leech away into the water.

Unfortunately, my parents moved out of this house when I was very young, and I was without hot tub for many years. These were rough years in the hot tub-less wilderness. When my parents moved to Oregon a few years ago, however, the new house they bought, otherwise fairly staid, came with a large and luxurious hot tub installed in the back yard. I wasn't there when they moved in, but apparently my sister, who shares my love of the hot tub, got it up and running within minutes of arrival.

It's very cold in southern Oregon right now, with highs barely breaking 32 degrees. We've been trying to get the hot tub working all week, but it appeared to be too cold for the cranky propane heater to turn on. Yesterday, though, my dad finally got it running, and by this evening it had finally worked its way up to an appropriate temperature. So tonight, when my parents were taking the puppy to his weekly puppy class, I finally made it out for my annual soak. As I said, it's quite cold, about 29 degrees when I ventured outside. So I scampered out in a bathrobe, propped the cover up against a bush for a makeshift privacy screen--to wear a swim suit is not exactly in keeping with the hot tub spirit--and started the process of lowering myself into the scalding water. Despite my love of hot tubs, I am not very good about immersing myself in water of extreme temperature, either hot or cold. So it was a tenuous few minutes where I was perched on the side of the tub, my lower half in 100 degree water, my upper half in below freezing air.

But I eventually made it all the way in. And it felt wonderful. I think I might be ready to get back to writing my dissertation now.

Sunday, December 17, 2006


With apologies to my friend and Oregonian apologist Regarding, want to hear a story that will make us Californians feel a little better about our state government?

Jackson County, Oregon, where my parents live, is about to shut down all of its public libraries. Not trim staff, not close branches, but close down completely in March. How did this happen?

1. The state of Oregon has no sales tax.
2. 55 percent of the land in the state of Oregon is owned by the federal government, which does not pay property taxes.
3. All that federal land comes mostly in the form of National Forests.
4. Back in the day, the Feds used to give local counties in Oregon a percentage of the money made from timber in those forests.
5. There is no longer a timber industry.
6. After the collapse of the timber industry, the Federal Government agreed to still give Oregon counties subsidies. This money was pretty substantial--$23 million to Jackson County last year, as I understand it.
7. What with the Republicans, and the war, and the general federal desire to end subsidies to industries without powerful lobbies, these subsidies are ending next year. (Hey, somebody has to pay the Midwest to grow corn!)
8. Suddenly, Jackson County has $23 million less than it used to. Does it cut the Sheriff's department, or the public libraries?
9. In anticipation of this problem, the county votes on a parcel tax which would provide money to continue funding the library system at its current level. This tax was rejected by 60% of the voters.
10. So that's it. No more public libraries in the county. My mother is a volunteer at the Ashland library, a beautiful Beaux Art facility with a brand new addition. In fact, a recent county bond measure had actually built a bunch of new library facilities throughout the county, providing community spaces and information access to a very rural and working-class part of the state. All of this is going to be gone in March.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Archive and the Repertoire

A few nights ago, thanks to the munificence of Jewel Dakini, Mary and I were treated to a free ticket to see Jeffrey Kahane and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra play through three Mozart piano concertos: 16, 18, and 25. It's part of their Mozart year effort to play all 23 piano concertos, come hell or high water. And I have to say, it tends towards the former. Kahane is an amazing performer, of course, and it is a good ensemble. There is nobody I would rather see run though all 23 concertos. But... number 16? I had never heard, or heard of, this one before. Of course, I am the furthest thing removed from a Mozart person, so that's not saying so much. But looking through the Mozart books I happen to have at hand, it seems I am not alone. Charles Rosen tells us that it "is difficult for many listeners to appreciate...this is not the Mozart we love." Neal Zaslaw's Compleat Mozart mainly focuses on the fact that it was published in his lifetime, and an annotated copy he sent to Nannerl has one of the few written-out examples of Mozart's own ornamentation. Maynard Solomon just tells us that it was one a series he composed to bring in some money in 1784. From hearing it once, I can tell you it is a pretty dull piece of music.

So, in other words, there doesn't seem to be a lot of reasons to play this piece. I know, I know, that's musicological hearsay. But I think that's the thing--is there a musical reason to perform this? Or is it simply necessary to play it because it completes the set? Do we play because we enjoy playing it, or listening to it? Or do we play it simply to reaffirm the canon in the most extreme sense: not only is it only played because Mozart wrote it, but furthermore we only play it because it is one of his numbered piano concertos. If it was not by Mozart, and if it was one of his piano/orchestra pieces not given an official number, we'd never have to hear it again.

