Hitchcock and Poulenc

Irrelevant Reviews
#8
Rope (1948)

At the suggestion of a friend, I returned to Hitchcock’s Rope and was shocked yet again by the outlandish flaunting of homosexuality in a film produced in 1948. The plot is not complicated: two WASPy aesthetes kill one of their old prep school classmates (David) and hide him in a trunk. A dinner party ensues, whereby one of the murderers (Philip) is racked by guilt while the other (Brandon) is hoping to get caught by another former classmate, played by James Stewart. Brandon proudly flaunts the rope used to kill David and placed candelabras and linen on the trunk where the body is hidden, while Philip (a professional musician) turns to the piano several times as a means of concealing his guilt or creating a distraction.

The murder serves as a metaphor for sexuality, as Philip and Brandon go through the pageantry of diverting attention to grant friends and neighbors the benefit of a doubt that the evening’s entertainment is just a simple dinner party: curtains are drawn to hide moments of intimacy (such as the murder itself), affairs with women are discussed (though the women are not seen), and despite the being filmed in a large Manhattan apartment, a bedroom is never in view, as the drama only ensues in the dining room, living room and foyer. There is subterfuge, but no ambiguity. Hitchcock’s self-appointed mission to make a film about “it” (i.e. homosexuality) is blatant and obvious, as Hitchcock even went so far as to make sure that both actors were gay, as to ensure a saucy dynamic on screen.

While the cat and mouse game is fun, I found the diegetic use of the piano to be utterly fascinating. Each time Philip is racked by guilt at the sight of the rope, he doesn’t sit down to play just any piece – he plays Poulenc’s Mouvement perpétuel no. 1, chosen by Hitchcock himself because of the constant rhythmic motive and strange harmonies which aptly mirror the machinations of a guilty conscience.

One performance in particular on the screen stands out, as James Stewart puts on the metronome as he interrogates the softer of the two murderers as he plays. Despite the metronome’s steadiness, he continues to rush and struggles to maintain his cool, lashing out that he can’t play along with the steady tick-tock used to expose a musician’s rhythmic flaws.

(It’s interesting to note that Francis Poulenc was also gay, and while living under Nazi rule in Paris used various codes to signify resistance to the occupation in his concerts: poems associated with the resistance were set to music, particularly those by Paul Éluard in Figure Humaine; songs such as “Vous n’aurez pas l’Alsace et la Lorraine” were hidden in works like Les Animaux modèles. He was a founder of the Front National (the musical wing, that is) which continued to maintain close ties with banned composers like Darius Milhaud and Paul Hindemith. Of course, while Mouvement perpétuel dates from much earlier in Poulenc’s career (being composed in 1918), it’s a fitting coincidence that his music should be used in a film bartering in themes of code, behavior and transgression.)

Overall, a great film, only 80 minutes long and an excellent visual (and musical) meditation on the stakes of concealment.


Wharton, Scorsese and Gounod

Irrelevant Reviews
#6
The Age of Innocence (1993)

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The lockdown has been long enough to prompt an existential crisis with regards to my televisual consumption. Yes, I’m 100% committed to finishing the entirety of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks with @amandavosburgh before we’re all allowed out again, but other than that, I feel as if I’m out of anything interesting to watch on my Netflix account. In an attempt to get the brain going a little more, I signed up for a Criterion Channel subscription, alternating edgy indie flicks with the daily Met Opera streams. Sunday was a double feature, undertaken after rereading Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, beginning with a viewing of Martin Scorsese’s adaptation before watching the Met Opera’s stream of Gounod’s Faust.

I was interested to see what Scorsese would get up to, as his films about New York aren’t usually known for things like elegance, precision, or subject matter relating to high culture, faux aristocracy, etc. Indeed, the 1993 New York Times review accused the director of taking an “anthropological” vantage point towards the story’s characters, implying that Wharton was writing for her friends, a select group of wealthy and conservative (and, by and large, male) cognoscenti. The review was right that Wharton’s audience might have been select, but the assessment of Scorsese’s cinematic realization is perhaps unfair, considering the film’s immaculate level of detail. At the film’s opening, we are introduced to New York’s high society as protagonist Newland Archer spends a typical night at the opera with production of Gounod’s Faust ¾though in Italian, reflective of an antiquated operatic convention which Wharton herself implied was peculiar to New York’s snobbery.

