Beyond Hominids and Star Children: Strauss at 150

June 11, 2014 Leave a comment


Everyone has probably heard at least one piece by German composer Richard Strauss, born on this date in 1864. In fact, it is likely the same one. A progression of three notes that culminate in a suspenseful chord that remains unresolved, followed by a rhythmic thumping on the kettledrums. A similar theme appears again, and a third time, now evoking a sense of the sublime in a new theme. A ritual somehow sacred and profane, a worship of the sun, a feeling of the power of the universe.

Read more…

Categories: Uncategorized

Haunted by Poe: A 13 Year Tribute (Part II)

October 30, 2013 Leave a comment

For the first part of this posting, visit here.

My decision to listen to singer/songwriter Poe’s album Haunted (2000) after a rather long hiatus happened a few Fridays ago, following a conversation I had with someone at a coffee shop. We focused on music, politics, and the ways in which the two of them can intertwine. Somehow, I brought up Haunted, focusing on how Poe’s career became stalled for many years on account of some truly twisted legal b.s., precipitated by the merger of Atlantic Records (with whom Poe had a contract) with AOL Time Warner in 2001.

On the way home, while listening to some of the more high-octane sections of Richard Strauss’ orchestral piece Ein Heldenleben (“A Hero’s Life”), I stopped it suddenly and decided to switch to the title track of Haunted instead. This was due in part to the coffee shop conversation, as well as the desire for something that still sounded as thrilling as I find Heldenleben, but somehow not as overpowering. And, with autumn finally arriving in its brisk and colourful glory, with leaves falling on yards and roads and houses, the atmosphere seemed just right. Read more…

“Haunted” by Poe: A 13 Year Tribute (Part I)

October 25, 2013 1 comment

Music recordings from practically any genre have a history, whether broad, personal, or both. Many accounts about recordings read as fairly straightforward stories, with myths that end up forming around them, whether for individual songs or entire albums.

Some recordings are even more deeply embedded within their historical contexts, whether it’s Bruno Walter’s performance of Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic, just before the Nazi Anschluss in 1938; Leonard Bernstein leading members of multiple orchestras in a relatively better-known Ninth Symphony, performed in Berlin with the fall of the infamous Wall in 1989; or U2 recording Achtung Baby just a year later in the same city, in some ways trying to articulate something about the then-current geopolitical situation, with decades of entrenched Cold War paranoia and posturing rapidly falling with Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe.

Of course, personal histories can go into albums as well. The Achtung Baby example also illustrates such a possibility, with U2 on the verge of breaking up during its creation, and emerging with a new sound and renewed strength to continue to the present day. Listeners might read even more personal individual histories into such recordings, depending on their contextual knowledge. For whatever reason, I do this with Bernstein’s recording of the final scene from Richard Strauss’ opera Salome, committed to disc with the Orchestre National de France and singer Montserrat Caballé in 1977.

Caballé herself is at her peak… one of the finest Salome performers, in my opinion. However, especially considering that “Bernstein does Salome” seems like a very promising listening prospect (and an object of obsessive searching in pre-Internet days, when I first heard about its existence), the result ends up sounding lackadaisical, with a sense of forced drama. I remember feeling disappointed upon hearing it the first time, expecting something akin to Bernstein’s more truly thrilling accounts of other works (as can be found in many of his Mahler recordings). But what also came to mind was the fact that Bernstein recorded this during a period of serious personal turmoil, which somehow seems to manifest itself on the recording; he wasn’t at his peak here, although the performances of five Strauss Lieder were up to Bernstein standard. Of course, my detection of such a residual personal history assumes that Bernstein somehow “embodies” the recording, or even the music, admittedly a risk considering all the people who also contributed to it (with Strauss as the original musical creator, and Oscar Wilde having providing the inspirational text).

With smaller groups of musicians, or even single ones, identifying embodied personal and historical contexts can seem much easier. Based on my engagement with it, such a tendency feels quite palpable on the album Haunted (2000), self-produced and assembled on a Macintosh 9600 by singer / songwriter Poe (née Anne Danielewski, with various sources giving 1967 or 1968 as her birth year ), and released on the very apt date of 31 October. And yet, befitting the album’s title and release date, identifying an easily graspable “essence” somehow seems elusive, too… almost like an entity we think we can see, but that manages to evaporate before we can say to ourselves, without a reasonable doubt, that we did indeed see or hear something discernible and real.

Haunted acts as a complement to the book House of Leaves (which, admittedly, I’ve yet to read), written by Poe’s brother Mark (1966 – ). Poe also makes the album a tribute to their father Tadeusz Danielewski (1921-1993), a renowned theatre director; a filmmaker; and an acting teacher whose students included such names as James Earl Jones, Martin Sheen, and Sigourney Weaver.

Some of the top search results on Google for the elder Danielewski include a Wikipedia article, an entry from Internet Movie Database (IMDB), and some obituaries in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times from around the time of his passing. Another interesting one is from a forum on the family website for a Huntington family, which has a photograph of Danielewski pointing his finger while directing something. As the forum posting states:

The gesture in this photograph fills me with nostalgia and affection. I have had that finger pointed at me in exactly that manner at some of the most meaningful, educational moments of my life as an artist.

