Space Purcell

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I’m indoors, pretending the outside world doesn’t exist. Facebook seems a wash of video postings from Schubert’s Winterreise, sung by any one of a myriad of talentless English tenors with vocal nodules.

No thanks.

If you really, really want to feel some insincere winter bleak feels, have a listen to Klaus Nomi’s intergalactic rendition of Purcell’s “Cold Song” from King Arthur.


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My resolution for 2018 is “pay a bit more attention to the blog.” With any luck, I’ll be posting more frequently, and with less laborious prose.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve kind of been getting into Sciarrino. I’ve got a piece of his in the oven for an audition tape, L’addio a Trachis (1980). It’s remarkably difficult to find much out about the work itself. Even when scouring Classical sources, the city of Trachis doesn’t come up all that often. That said, Sciarrino did compose an 18-minute work for female voices based on the tragic play of Sophocles, The Trachinae. Deianeira, wife of Heracles, finds that her husband has laid siege to Oechalia for the purpose of taking another woman, Iole, as his wife. Deianeira sends Heracles a garment dipped in a potion meant to rekindle his love for her. But Deianeira has been fooled; the garb has in fact been laced with a poison which burns and tortures Heracles as he returns to Trachis. To end his suffering, he is taken to be burned alive.

Sciarrino’s solo for harp uses tremolos and harmonic effects, evocative of dying embers. While Heracles is sometimes seen as either heroic (as in the case of Sophocles) or comic (in the case of Ovid), it’s rare for the Heraclean prototype to cast a real sense of hopelessness or resignation. Heracles isn’t killed by his wife, but the by the centaur Nessus, who he killed to save Deianeira and take her as his bride. As Nessus lay dying, he told Deianeira that a mixture of his own blood with the poison of the Hydra would act as a love potion. Nessus lied, helping to fulfill the prophecy that Heracles would be killed by those who were already dead.

Heracles dies full of regrets, despite a life of achievement and glory. Ezra Pound’s adaptation captures the mood rather better than some of the more literal translations, essentially devising a scene in which Hyllos assists Heracles in his own suicide.

Fine… Get me to that fire, before this pain
starts again. Hey, you there, hoist me up
for the last trouble.
The last rest.

Nothing to stop us now. You’re the driver.

Come ere the pain awake,
O stubborn mind.

[To Hyllos]
And put some cement in your face,
reinforced concrete, make a cheerful finish
even if you don’t want to.

People tend to give Ezra Pound a hard time about his “translation” (I use the term loosely). The probability that he knew ancient Greek with any sense of fluency is very slight. But his adaptation of the Greek χάλυβος λιθοκόλλητον στόμιον (chalubos lithokolleton stomion—a bit of steel cast with stones) here is rather appropriate; he uses the term “reinforced concrete,” a simultaneous nod towards the age of American technological progress and the birth of a different strand of stoic masculinity. At the very least, it’s an interesting example of the ways in which updating ancient texts with modern imagery works almost perfectly.

A New Year?

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It’s been a rough year, so here’s some Bach.

Das alte Jahr vergangen ist is usually one of the more “upbeat” of the new year carols, though it was particularly contentious around the time Bach wrote it in Weimar. Just down the road in Erfurt in 1712, a group of kids passed a Catholic home as they sang the verse “keep us, Lord, from Papal teaching and idolatry” (Vor’s Papsts Lehr’ und Abgötterei bewahr uns, Herr). With malicious intent or not, it sparked another in a long series of religious conflicts in the primarily Catholic dominion of Mainz.

Of course, there’s no proof that Bach’s melancholic setting is in any way related to the incident as mentioned above. At the very least though, it’s a good anecdote that bidding the old year goodbye may not necessarily bring any change.



Advent II

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Interfaith coupledom has entered a new phase. Friday night, Richard and I headed up to B’nai Jeshurun on 88th Street a little after 6 o’clock. Having become accustomed to relatively poor church attendance rates in Manhattan, watching a room and balcony fill up with congregants was a jolt to the system. People talked enthusiastically before the service as the oud and clarinet tuned up in front of the bimah. Within ten minutes there was singing with dancing soon thereafter.