“She sang of course, “M’ama,” and not “il m’aime,” since an unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences. This seemed as natural to Newland Archer as all the other conventions on which his life was molded…” (Wharton, Age of Innocence, Chapter 1)

If you’re familiar with the story, it’s easy to see that these two sentences set the scene for the whole story. If not, a second recap: Wharton tells the story of a wealthy woman, Countess Olenska, who returns to America to seek a divorce from an abusive husband in Europe, much to the disapproval of high society. To complicate matters, her lawyer, Newland Archer, is in love with her despite being married to her cousin May. In the end, no real resolution is found, but rather a compromise to maintain appearances. The Countess returns to Europe, without a divorce. Newland and May remain married, despite the fact that his affections for the Countess were no secret. Much like the social mores by which Newland and the Countess must abide, it is not authenticity which is valued in society, but custom.

If anything, this is what’s missing from Scorsese’s adaptation. We can get an incredible visual sense of what the era was like in a way that’s much more vivid than a book. The costumes, sets, furniture, and even the china are all flawless. But the details that are sacrificed can only really be recovered in returning to the novel, to Faust, and to the history of opera in New York. We know there is a night at the opera, but we don’t know why. We can’t see or hear the alternative rendition of Gounod’s opera in French, nor can we see that it is Swedish soprano Christina Nilsson on stage.

From a certain vantage point, Wharton’s metaphor of New York’s operatic customs would be damning enough to paint a picture of a culture obsessed with imitating (and sanitizing) European customs. However, if we dig further into the details of Newland’s first night at the opera, we might find a more complex picture. There are so many details about operatic culture that perhaps Wharton is trying to ring certain bells in minds of the opera fans and haute-Manhattanites of her generation. At first, the evening’s events closely resemble the first matinée performance at the Metropolitan Opera on October 27th, 1883, which was itself a repeat performance of the opening night on October 22nd. Just as in The Age of Innocence, the role of Marguerite (the object of Faust’s desires) was sung by Christina Nilsson.

 On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was singing in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York. Though there was already talk of the erection, in remote metropolitan distances “above the Forties,” of a new Opera House which should compete in costliness and splendour with those of the great European capitals, the world of fashion was still content to reassemble every winter in the shabby red and gold boxes of the sociable old Academy. Conservatives cherished it for being small and inconvenient, and thus keeping out the “new people” whom New York was beginning to dread and yet be drawn to; and the sentimental clung to it for its historic associations, and the musical for its excellent acoustics, always so problematic a quality in halls built for the hearing of music.

 It was Madame Nilsson’s first appearance that winter, and what the daily press had already learned to describe as “an exceptionally brilliant audience” had gathered to hear her, transported through the slippery, snowy streets in private broughams, in the spacious family landau, or in the humbler but more convenient “Brown coupe.” (Wharton, Age of Innocence, Chapter 1)

Of course, Wharton wasn’t in New York in 1883, and according to her biography and letters, never witnessed Christina Nilsson sing Marguerite. We do know, however, that she loved Faust. One night at the Academy of Music in 1880 stands out in her letters. Her experience of mixing her own life and the subjects on the stage bears remarkable resemblance to that of Newland’s conflation of his betrothed with Marguerite. In reminiscing to her old governess about a performance in March 1880, she quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Ode to Beauty, writing:

I heard Faust sung on Friday night—at the Academy, and somehow you got mixed with the lyric rapture, and you were with me hearing it, and drinking your fill of those “Divine Ideas below / That always find us young / And always keep us so.” (March 27, 1880)

More curious is that Wharton describes an evening at the opera in which the role of Faust himself was sung by Victor Capoul, which only ever occurred once in New York. At the matinée on March 27th, 1883, the famed Italo Campanini, whose career had been built on Gounod’s Faust, had fallen ill and was replaced by Capoul.