One can gather from the photograph alone that Danielewski possessed a high level of intensity. By all accounts, it carried over into his homelife, including the way he related to his children. A 2001 Chicago Tribune joint interview with Poe and Mark describes the transient nature of their youth, given Danielewski’s keen interest in traveling the world to make his films and the financial instability that would result. Also mentioned is the toll taken on them (and, perhaps as well, determination instilled in them) by his high intellectual and artistic leanings. As Poe states:

My father was this extremely compelling artist-guy… Everything mundane was made epic by him. Could Mark have written this book without growing up with that guy? Absolutely not. He’d play us [Ingmar] Bergman films when we were 8 or 9, telling us, `Everything falls apart.’ Entropy — that was a big word for him — entropy. `Everything must rot,’ he’d say. `Trees rot, stars rot.’

Haunted likely wouldn’t have emerged without her father’s influence, either, whether intellectually or emotionally. A quote attributed to her on IMDB underscores the deleterious effect it could have as well:

I’d often find my dad’s voice echoing in my brain, paralyzing me while working. If you’re not careful, those critical voices can cut you off from doing anything.

For Haunted, the result is a meditation that centres on this complicated relationship, running the gamut of strong emotions that one could read as anger, defiance, acceptance, understanding, and love. Or, as Poe states in the joint interview with her brother, “youthful anger, if you allow it to be voiced, will mutate into a kind of respect and sadness.” This seems quite clear in the arc between the taunting “Not a Virgin” mid-album, and the almost ethereal melancholy of “If You Were Here” at the album’s conclusion (depending on which version one has; another concludes with a reprise of the seductive “Hey Pretty”).

Some of the songs have an ambiguous air. Whom exactly is Poe addressing? Her father? Other people in her life? Or, given the almost spectral nature of the album’s title and overall atmosphere, does Poe leave it deliberately vague? Whatever the case, Poe’s father himself contributes to the album as well, providing oblique or purportedly direct commentary on the songs and the ideas they express.

A few years after Danielewski’s passing, Poe and her brother found cassettes with some of their father’s musings on various topics. Excerpts from them ended up on Haunted, usually between songs or occasionally embedded within them. It’s interesting to note that, when the ability to record sound emerged near the end of the death-obsessed Victorian Era, one likely had the impression of hearing disembodied voices, almost akin to spirits. In the case of Haunted, which appeared around the end of the century that followed, someone who has passed appears every so often alongside the living Poe. This trait lends an already ghostly album an even greater degree of hauntedness. Danielewski’s influence and impact on his daughter is so great that Haunted requires his actual presence, and an apparently serendipitous discovery allowed this to happen.

My own serendipitous discovery of this album happened when my former spouse and I got together over 10 years ago, and she wanted to play it for me. I remember feeling impressed by it, as it sounded like no “rock” album (for want of a better shorthand phrase) I had heard before. No album is perfect, of course, but this was way up there for me overall; a tour de force in terms of scope, ambition, range of emotion, and quite possibly personal musical resonances tying with my “classical and opera” sensibilities. Interestingly, on a Ning page for Poe, one of the first things mentioned is the appreciation both Poe and her brother developed for music as a “universal language.”

I learned at a very young age that every one speaks a different language. Even if two people are both speaking English, their personal and cultural histories come into play—and not always amicably. Music, as a means of communication, can provide a way of transcending those differences.

Whether one thinks in that manner, or in a slightly different way with musics of the world potentially sharing some kind of universal grammar, it’s interesting how this notion of “universality” appears so early on in the text of Poe’s Ning page. Indeed, the number of musical genres attributed to Haunted indicates some degree of convergence among different genres. Wikipedia’s webpage for the album lists alternative rock, electronica, pop rock, and experimental rock. The page for Poe herself also includes trip hop, hard rock, and R&B. I suppose some might detect other influences. Of course, the page for Poe lists a riot of possible genres, including (given where her father came from) “Polish hip-hop.”

As mentioned before, while I’ve found nothing that refers specifically to “classical” influences on Poe, I can detect some vague affinities with such a “sound” as well. They’re admittedly subjective, and I run the risk of being completely wrong about them, as they seem to tie in with my own musical obsessions. And yet, I somehow know the connections are there, becoming clearer to me as I decided to revisit the album through headphones and more careful listening (which included pulling the headphone jack out slightly to pick up additional nuances). The second posting will go into further analysis of such affinities, attempting to delve deeper into the album’s delights and dangers. Tying in with this posting’s initial notion of recordings’ personal and historical contexts, the second one will also explore the album’s sublime aspects; how they make us contemplate the nature and complexity of our most important relationships, and how can they tie in with broader historical contexts, even stretching back many years and generations.

Active vs. Passive Media: The False Dichotomy

October 12, 2013 Leave a comment

Author’s note: Published a month after Virtual Environments and Opera, this posting originally appeared on tl;dr (13 March 2012), a now-defunct blog that focused on videogames and information. Currently in its place is some generic webpage advertising various things. While it would’ve been nice to know from the administrators that they were no longer hosting the site, especially since it has been on my curriculum vitae, I had the foresight to save the text, and to bring it back for those who might be curious about this particular topic. Regular readers of this blog might notice a slightly different style of writing, as I probably would have made this at least twice as long on here, and would have gone into greater detail about musical similarities.

In the comments section of my previous posting [Virtual Environments and Opera on tl;dr, (not the one on this blog)], I went on a tirade about “active” vs. “passive” media. I won’t pontificate on media theorist Marshall McLuhan, but I will consider some possible reasons why this split remains a useful rhetorical tool for people who advocate the virtues of specific formats.

You’ve probably heard advocates of reading describe how television, videogames, and other visual media are passive because they’re “preprocessed” (like fast food and TV dinners). Books, on the other hand, force you to translate text into the five senses, and are therefore more nourishing (like organic vegetables, but only if they’re locally grown and in-season). These are the people who proudly proclaim that they haven’t watched television since 1972.

