Wednesday, March 28, 2007

St. Paul's and Beyond

I've managed, somehow, never to go to St. Paul's Cathedral in London. I've been to the Tower and Westminster Abbey zillions of times, but the third in the holy trinity of London tourism has always evaded me for some reason. So yesterday, I finally made it there.

I was a little underwhelmed. I hadn't realized how closely it mimics St. Peter's in Rome, right down to the baldacchino over the high altar. (quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt Wren?) And of course, it can't really match up to St. Peter's in size or sense of majesty. In fact, I was quite struck by how unspiritual the whole affair seemed. It's ironic that Westminister, which as a Royal Peculiar is more officially nationalist than St. Paul's, feels much more religious. I don't think it is just the Gothic versus early neo-classical architecture, but I can't quite put my finger on what the difference is. At first I thought it was because the cathedral seemed oddly tatty. There wasn't a ton of interior detail, and what details there were seemed a bit rough. But then, I've been to some other cathedrals that also seemed plain inside, like the one in St. Albans, or even the cathedral in Cuernevaca, Mexico. Those cathedrals were once more ornate, but at some point in history had been ransacked (by Henry the XIII and leftists, respectively.) But I found their plain interiors rather beautiful, whereas for me St. Paul seemed oddly institutional, like the community room stuck on to the back of a Methodist church. Of course, Mary the Presybeterian looked at the altar and sniffed that there was an awful lot of gold. Guess it's all about perspective.

I do admit that there was a great view from the top, however. I had to swallow my claustrophobia a bit to make it up the 300 steps of a tiny, crowded spiral staircase, but it was quite lovely. The picture above is from the top, looking southwest towards the London Eye and Parliament beyond.

Afterwards we made a quick trip to the Tate Modern, to check out the infamous slides that are installed in the atrium. We each went down the short one, which had less of a line. Then it was off to the National Gallery, to check out the free exhibition "From Manet to Picasso." It's just a temporary exhibit to give a home to some of the famous impressionist and post-impressionist artworks from the permanent collection which are displaced by a touring show. It was nice to see some oldies but goodies of impressionism, but I wasn't very impressed with the curacy--I wish they had been more creative in their "redisplay." One treat was seeing a Hammershøi, an artist I didn't know of but who we quite liked.

Today: work!

Monday, March 26, 2007


By the way...did I mention I'm in England right now? As is my typical fashion, I skipped out of town mere hours after finishing grading for the quarter. No jet lag to speak of this time; after five years of constant traveling like this, my body no longer has any problem with suddenly skipping ahead eight hours. I'm not sure if that is a good or a bad thing.

Saturday was spent at the antique markets in Notting Hill, indulging Mary's addiction to funky jewelry. Sunday we met a fellow expatriate Los Angeleno musicologist (it's a small but close-knit community) for drinks in Primrose Hill, before coming back to Barnet for baked ziti. Today, I think we are going to lounge around and go see The Good German, which is still in theaters over here.

So, in lieu of a substantive post, I'm going to fill out SoHo the Dog's survey.

1. Name an opera you love for the libretto, even though you don't particularly like the music.

To go with something recent, I liked the libretto for Dr. Atomic much more than John Adams's wishy-washy music.

2. Name a piece you wish Glenn Gould had played.

I'm not a Gould person.

3. If you had to choose: Charles Ives or Carl Ruggles?

Charles Ives. I've actually somehow managed to avoid listening to The Sun Treader all these years, at least until last week when it was a bonus question on a final I proctored. Not so impressed.

4. Name a piece you're glad Glenn Gould never played.

See #2.

5. What's your favorite unlikely solo passage in the repertoire?

This isn't really an answer to the question, but I just want to state that despite the fact that Schubert apparently hated the instrument, the viola lines in everything he wrote are truly beautiful.

6. What's a Euro-trash high-concept opera production you'd love to see? (No Mortier-haters get to duck this one, either—be creative.)

Hmm...I'm thinking...Harvey Milk set in Renaissance Florence. It could totally work.