“Faust” was repeated at the first matinée in the Metropolitan Opera-house yesterday. There was a large audience, the largest, in fact, that has assembled in the new building since the [inaugural] night. The performance of Gounod’s opera was, as might have been expected, smoother and in parts more effective than last Monday’s representation, and it was heard with much delight and many demonstrations of approval. Mme. Nilsson, being more familiar with the auditorium, sang at times with even more expression than on the previous occasion, and her impersonation of Margherita was notable for dramatic strength, as well as musical excellence. Signer Del Puente as Valentino and Signor Novara as Mephistopheles were both more satisfactory than before, while the place of Signor Campanini, who was unavoidably absent, was taken by M. Victor Capoul. (Review, New York Times, October 28, 1883)

“M’ama … non m’ama …” the prima donna sang, and “M’ama!”, with a final burst of love triumphant, as she pressed the dishevelled daisy to her lips and lifted her large eyes to the sophisticated countenance of the little brown Faust-Capoul, who was vainly trying, in a tight purple velvet doublet and plumed cap, to look as pure and true as his artless victim. (Wharton, Age of Innocence, Chapter 1)

Wharton perhaps competes for the accolade of “Opera Buff of the Century.” It’s apparent that her first chapter isn’t simply fictitious, but historical and auto-biographical at the same time. She describes her own sensations of a specific performance in history, which she never witnessed and set back in time from the 1880s into the 1870s. It’s possible that this is not a random collage, but a select montage of persons, places and events which mirror her characters.

Above all, The Age of Innocence tells the story of a woman constrained by society. The mysterious Countess Olenska also appears at the opera that night, to the dismay and disapproval of society. Recently arrived from Europe, she openly seeks to divorce her abusive husband and forge a new life in a city which she hopes would be free from the shackles of convention. Of course, as the novel progresses, she finds these conventions to be all the more rigid, noting of her American compatriots:

“But, do you know, they interest me more than the blind conformity to tradition—somebody else’s tradition—that I see among our own friends. It seems stupid to have discovered America only to make it into a copy of another country.” She smiled across the table. “Do you suppose Christopher Columbus would have taken all that trouble just to go to the Opera with the Selfridge Merrys?” (Wharton, Age of Innocence, Chapter 24)

But despite the icy reception from high society, the reality is that New York was not inimical to the arrival of newcomers or independent women. This was no truer than in the case of Swedish soprano Christina Nilsson, a soprano whose career took many years to gain traction in New York. Though beloved in Boston, and even more-so among her Nordic fans in the Midwest, Nilsson’s stage presence was known for a certain passivity and austerity, seen as unfitting for the romantic female characters of French opera, who ought to be engrossed in their male counterparts’ passions. This was partly due to her singing style, which was known for a certain iciness, but also to a bygone manifestation of American racism which regarded Scandinavians as a largely uneducated agrarian populace.

In the centre of this enchanted garden Madame Nilsson, in white cashmere slashed with pale blue satin, a reticule dangling from a blue girdle, and large yellow braids carefully disposed on each side of her muslin chemisette, listened with downcast eyes to M. Capoul’s impassioned wooing, and affected a guileless incomprehension of his designs whenever, by word or glance, he persuasively indicated the ground floor window of the neat brick villa projecting obliquely from the right wing “The darling!” thought Newland Archer, his glance flitting back to the young girl with the lilies-of-the-valley. “She doesn’t even guess what it’s all about.” And he contemplated her absorbed young face with a thrill of possessorship in which pride in his own masculine initiation was mingled with a tender reverence for her abysmal purity. (Wharton, Age of Innocence, Chapter 1)

But as time drew on, Nilsson soon became in demand, being invited repeatedly to perform Faust, including at the inaugural performance of new Metropolitan Opera House. Newcomers like Nilsson to the stage also mirrored the influx of a larger audience. No longer restricted to WASPS and visiting European aristocrats, the 1870s to 1880s saw an audience expansion across ethnographic lines with the maturation of the industrial revolution and the birth of a new middle class. Irish and Jewish immigrants once too poor to attend the opera (or excluded on the basis of ethnicity or religion) now had the means to do so. Such was the disdain for this operatic culture that on the opening night of the Met in 1883, it was apparent that many “typical” opera-goers (i.e. WASPs) were not present.

