Elliott Carter On Charlie Rose (with Levine and Barenboim)

The man and his music.

Country Music Is Evil

Alex Ross writes in The New Yorker:

In Errol Morris’s documentary “Standard Operating Procedure‚” an American soldier talks about employing music as a means of breaking down the resistance of enemy combatants during interrogations. They can withstand “Hip Hop Hooray” and “Enter Sandman‚” he says, but not country music. Most audiences will laugh at the line, but may check themselves mid-chuckle, wondering what it means that Americans are deploying their favorite music as a way of tormenting people of another culture.

The idea of using music in psychological warfare goes back to at least the Second World War, when Soviet forces under siege in Leningrad defiantly broadcast Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony into no man’s land and the Office of War Information relayed jazz and other democratic sounds into Nazi-occupied Europe. The rest is here.

Met at the Movies: This Saturday – Peter Grimes

Peter Grimes Simulcast tomorrow! Here’s a full libretto for your reading pleasure.[PDF File]

Here is a timely review of Met’s new production of Britten’s Peter Grimes that you can see for yourself this weekend either in a live broadcast from the Met on Saturday (3/15) or in a recorded encore performance on Sunday (3/16) – to find a movie theater in your area (both US and the rest of the world), go here.

A new Met production of Britten’s “Peter Grimes.”

by Alex Ross

Few operas are as rooted in one place as Benjamin Britten’s “Peter Grimes,” which has rumbled back to the Metropolitan Opera, in a new production by John Doyle. The title character, a dark-souled fisherman who goes mad after his apprentices die, was the invention of the poet George Crabbe, who grew up in Aldeburgh, on the eastern coast of England, in the later eighteenth century, and apparently based Grimes on a detested local character. Montagu Slater, the opera’s librettist, wove his elaboration of the tale into various Aldeburgh settings. And Britten, a resident of the same town for most of his adult life, brilliantly evoked its sights and sounds in his music—the crying of gulls, the creaking of buoys, the endless booming of the waves. The obvious way to stage “Grimes” is to re-create Aldeburgh and let Britten’s flawless score do the rest. This was the approach taken by Tyrone Guthrie, who first directed the opera at Covent Garden, in 1947, two years after the première, and who later brought a vividly detailed version to the Metropolitan Opera, in 1967. That classic production played at the Met as recently as 1998, and, while it showed its age, it remained a deeply absorbing experience: you were pulled into a kind of tragic picture postcard. Continue reading

Alex Ross: On Jonny Greenwood’s Music

Welling Up

A film score and an orchestral work by Jonny Greenwood, of Radiohead.

by Alex Ross February 4, 2008

Greenwood, an admired guitarist, trained as a violist. Photograph by Mick Hutson.

There may be no scarcer commodity in modern Hollywood than a distinctive and original film score. Most soundtracks lean so heavily on a few preprocessed musical devices—those synthetic swells of strings and cymbals, urging us to swoon in tandem with the cheerleader in love—that when a composer adopts a more personal language the effect is revelatory: an entire dimension of the film experience is liberated from cliché. So it is with Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie “There Will Be Blood,” which has an unearthly, beautiful score by the young English composer Jonny Greenwood. The early scenes show, in painstaking detail, a maverick oilman assembling a network of wells at the turn of the last century. Filmgoers who find themselves falling into a claustrophobic trance during these sequences may be inclined to credit the director, who, indeed, has forged some indelible images. But, as Orson Welles once said of Bernard Herrmann’s contribution to “Citizen Kane,” the music does fifty per cent of the work.

The movie opens with a shot of dry, bare Western hills. Then we see a man prospecting for silver at the bottom of a shaft. He blasts the hole deeper with dynamite, falls and breaks his leg, and, with a titanic struggle, draws himself back up. Finally, we see him lying on the floor of an assay office, his leg in a splint, signing for the earnings that will enable him to drill for oil. The sequence is almost entirely wordless, but it is framed by music, much of it dense and dissonant. At the very beginning, you hear a chord of twelve notes played by a smoldering mass of string instruments. After seven measures, the strings begin sliding along various trajectories toward the note F-sharp. This music comes from a Greenwood piece called “Popcorn Superhet Receiver,” and, although it wasn’t composed for the film, it supplies a precise metaphor for the central character. The coalescence of a wide range of notes into a monomaniacal unison may tell us most of what we need to know about the crushed soul of the future tycoon Daniel Plainview. Continue reading

Worldwide Atonality Day!

Alex Ross announces Worldwide Atonality Day this coming Monday, December 17th. Why?

By my calcuations, this Monday, December 17, is the hundredth anniversary of atonality. Celebrate as you wish. On that date in 1907, Arnold Schoenberg sketched the song “Ich darf nicht dankend” (“I must not in gratitude [sink down before you]”), music in which conventional tonal harmonies grow exceedingly scarce. (You can listen on the Schoenberg Center Jukebox; scroll down to Op. 14.) The composer supplied no key signature in his draft, although he later added one — B minor — to the clean copy and published score. The claim is arguable, but for me this marks the beginning of Schoenberg’s adventures outside tonality. It may be no coincidence that Schoenberg wrote the song, a setting of Stefan George, just eight days after the departure for New York of Gustav Mahler, who had served as Schoenberg’s protector. “You are the spiritual plain from which we rose” is the second line of George’s poem. With Mahler gone, Schoenberg may have felt at once abandoned and liberated. He was free to become himself.

Read the rest of this post here.

The Ideal of Being Grown Up: Remarks on Adorno.

In Aesthetic Theory Adorno describes the situation in modern art in terms of the “culture industry” (the theme that has already received some attention in Adorno and Horkheimer’s joint effort in Dialectic of Enlightenment).  The opening section of AT, which is provisionally labeled “Situation,” discusses the present situation in art and art theory.  Here the idea of the “culture industry,” among other interesting engagements, receives a following formulation:

They push for deaestheticization of art [Entkunstungdearting?].  Its unmistakable symptom is the passion to touch everything, to allow no work to be what it is, to dress it up, to narrow its distance from its viewer.  The humiliating difference between art and the life people lead, and in which they do not want to be bothered because they could not bear it otherwise, must be made to disapper: This is the subjective basis for classifying art among the consumer goods under the control of vested interests.  If despite all this, art does not become simply consumable, then at least the relation to it can be modeled on the relation to actual commodity goods. [16-17, Hullot-Kentor trans.]

“The humiliating difference” and “consumable” are two phrases that immediately (at least for me) jump out of this description of the present situation (still present, I believe, and thus the incredible relevance of almost everything Adorno has to say about art) – take, for example, “modern music” – Alex Ross, whose book The Rest Is Noise I whole-heartedly endorse, poses the problem in a following way: Continue reading