7. Name an instance of non-standard concert dress you wish you hadn't seen.

When I was undergraduate, my university had a very strong world music performance program, and there was lots of great concerts by the resident gamelan ensemble. However, invariably, there would be a smattering of (always white men of a certain age) audience members who would show up wearing traditional Javanese tunics, and would sit cross-legged during the performance with beatific smiles on their faces. That was very unfortunate.

8. What aging rock-and-roll star do you wish had tried composing large-scale chorus and orchestra works instead of Paul McCartney?

Patti Smith!

9. If you had to choose: Carl Nielsen or Jean Sibelius?

I have a soft spot for Sibelius.

10. If it was scientifically proven that Beethoven's 9th Symphony caused irreversible brain damage, would you still listen to it?

If you've ever seen the film clip of Furtwangler conducting the Ninth, with Goebbels and a bunch of wounded war veterans in the audience and gigantic swastikas hanging over the stage, you'll find it quite easy not to listen to it ever again.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

An Irish Retraction

The Plus Side: I have very cool grandparents. In fact, all four of them read my blog. How many grandparents of people my age use the internet, let alone read their grandson's blog?

The Negative Side: When one blogs about one's family, one's grandparents will read one's posts about one's family history, and one's possible inaccuracies will be pointed out, to one. Suffice it to say, there is an Irish branch of my family. Protestant Irish, of course, but Irish nevertheless. In fact, when my grandparents moved to Montreal in the sixties, the Canadian immigration people listed my grandmother as "Irish" because of her maiden name. So there you have it.

I feel a little bit like George Allen.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Print, and Music

When it comes down to it, I'm pretty print-based in my media tastes. I value mashed-up tree and ink. I still remember the joy, when growing up, of going down to the main branch of the Oakland Public Library, not just for books, but to browse all the crazy left-wing free newspapers in its lobby. My introduction to left wing politics--I think I was in about eighth grade or so--came from picking up a copy of The People, the official house organ of the Socialist Labor Party. I soon realized that they were completely nutso, but there was (and is) immense pleasure in seeing subversive ideas smeared in cheap ink on newsprint. In college I helped edit an alternative newsmagazine that barely existed (does it still, I wonder? Doesn't look good from the web site!) but managed to pull itself together every few months to print an issue. Today, I subscribe to The Nation and The Chronicle of Higher Education, and I get The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and Wax Poetics thanks to the munificence of family and friends. If I had the money, I would subscribe to many more.

And although I spend an extraordinary amount of time online consuming information, even there I have certain aesthetic desires that are fundamentally print-oriented. I hate RSS feeds for instance, vastly preferring to visit individual blogs one by one rather than to strip the text out of its original context. Similarly, part of the reason I started a blog was that I didn't like how in Livejournal, which all of my friends use, it is the reader, not the author, who gets to choose the layout and formatting of entries.

That said, I would like to register a complaint about The Nation. For many years, Edward Said was the music critic for The Nation, and that was great. Since he died, however, there has been no consistent music critic! Jody Rosen was on the masthead for awhile, but I don't think anyone is listed now. Since I and probably most subscribers read The Nation solely for the cultural criticism, I hope they fix this! For instance, the issue I happen to have next to me, January 29, has Martin Duberman doing a great review of Daniel Hurewitz's new book, and Arthur Danto talking about Manet and modernism. The last major music thing I can remember was Paul Griffith's annoyingly dim review of the Taruskin behemoth. Maybe there was a short thing about jazz recently. Come on people! If you can have an official in-house architecture critic, you can have a music critic. Don't worry, we come cheap.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Who's that a-writin'?

This post is just an experiment to see if I can have audio examples on this blog using a Flash-based player. This player was created by 1pixelout, and I followed the Blogger-specific instructions from here. Let me know if it doesn't work for you! Older computers, and those without a Flash plug-in installed, might have difficulty.

This is a clip of Blind Willie Johnson singing "John the Revelator," one of the tracks recorded for the 1927-1930 Columbia sessions. I just finished reading 30 undergraduate writing assignments about this tune, so I am now something of an expert. Well, an expert in the weird ways that an undergraduate--with little training in analyzing pop music and a deep willingness to trust Wikipedia--can listen to this song. It is a pretty bizarre little tune, I have to say, and I can't really blame them for having trouble with it.