Unfamiliar with the proto-Mediterranean music, the order of service or the essence of what being there ought to be about, my only point of reference were correlating elements with the Anglican tradition. Preparation for Sabbath begins with the 95th Psalm, the same Psalm which constitutes the Venite, the first appointed canticle for the service of Matins. Much like Evensong, Psalms are essential to getting the service going. Far more was sung than said in the service. And even more was read privately than sung.

I admit I had never thought of reading as having a physical embodiment until Friday. Fellow congregants read psalms, prayers or other texts at their own pace, partaking in a middle ground of public performance and private devotion that doesn’t exist in the Anglican Eucharist. One might have near silence at points, or low level muttering and chanting of psalms, as well as occasions when the congregation is singing portions of the psalms in unison.

I realized that Anglicanism’s Catholic heritage has provided somewhat of a zero-sum game when it comes to participation in the service. Either you are watching, or you are sitting/standing/reading/singing exactly the same thing as your fellow congregants at the same time. Recited sections of text are often short, memorable, easily reproducible. The theatrical nature of Catholicism is beautiful, yes, but it’s built on the dark historical reality of illiteracy. Indeed the Eucharist has become beautiful over the centuries, but perhaps only due to necessity. After all, for hundreds of years, Christian children with intellectual promise were relegated to lives of celibacy in the church. Literacy did not pass from parent to child, but from cleric to novice.

I suppose I identified most with the very end of the Sabbath preparation and the singing of the L’cha dodi. It tells of anticipation for the arrival of God’s bride in the Sabbath, but also in awaiting Jesse’s son of Bethlehem, the foretold Messiah. In the final verse, the congregation turns to face the entrance to the synagogue, welcoming in the Sabbath as she enters as well as expecting the Messianic arrival.

Richard came to church this morning. It was a good morning for it, musically speaking. While I’d like to think every Sunday in front of the choir is a good musical occasion, Advent is special and weird. Think about it: it’s a season of waiting for something that we already know is coming. We get to be bleak, but it’s one that’s fairlt insincere. Christ isn’t not going to be born, and Episcopalians don’t really believe in hell or consequential divine intervention, anway. In this sense, there’s a dramatic element to the swathes of fire and brimstone, wailing and penitence, lying in the knowledge that there will be a release of the tension come December 24. We can’t un-remember that Christmas is coming – it’s kind of essential to the whole Christianity thing.

With little exception, I’m guilty of doing the same music every year for Advent. It’s simply not Advent without Byrd’s setting of words from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, utilized in the second section of the Advent Prose.

Civitas sancti tui facta est deserta. Sion deserta facta est, Jerusalem desolata est.

Living under the reign of Elizabeth I, William Byrd may have been more familiar with desolation and general bleakness than many composers throughout history. The English Reformation was still not over, and the fate of English Roman Catholics was unsure. Byrd’s Canciones Sacrae of 1589 were composed and compiled in a period of relatively violent period. There are at least eight martyrs officially recognized by the Catholic Church who died in 1589 for their faith. The relatively small scale of its contents point to the extent to which Roman Catholic liturgy had been diminished. Gone were extravagant and lengthy anthems for the English Marian liturgy, the likes of which were found in the Eton Choirbook. Byrd’s works instead hearken back to the smaller anthems compiled in the 1575 Cantiones quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur, such as Thomas Tallis’s In jejunio et fletu.

In jejunio et fletu orabant sacerdotes: Parce, Domine, parce populo tuo, et ne des hereditatem tuam in perditionem. Inter vestibulum et altare plorabant sacerdotes, dicentes: Parce populo tuo.

(In fasting and weeping the priests prayed: Spare, O Lord, spare thy people, and give not thine inheritance to perdition. Between the porch and the altar the priests wept, saying: Spare thy people.)