A NIGHT’S AMUSEMENTBOTH HOUSES CROWDED

Many surprises were in store last evening for that portion of fashionable and unfashionable New York society which had arranged for itself to go to the Metropolitan Opera House. Perhaps the first notable one was the disagreeable shock received by those who had thought to purchase the luxury cheaply.

These were absent when the curtain rose.

Next came the surprise (to many) of finding when the doors were opened, that although there were signs of haste here and there, everything visible was practically complete.

Next was a feeling of bewildered surprise at the unaccustomed paths to be trodden to go anywhere. And last was the enormous surprise that must necessarily have been kindled in the breast of Mr. Henry E. Abbey when the audience showed itself honestly cold in its criticism.

 THE AUDIENCE

The audience itself was a complete surprise. Not in proportions. It was certain that the house would be full. But those who were expected by the “habitués” of places of amusement in New York were not there, and those who were not expected were in full force.

“You see such a lot you don’t know, you know, and, you know, you don’t see the fellahs you know,” lisped one young man, whose attire was as faultless as his imported manner.

Yet, as no one outside of the few who had studied the matter knew exactly what to expect, the surprises were taken as a matter of course, and the praise and criticism freely uttered on all sides seemed entirely spontaneous. (Review, New York Times, October 23, 1883)

 The opera scene in The Age of Innocence does describe some Arcadian past, but it foretells the imminent changes about to beset New York.

The metaphors of the characters on stage become more apparent as the novel continues: May Wealand and Marguerite are fused, but the fate of Countess Olenska and Christina Nilsson are more closely tied, both women who managed to find their independence despite their disruption of social mores. As the novel continues, Newland Archer falls in love with the Countess Olenska as society watches silently. He thinks his affections are secret, but the dark reality is that everyone knows and refuses to say anything, preferring to manipulate the situation to remove the Countess from public view by returning her to her abusive husband in Europe. In this sense, Newland is like Capoul. The audience knows it ought to be Campanini on stage singing, and yet they abide Capoul (perhaps appearing in Campanini’s ill-fitting costume) and keep up the pretense that all is as it ought to be. Indeed on the opening night of the Met, the Times reported that Campanini and Nilsson “sang positively badly.” But five days later, despite issues with costumes, the same critic reported that Capoul and Nilsson’s performance was “smoother and in parts more effective than last Monday’s representation.”

Wharton herself was no stranger to the pretense of appearances when it came to love. Of the same period of the early 1880s from which Wharton’s operatic experiences are selected, Wharton would confide in her 1934 autobiography that:

“I inspired no romantic passions! It may be added that I felt none, & that the two or three young men who—in the natural course of things—honored me with their devotion, inspired me with no feelings but that of a friendly liking. I did not fall in love till I was twenty-one.”

This perhaps stands in contrast to the delight at having become engaged to Teddy Wharton in 1885, after a period of some emotional restlessness (after all, Wharton was careful not to name who it was she fell in love with when she was 21).

“If my present happiness had come to me at eighteen, I should probably have taken it as a matter of course, but coming to me after certain Experiences of which you know, it seems almost incredible that a man can be so devoted, so generous, so sweet-tempered & unselfish.”