Steve Johnson’s pro-popular culture book Everything Bad Is Good for You, whose title derives from ironic observations made in the Woody Allen films Annie Hall and Sleeper, makes the opposite claim. Books are actually a passive medium, because the author generally tells you “what to do.” On the other hand, among other things, videogames enable you to create your own story and to develop such abilities as hand-eye coordination.

So, if books are a more active medium than videogames, except when videogames are a more active medium than books, where does that leave us? Definitions of “activity” and “passivity” are little more than moving targets. Nonetheless, advocates of the former can resort to tortuous arguments to “prove” a specific point, while sidestepping the differences in quality that exist within all media. Text materials may have traditionally held a venerated status, but I’m sure we can all think of television shows and videogames that are more substantive than certain books [about sparkly vampires].

[And now, for a tangentially relevant history and theatre lesson, along with bathroom humour, a most excellent clip from Wayne’s World, and musical references that tie together SWTOR (Star Wars: The Old Republic) and Blazing Saddles…]

For nearly a century, certain interests have hyped up the differences between audience activity and passivity. Some visual artists and playwrights have focused on fostering “active” audience engagement with their works, with the stated goal of bringing about political change. They set their works in opposition to those that, at least for them, aid in maintaining the status quo by ignoring harsh social realities. The latter may range from novels and films about sparkly vampires to “masterworks” of art, all of which are “passively” appreciated or (to get Marxist here) consumed as commodities.

One could trace these concerns at least as far back as World War I (1914-1918). For the first time in history, mechanized death obliterated millions of young men. After the war, economic sanctions imposed on a defeated Germany set the stage for the eventual rise of a Mephistophelian monster who promised to restore that country’s pride. With the so-called civilized world in shambles, as well as the recent victory of “the workers” in formerly Tsarist Russia, the time seemed ripe to question “bourgeois capitalist” values. One such value was the elevated status of “art for art’s sake,” which holds that great art rises above everyday concerns. To counter that ideal, the Dadaists used absurdism to confront viewers with the futility of simply appreciating art in a world gone mad. Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) is one of the most iconic examples.

Of more specific importance to this posting is the emergence of politically-committed theatre in the period after World War I. Although actors and spectators share the same space, they inhabit two separate realms: the auditorium and the stage. Some playwrights, including the German Marxist Bertolt Brecht, attempted to bridge that gap by taking advantage of live theatre’s relative intimacy. Brecht expressed the belief that it had the potential to dissolve the boundary between actors and spectators, and spur collective political activity. Brecht’s plays draw upon a number of techniques that fall under the broad term alienation, designed to remind spectators that they’re only watching a play [that makes an “important point”]. It’s supposed to prevent them from investing too much emotionally in the characters, usually the dregs of society in Brecht, and to pay more attention to the socio-political implications of the play. One of the best-known alienating techniques is “breaking the fourth wall,” where a character directly addresses the audience. Although they don’t possess the same readily-apparent political agenda as Brecht, the Annie Hall clip near the beginning of this posting and at least one scene from Wayne’s World are examples.

Ironically, it’s hard to escape the sense that live political theatre invests some of its potential transformative power in the notion of spectator passivity; it’s supposed to make you active… in a manner that conforms to the intentions of the author. Furthermore, like educational games whose developers forget elements like “fun” and “enjoyment,” politically-committed works can do too well with alienating their audiences through didactic heavy-handedness. Luckily for Brecht, he at least possessed a sardonic wit, and had composer Kurt Weill along to write delightfully dissolute songs for some of his plays. Similar songs include certain tunes heard in the Imperial cantinas of SWTOR, as well as Lili von Shtup’s I’m Tired in Blazing Saddles. (No stranger to Brecht himself, Mel Brooks even mentions the influence.) Weill himself shouldn’t be too obscure, though: for Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, he wrote the oft-covered Mackie Messer.

With so much at stake, is it any wonder that serious advocates of active media can have an unshakeable faith in its fine distinction from passive media? More recently, however, French philosopher Jacques Rancière has questioned such received wisdom. “The Emancipated Spectator,” based on a talk given by Rancière in 2004, addresses the agenda-based usage of the terms under discussion. His questions about the distinction, which focuses specifically on actors and spectators in live theatre, are relevant to any medium. As he asks at one point, “What is more interactive, more communitarian, about [live theatre] spectators than a mass of individuals watching the same television show at the same hour?” (Rancière 2011, p. 16)

Questioning the active/passive actor/spectator dichotomy is very relevant here. In fact, what Rancière says about television shows could extend to MMO games. You participate in the action in real time, albeit from a safe distance via your avatar. On the other hand, gamers might have a soft spot for books as well, despite what Johnson says about them. (In fact, I suspect that many of you reading this probably don’t fit the old stereotype of gamer “passivity,” sitting in your parents’ basement, mollified by pressing buttons and staring at shiny, eyes glazed over as you mindlessly munch on chips.) As much as I disagree with Johnson’s assessment of books, the antiquated stereotypes about gamers probably necessitated a rhetorical pushback against book worship. At the very least, it can get people to talk more seriously about the positive aspects of videogames, and (even more broadly) to move away from the compulsion to pit one medium against another.

In addition to the elitist aspect of spectator “passivity,” which Rancière deconstructs towards the end of his 2007 paper “The Misadventures of Critical Thought” (Rancière 2011, pp. 25-49), the term remains insufficient for describing how individuals actually engage with specific media on their own terms. Why can’t we just define “activity” as the complex array of emotional, intellectual, and physiological responses we have to all media, whether political or not, and leave passivity out of the equation?