Is it legal to have a clip of a copyrighted song here? Well, the legality of such things is actually highly unclear. There has yet to be a definitive court case on the subject, and fair use statutes are very vague and outdated. Few people have gotten in trouble with having clips that are less than a minute long, since that is more or less the equivalent of providing a short quote from a book. Certain online music journals have used the "one minute example" as a good rule of thumb, although as a non-profit academic journal, there might be a better case for Fair Use than for a personal blog. But who knows, really. I feel like that if I am only have a clip, and if I am making it at least mildly more difficult to download thanks to the Flash player, I've covered my bases as much as I can.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

A Non-Irish Family Story

As far as I know, I don't have any Irish in me. Red hair and freckles run in my mother's family, but given where it comes from--my mother's maternal grandmother--I suspect that it is Dutch in origin, from my ancestors who immigrated to what was then known as New Amsterdam. In fact, with exception of the odd Swede here and there, I have hardly any ancestors on either side of my family who did not emigrate from either England or the Netherlands before the American Revolution, and most of them in the seventeenth-century. I say that not to brag, but as an ambivalent testimony to the power of racial politics in this country over the last three centuries. The fact that really none of my ancestors married into the various great waves of immigration over the years tells you something rather dark about the history of the U.S.


I do have a funny story about Irish ancestry though. I have some cousins who are themselves members of another family--so, to which I myself am not related--that is kind of fancy. I probably shouldn't say it by name, but suffice to say there is are some important institutions in NYC named after them. It's the kind of family that has a corporation to manage the family assets and charitable giving and whatnot, and has developed a complex system of classification to sort themselves out. I can never remember the details, but basically, each of the many children of the original patriarch was assigned a letter, and then each generation thereafter a number, so that if you are like the fourth grandchild of Robber Baron X's third daughter, you are C-2-4. I'm getting it wrong, but it something like that. When they have family reunions, each branch gets a color, and people wear badges with their numbers.

Anyways, so the name of this family is generically WASP, maybe with a hint of Scottish to it, everyone had always assumed. For whatever reason, nobody had ever done a proper genealogy on the family founder, so for an upcoming family reunion the board of directors of the family trust decided to hire someone to make one. They hired a young genealogist to do the research, and she presented the preliminary results at a board meeting.

The young women was excited to report that she had discovered that the patriarch's ancestors were....Irish!

Dead silence in the boardroom.

She was politely thanked, and as soon as she had left, one of the more elderly members of the board turned to the room, scowled, and said "Pay her, and get rid of her!"

No presentation was made at the family reunion. And yes, this was just a few years ago.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Useful Advertising

The Sunset Strip is home to many billboards. After Times Square, it is one of the most important outdoor advertising locations in the world. Many of them are gigantic, taking up the entire sides of twenty-story buildings; others have mechanized props attached to them. The Chateau Marmont always has a slender, vertical one in some odd shape: a bottle of Absolut Vodka for several years, now a big iPod. There are several giant video screens, and one non-chain billboard on the side of the Rainbow Grill that always has sexually explicit ads for new pornos.

But the most important billboard is a large one on the side of an office building. It seems to be leased exclusively by HBO, and is used to announce whatever the next big upcoming HBO series will be. Since I drive by it every day on the way home from school, I'm usually pretty on top of the HBO calendar. So you can imagine my joy when I saw they were putting up a new ad today.
This is my cell phone camera so it's a little washed out and blurry, but that's Tony Soprano. And underneath, it says, "The Final Episodes: April 8."


Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Rest in Peace, Betty Hutton

As regular readers will know, I vastly prefer Calamity Jane, the 1953 rip-off of Annie Get Your Gun, to the original. However, Betty Hutton was definitely the best part of that inferior musical, making the obnoxious plot almost palatable. Plus, in 1948, by getting pregnant shortly before the filming of Romance on the High Seas, Betty paved the way for the Great Doris herself. So God Bless, Betty. I hope in heaven they let you win any sharpshooting contest you want.