Last spring I was in a seminar which was lucky enough to have Diana Taylor of NYU come give a guest presentation. Taylor's book The Archive and Repertoire has caused many waves in the field of performance studies. Its basic idea is that performance, defined broadly, is an important repertoire of knowledge and memory. Traditional histories are defined by the static existence of the archive, the official history of events and actions. The idea of an embodied repertoire gives a powerful new voice to alternative histories.

At her presentation at my seminar, Taylor was asked why she chose the term "repertoire." She replied that it seemed to imply a sense of flexible possibilities, as in the OED definition "the entire range of skills or aptitudes or devices used in a particular field or occupation." In conversation afterwards, I pointed out that in the world of classical music, repertoire has a much different meaning. It refers to a set of musical works: either of a certain kind ("the nineteenth-century symphonic repertoire") or those pieces a performer is able to play ("My repertoire includes the Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and Berg violin concertos"). There is a similarity between Taylor and Classical Music's usages, in that it refers to a set of skills of a sort. But in classical music those skills are not flexible tools, they are skills restricted to performing a very specific piece of music. In fact, in the first sense of repertoire used by classical music, as a set of works of a certain kind, there aren't any human performers anymore: the repertoire is not embodied skills, but abstract musical works. Whereas Diana Taylor's notion of the repertoire is about listening to an alternative set of knowledge, the classical music sense of repertoire is about preserving the archive--those canonical works that "we" have ideologically chosen over the past several centuries, at the expense of other histories and people.

Why do we play Mozart's 16th Piano Concerto? Is it for the archive, or the repertoire?

Sunday, December 10, 2006

On Domesticity

My partner flew in from Barnet last Monday. Her last rotation of the year--Emergency Critical Care--is over, and for the next two months she is supposed to be doing a series of short internships at veterinary clinics, as well finishing up her research project on equine physiotherapy. These two weeks she is working at TLC, the veterinary clinic of choice for Los Angeles musicologists.

I've meanwhile been finishing up the quarter--running review sessions, proctoring a final, lots of grading, and tying up the usual loose ends. Ordinary, but also unusual. For the first time in a long time, Mary and I are living and working together. This has rarely been the case over the past five years. We have spent a fair amount of time together, of course, but necessarily this time together occurs when one of us is on vacation. I'll visit her in Barnet, and hang around town while she is off fixing animals. She'll visit me here in Los Angeles, and hang around while I torture undergraduates and go to my own classes. So as odd as it seems, it is actually quite nice, and quite special, to be living and working together. She goes to work, I go to school, and we come home at the same time and cook dinner. Weekends off are actually weekends off, and there is nothing wrong with lazing around and relaxing in the evening.

So this is domesticity, and I like it a lot.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Poetry Friday

For some reason, I have been in the mood for the metaphysics. So with a hearty exhortation for everyone to go read Richard Rambuss's Closet Devotions, I present to you some John Donne to celebrate the last day of the quarter, when we all feel a bit battered indeed.

Holy Sonnet XIV: Batter My Heart (c.1635)

Batter my heart, three person'd God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow mee,'and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurpt towne, to'another due,
Labour to'admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weake or untrue.
Yet dearely'I love you,'and would be loved faine,
But am betroth'd unto your enemie:
Divorce mee,'untie, or breake that knot againe;
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you'enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Graduate Students and Service

There has been a flurry of discussion on academic blogs these past few days about the subject of academic meetings: how burdensome are they actually for faculty? How does one run a good meeting? How much does service count for tenure? Why do some faculty end up with more meetings than others? And so on.

I haven't yet seen any graduate students chime in on this, so I thought I would add my two cents. We all know that most doctoral programs do a much better job of training the research, rather than the teaching, side of being an academic. Yet, from what I gather from this discussion and from my own professors' whining, service seems to make up a huge part of the daily life of being an academic. But that is one skill that is almost completely absent from our training. When does a graduate student learn how to behave at a meeting? To write a report? To lead a meeting? And probably most importantly, when do we learn how to juggle these three simultaneous academic roles, rather than just the two we juggle now?

In my program, we have a few opportunities for graduate students to develop service skills. There is a student representative to the faculty who "gets" to sit in on faculty meetings every two weeks. There is a small group of 2-3 grad students who administer a visiting speaker series. A few brave students have volunteered to serve on university-wide committees, or have taken leadership roles in our TA union. (Don't forget to vote to authorize strikes this week, kids!) And probably most significantly, our department sponsors an online journal, completely run by graduate students. This last opportunity is probably the closest experience to actually being an academic in a functioning department. We have weekly meetings, there are tasks to be accomplished outside of those meetings, and there are opportunities for leadership. I'm currently one of the editors of the journal, and although sometimes the whole thing seems awfully silly and amateur, it's easy to remind myself that learning to keep a meeting on track (I find Dean Dad's advice very useful), to delegate responsibilities, and to be a responsible adult about the whole thing are all skills I need to develop if I want to have a happy academic life.