What’s radical about this is not that Wharton liked opera, but that the experience of elation, transportation, and active participation as an audience member was vivid enough to inspire a novel forty years later. The Age of Innocence is an underappreciated novel in this regard, as it tells several different stories, or can at least be viewed several different ways. Like opera, the Age of Innocence contains personal, historical, and convivial elements which render a sort of universality despite dealing with highly specific subject matter. One does not have to be an opera snob to feel the emotional weight of the novel, nor does one have to know Wharton’s life story. But for those of us who do love opera, the novel is a reminder of the many benefits that a live performance can offer.

I ponder what Wharton would do with Met live streams today, having gone to great lengths to recreate a performance by Christina Nilsson that she herself never witnessed live, but only read about. Would it, like Scorsese’s adaptation, be a suitable and just compromise? For myself, I’ve certainly enjoyed the live streams, but I can’t wait for the return of live opera, where the size, emotional impact, and historical weight of a single work of art fuse into something personally meaningful for the listener. Wharton’s novel is but a glimpse into the totality of the operatic experience, reminding us that a night with Faust could prove to mean so much more down the like. When the lockdown lets up, what might a night at the opera hold in store for you, me, or any of us?

Direction: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Daniel Day Lewis, Winona Ryder, Michelle Pfeiffer
Cinematography: Michael Balhaus
Music: Elmer Bernstein


Visconti and Bruckner

Irrelevant Reviews
#5
Senso (1954)

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Luchino Visconti’s penchant for opulence was in the making long before the great trilogy of The Damned, Death in Venice and Ludwig II. Senso is a beautiful work of historical fiction, beautifully adapting Camillo Boito’s novel into a work of art.

As the Italian Wars of Unification set the scene, one can easily mistake the film as a work glorifying the forward march of democracy as expressed through nationalism and self-determination. After all, the film opens with a political demonstration at Teatro La Fenice, staged to interrupt a performance of Il Travatore at the very moment when Manrico has completed “Di quella pira” and calls his men to arms to save his mother. The occupying Austrian forces break up the performance and disperse the demonstrators, at which point a tale of forbidden love ensues between an aristocratic Venetian woman and an officer in the Austrian Imperial Army.

It is from here however that Nino Rota’s score followed a peculiar directive from Visconti. Instead of Verdi, the audience hears only excerpts from Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony (with the occasional folk song from an Austrian officer or two sung on screen). Of course while Bruckner’s music needs no explanation or defense these days, once his music was under-appreciated once upon a time. Furtwängler wrote that prior to 1939, his own attempts to promote Bruckner’s music were seldom greeted with warmth and that (sadly) it was the Third Reich’s project of musical imperialism that saw a large scale revival of his symphonies, primarily in countries where the Nazis were occupying.

Everything in the film contains codes about the Second World War. The turning point of the film comes when protagonist Livia learns that Garibaldi has taken the town of Saló, the same town where Hitler established a puppet republic in 1943, after Victor Emmanuel III and the Italians switched sides and attempted to depose Mussolini. The backdrop of Venice is no coincidence either, as Mussolini and Hitler both agreed that Venice ought not to belong to Italy, but enter into loose confederation directly with the Reich.

When we think of Anschluss, we think Austria, 1938. But Visconti’s film points to cultural Anschluss that befell parts of Italy, as it did with Bruckner and other vestiges of Europe’s past. The Reich was known for absorbing that which was useful in order to promote its political viability. That said, one need not think too hard when Visconti’s film. For just as there is anti-Nazi sentiment in the metaphors of Saló and the liberation gradual liberation of Italy after 1943 by Allied forces, the movie is deafeningly silent on what came before. As with The Sound of Music, it’s perhaps too easy to believe claims of victimization by the Third Reich, when the history of fascism in Europe is far more widespread. After all, the political problems surrounding Hitler, Mussolini, Venice and Saló did not really touch on the political values of fascism and the redemptive qualities of violence, but rather if those values ought to come from the Italian people or from German directives. Senso is a gentle reminder that historical fiction can easily rely on fictive histories.