If anything from this period could be seen in a Dickensian light, it would be the Byrd’s and Tallis’s Reformation era Latin works. Like Dickens’s prose, the counterpoint speaks fluently of depressing matters.

In the hardest working part of Coketown; in the innermost fortifications of that ugly citadel, where Nature was as strongly bricked out as killing airs and gases were bricked in; at the heart of the labyrinth of narrow courts upon courts, and close streets upon streets, which had come into existence piecemeal, every piece in a violent hurry for some one man’s purpose, and the whole an unnatural family, shouldering, and trampling, and pressing one another to death; in the last close nook of this great exhausted receiver, where the chimneys, for want of air to make a draught, were built in an immense variety of stunted and crooked shapes, as though every house put out a sign of the kind of people who might be expected to be born in it; among the multitude of Coketown, generically called ‘the Hands,’ — a race who would have found mere favour with some people, if Providence had seen fit to make them only hands, or, like the lower creatures of the seashore, only hands and stomachs.                                                                                  (Hard Times, Charles Dickens)

One gets enjoyment out of reading Dickens, as the landscape and environment are so equally detailed in their descriptions. The interaction between space and the lives of the characters in Hard Times keeps the reader wondering if there really is any way out of Coketown.

Like Dickens, Byrd has way of getting at a similar sort of dramatic claustrophobia. Byrd’s situation of Civitas Sancti in a major key is deceptive. If one listens to the harmonies alone, without text, one might hear tones of comfort or sentimentality. But the middle section, Sion deserta facta est, is in pure homophony, total stagnation.


And yet the counterpoint tells a different story. Throughout the course of the anthem, the thematic material takes a interesting journey.


Each of the themes contain elements of each other. “Jerusalem” and “Civitas Sancti” use the same melodic descending third. The first “desolata est” and “facta est deserta” share the same rhythm.


They both come together however, in the final thematic iteration of “desolata est,” containing the same melody of the opening theme with the rhythmic impetus of the second.



The piece has travelled and at the same time the music has not. Though time passes, the listener is in the same place as when the piece began. Desolation may entail some vague expectation of improvement, but it’s also a confrontation of that which is in front of you. Otherwise, it will just remain the same. There is no hope without the preceding hopelessness.

The Jerusalem declaration did not go unnoticed at either B’nai Jeshurun or Christ & Saint Stephen’s. How could it not? The historical importance of the city draws the eyes of the world week after week, year after year, though solutions seem far away. But both congregations were told that while Jerusalem is important, it’s but a preparation for that Jerusalem which is to come.

But that doesn’t negate certain realities. Whether you like it or not, the State of Israel has made Jerusalem its political capital, irrespective of Donald Trump’s symbolic act of recognition. The status quo remains the same. The silver lining of Trump’s actions is perhaps the fact that we are asking ourselves about what the alternatives really are to the last 50 years of American policy in the Middle East. What are we anticipating? Is Advent – or indeed, are our lives – spent in confrontation or expectation?


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Both my boyfriend and dog are long suffering and patient. They recently spent four days in the car with me. Rather than fly,  we had to drive to Tennessee and back so I could pick up a new instrument. We returned via Oberlin (because Richard hadn’t seen the campus yet) and State College (to visit a friend of Richard’s). Having made the drive a few times before, the familiarity of the terrain seemingly shortened the trip. Kentucky’ rolling hills morphed seamlessly into the bleak austerity of Ohio’s cornfields. A few miles north of Akron, the mountains began as we headed into Pennsylvania. They ended suddenly as we entered the suburban terrain of northern New Jersey.

But no scenery could save us from cabin fever. Our ears  too needed food. Podcasts from Serial and This American Life were interspersed with recordings on Richard’s iPhone. When Richard would take his took turn to drive, my time in the passenger’s seat would be spent periodically checking social media. Every day, the expanding list of public figures brought down from on high grew. While Harvey Weinstein was a recurrent figure, others seem to have gotten lost in the litany.