But doing any of these service tasks, as a graduate student, requires a fair amount of initiative. It's certainly not a requirement of the program, and although there is some mild pressure to help the department out when things need doing, it's hard to fault people for not volunteering to spend their busy time doing often-pointless work. I don't really want my program to require service for graduate students, 'cause that seems like it could be a disaster. But it is something I think we grad students need to keep in mind--come real life, we're going to be thrust into the world of service, and that's something we need to prepare for as much as research and teaching.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

1,000 Words on Marie Antoinette

I'm a big fan of Sofia Coppola's movies, so I'm surprised at myself that it took this long to go see her latest, Marie Antoinette. I waited too long, it turns out, so I had to go see it at a late-run showing at the Laemmle Sunset. Now, I like this theater a lot. It does very adventurous programming, has a student discount, and the staff are friendly. But the seats, man, the seats! My long legs don't quite fit in the space allotted, and I always spend the whole movie squirming around trying to get comfortable.

So, the movie. Every movie by Ms. Coppola has the same basic story arch: we know from the very beginning that things will end in tragedy. In The Virgin Suicides it's the titular death of all the sisters. In Lost in Translation it's knowing that ultimately Bill Murray will have to leave Japan and Scarlett Johansson. In Marie Antoinette...well, we all know what happens to her. But in each case, the inevitable tragedy is delayed for the entire movie. When it finally comes, it seems sudden and unprepared, despite the fact that you've been lolling around for two hours waiting for it. It reminds me of the end of Charles Ives's first symphony. By the end of the fourth movement, you've been pushed and buffeted by multiple layers of dissonant and seemingly unrelated music, constantly being teased as if the end is near. On the very last page of the score, the pace is picking up yet again, and you're sure that the thing is going to end any moment. And then you get this gigantic cadence (overlaid with a trumpet playing "Reveille", because, you know, it is Ives after all) and you just know the end will be any moment now. And then Ives does indeed end it, but with a gigantic cluster chord played at fortissimo by the entire orchestra, a chord that contains 11 notes--every single possible chromatic note, that is, except the B flat which would resolve the cadence. The piece has indeed ended, but it doesn't feel good. When the mob storms Versailles in Marie Antoinette, you obviously knew it was coming, but this fulfillment of an expectation doesn't feel good.

Another classic Sofia device is tension between extreme presence and absence. Her movies are full of sensory overload. The colors are vivid, the music loud. And yet, in each movie, there is some crucial missing element. In Lost in Translation, this was the famous whispered dialogue at the very end--Bill Murray leans in to whisper something in Scarlett Johansson's ear. It's clearly something important to the narrative, but it's a busy Tokyo street and you can't hear them. In Marie Antoinette, it's the sun. At several key moments in the movie, Kirsten Dunst watches the sun rise. In each moment, the sun is always just outside the frame. All we see are reflections--on water, on glass, on her face. There's nothing so iconographic as the sun, and it is hard to imagine any filmmaker, painter, or photographer composing a frame of sunrise that did not put the sun at the very center. In Marie Antoinette, having been bombarded with sensory overload for two hours, you feel this absence more strongly than almost anything else.

I don't know much about film studies, but I imagine it would be pretty easy to do a feminist post-structuralist reading of Coppola's work. You've got the non-traditional narratography, the privileging of surface experience over interior depth, the representations of consumerism that lies somewhere between critique and celebration. These films are nothing if not full of jouissance. If I might pull out one more annoying musicological metaphor, however, there are elements of this film that make me think of the arguments my advisor makes in his book on minimalism. Many feminist critics have celebrated the jouissance of minimalist music, its ability resist a heterosexual erotics of music--rather than Beethoven making you work really hard for an hour before finally giving you release at the end, minimalism just gives you endless bliss. That's the standard reading. My advisor, however, points out that a lot of minimalist music does actually have plenty of discrete moments of release. To be blunt, it's not, in other words, that minimalism has no orgasm or one long sustained one, but that often it has dozens of small ones.

I bring this up because in Marie Antoinette, Coppola does not actually just sit back and let the pretty colors and loud music wash over you. Although I would probably need to see it again, I do sense a structure in this movie that is just as top-down, push-the-audience-around as Beethoven. It just uses the non-traditional elements I outlined above to do so. I'm thinking in particular of the mob scene at Versailles. For the entire movie we've been treated to this very loud soundtrack that combines late 70's and early 80's new wave and punk rock with fairly authentic mid-18th century music, like Rameau. The music is a crucial part of telling you what to think, and with the opulent sets and costumes forms the major part of the sensory overload. That said, the loudest noise of the movie is actually the sound of the mob when Kirsten Dunst opens up the door on her balcony. The sound of the crowd is significantly louder than the already-loud music we've been listening to. It was a shocking moment, and one that was not arrived at by way of the plot--the mob came hours ago, and it is no secret what is going to happen. And the main visual imagery is another absence--for several shots, the camera focuses on specific individuals in the mob, but never their faces, just the backs of their heads. Coppola is using the presence vs. absence tension to shock us. We're being manipulated, but not in a traditional movie way.