Direction: Luchino Visconti
Music: Anton Bruckner from Symphony No. 7, adapted by Nino Rota
Cinematography: G.R. Aldo
Starring: Alida Valli, Farley Granger


Rivette and Couperin

Irrelevant Reviews
#3
La Religieuse (1966)
(Or Lace, Lesbians & Leçons de ténèbres: A Sequence of Unfortunate Events.)

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In a bleak adaptation of Diderot’s novel completed in 1780, a family from the petty aristocracy dooms their daughter Suzanne to a life in the church to which she openly does not consent. She’s apparently drugged before taking her vows (which she later does not remember), and her first convent is run by a sadistic Mother Superior who is bent on crushing Suzanne through starvation and psychological torture. A lawyer intervenes, and Suzanne is transferred to another (less strict) convent, only to the sexual obsession of the abbess. Another rescue attempt by a priest turns into yet another nightmare as he attempts to rape her. She escapes, but is unable to support herself except through work as a prostitute, leading her to throw herself off a balcony at the very end of the film. (This flick is no way, shape or form, an uplifting watch.)

Musically, it’s interesting to hear how conscious Rivette’s team was of historical specificity with regards to 18th Century French music (especially for a film made in 1966). One can hear the famous “Jod” sequence from Couperin’s Troisieme leçon de ténèbre as Suzanne describes Holy Week celebrations, and the passage of time in various abbess’s chambers include the playing the spinet, where we hear two nuns playing Rameau’s Le rappel des oiseaux.

Direction: Jacques Rivette
Music: Jean-Claude Éloy
Starring: Anna Karina, Liselotte Pulver


On Tuning: A Brief Playlist

It’s a strange sensation to be in New York while technically being on tour. My pedal harp sits in Cleveland, my clothes remain in suitcases in Washington Heights (as I’ll be heading back to Ohio in 48 hours) and I think my organ shoes are in my office(?) so I can play for church on Sunday. For now, I’ve an enforced Sabbath of sorts, in which I finally have time to sit down and write, this time “from the road.”

Without being trite, the sensation of touring – that is, the necessitation of consistent performance combined with absence of routine or normative expectations – is not terribly dissimilar to the processes of getting out of one’s comfort zone with an instrument. Sure it can be tough, but you get to travel, meet musicians you wouldn’t otherwise meet, and get out the grind of the day-to-day music making at home.

I’ll cease being vague.

The last week with Apollo’s Fire has been a somewhat Sisyphean journey with tuning, a I’ve a small harp equipped with a single row of strings, no levers or pedals, and a task of playing everything from Sephardic songs to Monteverdi continuo, from Armenian love songs to Arabic longas, all in the same concert. Of course, there are occasional breaks to retune, but at certain points, the harp is required to play in g minor and e minor in the same set, back to back. On stage, lutenists Billy Simms and Brian Kay are seamlessly switching between ouds, theorbos, guitars and lutes at will, soprano Amanda Powell sings in Hebrew, Arabic and Ladinio from scores written in IPA, and Zafer Tawil seems wields a microtonal qanun, kaleidoscopically spinning song to song, flipping gears with his left hand to add other-worldly colors to the ensemble.

At improvisational junctures, recorder player Daphna Mor picks up a ney and starts discussing how she will move from point A to point B using modes in the Arabic maqam, the system which divides the octave into 24 notes, while adhering to a scheme of septatonic modality.

I would be lying if I didn’t say that I didn’t feel rather sheltered and out of my depth. Surrounded by musicians with truly incredible fluency and flexibility, I realized I’d been placing my harp in a box – that is, a box of Western tuning schemes. Harmonic minor scales, duly memorized as a child for ABRSM exams, only seemed to go so far, didn’t match the level of flexibility or expression achieved by my colleagues. In listening to Zafer and Daphna sing and play, I got a rudimentary sense of the overlap between different modes, but I really needed to learn more. Asking Zafer what I should do, he told me to use my ears and go listen to some Umm Kulthum. “If you listen to one of her songs, you’ll hear all the modes you’ll need.”