Since news of Kevin Spacey’s indiscretions, there’s been a certain silence about the manner in which he addressed the charges brought against him. In making a meaningless apology, he said he was gay, equating his impulse to molest children with his sexual attraction to members of the same sex. It’s gross, it’s unacceptable. But it’s not unheard of.

Somewhere in southern Ohio, an Elizabeth Schwarzkopf recording of Richard Strauss’ Morgen came came through the stereo. I admit that I recognized it only when words began.

Und morgen wird die Sonne wieder scheinen
und auf dem Wege, den ich gehen werde,
wird uns, die Glücklichen sie wieder einen
inmitten dieser sonnenatmenden Erde…
und zu dem Strand, dem weiten, wogenblauen,
werden wir still und langsam niedersteigen,
stumm werden wir uns in die Augen schauen,
und auf uns sinkt des Glückes stummes Schweigen…

It’s ironic that Morgen is most often sung by a woman. Knowing John Henry Mackay’s proclivities, the poet was more than likely addressing a member of the same sex.

But I’m unconvinced when I hear a man performing the work. We tend to like the similitude between the soprano and the violin – as if it’s a duet between two equal lovers. With a tenor, such would be missing. And yet I wonder if that’s the point. In reality, it’s the violin that has the melody: blissful, unaware, even naïve to the triplets or syncopations of the harp. The violin has long notes on the big beats of the bar, while the singer moves more quickly, pauses on offbeats, evokes are more complicated sensibility. The singer surreptitiously enters in the middle of a phrase with the first line of the poem, evoking timelessness or stagnation. The violin’s line isn’t allowed to finish, grow, mature. The violin is being sung to, even occluded. The violin is the object of the poet’s desire.

In Strauss’s own recording of Morgen with a tenor, the differential between the singer and the melody seems strange, even unsettling.

These days, John Henry Mackay is only seldom cited in the mainstream of pre-Stonewall gay history. Some German thinkers on gender and sexuality such as Magnus Hirschfield or Karl Heinrich Uhlrichs were brought back from the dead after the Third Reich, but in looking back it would seem that Mackay’s works were a welcome casualty. Mackay’s career was largely spent not defending homosexuality, or at least, not as we would think about it. John Henry Mackay’s career was spent promoting pederasty.

Under the pseudonym Sagitta, Mackay used pen and paper to compose erotic literature, but also to espouse theories of education which mandated sexual relations between adult men and boys. His identity was no secret, and his Books of Nameless Love were essential reading for those on the front lines of developments in theories of sexual variation and sexuality.

Upon meeting Mackay in 1892, Strauss was taken with Mackay’s personality. Strauss had a flair for the controversial and took a liking to Mackay’s early work Die Anarchisten, an anarchist work promoting the freedom of society from conventional economic and sexual mores. They met again at the premiere of Guntram in May, 1894 and within two weeks Strauss had composed Morgen. The poem was originally published in 1890 in Das Starke JahrMorgen was immediately hailed as the pinnacle of poetry. Paul Friedrich would go on to write that the poem represented the “apex of lyric poetry.” Ernst Kreowski thought it the most beautiful poem in the entire collection.

By all accounts, the relationship between Strauss and Mackay grew closer. In 1897, Mackay acted as mediator for Strauss, arranging for his first performance at the Berlin Volksbühne. Within a year of performing a concert there with his wife, Strauss was called to be the principal conductor of the Royal Court Opera at the Volksbühne, a position that would go on to determine the scale of his career. As a token of gratitude, Strauss and his wife devoted an entire evening concert at the Volksbühne to the poetry of Mackay in 1899. One witness wrote that “The poet himself kept back shyly, although the affair, with 2000 attending, was an enthusiastic manifestation for the poet, the musician, and the speaker.”