Notions of “active” and “passive” media are driven by individuals with specific agendas. They advocate for specific media that they perceive as active, while discounting the importance of others identified as passive. Books and videogames are two media that have been juxtaposed against each other in this manner. In reality, they provide complementary modes of cognitive, intellectual, and emotional engagement, which varies among individuals.

Ding! You’ve leveled up! Please see your local librarian for training.

Categories: Uncategorized

Virtual Environments and Opera: What’s the Connection?

October 9, 2013 1 comment

Author’s note: Published on 14 February 2012, this posting originally appeared on tl;dr (derived from the techie colloquialism “too long, didn’t read”), a now-defunct blog that focused on video games and information. If you don’t believe me, here’s proof of its existence. Currently in its place is some generic webpage advertising various things. While it would’ve been nice to know from the tl;dr administrators that they were no longer hosting the site, especially since it has been on my curriculum vitae, I had the foresight to save it, and to bring it back for those who might be curious about this particular topic. Regular readers of this blog might notice a slightly different style of writing, as I probably would have made this at least twice as long on here, and would have gone into greater detail about musical similarities.

A few years ago, New Yorker music critic Alex Ross wrote a post on his blog about the performance of video game music at orchestra concerts. He included a trailer for a PBS special called Video Games Live, which features an orchestra playing music from video games. Orchestras strapped for cash in already economically dire times have used this strategy to appeal to a broader audience. The concert in the trailer provides an immersive experience, complete with visuals to remind the audience what the music is portraying. Speaking for myself, it dictates too much what one might be better off imagining. After all, the target audience is presumably well-versed in some of the action that occurs in various games, and they might prefer to reflect on personal memories and experiences; the times they defeated a particularly challenging boss, or bonding with comrades in an MMO environment.

As the trailer points out several times, the audience consists of young people who might not have dreamed of going to an orchestra concert. I agree in principle (if not with the execution featured in the clip) with the idea of video game music acting as a way to expand the musical interests of those who might otherwise remain unexposed to “classical music” Note that I say “expand the interests” instead of “improve the tastes,” because the latter is a loaded judgment. (I’ll spare you from a digression into the ideas of cultural theorists like Adorno and Bourdieu.) Also, I place classical music in scare quotes because it is a highly problematic term. As much as I love the music itself, I dislike the term for reasons that would constitute several essays. (Ross’ 2004 essay Listen to This does an exemplary take-down of the term, which he describes as a “tour de force of anti-hype.”)

Video games share a number of similarities with film, such as the accompaniment of music to pre-crafted sequences, as opposed to the stage-based experience of live opera. Furthermore, both forms may incorporate music from any genre; this brings into question the parameters of both film music and video game music. Since much of what appears in the Video Games Live trailer sounds firmly rooted in the “classical” realm, it brings to mind the ideal of the “total art work,” or Gesamtkunstwerk.

And now, for a brief lesson in opera history. To paraphrase Dante, I assure you that it relates to video games…

You’ve probably heard at least a few snippets from operas by German composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883), such as the ever-ubiquitous Bridal Chorus from Lohengrin, as well as Ride of the Valkyries from Die Walküre. Although he did not originate the term Gesamtkunstwerk, Wagner has become most commonly associated with it. He coined it to describe his aesthetic ideal, an “artwork of the future” that incorporates all art forms: design, literature, performance, and practically anything else you can imagine. The Festspielhaus (festival theatre) he had built in Bayreuth for the performance of his own “music dramas” aided in realizing this vision. The hidden orchestra pit was designed to compel audiences to focus on the stage, ensuring that their eyes wouldn’t wander to the musicians. Boston-based Unitarian minister and music critic John Sullivan Dwight referred to the intended effect as a “wall of sound,” a phrase recycled over 80 years later to describe the Wagnerian ambience that record producer Phil Spector wanted to achieve in his pop music recordings. Completed in 1876, the principles of Bayreuth presaged those that gradually emerged in cinema. Audiences have now become accustomed to watching premade “total artworks” in theatres with hidden sources of sound. A compilation of essays in Wagner and Cinema (2010) delves into these connections further.

A century after Wagner launched Bayreuth with his multi-part mythical epic Der Ring des Nibelungen (of which Die Walküre is a part), George Lucas brought home the connections between cinema and the “total artwork” with one of his own. Right down to a Wagner-influenced soundtrack by John Williams.

In some ways, video games are yet another extension of the aesthetic ideal of the Gesamtkunstwerk. The difference, of course, is that their audiences actively participate in guiding the action… at least insofar as designers allow them to do so. When George Lucas made the first Star Wars film, the video game experience was limited to things like Pong. Now, video games have become substantially more immersive, making them more and more similar to the theatrical ideas promulgated by Wagner. (By the way, how’s SWTOR going for you?) As more immersive “total artworks” emerge, and if gamers of all ages (a notion the video game concert clip sidesteps) can learn more about the complex genealogy of the music that accompanies the games they play, perhaps the process begun by Wagner will come full circle.

It is up to us whether future immersive gaming environments are as relatively benign as the holodeck, or as malignant as a self-centred and intolerant dystopia. We must remember that Wagnerian aesthetics has its own dark side as well, most infamously embodied in the idolization of the composer and his anti-Semitism by one of history’s most infamous monsters. Similar considerations could apply as well to increasingly dynamic information environments, with the promise of immersiveness connecting us with many configurations of various modes of information, or Balkanizing us into highly specialized clusters of users.

Still think that these ideas about the similarities between opera and video games (or, more specifically, Wagner and virtual reality) are a bit “out there?” Others are actually way ahead of me in that respect. An entire book and a related website have already considered them together.