Sitting at home after the first rehearsal at 11pm, I felt at my most peak hipster, putting on my headphones and turning finding an 1950s Arabic music playlist on iTunes. Pen and paper in hand, I tried charting the tetrachords used in Kulthum’s 45 minute meta-songs, seeing how they related using nothing but intuition. The next morning, sat back with the harp, tuning key in hand, I started to divide minor thirds in half, so as to give me an “inbetween” note for F and F-sharp, as well as for B and B-flat. Later, with some experimentation with tetrachords, I was able to tune one part of the rehearsal in Saba (صبا) and another in Rast (راست) so to having something consistent and plausible.

The result was not only functional, but colorful and expressive. My instrument now blended with others on stage, and no longer stuck out. Of course, I should not have been surprised. Alternate tunings are part and parcel of what many baroque musicians do, day in and day out. Biber’s Rosary Sonatas require retuning of the open strings of the violin, so as to access harmonies and voicings that would otherwise be impossible.

Of course this is nothing new or outlandish for guitarists, as seen in Joni Mitchell’s famous open tunings (of which she devised somewhere between 60 and 80!).

I’ll spare the readers an essay on the history of temperament and tuning in Western Music, as plenty of musicians have written relatively digestibly on the matter. What I will say is that again and again, in confronting baroque music and non-Western music, I realize how engrained my sensibilities are to accept a Steinway’s tuning as patient zero for the harmonic expression in Western Music. This is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, if one is sticking to the canon of Romantic and Twentieth Century music, but I wonder to what extent harpists are hindered by accepting their instruments for what they appear to be at first, and not what they could be with a little insight and curiosity. Especially here in the United States, hashtags like #practicalharpist seem to flood the social media profiles of my colleagues, who endlessly promote harp hacks and means of making the profession easier or more approachable for the player, rather than more meaningful for listeners or the musicians playing alongside them.

I understand the impulse, truly. No harpist needs me to remind them that the harp is an awkward and misunderstood instrument. But what if we’re thinking about practicality the wrong way, simply finding shortcuts so we can efficiently adhere to a narrow vision of the harp which fulfills some normative or conservative expectations, but which has not fundamentally progressed in 40 or 50 years. This is an aesthetic hindrance, for sure, but also an economic one: we supposedly relish our nation as one of immigrants, and yet much of the music we make and seek out fails to embrace those elements (such as tuning) which distinguish musical traditions and disciplines from each other, and which are on the rise as non-Western commercial music industries continue to grow in the USA.

Harpists across the USA continue to struggle to make ends meet as the symphonic orchestra as an institution continually faces an identity crisis, but the act of taking on popular musical genres, historical performance and non-Western music – that is, music which by necessity lacks elements of strict prescription – somehow relegate a harpist to the rank of sell-out, untalented, or “insincere.” How much more employment opportunities might there be if conservatories expanded the scope of musical skills at the harp bench, if harp dealers took affirmative stances with a wider variety of harps, and if promoters embraced the sea of change in urban centers. While changes are on the horizon, I fear a landscape in which the harp will once again be left behind, continually relegated to a role as a pretty but impractical instrument. But what could be more practical than getting our instrument to test some boundaries and expand its utility and beauty at the same time?

 


Shanghai, Day 1: Schmelzer

Utter helplessness sets in when one is faced with the inability to read or verbally communicate. While Western expat cafes along Yongkang Road are all staffed by helpful and friendly Anglophones, upon stepping out, my attempts to order food are reduced to pointing, smiling and confessing on no uncertain terms that I am in this situations, totally ignorant. Indeed after one day in Shanghai, I’ve learned to recognize precisely four characters in Chinese (I think): I can read now read prices in yuan (元), and can identify chicken (鸡), fish (鱼) and tea (茶) on a menu. (Next step, road signs and/or directions to the metro.)

In talking with other members of the Shanghai Camerata, I learned that Chinese takes an exceedingly long time to learn, simply due to the fact that the innumerable characters take years to memorize. And even then, once they are memorized, linking them with appropriate context and using them to express ideas from another language takes even more time and experience. Diligence is necessary, of course, but also patience and openness to the potential for error.