Morgen‘s perfection perhaps comes in the fact that the poem is ambiguous as to the sex of both subject and object. It’s not an uncommon device, and certainly not unfamiliar to Mackay. Much like Tadzio in Death in Venice, Mackay’s early epic poem Helene was modelled on a boy he knew. It’s worth noting that not all of Mackay’s poems were only addressed to men. Strauss’ setting of Verführung (Op. 33, no. 1) clearly identifies a female as the object of male seduction. But at its first performance in 1896, the singer was accused of immodesty because of it’s explicit references to female sexuality. Meanwhile, Morgen went on to enjoy a reputation as one of the most beloved love songs in the canon because of its allusive innocence. In drawing a veil over Mackay’s intent, Strauss ensured the poem’s timelessness, quietly returning the favor which Mackay lent in boosting Strauss’ career.

Like many histories, the history of sexual liberation is problematic. The history of gay art necessitates inclusion of Hellenistic desplays of sexual activity between uncomfortably young adolesents and men over twice their age. If I’m honest, Nabokov’s Lolita presented no shock to me when I first read it, for every work of art which goes into gratuitous detail about the sexuality of pre-pubescent girls, there are two or three similar books on boys of similar age. Max Klinger, Thomas Mann, Benjamin Britten, William Byrd, Franz Schubert – all created art which explicitly uses the pederastic trope to illustrate a transcendental form of love. Indeed, so close was the material to these men that it’s difficult to isolate these works from those who created them.

The expression of people’s shock about James Levine is worrisome, considering the long-standing joke that inviting Jimmy to dinner would necessitate the presence of a high-chair for his accompanying paramour. The Met may have been complicit. The stories are no longer just stories. What shocks me more is that as prevalent as the defense of pedophilia has been in music and the arts, people can be truly surprised that it can still happen, especially when people don’t ask questions when rumors arise and accusations are made. It’s in our books, it’s in our operas, and it’s in our favorite song by Strauss.

In looking back, it’s clear that Strauss knew about Mackay. There wasn’t anyone who didn’t know. While the publishers of Mackay’s works were prosecuted for obscenity in the 1910’s and 1920’s, Straus recorded Morgen twice, and both times with a man singing. We have no way of knowing how many boys were victimized by Mackay, but the silence around his books and around Morgen remains to this day. It’s important because Strauss used his position as a musician to promote Mackay, despite the opinions of many then and now that he was nothing more than a rich pedophile who could afford a cheap publisher. Whether you like it or not, Morgen is about pederasty, and we’ve done our damndest to sanitize it. To forget. To “unknow.”

A great musician’s influence can be powerful, as we’ve found out in recent days. Levine used his position as a musician, conductor and would-be mentor to prey upon children and rob them of their innocence. But it was his stature in the profession prevented further scrutiny. Peter Gelb, Beverly Sills, and a host of other beneficiaries of Levine’s conducting prowess have steadfastly ignored what has been openly known for 40 years or more.

Our anger will likely pass in the next year or so. We’ll learn to tune it out again, and allow ourselves to enjoy Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saëns, Britten and hosts of other historical composer-pederasts. We’ll start thinking of Lolita as a “challenging read” again. We’ll probably listen to Levine recordings before long, claiming that we’re listening to it because of the singers, not the conductor. But without fail, the rapture of Strauss’ Morgen will certainly remain in perpetuity.

The effing tax bill

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In recent days, I’ve been told over and over that higher education is about to be decimated and I’m going to start paying taxes out of my ass because I’m on a scholarship.

Full disclosure: like many of my ivory tower compatriots, I’m totally gaming the system. I don’t really “need” to be in school. But if you can get a loan, whose interest will be taken off your future tax return, then student debt is a matter of creative accounting. Thanks to Obamacare has meant that I as a student get suuuuuper cheap healthcare (with virtually no money out of pocket). Also, my school gets to say they’re charging me for one of the most expensive educations in America, when in fact have a merit-based scholarship (not a “waiver,” mind you). Indeed, people my age are nuts not to stay in school. You get to do what you want, dick around a bit, have someone else pay for it AND get a tax credit for “continuing your education”. (Indeed,, TurboTax was not a nightmare in January, when I used it for the first time. It was like going to a slot machine at a casino.) As I said, higher education right now, despite the price tag, is totally rigged. You’d be crazy NOT to be in school.