[Below is a convention for tl;dr, which appeared at the end of each posting.]

The affinities between immersive virtual environments and opera are more powerful than you could possibly imagine. Wagner established the foundation, embodying both its light and dark sides.

Ding! You’ve leveled up! Please see your local librarian for training.

Verdi at 200: Composer of the Popular Imagination

October 8, 2013 Leave a comment

In the 1970s, a commercial for Coca Cola had a kid sharing a “Coke and a smile” with a football player by the name of “Mean Joe” Green.

Prior to that time, pianist and comedian Victor Borge had begun his shtick of poking fun of classical music and opera. One of his routines consisted of a series of malaprops, prior to his playing the “Cacamame” aria from an opera called “Rigor Mortis,” composed by someone else with the name “Joe Green.” Or rather, he told the audience that it was “Joe Green to you.”

The actual opera is Rigoletto, and the composer’s real name is Giuseppe Verdi (which sort of translates to Joe Green), whose 200th birthday is on 10 October. Along with Richard Wagner, whose own 200th birthday occurred in May, Verdi continues to maintain his position as one of the titans of opera. As well, he remains one of the longest-lived “major” composers, just making it into the 20th century before his passing at the age of 87 in 1901. A decade after the titanic Wagner’s passing, the 80-year-old Verdi composed the well-regarded autumnal opera Falstaff, based on Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Merry Wives of Windsor.

Admittedly, Verdi doesn’t resonate as much with me as other composers and musicians. Certainly not to the same degree as Wagner, so this posting won’t be quite as dense as others (or, like the one I wrote about Wagner, come in four parts). As well, he might not have had the same seismic influence on the broader culture as his German counterpart and contemporary. What distinguishes Verdi the most from Wagner, however, is his tendency to come across as more readily accessible. Related to this notion, one thing that’s interesting to me is a sentence in the introductory paragraph of the Wikipedia entry for the composer:

His works are frequently performed in opera houses throughout the world and, transcending the boundaries of the genre, some of his themes have long since taken root in popular culture…

For those of you who know of my interest in genre crossing, I swear on my mother’s urn that I didn’t write that sentence. Certainly, one cannot dispute the extent to which his works have appeared in various manifestations of the popular culture… or at least excerpts thereof. The Internet Movie Database entry on Verdi lists numerous television shows and films that feature his music. Despite his most recent film’s apparent allusions to Wagner, even Quentin Tarantino throws some Verdi into Django Unchained, in the form of the apocalyptic Dies Irae (God’s Wrath) from his Requiem.

The very first example listed in Wikipedia’s Verdi entry, however, comes from the previously-mentioned Rigoletto. La donna è mobile, which translates into something about the “fickleness of women,” is a light-hearted sounding piece, and is likely one of the reasons why it can easily be considered perfect for comedic film and television… never minding the opera’s tragic aspects. It even appears, along with some other Verdi pieces, in various versions of Grand Theft Auto.

I like much better other pieces by Verdi, which I picked up from hearing my mother play them many years ago (despite her antipathy towards “screeching” in opera). And on those, I can write a lot more comfortably; one a specific excerpt from his opera Nabucco (1842), and the other an entire opera.

Certainly, Verdi has historically captured the popular imagination in Italy, almost to a point where he emerged as a symbol of the Risorgimento… the resurgence of Italy, brought about by unification of Italian peoples, which to all intents and purposes occurred in 1861 with the installation of Vittorio Emanuele II as monarch. Interestingly, a rallying cry for the Risorgimento was Viva VERDI, or “Vittorio Emanuele Re [King] DItalia.” Adding fuel to Verdi’s symbolic value to Italian nationalism was the legend that formed around the very moving and stirring Va, pensiero (“Fly, thought, on golden wings…”), sung by Israelites exiled from their homeland by the opera Nabucco’s titular Babylonian king (known in English as Nebuchadnezzar). At the time Verdi wrote Nabucco, the Austro-Hungarian Empire occupied parts of what became present-day Italy. Presumably, the situation of exile portrayed in Nabucco resonated with Italian nationalists, and Va, pensiero became their theme. As with many such historical myths, however, this story has generally been debunked. Nonetheless, just the music on its own power can make the legend seem plausible. How could one not imagine Va, pensiero as an anthem of oppressed or exiled people seeking freedom and justice, at once mournful and hopeful?

It has, of course, appeared in films and television as well. In Godfather III, a small village band plays it during Michael Corleone’s return to the family homeland.

Another favourite, which my mother would play frequently, is La Traviata (“The Fallen Woman”), the supremely tragic story of Violetta Valéry, a courtesan who finds happiness and loses it due to social conventions, ultimately succumbing in the end to consumption… but not before reuniting with the man she loved, and who really loved her (despite his renouncement of her, due to a misunderstanding). Yeah, it’s that sad, and Verdi underscores the point quite well. Excerpts have appeared in numerous television series and films as well, perhaps among the more famous being Pretty Woman (with Julia Roberts as a modern day courtesan, who faces a more “fairy tale” ending than her predecessor)…

and (of all things) Twilight.

I haven’t seen it due to (1) word of mouth about its god-awfulness and (2) my seething rage that I didn’t write my own teen vampire novel in enough time; seriously… I even had an “Isobella,” whom I decided to make “Isadora” instead (as in the dancer Duncan). But, one would have to live under a rock not to know that sparkly Edward and the rest of the Cullen clan are undead bloodthirsty vampires. And being born not too long after Verdi died, one would imagine he was a potential victim of tuberculosis as well, and perhaps this was some kind of subtle allusion to that (and the coughing up of blood, etc.). But maybe I’m thinking of how I would’ve written it.