You can ignore the rest of this post, unless you are looking for an explanation of my relative frazzledness. It is my to-do list for the week:

1. Write something to give to diss. reading group.
2. Grade 30 short writing assignments.
3. Grade another 30 short writing assignments.
4. Grade two week's worth of listening quizzes.
5. Write and FedEx abstract for conference. (What kind of organization requires paper copies of an abstract?)
6. Prepare guest lecture for Thursday's class.
7. Collect 30 term papers. Grade them.
8. Finish fellowship application, which involves...
9. Do long overdue revisions to first diss chapter, to hand in with #8.
10. Enjoy some sunshine.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Notes from Pop Culture

Pussycat Dolls Present: The Search for the Next Doll is the most depressing television experience I have ever had. It is one thing to watch American Idol--I try not to, but it happens--and see all these kids put their heart and soul into being a famous singer. It is another thing to watch a teenage girl wearing nothing but skimpy lingerie cry because being a Pussycat Doll is her lifelong dream.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

John Cage in Tehran

Know what's cool? Last Thursday night, the Tehran Symphony Orchestra performed Cage's Four6. The Cage community is understandbly all a-twitter. The late number pieces are not my favorite, but how often do you see major American orchestras performing any Cage at all!

The press releases don't mention it, interestingly, but Cage himself performed in Iran once, at the 1972 Shiraz Arts Festival--a festival originally created to celebrate the 2,5000 year anniversary of the founding of Persia. You can read an article about it here. [pdf] The concert was sponsored directly by the Shah himself, and was no doubt undertaken with the support of the U.S. government.

Marshall Berman later wrote, "When a creative spirit like John Cage accepted the support of the Shah of Iran, and performed modernist spectacles a few miles from where political prisoners shrieked and died, the failure of moral imagination was not his alone." That's rather sanctimonious, but he had a bit of a point. It's nice to know that at least for one evening this week, Cage's music was being used for slightly less imperialistic ventures.

This is what I get for not keeping up with my blog reading: everyone in the world has already posted about this. (I really wish I could read that last one, it looks fascinating!)

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The Age of Anxiety

Rather than working on my current dissertation chapter, a partial draft of which is due on Saturday, I would like to muse about the last chapter I intend to write. Thus, a short improvisational history of The Age of Anxiety, using only the information I have on my bookshelf at the moment.

The Age of Anxiety is the title of two different literary works from the 1940s: a "baroque eclogue" by Auden, and the first chapter of the late Arthur Schlesinger's famous book The Vital Center.

When the historical process breaks down and armies organize with their embossed debates the ensuing void which they can never consecrate, when necessity is associated with horror and freedom with boredom, then it looks good to the bar business.

Western man in the middle of the twentieth century is tense, uncertain, adrift. We look upon our epoch as a time of troubles, an age of anxiety. The grounds of our civilization, of our certitude, are breaking up under our feet, and familiar ideas and institutions vanish as we reach for them, like shadows in the falling dusk. Most of the world has reconciled itself to this half-light, to the reign of insecurity. Even those peoples who hastily traded their insecurities for a mirage of security are finding themselves no better off than the rest.

Marx said it more succinctly: "All that is solid melts into air."

I don't know that Schlesinger read Auden. Haven't researched it yet. I would guess not, but that's probably because I have a low opinion of Schlesinger, so I assume the worst. But Leonard Bernstein did read Auden, and the same year that The Vital Center was published, he composed his Symphony No. 2, subtitled "The Age of Anxiety." I haven't spent much time with it yet, haven't even checked out a score. Befitting the source material, I wonder if there will be pastoralisms. Or even a quote of the Sabine Baring-Gould hymn that Auden quotes in the beginning:
Now the day is over
Night is drawing nigh.
Shadows of the evening
Steal across the sky.

It would be cool if this tune is quoted, it's one of my favorite hymns. My main exposure to Anglican hymns comes not from church, but from attending a weekly hymn singing in the summers while growing up. This is the hymn we sing to close each meeting. It's a pretty hymn, one of those ones where it is impossible to sing just the tune--I can't hum it without trying to hum all four parts. Come to think of it, I've never really thought about this hymn analytically before. Thanks to my handy Episcopal hymnal--the 1940 one, of course, just to be chronologically consistent--I see that good ol' No. 172 (the Merrial tune) has some kind of interesting harmonic stuff going on. But now I'm getting off track.