The sense of unfamiliarity with a new language is a relatively common phenomenon when delving into new genres of music either. While one can perhaps enjoy the aesthetic sensation when listening, the act of performance can demand memorization of different modes of communication. One learns harmonic conventions, rhythmic grooves and the overall rhetoric which takes lumps of sonic material and turns it into music.

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British novelist Leslie Poles Hartley began his 1953 novel The Go-Between with the famed words “the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” In this intricate tale of an adolescent’s attempts to navigate the significations and affectations of the upper class, the moral of the tale is that one’s sincerity to connect with fellow humans is only as their ability to communicate and listen. By the end of the tale, the book’s protagonist has been through so many failures of communication that he is unable to process any information except facts alone, effectively isolating him from ever forming deep relationships.

Isolation and communication can be problems in Baroque music, as performers are confronted with rows and rows of notes in succession with few complimentary symbols or directions indicating volume or speed. And yet, we know this music ought to be interpreted somehow, as it’s unlikely that a work of music is devoid of either of internal logic or interpretive license. As such, in the historical performance, there’s an element of translation that has to take place, looking at groups of notes on a page to find out what their grammatical meaning might be.

Fortunately for us, some musicians of the past not only wrote their ideas down but compiled them into dictionaries and other lexicographical volumes. For instance, one can easily learn from Johann Gottfried Walther’s Musikalisches Lexicon that rhythmic repetition (anaphora) serves to explicate, demonstrate or augment the meaning of an idea.

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The anaphora (from αναφέρωoccurs when a phrase is frequently repeated in a composition for greater emphasis. (Musikalisches Lexicon, 1732)

Johan Adolph Scheibe, another eminent musical lexicographer and composer when even further.

It is important that repetition not be ignored, but differentiated at every opportunity through well devised neighboring or intervening passages. (Critischer Musicus, 1737-1740).

But other figures and symbols are more ambiguous. In Schmelzer’s Sonata Quarta for Violin and Continuo, violinist Ruiqi Ren and I came across a brief section dominated bombus, which occurs when a note is repeated four times in a row in relatively quick succession.

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At first such a figure would appear to carry some militaristic or showy affekt. But Walther says something sheds light on the way a figure or a phrase might change over time:

The bombus formerly signified an artful movement of the hands which resulted in beelike humming. Nowadays, the figure merely indicates nothing more than a trillo. (Musikalisches Lexicon)

From here, one can set off on any number of roads of inquiry. One might start by asking how it was that bees were perceived in Walther’s time a place. Was the sound of a swarm of bees something irritating? Ominous? Soothing? Or is it perhaps based in one’s own perception of what a bee represents?

Past a certain point, one can fail to differentiate forests from trees (or indeed the metaphysics of a bee’s existence from four bars in a short piece of music). But in learning any new language, one learns to determine context after learning snippets of vocabulary. Why should we assume that a bombus ought to be aggressive, when we can learn that the opposite might be the case? It’s the act of questioning and trying things out that help internalize a new language.

As I’ve learned in the last few days, it is of course not enough to learn single words but to take a look what’s around it. My first meal in Shanghai, I ordered a dish with fish (鱼) but failed to look at the character beforehand (鲶). I ended up ordering catfish (鲶鱼, which I generally despise) but which is not uncommon in Cantonese cuisine (and yes, I ended up at a Cantonese restaurant my first night in Shanghai without realizing it). But such is the nature of trial and error. Whether it’s food, language or music, one need not be scared to try something new.

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Strauss

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.

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=HzS64DPX0-Q


Miami, 1972 – Nashville, 1966

Though social media algorithms don’t always give an accurate gauge of the political climate, I can say for certain that a lot of people got bent out of shape last week. Melania Trump. Wow.  That said, it’s entirely possible more hardcore Democrats than Republicans actually heard Melania’s speech in real time. According to more than one news … Read more Miami, 1972 – Nashville, 1966