Anyhow, enough of my hack criticism… the opening several minutes is great in itself, from the melancholy prelude with its acknowledgement of the fragility of life (and of the protagonist) and how we try grasping at happiness to help us forget, to the carefree festivities being given at Violetta’s house to celebrate her recovery from a previous illness. The drinking song (Libiamo ne’ lieti calici), which appears in the first ten minutes, is a fairly well-known showstopper. Here’s the whole thing, in a fairly well-known “modern-style” production from Salzburg in 2005.

While Verdi’s music overall hasn’t insinuated itself as much into my psyche as that of other musicians, and my knowledge of Verdi is admittedly relatively slim compared to that possessed by numerous others (including opera fans and experts who gravitate towards his works), I would be remiss to not acknowledge the 200th anniversary of his birth with some kind of tribute. Perhaps I will someday make that deeper “connection” and delve a bit deeper into his works at some point, beyond the holding pattern of works that underlies this posting. But if you’ve stumbled upon this and know little about Verdi, perhaps something has piqued your interest, anyway. Perhaps one or more bits from the posting will start you on a journey to finding more works by him, and maybe even learn more about his legendary stature not only in world of opera, but within popular culture as well… whether as a symbol of Italian pride, or as music that somehow seems appropriate within numerous artifacts in the broader culture: from a shoot-em-up videogame, to a movie about sparkly vampires.

At any rate, libiamo to Verdi’s contributions!

Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

Still Seeking an Answer: The Unanswered Question, 40 Years Later

October 3, 2013 5 comments

Upon receiving a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1985, Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) tried to downplay his strong association with classical music. Citing the 300th anniversaries of the births of such composers as Scarlatti, Handel, and “The” Bach, Bernstein mentioned that they wrote great music… and not-so-great music. And that there’s great and not-so-great music from all other genres and musicians as well, including Tina Turner, who performed after Bernstein’s admiring introduction of her.

Bernstein’s speech played with the superficial, and somehow still culturally pervasive, dichotomization of rock and classical, by suggesting that some of the former has greater cultural value, or was created with greater skill, than some of the latter. Regardless, these notions of “greatness” still constitute a contestable value judgment. But the central point is this: How could a “classical” musician, of all people, say that some rock is great, while some classical isn’t? Shouldn’t classical musicians and fans of classical music advocate ceaselessly for that genre, no matter what? Especially as a highly-specialized, perhaps even aging and dying, artform, for aging and dying people?

Actually, no. It seems self-limiting, and denies the rich diversity of wonderful music of all kinds, from various cultures and time periods. This is based on my personal experiences of serendipitously discovering different kinds of music over the years. As well, if one thinks more broadly, “rock” has been around for almost 60 years… at least as a neatly-commercialized phenomenon that “suddenly exploded” onto the U.S. cultural scene (never minding the richness of its origins and predecessors among numerous other kinds of music). Consequently, I suspect some of the grey heads occupying seats at opera and orchestral performances these days also enjoyed a good Elvis or Beatles tune back in their youth.

A Lifetime in Music

Certainly, Bernstein himself had a lifelong interest in various kinds of music. Even when the realms of classical and rock were readily pitted against each other as polar opposites. And even prior to the “sudden” emergence of rock itself. Bernstein’s senior thesis at Harvard, The Absorption of Race Elements into American Music (1939), examined the integration of jazz and Latin American elements into compositions by George Gershwin and Aaron Copland. Within a few decades, after Bernstein had achieved a fair amount of fame as a composer and conductor, he used the relatively new medium of television to discuss classical music. On the CBS series Omnibus, one of Bernstein’s specials focused on “The World of Jazz,” which probably seemed quite odd in the mid-1950s… never minding the already well-documented and long history of cross-pollination that had occurred between jazz and classical. Of course, it includes one of Bernstein’s own very jazzy pieces, Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs (1949).

With the “explosion” of rock onto the cultural scene, Bernstein integrated discussion of it into some of his Young People’s Concerts, primarily to make points about music that “the kids” would likely understand. In the clips collected below, Bernstein channels such acts as The Beatles and The Kinks:

He also appears prominently in an intriguing cultural artifact called Inside Pop – The Rock Revolution (1967), which features talking head clips of numerous popular musicians from the time. Aptly enough, the genre-smashing Frank Zappa makes an appearance as well, prophecying with his signature laconic bluntness that, “a lot of the kids that you see from time to time, and retch over, are going to be running your government for you.”

Over 45 years on, it can admittedly come across as a sort of “the kids are alright” reassurance, intended for middle- and upper-class parents fretting over the utter strangeness of their offspring’s tastes. Some might even criticize it as a domestication of the “primal” power of rock, or as a way of lending rock a level of unwanted “prestige” on a par of classical music. Or, as Joe Postove ponders in the comments section:

I wonder how the “hipsters” of those days felt about getting the official imprimatur of Leonard Bernstein? Were they glad to have this grand master of classical and semi-classical music give his thumbs up to much of the scene or did they consider this close up look at their music kind of “square man”?

Those are fair criticisms, I suppose, and perhaps even Bernstein would acknowledge them himself. As indicated in the opening of the special, Bernstein was also keenly aware of the amount of privilege he possessed. Wrestling with his stature as a prototypical “East Coast Liberal,” Bernstein refers to himself in the beginning as a “bourgeois family man” and member of the “establishment” (“I hate that word, and I don’t like to think of myself that way…”)… to all intents and purposes, supposedly the antitheses of rock and rebellion. And yet, the fact that a “classical” musician of Bernstein’s stature decided to advocate for rock seems quite amazing within the context of this particular time and place. But then, he had enough social capital to be able to do that, tied to his very open interest in different kinds of music. Certainly, he put this into practice within some of his own compositions, including the theatre works West Side Story (1957) and Mass (1971). And, perhaps the special just is, or we can view it as such from a distance of nearly a half-century. Whatever way it might have come across to “hipsters” at the time, or appears to modern viewers, it’s difficult to doubt that Bernstein’s heart was at least in the right place.