Anyways, so Bernstein composed his symphony. Then in 1950, Jerome Robbins choreographed a ballet to this music. I don't really know anything about this ballet, other than Robbins danced one of the main roles himself. I wonder if there is any record of what the dance was like. Maybe it's even still in the City Ballet's repertoire. Probably not. I don't know a whole lot about ballet; when I think of Jerome Robbins I tend to think of West Side Story, and it is a little hard to imagine the Jets and the Sharks dancing to any of the above music or literary sources. But I suspect the ballet made sense. I hope I can track down more concrete details about it.

Why the age of anxiety? Every age seems anxious. Many people are anxious now. Marx was anxious. Sabine Baring-Gould, who wrote the hymn not long after Marx, seems anxious:
Grant to little children
Visions bright of Thee;
Guard the sailors tossing
On the deep, blue sea.

Comfort those who suffer,
Watching late in pain;
Those who plan some evil
From their sin restrain.

So why is it in the Age of Anxiety in the late 1940s? Was there more anxiety then, than now, or previously? Was it the Holocaust? World War II? the Cold War? McCarthyism? Civil rights? Women in the workplace? Abstract Expressionism? Be-bop? I doubt people were more anxious in 1949 than in 2007, or 1868, or 1847. But I don't know, maybe they were. Maybe the choice of the word "anxiety" is important--there is a huge growth in American-style Freudian psychiatry in this period. Today we usually speak of "fear" rather than "anxiety." Marx doesn't even us the word "anxiety" in the Manifesto. To experience anxiety might be transhistorical, but to convince oneself of the fundamental anxiousness of the present time might be historically specific.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Que Sera, Sera

I've been at a conference this past week, is why the absence of posting. It was a good conference; I caught up with friends, saw a new city, played with gigantic helium-filled silver mylar balloons, drank my fair share of the city's beer supply, and ate a lot of McDonalds. Plus, I gave a paper at this conference, and it was very well-received. I was proud of how I delivered it--I tend to be a bit of a mumbler, so performing an academic paper properly is something I've worked on a lot. And not only did my paper go well, but I saw a lot of stimulating papers by other scholars, had many good academic conversations, met lots of fascinating new people, and got lots of good advice from other students, professors at other schools, and even a publisher or two. And furthermore my first academic publication came out this weekend. It's a very minor publication, to be sure, but it is neat to see your name in print, all professionally typeset and everything.

It was really a great conference; it is every year. I'm always amazed how this one particular annual musicological conference can be so productive, when the "main" musicological conference can make you want to drill a hole in a vital organ. It's actually not too hard to figure out the difference, but here I run into one of the main problems with my blog: it is neither anonymous nor non-anonymous. I don't quite feel comfortable delivering honest opinions about things that intersect so directly with my "career." If it was anonymous, I could dish all I want, albeit in vague, coded terms. If it was under my real name, I could brag more annoyingly about accomplishments, and attempt to attach to the real me whatever intellectual capital and good publicity a blog can produce. (Heh.)

My friends and family read this, and if you read this blog and don't happen to know me, it takes about ten seconds of googling to figure out who I am. Recent linkage from blogs read by a lot of people in my field has meant that I'm getting many visitors I don't personally know. I'm okay with that; I have to be. I feel confident enough in myself that I figure that people knowing me better is a good thing. And yet, a lot of the postings here are personal enough that I prefer not to actually have my name attached directly, at least for the time being. My theory is that I would just rather not have people be able to google my real name and find Barnet Bound. It would not be a disaster if somebody made the connection, as I run a fairly clean ship, but I like to cut down on undergraduates and future employers making the direct link. Probably when I go on the job market this fall, I'm going to stop blogging here, and move to a new address under my real name. Maybe I'll split it in two: an anonymous blog full of gossip and scandalous stories--since my life is obviously that interesting--and a named one that pretends to be a real grown-up. We'll see. Whatever will be, will be.