I have to say, I like it.

Humanities R Us

Today is the big UCLA vs. USC football game, and my undergraduates are all a-twizzle. There are pep rallies, bonfires, even a vigil to protect the campus mascot from dastardly deeds. A number of my students are in the marching band, so they are all out in Pasadena today, performing great feats of lung-foot coordination and some milder feats of musicianship. I wish them well. **

Speaking of these two august institutions, there was an interesting story in the current LA Weekly by Justin Clark about their academic rivalry. Predictably, the two schools are constantly poaching professors from one another; in one incident, USC even tried to hire away five members of the UCLA linguistics department in one fell swoop. A lot of the competition has to do with USC's attempt to rehabilitate its academic reputation as the former University of Spoiled Children my Stanford alumni parents always warned me about. In the past few years, USC has gone from #46 to #27 in the rankings, almost tied with UCLA, and presumably they have their competitive eye on the NoCal schools as well.

Most interesting, however, is the the shifting status of the politics of this rivalry. Back in the 1960s, there was a stark difference between the two campuses: USC watched the growing "disintegration" of its urban neighborhood--and by "disintegration", we actually should read "integration"--with suspicion and hostility, seriously considering a move to join Pepperdine up in Malibu. UCLA, meanwhile, became a hotbed of student activism thanks to a fairly liberal school administration.

Forty years later, though, things have changed: USC has invested heavily in its surrounding neighborhoods, and has come to view its urban location as a major draw. UCLA, thanks to Proposition 209 and the gradual depoliticization of the UC system as a whole, has become increasingly less diverse: enrollment of black students is down to offensive levels, the student government is now controlled by an conservative (and explicitly white) slate, and Westwood is now a bland marketplace of chain stores and dull restaurants. This change, of course, mirrors many larger changes in American politics over the last forty years. Once upon a time, conservative power rested in the Republican "old money" WASP areas of Pasadena and Downtown--USC territory--whereas the largely Jewish and Hollywood-funded Westside was Democratic and liberal--UCLA. That distinction is pretty much gone nowadays, replaced by much more fragmentary and temporary political alliances. UCLA's enclave amongst the ritzy towns of Beverly Hills and Bel-Air increasingly has the feel of a gated community, while USC's urban location allows it to engage with the outside world on an ongoing basis. Obviously there are many complicating factors, and it will take a long time for public perception to catch up. But I think we've only seen the beginning.

Anyways, the one thing this article doesn't talk about it is how central the humanities are to some of these academic and political rivalries. USC has for the past few years been making a point to hire a broad range of very exciting humanistic scholars--just since I came to town, they've hired Judith Halberstam, Josh Kun, Alice Echols, Karen Tongson, and Bruce Smith. More that I'm probably forgetting about, or haven't heard about. UCLA? Not so much. Yeah, they brought in Sue-Ellen Case a few years back, but that was a no-brainer. Can anyone think of any other exciting senior hires? Even if there are some examples, there is nothing like USC's campus-wide commitment to bringing in these amazing humanists who are all on the forefront of their respective fields. These are people who publish a lot, do the actual teaching of their students, attract top grad students, and are genuinely committed to the social mission of an urban university. Top scientists might bring in a lot of research money, but they rarely contribute to the intellectual life of a university as a whole.*

The thing is, developing a talented faculty in the humanities is really cost effective. Let's be honest, we humanists have low expectations when it comes to institutional support, and we work for cheap. A recent New Yorker article points out that when Duke University wanted to raise its academic stature, they realized that for the price of one middling scientist's salary--not to mention all the labs, support staff, etc--they could hire three or four humanistic scholars at the very top of their field. And for Duke, it totally worked--despite that institution's somewhat checkered history, and location away from the usual centers of academe, it is still has one of the great English Lit doctoral programs in the country, and one of the best university presses. This seems to USC's approach, and assuming that they come through with sustained institutional support--not to be taken for granted!--I bet it will work wonders.

In other news, I highly recommend watching all eight minutes of this cartoon version of the Communist Manifesto, assembled from classic Hollywood cartoons. What could be more LA? Via Billtron via Sushi Pajamas.

* I don't say this lightly; my partner was a chemistry major in college. At a small college, the sciences faculty are often integral to the community, and that's a great thing. At a large research university, however, much scientific research takes place in hospitals and institutes far removed from anything that might be considered "education."

** My god! We won! I could care less, but that was kind of cool!