Perhaps, then, it comes as no surprise that Bernstein, balancing his position of prominence in relation to venerable musical institutions with a keen interest in different kinds of music, stated the following in his Lifetime Grammy acceptance speech nearly 20 years later:

I’m very happy tonight for music. And, I’ll be even happier, and maybe even ecstatic… if tonight can be a step toward… the ultimate marriage of all kinds of music because they are all one…


… what I’d just like to see happen, is for all the good music to get together.

“The Unanswered Question”

So far, this posting has somehow managed to avoid discussion of the primary topic. This “unanswered question,” which appears in the title. Nonetheless, it (or at least my understanding of it) has informed the scope of this posting all along. In fact, going even further, the “unanswered question” relates much more broadly to what I’ve been doing, both in numerous postings for this blog and in my doctoral research.

The Unanswered Question is the name of a series of six lectures Bernstein gave at Harvard in October and November of 1973, as Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry. It’s also the name of a 1908 piece by American composer Charles Ives, which Bernstein analyzes as part of the fifth lecture, “The Twentieth Century Crisis.”

Bernstein sets out an ambitious goal. Near the beginning of the first installment, he lays out its interdisciplinarity, before the term became a ubiquitous phrase throughout academia. More specifically, Bernstein considers the potential of applying then-emerging ideas from linguistics (including those proposed by Noam Chomsky) to the study of music. Not unlike human speech, Bernstein postulates, music is a language. A form of expression, with certain shared traits among different cultural contexts. From this perspective, there exists the potential for unveiling universal rules for musical grammar as well.

Keeping in mind the intended broad audience of this blog, the gory details of this intricately-considered topic could constitute multiple postings in themselves, along with definitions of the various technical terms Bernstein employs from linguistics and music. Bernstein himself mentions throughout the lectures that he is skipping huge swaths of possible points of discussion as well, for the sake of relative brevity. With this understanding, his main goal is to underscore “universality,” by drawing connections (and perhaps even parallels) between the structures of spoken and musical expression. Broadly speaking, the series proceeds as follows:

Phonology (Lecture 1): Essential sound units and their potential monogenesis (common origins)

Syntax (Lesson 2): Structures that emerge from convergences of those sounds.

Semantics (Lectures 3-6): Synthesis of sounds and structures to yield meaning.

Admittedly, Bernstein’s postulations require very careful attention from viewers. They can be rather confusing at first glance, and (as some critics like Joseph Horowitz noted) perhaps not entirely convincing. After all, to what extent can one truly draw parallels between notes, bars, or whole compositions (whether songs, symphonies, operas, or whatever else) with syllables, words, sentences, paragraphs, or entire textual works (books, stories, etc.)? Horowitz notes that Bernstein himself drifts away from these kinds of considerations after a few lectures, and more or less returns to the enthusiastic, self-assured pedagogue of earlier televised specials. It’s possible that he had felt he had already laid the groundwork for this approach earlier on, and didn’t need to talk much about technical linguistic stuff in the later lectures. Whatever the case, as with many such intellectual exercises and speculations, they’re sufficiently compelling to merit further contemplation, and in continuing the dialogue about the nature of music. And, as Bernstein himself stated in the first lecture, he has the prerogative to be wrong. After all, how can one even begin to investigate an unprecedented or understudied topic without some false starts and miscalculations?

“Universality” in music is another potentially dubious point. More specifically, the idea that music can act as a “universal language.” One could certainly read a number of coded Euro-American assumptions into this notion. That said, Bernstein himself roundly dashes the idea of “music as universal language,” and even cites it as the main reason why his own personal interest in “universal musical grammar” had:

lain dormant for years. Paralyzed, I suppose, by that deadly cliché, ‘music is the universal language of mankind.’ After a thousand repetitions of that one, usually with the connotation ‘support your local symphony orchestra,’ the well-meant phrase becomes not only a cliché, but a misleading one.

What Bernstein has in mind is more subtle, as well as paradoxical. He cites in particular the work of the “new linguists,” whose ideas helped reignite his interest in examining the potential universality of musical grammar. Bernstein mentions that those involved in the study of one language need to examine and understand differences as well as similarities among them. More broadly, this notion ties in with developing rules that (ideally) apply to all languages.

But where did Bernstein get the idea to contemplate the prospect of universal musical grammar in the first place? Bernstein gives an anecdote near the beginning of the first lecture about a compelling personal experience from his student days at Harvard. Citing the keen interest he developed in Copland’s Piano Variations, Bernstein figured out that the piece’s first four notes also appear “in another order,” transposed, and/or in different keys within works by other classical composers (Bach, Stravinsky, and Ravel). Even more intriguing, considering the “very different” cultural context, is Bernstein’s additional perception of similarities between Copland’s Variations and an Indian piece:

And at that moment, a notion was born in my brain, that there must be some deep, primal reason why these discrete structures of the same four notes, should be at the very heart of such disparate musics as those of Bach, Copland, Stravinsky, Ravel, and the Uday Shankar Dance Company… From that time to this, the notion of a worldwide, inborn musical grammar has haunted me.