Let’s think even more specifically. There are about 300 organ majors in the USA and maybe 200 harp majors every year. There are perhaps 80 full time Episcopal organist positions at any one time in the USA. There are maybe 30 salaried orchestral harp positions in the USA (maybe half of those are full-time). GETTING MORE DEGREES IS A BAD IDEA – except for the fact that I’m (a) profiting off it financially (to a degree), (b) having a good time on someone else’s dime, and (c) playing the system until inflation catches with my student loans. Eventually, the interest will be high enough that I’ll never really have to pay tax, and the rate of student debt in the United States is such, that there’s 40% of debt waivers sometime in the next 20 years. (Did I also mention that if I work half-time at a non-profit for ten years after I finish school, that I get loan forgiveness? If I keep a steady church job with interest-based repayment, I will only owe 1/7 of my total debt, and basically no tax during that time.) You wanna talk about unfair tax break beneficiaries? Find your nearest grad student.

But apparently that’s all about to change, right?

Question for my fellow grad students: how many of you actually read the GOP tax bill with regards to your fee waivers/scholarships before getting worried and started wringing your hands? I didn’t, and when I did I realized I was being a bit of an idiot. The tax plan keeps provisions for scholarships in place, allowing for teaching assistantships to be reclassified as scholarships. This would shift some financial burdens onto institutions (but last I checked, the ridiculous endowments was something that all of were complaining about, no?). Regardless of how institutions choose to restructure, the House proposal goes a long way toward making most “non-wage compensation” taxable.

The result a somewhat chilling evening out what double standards we might hold in terms of what types of compensation (or consumption) and their definition as “income.” It’s not unrealistic to think about. We’ve been dumping money into universities, and ditching trade schools or alternative forms of education. We’ve spent a long time evening the playing field by prizing liberal education over practical education (this is not surprising, considering most elite educated democrats – myself included – like the idea of philosopher kingdoms/intelligentsia vanguard/what have you).

In roaming some stats, it seems that spending on higher education has increased 238% in real terms since 1970. Enrollment? Roughly half that rate at 138%. And yet, tuition and fees at public and private universities have increased at twice the rate of inflation since 1980. (Need I also mention that student loan debt now exceeds 1.3 trillion annually?) It seems to me that the system in place has allowed colleges and universities to colleges to raise tuition profligately with little consequence to their enrollment counts. Maybe it’s a philosophical qualm of mine, but why is it that a commodity that supposedly propels students in the middle class (although, I encourage anyone to check the latest stats of the number of adjunct teachers on public assistance!) supposed to be tax free? Why is an expensive elite education more worthy than a cheaper one?

It seems we’re caught once again in the middle ground of deciding whether education should indeed be thought of as a commodity. Higher education is not going to grind to a halt, but the restructuring of the matter of how things are paid for is only going to continue the “robbing Peter to pay Paul” dance between schools, financial aid and increasing economic stagnation in academia.It seems for a long time, the institutions we uphold have been profiting off the same policies which its academics have spent years railing against. Schools will start having to use their endowments soon. Tenure may well become a thing of the past. But it will be a long, long time before that happens.

I think the GOP tax bill is a largely hateful document. Many of the provisions aren’t bananas – they’re just fucking mean. But I’ll be curious to see if any soul searching starts going on among us progressives about whether we are as committed to a education as democratic enterprise as we say we are. I’m able to get all these benefits from these institutions because I had a HUGE leg up to get there. I’m afraid I am a living example of money being dumped into a class of artsy elites who’ve had access to it for a long time, demanding my life as an artist be supported while our public schools can’t provide ANY arts education (much less ensure consistent graduation rates and levels of functional literacy). The system as it stands is not just upholding “elitism” as the GOP tells us, but arguably various systemic economic organs that favor students on the basis of gender, race, geography and household income.

I would be hopeful, normally. But my frank disgust about academia’s self serving attitude are about equal with my hatred for the GOP. Tax bill or no, things will likely stay the same for academics. We don’t need to kill the tax bill. We need to rethink education in America.