Sing, Memory

As mentioned earlier in this posting, Bernstein engaged in other activities over the years that followed his encounter with Copland’s Variations, considering similarities and cross-pollinations among musics that one could readily discern as being from different genres and traditions: his thesis topic, compositions that drew upon different musical styles, and serious consideration of the merits of “non-classical” music. Regardless of genre, regardless of cultural context, Bernstein discerned an innate *something*… perhaps a series of connections… among “very different” musics. We will likely never be able to prove this point, however… to answer the “unanswered question” definitively. Especially considering the sociocultural contexts of so-called “non-Western” musics (which all end up, at least in the “Western” world, lumped under that rather culturally chauvinistic category “international”), this assertion proves rather problematic. Still, the parallels seem more readily apparent within the context of genres that employ the same 12-note music scale. More readily associated with “the Western world,” even in a very loose sense. As Bigand and Poulin-Charronat mention:

This includes… Western art music… jazz, pop-rock music, reggae, and salsa. Pieces from these musical styles sound so different that it can be difficult to realize that they share some of the same features. The most basic is that they rest on a single set of 12 pitch classes (“Tonal Cognition” 2009, p. 59).

There exist numerous other similar features, or traits, beyond those associated with “Western” 12-note scale. But what, exactly, does “similar” mean… especially in considering the extent to which two pieces of music might be described as such? My cop-out answer is that it “depends.” That said, my vagueness is actually based on personal experience, as well as what I’ve read in literature from diverse fields on music. In discussing musical similarity, Cambouropoulos (2009) mentions that many previous studies tend to have poorly-defined conceptualizations of the idea, and he suggests that more empirical data could help with figuring out what exactly the term really encompasses. The music information retrieval (Downie 2003) and music psychology (Wedin 1972, Gabrielsson 2009) literatures about musical traits might provide some clues, though. Essentially, they encompass such things as key, pitch, tempo, melodic contours (the “shape” of music notation, or distances between musical pitches), chord progressions, etc., etc. Furthermore, similarity may derive from extra-musical traits as well; in other words, textual stuff… what the music’s “about,” lyrics, and the like.

More likely, however, what resonate with listeners are combinations of the above traits (Gabrielsson and Lindström 2010). In other words, we might not like a piece simply because it has a “slow” tempo. It might be the primary trait we want, but we might also like the way the melody, the complexity of orchestration, and the progression of chords create a feeling of tension and release; or perhaps what the piece is “about” in non-musical terms (whether explicitly, or based on personal associations); and so on. In terms of similarity, such combinations of traits might somehow invoke a chill of recognition; a present musical experience triggering musical (and even extra-musical) associations from the past. Or, put another way, drawing upon Snyder’s (2000) work on music and memory: we end up tapping into chunks of short-term memory, roughly a few seconds in length and constituting our overall individual musical experiences, when triggered by something we perceive as similar to another musical experience from our past.

And it can be made all the more chilling if such connections transcend the confines of genre. When, despite different genre conventions, the similarities stand out to a point where such categorization doesn’t matter, and makes for a surprising experience. For instance, when upon hearing the final bars of U2’s “No Line on the Horizon” for the first time, one might be put in mind of the “love” motif from Richard Strauss’ opera Salome… which may even trigger retroactively some vague notions of similarity between the opening bars of “No Line” and Strauss’ Four Last Songs.

Diverse Musics, Diverse Fields

At this point, we have gone beyond Bernstein and his search for a “universal musical grammar,” and into some personal musical indulgences. But not quite! My primary point is that, since Bernstein’s time, numerous fields have grown that can help inform further research into the ambitious question he examined 40 years ago. This includes music psychology, which has changed radically from the behaviouralist and experimental modes that dominated the field when Bernstein gave his talks. Music psychology has also expanded into real-life accounts of interactions with music (whatever one may think of the reliability of self-reports), as well as considerations of the sociocultural dimensions of music. As well, with a foundation in the ideas of Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969), who would likely be considered an antithesis of Bernstein, critical musicology can help with further deconstructing and pondering music’s sociocultural roles. Certainly, various notions and assumptions of universality would be subject to scrutiny within that field.

Of course, aspects of this “unanswered question” can relate to library and information science (LIS), which is “my” field. In other words, how might the prospect of “universal musical grammar” affect how we think of such things as categorization practices (whether cataloguing, classification, or even tagging) and user needs… with implications for recommender systems (drawing upon the principles of readers’ advisory, what exactly do people look for in music). Over 30 years ago, LIS researcher Nicholas Belkin referred to questions as an “Anomalous State of Knowledge” (1982). The resulting acronym (ASK) is clever, but the phrase it represents also implies that questions might actually be statements that can lead to numerous answers, or perhaps raise yet more questions (or create more anomalous states of knowledge). Somehow, this seems apt in relation to the one Bernstein, well, asked… “U-ASK,” perhaps?


Forty years on, I’m not sure that we’ve gotten any closer to a definitive answer to Bernstein’s inquiry. And he likely never expected that we would. Nonetheless, since that time, various areas of study have emerged to aid in getting us a little closer to some kind of answer… likely emerging in the form of tantalizing fragments discovered serendipitously by music experts and lay listeners. Unfortunately, Bernstein is no longer around to act as our guide, or to look at the various literatures that have emerged to help with understanding more holistically the nature of music. But following his spirit, perhaps we can endeavour to keep asking the right questions, and to know a little better what might ultimately remain unknowable. Like music, such an aspiration is part of what keeps us alive; the impetus to keep asking good questions, to carry the torch that Bernstein left for us so many years ago… and that will hopefully continue to burn over the next 40 years, and beyond.

Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 348 other followers